Serena’s Review: “Blood of the Chosen”

Book: “Blood of the Chosen” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Orbit, October 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: Four hundred years ago, a cataclysmic war cracked the world open and exterminated the Elder races. Amid the ashes, their human inheritor, the Dawn Republic, stands guard over lands littered with eldritch relics and cursed by plaguespawn outbreaks. But a new conflict is looming and brother and sister Maya and Gyre have found themselves on opposite sides.

At the age of five, Maya was taken by the Twilight Order and trained to be a centarch, wielding forbidden arcana to enforce the Dawn Republic’s rule. On that day, her brother, Gyre, swore to destroy the Order that stole his sister… whatever the cost.

Twelve years later, brother and sister are two very different people: she is Burningblade, the Twilight Order’s brightest prodigy; he is Silvereye, thief, bandit, revolutionary.

Previously Reviewed: “Ashes of the Sun”

Review: I really enjoyed “Ashes of the Sun” when I read it last summer. Yes, the story of some disease released on the world that wiped out an entire population hit a bit too close to home. But…fantasy! Ha..ha…ha? On a more serious note, Wexler has always been good for an excellent story from what I’ve read of him so far and this series felt like more of the same. Much of it was setting up our two main characters and the world, and yet he still managed to stuff in a bunch of action and set up the board for greater conflicts to come.

Just a side note before I get into the general description of this book. I had to read that summary twice and double check it against Goodreads more than once (each time I’ve touched this post while writing it) to make sure that I had the right summary. It reads like it should be for the first book! It’s honestly shockingly bad, telling us absolutely nothing about what this book specifically is going to be about and laying out much of the groundwork that was not only covered in the previous book but was laid out…in the previous book’s own summary! Very poor.

Maya and Gyre have found themselves not only on opposing sides of a brewing historical war, but caught up in the mechanizations of of mysterious opposing forces. There are secrets to be found in the Order, a group whom Maya now has come to understand houses traitors and inner workings that don’t necessary uphold the ideals for which she thought the institution stood for. As she works to uncover the truth, she will learn that there is an entire separate force at work pulling the strings behind the curtains. For his part, Gyre has begun to gather the strength of the ghouls to his cause. But without fully understanding their culture and motives, or the role they played in the past wars, will he be on the right side of history this go around?

So, shocker, I really enjoyed another Django Wexler book! In a lot of ways, I liked this one even better than the first. With the necessary character introductions and initial arcs that moved them into the titular roles as “Silvereye” and “Burningblade” out of the way, the story was primed to move into more of the grand-scale story. That said, this book is still clearly setting up a bigger conflict. Much of the action that we see in this book comes down to smaller skirmshes. Towards the end, we get what feels like a major battle only to really discover that it’s just the beginning. In the moment, this action is compelling and exciting. And it’s almost made better when you realize that things are only going to get bigger going forward.

Of the two main characters, Maya saw the most growth in this story. After realizing that there are traitors in the Order in the first book, her eyes are opened to the fact that mysteries still exist in this world and even the “good guys” might have bad sides. In many ways, her worldviews are more challenged and she must choose to grow (or not) along with these revelations.

For his part, Gyre continues to be fairly singularly minded. It’s a tough thing, because on one hand, I think Gyre is going to be on the right side of this situation. But on the other hand, looking at the reasoning he preaches to justify his actions, he’s very much on the wrong side of the argument. Maya’s morals and beliefs are much more in the right than Gyre, but it feels like he may have lucked into being on the right side? It’s kind of an uncomfortable position to be in as a reader. That said, there were so many twists and turns to be found in this book that I hardly can say that I have a firm grasp on what the end game is at this point. For all I know, my read on the situation here is completely wrong! And I love that!

I also really liked the closer look we had into the ghouls, the Chosen, and the Order. The roles they all play in the current landscape (though two of the three are practically if not totally nonexistent) are fascinating, and here, I really feel like I’ve only scraped the surface on what happened when these forces were at war and the Order was created. It was also great to see more of this world, with both Maya and Gyre travelling long distances and witnessing the various ways that people have found to live in such a dangerous landscape.

Fans of this series will definitely be pleased with this entry. It’s definitely a second book in that it ends on a cliffhanger and sets up some new “big bads” to be dealt with going forward. But if you’re already invested in this story, that’s only to be expected and just adds fuel to the excitement fire!

Rating 8: Solid, as expected. The most exciting part continues to be the murky history of this world and the unknowns of who is on the “right” side, Maya or Gyre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blood of the Chosen” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but it is on Fantasy Books Releasing in 2021.

Find “Blood of the Chosen” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Chasing the Boogeyman”

Book: “Chasing the Boogeyman” by Richard Chizmar

Publication Info: Gallery Books, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The New York Times bestselling coauthor of Gwendy’s Button Box brings his signature prose to this story of small-town evil that combines the storytelling of Stephen King with the true-crime suspense of Michelle McNamara.

In the summer of 1988, the mutilated bodies of several missing girls begin to turn up in a small Maryland town. The grisly evidence leads police to the terrifying assumption that a serial killer is on the loose in the quiet suburb. But soon a rumor begins to spread that the evil stalking local teens is not entirely human. Law enforcement, as well as members of the FBI are certain that the killer is a living, breathing madman—and he’s playing games with them. For a once peaceful community trapped in the depths of paranoia and suspicion, it feels like a nightmare that will never end.

Recent college graduate Richard Chizmar returns to his hometown just as a curfew is enacted and a neighborhood watch is formed. In the midst of preparing for his wedding and embarking on a writing career, he soon finds himself thrust into the real-life horror story. Inspired by the terrifying events, Richard writes a personal account of the serial killer’s reign of terror, unaware that these events will continue to haunt him for years to come.

A clever, terrifying, and heartrending work of metafiction, Chasing the Boogeyman is the ultimate marriage between horror fiction and true crime. Chizmar’s writing is on full display in this truly unique novel that will haunt you long after you turn the final page.

Review: I was describing “Chasing the Boogeyman” to my mother during one of my parents weekly visits, where we inevitably start talking about what we are reading at the moment. She basically asked ‘so wait, is this a fictional book or a nonfiction book?’, to which I paused for a beat or two and said ‘I…. don’t know?’ And at the time I didn’t feel like I did. I knew that Richard Chizmar had written horror novels, as I’ve read him before, and I knew that people were describing it as ‘metafiction’. But surely this book that read like a narrative nonfiction story was nonfiction, right? I mean, there was a whole introduction by James Renner who talked about a previous edition and how he always wondered what happened to the Edgewood Boogeyman case! But it’s catalogued as fiction! IS THIS ACTUALLY REAL?!

No, “Chasing the Boogeyman” is not a true story, at least not the meat of it. And that is a testament to Chizmar’s writing and set up that I found myself questioning if it was a true story or not in spite of many pieces of evidence and flat out statements that it is, indeed, not. This book definitely reads similar to Michelle McNamara’s personal “I’ll Be Gone In the Dark”, as a fictionalized version of Richard Chizmar investigates a hometown serial killer and finds himself not only obsessed, but also perhaps on the killer’s radar. The setting of Edgewood, Maryland is real, and Chizmar does take anecdotes and community locations and people who exist or existed in the 1980s (when the bulk of the story takes place) to make the story even more realistic. It makes for a very engaging and realistic tale, and it makes the town of Edgewood just as much a character as Chizmar and his mirror-universe self and counterparts. The set up is unique, and the details that Chizmar puts in, from that tricky intro to staged photographs and documents are so great and just add to the narrative nonfiction feel. It’s easily one of the most ambitious works I’ve read this year in how it combines two completely different takes on literature and creates a fictional story that reads like a real one.

The plot itself isn’t terribly ambitious to the naked eye. A serial killer preying on young women in a small town is, unfortunately, all too familiar within the true crime world. The mystery is well set up, and by the time we got to the reveal I was legitimately surprised by the whodunnit solution (and we also get a very unsettling interview between Chizmar and the perpetrator, which just gave me CHILLS). But I think that what makes it stand out the most is that by framing it as Chizmar having this personal connection to the community, and an obsession with this dark reality that is functioning in it, it makes the story more about the darkness of small town America, and how sometimes we have to reckon with the dark realities of our childhoods. While Chizmar (both fictional and real world) has happy memories about growing up in Edgewood, he also has to ruminate on the fact that really bad things happened to women in his community, and how even beyond that there are definitely imperfect and dangerous things in small town America that are hidden behind the veneer of tight knit community and traditional morality. But as more girls and women are attacked and killed, the paranoia, gossip, and fear starts to show that people are capable of destructive things that aren’t limited to murder. It feels a lot like a Stephen King deconstruction of small town values, but since Chizmar has made it personal, it has its own spin. And his affection for his real small town of Edgewood makes it so that it feels more bittersweet of a revelation, as opposed to a Derry-esque complete take down of Americana.

“Chasing the Boogeyman” is unique and ambitious, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Part horror, part thriller, part faux (but also a bit real) memoir, it is truly a book that stands out this year.

Rating 8: An ambitious dive into metafiction that explores true crime through a fictional lens, “Chasing the Boogeyman” is unique and entertaining, and unsettling as well.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Chasing the Boogeyman” is included on the Goodreads lists “Horror With an Author As the Main Character”, and “Mystery & Thriller 2021”.

Find “Chasing the Boogeyman” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Giveaway: “Blood of the Chosen”

Book: “Blood of the Chosen” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Orbit, October 2021

Book Description: Four hundred years ago, a cataclysmic war cracked the world open and exterminated the Elder races. Amid the ashes, their human inheritor, the Dawn Republic, stands guard over lands littered with eldritch relics and cursed by plaguespawn outbreaks. But a new conflict is looming and brother and sister Maya and Gyre have found themselves on opposite sides.

At the age of five, Maya was taken by the Twilight Order and trained to be a centarch, wielding forbidden arcana to enforce the Dawn Republic’s rule. On that day, her brother, Gyre, swore to destroy the Order that stole his sister… whatever the cost.

Twelve years later, brother and sister are two very different people: she is Burningblade, the Twilight Order’s brightest prodigy; he is Silvereye, thief, bandit, revolutionary.

Previously Reviewed: “Ashes of the Sun”

I’ve really enjoyed all of the books by Django Wexler that I’ve read. There are a couple of things I’ve come to expect from him at this point: solid actions scenes, interesting magical systems, and a lovely sapphic romance. “Ashes of the Sun” delivered on all of these fronts and more. I really enjoyed the twist of including a duel POV story that featured two estranged siblings who increasingly find themselves on opposing sides of a brewing civil conflict. I preferred Maya’s story, overall, but Gyre’s situation was left in a more tenuous state at the end of that first book.

Here in the second story, I’m most curious to see what is going to happen with him going forward. I expect Maya and Gyre to clash once more. But will they begin to see more eye-to-eye here? Or is the wedge going to be driven even more deeper in? There are also a lot of mysteries around the big events of the past that shaped the current world. What’s going on with the Chosen? And the ghouls? Are they good or bad? So many questions, so many answers needed!

So in anticipation of this second book in the series, I’m hosting a give away for an ARC copy of “Blood of the Chosen!” The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and will run through Oct. 17, 2021.

Enter to win!

Kate’s Review: “The Seven Visitations of Sidney Burgess”

Book: “The Seven Visitations of Sidney Burgess” by Andy Marino

Publishing Info: Redhook, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: From an electrifying voice in horror comes the haunting tale of a woman whose life begins to unravel after a home invasion.

Possession is an addiction.

Sydney’s spent years burying her past and building a better life for herself and her young son. A respectable marketing job, a house with reclaimed and sustainable furniture, and a boyfriend who loves her son and accepts her, flaws and all.

But when she opens her front door, and a masked intruder knocks her briefly unconscious, everything begins to unravel. She wakes in the hospital and tells a harrowing story of escape. Of dashing out a broken window. Of running into her neighbors’ yard and calling the police.

The cops tell her a different story. Because the intruder is now lying dead in her guest room—murdered in a way that looks intimately personal. Sydney can’t remember killing the man. No one believes her.

Back home, as horrific memories surface, an unnatural darkness begins whispering in her ear. Urging her back to old addictions and a past she’s buried to build a better life for herself and her son. As Sydney searches for truth among the wreckage of a past that won’t stay buried for long, the unquiet darkness begins to grow. To change into something unimaginable. To reveal terrible cravings of its own.

Review: Thank you to Redhook for sending me an ARC of this novel!

It isn’t super often that you find a demonic possession story in my book pile when it comes to horror. I’m not against it, really, as I have certainly enjoyed a few stories that involve such things. But there is always an undercurrent of religious fervor that goes hand in hand with possession tales, and I have no problem with that as a concept. It just doesn’t really connect with me. But something about “The Seven Visitations of Sidney Burgess” by Andy Marino caught my eye when it read the description, and I felt compelled to pick it up. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a book with possession at its heart, and one that looks at it through the lens of addiction seemed like a take that I hadn’t encountered before in the subgenre.

I will say that in terms of the possession angle of this story it goes to unpredictable places. In general that is usually a good thing for me, because as a rule I am not as able to connect to traditional possession tales due to a serious lack of belief in demons and devils. If you take that and go to more interesting places, however, be it by examining a priest’s loss of faith a la “The Exorcist”, or a professional skeptic’s slow descent into turmoil a la “The Last Days of Jack Sparks”, I will be more on board. And in this book we go in unexpected and unique territory regarding Sidney’s ‘swimmer’, as she refers to whatever it is that is making her black out and is always lurking at the edges of her consciousness. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the reveal as to what is going on is definitely unexpected, but didn’t quite work for me. Nor did the rapid time jumping and choppy structure. My guess is that it was supposed to add to the confusion and disorientation that Sidney is feeling as she is losing time and memories and then pulling them back out of the ether, but I found it disruptive more than effective.

What did work was how Marino brings the theme of addiction into the story. Sidney has been sober for nine years when we meet her, and as this ‘swimmer’ starts to slowly encroach upon her consciousness, it tempts her to fall back into old and destructive habits. As Sidney starts to lose her grip on what is up and what is down, she starts to lose the will to remain sober. Marino has a lot of dark and uncomfortable moments when it comes to Sidney’s fight against addiction, both in her past and in her present, and it feels raw and relentless in how he portrays the slow slipping back into an addiction spiral. While the theme of ‘addiction as possession’ is kind of obvious (and ultimately, not the biggest issue when it comes to Sidney’s personal possession problems), Marino makes it feel very powerful and emotional. Part of the dread is wondering how badly Sidney is going to fall. There are also some really gnarly moments of body horror in this book. You probably need a bit of that in a possession story, to be honest, and this book has it in spades.

“The Seven Visitations of Sidney Burgess” went to places I wasn’t anticipating. While it didn’t quite break free from my general apathy towards possession stories, the human and very real world emotional notes are great and will leave the reader unsettled.

Rating 7: Intense, strange, and unique on how it looks at ‘possession’ stories, “The Seven Visitations of Sidney Burgess” is a gory slow burn of a horror novel that has some powerful insights on addiction, but a structure problem and some out there revelations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Seven Visitations of Sidney Burgess” is not included on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Demonic Possession”.

Find “The Seven Visitations of Sidney Burgess” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Book Club Review: “Furia”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Furia” by Yamile Saed Méndez

Publishing Info: Algonquin for Young Readers, September 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Pura Belpré

Book Description: In Rosario, Argentina, Camila Hassan lives a double life. At home, she is a careful daughter, living within her mother’s narrow expectations, in her rising-soccer-star brother’s shadow, and under the abusive rule of her short-tempered father.

On the field, she is La Furia, a powerhouse of skill and talent. When her team qualifies for the South American tournament, Camila gets the chance to see just how far those talents can take her. In her wildest dreams, she’d get an athletic scholarship to a North American university.

But the path ahead isn’t easy. Her parents don’t know about her passion. They wouldn’t allow a girl to play fútbol—and she needs their permission to go any farther. And the boy she once loved is back in town. Since he left, Diego has become an international star, playing in Italy for the renowned team Juventus. Camila doesn’t have time to be distracted by her feelings for him. Things aren’t the same as when he left: she has her own passions and ambitions now, and La Furia cannot be denied. As her life becomes more complicated, Camila is forced to face her secrets and make her way in a world with no place for the dreams and ambition of a girl like her.

Kate’s Thoughts

I am not really a sporty person, though accompanying friends and loved ones to games of most any sport can be fun. I probably go to more soccer games than other sports since my husband loves soccer, so when I saw that “Furia”, this month’s book club book, had a soccer theme I figured I would at least have a vague working knowledge of it. But lucky for me, “Furia”, while having a lot to do with soccer, also tackles other issues, like love, ambition, and misogyny. I thought that it was interesting seeing Camile, aka “Furia”, have to navigate the very narrow and defined expectations that Argentine society (and her mother) heap upon her. I enjoyed seeing the parts that had to do with Camile pushing against these norms, be it when she was trying to interact with her very conservative parents (on top of that her father, a former soccer star who is placing all of his lost dreams onto Camile’s soccer playing brother, is incredibly abusive), or when she is trying to determine if she can have a romance with her old flame Diego (ANOTHER rising soccer star), who has returned to town for a bit before he goes back on the road. I also really liked seeing how Méndez would weave in various realities of living in modern day Argentina, from the way the machismo could both bolster male soccer players and create really loyal ties between players and communities, to how the misogyny could lead to violence towards women (and a lot of society would think that these women deserved it one way or another). All of this worked.

There were some problems with the narrative for me as well. One, I go to soccer games on occasion, but I’m not super interested in it in general, and on the written page that isn’t much different. So the soccer moments I found myself speeding through pretty quickly. And on top of that, I didn’t feel like many of the characters were terribly complex. Camile was able to have depths and layers to her, given that she is the main character and we mostly get into her mind, but I do like seeing other supporting roles have a little more exploration and depth, and we didn’t really get that in this book.

Overall, I enjoyed “Furia” as a contemporary YA novel. It gave me a glimpse into a setting that I don’t see as much in YA books, and it had some emotional beats involving her family.

Serena’s Thoughts

I agree with everything Kate said. Her husband and mine share a love for soccer and have been splitting season tickets for as long as I can remember. What’s more, I probably do enjoy sports more than Kate, in general. But I’ll also say that I probably had a stronger negative reaction to this book’s sports elements than she did. So take from that what you will! While I really like watching sports live and even on TV sometimes, I really have a hard time caring about the “action” when it’s the description of movements of a ball and the players kicking it. It’s not even that I can’t picture it, I can! I just…couldn’t care. So that was a pretty big hinderance to my enjoyment of that aspect of the book.

That said, I agree with what Kate said that, lucky for both of us, there was much more to this book than the sports story. I mostly enjoyed the setting and description of every-day-life in Argentina. I don’t know a lot about this part of the world, and what I do know is mostly based in historical accounts rather than a contemporary look. All of the street-level windows into this culture and part of the world were fascinating. Even more so when we witness the uphill battle Furia faces in the face of the misogyny that still limits so much of what is expected for women. The story also touches on the tragedy of how easily women and young girls can go missing or have other violence inflicted upon them and it will be casually swept under the “she probably deserved it” rug.

Like Kate said, the characters themselves were fairly flat feeling. Even Furia herself, while more nuanced than any of the side characters, felt a bit one-note at times. However, I did like the romance that came into play. The challenges they faced felt natural and the ending was satisfying and heart-warming.

Overall, this wasn’t really the book for me. I think it’s so important, though, to have books that represent different parts of the world AND to have sports books for girls. Just cuz I’m not into them, doesn’t mean that I don’t think this is a wide open hole in YA literature. There’s a bunch of YA sports books for young men (perhaps at the detriment of other genres for them), but young women, on the other hand, don’t see tons of sports books directed towards them.

Kate’s Rating 7: While the soccer parts didn’t speak to me and some characters were flat, I liked the family drama as well as the look into Argentine life and what it’s like for women.

Serena’s Rating 7: I, too, enjoyed the Argentinian setting and the look into the culture, but sports books are never going to be my jam.

Book Club Questions

  1. Was there a character that you most identified with in this story? Was there a plot point that really stood out to you?
  2. What did you think about the themes of the Patriarchy in Camile’s life?
  3. What did you think of Camile’s nickname, La Furia? How does it apply to the story that she is living?
  4. How did you like the soccer parts in this book?
  5. The book sets up two paths for Camile: follow her soccer dreams, or follow the potential for romance. Do you think it has to be one or the other for her?
  6. What were your thoughts on the depictions of day to day life in Argentina?
  7. Did you feel like the ending was realistic? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“Furia” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA/Children’s Books in Latin America”, and “YA Girls Take On the Patriarchy”.

Find “Furia” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Front Desk” by Kelly Yang

Serena’s Review: “The Vanishing Stair”

Book: “The Vanishing Stair” by Maureen Johnson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, January 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Just as Stevie feels she’s on the cusp of putting it together, her parents pull her out of Ellingham academy.

For her own safety they say. She must move past this obsession with crime. Now that Stevie’s away from the school of topiaries and secret tunnels, and her strange and endearing friends, she begins to feel disconnected from the rest of the world. At least she won’t have to see David anymore. David, who she kissed. David, who lied to her about his identity—son of despised politician Edward King. Then King himself arrives at her house to offer a deal: He will bring Stevie back to Ellingham immediately. In return, she must play nice with David. King is in the midst of a campaign and can’t afford his son stirring up trouble. If Stevie’s at school, David will stay put.

The tantalizing riddles behind the Ellingham murders are still waiting to be unraveled, and Stevie knows she’s so close. But the path to the truth has more twists and turns than she can imagine—and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for.

Previously Reviewed: “Truly, Devious”

Review: While I do enjoy mystery novels, they’re typically of the historical mystery variant. That or adult forensic crime stories, ala the “Temperance Brennan” series and such. That being the case, “Truly, Devious,” a YA mystery was a new thing for me. I listened to it as an audiobook and ended up really enjoying it, even if I was able to predict a few of the twists and turns. And then…it ended on a cliffhanger. It took me a bit, but now I’m finally back to see what mysteries will be revealed here! Spoiler alert: not enough.

Things have not gone to plan. After Stevie pinned so many hopes on attempting to solve the mysteries at the heart of Ellingham academy, her parents pull her away. But all is not lost when David’s father, the reviled Edward King, arrives with a proposition: Stevie returns to Ellingham in order to placate his troublesome son. Stevie’s parents, big supporters and donators to King’s causes, are willing enough to agree to this and thus Stevie returns. But all is not right at Ellingham and the prices keep going up on the bars for entrance into the academy’s dark past.

I’m going to get this out of the way, I had a lot of problems with this book. I can essentially put them in two categories, however: problems I had with this book in general and problems that might be simply due to me being a 30-something woman reading a YA mystery novel. That being the case, take much of this with a grain of salt, especially if you’re a young adult who loves this type of book and series.

Because, yes, there are still some really solid things about it. Stevie herself is an interesting leading lady. The author excels especially at the portrayal of Stevie’s anxiety and how it affects her day-t0-day life. I thought this topic was handled in such an important, normalizing way, addressing the real challenges posed to those who live with anxiety like this. Most importantly, while Stevie lives with anxiety, it doesn’t define her and the book never treats it as some sort of shameful flaw. It’s all very well-done, and I think sends a powerful message to readers who also live with anxiety.

I also like the underlying mystery at the heart of the story. But this is also where I get into one of my biggest problems with this book, and one that I think I would have regardless of my age reading it. The Ellingham murder/disappearance story is so captivating that it starts to wash-out the events happening in the current setting of the story. What’s more, we again get very, very few answers and end on yet another cliffhanger. I don’t think there is anything in this book, or in this bigger mystery itself, that justified this being a trilogy rather than a duology. By doing this, every aspect of the book feels stretched thing and watered down. It’s the epitome of “second book syndrome.”

On top of that, by choosing to end on yet another cliffhanger, the author has lost all goodwill from me. One is bad enough, but a second just makes me start to feel like I’m being inexpertly manipulated. Had there been more substantial reveals or revelations offered up in the story as a whole, perhaps I would be more forgiving of this choice. As it is, it feels like a weak attempt to forcibly capture an audience and maneuver them into sticking around using a “sunk cost” approach: you’ve already read two entire books without really getting anywhere, gotta read the last!

I personally also struggled with the characters in this book. In the first story, we meet Stevie and the other odd characters who make up the student body at the school. By splitting that story between these necessary introductions, plus the small mystery at the heart of that book and the ongoing Ellingham mysteries, we never got much more than the broadest strokes of these other characters there. So I had expected to see more depth add to them in this second book. But no, they all still felt pretty one-dimensional. That said, again, I’m not the target audience for this book, so others may find more value in these characters than I did.

Ultimately, I was pretty disappointed by this book. I had really hoped for more and finished the last page firmly believing that this entire book was necessary to the story. Of course, I haven’t read the third one, but I have to imagine that things could have been neatly covered in a duology rather than a trilogy. I’m especially frustrated with the cliffhanger and lack of answers to the cold case of Ellingham. I’m not sure I’ll continue on, honestly. We’ll see how my mood takes me in the future!

Rating 6: A solid “second book” in the worst ways, but I’m also not the target audience for this, so take my rating with that in mind.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Vanishing Stair” is also on these Goodreads lists: 2019 YA Mystery/Thrillers and YA Murder Mysteries.

Find “The Vanishing Stair” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Cackle”

Book: “Cackle” by Rachel Harrison

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, October 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: All her life, Annie has played it nice and safe. After being unceremoniously dumped by her longtime boyfriend, Annie seeks a fresh start. She accepts a teaching position that moves her from Manhattan to a small village upstate. She’s stunned by how perfect and picturesque the town is. The people are all friendly and warm. Her new apartment is dreamy too, minus the oddly persistent spider infestation.

Then Annie meets Sophie. Beautiful, charming, magnetic Sophie, who takes a special interest in Annie, who wants to be her friend. More importantly, she wants Annie to stop apologizing and start living for herself. That’s how Sophie lives. Annie can’t help but gravitate toward the self-possessed Sophie, wanting to spend more and more time with her, despite the fact that the rest of the townsfolk seem…a little afraid of her. And like, okay. There are some things. Sophie’s appearance is uncanny and ageless, her mansion in the middle of the woods feels a little unearthly, and she does seem to wield a certain power…but she couldn’t be…could she?

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I used to be terrified of spiders. It was a phobia that I eventually outgrew, and now I usually do okay with arachnids (unless they are too big, as well as too big AND inside my house. Then I’m not as fine). I’ve talked about eventually getting a tarantula as a pet, though my husband has nixed that idea. So when I saw that Rachel Harrison had a new book coming out that touted not only the story of a witch, but also an adorable spider pet named Ralph, I was absolutely interested. That is “Cackle”: the story of a woman a bit lost, a witch friend, and a kind and supportive pet spider.

If I’m going to have a spider gif, it’s going to be a cute one. (source)

Is “Cackle” a terrifying follow up to the highly enjoyable “The Return”? Not really. But what it may not have in terror, it has oodles of in charm and feel good lady pal narrative. Our protagonist, Annie, has found herself newly single after he long time boyfriend Sam breaks up with her due to no more ‘spark’ in their ten year relationship. She takes a teaching job in the small town of Rowan, and immediately befriends Sophie, a charming, mysterious woman whom the rest of the town seems terrified of, or at the very least wary. Annie is a relatable (though admittedly a little sad sack-y) main character who feels lost, and Sophie is properly mysterious and perhaps a little intimidating. You blend that together and you find a story that has some familiar notes and beats of one woman helping another become self actualized, but is still framed in a novel way. After all, I can’t think of other lady friendship stories that have a jovial spider named Ralph. Yes, I’m obsessed with Ralph. I loved seeing their friendship slowly grow and blossom, and how said friendship helps Annie become a strong and confident person, even if with that confidence comes a little bit of darkness that she never anticipated (as well as questions about whether or not Sophie is dangerous… she is a witch, after all). Oh, and a spider infestation, a set of angry ghosts, and newfound powers that may be running a bit amok.

I went in expecting something a little more toxic, just because of how Harrison’s previous novel went, but “Cackle” is actually a really lovely story about two women who feel alone and isolated and then find joy in each other’s company. It just so happens that one of them is a witch. I really loved Sophie, from the way that she looked at the world to how Harrison addresses her past traumas (being a witch makes you a target, after all), to how supportive, but also lonely, she is. True, there are questions about her actual intentions and motivation, but it becomes clear that this is less a toxic friendship story, and more a woman discovering herself story. Annie is the less interesting character, but as she starts to believe in herself, she starts to take her power back. In some cases, literally. As Annie believes in herself more, partially due to Sophie’s cheerleading, she starts to develop powers of her own. And THIS is where some of the ‘horror-esque’ moments happen. There are definite gnarly moments that involve spells, bones, blood, and more, but it never feels too scary and is always rooted with a tongue firmly in cheek. True, I think that Harrison kind of leads us down a primrose path with some red herrings, but by the end I just had a smile on my face as two women go on a journey find friendship and self sufficiency in a society that has told them they have to tamp down their true selves. It’s cathartic and enjoyable.

“Cackle” isn’t the scary book I thought it would be, but it’s a good choice for a Halloween read if you want something a little spooky, but not terribly horror filled. Why not spend the Season of the Witch with Sophie?

Rating 9: A fun witchy tale about friendship, finding yourself, and the joys of spiders as pets. “Cackle” is a bit of light horror for his Halloween season!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cackle” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Horror Novels Written by Women (cis and trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”, and would fit in on “Witchy”.

Find “Cackle” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Tongues of Serpents”

Book: “Tongues of Serpents” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, July 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Convicted of treason despite their heroic defense against Napoleon’s invasion of England, Temeraire and Laurence—stripped of rank and standing—have been transported to the prison colony at New South Wales in distant Australia, where, it is hoped, they cannot further corrupt the British Aerial Corps with their dangerous notions of liberty for dragons. Temeraire and Laurence carry with them three dragon eggs intended to help establish a covert in the colony and destined to be handed over to such second-rate, undesirable officers as have been willing to accept so remote an assignment—including one former acquaintance, Captain Rankin, whose cruelty once cost a dragon its life.

Nor is this the greatest difficulty that confronts the exiled dragon and rider: Instead of leaving behind all the political entanglements and corruptions of the war, Laurence and Temeraire have instead sailed into a hornet’s nest of fresh complications. For the colony at New South Wales has been thrown into turmoil after the overthrow of the military governor, one William Bligh—better known as Captain Bligh, late of HMS Bounty. Bligh wastes no time in attempting to enlist Temeraire and Laurence to restore him to office, while the upstart masters of the colony are equally determined that the new arrivals should not upset a balance of power precariously tipped in their favor.

Eager to escape this political quagmire, Laurence and Temeraire take on a mission to find a way through the forbidding Blue Mountains and into the interior of Australia. But when one of the dragon eggs is stolen from Temeraire, the surveying expedition becomes a desperate race to recover it in time—a race that leads to a shocking discovery and a dangerous new obstacle in the global war between Britain and Napoleon.

Previously Reviewed: “His Majesty’s Dragon” and “Throne of Jade” and “Black Powder War” and “Empire of Ivory” and “Victory of Eagles”

Review: Per the usual, I got back around to this series when my audiobook hold list at the library ran into a snag and I had a long wait for my next book to come in. Cue me returning to either this series or the Amelia Peabody series, to long-running series with excellent audiobook narrators. The “Temeraire” series is a bit harder to return to than the Amelia Peabody series, however, as there is a larger cast of characters (most side characters, but still a lot) and the books are more firmly connected to one another as an ongoing story. Still, never say I’m put off by a little thing like needing to take a bit to orient oneself at the beginning of a book. It’s a skill that any solid fantasy reader will develop, I think.

Convicted of treason, Temeraire and Laurence have been banished to Australia, a land that is barely understood, other than the small colonized areas that have been created as a holding pen for miscreants. Temeraire and Laurence, however, hold a unique position. Not only were their actions considered heroic by many of their friends and allies, but there is no effective way of “imprisoning” a powerful dragon like Temeraire. In reality, all that holds either of them is Laurence’s strong sense of patriotism and duty. Desperate to keep themselves out of any other political skirmishes, they embark on a dangerous mission into the interior of the continent. Only to find themselves caught up in a situation much larger than the one from which they had fled.

One of my favorite things about this series is how we travel the world alongside Temeraire and Laurence and get to witness first hand the way that dragons existing in this world has influenced known locations and historic events. Obviously, the Napoleonic wars is the big one. But we’ve also seen the effect of dragons on the slave trade and the difference in colonialism in that location when we travelled to Africa. As well, the threat that some Western cultures see in China with their very different (more advanced) way of interacting with and utilizing their dragons. Here, obviously, we go to Australia. Like Africa, this is a very wild, unknown location, so as the reader is discovering the wonders and threats of the country, so, too, are Temeraire and Laurence.

Most of what I liked about this book came down to this exploration of Australia. Novik had some very original ideas of how to work in the Aborigines, as well as a host of new flora and fauna. There were unexpected threats around every corner, and she did an excellent job painting a picture of this remote, completely foreign landscape. I almost wish the story had stuck strictly to this aspect of the plot. For some, it may read as the slower parts, but I enjoyed it for what it offered.

The political clashes were a bit on the predictable side. We know what side of things Temeraire and Laurence will usually come down on, so their moral struggles carry less weight as the series progresses. There were a few instances here, however, where we saw them at odds in unexpected ways, and I enjoyed that. The book also set up some larger conflicts between the various nations, to some extent, all struggling with how to manage Napoleon, even in his seeming current defeat.

The dragons, like always, stood out a bit more than their human counterparts. Laurence is, of course, excellent, but I’d struggle to actually name many of the other human characters. I know their roles, of course, but there’s not a whole lot more to them than these various stations. The dragons, on the other hand, all have distinct, colorful personalities and we had a few new ones added to the group this go around. More and more, we seem to be seeing how unique Temeraire is even within other dragonkind. Yes, their treatment by the British and other European countries, has been fairly poor. But we also see how it has taken this long for it to be challenged. Many of the dragons we have met so far, while strong in many ways, do fall prey to easily manipulated temptations. Their seemingly innate desire for riches and glory can be easily exploited by a crafty captain.

The conflict at the end of the book did seem to come a bit out of nowhere. And then was followed by a second, oddly tacked-on-feeling conflict. However, there were some newly introduces war tactics that were so interesting in the way they shifted the power of certain groups that I found it to be fine in the end. I’m definitely curious to see where Laurence and Temeraire will go from here. Fans of the series should definitely check this one out, though I admit that it’s probably one of the slower entries in the series so far.

Rating 8: Another solid entry, if it does feel a bit like a placeholder at times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Tongues of Serpents” is on these Goodreads lists: Napoleonic Novels and Best Books Set in Australia.

Find “Tongues of Serpents” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Last House on Needless Street”

Book: “The Last House on Needless Street” by Catriona Ward

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street is a shocking and immersive read perfect for fans of Gone Girl and The Haunting of Hill House.

In a boarded-up house on a dead-end street at the edge of the wild Washington woods lives a family of three. A teenage girl who isn’t allowed outside, not after last time. A man who drinks alone in front of his TV, trying to ignore the gaps in his memory. And a house cat who loves napping and reading the Bible.

An unspeakable secret binds them together, but when a new neighbor moves in next door, what is buried out among the birch trees may come back to haunt them all.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Welcome to HorrorPalooza 2021!!! I cannot wait to showcase and review all horror, all the time for the month of October, as is tradition, and right off the bat we have one of the most hyped horror novels of the Fall: “The Last House on Needless Street” by Catriona Ward! I had been thinking about this one as a solid HorrorPalooza choice for so long that I completely forgot that it actually came out in September (hence I missed it on my highlights that month), but by no means does that mean I wasn’t eager for it. And I’m here to report that while it was much anticipated by me, it wasn’t as compelling of a story as I expected. But who doesn’t love the idea of a cat being a character with perspective chapters?

“The Last House on Needless Street” follows a man named Ted, who lives a fairly solitary life outside of his cat Olivia and his daughter Lauren. They all live on Needless Street, and Ted is dealing with an angry teenager, as well as an unreliable memory that is causing him some problems. His cat Olivia is constantly watching over him, her devotion true but starting to wane as she starts to see changes in his behavior. And then there is Dee, a new neighbor who has moved to Needless Street with one motivation: she believes that Ted was responsible for her sister Lulu’s disappearance a number of years ago, and wants to find out what he did with her. As Dee tries to untangle what is going on with Ted, Ted seems to be shifting into a more and more unstable emotional state as daughter Lauren comes in and out of his life and Olivia observes. Ted’s chapters are haphazard and have a disjointed and unreliable feel to them, which made for a character that I desperately wanted to know more about, for the good or the bad. Olivia’s are VERY funny and feel super cat-like, with both loyalty to her owner/friend Ted as well as an aloof above it all snark. Dee’s are probably the most linear which kind of tie one of the mysteries into the larger story, which then plays into the rest of the story too. I liked all of the voices and found them varied, especially Olivia’s. I mean, a cat being a narrator of a scary story is just so fun. Ward really gives them their own personalities and they all feel pretty realistic for what they are and what their arcs are like.

The plot itself had some bumps, however. Not the tension or the suspense, that was all on point! Ward really knows how to build up atmosphere and wring out every ounce of creepiness and discomfort, no question. There were multiple scenes that just had me on the edge of my seat. However, one of the things that I was seeing about “The Last House on Needless Street” was that it had really surprising twists and turns. I will certainly agree that it does have a couple of those! One even totally took me by surprise, even though looking back there were hints here and there as to the truth of the matter at hand, and I love finding the hints after the fact. But as for the others, I think that there were some desperately laid red herrings that just screamed out that they were red herrings. And I really don’t want to give anything away in regards to some of the reveals, but to really address one of the twists I feel like I have to get into at least a little of the nitty gritty. So here is your SPOILER ALERT! Skip down past the next paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled.

So what I will say is that one of our characters has Dissociative Identity Disorder, aka DID, aka Multiple Personality Disorder (though this name is out of favor). Generally those who have DID suffered a horrific trauma and in an effort to cope the mind creates ‘alters’, or other personalities. While I thought that Ward did this in a way that didn’t feel shaming or stigmatizing in a ‘all mentally ill people are dangerous’ kind of way (and even listed a number of sources into the research she did about DID, which was good to see), it’s still a bit of a trope in thriller and horror stories these days, having seen it in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, “Fight Club”, “Psycho”, and others. And the problem with turning a mental condition into a ‘twist’ is that, even with the best intentions (and I do think that Ward has them here!), it can come off as gimmicky at best and dehumanizing at worst. I myself don’t think that Ward treads into dehumanizing territory, BUT I also don’t have DID, so I’d bet I’m not the best judge of that.

Overall, “The Last House on Needless Street” has its ups and downs! I didn’t find it to be as excitingly twisty as others have, but I did overall enjoy a fair amount about it. Especially Olivia the Cat!

Rating 7: A creepy and somewhat bittersweet story about a man, his cat, and coming to terms with guilt and trauma. But one that relies on a trope that is a bit overdone and becoming more and more controversial.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last House on Needless Street” is included on the Goodreads lists “Brilliant Dark Fiction”, and “Books To Get You in the Halloween Mood”.

Find “The Last House on Needless Street” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Highlights: October 2021

Fall is in full swing and we have entered October, the month that brings us all things creepy, crawly, and spooky! That means that it’s time for Kate’s annual Horrorpalooza review series, as well as all the horror movies, and it’s time for Serena to find all things cozy and autumn-esque! We also have a list of books that we are looking forward to this month as the days get shorter and pumpkin themed everything permeates our lives.

Serena’s Picks

Book: “Animorphs Graphix #2: The Visitor”

Publication Date: October 5, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I’m tickled pink that a cult YA series from the 90s is seeing a re-birth here in the 2020s. What a weird thing, to have read all of these books as a kid and now to be re-reading them as graphic novels when I have kids myself! I very much enjoyed the first book that came out about a year ago. I had a few quibbles about some of the artistic choices, but overall, I was surprised by how much fun I had reading that. With that firmly in mind, while I still don’t love the artwork (most notable in this cover), I’m really excited to dive into this second book and see how the events here are depicted in this format.

Book: “Blood of the Chosen” by Django Wexler

Publication Date: October 5, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I really enjoyed the first book in this series when I read it last summer. Wexler writes excellent fantasy (science fiction??) worlds and he fills them will well-formed, exciting characters. In this series, we follow a pair of siblings who were separated at a young age and find themselves on opposing sides of a brewing conflict that appears to have no winners. The stakes were high in the first book. So high, that I wonder where they will go from there. But Wexler has proven more than capable of handing escalating forces in past series of his that I’ve enjoyed, so I’m sure he’ll manage it here! I found myself preferring Maya’s story in the first book, and generally coming down on her side of the moral dilemma, so I’m curious to see if that will remain true here.

Book: “Vespertine” by Margaret Rogerson

Publication Date: October 5, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Margaret Rogerson is one of those authors I Goodreads stalk. In that, I’ve been checking her profile for updates of a new book almost since the day I read the last page of her latest book. It’s been a long wait, too, but “Vespertine” is finally here! Yet another cover that I think is fantastic, so she’s three-for-three there. The description focusing on a fighting nun sounds pretty awesome as well. I’m a bit bummed that there doesn’t seem to be any romance in this book, as that was one of the things I liked best about her first two books. But it’s also the first in a duology (I think it’s only two??), which is also a first from her as the previous two were stand-alones. So maybe there will be romance there? Or, of course, there are perfectly good books that don’t have romantic subplots. Just my preference that they do. Super excited to get to this one, as I’ve been patiently waiting for soooo long to crack it open.

Kate’s Picks

Book: “Cackle” by Rachel Harrison

Publication Date: October 5, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I really loved Rachel Harrison’s debut novel “The Return”, so of course I would be interested in reading her next book. Especially since this one has to do with witches! Annie has always been the type to go along to get along, so when she finds herself recently dumped by her long term boyfriend and in a whole new town, she is anxious, lonely, and a little bit lost. But the she meets Sophie, a beautiful and incredibly charismatic woman who is more than happy to take Annie under her wing. Sophie is gregarious and charming, but everyone else in town seems to be a little scared of her. Could it be that Annie’s new friend is a witch? And what does that mean for Annie? Witches are great, but so are complex female friendship plot points, so this one sounds doubly interesting!

Book: “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” by Cassandra Khaw

Publication Date: October 19, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Given that Japanese horror tales are some of the stories that scare me the most (I left “The Ring” as a fully traumatized teenager), when I saw that a new novella with such a theme was coming out I knew I needed to read it. And not only is the cover absolutely horrifying, “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” by Cassandra Khaw is a novella, the perfect length for a late autumn night. Cat and her friends have all come together for a wedding at a Heian-Era mansion in rural Japan. They’ve all been known to be thrill seekers, and a wedding in a haunted house sounds fun. Until Cat starts seeing things. And the story of a long dead, spurned bride starts to unfold right before her eyes. Ghosts and wedding weekends don’t tend to mix well. Throw in some yokai to boot and you have a blood curdling tale of terror!

Book: “Where They Wait” by Scott Carson

Publication Date: October 26, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I’m a super anxious person, and the past two years (between new parenthood and pandemic) has been very stressful at times. I have been trying to meditate more and look into mindfulness programs, but when I read the description for Scott Carson’s “Where They Wait” I was like ‘oh GREAT, let’s make THAT scary, huh?’ But I have to admit, it does sound intriguing. After he’s let go from his prestigious newspaper job, Nick is hired to do a write up of a new mindfulness app called Clarity. It seems like the usual program, but as he starts to look into it more, some things seem off. What kind of mindfulness app has a meditation segment with a creepy song that lulls people into a freaked out state before a good night’s sleep? Nick starts to look into this more, and realizes that he has a dark connection to Clarity and the song. I haven’t read anything by Carson yet, and this one sounds like it’s going to be a truly trippy story.

What books are you looking forward to this month? Let us know in the comments!

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