Not Just Book: January 2022

While we do love us some books, believe it not, we do have a life outside of reading. So to highlight our other pop culture interests, on the last Monday of each month, we each will highlight three other “happenings” from the last month. Big events on favorite TV shows, new movies we’ve watched, old movies we’ve “discovered,” etc. Pretty much whatever we found of particular interest outside of the book world during the last month. Share your own favorite things in the comments!

Serena’s Picks

Movie: “Wind River”

I just stumbled across this movie on Netflix while mindlessly scrolling the other night. I’ve always liked Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olson has really been moving up my list as well recently, especially after her excellent performance in “WandaVision.” After a girl has found dead in the woods in rural Wyoming, a wildlife game tracker and an FBI agent team up to track down the culpable parties. It’s a dark, grim look into the ongoing tragedy of the number of Native women who go missing each year, never recorded and never given justice. I thought the movie did a really good job diving into the struggles that are found on reservations and the ease at which these young women can fall through the cracks.

Movie: “The Electric Life of Louis Wain”

Another stumbled upon movie! But this one drew me in for a few specific reasons: historical biographical movies are a favorite of mine; Benedict Cumberbatch is always excellent; and the story heavily featured cats. Yes, cats. The movie follows the life of Louis Wain, a British man who is responsible for the hundreds of cat pictures that you’re likely familiar with from the Victorian era (the original “Three Little Kittens” images, for example). It was a lot darker and more depressing than I expected, but it was also an excellent exploration of mental illness and hope in the face of darkness. Cat-lovers, especially, should check it out!

Disney+ Show: “Hawkeye”

Two Jeremey Renner shows/movies in one post! But my husband and I have been diligentlyh working our way through the Disney+ Marvel mini series, and we finally finished them all up with “Hawkeye” this month. I have to say, I might have enjoyed this one the most! I think “WandaVision” was probably the best, really, but I had a lot of fun watching this one and definitely laughed the most during this one. Renner and Hailee Steinfield had great chemistry, and I was really surprised by Streinfield’s comedic chops. This series also had a lot of fun surprises of the sort that were perfectly primed for me towards characters that I’ve enjoyed from other Marvel properties. If you’ve liked the other Marvel mini series, this is definitely one to check out!

Kate’s Picks

Netflix Show: “Cobra Kai”

It’s back, it’s back, it’s finally back! My favorite Netflix show (and probably favorite show on TV right now) finally dropped Season 4 on New Year’s Eve, and let me tell you, our Omicron avoiding isolated New Year was filled with “Cobra Kai” and it was GLORIOUS. When we left off last season, Johnny and Daniel decided to team their dojos up to go up against Kreese and his Cobra Kai students in hopes of running him out of the Valley forever. As one could imagine, it doesn’t go smoothly, and the students of both Miyagi-Do and Eagle Fang are left to try and learn new styles and team up while their senseis spar. I am still madly in love with Johnny Lawrence in all his sullen himbo glory, and once again teenage MVP Miguel shines bright and fills me with all the joy. But it was the return of “Karate Kid 3” villain Terry Silver that created the most interesting waves this season, as this secondary antagonist gets to chew some scenery while still acknowledging that his very existence and characterization in his origin movie is ridiculous. So when do we get Season 5?

TV Show: “RuPaul’s Drag Race”

Admittedly, I wasn’t super into Season 13 of “Drag Race”. I don’t know if it was the fact I didn’t really connect with many of the queens, or if it was the strange set up of splitting them up from the get go into winners and losers of initial lip syncs, or what, but I was not super invested and only watched here and there. So I was thinking that Season 14 may be another challenge. But I can say that as of right now, my worries have been assuaged, and I am enjoying this newest regular season! No more bullshit Winner’s Circle and Porkchop groups! So far the girls seem less manufactured and more genuine! I already have a few queens I really like (Kerri Colby, Kornbread, Willow Pill)! I’m hoping that it will sustain itself, because if we could get a stellar season after a stellar “All Stars” cycle that will make my “Drag Race” fix a bit more sated than I was last year!

HBO Max Show: “Peacemaker”

As I mentioned back in August, I really enjoyed James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad” for the campy, snide, ultraviolent rollercoaster it was. When it ended with the news that John Cena’s Peacemaker was actually still alive, and that he was getting his own TV show, I was sort of intrigued, but also a little skeptical. Not that I didn’t like Cena’s performance, as I did, but I wasn’t sure if the character could carry a show. Well I’m happy to say that I was wrong, because “Peacemaker” is a hoot. Picking up where “The Suicide Squad” left off, Peacemaker is out of the hospital and thinks he’s off scot free… until he’s recruited again and badgered into service for a black ops group, this time targeting beings called ‘butterflies’. It goes as well as to be expected. Not only is Cena charming and funny, but the supporting characters are all fantastic. My favorite is Danielle Brooks’s Leota, the daughter of Amanda Waller who is new to the group and pretty much the opposite of her mother. And it has AMAZING opening credits. Oh, and FAR more pathos than I was expecting. Like, sobbing into my hands pathos at one point. I am REALLY enjoying this show.

Serena’s Review: “Creatures of the Night”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Creatures of the Night” by Grace Collins

Publishing Info: Wattpad Books, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Milena’s twentieth birthday, the day she would join the ranks of her village’s hunters, should have been the most exciting day of her life. Being a hunter meant she would be able to help protect her village from the murderous wolves who take human form—the creatures of the night. But a chance encounter with Elias, the enigmatic leader of the creatures, leaves her questioning everything she has ever believed to be true.

Up until now, Elias has managed to protect the creatures of the night and keep the secrets of his past well hidden. Now, as tensions between the groups grow, Elias is forced to make hard decisions: ones that will cost lives. Nobody is safe, especially Milena, the person he is inexplicably drawn to even though it could destroy them both.

Review: I’ve really enjoyed the other books by Grace Collins that I’ve come across: the romances are solid, the dialogue has been witty, and the fantasy elements have been unique and refreshing. But the books I’ve read have all been from her back catalog, so I was excited to see a new book of hers on offer in Edelweiss+ last summer. Why I’m now reviewing it here in January, who knows? I blame my out of control TBR list.

Milena has never understood why her caretaker has made her wait until her twentieth birthday to join the rest of the villagers on the hunt when everyone else has participated since they were sixteen. But the day is drawing near, and she hopes that by helping protect her people from the vicious creatures of the night, she will at last be accepted as a member of the village. All is not as it seems however, when she meets the mysterious leader of the creatures of the night. Suddenly, her world is turned upside down and no one is who she thought they were. Including herself.

I had a few expectations going into this book based on my experience with other books by Collins. Like I said, the other two I’ve read had great romances and excellent dialogue and characterizations driving much of the story. All of that is right up my alley, and thus I really enjoyed those stories. I also liked the unique fantasy aspects. Sadly, while this story did come through on the latter, it missed the mark on the former.

But first, where it did succeed. Again, Collins has presented a fairly unique fantasy world to drive her story. Surprising no one, the creatures of the night are your fairly typical werewolves/shifters. But there were also two other fantastical beings, the hollowers and the whispers. Each of these last two were very intriguing, especially the hollowers who are the true villains of the story. I can’t go into much detail about either of these different beings as that would spoil a few of the reveals in the story (you can probably guess a few of the basic points already, but just in case!).

Sadly, I was less thrilled with the characters and the romance of this story. For one thing, the book desription seems to setting up a story that will have POV chapters from both Melina and Elias (this is similar to Collins’ M.O. from some of her other books), but instead we only have Melina’s perspective. And it’s just…bland. It was all the more disappointing because, given her history and set-up, there could have been an excellent story arch for her to traverse. And while there are hints of deeper moments of reflection but, in the end, they never come to much. She’s incredibly passive throughout the story. It’s understandable in the beginning, but again, she fails to grow into anything more as the story continues. She’s not particularly brave or kind or curious. Just a mellow, nice young woman.

For his part, Elias is similarly bland. His mysteriousness quickly loses its appeal and becomes more frustrating than anything else. By the time he does share some of his secrets, it’s too little too late and I was left wondering why he played some of these cards so close to his chest when, if known, they could have made everything a bit easier. Between these two fairly flat characters, there was little room for the romance to bloom into anything truly compelling. To make matters worse, because both characters were fairly noncommunicative (Melina for being a more quiet character and Elias because he’s “mysterious), there wasn’t a lot of dialogue between the two. As I’ve said, the fun dialogue between the romantic leads was one of the main draws for me to Collins’ other works. So I was disappointed to see this lost in this book.

Overall, this was an underwhelming story. It also ends on a cliffhanger, which was frustrating given the rest of the story. I’m invested enough to want to find out what happens, but I’m not enthused about the prospects for these two characters unless they both manage to grow personalities. I know Collins is capable of this, so I guess I’ll just keep my fingers crossed for the second book.

Rating 7: Not up to my expectations for this author, but not without merit.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Creatures of the Night” is on this Goodreads list: Wattpad Books Publishing.

Kate’s Review: “Road of Bones”

Book: “Road of Bones” by Christopher Golden

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, January 2022

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

Book Description: A stunning supernatural thriller set in Siberia, where a film crew is covering an elusive ghost story about the Kolyma Highway, a road built on top of the bones of prisoners of Stalin’s gulag.

Kolyma Highway, otherwise known as the Road of Bones, is a 1200 mile stretch of Siberian road where winter temperatures can drop as low as sixty degrees below zero. Under Stalin, at least eighty Soviet gulags were built along the route to supply the USSR with a readily available workforce, and over time hundreds of thousands of prisoners died in the midst of their labors. Their bodies were buried where they fell, plowed under the permafrost, underneath the road.

Felix Teigland, or “Teig,” is a documentary producer, and when he learns about the Road of Bones, he realizes he’s stumbled upon untapped potential. Accompanied by his camera operator, Teig hires a local Yakut guide to take them to Oymyakon, the coldest settlement on Earth. Teig is fascinated by the culture along the Road of Bones, and encounters strange characters on the way to the Oymyakon, but when the team arrives, they find the village mysteriously abandoned apart from a mysterious 9-year-old girl. Then, chaos ensues.

A malignant, animistic shaman and the forest spirits he commands pursues them as they flee the abandoned town and barrel across miles of deserted permafrost. As the chase continues along this road paved with the suffering of angry ghosts, what form will the echoes of their anguish take? Teig and the others will have to find the answers if they want to survive the Road of Bones.

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

So many horror subgenres, so little time. I have always had a hit or miss relationship with folk horror, but I’m always up to try out books that catch my eye or get a lot of hype. So I was drawn to “Road of Bones” by Christopher Golden for a couple of reasons. The first was that I’ve been meaning to check out Golden for awhile, but haven’t done it yet. The second was that “Road of Bones” kept popping up on my various timelines with a lot of praise. So folk horror or not, I was down to jump all the way in. And the fact that it takes place in the cold wilderness of Siberia was just an added bonus, since I was reading it over some frigid winter days and nights here in Minnesota.

As cold as Siberia? Probably not. But it was recently -21 without windchill here, so…. (source)

“Road of Bones” does the ingenious thing of taking a real life horror and using it as the context and setting for a horror story steeped in folklore, history, and supernatural creepiness. The action of our tale takes place along the Kolyma Highway, a federal road that was built by and upon the bones of gulag prisoners during Stalin’s rule. It is estimated that perhaps at least half a million people died during construction, their bodies just paved over by permafrost and infrastructure. So, good lord that’s horrifying on its own, but Golden manages to take the location and make it all the more creepy and upsetting vis a vis Russian folklore. Our main characters are Teig and Prentiss, two filmmakers who have been friends forever and who are chasing one last dream (mostly Teig’s) of trying to create a ghost hunting show. Teig has his own reasons for wanting to chase ghosts that he doesn’t necessarily believe in outside of monetary ones, and Prentiss is there because he loves his friend, even if he’s exasperated by him. Their dynamic is a familiar one, but Golden makes you care about them as people and as friends. As they drive through the ice cold and desolate wilds of Siberia on a lonely highway, they find themselves suddenly in supernatural danger, and by the time we get to that point we care enough about them that anything that comes next is going to be high tension and high stakes. The other characters we meet have similar roles to play, from their brash local guide Kaskil to a stranded driver named Nari, and once they reach the small village they hope to rest in, it’s clear that things have gone very wrong. I liked all of our characters, so they were more than just fodder for angry spirits by the time shit started to get real.

But it’s the horror elements that really sold me on this book. I initially assumed that the supernatural element would be a traditional ‘angry ghosts’ kind of story, given that the Kolyma Highway has such a dark and violent history, but instead we go full folk horror with it, and hoo boy is it effective. From an abandoned village to shadows in the distant treelines to shamanism and forest spirits, “Road of Bones” runs a gamut of creepy elements that make for some really, REALLY scary moments. The isolation of a deadly tundra is scary enough on its own, and Golden makes that threat just one of many others that is always there to compound the other issues at hand. Golden taps into folklore and involves forest spirits, potential demonic possession, transformative body horror, and the fear of the missing and unknown. The descriptions of the abandoned village, of many sets of footprints wandering through the snow and into the woods, actively gave me shivers as I was reading (definitely had another ‘oh Jesus CHRIST’ muttering moment during one moment in particular), and let me tell you, the things that Teig, Prentiss, and the others encounter freaked me out, and a lot of that is based in folk horror tropes and imagery. Golden made it work for me, and how. The horrors of nature and the things that dwell within it combine super well with the location and terrible history that resides there.

“Road of Bones” is scary and highly enjoyable. I’m so glad that this was the Christopher Golden book that served as my first experience with his writing, as I really, really liked it.

Rating 9: A scary folk horror tale perfect for a cold winter’s night.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Road of Bones” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books of Horror FB Group”, and “Most Anticipated 2022 Thriller Books”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Crown of Bones”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Crown of Bones” by A.K. Wilder

Publishing Info: Entangled: Teen, January 2021

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

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Raise. Your. Phantom.

For fans of epic fantasies and sweeping adventures, this ensemble cast will immerse you in a world of unique magic, breathtaking action and unforgettable characters.

In a world on the brink of the next Great Dying, no amount of training can prepare us for what is to come …

A young heir will raise the most powerful phantom in all of Baiseen.

A dangerous High Savant will do anything to control the nine realms.

A mysterious and deadly Mar race will steal children into the sea.

And a handsome guide with far too many secrets will make me fall in love.

My name is Ash. A lowly scribe meant to observe and record. And yet I think I’m destined to surprise us all.

Review: “Fans of epic fantasies and sweeping adventures”: count me in! This one has been on the backburner for a while, but it finally showed up as available as an audiobook from the library so I jumped on it right away. I’ve struggled in the past with some of the audiobook readers that are often chosen for YA novels, and while neither of these narrators were terrible, I still struggled a bit with this book in that format. Both narrators didn’t change their voices or inflection style for different characters, so there were times where I was confused about who was speaking, etc. But on to the review of the actual book!

Ash has always dreamed of being a Savant, an individual with the ability to raise a powerful Phantom that possess unique abilities. Alas, her time came and went and no Phantom appeared. Instead, she’s devoted herself to the life of a scribe, providing support and friendship to the heir of the kingdom, Marcus. His Phantom, though powerful, has always resisted his control. So when he, Ash and a group of other Savants set off on a journey to gain more knowledge and control over their Phantoms, he has high hopes that he can finally come into his own as a true Savant. But along the way, they fall in with a mysterious sailor named Kaylin. Through him, they discover that many forces are moving in the world and perhaps Marcus’s Phantom will be more needed than ever. And Ash…she, too, will be needed.

One of the first things I noticed about this book is its pace. This is a high-action, fast-paced book. The narrative jumps from one action set piece to another with a sort of frenetic energy, and I whipped through the audiobook in only a few days. So from that perspective, the book is very readable and energetic. But once I got done and was able to catch my breath, I did find myself questioning more and more aspects of the rest of the story.

Because it moves so quickly, the story never allows its character to really breathe. The book description sets this up as Ash’s story, but the narrative is actually divided between her, Marcus, and the sailor Kaylin who arrives later into the story but still has a few chapters devoted to his POV. With all of the action and adventure, there’s a lot of room for character growth, but instead the book seems to just jump straight into another scene. It never felt like any of these three characters were truly reacting, absorbing, or being changed by these major events. It was incredibly frustrating, as there were some real character arcs that were hinted at for each of these characters, but we never delved deeper than the very surface level reactions. Ash, for her part, also existed in the background of a lot of the story, which I found particularly frustrating. And we never really were given much to understand Kaylin’s shifting loyalties throughout the story.

The world-building and the magic system were very unique and interesting. This was probably the aspect of the story that held it most together for me. The various ways that the Phantoms could use their powers was intriguing, and I enjoyed seeing them in action throughout the story. But there was also just SO MANY different magical elements added to this story that, again, it started to feel like none of them were sufficiently explained on their own before another thing was added. I don’t fully understand the Mar people or their motivations. The titular “Crown of Bones” was referenced here and there, but again, I don’t fully understand how that is playing into the mythology of this world. There was just so much, but none of it felt like it was organically weaving together or building to a fully-realized world.

Overall, this book was a bit hit and miss. It was a fast, enjoyable read. But on reflection, much of the character work and world-building felt shallow and as if several opportunities were missed throughout. I’m curious to see where the second book goes, however, as a few “reveals” (these were obviously telegraphed from the beginning of the book, which I also thought was a strange decision) might lead to some interesting changes in the narrative. Fans of fast-moving fantasy stories might want to give this a shot, but it’s definitely of the “beach read” variety of fantasy.

Rating 7: Exciting and fast-paced, but missing the heart and reflection that truly makes a story land with its readers.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Crown of Bones” is on these Goodreads lists: Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2021 and We do Bones.

Kate’s Review: “The Red Palace”

Book: “The Red Palace” by June Hur

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, January 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received access to an eARC via NetGalley from the author.

Book Description: Joseon (Korea), 1758. There are few options available to illegitimate daughters in the capital city, but through hard work and study, eighteen-year-old Hyeon has earned a position as a palace nurse. All she wants is to keep her head down, do a good job, and perhaps finally win her estranged father’s approval.

But Hyeon is suddenly thrust into the dark and dangerous world of court politics when someone murders four women in a single night, and the prime suspect is Hyeon’s closest friend and mentor. Determined to prove her beloved teacher’s innocence, Hyeon launches her own secret investigation.

In her hunt for the truth, she encounters Eojin, a young police inspector also searching for the killer. When evidence begins to point to the Crown Prince himself as the murderer, Hyeon and Eojin must work together to search the darkest corners of the palace to uncover the deadly secrets behind the bloodshed.

June Hur, critically acclaimed author of The Silence of Bones and The Forest of Stolen Girls, returns with The Red Palace—a third evocative, atmospheric historical mystery perfect for fans of Courtney Summers and Kerri Maniscalco.

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

I was amped to see that June Hur had another historical mystery/thriller coming out this year, and I was very lucky to get an eARC from Hur herself through NetGalley. Given that Hurs books, which take place in historical Korea, are always a hit with me, I was eager to check out “The Red Palace”, a mystery involving shady royals, a palace nurse, and a creepy moment in Korean history involving murder.

The story itself is at times creepy and always suspenseful, given that someone is murdering palace nurses and it may well be the Crown Prince himself. As our characters Palace Nurse Hyeon and Inspector Eojin investigate, the puzzle pieces fall into place, but as they do so the stakes raise higher and higher. I liked both of them so much (and I loved their chemistry as they investigated together) that I was fully invested in their safety, almost as much as I was invested in their romance. Maybe that should be switched around in terms of priorities, but whatever. I thought that Hur did a really good job of putting all the clues in place and revealing them at just the right times, and I was genuinely surprised by some of the reveals. They all made perfect sense upon reflection, and I enjoyed going on the investigation with our protagonists. It feels a lot like a procedural formula that you could see in modern times, of the medical person assisting the police officer, and it is a tried and true trope that works here too.

And I really loved the protagonists, specifically Hyeon. Her backstory has a good balance of angst and determination, and I completely bought her motive for wanting to solve this mystery given her close relationship with Nurse Jeongsu, her mentor and mother figure (as he own mother is cold and their relationship is complicated) that has been accused of the murders of their fellow nurses. We didn’t see as much of Jeongsu as I would have liked, and there was more telling as opposed to showing their relationship, but we DID get to see the complicated one between Hyeon and her concubine mother, while her Lord father has denied her acknowledgement and care. It’s established that while Hyeon has a lot to lose by investigating, but we completely believe why she pursues it, doggedly so. And as I mentioned above, I really loved her working (and romantic tension filled) relationship with the young inspector Eojin. He, too, has a lot to prove and a lot to lose, and it means that they work as good foils for each other.

And finally, the time and place is great. Given that “The Red Palace” is partially inspired by the notorious life and death of Crown Prince Sado (a prince who did, indeed, murder a number of people and then was executed at the behest of his father), we get a look into a dark footnote in Korean history and get some expansion on the themes it harkens to. Hur’s books are always so great for time and place, jumping through various centuries in Korea, and this one had some good insight into the workings of the Palace culture and hierarchy for those who serve it. I also liked the fact that she put an author’s note in about Crown Prince Sado, which contextualized the story at hand and gave it a bit more depth. Man do I love me an author’s note that has to do with historical context!

I quite enjoyed “The Red Palace”. I implore historical mystery and thriller fans to pick up June Hur if you haven’t already.

Rating 8: A creepy and tense historical mystery based in notorious fact, “The Red Palace” is another fun thriller from June Hur with very likable characters and a unique time and place.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Red Palace” is included on the Goodreads lists “Historical Fiction w/ POC”, and “ATY 2022: Asian or Pacific Islander Author”.

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

Another Take: Winter 2022

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Don’t just take it from us, other readers like these books, too! And we have decided that we would like to showcase other reviewers and bloggers that have their own thoughts and feelings about books that we have loved. Here are a few of the books we’ve enjoyed recently and what other bloggers have to say about them.

Book: “The Love Hypothesis” by Ali Hazelwood

Book Description: As a third-year Ph.D. candidate, Olive Smith doesn’t believe in lasting romantic relationships–but her best friend does, and that’s what got her into this situation. Convincing Anh that Olive is dating and well on her way to a happily ever after was always going to take more than hand-wavy Jedi mind tricks: Scientists require proof. So, like any self-respecting biologist, Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees.

That man is none other than Adam Carlsen, a young hotshot professor–and well-known ass. Which is why Olive is positively floored when Stanford’s reigning lab tyrant agrees to keep her charade a secret and be her fake boyfriend. But when a big science conference goes haywire, putting Olive’s career on the Bunsen burner, Adam surprises her again with his unyielding support and even more unyielding… six-pack abs.

Suddenly their little experiment feels dangerously close to combustion. And Olive discovers that the only thing more complicated than a hypothesis on love is putting her own heart under the microscope.

Kate’s Review (Rating 10)

Past Midnight’s Review (4 Stars)

The Geeky Waffle’s Review

Harlequin Junkie’s Review (5 Stars)

Book: “Reprieve” by James Han Mattson

Book Description: A chilling and blisteringly relevant literary novel of social horror centered around a brutal killing that takes place in a full-contact haunted escape room—a provocative exploration of capitalism, hate politics, racial fetishism, and our obsession with fear as entertainment.

On April 27, 1997, four contestants make it to the final cell of the Quigley House, a full-contact haunted escape room in Lincoln, Nebraska, made famous for its monstrosities, booby-traps, and ghoulishly costumed actors. If the group can endure these horrors without shouting the safe word, “reprieve,” they’ll win a substantial cash prize—a startling feat accomplished only by one other group in the house’s long history. But before they can complete the challenge, a man breaks into the cell and kills one of the contestants.

Those who were present on that fateful night lend their points of view: Kendra Brown, a teenager who’s been uprooted from her childhood home after the sudden loss of her father; Leonard Grandton, a desperate and impressionable hotel manager caught in a series of toxic entanglements; and Jaidee Charoensuk, a gay international student who came to the United States in a besotted search for his former English teacher. As each character’s journey unfurls and overlaps, deceit and misunderstandings fueled by obsession and prejudice are revealed, forcing all to reckon with the ways in which their beliefs and actions contributed to a horrifying catastrophe.

An astonishingly soulful exploration of complicity and masquerade, Reprieve combines the psychological tension of classic horror with searing social criticism to present an unsettling portrait of this tangled American life

Kate’s Review (Rating 9)

What Jess Reads’s Review (4 Stars)

Nottsreader’s Review

Book: “Mestiza Blood” by V. Castro

Book Description: From the lauded author of The Queen of the Cicadas (which picked up starred reviews from PW, Kirkus and Booklist who called her “a dynamic and innovative voice”) comes a short story collection of nightmares, dreams, desire and visions focused on the Chicana experience. V.Castro weaves urban legend, folklore, life experience and heartache in this personal journey beginning in south Texas: a bar where a devil dances the night away; a street fight in a neighborhood that may not have been a fight after all; a vengeful chola at the beginning of the apocalypse; mind swapping in the not so far future; satan who falls and finds herself in a brothel in Amsterdam; the keys to Mictlan given to a woman after she dies during a pandemic. The collection finishes with two longer tales: The Final Porn Star is a twist on the final girl trope and slasher, with a creature from Mexican folklore; and Truck Stop is an erotic horror romance with two hearts: a video store and a truck stop.

Kate’s Review (Rating 8)

Ghostvillehero’s Review

Cemetery Dance’s Review

Rachel Read It’s Review

Book: “Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves” by Meg Long

Book Description: After angering a local gangster, seventeen-year-old Sena Korhosen must flee with her prize fighting wolf, Iska, in tow. A team of scientists offer to pay her way off her frozen planet on one condition: she gets them to the finish line of the planet’s infamous sled race. Though Sena always swore she’d never race after it claimed both her mothers’ lives, it’s now her only option.

But the tundra is a treacherous place, and as the race unfolds and their lives are threatened at every turn, Sena starts to question her own abilities. She must discover whether she’s strong enough to survive the wild – whether she and Iska together are strong enough to get them all out alive.

Serena’s Review (Rating 8)

Carrie’s Book Review (4 Stars)

Forever Lost in Literature (4 Stars)

Cracking the Cover

Book: “Silence in the Library” by Katharine Schellman

Book Description:

 Regency widow Lily Adler has finally settled into her new London life when her semi-estranged father arrives unexpectedly, intending to stay with her while he recovers from an illness. Hounded by his disapproval, Lily is drawn into spending time with Lady Wyatt, the new wife of an old family friend. Lily barely knows Lady Wyatt. But she and her husband, Sir Charles, seem as happy as any newly married couple until the morning Lily arrives to find the house in an uproar and Sir Charles dead.

All signs indicate that he tripped and struck his head late at night. But when Bow Street constable Simon Page is called to the scene, he suspects foul play. And it isn’t long before Lily stumbles on evidence that Sir Charles was, indeed, murdered.

Mr. Page was there when Lily caught her first murderer, and he trusts her insight into the world of London’s upper class. With the help of Captain Jack Hartley, they piece together the reasons that Sir Charles’s family might have wanted him dead. But anyone who might have profited from the old man’s death seems to have an alibi… until Lily receives a mysterious summons to speak with one of the Wyatts’ maids, only to find the young woman dead when she arrives.

Mr. Page believes the surviving family members are hiding the key to the death of both Sir Charles and the maid. To uncover the truth, Lily must convince the father who doesn’t trust or respect her to help catch his friend’s killer before anyone else in the Wyatt household dies.

Serena’s Review (Rating 9)

Criminal Element

Mru’s Books and Reviews (4 Stars)

Book Frolic

Book: “All of Us Villains” by Amanda Foody & Christine Lynn Herman

Book Description: The Blood Moon rises. The Blood Veil falls. The Tournament begins.

Every generation, at the coming of the Blood Moon, seven families in the remote city of Ilvernath each name a champion to compete in a tournament to the death.

The prize? Exclusive control over a secret wellspring of high magick, the most powerful resource in the world–one thought long depleted.

This year, thanks to a salacious tell-all book, the seven champions are thrust into worldwide spotlight, granting each of them new information, new means to win, and most importantly: a choice – accept their fate or rewrite their story.

But this is a story that must be penned in blood.

Serena’s Review (Rating 9)

Bookshelf Fantasies (4 Stars)

Read ’em and Weep (4 Stars)

The Literary Phoenix (4 Stars)

Serena’s Review: “Into the Heartless Wood”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Into the Heartless Wood” by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Publishing Info: Page Street Kids, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: The forest is a dangerous place, where siren song lures men and women to their deaths. For centuries, a witch has harvested souls to feed the heartless tree, using its power to grow her domain.

When Owen Merrick is lured into the witch’s wood, one of her tree-siren daughters, Seren, saves his life instead of ending it. Every night, he climbs over the garden wall to see her, and every night her longing to become human deepens. But a shift in the stars foretells a dangerous curse, and Seren’s quest to become human will lead them into an ancient war raging between the witch and the king who is trying to stop her.

Review: I’m not sure why it took me so long to get to this book. On the surface, it has tons of things working in its favor for me specifically. The cover is lovely and the story sounds like the exact sort of fairytale fantasy that I absolutely love. But every time I picked it up, I just couldn’t quite get into it. So, this last December I decided to really give it a go. And, while it still isn’t my favorite read ever, at least this time I did manage to get through the entire thing!

Everyone knows the true sirens live not in the sea but in the woods. Deep in the dark forest, a witch weaves a powerful spell to lure men and women beneath the canopy of trees where she can use her magic to feed their souls to the trees themselves. But it turns out that tree-sirens may want more, at least Seren does. When she meets a human, Owen, she begins to understand what it is to be human and longs for a soul of her own. But darker forces are shifting and the clash between the witch and a powerful king is soon to come.

This book is a tough one for me because of two dueling aspects of the story. One that I love. And one that I hate. Let’s start with what I loved. Obviously, I’m here for all of the fairytale fantasies, and this was just the type that I enjoy. The language was lyrical and of that “old-timey” style that I particularly enjoy. There was also numerous nods to English/Welsh folklore that very much reminded me of Juliet Marillier’s work. And really, anything that can be compared to one of my favorite authors has to be good. And yet, here I am giving a middling review to this book. Well, that comes down to what my problem was with the story. Notably, our two main characters and their romance.

Sadly, this was a hardcore instalove story. I mean, these two characters pretty much fall immediately in full-on love by page 60 (unsurprisingly enough, this is about where I fell-off in my reading in previous attempts). For me, instalove like this immediately sucks all of the interest out of the romance of the story. There’s no where for this relationship to go if it starts out at 100% milk. This makes the romance itself read very bland and boring, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that both main character also felt rather flat and uninteresting. I did like that their roles were somewhat reversed, with the heroine coming from a villainous role and the hero having a softer, more open personality.

So, there you have it, a book made of two equally powerful sides of my preference-coin. Love the fairytale story and lyrical quality of writing. Really hated the instalove romance and flat main characters. For those who are less annoyed by instalove, this could be a real win of a story. But sadly, it was enough to bump this one down a few points in my own rating.

Rating 7: Really loved parts of it, really disliked others, so take from that what you will!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Into the Heartless Wood” is on these Goodreads lists: Books To Read In Winter and Magical Forest.

Kate’s Review: “Reprieve”

Book: “Reprieve” by James Han Mattson

Publishing Info: William Morrow, October 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A chilling and blisteringly relevant literary novel of social horror centered around a brutal killing that takes place in a full-contact haunted escape room—a provocative exploration of capitalism, hate politics, racial fetishism, and our obsession with fear as entertainment.

On April 27, 1997, four contestants make it to the final cell of the Quigley House, a full-contact haunted escape room in Lincoln, Nebraska, made famous for its monstrosities, booby-traps, and ghoulishly costumed actors. If the group can endure these horrors without shouting the safe word, “reprieve,” they’ll win a substantial cash prize—a startling feat accomplished only by one other group in the house’s long history. But before they can complete the challenge, a man breaks into the cell and kills one of the contestants.

Those who were present on that fateful night lend their points of view: Kendra Brown, a teenager who’s been uprooted from her childhood home after the sudden loss of her father; Leonard Grandton, a desperate and impressionable hotel manager caught in a series of toxic entanglements; and Jaidee Charoensuk, a gay international student who came to the United States in a besotted search for his former English teacher. As each character’s journey unfurls and overlaps, deceit and misunderstandings fueled by obsession and prejudice are revealed, forcing all to reckon with the ways in which their beliefs and actions contributed to a horrifying catastrophe.

An astonishingly soulful exploration of complicity and masquerade, Reprieve combines the psychological tension of classic horror with searing social criticism to present an unsettling portrait of this tangled American life.

Review: You all know what a big fan I am of Halloween, and while for various reasons I haven’t done this in a long time I also really enjoy doing haunted hayrides, and living in Minnesota it’s not hard to drive outside the city limits to find such shenanigans. But I’m not as big into walk through haunted houses, and am certainly NOT into any ‘extreme’ haunted houses. Locally we had something called The Soap Factory, which made you sign a waiver before you went through, but they closed a couple years ago. The most infamous ‘extreme’ haunt, however is almost assuredly McKamey Manor, a combined haunted house escape room puzzle experience that is notorious in the haunt industry. Yes, you sign a waiver, and you may be subjected to physical and psychological torture for hours on end all in the name of thrills. There is no question in my mind that “Reprieve” by James Han Mattson is partially inspired by McKamey Manor, and that made an already enjoyable reading experience that much better. This book seems to be polarizing. I’m firmly on the ‘love’ team.

“Reprieve” is a deeply layered and multidimensional horror story that comes to life through literary structure. The guts of the tale involve a slowly revealed violent incident at Quigley House, a hardcore escape room/haunted house that offers players serious money if they can solve the puzzles in all the ‘cells’ while actors inflict psychological terror upon them. What exactly happened is slowly revealed through court room transcripts, flashbacks through character perspectives, and the straight narrative of the timeline of what happened in each cell up until the moment in question. I liked the slow build up and the combined story telling techniques, and how all of them combined to make a building tension of dread while also getting to know each character and what role they play. I’m sure that it’s the literary structure that threw readers for a loop, as I can definitely say that the creative choices made here are probably not for everyone. Which is totally okay. I, however, really liked it. I’m not the kind of person who thinks that horror needs to be elevated or classed up by any stretch of the imagination, but “Reprieve” does this without feeling pretentious or disingenuous. The scares are knowing what is coming (even if only in part), seeing it all unfold, and seeing the way that the REAL horror is in the bad behavior of villainous people, unwitting or not.

This is also a really well done commentary on capitalism, the weaponization of entertainment, and race in America. Many of the characters are POC, some are LGBTQIA+, and many of them feel lost, isolated, or Othered. Kendra is a new resident of this small Nebraska community and one of the few Black people (outside of her family) and finds herself working at Quigley House. The ‘we’re family here’ mentality definitely pulls her in deeper when she feels isolated in other ways. Contestant Jaidee is an international student from Thailand who is also gay, and feels scrutiny from his college peers because of both of these facts. And then there are the characters of Leonard, a hotel worker who feels inadequate in his personal life, and John, who owns Quigley House. Their friendship is a toxic concoction that encapsulates misogyny, xenophobia, and aggression, and sets off the first domino that leads to tragedy. Mattson knows what he’s doing with these characters, and while they easily could have felt like two dimensional villains, we get into their minds a bit, and it makes them fascinating, and all the more upsetting.

Boy did I enjoy “Reprieve”. It’s one of the more unique horror novels I’ve read lately, and it finds the horrors in both an extreme haunted house, and the darker side of American cultural consciousness.

Rating 9: A stunning literary horror thriller, “Reprieve” is mesmerizing, blistering, and deeply sad.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Reprieve” is included on the Goodreads lists “Deliciously Chilling Horror”, and “If You Like ‘Squid Game’, You Should Read…”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Echoes and Empires”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Echoes and Empires” by Morgan Rhodes

Publishing Info: Razorbill, January 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Josslyn Drake knows only three things about magic: it’s rare, illegal, and always deadly. So when she’s caught up in a robbery gone wrong at the Queen’s Gala and infected by a dangerous piece of magic—one that allows her to step into the memories of an infamously evil warlock—she finds herself living her worst nightmare. Joss needs the magic removed before it corrupts her soul and kills her. But in Ironport, the cost of doing magic is death, and seeking help might mean scheduling her own execution. There’s nobody she can trust.

Nobody, that is, except wanted criminal Jericho Nox, who offers her a deal: his help extracting the magic in exchange for the magic itself. And though she’s not thrilled to be working with a thief, especially one as infuriating (and infuriatingly handsome) as Jericho, Joss is desperate enough to accept.

But Jericho is nothing like Joss expects. The closer she grows with Jericho and the more she sees of the world outside her pampered life in the city, the more Joss begins to question the beliefs she’s always taken for granted—beliefs about right and wrong, about power and magic, and even about herself.

In an empire built on lies, the truth may be her greatest weapon.

Review: So, I was sucked into this one by the cover. I’ll even admit that I only barely glanced at the general description before requesting it. That said, had I looked at said description a bit more closely, I might have been a bit more wary. But I also know that a book description isn’t the be all end all of books, and I’ve seen more than one example in the last year where the description completely undersold or misrepresented an excellent story. Unfortunately, this one is pretty much exactly what you’d expect based on its description.

Joss has always lived her life in the spotlight, and until the last year when tragedy struck her family, she’s reveled in it. Still, the show must go on, so Joss dutifully makes an appearance at a grand event. Unfortunately, while there, she gets caught up in a robbery that leaves her in possession of a magical infestation. And in a land where magic is outlawed, she must now creep into the shadowy world of the thieves and outlaws in hopes of curing herself before she is executed. While there, she begins to uncover new truths about her glittering world that throws her entire existence into question.

Sadly, I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about this book. I guess I can say that the writing seems strong enough, and the author was blessedly free of any repetitive word choices or an overly-simplistic style. There was also a fairly high level of action throughout, especially if you’re the type of reader who sees action in some of the smaller, social moments between characters.

Unfortunately, some of that “action” was unnecessary drama. Joss, herself, is introduced as a fairly unlikable main character who is made up of many of the more annoying stereotypes applied to teenage girls. She’s very self-focused, on her looks and her own actions, has made friends with a bunch of “popular girls” who, of course, participate in this the type of sniping and backstabbing that we’ve all seen in one too many teenage movies, and her focus on things like fancy dresses and shopping (while not bad on their own, of course) comes across as frivolous when paired with the rest of her character. The story does go on to reveal much that is wrong with Joss’s view of herself and her world, but for me, it was both too little too late and a bit hard to truly buy any of her changes.

I also had quibbles about how Joss was introduced. The way she talks, interacts with others, and generally carries herself through the world is very much in step with how a 20-something young woman would, decidedly NOT a teenage girl. It read as both unbelievable and, at times, borderline inappropriate. Also, fairly neglectful of her caretakers?

I also had massive, massive eye rolls at romance and the romantic interest. Not only was it all so predictable, but the banter was also very tired and expected. Also, the name “Jericho Nox.” Can’t not mention the ridiculousness of that name. From there, you move on to all of the other non-twists that come through this book. If you haven’t guessed most of them from the book description itself, I’d be shocked.

I was also very confused about the setting of this book. The cover, for one, makes it seem as if it is set in your typical bland, slightly Medieval European setting. But no. There are cars, phones, and a sort of social media apparatus. But also magic that still feels like it would come from one of those second world fantasies. Obviously, urban fantasy exists and that is probably the best subgenre for this. But that, too, didn’t quite fit. I don’t dislike the concept of the world, overall, but as it was, it felt jarring and hard to really place myself within it as a reader.

This book wasn’t really for me at all. Perhaps readers who aren’t as tired of some of these tropes will enjoy it, but I can’t really say anyone should run out and get their hands on it immediately.

Rating 5: Not for me. Too full of tropes and an unlikable main character really hurt it for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Echoes and Empires” is on this Goodreads lists: YA Novels of 2022.

Kate’s Review: “Such A Pretty Smile”

Book: “Such A Pretty Smile” by Kristi DeMeester

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, January 2022

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

Book Description: A biting novel from an electrifying new voice, Such a Pretty Smile is a heart-stopping tour-de-force about powerful women, angry men, and all the ways in which girls fight against the forces that try to silence them.

There’s something out there that’s killing. Known only as The Cur, he leaves no traces, save for the torn bodies of girls, on the verge of becoming women, who are known as trouble-makers; those who refuse to conform, to know their place. Girls who don’t know when to shut up.

2019: Thirteen-year-old Lila Sawyer has secrets she can’t share with anyone. Not the school psychologist she’s seeing. Not her father, who has a new wife, and a new baby. And not her mother—the infamous Caroline Sawyer, a unique artist whose eerie sculptures, made from bent twigs and crimped leaves, have made her a local celebrity. But soon Lila feels haunted from within, terrorized by a delicious evil that shows her how to find her voice—until she is punished for using it.

2004: Caroline Sawyer hears dogs everywhere. Snarling, barking, teeth snapping that no one else seems to notice. At first, she blames the phantom sounds on her insomnia and her acute stress in caring for her ailing father. But then the delusions begin to take shape—both in her waking hours, and in the violent, visceral sculptures she creates while in a trance-like state. Her fiancé is convinced she needs help. Her new psychiatrist waves her “problem” away with pills. But Caroline’s past is a dark cellar, filled with repressed memories and a lurking horror that the men around her can’t understand.

As past demons become a present threat, both Caroline and Lila must chase the source of this unrelenting, oppressive power to its malignant core. Brilliantly paced, unsettling to the bone, and unapologetically fierce, Such a Pretty Smile is a powerful allegory for what it can mean to be a woman, and an untamed rallying cry for anyone ever told to sit down, shut up, and smile pretty.

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

I’m sure that this following statement is probably relatable for a lot of people: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like I’ve been dismissed because of the fact that I’m a woman. While I absolutely know that I have a lot of privilege that others don’t, there are still times that I’ve felt like I’ve been talked down to, condescended to, or flat out sneered at because of underlying currents of misogyny in our culture. Throw in the fact that I have diagnosed mental illnesses, and I find myself not only feeling bad about these moments of being belittled, but then I start to question my own perceptions because of my anxiety. Enter “Such A Pretty Smile” by Kristi DeMeester, a new horror novel that uses these themes as the foundation of a genuinely disturbing and trippy tale of terror involving missing and murdered girls, mothers and daughters, and the way that all these women are victimized by society and many of the men around them.

It’s basically this. But also horror. (source)

“Such A Pretty Smile” as a title tells you a lot about what you are going to read. Lord knows that in “Little Red Riding Hood” a canine foe has his mouth and smile commented upon, but there is also the ‘you’d be prettier if you smiled’ bullshit that women hear (let me tell you, working in a public library at the desk made this a common occurrence). Our story is told in two perspectives over two timelines. The first is that of thirteen year old Lila, a girl in 2019 who is dealing with a lot of the awkward coming of age issues: she has a crush on her beautiful (but manipulative) best friend Macie, her father has moved on to a new family and has little time for her, and her mother Caroline is a good mother but has secrets of her own. When girls her age start disappearing and turning up dead, with a mysterious killer named “The Cur” being theorized as the culprit, Caroline starts to get more paranoid, and Lila starts to feel something strange and almost feral awakening inside of her. The other two perspectives are Caroline’s the modern day one trying to keep Lila safe from harm as things escalate, as well as one in Caroline’s past, which centered around her terminally ill father, her jealous of her talent boyfriend (Lila’s father), and seeming hallucinations involving barking dogs. Oh, and also a string of teenage girls disappearing and turning up murdered in the same way that the girls in the present are. The way that Demeester pulls all of these stories together takes time, but it’s done in a way that feels very deliberate, even if it sometimes leaves it up to the reader to parse out their own thoughts and feelings. The slow build dread of Caroline’s past trauma mirroring with Lila’s present situation is tense and well executed, and it all builds to a strange and haunting climax that is genuinely disturbing. Sometimes the jumping around is a little hard to follow, and I definitely found the Caroline POVs more interesting than Lila’s, but in the end it all blends to create a well done whole.

But its greatest strength is the solid ‘fuck you’ to patriarchy that “Such A Pretty Smile” spits out as much as it can. From ‘bad girls’ being victimized but not as valued in society’s eyes, to Caroline dealing with a condescending therapist, to Caroline ALSO dealing with a petty and jealous boyfriend who gaslights her out of envy, this book has so many moments that had me seething in rage. Demeester translates these reality based horrors into something supernatural and strange, and it really worked well for me. We have people like the murder victims being brutalized and objectified before and after death, but we also have the smaller but hurtful moments of one girl being reprimanded for lashing out at a boy who groped her in the lunch line, or another girl being groomed by an older boy in hopes of being accepted, or Caroline herself being told that her genuine and real fears are hysteria by people she is supposed to trust. It’s heartbreaking and terrifying, and Demeester taps into all of it and finds horror fuel at the root.

“Such A Pretty Smile” is upsetting and compelling, and I will definitely be checking out what Demeester has to offer in the future.

Rating 8: All too relevant and relatable as well as creepy and haunting, “Such A Pretty Smile” was a disturbing read that will be familiar to a lot of women who have been silenced by misogyny.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Such A Pretty Smile” is included on the Goodreads lists “Queer Horror”, and “Surreal Horror”.

Find “Such A Pretty Smile” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

%d bloggers like this: