Kate’s Review: “The Insane God”

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Book: “The Insane God” by Jay Hartlove

Publishing Info: Water Dragon Publishing, May 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the author’s publicist.

Where You Can Get This Book: Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Nightmare on Elm Street meets The Stand. A meteorite fragment cures a teenaged trans girl’s schizophrenia but leaves her with visions of ancient warring gods annihilating each other in space. As the Earth hurtles toward the cloud that is the shattered bodies of those eternal enemies, their eons-old conflict is rekindled on Earth to divide and destroy humanity. Can she and her brother stop the spread of global disaster?

Review: Thank you to Beverly Bambury for sending me a print copy of this book!

I mean, honestly, you are just tantalizing me when you say that something is “Nightmare on Elm Street” meets “The Stand”. Given that “The Stand” is an all time favorite of mine and I just love a good slasher movie, when I saw that comparison mix for “The Insane God” by Jay Hartlove, I just HAD to see what that meant. I knew I was throwing a bit of caution to the wind, as it was pretty clear that this story, while having those comparisons, was going to be a bit heavier on the Science Fiction than I am used to. But I’m game to experiment when the mood strikes me, and strike me it did.

There are some interesting ideas here to be sure! I loved the idea of space rocks giving people powers and interfering with biological functions like mental illness, and I liked the idea of how people that are touched by these things can have new powers awakened within them. Hartlove has set the stage for some well done suspense and some pretty solid consequences, with cosmic horror elements as well as some trippy surreal horror, like the ability to manipulate and bring things from dreams into the real world (THAT was so “Nightmare on Elm Street”). We also have some good old fashioned suspense regarding people who are raging bigoted assholes, and people who are true believers in one side of a space set feud and who want to bring about destruction on Earth. This leads to a lot of content warnings (specifically some pretty upsetting scenes of transphobia, Islamaphobia, violence due to both these things, and difficult moments involving mental illness and the stigma that can come with it). But we also get a coming of age story in which a teenage girl finds herself a potential savior of mankind, all while grappling with her own identity as a trans woman, a recently cured schizophrenic (due to otherworldly influence), and as a sister. Hartlove melds them all together into a fast paced narrative that has a lot of ideas, and it mostly comes together pretty well!

There is also the fact that our protagonist Sarah is a trans woman, a representation that we are finally seeing more and more of in genre fiction and horror. It’s important to note that Jay Hartlove is not trans, and that as a cis woman I can’t really tell you if Sarah is a good representation of a trans character. That said, I did look into Hartlove’s background and various interviews, and he does have a trans child and a non-binary child, and it’s pretty clear that he has written this story with a hope of giving trans people characters they can seen themselves in. Sometimes it comes off a little clunky and hamfisted, at least to me, and again, I’m not really someone who can judge how well representative Sarah was and whether her experiences ring true or false. But it really does seem like Sarah’s characterization has all the best intentions, and as a character I thought that she was complex and interesting, and was very easy to root for. At the end of the day I liked her a lot. And I hope that we get more trans characters in genre fiction, and more trans authors in the mix to tell those stories.

I think that ultimately this was more heavily Science Fiction in a cosmic sense, which I knew going into it. I always like to give genres that I’m not super into a try, especially if it seems like there could be some crossover interest, and as I mentioned above, describing it as “Nightmare on Elm Street” meets “The Stand” would imply a lot of crossover! And I do get the comparisons, given the creative ways that Hartlove toys with dreaming and cosmic and existential end of world elements with warring factions within the chaos. Still and all, it did get into the Sci-Fi weeds a bit, which will probably work for a lot of people!

“The Insane God” is a bit of an out there Sci-Fi/horror story that I thought was pretty creative. Sure it has some stumbles here and there, but there is so much that feels unique, and it has its heart firmly in place.

Rating 7: Super creative and outside of the box, though maybe a little too heavy on the Sci-Fi for this reader.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Insane God” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of now, but I think it would fit in on “Cosmic & Lovecraftian Horror”.

Serena’s Review: “Blood and Moonlight”

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Book: “Blood and Moonlight” by Erin Beaty

Publishing Info: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Rising above the city of Collis is the holy Sanctum. And watching over its spires is Catrin, an orphan girl with unique skills—for she alone can spot the building’s flaws in construction before they turn deadly.

But when Catrin witnesses a murderer escaping the scene of his crime, she’s pulled into the web of a dangerous man who will definitely strike again. Assigned to capture the culprit is the mysterious, brilliant, and enigmatic Simon, whose insights into the mind of a killer are frighteningly accurate.

As the grisly crimes continue, Catrin finds herself caught between murderer and detective while hiding her own secret—a supernatural sight granted by the moon, destined to make her an outcast, and the only thing that might save her and those she loves from becoming the next victims…

Review: This was definitely a cover lust request for me. I mean, that’s a lovely cover and will easily drive people to pick it up off the shelves. Reading the description, the story also sounded like an intriguing mix of YA fantasy and a murder mystery. All of the right elements were there but, alas, this book ultimately wasn’t for me. By that I mean, my dislike of it could really have come down to the fact that I wasn’t the target audience for this book. Some YA can read up to adult readers, but others are definitely written for a specific age group. So reviewers like me have to be careful when evaluating outside of the target audience. All that to say, take my rating and review with a grain of salt.

Growing up an orphan, Catrin has struggled to understand her place in the world or to find a family to replace the one lost to her. She does have a gift, however, the ability to see flaws in construction before they become dangerous. Through this gift, she sees a path forward for herself. But that straight track is interrupted when she witnesses a criminal fleeing the scene of a grisly murder. Now, alongside the mysterious Simon, a detective, Catrin finds herself caught up in a spree of crime, trying to catch a killer before he surely strikes again.

So, like I said at the start, this book wasn’t for me. I honestly struggled to read the entire thing and ended up skimming a decent portion of the last half. But before getting into the problems I had, I want to address the good things. I thought the magic system was interesting, with the moon playing a role in how people’s abilities worked. After being exposed to direct moonlight, for example, certain characters abilities were enhanced. This was an interesting concept and something I hadn’t run across before (other than the obvious werewolves, of course!).

Given the strength of the fantasy elements, I kind of wish the author had just stopped there (though that would have resulted in a totally different book, I guess). The mystery itself I felt was incredibly predictable. The moment the villain makes their way on to the page, it was clear they were behind it all. This made it all the more frustrating to see Catrin and the supposedly clever detective, Simon, struggle to put together the very, very obvious pieces of the puzzle. But, here, I may have been reading this mystery through the lens of an adult mystery reader. YA audiences may be totally satisfied with this aspect of the story.

I also struggled with the writing and characterization. The writing was very simplistic, and I struggled to fully immerse myself in the story. And Catrin was everything you’ve ever read a million times from YA fantasy protagonists. If anything, she was even a bit higher on the cringe level. I also never bought the romance; Simon seemed like he could do better, honestly. And I really don’t care for this type of angsty romance where the primary emotion it pulls from me is frustrating, wanting to just bang these two’s heads together (and not in a cute, kissing way.)

As I said, I struggled to even finish this book. After I realized that I had already solved the mystery and all that was left was the developing relationship between Simon and Catrin, I knew this wasn’t going to be for me. However, the simpler style of writing, this type of protagonist, and even the mystery itself may be completely satisfying for the target audience. It just wasn’t for me.

Rating 6: A miss all around with an unlikeable heroine and a mystery that revealed itself far too early in the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blood and Moonlight” can be found on this Goodreads list: YA Releases June 2022

Kate’s Review: “Measuring Up”

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Book: “Measuring Up” by Lily LaMotte & Anne Xu (Ill.)

Publishing Info: HarperAlley, October 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Twelve-year-old Cici has just moved from Taiwan to Seattle, and the only thing she wants more than to fit in at her new school is to celebrate her grandmother, A-má’s, seventieth birthday together.

Since she can’t go to A-má, Cici cooks up a plan to bring A-má to her by winning the grand prize in a kids’ cooking contest to pay for A-má’s plane ticket! There’s just one problem: Cici only knows how to cook Taiwanese food.

And after her pickled cucumber debacle at lunch, she’s determined to channel her inner Julia Child. Can Cici find a winning recipe to reunite with A-má, a way to fit in with her new friends, and somehow find herself too?

Review: We have once again come upon a whim book, as I was wanting to read more graphic novels on the day that I requested “Measuring Up” by Lily MaMotte and Anne Xu. One of the other graphic novels I read recently was food based, and given how I enjoyed that one I thought I would give this one a try! Especially since it sounded like it had some other themes that it was going to tackle, along with the food.

The coming of age story at the heart of “Measuring Up” is very sweet and gentle. Cici is a preteen girl who finds herself in a new country and culture, and who is nervous about what that means for herself and for her place in the world around her. Her desperation to see her A-má again, who stayed behind in Taiwan, motivates her to sign up for a junior cooking contest, as cooking with her grandmother was a true joy and she is pretty good at it. The story is fairly simple, which makes sense for the middle grade audience, and I thought that Cici’s initial struggles with making friends and her conflicts with her parents regarding her priorities (cooking contest vs studying) were well conveyed in a middle grade narrative. At times it may have felt perhaps a little too simplistic for me, but I’m absolutely not the audience for this story so that doesn’t reflect the story as a whole. As Cici works through the cooking contest and starts to feel more at home, she is also repressing her identity because of how Taiwanese food and culture is viewed in a Western culinary world (more on that aspects in a bit), which drives her to experiment with more Western foods. This is also because of her cooking partner Miranda, whose Italian restaurant owning father has basically told her to focus on Italian food. The contrast between Miranda and Cici could be pretty start, but LaMotte finds ways to show that they may have more in common than they initially realize. Again, simplistic, but ultimately sweet.

Along with the coming of age story we get a tale about a girl who is adjusting to a new culture, while trying to keep her identity as well as finding a new one. As Cici starts to acclimate to her new home, she feels a need to keep her Taiwanese identity close to the vest, partially because of micro aggressions or flat out racism, but also because of her insecurities about herself as a tween girl. LaMotte touches upon preconceived notions of Asian food, from classmates telling Cici her lunch is ‘stinky’ to adults writing it off as low brow or cheap. I thought that LaMotte did a good job of balancing the broader themes within the story itself, and I liked that Cici had moments of pushing back, as well as moments of Cici being pleasantly surprised beyond her expectations. The important moments of Cici having to deal with micro aggressions are explained in a way that will resonate with the target audience, and I liked how Cici not only got to push back against it, but also got to pursue her own identity that may not line up with the one that her parents have laid out for her. It just felt like it all handled some complex issues in an accessible way.

And the drawing style is cute and fits the tone. I liked the way that Anne Xu could bring out emotional moments and feelings even in the simplistic art style that will probably resonate with the target audience. And it also just made me so hungry for basically all of the foods that we were seeing on the page.

“Measuring Up” was cute and a good fit for middle grade audiences! I know exactly who I would recommend this to, and it will make the reader ready to take on some culinary adventures of their own!

Rating 7: A cute story about cooking, friendship, culture, and finding oneself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Measuring Up” is included on the Goodreads lists “Comics About Food”, and “Culinary Fiction – Middle Grade”.


If you are as disgusted as I am about the striking down of Roe, I’m going to post some links here that will give you information and resources to donate to.

National Network of Abortion Funds

Rewire News Group

National Abortion Federation

Plan C

Not Just Books: June 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

Disney+ Show: “Moonknight”

I know very little about the original Moonlight character other than he was essentially Marvel’s answer to Batman. So it was fun learning more about this character via this show! Fans of the character will likely notice a lot more than I did (for example, I think the show frames the original set-up in a unique way that even a newbie like me could spot). But it’s still a fun ride even for the completely uninitiated. Oscar Isaac is great, as always, and this show gives him a lot of room to really show his range. But the surprise character was Ethan Hawke’s stand-out villain. I really had fun with this show and am excited to see where it goes from here and how Moonknight fits in with the rest of the Marvel cast.

Movie: “Argo”

Here’s another movie that everyone watched and for some reason I never got to until a decade later. I think I was hung up on Ben Affleck, and I’m not even sure why. It’s not like he’s a bad actor, but I think I still had a long memory on things like “Pearl Harbor” and “Armageddon.” Anyways, shocking take, but I really liked this movie! I honestly didn’t even know that much about it going in, and I was way more stressed out watching it than I had expected. I don’t really know who to recommend this to since I really think I’m probably the last person on the planet to see this movie, so….

Kate’s Picks

Mini Series: “Pistol”

I have a vivid memory of being sixteen years old and walking into Sam Goodie with my Mom, holding some saved up allowance money and looking for a CD to buy. I decided to go with “Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols” specifically because my Mom was vaguely horrified by it. I’ve been a fan ever since. When I heard that Danny Boyle was making a mini series about the band (based on the fantastic memoir “Lonely Boy” by guitarist Steve Jones), I was amped. “Pistol” is a dramatization of the formation and implosion of my favorite punk band, as well as an examination of post-War Britain and how the fed up disenfranchised youth found ways to rebel through fashion, music, and anti-fascist ideology. And yes, the Pistols have a lot to do with that. The cast is great, the music is great, and while the show clearly takes some license with the story, I very much appreciated how the series handled the Sid and Nancy storyline (aka, they weren’t romanticized or demonized; they were portrayed as the messed up kids they were). I especially loved Sydney Chandler as Chrissie Hynde, Jones’s friend and on again off again lover, who is a music icon in her own right.

Film: “Fire Island”

I’m not the Austen fan that Serena is, but when I found out that “Fire Island”, a queer rom-com by Joel Kim Booster starring himself and Bowen Yang, was a gay retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” I was SUPER interested. “Fire Island” follows a group of five friends who are on their annual trip to Fire Island. Noah and his friends are looking forward to a fun vacation, though Noah is determined to find somewhat shy Howie a date. When they meet Charlie Howie is smitten, though Noah does NOT like Charlie’s friend Will… You can probably guess where it goes from here. Not only is this movie so sweet and romantic, it’s also pretty damn funny and a savvy update of a classic literature tale that is well loved. As someone who has heard second hand stories about Fire Island from friends, it also captures the insane vacation crazy vibe that the destination island is, and made it seem way fun, if not a little overwhelming. It’s also great seeing not only gay representation in rom coms, but also stories starring AAPI characters. If you like “Pride and Prejudice” and want a cute rom com, seek this one out!

Joint Pick

Event: American Library Association Annual Conference 2022

It had been so long since we attended ALAAC, and this one in 2022 was a grand return after being swiftly rebuffed by COVID in 2020. And it was everything we hoped it would be…. as well as a hotbed of political turmoil. That said, we were able to meet some authors we were interested in (Angeline Boulley! R.L. Stine!), hear some speakers we were excited for (R.L. Stine again!), and get far too many ARCS of books that we then had to maneuver through our bags to get on the plane home! But it was also fun being in D.C., as we took a little time to see the sights, have some nice food on patios on very lovely evenings, aaaaand go down to the Supreme Court the day Roe was overturned and make our disgust and anger known. All in all, it was a successful conference. Perhaps we’ll be back next year in Chicago.

Serena’s Review: “Blade of Secrets”

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Book: “Blade of Secrets” by Tricia Levenseller

Publishing Info: Square Fish, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Bookish First!

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

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Ziva prefers metal to people. She spends her days tucked away in her forge, safe from society and the anxiety it causes her, using her magical gift to craft unique weapons imbued with power.

Then Ziva receives a commission from a powerful warlord, and the result is a sword capable of stealing its victims secrets. A sword that can cut far deeper than the length of its blade. A sword with the strength to topple kingdoms. When Ziva learns of the warlord’s intentions to use the weapon to enslave all the world under her rule, she takes her sister and flees.

Joined by a distractingly handsome mercenary and a young scholar with extensive knowledge of the world’s known magics, Ziva and her sister set out on a quest to keep the sword safe until they can find a worthy wielder or a way to destroy it entirely.

Review: I don’t have great luck with the BookishFirst giveaways; I swear, I enter so many of them and rarely win! But I was happy when I was selected to receive this book, as the description sounds right up my alley. I never got around to reading the author’s other popular duology, starting with “Daughter of the Pirate Queen,” so I thought this would be a great opportunity to check out her work and see if it was a good fit.

With people, Ziva finds she can barely manage to get a few words out. But with metal, ah, there Ziva is in her element, creating masterpieces of workmanship, each weapon imbibed with a magical trait. With her sister running the front of her stop, Ziva sees a simple life ahead of her, saving up her money until she and her sister can retire in peace, far from the bustle of the city. But when Ziva creates a weapon that forces the truth from those it makes bleed, she finds herself privy to dangerous knowledge that forces her on the run, hoping to find safe hands for such a powerful weapon.

So, while I liked the general concept of the book, it ultimately didn’t quite work for me. First off, I found the writing incredibly simplistic. This style of writing can work for some stories (and for some YA audiences, alas I no longer fit in that category), but I think it’s a particularly hard style of writing to pair with fantasy. In fantasy books, there’s often some heavy lifting needed in the world-building and the fantastical elements, all things that require skillful, descriptive writing. Here, I couldn’t describe practically anything about the setting, magic, or much at all. Without being able to form a picture in my head of what world I was meant to be inhabiting, it was very challenging to feel connected to the book at all. It was also just boring to read, with a very repetitive “noun verb pronoun” pattern to every sentence.

I also found myself feeling let down on the character front. Ziva had a lot going for her, and heaven knows I always like a sister story, too! But right off the bat I began to struggle with this representation of a character living with social anxiety. Some of her panic attacks felt as if they were described point by point from a medical definition. Beyond that, instead of Ziva feeling like a fully realized character who happens to deal with social anxiety, it instead began to feel like her social anxiety was the entire point of her character. As if her social anxiety was all that made up her entire personality and being. I applaud what the author was trying to do, but I just don’t think it worked. It doesn’t help that I have also recently read another book, “Wind Daughter,” that features a character who struggles with anxiety, and I liked that depiction much better (review to come in July!)

I also didn’t find myself caring much about any of the relationships Ziva had formed. I usually love sisters stories, but this one felt overly familiar and didn’t seem to have much new to offer. The romance was also incredibly predictable. And, again, Ziva often mentioned in her inner dialogue that she struggles to say the right thing at the right moment, and yet, at all the important (or arguably, not even that important), she’s quick to sling out the perfect verbal quip.

So yeah, this was a very disappointing read for me. Really, nothing about it worked for me. Some of this, however, is definitely because I’m not in the right audience for this, as the shorter, more simple writing style is likely to appeal to a lot of actual YA readers. But I also don’t think it was a great example of a character living with social anxiety either. Fans of this author will probably like this, but other readers can probably find better reads with similar themes.

Rating 6: A bit of a disappointment, with lackluster worldbuilding and a rather flat main character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blade of Secrets” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be Blacksmith/Mason/Builder Heroes.

Kate’s Review: “Men, Women, and Chainsaws”

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

Book: “Men, Women, and Chainsaws” by Stephen Graham Jones

Publishing Info: Tor.com, April 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Where You Can Get This Book: Tor.Com | Amazon

Book Description: It’s been two years since Jenna’s ex-boyfriend left her alone in East Texas heartbroken. Now he’s back in town and she wants to payback. One night, she stumbles upon a bloodthirsty Camaro that may be the key to carrying out her revenge.

Review: So I’m highlighting something a little different today for my review. The reason is that I have been picking away at some of the short stories by Stephen Graham Jones, one of my favorite authors, and I found one that is so accessible and such a quick read that I want to spread the word of this awesome author. Seriously if you haven’t read Jones yet, this will make it easy! “Men, Women, and Chainsaws” is a short story that is available on Tor.com! I myself bought it for my Kindle, which is also an option, but above there is a link right to it! And it’s a story about a revenge seeking woman who has the help of a bloodthirsty car! The obvious reference here is “Christine” by Stephen King, but I got more of a “Little Shop of Horrors” vibe from this story and I was one hundred percent here for it.

What do you want from me, BLOOD?! (source)

Our main character is Jenna, a woman who has had to deal with a fair amount of loss in her life, the most recent one being that of her boyfriend Victor, who went to work on oil rigs and sent her a break up letter. Earlier was the death of her bio parents in a tragedy involving a car. Jenna’s last happy moment with Victor was recreating a photoshoot at a local junkyard involving a junked out Camaro and Caroline Williams of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” fame, and when Jenna finds the Camaro later, the same night Victor comes home and her rejection is flaunted for everyone, things take a turn for the supernatural. It involves bloodletting, a rebuilt car, and a scorned lover’s revenge. But it’s also a story of a woman who has suffered some pretty terrible loss in her life, and how a bloodthirsty car not only can help her seek revenge but also closure.

And it’s the sense of melancholy that permeates the pages that made this story one of the more bittersweet tales that Jones has written. Jenna has seen some shit and been through some shit, and I just wanted her to have some kind of happiness, or at least peace. As she finds out some ugly truths about Victor, as well as some hidden truths about what happened to her biological parents, my heart broke for her as she seeks out a connection, seeks out not only the hope of taking out a user and abusive prick, but also the hope of finding a connection to the parents she never knew, and finding not only meaning in their loss, but also perhaps an otherworldly reunion. I’m being a bit vague, and I kind of have to be because the story is filled with emotional beats that are best experienced with no prior knowledge. But on the flip side, there are also some really fun horror moments, and some really awesome homages to horror stories, be it the aforementioned “Christine” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2”, as well as the nostalgia of hitting up a scary movie at the drive in. Jones just loves horror stories and he writes them with such a fondness that you can’t help but grin form ear to ear when you read them.

Short stories are generally hit or miss for me, but Stephen Graham Jones is always on point within this format. He knows how to build a world and an arc and make it feel well thought out and explored in less than fifty pages. “Men, Women, and Chainsaws” is weird and emotional, and I really enjoyed it on every level.

Rating 9: Strange and eerie but with undercurrents of pathos, “Men, Women, and Chainsaws” is a delightful short story by one of my favorite authors.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Men, Women, and Chainsaws” is included on the Goodreads list “2022 Horror and Sci Fi Releases”.

Serena’s Review: “Juniper & Thorn”

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

Book: “Juniper & Thorn” by Ava Reid

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: A gruesome curse. A city in upheaval. A monster with unquenchable appetites.

Marlinchen and her two sisters live with their wizard father in a city shifting from magic to industry. As Oblya’s last true witches, she and her sisters are little more than a tourist trap as they treat their clients with archaic remedies and beguile them with nostalgic charm. Marlinchen spends her days divining secrets in exchange for rubles and trying to placate her tyrannical, xenophobic father, who keeps his daughters sequestered from the outside world. But at night, Marlinchen and her sisters sneak out to enjoy the city’s amenities and revel in its thrills, particularly the recently established ballet theater, where Marlinchen meets a dancer who quickly captures her heart.

As Marlinchen’s late-night trysts grow more fervent and frequent, so does the threat of her father’s rage and magic. And while Oblya flourishes with culture and bustles with enterprise, a monster lurks in its midst, borne of intolerance and resentment and suffused with old-world power. Caught between history and progress and blood and desire, Marlinchen must draw upon her own magic to keep her city safe and find her place within it.

Review: Unlike “For the Throne,” this book isn’t a direct sequel to the “Red Riding Hood’ re-telling that came before it. That said, it does feel kind of funny reading two follow-up books to two versions of the same fairytale that I read exactly a year ago. However, this is only a companion novel, set in the same world as “The Wolf and the Woodsman,” and instead focuses on retelling a different, dark fairytale, “The Juniper Tree.” I didn’t know really anything about this original tale before starting this book, so I was curious to see how things would play out!

Marlinchen’s father is cursed to never be full, no matter how much he eats, and to never feel rested, no matter how much he sleeps. And for their part, she and her two sisters are also cursed along with him and he refuses to let them out of his house. Instead, he uses their various magical gifts to support himself and their home. But Marlinchen dreams of more, of going out beyond the gates of her cursed home. And finally, she does it. There she discovers thrills and mysteries, but most especially, she discovers the ballet and its star dancer, a beautiful, charming young man. But something dark also haunts the streets, and as Marlinchen tries to keep secret her growing connection to the ballet dancer, she begins to suspect that this darkness may be coming from her own home.

So, I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, to start with the positives, there is no denying that Reid is a strong, poetic author. She has a knack for turning a phrase in a way that catches the eye and imagination; I re-read several passages throughout the story. She also knows how to unspool a fairytale in a way that feel fresh and new, but still has that undefinable quality that makes it a fairytale at its heart. There’s a balance, always, to be struck between the beauty and pain found in fairytales. But, while she seemed to hit that mark with “The Wolf and the Woodsman,” I’m less sure that the balance is quite right here.

To be fair, on Goodreads this book is tagged as “fantasy” and “horror.” Sometimes these genres can overlap quite a lot, and I generally dismiss the “horror” tag as simply a heads-up that this will be a darker story. And yet, I wasn’t prepared for just how dark this book was. Indeed, it would fully fall under the category of “horror” all on its own. While I’m not typically an avid horror fan, I can read and enjoy it. So it wasn’t the surprising darkness of this book that had me questioning.

Instead, it seemed to be the pointlessness of some of it that bothered me, the sheer shock value for the sake of shock value at the heart of some of the more disturbing scenes. There were more than a few instances when something horrific would happen or be described, but that scene or action never lead to any personal growth, reflection, or even important movement of the plot itself. This is the kind of horror and darkness I can’t get behind. It gives the reader no pay-off for sitting through uncomfortable, dark scenes and instead makes some of it feel performative and ugly in a different way.

To end on another good note, however. I did like the main character and most of her story. Again, there were disturbing aspects of her story that I don’t feel were fully explored or justified to the reader. But, as she does have a distinct arc throughout the story, these I was better able to understand than some of the other horror aspects. The romance, such as it was, felt a bit too insta-love, with the connection forming fast and hard between these two. If anything, it was insta-lust more than love. Again, there was this weird obsession with adding a dirty-feeling shimmer to even the love story.

There’s no denying the high quality of the author’s writing, at this point. But this book did make me question some of her storytelling prowess. I will admit, however, that fans of horror in general might enjoy this more than I did. Fans of the first book may want to check this out, but they should go in with eyes wide open not to take that “horror” tag lightly.

Rating 7: Solid building blocks were undermined by a strange penchant for reveling in the darker aspects of the world, seemingly without much concern for the relevance of such things to the story itself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Juniper & Thorn” can be found on these Goodreads lists: 2022 Gothic and 2022 Horror Novels written by women.

Kate’s Review: “The House Across the Lake”

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Book: “The House Across the Lake” by Riley Sager

Publishing Info: Dutton, June 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: It looks like a familiar story: A woman reeling from a great loss with too much time on her hands and too much booze in her glass watches her neighbors, sees things she shouldn’t see, and starts to suspect the worst. But looks can be deceiving. . . .

Casey Fletcher, a recently widowed actress trying to escape a streak of bad press, has retreated to her family’s lake house in Vermont. Armed with a pair of binoculars and several bottles of liquor, she passes the time watching Tom and Katherine Royce, the glamorous couple living in the house across the lake. Everything about the Royces seems perfect. Their marriage. Their house. The bucolic lake it sits beside. But when Katherine suddenly vanishes, Casey becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her. In the process, she discovers the darker truths lurking just beneath the surface of the Royces’ picture-perfect marriage. Truths no suspicious voyeur could begin to imagine–even with a few drinks under her belt.

Like Casey, you’ll think you know where this story is headed. Think again. Because once you open the door to obsession, you never know what you might find on the other side.

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

One of the things that is a complete tell that I’m a Minnesotan is that I LOVE going to a lake house for a getaway. There is nothing more relaxing to me than sitting on a lounge chair on a deck with lake water lapping a few yards away (loon calls optional but even better). But as a consumer of horror and thriller media, I am also well aware that sometimes a lake house setting can be looming and dangerous (most recently the film “The Night House” has really hit that point home), and I kept thinking about that movie as I read Riley Sager’s newest thriller “The House Across the Lake”. You know me, as much as I love the relaxation a situation can bring, I also love seeing that situation skewed into something a bit more menacing in the stories I consume, and Sager definitely made that happen by way of shades of “Rear Window” and “The Girl on the Train”.

One of the things I like best about Riley Sager is that, for me, his generally always female protagonists almost always ring true in how he portrays and writes them. I remember being surprised when I found out that Sager is not, in fact, a woman author, because his protagonists do feel realistic to me in their behaviors and experiences. Our newest is Casey, an actress and recent widow who has turned to diving into a bottle to forget about what happened to her husband Len, and who has retreated to the family lake home to escape the tabloid spotlight of her booze fueled antics. While she drinks, she watches the sparse neighbors through a pair of binoculars, focusing on other people’s potential secrets so she can forget her own. Casey is supremely damaged with a well thought out backstory and tenuous relationships, so her reclusive lake house voyeurism is pretty easily believed. After befriending new neighbor Katherine, a model and wife to a tech start up mogul, who almost drowned in the lake had Casey not been there to save her, she is drawn to Katherine’s seemingly perfect life… Especially when it seems that her veneer, too, is cracking. What follows seems like a pretty standard thriller trope: an unreliable protagonist thinks that her neighbor has been murdered by her husband, and starts to obsess over it. Sager is so good at taking a pretty well worn story (again, “Rear Window”-esque, which is referenced in this book as if acknowledging the inspiration) and making it feel fresh. Casey is a very messy character, but I found her to be sympathetic and explored enough that she doesn’t seem melodramatic or treading towards unrealistic and sexist tropes. Her friendship with older neighbor Eli is a nice grounding force, and while her potential budding romance with new neighbor (and sober) Boone is a bit cloying, it has its place and adds a non judgmental foil to her very ingrained issues without deriding them. Their investigation of Katherine’s disappearance and potential murder is suspenseful and full of some well done beats and plot twists.

But we are once again in a situation where one of the things I liked best about this book is something that I can’t talk about because it’s a pretty significant spoiler that needs to be kept under wraps for the full effect to be appreciated. So I’m going to gush about Sager’s slight of hand and earned twists in the vaguest terms possible. Sager has had various twists in his books that have had a varying degree of success in surprising me, and the big surprise in “The House Across the Lake” really caught me off guard. I thought that I had figured out what he was doing, as a matter of fact, scoffing to myself and saying ‘oh I know what’s going on, ho hum’ and feeling pretty good about myself and my twist sniffing prowess. But then I was completely fleeced, and when the ACTUAL thing was revealed, I actually hooted in glee. I even went back to look and see if the set up was there, and it was. It was super well disguised, but it was, indeed, there. You got me!

You sly dog, Mr. Sager! (source)

“The House Across the Lake” was yet another fun thriller from Riley Sager, and the PERFECT read to take to the lake with you this summer!

Rating 8: Entertaining, surprising, and unsettling, “The House Across the Lake” is another page turner from Riley Sager!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The House Across the Lake” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2022”.

Joint Review: “What Moves the Dead”

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Book: “What Moves the Dead” by T. Kingfisher

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, July 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+; NetGalley

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

Book Description: When Alex Easton, a retired soldier, receives word that their childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying, they race to the ancestral home of the Ushers in the remote countryside of Ruritania.

What they find there is a nightmare of fungal growths and possessed wildlife, surrounding a dark, pulsing lake. Madeline sleepwalks and speaks in strange voices at night, and her brother Roderick is consumed with a mysterious malady of the nerves.

Aided by a redoubtable British mycologist and a baffled American doctor, Alex must unravel the secret of the House of Usher before it consumes them all.

Serena’s Thoughts:

As fans of this blog know, I’ve been on a bit of a T. Kingfisher kick lately, after discovering how much I liked her worked after reading “Nettle & Bone.” So when I saw that she was coming out with a horror novella this summer, I was all on board to read it. And of course we had to have our resident horror expert’s take as well, so I roped Kate into this one.

I haven’t read the original “The Fall of the House of Usher;” frankly, I have read very little Poe altogether. But it was easy enough to guess at the typic of gothic horror story it must have been. So, I can’t say how closely T. Kingfisher followed that story. What I do know is that the author took the liberty of not only creating an original narrating character, but an entire country and culture from which that character originated. With that came one of the most interesting takes on new pronouns that I’ve ever seen. What made it work for me was just how well-thought out the language decisions were. They all made sense in the realm of what we can see in other real languages. But beyond the pronouns, Kingfisher used this culture to highlight the limitations placed on women of the time. But, as the author tends to have a light touch on her prose, it was all done in a humorous, if not any less important, way.

I also really liked the horror aspect of this story. In the author’s note (always read the author’s note!), Kingfisher mentions that she was in the process of writing this book when Sylvia Moreno-Garcia put out her “Mexican Gothic,” another gothic horror with a focus on mushrooms and fungus. I’m glad that Kingfisher wasn’t put off of writing this book, however, because they are ultimately very different stories. The fungus, itself, was very different. Sure, it played for all the spooky horror moments. But it also drew on different emotions that I had definitely not expected. I don’t want to get into it further than that for spoiler reasons, but I was definitely having some surprising reactions to various twists and turns towards the end of the book.

Kate’s Thoughts:

Unlike Serena, I have read “The Fall of the House of Usher”, but it had been, oh… twenty five years since I last read it? I remembered the basics, though I did wonder if I would spot the parallels as well as I would have had it not been a quarter century. But good news! I remembered enough to make the comparisons! But even better news is that T. Kingfisher has made the story unique and able to stand on its own while still harkening to the spirit of the original! That is to say, I definitely enjoyed this book!

A lot of the things I found interesting and unique Serena touched upon, but as the resident horror person I will stick to that aspect of the book. Kingfisher does a really good job of sticking to the Gothic paranoia of isolation and slow mental and emotional decline, while also introducing a really gross and unsettling body horror aspect with the fungal themes. While body horror can be a sub genre that makes me incredibly uneasy, what I liked about Kingfisher’s take on it is that this book rarely goes for deliberate over the top gross outs, and instead relies on unsettling imagery like hares that are behaving oddly, or a sleepwalking woman that just seems off, or the eerie beauty of a lake that glows at night for reasons unknown. We never get to super high levels of horror in this book, as there are plenty of moments of levity as well as a matter of fact tone as the story goes on, but there are plenty of beats that are incredibly creepy that feel like moments in the original tale. It’s a very well done homage and retelling that made me squeamish for all the right reasons.

Fans of the original story should check this out, not only because it’s well done, but also because it’s a good introduction to an author who is doing creative things across genres.

Serena’s Rating 8: A short, spooky tale that introduces a new version of a classic tale, new character and culture included!

Kate’s Rating 8: Unsettling and unique, “What Moves the Dead” is a fun reimagining of a Poe staple.

Reader’s Advisory:

“What Moves the Dead” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Fungus Fiction and Summer of Speculative Reading

Serena’s Review: “For the Throne”

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Book: “For the Throne” by Hannah Whitten

Publishing Info: Orbit, June 2022

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

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

Book Description: The First Daughter is for the Throne. The Second Daughter is for the Wolf…

Red and the Wolf have finally contained the threat of the Old Kings but at a steep cost. Red’s beloved sister Neve, the First Daughter is lost in the Shadowlands, an inverted kingdom where the vicious gods of legend have been trapped for centuries and the Old Kings have slowly been gaining control. But Neve has an ally–though it’s one she’d rather never have to speak to again–the rogue king Solmir.

Solmir wants to bring an end to the Shadowlands and he believes helping Neve may be the key to its destruction. But to do that, they will both have to journey across a dangerous landscape in order to find a mysterious Heart Tree, and finally to claim the gods’ dark, twisted powers for themselves.

Previously Reviewed: “For the Wolf”

Review: As some dedicated blog readers may remember, last summer was the season of the “Little Red Riding Hood” re-tellings for me. I think I read three? Even more amazing, I really liked two of them, and didn’t even hate the third. But best for me is the fact that the one I liked the most has a sequel! And here we are.

After Red and her Wolf finally managed to solve the mystery of the Wilderwood, their part of the story seemed complete. But the loss of Red’s sister Neve to the underworld has been a blow Red can’t accept, even if Neve unintentionally contributed to the darkness of the Wilderwood curse. As she works to free her sister, Neve wanders the shadow land below trying to regain her life above. On her journey she is accompanied by the mysterious Solmir, a man who was once a king and who now works to overthrow the dark kings that remain. As their journeys parallel each other, one above and one below, Neve and Red must come together to save the fate of their world.

While the first book was very much Red’s story, we still had a good number of chapters from Neve’s perspective. Enough so that while Red sees Neve’s actions as not only counterproductive to the magic of the Wilderwood, but actually bringing about a dark future, we are in Neve’s own mind enough to understand her motivations and the fears that drove many of her actions. And while Red’s story is neatly wrapped up, Neve’s is left on a definite cliff-hanger with her trapped in the shadow land with the king Solmir, whom she had only recently discovered had been posing as one of her good friends for much of the story.

This book picks up immediately where that one leaves off. And like the first book, the story is split between several characters. Nominally, this is primarily Neve’s story, but we also had a good number of chapters from Red’s perspective, as well as a dash of chapters from Raffe’s perspective, Neve’s betrothed who is left to rule in her stead. While I think the multiple POVs worked for the most part, I also think they were not as well balanced as the POVs were in the first book. There, it was obvious that it was Red’s story and we spent the vast majority of our time on her story. This allowed readers to fully connect with her and invest themselves in her romance.

Here, however, simply by the fact that we know Red so well, more often than not her story seemed to fight for the spotlight over Neve’s story in Neve’s own book. It was an awkward balance, because obviously I loved getting to spend more time with Red and Eammon. But I was sorry to see that the time given to this couple seemed to detract from Neve’s story and romance. What’s more frustrating with this was that I really enjoyed Neve’s arc, the unique magic/creatures of the shadow lands, and the slow-burn, enemies-to-lovers romance she develops with Solmir. Honestly, as much as I like Raffe’s story, I wish that had been left out. I think right there, that small increase in page time would have better balanced Red and Neve’s story and let me more fully feel as if this was truly the latter’s book.

I really liked the exploration of souls and what it means to be a monster. After the events of the first book, Neve has a lot of inner work to do to understand why she took the actions she did. Beyond that, however, her journey is one of self-acceptance, being able to embrace her weaknesses as well as her strengths. And, more importantly, knowing which is which. In this way, her inner journey is paralleled by Solmir’s own story. Their romance was very well paired, but I do wish that we were able to spend a bit more time devoted to their relationship. These two were always so caught up in magical fights (albeit great ones!), that it seemed like their romance kind of sprang up quickly at the end.

I also really enjoyed the shadow lands, the Old Gods, and the dark kings. There was a lot of tricky magical work going on here, and I was always excited to turn the page and see what was coming next. Again, this is where the sheer number of pages devoted to Red and Raffe’s much more straight-forward, less exciting journeys began to feel frustrating. However, I really liked the way that Red’s and Neve’s magic twisted together in the end. There were a few good twists here. I do question some of the elements of how things finally worked out (it was also a bit confusing to read through); I think that some parts of the solution to the overall mystery counteracted some of the previously established stakes.

Overall, I think that fans of the first book will really enjoy this. I’ve whined a decent amount about the page time given to Red, but I also really liked seeing more of her, so it’s kind of a double-edged sword there. And I think many fans will likely feel the same, or just be all onboard for the Red/Eammon action. Reading the first book is definitely necessary, however. Even going in only a year later left me feeling a bit confused in the beginning, having to remind myself of exactly what the history of this world was.

Rating 8: A great follow-up story, though the balance between the primary and secondary protagonists did feel a bit off.

Reader’s Advisory:

“For the Throne” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2022 and Upcoming 2022 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads.

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