Serena’s Review: “Death at the Manor”

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Book: “Death at the Manor” by Katharine Schellman

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Regency widow Lily Adler is looking forward to spending the autumn away from the social whirl of London society. When she arrives in Hampshire with her friends, Lord and Lady Carroway, she doesn’t expect much more than a quiet country visit and the chance to spend time with her charming new acquaintance, Matthew Spencer.

But something odd is afoot in the small country village. A ghost has taken up residence in the Belleford manor, a lady in grey who wanders the halls at night, weeping and wailing. Half the servants have left in terror, but the family is delighted with the notoriety that their ghost provides. Piqued by this spectral guest, Lily and her party immediately make plans to visit Belleford.

They arrive at the manor the next morning ready to be entertained—but tragedy has struck. The matriarch of the family has just been found smothered to death in her bed.

There was no one else in her room, and the door was locked from the inside. The dead woman’s family is convinced that the ghost is responsible. The servants are keeping secrets. The local magistrate is flummoxed. Lily is determined to learn the truth before another victim turns up—but could she be next in line for the Great Beyond?

Previously Reviewed: “The Body in the Garden” and “Silence in the Library”

Review: I’ve really been enjoying this historical mystery series. There are a few others I’ve been reading recently, but they’ve all featured a heroine/hero combination that, while enjoyable, begins to feel familiar very quickly. This book stands out not only with Lily serving as the primary detective herself, but in the fact that her cast of supporting characters not only includes, yes, the hero character, but also some of her fellow lady friends. This has allowed the series to remain feeling fresh and unique as compared to contemporaries. So, of course, when I saw the new one coming out this summer, I was on top of things!

Lily Adler’s friend, Captain Jack, is heading back to sea. And while he is glad to be returning to his beloved ship, he worries that Lily has had quite the penchant for stumbling upon dead bodies recently. She, however, assures him that she will be heading to the country to spend time with her dear aunt. What body could possibly be found in these circumstances? Alas, Jack’s worries are all too astute. For Lily, accompanied by her friend Lady Carroway, not only stumbles upon another murder victim, but the primary suspect is none other than a manor house ghost. But when Lily stumbles upon some revelations she had never suspected, she begins to question her own abilities. Will she be able to solve yet another mystery?

So, unfortunately, this book didn’t quite live up to my expectations for it. Admittedly, they were quite high, so the book was by no means objectively bad. Just not as good as the two that came before. But first, there are a few things that definitely stood out in the positive category. For one, I liked Lily’s struggles with her own limitations. Up to this point, while Lily has struggled to garner the respect from her peers for her observational skills, she’s never suffered from any great crisis of faith in herself. Here, after a secret that has been sitting right under her nose for years finally comes to light, Lily must grapple with her own limitations and biases. It’s a great internal arch for the character, and one that you rarely see in detective mysteries such as this that rely on their main character’s almost supernatural ability to know all.

I also liked the addition of Lady Carroway. While we’ve seen the character quite a bit in other books, here, she is allowed a few of her own chapters and perspectives. These were excellent on their own, but also worked well as a balance point to Lily’s ongoing internal struggles. Lady Carroway has a very different view of society, both because of the challenges she faced as a biracial noblewoman, but also because of her differing temperament. Their friendship is not without its own ups and downs, and I liked this more honest depiction of female friendships, one where the waters are not always smooth.

I also liked the nods to the gothic novels that were popular during this period of time. This was a fun theme to explore in the story, and served as a nice change of pace from the more straight-forward murder mysteries at the heart of the previous two books.

That said, there are two major points where the book struggled, in my opinion. One of them is more subjective than the other, so let’s start with that one. One of the nice things about these books so far has been the very, very slow burn of any romance that may (or may not) be developing between Lily and Jack. On one hand, I very much like this. But on the other, when it became clear that Jack was going to cede his position in this book to Matthew Spencer, a gentleman who was introduced as a potential romantic interest in the previous book, I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I just couldn’t become invested in this character or this romance. It does seem like this might be setting the stage for Lily’s slow growth through her grief over her husband. And, objectively, the decision for her to not necessarily jump from one “great love” to another but instead have other interests between makes sense. But as a reader, I just spent most of the time missing Jack and rolling my eyes at Lily’s obtuseness (at least I had Lady Carroway right there with me on #TeamJack).

My second problem, sadly, came with the mystery itself. Because I don’t want to spoil it, there’s not a whole lot I can go into as far as details. It’s a closed-door mystery, so that lays out the stakes well enough right there. However, I found the way in which the murder took place incredibly obvious from the very first inspection of the murder scene. What’s worse, later in the book, Lily happens upon a particular happenstance in this same locked room that even more clearly illustrates the solution. And it still didn’t click! It was so blatantly obvious that it had the unfortunate effect of making Lily’s obliviousness increasingly at odds with her reputation for solving complicated mysteries. I also was able to identify the killer and a decent portion of their motivations fairly early, too. All in all, while I still enjoyed the process of reading about this mystery, it was incredibly anticlimactic given some of the obvious clues and red herrings.

However, I still very much enjoyed Lily as a character. And I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of viewpoints from Lady Harroway herself. So, in conclusion, this book was a bit hit and miss. I still think the writing is strong, and Lily’s long term arch holds a lot of potential. Fans of the previous books will likely enjoy this one, but be warned that the mystery was not as compelling as previous entries.

Rating 7: Has a bit of a “middle book” feel to it with a lackluster mystery at its heart, but Lily herself is still an interesting enough character on her own to carry the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Death at the Manor” can be found on this Goodreads list: Historical Mystery 2022

Kate’s Review: “Suburban Hell”

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Book: “Suburban Hell” by Maureen Kilmer

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, August 2022

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

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

Book Description: A Chicago cul-de-sac is about to get a new neighbor…of the demonic kind.

Amy Foster considers herself lucky. After she left the city and moved to the suburbs, she found her place quickly with neighbors Liz, Jess, and Melissa, snarking together from the outskirts of the PTA crowd. One night during their monthly wine get-together, the crew concoct a plan for a clubhouse She Shed in Liz’s backyard–a space for just them, no spouses or kids allowed.

But the night after they christen the She Shed, things start to feel . . . off. They didn’t expect Liz’s little home-improvement project to release a demonic force that turns their quiet enclave into something out of a nightmare. And that’s before the homeowners’ association gets wind of it.

Even the calmest moms can’t justify the strange burn marks, self-moving dolls, and horrible smells surrounding their possessed friend, Liz. Together, Amy, Jess, and Melissa must fight the evil spirit to save Liz and the neighborhood . . . before the suburbs go completely to hell.

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

I gotta say, back when my husband and I were looking to buy a house (gosh, almost ten year ago), I had a very firm line I didn’t want to cross: we had to stay in the city limits. I wanted to make sure that we were bonafide city dwellers, not living in suburbia and all of the baggage and shady history that comes with it. Well, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that if we wanted an affordable house that was spacious, suburbia it was gonna have to be. And I do love my house and my neighborhood these days, with parks, a library, and a lot of nature within a mile of my house. But the baggage is still there at times, as it’s still suburbia, and sometimes that can feel isolating. Because of this, I was VERY interested in the horror book “Suburban Hell” by Maureen Kilmer. That and the fact it sounded a bit “Desperate Housewives”-esque with a healthy dose of demonic possession.

“Suburban Hell” has a similar aesthetic and tone as “The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires”, in that it follows some unlikely exorcists who have to do battle with an angry entity that has possessed their friend, all because of unsettled soil due to an in process ‘She Shed’. These suburban women juggle their kids, the neighborhood relationships and the supportive (and sometimes not so supportive) men in their lives, and provide support for each other. Our main character is Amy, an out of work social worker who first realizes that Liz, She-Shed owner and kind nurse, is acting off. The usual fare when it comes to possession novels starts to tick off: weird smells coming from Liz’s vicinity, dead animals popping up unexpectedly, otherwise inanimate objects becoming threatening, all while Amy and friends Melissa and Jess think there has to be a rational explanation, until there just isn’t one. It’s pretty standard and straight forward horror fare, and it’s admittedly pretty light on the scares. That isn’t to say it isn’t enjoyable, as I did find it to be a breezy and fun read, even if it wasn’t particularly scary.

The thing that was the most effective for me in “Suburban Hell” was the depiction of suburban ennui and the highs and lows of being a stay at home mom. I loved that between the moments of demon battle and research, we got to see Amy cope with a life that she does love, but doesn’t fulfill her as much as she would like it to. The side comments about the way that her children would get into trouble, or the longing for a return to a life where she was working full time in the city, or the way that her loving and supportive husband just sometimes didn’t GET it, all of it really rang true to me, as did the themes about how important having friends who do get it can be. Lord knows that I have those moments where I will be taking my toddler to the park and having a ROUGH GO of it, but know that my neighborhood friend (also with a toddler in tow) is going to be there and we can commiserate, which makes it a little better. This was the kind of connection that made Amy’s dogged pursuit of trying to save Liz super believable, even when faced with supernatural threat to herself. The friendship at the heart of the book is the good vs evil conduit, and I love seeing a possession story be less about religion and more about the power of inner goodness of anyone from any background.

“Suburban Hell” may not provide the scares that an avid horror fan wants, but it is still very fun and entertaining. I think that it would be a great choice for someone who is looking for a little bit of ‘horror lite’ with the upcoming Halloween season, at certainly for the people in your life who are trying to navigate the intricacies of suburbia and the ‘horrors’ that can be found beneath a veneer of contentment.

Rating 7: Relatable and filled with humor, “Suburban Hell” is lighter on the scares, but still has a lot of fun, devilish moments.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Suburban Hell” isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but you would find a solid companion in “The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires”.

Not Just Books: August 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

Mini Series: “Under the Banner of Heaven”

While Kate is the true crime expert, I’ve been known to enjoy the genre as well. What I really enjoy, however, are murder mystery limited series and, of course, the very talented Andrew Garfield. So when this popped up on my Hulu recommendations, it was an obvious choice. The story follow the true crime story of a heinous double murder that quickly becomes connected to Mormonism. As I said, Garfield is known as a talented actor, and he has a heavy load to carry in this show. Not only is he the detective charged with solving the murder, but the character must go through a crisis of faith as his own steady commitment to his Mormon faith is challenged again and again as more is revealed about the history of his faith and the beliefs of fundamentalists who are still at large. It’s a very tense, cinematic show and I highly recommend it!

Movie: “Thor: Love and Thunder”

Ever the completionist, I’m still managing to keep up with the seemingly endless stream of Marvel content coming out lately. I mean, between all of the movies that were delayed by Covid and now all the Disny+ shows, there’s quite a lot! Like many fans, I think, I am beginning to become a bit worried that the train might be off the tracks with all of this. But I’m also trying to focus on each thing individually, and I really enjoyed this movie. It didn’t rise to the heights of “Thor: Ragnarok” (there were moments in this film that felt a bit forced), but it was still a fun, funny romp. The acting was all superb and but for a few odd steps in the story, I thought it was a nice continuation of Thor’s story. I don’t think it’s essential in-theater viewing, but I definitely preferred this movie to the Dr. Strange sequel that also came out this spring/summer.

Netflix Show: “Stranger Things: Volume 4”

I’m late to including this show because I stubbornly waited until the second half dropped to watch it. I’m not sure what it says about my psychologically, but I’d rather wait for the entire thing than deal with a cliffhanger in the middle. But man, was it worth the wait! I think this was my favorite season after season one, of course. The villain was by far the best we’ve had since then, and the stakes were higher than ever. I still think the adults have become the weakest aspect of the show (something that is unfortunate given how impressive Winona Rider was in the first season), and their storyline here at times verged on the nonsensical. But I was here for the kids, and their stories all were awesome. Can’t say enough good things! Alas, now I’m stuck with everyone else again waiting for the next season to be released.

Kate’s Picks

TV Show: “Harley Quinn”

You all know that I love me some DC characters, especially if they are maladapted villains, and I have a special love in my heart for the villainous ladies of Gotham City, especially Harley Quinn. Harley as a character has had to deal with some shit, and I feel like she is finally getting her due in the films thanks to “Birds of Prey” and “The Suicide Squad” (James Gunn’s version, of course). But the best Harley is the Harley on the HBOMax show “Harley Quinn”, as she, and everyone else, is so over the top hilarious and silly without taking anything super seriously. It feels a lot like the show “The Venture Bros” in that it is snarky and awkward and shines a light on the ridiculous things of super villainy. Kaley Cuoco is a newly liberated from Joker and determined to make it on her own Harley, who makes her own rag tag team of villains to try and show that she, too, is a super villain to be taken seriously. It is a hoot and a half, filled with quirky characterizations and hilarious running gags (my favorite being Bane wanting to blow up anything that vexes him). And also, hooray for Poison Ivy and Harley having a fulfilling and healthy relationship. BOUT TIME THEY GOT A CANON ROMANCE ON SCREEN! Suffice to say, I love this show.

Concert: Elton John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” Tour

Back in 2019, my husband surprised me with tickets to see Elton John. I had just had my kid, and I was deep into the whole ‘brand new mom’ thing, so this was a treat to look forward to in June 2020… Well, we all know how that turned out. And by the rescheduled date in March 2022, while my husband and I were vaccinated, our kid wasn’t eligible yet, and we didn’t want to bring anything home from an indoor concert venue to her should something go wrong. So we gave our tickets to some good friends, and I cried deeply for a second time. But then I saw that Sir Elton was going to be playing at Soldier Field in Chicago in August. An outdoor venue, in driving distance, after promises of kiddo shots. So it finally happened, and it was MAGICAL. Elton John is a master performer and entertainer, and being able to see him live and listen to him play was such an incredible experience. After all this time he still has the energy and the passion, AND the costume changes. Given that I actually believe him that this is, indeed, his farewell tour, I am so happy we were able to make this work, even if it was two years later than planned.

Film: “Prey”

I am a HUGE fan of basically any 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger film, and a top 3 for me is “Predator”, in which he plays a Black Ops commando dropped into a jungle with a team that is slowly picked off by an alien hunter. I love the “Predator” lore and mythology, though many of the sequels have been fairly lackluster. But “Prey” breaks that streak. For one, it’s a prequel, set in the 1700s Upper Plains within the Comanche Nation, and for another, it has an amazing female, Indigenous protagonist. Naru wants to prove to her tribe that she is a good hunter, though she isn’t taken very seriously. But then she starts seeing hints of some kind of creature that poses a danger to her group, and decides that she needs to take it out. Yep, we got a Predator in a historical setting, and it WORKS. This is also a movie that goes to great length to be respectful and accurate when it comes to the Comanche culture, with an almost completely Indigenous cast and a huge Indigenous crew. There was even a limited Comanche language dub of the film to really honor and experience the way these characters would have been speaking, though I missed out on that option (and was VERY disappointed that I did). It is just as good as the original “Predator”. And I may even say it’s better.

Serena’s Reivew: “The Monsters We Defy”

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

Book: “The Monsters We Defy” by Leslye Penelope

Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2022

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

Book Description: Washington D. C., 1925

Clara Johnson talks to spirits, a gift that saved her during her darkest moments in a Washington D. C. jail. Now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So, when the Empress, the powerful spirit who holds her debt, offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, a desperate Clara seizes the chance. The task: steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.

Clara can’t pull off this daring heist alone. She’ll need help from an unlikely team, from a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody to an aging vaudeville actor who can change his face, to pull off the impossible. But as they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles, a dangerous spirit interferes at every turn. Conflict in the spirit world is leaking into the human one and along D.C’.s legendary Black Broadway, a mystery unfolds—one that not only has repercussions for Clara but all of the city’s residents.

Review: I was super excited when I received a copy of this book from the publisher. Not only is the cover very eye-catching, but it looks to be covering a unique time period and perspective for historical fantasy. I’ve read a million and one Regency fantasy novels (not that I’m complaining, I’ve read three excellent ones just this summer!), but it’s always refreshing to see authors pushing the boundaries on what we expect from this particular sub-genre. On the other hand, heists with a quirky group of people has also been done to death. So….I let’s see what this book had to offer!

Anyone pestered by spirits would be a little testy. And Clara, cursed/gifted with this ability for her entire life, has only barely begun to reign in her fiery temper. But she can’t stop herself from getting involved when people begin to act strangely and then go missing. Together with a band of other magically-afflicted individuals, Clara must work to pull off a heist to steal a magical ring. But the spirits won’t go easy, and they all will need to band together to pull of this feat!

I’ve read several other books by this author before, but they’ve all been second world fantasy, complete with magic systems and long, epic histories of warring gods. So I was curious to see how she would handle this change of pace. However, it is always a bit steadying to go into a new book knowing that, at the very least, the author has the writing chops to pull of her story. Whether this change in subgenre would work or not, I knew that Penelope would craft a well-told, descriptive story. And I was definitely right about that! I really enjoyed this version of Washington, D.C. in the 1920s that she imagined. There was enough recognizable history and culture to center the reader in the setting, but the introduction of magic and cultural folktales layered over it all to bring us something fresh and new.

Clara herself was an excellent character. I enjoyed her spirit (ha, bad pun) and determination to break through all of the barriers placed before her. But as this is a heist story, we, of course, also have a band of other players to follow as well. Penelope did a good job of laying out each of their histories and motivations in such a way that, for the most part, I felt invested in all of their individual outcomes. I will say, my initial reaction to large casts of characters is typically hesitance, as it’s not my preferred reading style. So while I personally wasn’t blown away by all of these characters, the author did a better job than most in introducing them and using them in such a way as to retain my interest.

The author includes an excellent note at the end about the history of the young woman who served as an inspiration for Clara (a young black woman who spent two years in prison for manslaughter after killing a policeman who enter her home and began shooting). She also explains her use of African American folktales through out the story. It was clear that this book was well-researched, and I think it was an exciting new entry of historical fantasy fiction, which, all too often, can begin to blend together with similar-sounding stories.

I’m running a giveaway for an ARC of this book, so don’t for get to enter! The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends Aug. 31.

Enter to win!

Rating 8: A fresh, new historical fantasy story that introduces an excellent cast of characters and highlights African American folklore.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Monsters We Defy” is on this Goodreads list: Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2022.

Kate’s Review: “The Honeys”

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Book: “The Honeys” by Ryan La Sala

Publishing Info: PUSH, August 2022

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

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

Book Description: Mars has always been the lesser twin, the shadow to his sister Caroline’s radiance. But when Caroline dies under horrific circumstances, Mars is propelled to learn all he can about his once-inseparable sister who’d grown tragically distant.

Mars’s genderfluidity means he’s often excluded from the traditions — and expectations — of his politically-connected family. This includes attendance at the prestigious Aspen Conservancy Summer Academy where his sister poured so much of her time. But with his grief still fresh, he insists on attending in her place.

What Mars finds is a bucolic fairytale not meant for him. Folksy charm and sun-drenched festivities camouflage old-fashioned gender roles and a toxic preparatory rigor. Mars seeks out his sister’s old friends: a group of girls dubbed the Honeys, named for the beehives they maintain behind their cabin. They are beautiful and terrifying — and Mars is certain they’re connected to Caroline’s death. But the longer he stays at Aspen, the more the sweet mountain breezes give way to hints of decay. Mars’s memories begin to falter, bleached beneath the relentless summer sun. Something is hunting him in broad daylight, toying with his mind. If Mars can’t find it soon, it will eat him alive.

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

There is something about bees and horror that just kind of goes together. From the classic horror film “Candyman” to the recent “Umma” (I quite enjoyed this one, I don’t agree with the critics scores), there are things you can do with bee imagery that just work in a scary context. I’m actually surprised I haven’t encountered it more in horror fiction, but luckily we have “The Honeys” by Ryan La Sala to tap into this imagery! I hadn’t heard of this book before it ended up on my doorstep, but the premise was definitely eye catching. It sounded a bit like “Heathers” meets folk and prep school horror, and if that isn’t an interesting combination I don’t know what is.

I will say that “The Honeys” is a little slow to start up and really get going, at least in my reading experience it was. We start with a bang, but then it takes its sweet time to build up the unease and high strangeness that is going on at Aspen, and to explore what it has to do with Mars, Caroline, and the Honeys. It just felt a bit like the pacing was uneven, and it had a hard time holding my attention at first because of it. But I will say that once we got into the thick of it, and stuff started happening, it had an iron grip on my attention and it really picked up. The horror elements to this book are so profoundly unique, and also have some really, REALLY creepy and upsetting imagery that felt straight out of an Ari Aster horror movie (funnily enough I mean that in a positive way, given that I don’t really like Aster’s movies too much, but the guy does know how to deliver on horror aesthetic). There was one moment in particular that practically broke my brain for a few moments and I just kind of froze up.

Like Jesus. What the fuck? (source)

What worked even better for me was how La Sala used this story to take on and deconstruct toxic gender norms within a rigid social setting, as Mars is genderfluid and Aspen, while pastoral and somewhat chill, has VERY stringent gender norms, some okay, others quite toxic. The Honeys themselves kind of break stereotypes of femininity, as they are hyper feminine but don’t meet the preconceived and sexist notions of what that means (aka, just because they’re girly it doesn’t mean they are weak, as femininity isn’t a weakness). On the flip side, the hyper masculine boys group at the school is seeping in toxic masculinity, and Mars being genderfluid makes them a target of animosity, but also a target of those who would prefer they go along to get along, given their prestigious status as the child of a Senator. I liked seeing how La Sala explores this through Mars’s eyes, and how even those who mean well towards them and their social acceptance at Aspen are still putting the onus on Mars as opposed to the people who are being cruel. And I don’t want to give spoilers here, but I will say that even the larger plan at the horror thematic center constrains itself to such societal mores, and it is up to Mars and their allies to take their power back. I thought all of this was well done.

So all in all, a slower start but a unique and worthwhile horror read! “The Honeys” is sure to get people talking in YA horror circles.

Rating 7: Kind of a slow start, but once it gets going “The Honeys” is a twisted and creepy horror novel that takes on corrupt powers that be and toxic societal gender constraints.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Honeys” is new and isn’t included on many Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Queer Dark Academia”.

Giveaway: “The Monsters We Defy”

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

Book: “The Monsters We Defy” by Leslye Penelope

Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2022

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

Book Description: Washington D. C., 1925

Clara Johnson talks to spirits, a gift that saved her during her darkest moments in a Washington D. C. jail. Now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So, when the Empress, the powerful spirit who holds her debt, offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, a desperate Clara seizes the chance. The task: steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.

Clara can’t pull off this daring heist alone. She’ll need help from an unlikely team, from a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody to an aging vaudeville actor who can change his face, to pull off the impossible. But as they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles, a dangerous spirit interferes at every turn. Conflict in the spirit world is leaking into the human one and along D.C’.s legendary Black Broadway, a mystery unfolds—one that not only has repercussions for Clara but all of the city’s residents.

Giveaway Details:

I was super excited when I received a copy of this book from the publisher. Not only is the cover very eye-catching, but it looks to be covering a unique time period and perspective for historical fantasy. I’ve read a million and one Regency fantasy novels (not that I’m complaining, I’ve read three excellent ones just this summer!), but it’s always refreshing to see authors pushing the boundaries on what we expect from this particular sub-genre. On the other hand, heists with a quirky group of people has also been done to death. So….I guess we’ll have to see what this book has to offer!

This is another pen name for the author L. Penelope. I’ve read a decent number of her books in the past, and have reviewed some of them here (“Song of Blood and Stone”, “Whispers of Shadow and Flame”, and “Cry of Metal and Bone”). She’s a solid fantasy author who also writes excellent romances into her stories. All of the books I’ve listed above were set in a fictional world, so I’m also excited to see what she can do with a historical book.

Per the usual, my review for this book will be up Friday. But don’t wait until then to get in on the chance to win a copy of this book! This giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and will end on August 31.

Enter to win!

Kate’s Review: “Bloody Fool for Love”

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

Book: “Bloody Fool for Love” by William Ritter

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, August 2022

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

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

Book Description: Bloody Fool for Love from New York Times best-selling author William Ritter marks the beginning of an all-new series that explores prequel stories about fan-favorite Buffy characters.

Spike just wants to enjoy the spoils of his new badass reputation. He’s now a legendary slayer-killer, and he’s returning to London―the greatest city in the world. Unfortunately, his new abode is far from ideal (mostly a dank basement), and the rest of his strange little “family” is reeling from the fact that their patriarch, Angel, abandoned them. Spike’s love, Drusilla, seems especially heartbroken over the loss and spends her time lost in her tarot cards and planning their next gruesome family dinner when they all can be reunited.

Desperate to break Dru out of her melancholy, Spike vows to steal a powerful relic that will help her focus on their dark future together. It’s the perfect plan―that is until a monster named Gunnar, leader of the demon underworld of London, steals the relic first. Forced to form his own ragtag group of mercenaries, Spike plans an epic heist against a ruthless gang of undead criminals. Confronted with paranormal plots, royal black ops, and tea (they may be abominations, but they’re British abominations, thank you very much), Spike soon realizes that his homecoming is about to get bloody.

This rompy, action-packed novel inspired by one of Buffy’s most infamous bad boys is part Bonnie and Clyde, part Sherlock and Watson, with just a bit more bloodsucking.

Review: Thank you to Disney Hyperion for giving me an ARC of this novel!

When Serena and I were wrapping up our time at the ALA Annual Conference, we were making a last pass at each publisher booth to see if there were any new ARCs to be had. I spotted one at Disney Hyperion called “Big Bad”, which is a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” book that showcases a lot of the villains from the show (we may see that in the near future on the blog, we will see!). I picked it up and said an offhanded remark along the lines of ‘well, if it has Spike in it I HAVE to pick it up’. Spike was my very favorite character on the show. He was funny, sarcastic, a bit of a dork, punk to the bone, and had a very interesting character arc that changed him from throw away villain to hero. I had a MASSIVE crush on him, he was probably my first TRUE teenage celebrity crush, the kind of crush that just sets the scene for a lot of crushes afterwards. So when the rep at the table said ‘We have a Spike book too. Do you want that as well?’, you can probably imagine how I reacted.

I was fifteen again, emotionally. (source)

And that is how I stumbled upon “Bloody Fool for Love” by William Ritter. A historical fantasy-horror heist story featuring Spike, aka William the Bloody, on a quest to get a magical artifact for his fellow vampire lady love Drusilla in early 20th Century London.

[Let’s stop here to talk about an elephant in the room: Joss Whedon. Joss Whedon is an abusive asshole, and I haven’t revisited any of his works in a very long time. Partially because of the newish information about him, partially because of my own frustration with how he wrote some of his shows, partially because there had been whisperings of his terribleness for a LONG time and it had already made me uncomfortable revisiting (like, I’m pretty sure I was aware of the disgusting Charisma Carpenter situation around the time it happened because of rumors online shortly after it all went down). I was super happy to see a lot of “Buffy” actors speak out about the toxic set, including James Marsters, who played Spike, and while I have given up on Whedon’s creative visions with his direct involvement, I want to see what other people do with these characters.]

“Bloody Fool for Love” is, as I said, a historical fiction fantasy-horror heist story, and while I am not SUPER into heist stories, it’s Spike. We established I would probably follow him through a trip to the post office, so I will happily follow him through a heist. Ritter does a really good job of picking up in the show’s lore and setting the right tone that falls between action thriller and tongue in cheek. We have a very specific moment, after Spike has killed his first slayer and after he, Drusilla, and Darla have returned from China, sans Angel. Spike is riding high on his new reputation, while Drusilla is aching for her sire and Darla is having her own existential crisis. The story captures all of these characters pretty handily, and I believed all of them in terms of voice and actions. Spike is such a fun character who, even without a soul at this point, has his moments of being complicated in his actions while still coming off with a swagger and devil may care persona, and Ritter nails it. Having him stupidly attempt to heist an ancient artifact for Drusilla, even though it will surely put a target on his back, is so on point for the character in his impulsivity and his RIDICULOUS loyalty and love for Dru, it just spot on, and I loved seeing him fly by the seat of his pants. Like I said above, Spike could really do anything and I’d be entertained, but Ritter really had a good grasp on the character and all his complexities. I also liked the rag tag group of weirdos that he recruits to help go up against the demon kingpin he’s trying to rip off, from other demons to a werewolf, as they felt like they fit into the story and the universe really well. I could see this plot line being an extended arc on the show it fits in so well.

But what I liked the most about this book, interestingly enough, had less to do with the character of Spike and more to do with the character of Darla. For those unfamiliar with the show, Darla was part of the “Fanged Four”, which included Spike, Drusilla, and Angellus/Angel. Darla was Angellus’s sire, and she served a few purposes during both the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” series and the “Angel” series. Darla is always a bit left behind in the stories on the show, even if she was the first of the group. First she was an evil ex girlfriend who basically was killed as a way to prove Angel’s new, reformed ways. Then on “Angel” she was brought back as a human with torment, only to be turned back into a vampire for ANGEL’S torment, and then she was there to be a uterus so Angel could have a son named Connor (and that whole storyline is a SHIT SHOW), who then sacrificed herself for her baby. As one can imagine, I have a lot of notes about all of this, because through the flashback sequences we do see of her throughout the two shows during their “Fanged Four” time, Darla had a LOT of potential to be super interesting, but was instead relegated to a LOT of misogynistic tropes (I reiterate my up-page point: Joss Whedon sucks). But in “Bloody Fool for Love”, Darla has her OWN storyline that gets to explore these complexities, as she is privately reeling from the loss of Angel, and having to be the ‘mom friend’ to Drusilla, a very unstable waif, and Spike, who is, bless him, a reckless dolt. Darla doesn’t want to leave these two far younger and impulsive vampires to fend for themselves, but she also wants to have her life back, and you see the mechanisms and dealings that she is making in hopes of securing a new future for herself, while also keeping her loved ones safe. I loved seeing her interact with various players, as it shows her charm, her diplomacy, her cunning, and her resiliency.

About fucking TIME this badass queen gets the respect she deserves! (source)

I will be very curious to see what other ‘fan favorite’ characters get the prequel story treatment. Spike was the clear winner to start with, as he is such a dynamic and interesting player in the “Buffy” universe, and I think that William Ritter did him right. “Bloody Fool for Love” will probably be most fun for “Buffy” fans, and as a Spike fangirl through and through I had a blast with it.

Rating 8: A truly fun standalone tale with a vampire who means SO much to me, “Bloody Fool for Love” not only brings Spike to life, it also gives another of my favorites a great romp of a story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bloody Fool for Love” is included on the Goodreads list “Best Buffy the Vampire Slayer Books”.

Another Take: Summer 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.

“The Stardust Thief” by Chelsea Abdullah

Book Description: Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.

With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

Serena’s Review (9 Rating)

The Lily Café (4/5 Cups/Stars)

Simone and Her Books

Super Star Drifter (4.5/5 Stars)

“Half a Soul” by Olivia Atwater

Book Description: Ever since she was cursed by a faerie, Theodora Ettings has had no sense of fear or embarrassment – a condition which makes her prone to accidental scandal. Dora hopes to be a quiet, sensible wallflower during the London Season – but when the strange, handsome and utterly uncouth Lord Sorcier discovers her condition, she is instead drawn into dangerous and peculiar faerie affairs.

If Dora’s reputation can survive both her curse and her sudden connection with the least-liked man in all of high society, then she may yet reclaim her normal place in the world. . . but the longer Dora spends with Elias Wilder, the more she begins to suspect that one may indeed fall in love, even with only half a soul.

Serena’s Review (9 Rating)

Blogging with Dragons

Howl’s Moving Library (5/5 Stars)

One Book More (4/5 Stars)

“The Darkening” by Sunya Mara

Book Description: In this thrilling and epic YA fantasy debut the only hope for a city trapped in the eye of a cursed storm lies with the daughter of failed revolutionaries and a prince terrified of his throne.

Vesper Vale is the daughter of revolutionaries. Failed revolutionaries. When her mother was caught by the queen’s soldiers, they gave her a choice: death by the hangman’s axe, or death by the Storm that surrounds the city and curses anyone it touches. She chose the Storm. And when the queen’s soldiers—led by a paranoid prince—catch up to Vesper’s father after twelve years on the run, Vesper will do whatever it takes to save him from sharing that fate.

Even arm herself with her father’s book of dangerous experimental magic.

Even infiltrate the prince’s elite squad of soldier-sorcerers.

Even cheat her way into his cold heart.

But when Vesper learns that there’s more to the story of her mother’s death, she’ll have to make a choice if she wants to save her city: trust the devious prince with her family’s secrets, or follow her mother’s footsteps into the Storm.

Serena’s Review (8 Rating)

Mom with a Reading Problem (5 Stars)

The Story Sanctuary

The Canid Cover (4/5 Stars)

Book: “Things We Do in the Dark” by Jennifer Hillier

Book Description: When Paris Peralta is arrested in her own bathroom—covered in blood, holding a straight razor, her celebrity husband dead in the bathtub behind her—she knows she’ll be charged with murder. But as bad as this looks, it’s not what worries her the most. With the unwanted media attention now surrounding her, it’s only a matter of time before someone from her long hidden past recognizes her and destroys the new life she’s worked so hard to build, along with any chance of a future.

Twenty-five years earlier, Ruby Reyes, known as the Ice Queen, was convicted of a similar murder in a trial that riveted Canada in the early nineties. Reyes knows who Paris really is, and when she’s unexpectedly released from prison, she threatens to expose all of Paris’s secrets. Left with no other choice, Paris must finally confront the dark past she escaped, once and for all.

Because the only thing worse than a murder charge are two murder charges.

Kate’s Review (8 Rating)

Vilma Iris (4.5/5 Stars)

Read This, Not That (5/5 Stars)

The Fiction Addiction

Book: “The Devil Takes You Home” by Gabino Iglesias

Book Description: Buried in debt due to his young daughter’s illness, his marriage at the brink, Mario reluctantly takes a job as a hitman, surprising himself with his proclivity for violence. After tragedy destroys the life he knew, Mario agrees to one final job: hijack a cartel’s cash shipment before it reaches Mexico. Along with an old friend and a cartel-insider named Juanca, Mario sets off on the near-suicidal mission, which will leave him with either a cool $200,000 or a bullet in the skull. But the path to reward or ruin is never as straight as it seems. As the three complicated men travel through the endless landscape of Texas, across the border and back, their hidden motivations are laid bare alongside nightmarish encounters that defy explanation. One thing is certain: even if Mario makes it out alive, he won’t return the same.

The Devil Takes You Home is a panoramic odyssey for fans of S.A. Cosby’s southern noir, Blacktop Wasteland, by way of the boundary-defying storytelling of Stephen Graham Jones and Sylvia Moreno-Garcia

Kate’s Review (9 Rating)

Considering Stories

Horror Bound

Crime Fiction Lover

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

Book Description: Casey Fletcher, a recently widowed actress trying to escape a streak of bad press, has retreated to the peace and quiet of 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 who live in the house across the lake. They make for good viewing—a tech innovator, Tom is rich; and a former model, Katherine is gorgeous.

One day on the lake, Casey saves Katherine from drowning, and the two strike up a budding friendship. But the more they get to know each other—and the longer Casey watches—it becomes clear that Katherine and Tom’s marriage is not as perfect and placid as it appears. When Katherine suddenly vanishes, Casey becomes consumed with finding out what happened to her. In the process, she uncovers eerie, darker truths that turn a tale of voyeurism and suspicion into a story of guilt, obsession and how looks can be very deceiving.

With his trademark blend of sharp characters, psychological suspense, and gasp-worthy surprises, Riley Sager’s The House Across the Lake unveils more than one twist that will shock readers until the very last page.

Kate’s Review (8 Rating)

Eat, Live, Travel, Write

Opinions of a Wolf

Chick Lit Central

Serena’s Review: “Longshadow”

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

Book: “Longshadow” by Olivia Atwater

Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

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

Book Description: The marriageable young ladies of London are dying mysteriously, and Abigail Wilder intends to discover why. Abigail’s father, the Lord Sorcier of England, believes that a dark lord of faerie is involved – but while Abigail is willing to match her magic against Lord Longshadow, neither her father nor high society believe that she is capable of doing so.

Thankfully, Abigail is not the only one investigating the terrible events in London. Mercy, a street rat and self-taught magician, insists on joining Abigail to unravel the mystery. But while Mercy’s own magic is strange and foreboding, she may well post an even greater danger to Abigail’s heart.

Review: I’ve been having a blast this summer working my way through Atwater’s historical fantasy romances. I was so blown away by “Half a Soul,” and then the follow-up, “Ten Thousand Stitches,” was just as fun. That being the case, I wasted no time in picking up this book once my ARC arrived. And, while it probably is my least favorite of the three, it was still a solid, fun read.

Abigail has never felt a keen interest in dancing with the gentlemen at the various balls and parties she attends with her family. However, she recognizes that it holds appeal for many of the other marriable young ladies. But then those same ladies begin to mysteriously die, and Abigail discovers that while dancing may not be her thing, solving a murder mystery sure seems to be. When she teams up with self-taught magician who comes from a very different rung of society, Abigail begins to understand that she may not know herself as well as she thought.

Much of the appeal from the first two books was present again here. The writing was fun, clear, and fast moving (even if the plot was less so at times). In a word, these books have all been very “readable.” It was also a blast getting to see several of the characters from the first two books as well. I love it when authors manage to write stand alone stories but then weave in familiar faces in follow-up works. You get the returning-faces-appeal of sequels without having to forfeit a new main character and new overall story. It was nice to see these characters, but the balance was also appropriate, as it remained Abigail and Mercy’s story throughout.

However, didn’t find myself quite as attached to either of these characters as I did the ones in the first two books. I think in some ways this was just my own preference for the type of characters/romances that I most enjoy. The first book, especially, had the exact sort of romance I love. Here, while I enjoyed the uniqueness of Mercy and Abigail’s story, I didn’t find myself swept away by their romantic arc. Mercy had a few reveals later on that added to her story, but overall, she wasn’t the sort of love interest that I most enjoy.

I did like the murder mystery, overall. This definitely falls over several of my preferred genres. But again, here, I found the pacing of the story and mystery to be a bit more off than in the first two books. The story takes a decent amount of time to really get going. And by the time we get to the reveals around the mystery, it begins to highlight the fact that for the reader, the mystery was pretty much unsolvable. Again, there’s a delicate balance to be found between making a mystery so obvious that the reader immediately guesses the solution before the sleuth themselves does, and going to far the other way, where the mystery is totally unsolvable on its own.

Overall, this book delivered on much of what I expected from it: a fun story, a slow-burn romance, and a lovely balance of fantasy and history. That said, it’s probably my least favorite of the three. But fans of the first two will likely still enjoy this one and should definitely give it a go!

Rating 8: A bit slower than the first two books, but still a fun beach read that is sure to be a hit, especially for those looking for a sapphic love story in historical fiction.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Longshadow” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but, like the others, it should be on Regency Fantasy Books.

Kate’s Review: “American Vampire (Vol. 2)”

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

Book: “American Vampire (Vol.2)” by Scott Snyder & Raphael Albuquerque (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, May 2011

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: While trafficking in a bestselling sub-genre, American Vampire introduces a new strain of vampire — a more muscular and vicious species, born of the American West.

It’s Las Vegas circa 1935, and Skinner Sweet and our gal Pearl are about to learn the hard way that the bloodsuckers in Hollywood were nothing compared to what awaits them in Sin City.

In just a few short years, young police Chief Cash McCogan has watched his native city of Las Vegas go from cow-town to wild, glittering boomtown. And when the bodies of prominent businessmen start showing up drained of blood, Chief McCogan finds himself facing a threat much darker and deadlier than anything he could have imagined . . . and the only sure bet in town is that Skinner and Pearl are right in the thick of it.

Review: So “American Vampire”‘s second volume was the one I was most apprehensive revisiting, as I remembered not liking it so much on my initial read. So much so that I kind of stopped the series for awhile. I felt that it dove into some stuff that I had a very hard time with, ultimately, and I knew that while I had to read it again for this revisit, I wasn’t looking forward to it. But a completist I am when it comes to this stuff, and ya gotta judge a series but all of it’s canonical parts. So into “Volume 2” I dove. And it was a better experience this time around to be sure, just putting into the context of the greater storyline! But man, I still really hate that Skinner Sweet. And I think he’s getting off a little easy.

Starting with what I do like about this volume, as it does outweigh the negatives, I love how Snyder has taken another snapshot of a moment in American history, this time being the inception of Las Vegas’s reputation as a party town due to the construction of the Hoover Dam, and adds in some vampire touches that could link to real life ills of American society. This time it’s the idea of progress and innovation, as the dam has brought in a lot of workers, and with workers comes a certain rowdiness that Las Vegas Deputy Cash McCogan is wary of. So when high powered backers involved in the dam start ending up dead, drained of blood, he is approached by a mysterious couple of agents, one of whom is Felicia Book, the daughter of previous hero turned vampire James Book. I loved how we slowly peeled back what Felicia’s deal was, and what kind of group she is working for, as well as her ulterior motives beyond the group because of her connection to their target, Skinner Sweet. And of course Skinner has his disgusting claws planted firmly in Las Vegas’s underbelly. I thought that the mythos building in this issue was good, though some of the plot points introduced were very quickly resolved in ways that felt unsatisfying to me.

I think that my biggest qualms partially go back into my previous qualms with my initial read, though I did find more this time that aggravated me, though my overall dissatisfaction wasn’t as pronounced this time. For one, without going into specifics, Skinner Sweet continues to be the irredeemable worst, and continues to not have any interesting growth or nuance. It’s fine when it’s the first volume and we are just getting to know him, but if we are going to have such a focus on him as the story goes on, it would sit better with me if he was more interesting in his badness. As it is in this volume, he’s either exploiting sex workers as the head of a brothel, continuing his spiteful violence, and creating a pivotal turning point in the series for a few characters through a particularly terrible act that disturbed me as much this time as it did the first time reading it. I did like following our ‘heroes’, deputy Cash McCogan, as well as two mysterious agents for the hush hush group, one of whom being Felicia, but on the flip side there is a VERY serious lack of Pearl in this volume. Given that Pearl is the vampire I actually really like in this series, it was a shame she was kind of sidelined, even if it was rewarding in some ways. The lack of Pearl this time was especially galling. She is far more interesting than Skinner freakin’ Sweet.

But Raphael Albuquerque’s art is still pretty great! I like that this time around he gets to play with some vampire designs that think outside the box!

I mean this is just cool. (source)

I liked the expanded mythos of the vampire hunters, but didn’t like the central focus on Skinner Sweet this time around. But I am excited to revisit where things go next, as I remember liking it more than this foray into the storyline.

Rating 7: Another fun deep dive into vampire connections to American history, though it sometimes feels a bit haphazard in introducing and concluding plot points.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Vampire (Vol. 2)” is included on the Goodreads lists “Comic Books to Appreciate and Love”, and “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”.

Previously Reviewed:

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