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

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

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, September 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

Highlights: October 2021

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

Serena’s Picks

Book: “Animorphs Graphix #2: The Visitor”

Publication Date: October 5, 2021

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

Book: “Blood of the Chosen” by Django Wexler

Publication Date: October 5, 2021

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

Book: “Vespertine” by Margaret Rogerson

Publication Date: October 5, 2021

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

Kate’s Picks

Book: “Cackle” by Rachel Harrison

Publication Date: October 5, 2021

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

Book: “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” by Cassandra Khaw

Publication Date: October 19, 2021

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

Book: “Where They Wait” by Scott Carson

Publication Date: October 26, 2021

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

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

Monthly Marillier: “Foxmask”

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “Foxmask” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor Fantasy, November 2005

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Norseman Eyvind, a fierce and loyal Wolfskin, came to a new land on top of the world to find his destiny. With his priestess bride Nessa he saved the land and weathered the treachery that was caused by Eyvind’s blood-sworn friend Somerled. After much pain and sorrow the two lovers have managed to create a society where the Norse warriors and the gentle folks of the Orkney Isles live and thrive in contentment at last. A decade and more has passed since the devastating events of the creation of the settlement and Eyvind and Nessa have watched their children grow and thrive in peace.

But not all on the islands are content or at peace. Thorvald, the young son of Margaret, widow of the slain king and Eyvind’s war leader, has always felt apart and at odds with all he knows. He learns upon his coming to manhood that he is not his father’s son but that of the love that Margaret bore for the hated Somerled and that Somerled was not killed for his treachery but sent on a boat, adrift with little more than a knife and skein of water, doomed to the god’s will. Thorvald is determined to find a boat and cast off to the West in a desperate bid to find a father he never knew…and to find out if he is made of the same stuff as the henious traitor.

The tragedy of this scheme would be horrific enough…if it were not for the fact that Creidhe, the winsome daughter of Eyvind and Nessa has loved Thorvald since birth and unbeknownst to him conspires to go along on this most perilous of quests.

What happens to them on their journey of discovery will ultimately change the lives of all they know and love…and will doom (or redeem) an entire people.

Review: It seems that I have distinct favorites and less-preferred books in all of Marillier’s duologies and trilogies. There’s no rhyme and reason to it either. Sometimes the first book is my favorite (“Wildwood Dancing”), sometimes the second (“Son of Shadows”), and sometimes even the third (“Flame of Sevenwaters.) So, too, I much prefer “Foxmask” to “Wolfskin.” I hadn’t even re-read “Wolfskin” until I read it again for this series. This book, on the other hand, is quite worn down from multiple re-reads.

A new generation has been born, and life is quiet, homely and comfortable for Creidhe, the daughter of Nessa and Eyvind. Thorvald, the secret son of the banished Somerland, is less content. When he sets out on a perilous journey to discover the truth of his heritage, Nessa secretly joins him, convinced that her dear friend and secret love will need her help. What they discover will change the course of not only their own futures, but that of so many more. In islands shrouded in clouds and mystery, will they discover the truth before it is too late?

I do love this book, and I will freely admit that’s mostly because of how much I love the romance at the heart of the story. Sadly, that doesn’t show up until about halfway through the book, but in the end, it’s well worth the wait. I’ll also admit to the fact that many of my re-reads involve me skipping right to this halfway point. That being the case, it was great to approach this re-read from the beginning of the book. I forgot just how much quality character work goes into the first half of the story and into slowly building up the mysteries and moral challenges that will later pay off in the end of the book.

Creidhe is your fairly typical Marillier heroine: quiet, loves the home and family, but filled with an iron will and inner strength. Luckily, she’s not a healer or a seer, two of the types of characters we’re most likely to see from this author. Instead, she’s a skilled weaver and creates a majestic embroidered tapestry that details her life. As a embroiderer myself, I’ve always love this trait about this character. It’s a really interesting look at this form of art as a storytelling mechanism.

This book is also unique for just how much I dislike Thorvald, the other POV character. Usually when Marillier uses multiple POVs I do end up having a favorite. But that’s just a preference between two character who are each fine on their own. Here? I pretty much spend most of the book wanting to punch Thorvald in his self-centered, whiny face. I even want to punch Creidhe at times for tolerating the amount of nonsense she does from him. There are a few moments in the book where Creidhe and their friend Sam both tear into Thorvald and, while I skip large chunks of his chapters in my casual re-reads, I always read these scenes for the pure joy of watching him get taken to task for being such a jerk. I will give credit to Marillier, though, for writing such a unique character. Very rarely does she write POV character who are anywhere near as flawed as Thorvald is. His journey is interesting enough, but you do have to tolerate a lot from him to get to the eventual pay-off.

I really, really liked the magical elements in this story. There were a good number of twists and turns that were both unexpected and heart breaking. Again and again are heroes must face impossible choices where it seems no one will win, but, in true Marillier fashion, everything is resolved by the end. I don’t want to spoil it by talking about certain characters, but the love interest is probably one of my favorites in all of Marillier’s work. And there are a few other characters that show up later who I also really, really enjoyed.

This is an excellent example of Marillier at her best. Both Creidhe and Thorvald read as very distinct characters from one another, their voices and perspectives so different throughout the story. Her lyrical style of writing perfectly fits the mysterious and magical locations that make up the landscape of the story. And, of course, the romance is beautiful, tragic, and heart-warming.

Rating 9: One of my favorites for sure, perfectly combining many of the elements I most love about Marillier’s work.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Foxmask” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Paranormal & Fantasy Romances and Best Romance in Traditional Fantasy.

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

Kate’s Review: “Glorious Wrestling Alliance: Ultimate Championship Edition”

Book: “Glorious Wrestling Alliance: Ultimate Championship Edition” by Josh Hicks

Publishing Info: Graphic Universe (Tm), October 2021

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

Book Description: Step into the ring at Glorious Wrestling Alliance, the universe’s least-professional wrestling company. The Great Carp, an amphibious wonder, is feeling the weight of his championship. Miranda Fury has donned a mask to smash wrestling’s glass ceiling. And Gravy Train is desperate for a new gimmick, but it’s hard when you’re shaped like a giant gravy boat.

Collected in colossal full color for the first time, Josh Hicks’s cult-hit comic covers identity, anxiety, and leg drops. In this hilarious love letter to the surreal theater of pro wrestling, the insecure grapplers of GWA lock up, throw things, throw each other, and occasionally curl up into little balls.

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

I’ve been with my husband since we were in high school, and I distinctly remember his bedroom being adorned with pro-wrestling posters. Just recently his mother cleaned some of his stuff out of storage at her house, and one of the items was a framed poster of The Rock that is now sitting in our mudroom, waiting to be placed somewhere in our home. I didn’t get into pro wrestling until recently, when a now closed (DAMN YOU COVID) bar in Minneapolis had a Mexican food and pro-wrestling theme. We would go there for drinks, and watch old school matches, and now I appreciate it for the entertainment that it is. So when author Josh Hicks reached out asking if I would be interested in reading his graphic novel “Glorious Wrestling Alliance: Ultimate Championship Edition”, I absolutely jumped at the chance!

“Glorious Wrestling Alliance” follows the wrestlers of the Glorious Wrestling Alliance, a quirky and a little bit of a hot mess in some ways wrestling organization. They are popular and well loved, but their CEO, Ricky Lovett Junior, has the company teetering. On top of that their reigning champion, Great Carp (a being with a fish head for a head and a human body), is suffering from anxiety, one of their bigger heels Death Machine is more interested in poetry than wrestling as of late, a frontman named Gravy Train wants to switch up his character in spite of the fact he is literally shaped like a gravy boat, and Miranda Fury wants to be taken seriously, when the women’s division is sidelined. We have our various moments of focus on each of these characters, and their storylines range from the funny, to the poignant, to the inspirational. You can’t help but root for all of them in their personal missions and goals, and seeing some rise while others start a free fall feels both VERY wrestling, but also very typical of stories about fame. There are definitely absurdist elements to this story (see above: a fish head guy and a man shaped like a gravy boat), but there are also relatable and familiar themes that shine through the absurd. My favorite was definitely Miranda’s arc, as she dons a mask and an androgynous look so that she can wrestle with the guys and be taken seriously. I felt that Hicks captured the frustration of being a woman in an industry that still has a lot of misogyny intertwined with it, and I liked seeing her persevere and kick butt, a lot of the time with humorous results.

Along with this, as a novice pro-wrestling fan who doesn’t see much of it outside of the annual Royal Rumble, Wrestlemania, and the occasional Smackdown here and there, there were a number of cute Easter eggs that I spotted here and there on the pages. From similarities to trajectories that some wrestlers took post-wrestling (a budding writing career? That feels like Mick Foley to me!) to a one off character who is saying Ric Flair’s trademark ‘woo!’, I liked seeing the little references here and there to broader wrestling lore. And I have to imagine that there was a LOT there that a more knowledgable fan would be able to pick up on with ease. Maybe I should make my husband read this, I’m sure he’d spot a lot.

And finally, the artwork feels a lot like quirky cartoons a la “Steven Universe” or something that you may see from Noelle Stephenson, and it worked well for the tone and tongue in cheek attitude that this story has. And the character designs for some of the wrestlers and their mental states are really, really cute. I especially liked the moments where you would see an HP bar for the character depending on what was happening to them in the moment.

The guffaw I let out at this entire panel…. (Source: Graphic Universe)

I thought that “Glorious Wrestling Alliance: Ultimate Edition” was a hoot!! It makes me want to dig up some old hilarious wrestling clips and watch to my heart’s content. There is so much love for the art form on these pages, it’s delightful.

Rating 8: A fun, funny, and sometimes poignant story about pro wrestling and some quirky people who have devoted their lives to it, for better or worse.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Glorious Wrestling Alliance: Ultimate Championship Edition” isn’t on any Goodreads lists at the moment, but I think that it would fit in on “Wrasslin'”.

Find “Ultimate Wrestling Alliance: Ultimate Championship Edition” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “A Trial of Sorcerers”

Book: “A Trial of Sorcerers” by Elise Kova

Publishing Info: Silver Wing Press, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Waterrunner Eira Landan lives her life in the shadows — the shadow of her older brother, of her magic’s whispers, and of the person she accidentally killed. She’s the most unwanted apprentice in the Tower of Sorcerers until the day she decides to step out and compete for a spot in the Tournament of Five Kingdoms.

Pitted against the best sorcerers in the Empire, Eira fights to be one of four champions. Excelling in the trials has its rewards. She’s invited to the royal court with the “Prince of the Tower,” discovers her rare talent for forbidden magic, and at midnight, Eira meets with a handsome elfin ambassador.

But, Eira soon learns, no reward is without risk. As she comes into the spotlight, so too do the skeletons of a past she hadn’t even realized was haunting her.

Eira went into the trials ready for a fight. Ready to win. She wasn’t ready for what it would cost her. No one expected the candidates might not make it out with their lives.

Review: The cover art thing and really strike both ways. I just got down being blown away by “Daughter of the Salt King,” a book I had delayed reading due to the lackluster cover art. And here, on the hand, is a book that I requested from the library purely because I spotted the cover on Goodreads and was drawn in. But, while the book wasn’t offensive or bad in any true way, the cover still ended up being the best part of it for me.

No one knows much about Eira, and she prefers it that way. With dark secrets in her closet and a powerful brother’s shadow to hide within, Eira’s main goal has been to remain out of sight and mind by her fellow apprentices. That is until she joins the Tournament and her true skills begin to be seen at last. Soon enough, Eira’s quiet life explodes outwards, exposing secrets she didn’t know she had and opening doors she isn’t sure she wants to walk through. With new players on the board and a competition turning deadly, Eira’s way forward requires she step out of her comfortable shadows.

Alas, this book was not for me. I read a lot of YA, especially YA fantasy, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize that there is a certain type of YA fantasy that is just too young for me. This makes it hard to review these books on the blog, as I usually can see the appeal of the book for the target age range. But as I’m still the one reviewing the book and it didn’t work for me…it gets a lower rating than it perhaps deserves on its own.

In this particular case, however, I also think that there are better examples of this type of book even for the target age. It’s very “paint by numbers” for every trope there is in the book. What’s worse, it felt like many of these tropes were past their prime. For example, Eira must inevitably attend a ball. She is also, predictably, unprepared for this event, so the help love interest provides a “perfect” dress for her. I mean, we’re talking “Throne of Glass” circa almost ten years ago level tropey-ness here. Not to mention that I’ve always found it fairly creepy that the love interest just “happens” to know the heroine’s exact measurements. I could get into all of the mildly icky ways, but….nah.

Eira is also your fairly standard “I’m not special, except for the fact that I’m super duper special” heroine. She has a “dark past” and, while previous to this story starting was completely unknown, comes blasting onto the stage to blow everyone away with her skills. I will say, as a fairly standard heroine, she wasn’t annoying or obnoxious. Yes, I rolled my eyes a few times. But no, they didn’t roll out of my head, which has been the case with other books like this in the past.

The world-building and plotting was ok enough. I hadn’t read any of the author’s previous books, which I believe are set in the same world. But that being the case, I still felt like I was able to easily step into this story without feeling like I was missing much. It was very approachable, probably it’s biggest stand-out feature for interested readers.

So, yes, this book wasn’t my cup of tea, but I realize that I am also probably not the audience the author was trying to reach. I think that the romance was fairly lacking, which maybe would be a detractor for teen readers, but, as I said, the story was quick and easy to fall-into. Teenage YA fantasy readers might enjoy this, but adult YA fantasy readers might want to steer clear.

Rating 6: Paint-by-numbers fantasy tropes all over the place and oddly out of date ones at that.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Trial of Sorcerers” is on these Goodreads lists: Beautiful Covers KU Paranormal, Dystopia, Sci-Fi and Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2021.

Find “A Trial of Sorcerers” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow”

Book: “Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow” by Christina Henry

Publication Info: Berkley Books, September 2021

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

Book Description: Everyone in Sleepy Hollow knows about the Horseman, but no one really believes in him. Not even Ben Van Brunt’s grandfather, Brom Bones, who was there when it was said the Horseman chased the upstart Crane out of town. Brom says that’s just legend, the village gossips talking.

Twenty years after those storied events, the village is a quiet place. Fourteen-year-old Ben loves to play Sleepy Hollow boys, reenacting the events Brom once lived through. But then Ben and a friend stumble across the headless body of a child in the woods near the village, and the sinister discovery makes Ben question everything the adults in Sleepy Hollow have ever said. Could the Horseman be real after all? Or does something even more sinister stalk the woods?

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

I’ve definitely mentioned it before on this blog, but I will do it again and again: I really love “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving. I’ve enjoyed it ever since I was a little kid who watched the Disney adaptation, and I eventually got around to reading the short story, just in time for the Tim Burton adaptation that totally changes the story, but in the best way. The last adaptation I read was “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”, which I reviewed here and really loved. So quite obviously I was interested in “Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow” by Christina Henry. For one, I’ve heard good things about Henry as an author and wanted to give her a try. And the other, of course, is the setting of Sleepy Hollow.

When a Halloween Party involves this kind of shenanigans, I definitely am going to love the place that throws it. (source)

“Horseman”, unfortunately, didn’t really live up to my high hopes for a new Sleepy Hollow story. But, as always, I am going to start with the things about this book that did for for me, and that is mostly our protagonist, Ben. Ben is the grandchild of Brom Bones and Katrina Van Tassel, important characters from the original story in that Ichabod Crane was pursuing Katrina, and Brom Bones was almost assuredly the ‘horseman’ that chased Ichabod out of town. We now see that they have married and Brom is still the town hero, as well as being a successful farmer. Ben is short for Bente, as while Ben appears to be a girl, Ben actually is a boy at heart who wants to live life as his true self. I really liked seeing how Christina Henry had a trans character at the forefront, and how it was presented in a way that felt rooted in the time period as how Ben saw himself. It was also really nice seeing Ben’s relationships with his grandparents Brom and Katrina, as he was orphaned at a young age and Brom and Katrina raised him. I liked how Brom nurtures Ben’s gender identity (though this is most likely because he misses his dead son Bendix, but still, the genuine love he felt for Ben was really good), and while Katrina has a harder time, it’s less based in Ben’s identity and more based in the fact that she wishes that she could have the same relationship that Brom has with Ben, and during this time period gender roles make it so that she can’t connect with Ben as easily. All of this felt pretty genuine and novel to me. Big caveat here, however: as a cis woman, I could be totally off base about how Henry decided to portray a trans character. If there are problematic things about this depiction, please let me know.

But here’s the thing: “Horseman” stumbles in a lot of ways for me when it comes to the things that I like about the “Sleepy Hollow” stories. For one, it’s difficult for me to see Brom Bones as anything other than an antagonistic force. I clearly can’t say that Irving meant for him to be something other than a somewhat bullyish but ultimately ‘boys will be boys’ kind of character, but he has ALWAYS come off as a loutish asshole to me ever since I was a little girl watching the Disney version. I especially have little to no patience for men who do very cruel or abusive things and then have no consequences, or get painted as perhaps tricky but certainly not malevolent. To me, Brom Bones is a villain in the original story, as while Ichabod’s intentions towards Katrina are probably dubious at best, taking advantage of his superstitions and throwing a flaming pumpkin at his head because you are mad he likes the woman you like is pretty gross. So I didn’t like how Henry decided to make him this ‘well boys will be boys’ character, especially given how some things shook out for characters from the original story (no spoilers here, though). Along with that, I thought that the reveal of what was behind the new murders involving headless victims didn’t have the resonance that it needed. Henry didn’t really lay the foundation well, and then by the time we found out what was going on, it didn’t have the emotional impact it should have had. And the biggest issue I had with this? The Horseman plays VERY little role in this book. Ben has a mysterious emotional connection to him, but again, the reasons for it aren’t constructed terribly well, and once THAT whole thing plays out, that, too, felt like it didn’t get to the narrative punch it wanted, and needed, to have.

So while I liked the main character quite a bit, as a “Sleepy Hollow” tale “Horseman” didn’t work very well for me. I am not opposed to check out other books by Christina Henry, but perhaps my next move will be with a story I’m not as connected to or picky about.

Rating 5: I love me a good “Sleepy Hollow” reimagining and Ben was a good protagonist, but “Horseman” didn’t have enough Horseman and was a little too kind to characters who probably didn’t deserve it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Horror Releases”.

Find “Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Not Just Books: September 2021

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

Serena’s Picks

Movie: “The Courier”

My husband and I happened on this movie purely by opening up Amazon Prime and clicking on the first movie with a recognizable face. Both of the main actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Rachel Brosnahan, were familiar from other things we’ve enjoyed…and that’s about all we knew. The story is based on real-world events where a British salesman ends up sneaking messages in and out of Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a completely unfamiliar story to me, and entirely more stressful than I had planned for the evening. But it was a great film and the acting was superb. I recommend it for any fans of historical dramas.

TV Show: “Survivor” season 41

Covid has definitely thrown out all sense of normal, and one of the things to go has been my usual twice-yearly guilty pleasure show: “Survivor.” Well, at last it’s back! I was super excited to check out the first episode and, not surprisingly, things felt a bit disjointed after being off air for so long. I liked a lot of the twists that were introduced (lack of supplies, more choices that require strategic thinking). But there were also some big misses. The shortened length of time (while probably necessary due to Covid) makes it hard to get to know the cast even as we saw two go right off the bat. There were also a few awkward moments where the show may have been trying to make changes for the right reasons, but did it (twice!) in such the wrong way (performative and throwing some question marks on whose voice holds the most value) that they almost undercut the entire thing. Honestly, if they had just made this change quietly in the background without trying to get pats on the back from viewers, I’d have had a lot more respect for it. As it is…I think it didn’t play well. Ah well, what would the show be without these highs and lows?

TV Show: “Superman and Lois”

Of course I had to watch this show! I was a bit nervous going in, because, while I did watch all of “Smallville” back in the day, I didn’t continue with all of the other “Arrowverse” shows that came out since. And I knew that Superman and Lois both showed up in “Supergirl” on and off so I was concerned that I’d be lost without watching more of those shows (a huge time commitment at this point). But I’m pleased to report that the show stands perfectly well on its own. I was also a bit nervous about how I’d like a show that featured their kids so heavily. I’m usually there for the romance and action, not kid drama. But I did end up liking the choices that were made with the two teenagers. I also really, really liked Tyler Hoechlin as Superman/Clark. He perfectly embodied the character and is probably my favorite version of both characters since Dean Cain’s version way back in the 90s with my beloved “Lois and Clark.” Definitely check this out if you’re a fan of Superman stories!

Kate’s Picks

Video Game: “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!”

I have never really dabbled in dating sim games, though I did give in and download “Choices!” on my phone at one point. But that’s my only experience. One week my husband said he was playing a really ‘strange’ game, and told me that I should give it a try. Like, said ‘it’s Friday night, I think you should play “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!”‘. I didn’t really know what this game was, outside of him saying it was ‘strange’ and ‘dark’. So when I opened it up and it looked like a typical Japanese School Girl dating sim, I was confused…. Especially when I was bombarded with trigger warnings from the game itself warning me about ‘disturbing content’. So on the surface, “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!” has you, the protagonist, join a school literature club with four cute girls, Sayori, Yuri, Monika, and Natsuki. But about halfway through it took a TURN. Which had me saying WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON over and over again. “Doki Doki Literature Club” is anything but a dating sim, and it messed me up in the best way a video game can. And that’s all I will say about it. Because you really gotta go in with little knowledge of what’s coming (but I will say take those trigger warnings at the jump seriously).

TV Show: “Only Murders in the Building”

Though it wasn’t super difficult for me to turn my back on scumlord Woody Allen and his movies, I will admit that the film “Manhattan Murder Mystery” was a movie I knew I would probably miss, as necessary as it was to cut it out of my viewing habits. But lucky for me, the new series “Only Murders in the Building” is VERY MUCH filling that admitted void. Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez play neighbors in an upper crust Manhattan apartment building, who are all true crime nuts. When there is an apparent suicide in their building, they are all so intrigued by the potential for murder that they start investigating it themselves… and stumble into something potentially dangerous. On top of that, they, too, have their secrets. With hilarious results! Martin and Short are always golden and they bring their A game to this show, but Gomez keeps up with them with ease. The chemistry is there, the characters are hilarious, and the mystery is solid. And I love seeing all these characters bumble their way through an amateur murder investigation, with witty dialogue and legitimate suspense to boot. I also find myself feeling very clocked at the true crime fandom satire, so that’s fun.

Docuseries: “LuLaRich”

While I myself have not been taken in by Multi Level Marketing scams, I know some people who have. I’ve known people who have sold Jamberry, Pure Romance, Beach Body, and hell, even my grandmother sold some aloe vera based products through such a thing back when I was a little girl (that said, the muscle balm she had lasted for years and it was SO EFFECTIVE). I had heard of LuLaRoe here and there as a particularly predatory one, so when I saw Prime had a new docuseries on that MLM called “LuLaRich” I was definitely interested to check it out. And oh boy, was it an even bigger mess than I ever could have imagined. Essentially, LuLaRoe is a clothing based MLM that sells gaudy leggings, and after it exploded in popularity a few years ago everything imploded. Women were pulled into an unsustainable and predatory scam, and while some flew high, others fell hard after going into serious debt. “LuLaRich” exposes a lot of the behind the scenes drama, and it interviews not only former employees, but the super disingenuous and creepy married couple that is still in charge today. It’s frustrating and maddening and super messy, and we binged it in one night because we couldn’t turn it off it was so engrossing.

Serena’s Review: “Under the Whispering Door”

Book: “Under the Whispering Door” by TJ Klune

Publishing Info: Tor Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.

Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.

But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.

When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

Review: First off, props to the publisher for another awesome cover for one of Klune’s books. Does it subtly imply that it’s a sequel to the massively successful “House on the Cerulean Sea” with its similarities? Yes. Is it in fact that? No. However, as it’s still a neat cover in its own right, I’ll give it a pass. The fact that there are so few good standalone adult fantasy novels also supports that pass. Let’s dive in!

Young and successful, Wallace never dreamed the end could be so close. But when a reaper shows up for him, he realizes it must be so. Angry and confused, he meets Hugo, a magical being who helps ferry souls to the beyond. Soon Wallace begins to discover that the life he had thought was fulfilling had been an empty thing, bereft of all that makes life well-lived in the end. With only a few precious days remaining to him, Hugo and Wallace set out to give Wallace that last chance at discovering a true life and his true self.

There was a lot to like about this book, but it also wasn’t the high I had been expecting after enjoying Klune’s previous book so much. To begin with what did work, however, Klune’s flair for comedic moments was on point. In particular, the beginning of the story and the flames thrown towards corporate drones were hilarious and apt. As the book progressed, there were several other laugh-out-loud moments. However, as the story continued, even these sometimes began to feel a bit repetitive.

The characters were also quirky and compelling. This is largely a story of Wallace’s transformation from said corporate drone into an emotionally-realized individual, so nailing his character was key to the book working. And for the most part, this works. His interplay with Hugo is well done, and the two characters and their relationship is heartwarming.

However, as I went along, I kept wanting more. The characters were ok, but really just ok. The romance was sweet, but lacked the true heart that I was looking for. And most disappointingly, the message of the book, that of living one’s best life, felt at times trite and repetitive. There were a few times even when the moralizing fell completely flat, with Klune trotting out platitudes that have been overused many times before. Given the general set-up of the book, I knew what I was getting into. But I had hope that Klune would shine a new light on the topic. Or at least offer up some unique ways of looking at a common topic. Alas, not so.

Overall, the book was by no means bad. It just wasn’t what I had hoped to find. It’s perfectly acceptable in what it sets out to do, but knowing Klune’s previous work, I can’t help thinking he could have done better. There were parts of this book that almost felt phoned in, and the story started to drag towards the middling, struggling to keep up its pacing and momentum. Fans of Klune’s work will be pleased to see his trademark humor and strong characters, but he’s also had stronger outings in the past.

Rating 7: A bit disappointing, relying too heavily on tried and true platitudes instead of carving its own space.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Under the Whispering Door” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Queer SFF and 2021 Contemporary/Romance Releases.

Find “Under the Whispering Door” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “As Good As Dead”

Book: “As Good As Dead” (A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #3) by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2021

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

Book Description: The highly anticipated, edge-of-your-seat conclusion to the addictive A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder series that reads like your favorite true crime podcast or show. By the end, you’ll never think the same of good girls again.

Pip’s good girl days are long behind her. After solving two murder cases and garnering internet fame from her crime podcast, she’s seen a lot.

But she’s still blindsided when it starts to feel like someone is watching her. It’s small things at first. A USB stick with footage recording her and the same anonymous source always asking her: who will look for you when you’re the one who disappears? It could be a harmless fan, but her gut is telling her danger is lurking.

When Pip starts to find connections between her possible stalker and a local serial killer, Pip knows that there is only one choice: find the person threatening her town including herself–or be as good as dead. Because maybe someone has been watching her all along

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

Whenever I get to a final book of a series I have genuinely enjoyed, I am torn between wanting to devour it to see how it all plays out, and savoring it to stave off the end as long as possible. When I saw that “As Good As Dead”, the last book in Holly Jackson’s “A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder” series was coming out, I was thrilled and saddened. I think part of me had hoped that perhaps Jackson would make Pippa Fitz-Amobi, true crime obsessive and amateur detective, a series a la Temperence Brennan or Amelia Peabody. But if this is truly the end for Pip, I have to say that, while I was sad to say goodbye, this goodbye was so satisfying that I have few regrets.

Me saying goodbye to this series (though all three books are on my shelf to revisit whenever). (source)

When we left Pip at the end of “Good Girl, Bad Blood”, she had just survived a house fire and witnessed the brutal murder of sometimes ally, sometimes thorn in her side Stanley, who had been revealed as the son of a notorious murderer and who was killed out of revenge though he himself was a child at the time of the murders. Pip has been downward spiraling ever since, as while she’s counting the days down until she leaves for college, she’s also been taking Xanax on the sly to help her sleep, having PTSD episodes in secret, and fighting back unbridled rage issues. Especially since serial rapist Max Hastings, whose actions had far reaching consequences for Pip and those she cares about, has gone free. I had a very clear idea of what I thought was going to happen with this book. Pip is very unwell, understandably so, and I figured that we were going to get an exploration of a detective on the edge, who is after one last case to try and absolve herself of her roles in past cases and tragedies that came from them. As well as trying to solve the newest case of who is stalking her before it is too late.

In terms of these things, Jackson soars. I completely believed Pip’s mental state, and I loved that Jackson decided to go in this direction. I also found the slowly escalating stalker events in her life to be very creepy and unsettling, and through a combination of narrative as well as pictures, graphs, and epistolary segments (much like the previous books), we have a new case of a long supposedly solved serial killer that Pip now has to attend to, lest she be the next victim. Did this seem a little out there? Sure. But I was totally willing to buy in. Mostly because Jackson really knows how to plot a thriller that has wonderful characters and good connections to previous books/cases in the series.

It was about halfway through this book that I realized that Jackson had something else in store for the reader, and when I realized where it was all going, I was both blown away and a little bit horrified. I’m not going to spoil anything here, as it’s definitely worth keeping close to the vest. But “As Good As Dead” does away with preconceived notions of where this final book could go, even more so than just making Pip a complete emotional wreck. At first I was skeptical and a little bit incredulous, but as the plot goes on, it becomes very clear that Jackson has plans for Pip, and they are probably a foregone conclusion for her storyline given how things have been building since the first book. It’s so well done, and so suspenseful, and it made this final book a serious firecracker of a thriller. And I found myself going back to the previous two books to look for clues to see just how far back Jackson was planning this whole thing. It’s very well done. As mentioned above, while the main issue that Pip is facing (being the target of a potential dormant serial killer) did feel a little bit much, Jackson tells that story and the whole new other story so well that I was just enjoying the hell out of the ride. As well as getting my emotions totally run through the wringer. Sweet, sweet agony.

“As Good As Dead” is a satisfying end to a very enjoyable series! I look forward to seeing what Jackson writes next, and I wouldn’t mind revisiting Pip and all her loved ones down the road.

Rating 9: A supremely satisfying (and at times very very bleak) conclusion to a YA series I love, “As Good As Dead” takes Pip on her darkest case yet.

Reader’s Advisory:

“As Good As Dead” is included on the Goodreads lists “Young Adult THRILLERS”, and “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2021”.

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

Previously reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Daughter of the Salt King”

Book: “Daughter of the Salt King” by A.S. Thornton

Publishing Info: CamCat Books, February 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As a daughter of the Salt King, Emel ought to be among the most powerful women in the desert. Instead, she and her sisters have less freedom than even her father’s slaves … for the Salt King uses his own daughters to seduce visiting noblemen into becoming powerful allies by marriage.

Escape from her father’s court seems impossible, and Emel dreams of a life where she can choose her fate. When members of a secret rebellion attack, Emel stumbles upon an alluring escape route: her father’s best-kept secret—a wish-granting jinni, Saalim.

But in the land of the Salt King, wishes are never what they seem. Saalim’s magic is volatile. Emel could lose everything with a wish for her freedom as the rebellion intensifies around her. She soon finds herself playing a dangerous game that pits dreams against responsibility and love against the promise of freedom. As she finds herself drawn to the jinni for more than his magic, captivated by both him and the world he shows her outside her desert village, she has to decide if freedom is worth the loss of her family, her home and Saalim, the only man she’s ever loved.

Review: I’ll be honest, I requested this book way back in February the month it was coming out. I remember being intrigued by the description (I’m always in for a good jinni story) and happy to find an adult fantasy novel featuring a leading lady (something that I had been struggling to find at the time). But…then it just sat on my Kindle. And the reason I never looked at it to remind myself? The cover! Yes, I was one of those people who definitely started judging it on the cover and what my judgement was saying was: wow, that looks dull. And that’s too bad, because this book is way more exciting than the rather lackluster cover suggests.

As one of the more beautiful daughters of the Salt King, Emel has never understood why she can’t fulfill the only purpose her father allows her and her sisters: to seduce potential suitors whose connections wouldn’t benefit the Salt King. With a harrowing deadline growing steadily closer, Emel dreams of escape. As cracks begin to crumble around her seemingly all-powerful father, Emel stumbles on the secret to his success: a captive jinni who must fulfill his every wish. Soon Emel and Saalim form a strong attachment, but even with Saalim’s power at their fingertips, it’s a volatile thing, more like to harm them than help them. However, other forces are moving and soon their hands will be forced.

This book was such a pleasant surprise! Sometimes it seems that I know from the very first few sentences that a book will be for me. It’s something in the writing: longer, detailed sentences with expert use of a large vocabulary to begin drawing in the reader right away. This was definitely one of those stories. I felt immediately drawn to Emel, even when first meeting her in very tough circumstances when her choices are very much of the practical, if difficult, sort and not those that we often see from the “strong, feisty” heroines at the heart of these stories. Instead, half of Emel’s story is her growing to dream of more for herself and to slowly take control of the limited choices she has before her to direct that future into existence. She still made some puzzling choices, but they felt natural to this type of growth from a character’s whose life has been completely directed by an outside force for the entirety of her existence.

I also loved the romance. While this is a fantasy story first, the romance is a strong, driving element in the overall plot, so readers have to be onboard with that from the get go to enjoy the novel as a whole. I love a romantic fantasy, and both Emel and Saalim were compelling individually and even better together. It wasn’t exactly a slow-burn romance, but it also wasn’t instalove, with enough suspicion and miscommunication to ensure it read as realistic. The foibles that are set up before them also felt earned and also significant. I had a few ideas for how to get out of one snag or another, but most of the time the author quickly stomped out these plots, slowly twisting the screws on our tragic couple.

The world and magic were also interesting. There wasn’t anything incredibly unique to it all, being at times a fairly standard desert fantasy featuring a jinni with the usual abilities. But there added histories and beliefs tangled up in the magical elements that slowly began layering on top of one another as I read, until, in the end, the tapestry felt appropriately detailed and nuanced. In particular, I liked the brief exploration of the goddess behind the jinni’s power and his own backstory.

I really, really liked this book. It was simply solid in every way. It’s only lacking that 10 rating for having a few inexplicable character beats and having pacing that was a bit disjointed early on in the story. But those are real nitpicks on my part. There was also a fairly decent cliffhanger at the end. So, in this way, I was rewarded for dragging my feet about getting to this one as now my wait should be shorter before the second book comes out. Fans of jinnis and romance-heavy fantasies should definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: A wonderful surprise with two main characters you can’t help but love.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Daughter of the Salt King” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021 and Desert Fantasy.

Find “Daughter of the Salk King” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!