Kate’s Review: “Hell in the Heartland”

52218496Book: “Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Case of Two Missing Girls” by Jax Miller

Publishing Info: Berkley, July 2020

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

Book Description: The stranger-than-fiction cold case from rural Oklahoma that has stumped authorities for two decades, concerning the disappearance of two teenage girls and the much larger mystery of murder, police cover-up, and an unimaginable truth…

On December 30, 1999, in rural Oklahoma, sixteen-year-old Ashley Freeman and her best friend, Lauria Bible, were having a sleepover. The next morning, the Freeman family trailer was in flames and both girls were missing.

While rumors of drug debts, revenge, and police collusion abounded in the years that followed, the case remained unsolved and the girls were never found.

In 2015, crime writer Jax Miller–who had been haunted by the case–decided to travel to Oklahoma to find out what really happened on that winter night in 1999, and why the story was still simmering more than fifteen years later. What she found was more than she could have ever bargained for: jaw-dropping levels of police negligence and corruption, entire communities ravaged by methamphetamine addiction, and a series of interconnected murders with an ominously familiar pattern.

These forgotten towns were wild, lawless, and home to some very dark secrets.

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

For someone who enjoys a good true crime podcast and likes to spend time on the Reddit sub “Unresolved Mysteries”, I am always taken in by the story of a cold case, murder, or strange mystery that I have never heard of before. So when I was browsing NetGalley’s list of upcoming true crime books, “Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Cse of Two Missing Girls” by Jax Miller caught my attention. The case has all the components of an “Unsolved Mysteries” episode. You have two missing teenagers in rural Oklahoma, Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible. Lauria was sleeping over at Ashley’s trailer home, but early the next morning it was found burning. First responders and police found the body of Ashley’s mother, and later her father’s body was also found. But there was no sign of Ashley or Lauria, and they haven’t been seen ever since. I thought that it would be a tantalizing and strange story, and it certainly is. But Miller takes it even further, and decides to paint a broader picture than just a tale about two missing teens. We also get a study of police negligence, small town criminality, and the way that a community like this has fallen on hard times, and how that has broad repercussions.

“Hell in the Heartland” is for the most part a true crime mystery, and the case is a head scratcher to be sure. There are two prevailing theories about what may have happened to Ashley and Lauria, and it seems to be split along family lines as to whom those theories appeal to. Miller gives due diligence to both theories, and while I think that probability falls far more on the side of one, I liked that in this book we got pretty strong arguments for both. The first, subscribed to by Ashley’s surviving family members, is that the local enforcement officials were trying to cover up some wrong doing. After all, Ashley’s brother Shane had been shot and killed by an officer not too long before Ashley disappeared and her parents were murdered. The officer claimed that he had drawn a gun, but the Freemans never believed it. The circumstances were suspicious, and the way that the police bungled a few things about the investigation into the Freeman murders and missing girls was absolutely reckless at best, and damning at worst. I have no problem believing that a department feeling sore about unwanted attention because of a grieving family wanting justice would mishandle a case regarding said family, so it’s not really a stretch to think that maybe the police could be capable of something so terrible. The other theory is that local meth kingpins were the ones that committed this crime, as their proximity and potential involvement with the Freeman family would give motive, means, and opportunity. As the book goes on this seems to be a more likely scenario, especially given recent arrests and evidence that ties them to the girls. But all that said, Miller still wants to present all of the evidence and to give a very clear picture of both possibilities, as at the end of the day we still don’t know where Ashley and Lauria are, even if we think we know what happened to them. While there may be an official ‘end’ in terms of how our legal system is seeing it, Miller makes it very clear to the reader that there is no closure and there is no real justice, because Ashley and Lauria never came home in one way or another. And for Lauria’s parents especially, that isn’t justice.

But beyond the case itself, “Hell in the Heartland” paints a very grim and sad picture about the rural community that Ashley and Lauria were living in when they disappeared. From Ashley’s brother Shane dying at the hands of a police officer with no repercussions, to Ashely’s grandparents very clear mental health issues that aren’t being addressed, to poverty in general and how the meth trade takes root within it, we see that Ashley and Lauria’s kidnapping, and the murder of the Freemans, wasn’t within a vacuum. Hell, the fact that one of the big drug lords was a known violent lunatic, with assault, domestic violence, and other horrible things being is M.O., and no one could do anything but stay out of his way, says volumes. Violence and secrets are more common than we may think in small towns like this, and to me that was one of the harder things to swallow about this story.

“Hell in the Heartland” is a story that you may not know about even if you’re a true crime aficionado, but after reading this book you’ll want to know more. Jax Miller has really shined a light on a case that hasn’t really left Oklahoma, and hopefully it will have a wide enough reach that one day Ashley and Lauria will be brought home.

Rating 7: A sad and strange cold case that has no official end, “Hell in the Heartland” takes a look at the story of two missing girls, and some very sad facts and dangers about the community they lived in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hell in the Heartland” is new and not included on any Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Poverty in the USA”, and “Corruption in High Places”.

Find “Hell in the Heartland” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Bookclub Review: “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings”

35430013._sx318_We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent or of that continent’s descent.

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

Book: “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman (Eds.)

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, June 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Continent: Asia

Book Description: Star-crossed lovers, meddling immortals, feigned identities, battles of wits, and dire warnings: these are the stuff of fairy tale, myth, and folklore that have drawn us in for centuries.

Sixteen bestselling and acclaimed authors reimagine the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia in short stories that are by turns enchanting, heartbreaking, romantic, and passionate.

Compiled by We Need Diverse Books’s Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman—who both contributed stories to this edition, as well—the authors included in this exquisite collection are: Renée Ahdieh, Sona Charaipotra, Preeti Chhibber, Roshani Chokshi, Aliette de Bodard, Melissa de la Cruz, Julie Kagawa, Rahul Kanakia, Lori M. Lee, E. C. Myers, Cindy Pon, Aisha Saeed, Shveta Thakrar, and Alyssa Wong.

A mountain loses her heart. Two sisters transform into birds to escape captivity. A young man learns the true meaning of sacrifice. A young woman takes up her mother’s mantle and leads the dead to their final resting place.

From fantasy to science fiction to contemporary, from romance to tales of revenge, these stories will beguile readers from start to finish. For fans of Neil Gaiman’s Unnatural Creatures and Ameriie’s New York Times–bestselling Because You Love to Hate Me.

Kate’s Thoughts

I read the short story collections “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” back when it first came out in 2018, and for being a short story collection I greatly enjoyed it! I felt like there was a hearty mix of genres and perspectives in its pages, and was more satisfied than not with the tales that were derived from various Asian folklores and mythologies. When our Book Club picked it, I was eager to re-read the stories, but didn’t expect to feel any differently. But what I discovered as I re-read the book was that my own perspectives changed, and my old favorites either had new depth, or completely shifted out in favor of new ones.

The two stories that remained favorites for me were “Olivia’s Table” by Alyssa Wong and “The Land of the Morning Calm” by E.C. Myers. “Olivia’s Table” is about a young woman who has inherited her mother’s job of ‘exorcist’ for a small ghosttown in the Southwest, in which actual ghosts of the area congregate during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Olivia makes them a feast that helps them cross over. “The Land of the Morning Calm” is about a teen whose mother’s ghost is seemingly trapped inside an MMORPG based upon Korean folklore. I mean, of course stories about ghosts are always going to float my boat, so it’s probably no surprise that those were still near and dear. But both of them had some very touching themes about mother/daughter relationships, grief, and moving on which were incredibly touching and emotional. But as mentioned above, this time around I had stories move up in my rankings upon a second read. The best example of this was Julie Kagawa’s “Eyes Like Candlelight”, which takes the Japanese fox spirit mythology and puts it into a short story about love, loss, and vengeance. A fox spirit falls for a man whose village is being taken advantage of by tax collectors, and after tragedy strikes she takes her revenge on those who wronged her and her lover. I don’t even know why this one didn’t catch my eye the first time around, because this time I REALLY liked the tone and storytelling.

And the best thing about all of the stories in this book is that at the end of each of them, there is an author’s note about the original mythology or folktale that gives it context and allows the reader to see how the stories have been adapted for this collection. I love me an authors note with historical factoids, and having that at the end really enhanced the experience for me. As someone who hadn’t been familiar with a lot of the story origins on my first read, I found this to be super helpful. This time around it was nice just having the reminder, as I hadn’t retained all of the information after two years. It’s just a great idea to have this kind of thing in general. On top of context, this is such a varied collection of all different type of genres, I feel like it has something for everyone. There’s mild horror, modern teen hijinks, romance, Sci-Fi, “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” shows the vast creativity of these authors, and it has encouraged me to read more of a few of their works.

“A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” is engaging and varied, and if you are looking for a short story collection with a vast range of tastes, this is a great choice.

Kate’s Rating 8: A varied and well rounded selection of stories with influences from the Asian Diaspora, “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” is a well done collection with something for everyone.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you have a favorite story in this collection, or any that particularly stood out to you? What was it about this story that caught your attention? How about a least favorite?
  2. How familiar were you with the folklore in this book?
  3. What did you think of the interpretations of some of these myths and folktales and how they were re-told within their new stories or genres? Were any of the genre choices surprising to you?
  4. Had to read any of the authors whose works were in this collection? If not, did this collection inspire you to pick up their other works?
  5. Who would you recommend this book to?

Reader’s Advisory

“A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” is included on the Goodreads lists “Modern Mythologies”, and “Alternative Summer Reading List”.

Find “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “The BreakBeat Poets Vol.4: LatiNext” by Felicia Rose Chavez, José Olivarez, and Willie Perdomo (Eds.).

 

Serena’s Review: “The Lost Sun”

27230933Book: “The Lost Sun” by Tessa Gratton

Publishing Info: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, October 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from library!

Book Description: Fans of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” and Holly Black’s “The Curse Workers” will embrace this richly drawn, Norse-mythology-infused alternate world: the United States of Asgard. Seventeen-year-old Soren Bearskin is trying to escape the past. His father, a famed warrior, lost himself to the battle-frenzy and killed thirteen innocent people. Soren cannot deny that berserking is in his blood–the fevers, insomnia, and occasional feelings of uncontrollable rage haunt him. So he tries to remain calm and detached from everyone at Sanctus Sigurd’s Academy. But that’s hard to do when a popular, beautiful girl like Astrid Glyn tells Soren she dreams of him. That’s not all Astrid dreams of–the daughter of a renowned prophetess, Astrid is coming into her own inherited abilities.

When Baldur, son of Odin and one of the most popular gods in the country, goes missing, Astrid sees where he is and convinces Soren to join her on a road trip that will take them to find not only a lost god, but also who they are beyond the legacy of their parents and everything they’ve been told they have to be.

Review: This is another one of those mystery books that has been hanging out on my audiobook “to read” list at the library. I have no memory of where I heard of it originally or why I requested it specifically. I mean, looking at the description, it definitely seemed interesting, but there are also a million and one fantasy books out there, so why this one? Maybe I was going through a Thor/Loki moment when I stumbled on it and put it on here? Either way, it was available the other day when I was looking for my next book, so I checked it out! It was definitely an interesting read, but also not quite all I had hoped for.

Soren’s days have been largely devoted to training, both physically in the skills of a warrior, and mentally in the self-control needed to keep the beserking rage he inherited from his father in check. Often this means missing out on social activities with friends and keeping to himself. But when Astrid, the daughter of a famed seer, joins the school, she seeks him and begins to pry into his solitary existence. After a beloved god goes missing, Soren now finds himself on a roadtrip mission with Astrid in the hopes of finding this lost deity and returning him to where he belongs. But that’s only the beginning of a journey that will take them far and uncover much about themselves, their pasts, and their future.

What stood out the most in this book was the creative world-building. What we have here is an alternate version of the United States in which the Norse gods are very real and have a very real influence on every aspect of society: government structure, education, career paths, you name it. I really enjoyed how creative the author was with such a bizarre idea, and how seamless was the end result, considering how strange it is, overall.

This is Soren’s story, so much of the history and current state of the world is told through his point of view. Soren is a good narrator, in this respect, as all of these needed details to flesh out this type of world were delivered in a believable, non-exposition manner, something that is definitely a challenge for a book written in first person. Soren’s own history, that of having a father who gave in to the beserker madness and killed innocent people, is never far from his mind, and from the very beginning we see the limited future Soren sees for himself. He is constantly battling an inner war, and his fear of himself and his abilities stains almost every choice he makes.

The  main problem for me arrived in the form of the other main character, Astrid. Right from the start she struck me as very “manic pixie dream girl” in her behaviors and descriptions. I think the character had potential, but it was really hard to get behind her part of the story when that impression was so strong right off the bat. As the story started moving more, it was easier to be distracted from it. But it was still the sort of thing that popped up throughout and left me having a hard time feeling really too compelled or interested in her part of the story. And then, since so much of Soren’s story becomes tied up with hers, I also lost some interest in him.

Overall, I thought this was a really creative, fun book. My problem most centered around some of the characterization choices that made it hard for me to feel truly invested in the story’s main characters. But if you’re into Norse mythology and want to read a new take on the subject, this might be one worth checking out!

Rating 7: A fun, unique fantasy story set in a re-imagined United States, though the characters left something to be desired.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Lost Sun” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Alternate History Novels and Stories” and “Books with Lost or Found in the Title.”

Find “The Lost Sun” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Some Kind of Animal”

41016362Book: “Some Kind of Animal” by Maria Romasco Moore

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, August 2020

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

Book Description: A story about two girls guarding a secret no one would ever believe and the desperate lengths they will go to in order to protect each other from the outside world.

Jo lives in the same town where her mother disappeared fifteen years ago. Everyone knows what happened to Jo’s mom. Now people are starting to talk about Jo. She’s barely passing her classes and falls asleep at her desk every day. She’s following in her mom’s footsteps. Jo has a secret — she has a twin sister. Her sister is not like most people. She lives in the woods, wild and free. Night after night, as often as she can manage, Jo slips out of her bedroom window and meets her sister in the woods, where together they run, fearlessly.

When Jo’s twin attacks a boy from town, the people in town assume it must have been Jo. Now Jo has to decide whether to tell the world about her sister or to run. SOME KIND OF ANIMAL is an accessible, feminist thriller that digs into themes of sisterhood, family, and friendship.

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

My bachelor’s degree is in Psychology, and one of the most interesting topics from one of my classes was the story of Victor of Aveyron, aka the Wild Boy of Aveyron. In the late 1700s in France a feral twelve year old boy was found roaming the countryside. He was eventually taken into society and studied, and various people attempted to acclimate him to the human world. While he never fully acclimated, there was some progress while he was in the care of a medical student named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard. Feral children have been seen in history and in literature, and “Some Kind of Animal” by Maria Romasco Moore brings that theme to a YA thriller. The feral child plot point is what drew me in initially, I think, though I had theories that this story couldn’t possibly actually be dealing with a feral child, because it seemed like it would be difficult to pull off in the setting that it was functioning in. And yet.

I went into “Some Kind of Monster” believing that our main character Jo didn’t actually have a twin sister named Lee who was living in the wilderness outside her small town. Given Jo’s traumatic childhood, after her mother disappeared and was possibly murdered, and growing up with a harried aunt and a toxic grandmother, as well as being unable to shake the reputation her mother had, I thought it would be a manifestation of her trauma. But I can tell you right now that no, there is absolutely a feral twin living in the woods, and reader, I just don’t think that I quite believed it. Don’t get me wrong, the groundwork is kind of laid to show how Lee ended up there, and how she stayed and survived out there without anyone knowing about her existence outside of Jo. Explanations are given, but I’m still not totally certain that I buy them. I also don’t quite buy Jo not telling anyone who MIGHT listen to her about her twin. Grandma Margaret, sure, that woman is awful and her reaction to what she perceives as a lie definitely tracks, therein making Jo’s reluctance to insist upon Lee’s existence completely believable. But not telling her Aunt Aggie? Not telling her best friend Savannah? I can’t suspend my disbelief that hard. On top of that, there are a lot of twists and reveals that happen once the action in this book gets going, but once they are revealed a fair number of them don’t have much pay off. There is a rather big one regarding a character’s paternity that I thought would have a lot of reverberations, but it’s barely touched upon for the rest of the book, at least in a way that might bring some insight into both characters. It just felt rushed. And the ending? VERY rushed.

Along with a hard to believe and hasty plot, most of the characters weren’t very interesting or multifaceted. Again, I thought that this book was going to be an exploration of Jo’s traumatic childhood, but while it’s acknowledged it was a hard time and that she has trouble trusting people, it’s a whole lot of telling and not much showing. Lee, too, is relegated to feral girl role, and she just isn’t terribly interesting outside of ‘so is she going to attack someone again?’ I will say, however, that there was one character who didn’t feel two dimensional or incomplete, and that is the character of Jo’s Aunt Aggie. There was a very quiet sadness about Aggie, who has been raising Jo as best she can while also mourning the loss of her little sister, and trying to keep Jo away from Aggie’s toxic mother Margaret. I thought that Aggie was the most compelling character because she is very obviously in over her head when it comes to being the guardian to her neice, and doesn’t make the wisest decisions when it comes to her own life and choices (shacking up with the new pastor in town when she herself has turned her back on God seems like maybe not the BEST idea, especially since the pastor is clearly trying to save himself by saving others). She really reminded me of Parker Posey’s character Libby Mae in “Waiting for Guffman”, if Libby Mae was a bit more beaten down by life.

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(source)

I was quite disappointed that “Some Kind of Animal” didn’t gel for me. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t gel for you! I could definitely see myself recommending it to the right person. After all…

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Rating 4: A promising idea falls short. Improbable plot points and two dimensional characters really dragged this story down.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Some Kind of Animal” is included on the Goodreads list “2020 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Find “Some Kind of Animal” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Gilded Wolves”

39863498Book: “The Gilded Wolves” by Roshani Chokshi

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, January 2019

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

Book Description: It’s 1889. The city is on the cusp of industry and power, and the Exposition Universelle has breathed new life into the streets and dredged up ancient secrets. Here, no one keeps tabs on dark truths better than treasure-hunter and wealthy hotelier Séverin Montagnet-Alarie. When the elite, ever-powerful Order of Babel coerces him to help them on a mission, Séverin is offered a treasure that he never imagined: his true inheritance.

To hunt down the ancient artifact the Order seeks, Séverin calls upon a band of unlikely experts: An engineer with a debt to pay. A historian banished from his home. A dancer with a sinister past. And a brother in arms if not blood.

Together, they will join Séverin as he explores the dark, glittering heart of Paris. What they find might change the course of history–but only if they can stay alive.

Review: I was a bit hesitant to pick this book for a few reasons. First, as readers of this blog know, the last year or so has been made up of a lot of middling reviews from me for books that I feel are WAY too similar to “Six of Crows” to be called much more than blatant cash grabs on the part of authors and publishers who want in on the lingering popularity of that duology. And secondly, I’ve tried to read Roshani Chokshi’s books in the past because she’s a fairly beloved YA author and…haven’t loved her work. But, I thought I’d give it one more go. And, in an improvement on my opinions on her other books, this one was…ok.

Severin had been on the cusp of entering into an inheritance that would establish him into one of the most exclusive and privileged circles in the nation, if not the world. But, in the eleventh hour, he is rejected and outcast. Ever since, Severin has worked to gather up a crew of other outcasts in an attempt to regain his birthright. Each with their own speckled past and hopes for the future, this ragtag group will now find themselves caught up in conspiracies grander than they could ever had expected. But with the potential riches, comes the equally dangerous perils.

So, to start with the pros of this book. One of my major complaints about Chokshi’s work in the past was my distaste for her overly flowery writing. It was of the type too often found in YA where it seems like the authors are just playing word spaghetti and hoping to string together sentences that sound pretty. Who cares if they don’t make any actual sense or the metaphors are pure nonsense if looked at for more than half a second? But luckily, here, there was less of it, especially of the flowery type. I still think the writing left something to be desired, however. No one can fault the author for her dialogue writing, as that was witty and fast. But the actual description of how the magic system worked or some of the actions scenes were confusing, and even after re-reading, I didn’t have a solid image in my mind for what exactly she was trying to describe.

I also enjoyed most of the characters, though this two is both a positive of the book and a negative. The author does a great job of peopling her story with a diverse cast of characters. They come from different cultures, religions, orientations, you name it. However, when you’re actually reading the chapters, many of their voices sound very similar, which seems to detract from the actual celebration of differences that she seems to be setting out to accomplish. Given the author’s note at the back and the author’s own story, I don’t believe she was just trying to check boxes, but I do think that, again, her writing itself let her down where these characters were concerned. And, of course, I can’t end a section on characters and not acknowledge the giant elephant/”Six of Crows” shadow in the room: several of these characters were disturbing similar to characters in that book. The story itself was very different, but the characters….the two “main” characters and their romances were especially disconcertingly similar to that of Kaz and Ines.

I was intrigued by the world-building and the history of the magic in this world and how it worked. There were a lot of creative ideas thrown around, and some of them were definitely unique and whimsical, fitting in perfectly with the author’s style and the story she was laying out with its tone and characters. There were times, however, where I felt like there was always some magical “out” or McGuffin that the team could use to solve almost every problem. It didn’t really seem like you had to be all that clever or skilled to pull of the things they were doing, and more just needed to have the right magical tools that did the job for them. And at the same time, the existence of all these magical get-arounds seemed to undermine the dangers or protections that the crew was setting out to get around. What good are all of these magical wards if they are so easily bypassed by some other magical tool or what not? I wish the story had been a bit more clever in these areas.

So, as you can see, I had a fairly middling experience with this book. It was a fast read, and the adventure and snappy dialogue kept things moving to the point that I never felt the need to put the book down (as I have with other books by this author in the past). But on deeper reflection, once I’d finished the book, a lot of the elements involved seemed to be wanting in some way. The story definitely ends with a set-up for the next, and I’m intrigued enough to continue. I’m hopeful that as this book seemed an improvement on some of the author’s works of the past, that things will continue in that direction and the second book will feel a bit more solid. If you’re not totally burned out on “Six of Crows” read-alikes, this one might be worth checking out. If you’re a fan of this author, than definitely.

Rating 7: Most of the pros had corresponding cons, but I’m in it enough to want to continue on to the next, which is a bigger compliment than I’ve paid the author’s books in the past.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Gilded Wolves” is on these Goodreads lists: “Speculative Fiction Heist/Caper Stories” and “YA Fantasy by WOC.”

Find “The Gilded Wolves” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Night Swim”

51169341Book: “The Night Swim” by Megan Goldin

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, August 2020

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

Book Description: After the first season of her true crime podcast became an overnight sensation and set an innocent man free, Rachel Krall is now a household name―and the last hope for thousands of people seeking justice. But she’s used to being recognized for her voice, not her face. Which makes it all the more unsettling when she finds a note on her car windshield, addressed to her, begging for help.

The small town of Neapolis is being torn apart by a devastating rape trial. The town’s golden boy, a swimmer destined for Olympic greatness, has been accused of raping a high school student, the beloved granddaughter of the police chief. Under pressure to make Season Three a success, Rachel throws herself into interviewing and investigating―but the mysterious letters keep showing up in unexpected places. Someone is following her, and she won’t stop until Rachel finds out what happened to her sister twenty-five years ago. Officially, Jenny Stills tragically drowned, but the letters insists she was murdered―and when Rachel starts asking questions, nobody seems to want to answer. The past and present start to collide as Rachel uncovers startling connections between the two cases that will change the course of the trial and the lives of everyone involved.

Electrifying and propulsive, The Night Swim asks: What is the price of a reputation? Can a small town ever right the wrongs of its past? And what really happened to Jenny?

Review: Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for sending me a print ARC of this novel!

We’re seeing more and more podcast themed books, and as of now I, for one, am still very pleased with this theme in thrillers. If an author does it well, it adds a whole other layer to a story that combines my favorite kinds of books with one of my other favorite forms of entertainment. When St. Martin’s Press sent me “The Night Swim” by Megan Goldin I was elated, as this book had already kind of been on my radar because of the podcast theme. When I did jump on into the narrative, it sucked me right in. And it also made me very, very uncomfortable.

“The Night Swim” has two crimes that our protagonist, Rachel, is following. One is for her podcast, ‘Guilty or Not Guilty’, and it follows a high profile rape case in the small town of Neapolis. A popular and charismatic young man with Olympic dreams is accused of raping a sixteen year old girl, and the town (as well as people all over the world) are split on whether or not he’s guilty. While Rachel is in town, she keeps getting mysterious correspondence from Hannah, a woman who wants Rachel to investigate the death of her older sister Jenny, who was found drowned twenty years before, also in Neapolis. We have multiple narrative styles to tie these two seemingly unrelated cases together. We have Hannah’s letters to Rachel, Rachel’s podcast, and a third person narrative following Rachel’s podcast research and eventual investigation into Jenny’s death. It’s a lot, but Goldin makes it work, blending them all together and carefully revealing how some things, like rape culture and small town politics, never really change even as decades pass. This thriller is really part murder mystery, part courtroom drama, and Goldin balances both aspects meticulously. I was held in suspense regarding what the outcome of the rape trial was going to be, but also as to whether or not Rachel was going to find out what really happened to Jenny. The reveals were all well done and some were genuinely surprising, and while I did piece together a few clues probably earlier than I was supposed to, all of the big reveals were still surprising and enjoyable.

But what made this book stand out from other thrillers I’ve read as of late, and what made it a very difficult read at times, was how frank and unflinching Goldin is when it comes to the themes of rape in this book. While I feel that sometimes other thrillers will have rape as a plot point or as a crime in their pages, going into details or seeing the traumatic fallout aren’t as focused on, rather focusing on the investigation to bring the perpetrator to justice. In “The Night Swim”, Goldin opts to show what it is like for a victim to have to relive her attack while on the stand, and in the spotlight of a high profile trial. After reading Chanel Miller’s “Know My Name”, the memoir of the woman raped by Brock Turner (and whose case is clearly inspiration for this storyline), it was especially jarring and upsetting to read these parts as the victim, Kelly, is forced to tell her story in graphic detail in front of a courtroom full of strangers. But while it was hard, I thought that it was important to show that rape isn’t just a plot point, that it has a horrific fallout, and that the fact that victims have to basically be re-traumatized to get justice, justice that isn’t even guaranteed, is abominable. The descriptions of Kelly’s rape (as well as the assault of Jenny) will definitely be hard to read for many people, so content warnings abound in this book. And while we don’t really get to know much about Kelly outside of her victim status, we DO get to know Jenny very well.

It’s a hard one, but I did really like “The Night Swim”. Steel your heart and get ready for righteous indignation to rush through you, but I think that if you are a thriller reader you should probably pick it up.

Rating 8: A compelling mystery is accompanied by an unflinching look at rape culture and trauma. “The Night Swim” is difficult at times but also feels like it takes on difficult themes that other thrillers may gloss over.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Night Swim” is included on the Goodreads lists“Books for Serial Podcast Lovers”, and “Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2020”.

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

Highlights: August 2020

We’re well into summer now, and a bizarre summer indeed it has been. In many ways, it seems these months have been marked by what normal things haven’t happened than what has, and this month’s loss: the Minnesota State Fair. Kate is a regular fair goer, and Serena…not so much. Though Kate did accompany her on her first trip! Instead, over the summer, several fair vendors and food trucks have set up camp around the city. So we’ll both have to get our (different) fixes that way! But, of course, what stays the same always: our love of books. Here are some titles we’re looking forward to this month!

Serena’s Picks

41022295._sy475_Book: “The Faithless Hawk” by Margaret Owen

Publication Date: August 18, 2020

Why I’m Interested: I just finished reading the first book in this duology a month or so ago. Perfectly timed to have the second book due to come out soon should I enjoy it. And enjoy it I did! The creative world-building, the lovely romance, and, of course, its fierce heroine, Fie. Coming into her own as a Chief of one of the bands of Crows, Fie sees change on the horizon for her people. But her friend’s journey to the thrown does not go as smoothly as she had hoped, and those she loved best turn out to not be exactly what she thought. Not caught in a game of espionage and sabotage, Fie and some unlikely friends work to prevent the evil Swan queen from taking complete control of the country and dooming the Crows forever. I’m really excited to see how this one turns out, though am a bit worried about the word “faithless” in conjunction with a certain Hawk boyfriend of Fie’s…

9781616963460_b1ce2Book: “Driftwood” by Marie Brennan

Publication Date: August 14, 2020

Why I’m Interested: Up to this point, I’ve only read a “Lady Trent” book and a spin-off/sequel to that story. I’ve enjoyed both, overall, mostly due to the strong writing at its heart. With that in mind, I was excited to see a new book by Marie Brennan show up on Edelweiss and a completely unique one at that! In a strange new world, the apocalypse has already happened, is still happening, and has yet to completely fulfill its purpose. Driftwood is where doomed worlds come to finally die. And each shrinking world’s people must come to their own terms with this eventual end. Except, seemingly, for one man, Last, a being who has been around since…well, forever it seems. Guide, friend, enigma, Last has been many things to many different people. And now that he may be gone for good, those people gather to tell stories of their fading worlds, of Driftwood, and of Last. It sounds like a completely bizarre set-up, and I’m super excited about it.

9780062894625_50898Book: “Star Daughter” by Shveta Thakrar

Publication Date: August 11, 2020

Why I’m Interested: Well, for one, the cover. That’s just beautiful cover art there. And the concept sounds really wonderful as well. A young woman born of a mortal man and a mother who is a star. And after her human father is injured, she must travel back to the night sky where her mother returned long ago to gain the power of a full star to heal him. There’s also something about ruling houses and a competition which I’m less into since I feel like that story has been told a bunch of times. But I’m intrigued enough with the original premise to see the new take the author may bring to even that part of the story. I don’t know a lot about Hindu mythology, upon which some of this story is based, but I’m curious to learn more and see how this whole “stars as beings” thing works!

Kate’s Picks

41016362Book: “Some Kind of Animal” by Maria Romasco Moore

Publication Date: August 4, 2020

Why I’m Interested: This is a book that I kind of stumbled upon, and it caught my attention because of how strange it sounds. And hey, sometimes high strangeness will do ya good. Jo is a teenager in a small town, whose mother disappeared shortly after she was born. Everyone thinks that Jo is destined to end up like her mother. What people do’t know is that Jo has a twin who lives in the woods, and lives free to roam the wilderness. But when her twin attacks someone, everyone thinks that Jo did it. So now Jo has to either reveal the secret of her twin to clear her name, or try and run away and disappear kind of like how her mother did. This sounds like a doozy of a strange tale, but I think I’m ready to buy into whatever Moore is selling.

51169341Book: “The Night Swim” by Megan Goldin

Publication Date: August 4, 2020

Why I’m Interested: Hooray for thrillers with podcasting themes! I haven’t actually read Megan Goldin’s other book “The Escape Room”, but it has been on my list for awhile because of the good things I heard about it. Because of this I’m definitely wanting to check out her newest book, “The Night Swim”. Rachel is a podcaster who has gone to a small town to focus her next series on a high profile rape trial that is taking place. A local swimming star with a golden boy image has been accused of raping a teenage girl (sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?), and the town is divided. But while she’s researching and attending the trial, Rachel is also receiving letters from a woman named Hannah, a local who wants Rachel to take on the story of her sister Jenny, who supposedly drowned twenty years before. Given how much I enjoy podcast books, thrillers, AND courtroom dramas, “The Night Swim” seems like it’s right up my alley!

53038638._sx318_sy475_Book: “Wayward Witch” by Zoraida Córdova

Publication Date: September 1, 2020

Why I’m Interested: Now perhaps you are thinking ‘hold on, that’s a September book you are putting on your August Highlights list, Kate!’ And you’re right. This is a little bit of a cheat. But the thing is “Wayward Witch” comes out on September 1st, and I’ll be tackling it before my highlights list in September, but I still want to highlight it! So I’m cheating. I’ve been waiting for the third and final book in the “Brooklyn Brujas” trilogy by Córdova pretty much since I finished Book 2 (“Bruja Born”). The third book focuses on youngest sister Rose, who has always been dependable and helpful to her sisters. Her family is still reeling by the return of her amnesiac father, who has been hiding something from his loved ones. Before Rose can try and solve that problem, she is suddenly taken to a magical place called Adas, a realm hidden in the Caribbean. And before she can go home to fix her family, she has to fix the problems plaguing Adas. Rose has been the sister I’ve been looking forward to following most, so I’m VERY interested to see how Córdova finishes her series.

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

My Year with Jane Austen: “Emma Approved” [2013]

mv5bmtq0mjewndk5of5bml5banbnxkftztgwmjuznta3mde40._v1_sy1000_cr007231000_al_YouTube Series: “Emma Approved”

Release Year: 2013

Actors: Emma – Joanna Sotomura

Alex Knightley – Brent Bailey

Harriet Smith – Dayeanne Hutton

Frank Churchill – Stephen A. Chang

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

First off, as a comparison to the other YouTube adaptation I’ve reviewed in this series, I think this version is much more successful than the last. For one thing, I think we got to actually see more of the events we’re familiar with from the book on the screen. In the other version, we mostly had Lizzie telling the viewers second-hand stories or trying to re-enact them. Not only do I not thing that actress was fully up to the job, but it was always going to be a hard sell when you don’t have the actual people in front of you. Here, the casting is not only perfect and this Emma, I believe, is a strong actor, but many of the scenes and conversations from the book are included on screen. Having a larger and more varied cast really helps this version.

I’ll get into it more later, too, but this version also comes off better than the “Lizzie Bennett Diaries” in the romance arena. Alex Knightley is in the majority of the episodes, and it is the relationship between him and Emma that carries the show almost equal with Emma’s own arc of foibles and ultimate self-realization. Due to his being around for so much more of the story, and for the audience to have plenty of opportunities to see him and Emma together, their ultimate romantic conclusion is much less awkward and weird to watch from a viewer perspective.

As a comparison to the book, I think it does really well. It really hits most of the major plot points, and the set-up of Emma and Alex running a match-making/event organizing company really works well for much of it. I loved the clever interpretation it brought to many of the characters and important scenes. They also threw in a bunch of lines from the book that are sure to please avid “Emma” lovers.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed this version more than the other. I had wondered whether simply viewing these a second time was part of my struggle with “The Lizzie Bennett Diares,” but I really enjoyed this one, probably as much as the first time. So, I think this one is just better overall. I think the story is probably better suited for this type of thing. The acting was better. And overall, it just came together in a much more seamless, natural way.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

I really like Joanna Sotomura’s take on Emma. I think she nails the essential elements of the character. She’s charming, witty, and overly confident. But also endearing and sympathetic, so when she blunders, it’s easy for the viewers to be in her corner and root for her ultimate success. Even early in the show, when we see her beginning to doubt the success of the Westons’ marriage, her balance of cocky over-assurance and intervention still comes off as sympathetic when paired with her obvious concern. It’s clear that she values her reputation as a success, but we also never doubt that she cares about those around her.

All of this is even more striking once Caroline Lee shows up. Alex Knightley even compares the two, saying they have a lot in common about interfering in other’s lives thinking they know best. Emma protests that she is nothing like Caroline, and while we can all see the point that Alex is making, Emma is also right. It’s distinctly clear to the viewers that they are different and while Emma blunders sometimes and doesn’t see everything clearly, she, unlike Caroline, truly does care about those she thinks she is helping and hurts for them when she messes things up.

I also really like this version of Harriet Smith and Emma’s older sister, Izzy. Harriet is a perfect modern adaptation of the character we have on the page. She clearly idolizes Emma, and while I, personally, don’t put much stock in fashion choices as a major personal improvement, we do see her gain confidence in herself.

And Izzy’s struggles with her husband are very relatable, not being able to stand up for herself in the face of her husband’s strict adherence to financial planning. Here, too, we see Emma really shine as she sees a problem that no one else, including Izzy, sees and manages to fix, albeit with a few bumps in the road. It’s actually one of the few moments where Alex’s Knightley’s criticisms of her come off as the least sympathetic, as anyone hearing Izzy’s account of how her requests have been constantly denied can see that Emma has the right of the situation, not Alex or his brother. Complaints that John feels like choices are being made behind his back land on supremely unsympathetic ears to my mind. But I’m also biased as a stay-at-home mom (for now) myself and Izzy’s situation razed my hackles immediately.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

I also really like this version of Mr. Knightley. I think this is probably what stands out the most when comparing my experience watching this adaptation and “The Lizzie Bennett Diares”: there was really no escaping, there, the challenge of having your leading man absent for half of the run and then only in a handful of episodes after that. Here, Alex is almost in every single episode, and his bantering, lecturing friendship with Emma is clearly the foundation upon which all the rest of the show is built.

The actor really nails the balance between fond dismay at Emma’s actions and the more serious interventions when he sees her crossing a line. His frequent exclamations of “Emma!” are perfectly in-tune with how I’d imagine a modern Knightley would interact with Emma. The idea of them being business partners is also a clever way of keeping the two constantly in each other’s circles and Alex Knightley constantly attuned to Emma’s antics.

He also does very well with the few fights they have, lecturing Emma on her intervention into Harriet’s life (she’s not even a client!) and her poor treatment of Maddie Bates towards the end. But we also see him stand by her when it matters, catching himself in the middle of his anger about Emma’s interference in their siblings’ relationship when he realizes that Emma may truly be on to something that none of the rest of them see.

Perhaps it’s due to the increased screen time or just the character himself, but I was a much bigger fan of this actor’s Knightley than I was of Darcy in the other version. While Darcy, by the very nature of the character, is a bit harder to warm up to, the actor didn’t really have enough “oomf” to land him as endearing once he did arrive. It’s a very hard line to walk, trying to make a romantic hero who rarely smiles appealing. So this character was probably much more easy, but I still think credit goes to the actor for doing such a good job.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

Mr. Elton’s character is reimagined into a snobby politician, and it’s a great alternative. He’s just as insincere and ambitious as the original character, and it’s easy for audiences to quickly see that Emma is sniffing up the wrong tree with him. There’s also a great adherence to the original story with Emma misunderstanding who gifts (poems in the original, flowers/yogurt/concert tickets here) are for. And then later Emma writes a song to have Harriet perform, and Elton Tweets it out, with Emma clearly missing that he is taking the song as proof of Emma’s interest, not Harriet’s. When it all comes to a head, he is all the more unlikable for being such a stuck-up snob. This Harriet is nowhere near as “questionable” as the version in the book where things like unknown parents could be a very real detractor. What’s actually wrong with this Harriet? Nothing, other than not being as fancy as Emma or the later Mrs. Caroline Lee/Elton.

Speaking of Caroline, that has to be one of the best surprises of this entire run, and a perfect nod to fans who watched both series. Those who have know to immediately dislike her and understand her nods to “not minding documentaries.” But she’s also obviously bad enough for new viewers to not need much to equally dislike her. I love the substitution for calling Mr. Knightley “Knightley,” to calling Alex “Al.” And, of course, Emma’s complete disgust at it all.

Frank Churchill is also perfectly cast. I have to imagine he watched some other versions of “Emma” before taking this part as there seem to be direct nods to other actors’ versions of the part in the way he performs it. Even in the delivery of his lines, he just fits perfectly alongside all the other variations of this character we’ve seen. And, in a satisfying twist to the story, his truly bad actions, like flirting with Emma and dismissing Jane so harshly, are not swept under the rug. Instead, she dumps him, and the show ends with him realizing he wants her back and will have to work for it. It’s a dose of justice for the Jane Fairfax character who I always sided with Mr. Knightley on: “I feel sorry for her.”

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

The romance in this show is probably almost as important as the depiction of Emma herself. Unlike the book, to most media consumers, it’s pretty obvious from the start that Emma and Alex are endgame, thus their chemistry and interactions are important from the very first. Luckily, these actors have great chemistry together, and their teasing, friendly relationship is just the sort that appeals to fans of rom-coms.

We never see anything truly overt on either of their sides throughout most of the show, but it’s still pretty clear. Alex’s early dislike of Frank Churchill is probably the biggest clue on his part. And, of course, Emma’s dismissal at her friend’s theories about Alex and Jane speak to her unknowing interest in him.

I really liked how they played Emma’s realization about her true feelings for Alex. The actor really manages to nail the shock of Harriet’s confession and then through mostly subtle facial expressions, demonstrate Emma’s change of heart. It’s also really great how they play the scene where Emma is trying to be a good friend to Alex but puts him off from his confession due to her concerns that he is about to confess his love for Harriet. When she chases after him again, there’s some really nice humor in her trying to build herself up to hear the news. And then, later, Alex’s question about what she thought he was about to say when the truth.

I also really like the final payoff we get for a running joke we see throughout about flowers being romantic. Early on, Elton brings Harriet a new kind of yogurt and flowers for Emma. And it is only after the whole debacle comes to light that Emma has to re-orient herself with a new mantra: “Food means friendship. Flowers mean romance.” So it’s really great to see this come around again when Alex gives her flowers, and she, bewildered, says “But…flowers mean romance.” It’s very sweet.

On a general note, I also found this romance much less voyeuristic and uncomfortable to see come to a head. I’m not sure why. It’s probably some combination of the increased screen time for the romantic hero. The fact that the Alex character is just much easier to see in a romance plot line than the version of Darcy we had in the other YouTube series. Or the simple fact that these actors had better chemistry. It also probably helps that we see their entire relationship progress and the fact that they are so comfortable with each other from the start makes the audience more comfortable as well. Lizzie and Darcy were so awkward together that it’s no wonder they made others uncomfortable watching them!

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Emma and Alex do most of the heavy lifting as far as the comedy goes as well. They by far get the most screen time and, with their character arcs, have the most opportunities to take advantage of comedic elements in the story. Harriet is too sincere much of the time to really be funny. Jane Fairfax is almost too serious to really like in this version.While I like that her relationship with Frank Churchill ends, this was probably the one character in this show who seems the most different than their book counterpart. She’s almost so snobby in her “do-goodery” that one finds oneself coming down on Emma’s side of their conflict. In the book, it’s clear that Jane is a good natured, though quiet, woman and most of Emma’s problems with her are based purely in the fact that she makes Emma insecure. Here, however, Jane is kind of off-putting, making Emma’s discomfort feel completely natural.

This mostly leaves Maddie Bates to carry the rest of the weight for the comedy side of things. And she’s great! I really love how they carried over Mrs. Bates deafness and how Maddie Bates will dictate back conversations with her mother by starting out “And then I said ‘MOMMA!'”, yelling that last word at the camera. It’s just great. I also really liked this version’s interpretation of the Box Hill incident. Here it’s for a restaurant opening, Boxx Hill, that Emma and her company are hosting. Maddie tries to bring forward her (terrible) home-made jams, and Emma publicly mocks her for how bad they are. It’s a perfect adaptation of the incident, and even though we don’t see it, we get to see plenty of the fall-out as Jane quits the company and Alex delivers the famous “Badly done!” line. But, of course, it all ends well with Emma apologizing to Maddie Bates, and Maddie demonstrating how truly good and kind-hearted she is by quickly forgiving Emma and working to help her in Alex’s absence.

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

Not a lot for this one, it seems: the actors who played Emma and Alex Knightley were dating while they filmed this. That probably helped with the good ole chemistry. They’re also both currently in a show called “Quarantine” about out-of-work soap opera cast members in L.A. Mildly interested in checking that out, mostly due to the adorableness of these two here.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

Just a cute little moment between these two. Really, their relationship is the funniest part of the entire thing.

In two weeks, I’ll the first half of “Mansfield Park.”

 

Kate’s Review: “The Hollow Ones”

52594581Book: “The Hollow Ones” by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, August 2020

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

Book Description: A horrific crime that defies ordinary explanation. A rookie FBI agent in dangerous, uncharted territory. An extraordinary hero for the ages. Odessa Hardwicke’s life is derailed when she’s forced to turn her gun on her partner, Walt Leppo, a decorated FBI agent who turns suddenly, inexplicably violent while apprehending a rampaging murderer. The shooting, justified by self-defense, shakes the young FBI agent to her core. Devastated, Odessa is placed on desk leave pending a full investigation.

But what most troubles Odessa isn’t the tragedy itself-it’s the shadowy presence she thought she saw fleeing the deceased agent’s body after his death. Questioning her future with the FBI and her sanity, Hardwicke accepts a low-level assignment to clear out the belongings of a retired agent in the New York office. What she finds there will put her on the trail of a mysterious figure named John Blackwood, a man of enormous means who claims to have been alive for centuries, and who is either an unhinged lunatic, or humanity’s best and only defense against unspeakable evil. 

Review: Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for sending me an eARC of this book!

I have loved Guillermo del Toro ever since I saw “Pan’s Labyrinth” back in college. I don’t think that there is one del Toro movie that I haven’t at the very least been entertained by. I try to see all of his movies, and I went to his traveling show of his personal collection of props and artwork when it came to Minneapolis. I also liked his foray into writing, having enjoyed his novel adaptation of “The Shape of Water”, and his vampire dystopia “The Strain” Trilogy that he wrote with Chuck Hogan. So when I had the opportunity to read his and Hogan’s newest collaboration, “The Hollow Ones”, I leapt at the chance. It was a fun surprise too, as I had no idea that they had a new book coming out. I really gotta get more on top of my del Toro stanning I guess.

We move from vampire lore and into demons and possession with “The Hollow Ones”, where del Toro and Hogan give us a mythology and magical system with some influences from a few different sources. You have references to occultist John Dee, references to Voodoo and Hoodoo, and inspirations from Judeo-Christian ideas of possession and Western occultism. Our protagonist Odessa is trying to reconcile the strange and horrible things that she has seen or has been hearing about as mass murders and spree killings start breaking out around New York and New Jersey, namely having to turn her gun on her FBI partner after he turned uncharacteristically violent during a confrontation with a mass murderer. Odessa serves as the audiences’ stand in as she learns about the dark magic at hand, and after she is connected to the mysterious John Blackwood (in my ARC his name was John Silence, but that has changed for the final product). Blackwood has been chasing insidious beings called Hollow Ones for centuries, his immortality a curse tied in with these creatures that jump from host to host and cause as much violence as possible while inside. We not only explore Blackwood and Odessa’s teaming up in the present, but also Blackwood’s partnership with Soloman, a Black FBI agent who had a similar case in the 1960s in the Deep South, and who is now the man to connect Odessa to Blackwood after a Hollow One has started up again. I liked seeing the juxtaposition of two agents having to contend with being Others within their field (Soloman’s arc in particular was a fascinating comment on the Jim Crow South and how being a Black agent put a target on his back), and having to hunt down a disturbing evil with a strange and awkward immortal. It’s just kind of a fun concept, and del Toro and Hogan make the system believable and interesting enough that it’s ripe with potential for scares and shocks. And let me tell you, scare and shock it does, as the Hollow One we are following is INCREDIBLY violent, so much so that I feel a need to put a content warning for a particular scene involving this creature and a baby. Yeah, that wasn’t an easy moment to read for me right now. But it does show that del Toro and Hogan aren’t fucking around with this thing, and also shows just what Odessa and Blackwood are up against, and what Soloman and Blackwood were up against previously.

All that said, “The Hollow Ones” never really moved from ripe potential into a full blown pay off. While it does follow a clear path and story, and while the foundation is there for something really great, I felt that it totally captivated me. I liked Odessa a lot, but Blackwood wasn’t terribly interesting to me even though he should, as a cursed immortal, should be INTERESTING. And on top of all that, it’s very difficult these days to ignore or overlook stories where authors take ideas and concepts from other cultures and don’t do the due diligence to do so appropriately. While I enjoyed the themes and plot aspects of the 1960s storyline, using Voodoo, Hoodoo, and folklore from slave narratives felt very uncomfortable, especially since it was being used in a way that appeared to be ‘demonic’, or at least Othering. I love you, del Toro, but that stuff may not be for you to play with in the stories you tell. Not unless you are VERY careful and respectful with how you do it. And I’m not saying that I think that this was intentionally racist, but it does go to show that some of those past tropes in horror (occultism, the mysterious ‘voodoo’ spells, etc) really do have problematic origins and that you can’t really hold it up through a lens of nostalgia.

This is the start of a series I have heard, and I will probably pick up the next book. As I said, lots of potential in the world building and the characters themselves. But “The Hollow Ones” wasn’t the big bang I was hoping for.

Rating 6: A solid horror thriller with some interesting ideas, “The Hollow Ones” has potential, but doesn’t quite flesh itself out as much as I had hoped, and delved in some culturally appropriative storytelling elements.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hollow Ones” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward To in 2020”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Storm and Fury”

40291564Book: “Storm and Fury” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Publishing Info: Inkyard Press, June 2019

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

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Trinity Marrow may be going blind, but she can see and communicate with ghosts and spirits. Her unique gift is part of a secret so dangerous that she’s been in hiding for years in an isolated compound fiercely guarded by Wardens—gargoyle shape-shifters who protect humankind from demons. If the demons discover the truth about Trinity, they’ll devour her, flesh and bone, to enhance their own powers.

When Wardens from another clan arrive with disturbing reports that something out there is killing both demons and Wardens, Trinity’s safe world implodes. Not the least because one of the outsiders is the most annoying and fascinating person she’s ever met. Zayne has secrets of his own that will upend her world yet again—but working together becomes imperative once demons breach the compound and Trinity’s secret comes to light. To save her family and maybe the world, she’ll have to put her trust in Zayne. But all bets are off as a supernatural war is unleashed…

Review: This book had been hanging out on my audiobook holds list long enough that I had forgotten completely why I put it on there! Which can be a good and bad thing. For the good, it was a complete surprise, as I typically don’t read this type of book and probably wouldn’t have prioritized it if I had known that it was a modern YA fantasy. For the bad, I didn’t realize that this was a companion series to another, already finished series. Not that it had a huge effect on this read, but it was a factor. But, overall, I wasn’t super impressed with this book.

Trinity has been raised by the Wardens, taught to fight demons, and hidden from humans. But she is not any of them. Though going blind, Trinity’s unique abilities, aided by her excellent combat skills, have made her a force to be reckoned with. Her future, however, is anything but clear. It is made all the more murky when a group of stranger arrive with ill-boding news. And soon that news strikes closer than home than any of them would like. Now Trinity, with the help of the oddly appealing but supremely frustrating Zayne, must venture outside her home and put her true powers to the test.

So, as I said, this is the beginning to a companion series that had already completed. I will give props to the writer, however, for making this one feel pretty approachable all on its own. I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of the world and various players in it fairly early on. Once the main character and her love interest from the previous story showed up, I did feel like some background on their story and, particularly, their histories with Zayne would have been helpful. But even there, as they are all new to Trinity, it wasn’t hard to be introduced to them the first time through her eyes. If anything, I was more fully in her boat than I would have been otherwise, also not knowing what to believe between the various histories being told.

I also liked Trinity’s voice well enough at the beginning. She was funny and only ridiculous at times. Unfortunately, these traits swapped as the story went on, and she quickly became less funny and more ridiculous. Surprising no one, this change corresponded with the increased page time devoted to the romance. Again, not knowing the history between other characters and Zayne, it was all too easy to have to be mired in the nonsense of insecurity and drama alongside our main character.

The romance itself was everything I hated. First off, we have instalove or instattraction. Tons of mentions of how Trinity felt an inexplicable draw and interest in him. And he, too, with very little true development, is of course interested in her as well. Then you add in the forced drama in the middle. And then you get to the end and find out it was all just kind of pointless? I don’t want to spoil it or anything…but it’s another of my least favorite tropes. So the book strikes out three for three in the romance department.

The story is also incredibly long, something like 500 pages? Much of this is devoted to witty repartee and smaller character moments. Some have value, others not so much. And the few action scenes we get are brief and over before you really realize what’s going on. Overall, the story probably could have lost about 200 pages worth of filler and been a tighter, more compelling story for it.

I also really, really disliked the “reveal” at the end of the book. It wasn’t so much that I could see it coming, as that it just didn’t make that much sense. We get a bland, villain speech as an explanation, but no groundwork or character development had been laid down beforehand to make any of it feel earned or believable.

Yeah, so not much about this book worked for me. I was mildly intrigued by the characters who were introduced from the other book, but I also don’t trust this author anymore as far as developing an interesting, trope-free romance. So, I think I’ll probably skip those and not continue this either. If you’re a fan of her other series, this may be worth checking out. But if you’re new to this author, I can’t recommend this. If it sounds like your thing, probably just read the other series first and go from there.

Rating 5: A cringe-worthy romance really killed the mood on this one.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Storm and Fury” is on a bunch of fairly random Goodreads lists, but this one made me laugh and given my rating…“I’ve Thought About Reading… But I Probably Won’t.”

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