Diving Into Sub-Genres: High Control Group Escape Memoirs

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We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us will present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

I could probably just call this “Cult Escape Memoirs”, though I think some people would come after me were I to refer to some of these groups as ‘cults’. That and some are less about groups and more about toxic family dynamics which are run like a cult, but aren’t technically cults. So High Control Group it is! I’ve always been super fascinated by groups that close ranks, isolate members, put leaders on a firm pedestal, and build and build up abuses and corruption and use intimidation, coercion, and violence against those within, and all the brainwashing that comes with it. I also love harrowing memoirs of people who have been a part of such groups, and how they ultimately break away no matter the personal cost and sacrifice (and it is usually a lot).

There are a lot of different cults and high control groups that have functioned over the years, so this is merely a smattering of the various groups. But all of the stories are harrowing, enraging, heartbreaking, and hopeful, and it shows the resilience of those who have escaped when they never should have had to go through their trauma in the first place. These are all admittedly difficult reads with lots of content warnings, but I’ve found them to be fascinating and engaging reads.

Book: “A Billion Years: My Escape From A Life in the Highest Ranks of Scientology” by Mike Rinder

Scientology has been pretty heavily scrutinized in the past decade or so, and a lot of voices leading the way are those who jumped ship and lost so, so much by doing so. Leah Remini is a very clear example of this, but her celebrity insulated her a bit from the fallout, which is why I decided on “A Billion Years” by Mike Rinder. Rinder used to be a very high ranking member under L. Ron Hubbard, but once Hubbard died and David Miscavige took over, the toxicity and abuse ramped up to the point where Rinder no longer felt he could stay. Leaving his family behind (they are still alienated from him) and everything he knew, he is now a whistleblower and a very outspoken critic. This memoir is a really good look at his time in the organization, and gives insight as to what it’s like for those inside who aren’t powerful celebrities. I really love that Rinder is trying to repent for his past complicity, and this memoir is honest and very harrowing.

Book: “Unspeakable: Surviving My Childhood and Finding My Voice” by Jessica Willis Fisher

This is the first of two memoirs that isn’t about a specific larger group, but more about the influence of an extremist fundamentalist family and its leader, and this one is a really, really hard read (it’s actually the read that gave me the idea for this list). Jessica Willis Fisher was initially known as the oldest of the Willis Clan, a Fundamentalist Christian family that performed in a band together and had its own reality show following their lives. What viewers and fans didn’t know was that the patriarch, Toby, was verbally, physically, and sexually abusive to his wife and children, Jessica herself one of his rape victims and ultimately the family scapegoat. Her memoir speaks to her childhood, her relationships with her family members, her love of music, and how she eventually started to push back against her father, and how that cut her off from her siblings and mother, but also pushed her towards people who did support her and help her come to terms with her traumatic childhood, and help her eventually turn her father in. Willis Fisher is so incredibly brave, her memoir so well written, and it has hope in darkness and love and empathy.

Book: “Breaking Free: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult, and My Father, Warren Jeffs” by Rachel Jeffs

I have read so many books about the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints as run by Warren Jeffs/Rulon Jeffs and the compound in Short Creek, but if I had to pick one that encompasses the horrors of the compound and the abuses of the people who lived there, I would go with Rachel Jeffs’s memoir. They are all harrowing, but Rachel is one of Warren Jeffs’s many children, and her experience shows that his sadistic abuses and violence towards others was also very much a part of his family life as opposed to the non-related members of the community. Rachel is brutally honest about the things that she went through, and it gives a deeply personal connection to the Warren Jeffs years of the FLDS. It’s also a good look into the FLDS culture as a whole, and doesn’t mince words about how abusive, violent, and oppressive it is for those who live in it, especially the women. And it’s especially disturbing seeing how Jeffs treated his own children, his abuses and cruelty being doled out to them as much as it was to others in the community. Rachel is incredibly brave for getting out, and I’m glad she was able to push back in her own words.

Book: “In The Shadow of the Moons: My Life in the Reverend Sun Sun Myung Moon’s Family” by Nansook Hong

Of all the cults and high control groups that have fascinated me over the years, I actually didn’t know much about the Unification Church, a religious cult based in South Korea run by Sun Myung Moon. This memoir was written by his daughter in law Nansook Hong, whose marriage to his oldest son was wrought with discord and abuse. The Moonies, as they are known, present themselves as an ideal group of Divine Christianity, and Moon himself placed himself as a messiah-like figure and hoped to have influence across countries and political positions and leaders. But this memoir exposes the hypocrisy and corruption within the group and how Moon abused his power, and hid the violence and troubles within his own family. After years in an unhappy marriage that had abuse and addiction issues, Hong escaped one of the Moonie compounds and divorced Hyo Jin Moon, the eldest and heir apparent to the Unification Church. The Moonies kind of go under the radar these days when it comes to cults and high control groups, and this memoir has some really interesting context and has the story of a brave woman who left.

Book: “Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended the Sixties” by Dianne Lake

There are so many notorious cults out there, but the Manson Family is the one that really shattered the American consciousness in the late 1960s when they carried about the multiple murders of Sharon Tate and her guests, as well of those of the LaBianca Family. While many of Manson’s ‘girls’ are remembered because of the huge court case (or in Squeaky Fromme’s case, when she tried to assassinate President Ford because that would help Charlie, somehow?), Dianne Lake was one of the few that got out, though not unscathed. Lake joined up as a teenager after her family went all in on a nomadic lifestyle, and pretty much just let her go off with Manson and his group, and soon she as deeply under his spell and living on Spahn Ranch. This memoir is about that time, as well as the childhood that led up to it, and then when she turned against him and the others after the Tate/LaBianca murders. I really like this one because it doesn’t only show how a group can manipulate and control vulnerable people, but how people end up in groups like that in the first place if they were not born into it.

Book: “Educated” by Tara Westover

Much like “Unspeakable”, “Educated” is less about a specific group and more about a family that has been overtaken by a zealous patriarch that imposes fundamentalist rules and abuses on his loved ones. But “Educated” is such an amazing book that I really wanted to have it here. Tara Westover grew up in an isolated, off the grid existence with her family, her father forbidding any contact with public education or healthcare and her mother working as an herbalist and midwife to other off the grid people. As Tara gets older, she finds herself wanting to learn and read anything she can get her hands on, and wonders what else is out there to learn beyond her family’s grip. And when one of her brothers becomes more and more violent, and Tara becomes the target of his escalating violence, her yearning to get into the world isn’t just about wanting to learn, but wanting to save herself from a dangerous and isolated family situation. This memoir very well written, incredibly inspirational, and there is a reason it was so well received when it came out.

What escape memoirs have you enjoyed? Let us know in the comments!

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Portal Fantasy

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We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us will present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

Portal family is probably the largest and most popular sub-genre in fantasy fiction. I know that second part is a pretty hefty claim, but even among the most picky of fantasy readers, those who hardly ever read the genre as a whole, there’s a decent chance they hold a special place for some portal fantasy novel or another. It’s unavoidable when some of the biggest titles in fantasy fiction fall under this subgenre; even more so when many of those titles (“Harry Potter,” “The Wizard of Oz”) are also children’s and middle grade fiction, works that many readers will enjoy as kids even if they go on as adults to read very little in the fantasy genre as a whole.

Portal fantasy is also a wide, sprawling sub-genre on its own. It’s definition is simple: it’s a story that involves characters travelling through a “portal” (wardrobe/train platform/tornado/etc.) from our real world into some magical, fantasy realm. Already you can see the huge potential and likely list off a good number of titles that would fall under this category. What’s more, a broad interpretation of this subgenre would just be characters travelling from world to world, none of which need include our real world. For example, the “His Dark Materials” trilogy utilizes both of these options. We have characters travelling from our world to new worlds, like Will in the second book, “The Subtle Knife.” But there are also several characters, like Lord Asriel, who never travel to “our world” at all, but only between different, unique worlds.

The definition of “portal” can also vary. Some would say there needs to be an actual passage way from one distinct world to another unique world; others would count the Daevabad trilogy as a portal fantasy, simply due to the hidden nature of the city itself, unseen and inaccessible by humanity. Portal fantasy is also one of the oldest subgenres of fantasy. Some of Shakespeare’s plays would likely count (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and, of course, there is Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Between all of these definitions, and the fact that portal fantasy is a popular subgenre in fantasy fiction for all ages (probably the most popular by far in children’s fantasy), there are a million options to choose from, but here are a few that I particularly enjoy and I think represent the subgenre well.

“The Chronicles of Narnia” by C. S. Lewis

This is probably one of the first books/series that comes to most people’s minds when they think of “portal fantasy.” Not only is it a supremely popular children’s series, but the portal itself holds much of its appeal simply by how ubiquitous it is: what child hasn’t crawled into a closet or wardrobe and wished there was a door way to another world to be found at the end? The titular wardrobe in the first book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is the most well-known of the portals found in this story. But if you continue reading, you’ll also find children swept away through a painting and simply by the winds felt on a cliffside.

“Wayward Children” series by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire has created a series that not only features portal fantasies as the primary premise of all of her books, but each book does a deep dive into the types of people who walk through these magical doors. The types of people who look for them, and those who don’t. And she paints a world that holds so many doorways to so many unique worlds that she’s even made a sort of flowchart to diagram the sorts of worlds her characters may come from and travel to. Where does each world fall on a scale of chaos or order? Good or evil? These novellas are all incredibly unique and highlight a lot of the appeal that the portal fantasy subgenre holds for the many readers who enjoy it and wish they, too, could find their door to another world.

“The Fionavar Tapestry” series by Guy Gavriel Kay

This is one of the first adult portal fantasy series that I remember reading as a teenager. Up to that point, for me, portal fantasy was something found in children’s and young adult fiction, but not so much in the stuffy works that made up adult fantasy. The story follows five men and women who find themselves pulled into a fantasy world where they each have important roles to play. And this is definitely adult portal fantasy all around, as Kay dives into some pretty dark themes throughout the series. I remember really enjoying it, but also being rather shocked as a teenage reader by certain scenes. It’s one of those fantasy series that has stuck with me throughout the years, but also one that I need to return to soon as I haven’t ever re-read it.

“The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman

This eight book long series wrapped up recently, back in 2021 and was massively popular during its run. It’s a fairly standard portal fantasy, with its main character, Irene, travelling from realm to realm in her work for a Library that collects fiction from these various worlds. Throughout the series she gathers a group of friends around her and encounters all sorts of wild worlds, including time travel. These are really lovely books, all the more appealing for featuring a heroic librarian as their heroine!

“In Other Lands” by Sarah Rees Brennan

This is another fairly straight-forward portal fantasy, but its quirky take on not only the the magical world and the beings that populate it but on its protagonist make it stand out as a great, modern story. The word “deconstruction” has been used when describing this book’s take on its central trope, but it does so in an interesting and hilarious way, rather than the usual, more pretentious sort of deconstruction. The hero is also a young teenage boy who is just as snotty and irreverent as you’d expect from a boy of that age. And yet you can’t help rooting for him anyway!

“Shades of Magic” trilogy by V.E. Schwab

Lastly, I’m including one of my favorite portal fantasies of all time. This is also a nice mixture of the two definitions of portal fantasy in that one of our main characters travels in the traditional direction (from our world and into a magical one), but our other main character is from the magical world and travels not only to our world, but also to other, unique worlds beyond. This trilogy not only has unique worlds (varying Londons each with different levels of magic), but I really enjoyed the way the magic system and travel between these works worked. Fans of portal fantasies should definitely check this trilogy out if you haven’t already!

What portal fantasy books are your favorites? Let us know in the comments!

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Witch Horror

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

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

Halloween is nearly upon us, readers, and while I am still full blown into Halloween mode, I’m also acknowledging that the season is going to end in a little more than a week and I am going to be sad (until I buck up and shift into Winter Holiday gear). So for this new “Diving Into Sub-Genres” post, though I usually switch up my genres that house said sub-genres, I’m sticking to horror, and I am going to focus on one of my favorites: witch horror! You all know how much I love witches of ALL stripes, and while I adore empowering and feminist spellcasters I also love vengeful crones who want to make others suffer. I’m very inclusive when it comes to my witches.

Witch horror can be traced as far back as Greek Mythology when Circe was turning Odysseus’s crew into pigs, or Medea was casting spells and killing her children to get back at Jason for daring leave her. You have a number of witches in fairytales as well, from Snow White’s stepmother to the witch who tried to eat Hansel and Gretel. And lord knows in real life a fear of witches led to a lot of violence and suffering because of a religious based mythology and superstition (the targets usually being women, outsiders, and other Others). Yes, witches have had their place as horror icons for millennia, and now I’m going to share some of my favorite witch tales that, I think, represent the sub-genre of witch horror pretty well.

Now here is a caveat: I’m really going to focus on horror when it comes to witch stories on this list. Even though there are SO MANY AWESOME NON HORROR WITCH BOOKS OUT THERE. But I want to be stringent in the sub-genre definitions, and witch horror is different from witch fantasy or witch historical fiction or what have you. Because I struggled with this decision, I am going to briefly list a few titles that aren’t horror but are still fantastic witch or witch related books that you can also give a go before All Hallow’s Eve next week if you aren’t looking for scares: “Cackle” by Rachel Harrison; “Practical Magic” by Alice Hoffman; “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” by Elizabeth George Speare; “Akata Witch” by Nnedi Okorafor; “Cemetary Boys” by Aiden Thomas; and “Hour of the Witch” by Chris Bohjalian.

Book: “The Witching Hour” by Anne Rice

Wanting to start with a classic, but not a classic that goes super far back into centuries and centuries, it seemed that Anne Rice’s “The Witching Hour” was a pretty good jumping off point. This book starts off her “Mayfair Witches” series, which follows a New Orleans witch family that has passed magic, and a pretty bad curse, down through the generations. When Rowan Mayfair pulls a drowned man out of the ocean and brings him back to life, she has to face the fact that she has strange powers, powers that her family has had and that she has tried to suppress. But what Rowan doesn’t know is that there is also a mysterious and dangerous spirit that has haunted the Mayfair Family. Known as Lasher, he wishes to possess the Mayfairs, and he now has his sights set on Rowan. This book follows a line of witches and spans over centuries, and brings Rice’s alluring yet horrific aesthetic to witch horror.

Book: “Hex” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Also known as the witch book that scared the ever loving piss out of me, “Hex” is definitely a ‘vengeful witch’ story that is horrifying and filled with dread until the very last page is turned. The first chapter had me saying ‘what the HELL IS GOING ON?’ for basically the entire length, and I can tell you that this was a common occurrence through this book. Black Spring is a sleepy small town in the Hudson River Valley, where people live and raise their families. But it is haunted by the ever wandering Black Rock Witch, whose eyes and mouth have been sewn shut after her execution during Puritan times led to her curse upon the town. The town keeps total surveillance on the wandering witch, and has kept her a secret from the outside world. But then a group of local teens decide to show her off on the Internet. And this sets off a torrent of deadly consequences for the town and all who live there. This book is scary as hell and doesn’t hold back.

Book: “The Year of the Witching” by Alexis Henderson

This was my favorite read in 2020, as Alexis Henderson’s “The Year of the Witching” is both scary as well as, in some ways, empowering and severely feminist. It’s a mix of historical fiction and dystopia, a world not ours but in a lot of ways like ours. In the small community of Bethel, the townspeople live a religious patriarchal life, and have banished witches into the Darkwood with violence and rage. Immanuelle Moore is herself a rebellion, the biracial daughter of a woman who ran into the Darkwood to find the witches, and who died in childbirth after her return. Immanuelle is trying to keep in line, but is drawn to the Darkwood by the spirits who live there. They give her her mother’s journal, and as she reads she starts to find out the truth about her mother, and the truth about Bethel. This kind of read will make your blood boil, but will take your breath away.

Book: “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: The Crucible” by Roberto Aguirre-Sacassa

Even though the final season of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” was lame lame lame, I still liked it as a whole because it was creepy, witchy, and a great look at witches with power taken from a bubblegum comic origin. But let me tell you, the comic that it is based upon is SO MUCH DARKER, and that is why it makes this list. Yes, we are following Sabrina ‘The Teenage Witch’ Spellman, as she adjusts to being a teenage witch while living with her witch aunts Hilda and Zelda. But this comic is straight up horror, with murder, dark magic, cannibalism, and black masses like whoa. And I LOVE IT SO MUCH, and I am SO SAD IT KIND OF DIED OUT. I love all the scary stuff that Aguirre-Sacassa brings to this story, and how it still manages to have tongue planted in cheek even as people’s faces are being ripped off and teens are being sacrificed for dark spells. I love handing it to unsuspecting people in my life, and it almost always has a positive, if not scandalized, reaction.

Book: “Goddess of Filth” by V. Castro

Sometimes the witches we deal with in these stories are amateurs, or even inadvertent, and then they unleash something a bit beyond their capabilities that has some serious consequences. That is the kind of horror story that “Goddess of Filth” by V. Castro is, and it’s pretty scary AS WELL AS EMPOWERING (yeah okay, I had to have some empowerment on this list as well, as I’m sure you’ve noticed as you’ve gone through it). Five Latina teenagers are doing some lighthearted witchcraft during the summer after their senior year, but they accidentally summon the spirit of an Aztec goddess, who possesses the shy Fernanda. Now her friends have to try and figure out how to get Fernanda back. But the spirit they are dealing with isn’t what she seems. This book about friendship, identity, imperial oppression, and teenage witchery is fun and pushes expectations of the themes at hand.

Book: “The Witches” by Roald Dahl

Why the heck not end this list with a children’s story? After all, “The Witches” by Roald Dahl is not only a classic children’s book, it also has some scary witches at the heart of it! An unnamed young boy learns about the existence of witches while living with his grandmother in Norway, whom he came to live with after his parents deaths. She tells him how to tell a witch from a human woman, as witches sole goals are to snatch up children and turn them into horrifying creatures. When the boy returns to England, he suddenly finds himself surrounded by witches, and has to thwart the Grand High Witch’s plan to run the world’s children into mice! It sounds pretty tame, but as a child this book is pure nightmare fuel! I hope that all the kiddos out trick or treating next week won’t run afoul any witches like this!

What witch horror books are your favorites? Let us know in the comments!

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Forensic Mysteries

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

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

While I mostly review historical mysteries and detective mysteries on this blog, I’m also a huge fan of forensic mysteries. It’s actually a favorite subgenre for both Kate and I. Honestly, at this point, she’s probably more caught up on some of our favorite series than I am, considering the pivot I’ve made in recent years for my reviews here. But what is a forensic mystery?

While the detective mystery is the ruler of the mystery genre, with the story following a detective of some sort (lots of variation for how official this title is), forensic mysteries have exploded in the last 30 years or so, challenging this norm. The popularity of shows like “CSI” and “Bones” can perhaps be attributed to some of this increased popularity. Those examples alone do most of the work defining what makes forensic mysteries stand out: the stories will typically follow a scientist of some sort who is involved in solving crimes by close examination of evidence and expert interpretation of those nuanced facts. You have a lot of coroners, medical examiners, anthropologists, etc. Due to the nature of this type of evidence and work, most forensic mysteries rate high on the gruesome scale, with detailed explanations of anatomy and murder methods. While not exclusively so, the leading characters in this subgenre are often female, serving as a nice balance to the still male-dominated detective mystery genre.

As I’ve said, this subgenre has exploded in recent years. So my list here is just scratching the surface of what’s to be found. There can also be a lot of overlap between forensic mysteries and other subgenres. Let’s take a look at a few!

Book: “Deja Dead” by Kathy Reichs

Having mentioned “Bones” in my introduction, I couldn’t not include the long-running book series on which the show is based. Like the show, the story follows Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist. But really, that’s where most of the similarities end. This Brennan has a daughter, a precarious marriage, and, while she does have a few friends, no where near the level of quirky scientist lab friends that she has in the show. There is a character who Booth is loosely based off, but the romance is nothing like the show, with this character not even being a romantic interest at certain points. But Temperance herself is largely similar, being a very analytical and scientific individual. She also has a strong sense for justice which can get her caught up in crimes that then end up striking close to home. This is a long-running, current series with book number 21 coming out just last month.

Book: “The Crossing Places” by Elly Griffiths

Similar to the previous title, this is another female-lead forenstic thriller/mystery series. In this case, the lead is Dr. Ruth Galloway, a forensic archeologist. As such, her expertise is in bones, thus there is often a lot of cold cases involved in stories. This first book involves the discovery of a set of bones that are suspected to be those of a young girl who went missing years before. But this crime won’t stay in the past, and when another girl goes missing, Dr. Galloway finds herself dealing with a very real killer. Again, this is a very long-running series, with the most recent book involving Galloway’s experiences of the pandemic lockdowns.

Book: “The Bone Collector” by Jeffery Deaver

As a change of pace, this series follows a male lead. The series begins by introducing Lincoln Rhyme, once a well-known, respected criminologist. But he’s been out of the game for a while after an accident turned his life upside down. He’s drawn back into the game, however, when he is personally challenged by a diabolical killer. He must team up with a police detective and solve the complicated forensic mystery laid out before him. This one is a nice change of pace in that the lead has an expertise in criminology, opening up the series to cover a wide variety of various forensic techniques and clues. This series has been running since 1997, so you can guess as to its length so far…

Book: “The Lost Girls of Rome” by Donato Carrisi

Time for stand-alone options, for those not ready to commit themselves to double-digit-long series! This book offers a nice mix of genres, including several nice nods to historical elements that become integral parts of the mystery. The lead is a young widow and forensic analysist who, while trying to uncover the truth in her husband’s death, finds herself caught up in mysterious forces that trace back through Rome’s long and twisting history. While touching on the details and analysis that is at the heart of all forensic mysteries, this one has a lot to offer for fans of lots of different types of books. Plus, like I said, it’s not as much as a commitment as some of the other series on this list!

Book: “Postmortem” by Patricia Cornwell

Like the Temperance Brennan series, this is another cornerstone in the forensic thriller/mystery genre, so it is only fitting to finish up this list with it. This series follows Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner whose close eye and keen sense of justice sees her caught up in one investigation after another (seriously, this series started back in 1990 and the 26th book in the series came out this year, so…). This book is also often credited as the first book in the now popular forensic thriller/mystery subgenres. It’s also not a stretch to imagine that its success also helped build up the ever-popular, numerous, numerous forensic TV shows like “CSI” and the ilk. It’s definitely a must for fans of this subgenre (along with the Brennan series, this it the other series I regularly read, for what that’s worth!).

What forensic thrillers/mysteries do you enjoy reading?

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Vampire Horror

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

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

I have been obsessed with vampires for a very long time. While in childhood I liked vampire stories just fine, it was “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in middle and high school that really gelled with me, genre wise. And vampire horror is still a sub-genre that I really love, even if I have VERY picky standards for it. There is so much you can do with vampires, mostly because they are not only iconic in horror, they have so much history in folklore all around the world.

There are so many types of vampire stories to tell. The tried and true Gothic sensibilities with castles and or manors run by monsters. The deeply romantic vampire story with eroticism bubbling over. The feral creatures who are just out to destroy and eat. I’ve read many vampire tales and vetted through the highs and the lows (here’s a tip: if you aren’t into Amish romance, a vampire themed Amish romance isn’t going to do it for you). The books I’ve selected for this list kind of tap into the different themes, and are, to me, stand outs in the genre for various reasons. I could have listed many more but limited myself. Just know these are by no means the only good vampire stories out there! They’re just jumping off points.

Book: “The Vampyre” by John William Polidori

I mean, I’ve mentioned “Dracula” in other book lists, and while “Dracula” is absolutely a great vampire novel (like, the grandfather of the genre, really), I wanted to think outside the box. Instead, let’s talk about “The Vampyre” by John William Polidori, which was one of the influences on “Dracula”. Taken from the short tale that Lord Byron told on that fateful trip with Mary Shelley, Poliodori expanded upon it and created a complete short story that was published (and repeatedly misattributed to Byron, as much as both men tried to correct this misconception). It follows a young man named Aubrey, who travels to London and meets an aristocrat named Lord Ruthvern. They hit it off, and Ruthvern asks Aubrey to travel with him around Europe. As they travel together, people around them start dying in strange ways, namely their throats being torn out. By the time Aubrey has put two and two together regarding his friend, it’s too late. Poliodori was the guy who took the idea of feral creatures of folklore and made them into a predatory, enigmatic, and charming high class man of society who preys upon those around and below him.

Book Series: “The Vampire Chronicles” by Anne Rice

A lot of the sexy and erotic vampire themes we see in today’s vampire stories can be directly traced to the likes of Louis, Lestat, Armand, et al in “The Vampire Chronicles”, Anne Rice’s dreamy, vicious, and subtly steamy vampire series. Starting with a fairly simple “Interview With the Vampire”, in which a vampire named Louis tells his story of becoming a vampire and the way it changed him, and going to stranger realms with “Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis”, we follow a complex mythology and history of a group of vampires and their melancholy, or outlandish, backstories. From 18th Century New Orleans to 1980s America to BCE Egypt, Rice takes her characters to many settings and connects them through time and relationships and blood. Lestat is the clear center of the tale, his vain and over the top personality so much fun follow (seriously. I love Lestat), but with other interesting characters who pop in and out the stories have a lot of influence on today’s vampire mythos. And the simmering sexiness of Lestat and his implied and/or confirmed lovers is PALPABLE. While sexy vampires have always been a thing, Rice tapped into it in ways others had not, and it works. I haven’t read them all (I never went past “Queen of the Damned”), but I wholly intend to keep going. If only because Lestat is such an iconic vampire in literature.

Book: “Let the Right One In” by John Ajvide Lindqvist

If you’re looking for a claustrophobic vampire story involving children, loneliness, friendship(?), and coming of age, “Let the Right One In” by John Ajvide Lindqvist is going to be the one to check out. I read this around the time the film came to America’s arthouse movie theaters, and was immediately pulled in by how it was simultaneously sweet as well as deeply unnerving. Oskar is an isolated twelve year old boy who lives in a Swedish housing complex with his mother. Oskar has no friends at school and is repeatedly bullied, but then a new girl named Eli moves into the building with her father…. Although, he isn’t her father. And Eli isn’t a normal little girl. She’s a vampire who has been around for hundreds of years. Both Oskar and Eli are seeking connections, though their reasons are very different. On the surface this story seems like a lovely tale of friendship found between outsiders, and to some extent it is. But there is also the nagging sensation that Eli has darker motives for wanting a new companion, and taps into the ideas that vampires are, by nature, predatory, and even if they think they can love, they never really can. It hits ya right in the feels.

Book: “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” by Holly Black

I felt a need to have an example of YA vampire fiction on this list, but wasn’t going to highlight “Twilight” (it’s just not my bag, baby). Instead, I turn to Holly Black’s “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown”, a YA vampire story that is less romantic and more thriller and horror driven in its storytelling. Tana is a teenage girl who wakes up at a friend’s house after a raucous party… and finds most of the guests are dead, killed by a vampire. Her ex boyfriend Aidan survived, but looks like he’s been infected by vampirism. And there is a strange vampire boy who claims his innocence, and needs protection. So Tana opts to rescue them all and take them to the nearest Coldtown, a fenced off community where vampires and other creatures can live in sanctuary. But usually when you enter a Coldtown, you can’t leave. So Tana has to figure out how to get around that. This book is fast paced and feels a bit like a YA vampire “Escape from New York”, and Tana is a very enjoyable main character who kicks a lot of ass.

Book: “‘Salem’s Lot” by Stephen King

I’d be remiss if I left my man Stephen King off this list, and “‘Salem’s Lot” is his entry into the vampire zeitgeist. And because it’s King, he brings in not only some good vampire horror, but also some other more ‘elevated’ themes, as elevated as Danny Glick was outside Mark Petrie’s window. Ben Mears returns to the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot, where he spent a good chunk of his childhood, after years of being away. When he arrives, he finds himself in the midst of strange occurrences. Little does he know, at least at first, a new community member named Kurt Barlow is a vampire, and he intends on turning the entire town into a vampire community. So Ben has to team up with other towns people to stop him. So while we have our ‘vampire infiltrating a human community’ story, King also dabbles in the metaphors of homecoming and the darkness and dissipation of small town America.

Book Series: “The Strain Trilogy” by Guillermo del Toro, and Chuck Hogan

And finally, I wanted to tackle a vampire story that has a SUPER unique idea of vampirism and how it comes to pass, and that is “The Strain” Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. While many modern vampire tales stick to the tried and true ‘vampires sire other vampires’ mechanism, del Toro and Hogan ask ‘what if it was like a parasitic disease?’ When a commercial airliner arrives at JFK and comes to a halt halfway down the runway, with all the communication down and no signs of life aboard, the fear is bioterrorism. So when Ephraim Goodweather of the CDC arrives to check out the threat, he thinks he knows what to expect. But then he boards the plane, and finds everyone dead, he’s horrified. What Ephraim doesn’t know, however, is that this isn’t a bioweapon that anyone can conceive of. What it is is a vampire virus that infects people via parasites, and makes them in the thrall of a master who intends to wipe out humanity. The first book, “The Strain”, is pretty darn good. Admittedly the other two didn’t live up to it, but it’s still super unique and fun to see del Toro play with expectations of the genre.

What are some of your favorite vampire books? Let us know in the comments!

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Urban Fantasy

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We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

Urban fantasy is a very distinct sub-genre of the larger fantasy genre. I believe it’s a fairly polarizing one as well: fantasy readers either really love it or really dislike it. Like some other sub-genres in much greater sprawling genres, it also gets a lot of snobbery directed to it as “low brow” fantasy literature. I think most of this comes down to the fact that urban fantasy is typically fast-moving, action packed, and focused more on an individual lead character than on creating a massive, complex world, magical system and cast of characters.

A few features that are common in urban fantasy typically come down to setting and the type of fantasy elements involved. As the title of the sub-genre implies, most urban fantasy is set in an urban environment. Almost always, urban fantasy takes place in some alternate version of our own world, with real cities featured as the backdrop. However, “urban” by no means is limited to major cities, as there are plenty of urban fantasy series set in fairly small to medium sized metro area (or even some that take place mostly in rural locations). The thing that mostly stands out is that they are decidedly NOT second world fantasy and don’t include entirely made up lands.

They also typically feature a cast of magical creatures. The leading character usually has some connection between these worlds, the world of the humans and the, often underground, world of magical beings. You see a lot of vampires, werewolves, demons, and fairies in these types of books. Urban fantasy also typically features one or two leading characters and is highly focused on following their particular tales across a series of books. And, as I mentioned above, the writing is often fast paced and has an emphasis on quippy dialogue and action set pieces.

Book: “Moon Called” by Patricia Briggs

Patricia Briggs writes almost quintessential urban fantasies. She has two major series, but her “Mercy Thompson” series is her longest running with the other series coming in as a spin-off. Mercy is a coyote shapeshifter, but she starts the series trying to live primarily in the human world as a mechanic. This doesn’t last long, however, when she gets caught up in an on-going mystery involving her handsome werewolf neighbor, Adam. As the series continues, the world expands massively to include vampires, ghosts, demons, and a bunch of other less well-known magical creatures. This is a fast-paced story with a heavy emphasis on Mercy’s own quippy narration.

Book: “Storm Front” by Jim Butcher

I haven’t read a lot of Butcher’s “Dresden” series myself, but there is no way to talk about urban fantasy and not mention this incredibly popular author. There’s a pretty large stereotype that urban fantasy is written by women, for women, and features women, but Butcher’s “Dresden” series puts paid to that idea as it’s probably one of the biggest series out there. The story follows Harry Dresden, a wizard who also works as a private investigator for the Chicago P.D. when ordinary crimes present with decidedly unordinary elements. Because the main character is a P.I., these books mix elements from urban fantasy, mysteries, and crime fiction into action-packed bundles of fun.

Book: “Forest of the Heart” by Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint is the author I go to when I’m looking for cross-over between urban fantasy and literary fiction. Unlike the first two books on this list, de Lint’s stories operate at a slower pace and place a stronger emphasis on description and scene-setting. Technically, “Forests of the Heart” is in the middle of one of his series, but many of his books stand alone, and this was one of my personal favorites of his. The story features Bettina, a part Native American, part Mexican woman who is a witness to the ongoing conflict between the spirits that came over with settlers and the native beings who roam the land. She calls these dark beings, the ones from the other lands, los lobos and stays well clear. Until one shows up on her doorstep.

Book: “Feed” by Mira Grant

This is another book that has a lot of cross-over appeal, this time between urban fantasy and horror. Zombies exist in a kind of nebulous realm where both horror and fantasy claim them as beings to be found in their own genres. So, we’ll give zombies to urban fantasy with this one. The story is of two siblings and bloggers, Georgia and Shaun, who are documenting the ongoing zombie apocalypse. This is also a YA book (all the rest of these are technically listed as adult fiction, though I’d say they can also count as new adult). The story does lean into the gore and horror side of things, so strict fantasy fans should be aware of that. But the story does meet a lot of the other criteria for urban fantasy: fast-paced storytelling, a contemporary setting, and two main characters featured heavily at the heart of the story.

Book: “Written in Red” by Anne Bishop

Anne Bishop’s “Others” series is another wildly popular urban fantasy series. And, while it meets many of the standards of the genre (urban setting, werewolves, nature spirits, etc.) it is decidedly not a fast paced book. Instead, this is the urban fantasy series for those fantasy fans who really like to revel in the world itself. A lot of emphasis is placed on the characters and the world structure, and a lot on the politics between the humans and the fantasy creatures. Less emphasis on action, with there often only being one or two action scenes, some even happening off page. It does present an incredibly unique setting and world where the colonizers of North America found that they were by no means the most powerful to walk the land and have to find ways to not tick off the powerful magical forces that rule this continent.

Book: “Rosemary and Rue” by Seanan McGuire

And to round out my list, we return to another very popular, very traditional series of urban fantasy. Seanan McGuire’s ongoing “October Daye” series is probably one of the best out there. I, for one, am a huge fan! The story follows the titular October Daye, a changeling who is part human and part fae. Like many of the main characters in urban fantasy series, she starts out trying to maintain a life that distances herself from Faerie, a place where she feels she has been betrayed. But, so too, she doesn’t quite fit into this human world either. After a murder falls into her lap, Toby is pulled back into the fae world and must take up her old role as a knight errant. From there, the series unfolds with her becoming more and more enmeshed in the goings on between Faerie and the human world. This series stands out because of Toby herself. Given her unique situation (no spoilers!), she’s a bit of a darker character than some of the other leading urban fantasy ladies we’ve seen.

What are some of your favorite urban fantasy books?

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Graphic Memoirs

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

I really love a good memoir, and while I don’t really review many of them on here (if any?), I usually read a couple a year. What I like about memoirs as opposed to autobiographies is that there is usually a central theme to a memoir as opposed to an all encompassing life story. And one way that an author can make a memoir stand out is to do it in graphic form, therein creating a graphic memoir. As someone who also loves graphic novels, this is obviously a format and genre match made in heaven as far as I’m concerned.

What I love most about graphic memoirs is that with the images and visuals that graphic formats bring, there are other layers and storytelling techniques to bring personal stories to life. With the right image design and the right story you can make something very powerful and unique, and I’m always looking for new ones to read. Here is a list of some of my favorite graphic memoirs, that cover a range of topics and experiences, and have graphics that make the stories all the more fantastic.

Book: “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi

We have talked about this book multiple times on this blog, so I won’t dwell too much on the story itself (if you want to see our thoughts, here is our Book Club Review, and here is my separate Review). But it has to be on this list because it is one of the most referenced graphic memoirs, and one of my very favorites. It follows Satrapi’s life story of growing up in Iran during and after the Cultural Revolution, her education in Europe to escape the conflict, and her return home. It not only contextualizes a fraught time in her home country’s history, it also tells a relatable story of coming of age while contextualizing the history and culture without being overly critical, nor glossing over the details. The artwork is unique and striking, and while it isn’t really ‘realistic’, it conveys all of the emotions that Satrapi wants for her life story. I love this book. Read it if you haven’t.

Book: The “March” Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Ill.)

Another series that I reviewed on this blog, and another powerful history lesson along with the life of one of the most important civil rights figures in American history. This book is written by and about John Lewis, congressman and Civil Rights leader who helped organize and implement the 1960s Civil Rights Movement for the rights of Black Americans, starting with his childhood and going up through and beyond the March on Selma. I love this series as it is deeply personal and has a lot of insight from Lewis, while also creating a very accessible history to the Civil Rights Movement. At times it’s heart wrenching and devastating, at other times it’s inspirational and hopeful, and it is always powerful. The artwork by Nate Powell is gorgeous and conveys all the emotional beats of the story as Lewis tells it, and it just fits with the narrative. This graphic memoir is a must for people who want to learn an important moment from one of the most important players. God I miss John Lewis.

Book: “El Deafo” by Cece Bell and David Lasky (Ill.)

This cute graphic memoir is more in the middle grade range, but I really enjoyed it when book club read it a number of years ago. It follows Bell’s childhood experience of being a hearing impaired child who transfers from a school for the Deaf to a public school, and getting used to her new Phonic Ear which will help her hear her teacher. Bell one day can hear her teacher (who has a microphone for the Phonic Ear) even when she is out of the room, and starts to believe that she has superpowers. She takes on the superhero alter ego of El Deafo, a Listener for All. But being a Superhero is just another way of being Othered. I love this sweet, cute, and funny graphic memoir, as it feels very real and relatable, has moments of humor and poignancy, and tells a coming of age story that has some great representation while also being very easy for kids to see themselves in. And the pictures are so cute, with Bell and everyone else being represented by a bunny!

Book: “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by Alison Bechdel

I have a distinct memory of my sister retrieving this book from her room and tossing it into my hands, saying that I needed to read it. And boy was she right! Bechdel, potentially most known for The Bechdel Test, is a comic writer and author who was coming to terms with her sexuality while having a fraught and tense relationship with her father when he died suddenly. She had also discovered that he, himself, was a closeted gay man, and his death meant that he took many secrets and revelations to the grave before she got any answers. “Fun Home” is her examination of this time in her life and before, as she becomes more comfortable in her own skin and reconciles the man she saw her father as (a creative and brilliant man who saw his kids as constraints) and who he never could be (a gay man who could be himself). Bittersweet and funny, “Fun Home” has become a hit Broadway show and spawned another graphic memoir. I think it’s lovely, and the graphic aspect lets Bechdel find and reveal answers about herself through text AND imagery.

Book: “They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Ill.)

George Takei became famous when he played Sulu on “Star Trek” back in the 1960s, his role in that show being revolutionary as a Japanese American man playing a front and center role in a TV show in the 1960s. As a child, he and his family were imprisoned at Rohwer Internment Camp during WWII because of their Japanese ancestry. “They Called Us Enemy” is his story of being a child at this internment camp, and what that experience was like for him and his family, and how it affected him the rest of his life. This is another good history lesson memoir that looks at a VERY dark time in American history, and Takei’s story is powerful and deeply upsetting. His reflections of not only his memories, but his memories of how it affected his parents, especially his father, bring another layer to this memoir, and the artwork is both evocative but also tender and gentle when the content calls for it.

Book: “Hey Kiddo” by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Jarrett J. Krosoczka was just a little boy when it became clear that his family structure was quite different from his classmates. His mother was out of the picture due to her struggles with addiction, and his father was never in the picture to begin with, so he was raised by his grandparents, who hadn’t planned to raise their grandson. This memoir is about Krosoczka’s childhood with his grandparents, as well as what it was like to be a family grappling with addiction, and while he is at the center of this story (it IS a memoir, after all), he also does a really good job of showing the far reaching pain and fallout of how devastating addiction can be for everyone involved. It is introspective and empathetic, as well as incredibly raw, and he intersperses his artwork (as well as his connection to art and how it helped get him through difficult times) with actual letters from his mother, and it will almost assuredly leave you in tears as you read it.

What graphic memoirs have you enjoyed? Let us know in the comments!

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Cozy Mysteries

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

I’ll be the first to admit that cozy mysteries get a bad rap. Even I am sometimes prone to dismissing this sub-genre as a bit fluffy and insubstantial. But…why should fluff or light-heartedness be looked down on? Mystery is a broad genre and the carrying over enjoyment factor would seem to be readers getting a chance to piece together small clues to solve a mystery. Why should there then be a rule that said mystery must be extremely violent, gory, or unsettling? Surely there are readers who enjoy solving puzzles but would prefer to avoid some of these more graphic or gloomy topics. Enter: cozy mysteries.

Part of the reason this sub-genre is so often looked down upon is likely due to a very specific sort of cozy mystery that often comes to mind when the sub-genre is referenced. Picture a mystery series where every book has a title featuring a different baked good or craft item. And while these fluffy concept series are definitely a solid example of a cozy mystery, they are certainly not the only type out there. Indeed, several of the historical mystery series I’ve read and reviewed on this blog would qualify. An emphasis on characters, humor, and a lighter touch on the darkness around the mystery (a murder can be involved, but no gory descriptions please!) is really all that is required. So, here is a list of a few cozy mysteries that serve as good example of the types of books that are found in this sub-genre.

Book: “Meet Your Baker” by Ellie Alexander

This is kind of your classic cozy mystery: a series based on a comfy theme (this time baking), a bright colorful cover, and a punny title. But the story goes beyond that! Set in Ashland, Oregon, home of the Shakespeare Festival (I’ve attended this, and yeah, the town goes all out!), Juliet Capshaw (get it??) returns home to help her mother run the family bakery. But of course, murder comes calling and Juliet quickly finds herself drawn in, searching to discover the killer. She also meets a high school sweet-heart who is also attempting to solve the case. The book has a bunch of quirky characters, an emphasis on Juliet’s emotional arc, a little love story, and, oh yeah, the mystery. This is a long-running series and is chock full of these pun-ridden titles. “Fudge and Jury” and “A Batter of Life and Death” are just a few other examples.

Book: “Crocodile on the Sandbank” by Elizabeth Peters

Those familiar with this blog will be quite familiar with Elizabeth Peters’ “Amelia Peabody” series. It’s one of my tried and true mystery series that I return to regularly, whenever I’m in need of a light-hearted historical mystery. This is the sort of book that I think less often comes to mind when people mention cozy mysteries. However, it still fits perfectly within the category. The mysteries often involve murder, but there isn’t a focus on the more grizzly aspects of the crime scenes. Instead, much of the focus of the story is on the familial relationships between Amelia, her husband, and their children. There are a rotating cast of side characters who make various appearances, as well. And while our characters may face danger around every corner, the reader can rest assured that Amelia and co. will prevail in the end, and many laughs will be had along the way!

Book: “Murder at the Vicarage” by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is one of the OG cozy mystery authors. She’s prolific and one of the most recognizable names in the larger mystery genre itself. And one of the best examples of her work in cozy mysteries is her Miss Marple series. This is the first book which features, as may be guessed, a murder at the vicarage. And the next door neighbor is none other than Miss Marple herself, a sharp, self-deprecating woman who handily takes the case in hand, stringing together the many clues dropped by the colorful cast of characters. Christie’s “Poriot” is perhaps her better known detective, but Miss Marple fits the mold perfectly for a leading lading in a cozy mystery.

Book: “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” by Alan Bradley

This is another historical cozy, set in England in the 1950s, but it stands out for its unique protagonist: a genius 11-year-old girl named Flavia de Luce. Flavia is the heart and soul of this series, with her quirky personality and dazzling brilliance, being much more perceptive and intelligent than the adults who surround her. This book starts out with the cover image, a dead bird delivered to a door with a postage stamp pinned to its beak. But there are more than dead birds at stake, and soon enough, a human body appears on the scene. Flavia suddenly discovers a calling, putting her keen knowledge of chemistry, especially, to the task. This is another long series, with something like ten books published, the latest in 2019.

Book: “How to Wash a Cat” by Rebecca M. Hale

This is kind of everything you’d expect from the title and cover art: a woman and her two cats solve mysteries! There is also a decent about of San Francisco history in this first book. It seems to be generally understood that this first of the series isn’t one of the weaker installments, but the series as a whole seems to be well-received. Readers could perhaps start with later books, but I always like highlighting the fist in a series for lists like this, for those completionists out there. There are a lot of wacky side characters, but the two cats probably steal the show. So, this is definitely the kind of series/book that will appeal to a very specific sort of person!

Do you have a favorite cozy mystery?

Diving Into Sub-Genres: True Crime

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

I will admit, the very idea of encompassing the entire classification of True Crime into the sub-genre box is a little bit of a cheat. One can certainly argue that true crime is a genre in and of itself, as it is a genre within the Non-Fiction Umbrella of books and storytelling. But the reason that I am going to classify it here as a sub genre is because I am the blogger who takes on the entirety of Non-Fiction on this blog, though that is admittedly few and far between. Because of this, I’m going to talk about true crime as a sub-genre on its own, but I am hoping that I will cover a swath of the kinds of stories you can find within that topic, genre or sub-genre or what have you.

True crime has kind of seen a bit of a resurgence as of late, with a sudden explosion of podcasts, docuseries, and yes, books on the topics of serial killers, missing people, and the random and strange acts that happen to fall into a gamut of wrongdoing. I’ve been a huge fan of true crime since I was a grade schooler, when I read my first true crime book (which was a kids oriented book about Jack the Ripper of all things!). While I enjoy picking up a book about true crime, I also find myself struggling with the moral dilemma of using other peoples pain for my own intrigue and, in crasser terms, entertainment. I do think that there is something that can be found in true crime that can be useful, however, even if that’s only to explore some of my own anxieties about these things in a safe and controlled way. So here is a list of some of my favorite true crime books, be they about cases or stories I’ve found interesting, or books that I have found genuinely useful when it comes to mitigating my own fears surrounding the subject.

Book: “The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy: The Shocking Inside Story” by Ann Rule

Honestly there are a whole lot of ‘classic’ true crime books that I truly love, from “Helter Skelter” by Vince Bugliosi to “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote, but when picking one for this list I had to go with “The Stranger Beside Me” by Ann Rule. True, there has been a weird obsession with Ted Bundy in the past few years, and I definitely get and agree with the criticism regarding telling his story over and over again (especially when so much focus is on HIM and not the women he brutalized and murdered). But I decided to include “The Stranger Beside Me” because it was the book that propelled Ann Rule to the legendary true crime writer status that she had when she was alive. And it’s the added fact that Rule was friends with Bundy because they worked in the same suicide hotline call center, and that she, too, fell for the ‘well he couldn’t possibly because he’s so upstanding’ fallacy that made him so dangerous. Rule gives context to Bundy’s story, does have some focus on his victims, and also analyzes her own role in all of this, as she was investigating and writing about the murders that her friend Ted was committing while not connecting the dots. It’s a well done look into how a serial killer like Bundy could manipulate those around him, and a very personal story about the blinders that people have when it comes to those they care about, even when there is ample evidence that they are not good people.

Book: “Party Monster: A Fabulous But True Tale of Murder in Clubland” by James St. James

This is once again a bit of a personalized account of what it’s like to be friends with a murderer, but it definitely has a bit more, shall we say, flamboyance if only because the author is legendary Club Kid James St. James. “Party Monster” (formerly known as “Disco Bloodbath”) is St. James’s true crime book/partial memoir about his friendship with Michael Alig, fellow Club Kid who murdered another Club Kid named Angel Melendez over a drug squabble. But “Party Monster” is also a first hand account of the 1990s club scene in New York City, and the wild, vibrant, idealistic, and sometimes destructive people who lived within it. St. James is a very funny writer who talks about the ups and downs of being a Club Kid (basically professional partiers known for their extravagance in costumes, themes, and attitudes in the club scenes), his battles with addiction, and his fremeny relationship with Alig, who ended up being a psychpathic murderer. St. James never fails to make me laugh, but he also tells a very intriguing story that has a lot of pathos because of what it was like being queer, poor, and somewhat adrift at a young age in a big city.

Book: “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America” by Erik Larson

Erik Larson is probably more of a history writer, as his books have the framework of taking a historical event and examining different facets of it, or the unintended consequences of it. “The Devil in the White City” just happens to involve a serial killer named H.H. Holmes. In Chicago in 1893, the World’s Fair (also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition) drew many people to the city from all over the country. It just so happened that H.H. Holmes was taking advantage of this fact, as he set up a hotel for women to live, and then would murder them and profit off of their deaths. “The Devil in the White City” does a deep dive into the history of the Exposition, with the background, the planning, the execution, and the bumps along the way, as well as telling the story of a legitimate American monster. I love how he makes the historical connections between a huge event and the smaller event that was able to happen because of that huge event. And along with the true crime aspect, you get some interesting factoids about the Chicago World’s Fair and the city itself!

Book: “I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks” by Steve McVicker

On the non-violent side of things, we turn to one of the most bizarre true crime books I have ever read that involves fraud, prison breaks, and true love (sort of). “I Love You Phillip Morris” is a bananas stranger than fiction book to be sure. Steve Russell was a family man who had ties to his Church community, a wife and daughter, and promising career in business. He was also a closeted gay man, and after going to prison for a fraud charge he met and fell desperately in love with fellow inmate Phillip Morris. Russell would go on to escape from jail over and over again, usually with outlandish plans and ALWAYS on Friday the 13th, but he would always fall victim to his love for Morris, and his inability to just move on or stop committing fraud/pulling a con would mean he’d be caught again and again. It’s a truly nutty story that is entertaining as all get out, and with a lack of serial killing or other violent themes it’s a good pick for those who are interested in true crime as a whole, but are worried about triggering aspects of it. “I Love You Phillip Morris” is just kinda fun as well as bonkers.

Book: “Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up In a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs” by Elissa Wall and Lisa Pulitzer

“Stolent Innocence” by Elissa Wall was the second book that I had ever read on the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints (or FLDS), but it was the first one that was from the perspective of a woman who had escaped the abusive cult that had held her prisoner ever since she was born into it. The FLDS is an extremist offshoot of Mormonism that still practices Polygamy, and more often than not marries of teenage girls (and someones younger) to older men, who then are trapped in an abusive marriage in which they are dehumanized and subjected to sexual assault as well as other abuses (sometimes even at the hands of their sister wives). Elissa Wall’s memoir is such a story, as she talks about growing up in the FLDS, as well as when convicted rapist Warren Jeffs took over and really upped the ante on violence and sexual abuse towards the members. This book is compelling, personal, and in many ways quite upsetting. But it is also a testament to the strength that Elissa had to get herself out of this situation and to find a new life for herself. The FLDS also has it’s fingers in other crime pies, like fraud, harassment, child abandonment, and trafficking, so it really has a full swath of true crime topics.

Book: “The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence” by Gavin de Becker

I am ending this list with a book that is less about a specific true crime case, and more about ways to potentially lower chances of becoming victim to something bad (though I want to stress something here: in no way am I saying that victims of crimes are at fault in any way shape or form. This is just a book that I have been able to use in my actual life in some ways and found it helpful). “The Gift of Fear” is written by Gavin de Becker, who specializes in violent behavior, with lots of focus on stalking and abusive behaviors. de Becker talks about different scenarios and cases, from victims of violence to stalking to targeted harassment, and shares tips and techniques on how he advises people to use their instincts and wits to get out of or avoid dangerous situations. I myself had a fairly creepy and aggressive phone stalker for a year or so back when I was right out of college, and this book gave me some good advice on how to proceed, which ended up being effective. It’s definitely not perfect (I think that he misses the mark on his section on domestic violence, and yes, it can come off a little victim blamey at times), but there are definitely good nuggets of info about listening to your gut if a situation doesn’t feel right, and to not worry about how you may be perceived because of it.

What true crime books are must reads for you? Feel free to share in the comments!

Diving into Sub-Genres: Space Opera

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

The term “space opera” was originally coined as a dismissive term applied to some science fiction. It was essentially a variation on the term “soap opera” and was used to convey a similar, high-minded rather snobby view of the book being described. Often, these would be ensemble cast stories featuring a space ship, a crew, and the shenanigans they would get into. The use of the term often indicated that the reviewer thought there wasn’t enough “hard science” in the story, and the book had an over-reliance on character beats and corny adventures.

“Star Wars” is the classic example of a space opera film. It’s light-hearted, features a story that revolves largely around the personal stories of its characters, jumps from planet to planet, and isn’t too interested in getting into the how’s and why’s of how its space elements work (how is the “Force” different than magic? how does the Death Star’s planet killing ray actually work in space?, etc.) However, over the last several decades, the term has begun to not only be used in a much less negative light (science fiction reviewers must have realized everyone seems to love “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”), but it has also begun to describe a different sort of science fiction story altogether.

Today’s space opera is essentially the science fiction equivalent of epic fantasy more than anything else. There are no hard and fast rules (like all sub-genres, really), but more often than not, modern space operas operate on a grand scale. There are multiple planets and space systems with layered political maneuverings taking place between these players. Most stories include interstellar travel with characters who move between various locations and who are influenced or influencing the larger movements between these forces. While there is still an emphasis on adventure and character, the stories are often of a more serious nature, veering even further away from the “soap opera” caricature from which the term was derived.

Here is a list of some examples of space opera science fiction. I’ve read most of them, but not all, and have varying opinions on my enjoyment of some. But each, in their own way, helps represent the scope and range to be found within this sub-genre.

Book: “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

This and its sequel, “A Desolation Called Peace,” are the two most recent space opera science fiction books I’ve read recently. They are also perfect examples of what the sub-genre represents to modern readers. The title itself makes the grand scale of the story clear. This isn’t a book concerned only with the small happenings on one planet. It covers and entire Empire and the continuous tug and pull this sprawling force on the outlying stations and planets that have not yet been consumed into this grand, but overwhelming, force. But on a smaller scale, the story follow the more straight-forward adventure of a diplomat who finds herself entangled in the political maneuverings within the Empire itself, all while trying to maintain her own entity and that of the independent station that she represents. On top of all of that, there’s a clear, focused use of scientific advancements that allow these societies to exist. They all feel appropriately futuristic, but they are also easy to imagine as the next step to technologies we see in our own world currently.

Book: “Red Rising” Saga by Pierce Brown

“Red Rising” is an example of a series that starts out with a book that only walks the line of space opera but is the beginning to a set of books that definitely fits the bill. On its own, “Red Rising” can be summed up as “Hunger Games in space,” essentially. There is reference to the multitude of planets and systems that make up this universe, but the story itself feels more contained and insularly focused. But as the series continues, the focus broadens and by the end, the story is fully re-focused on huge battles and political movements that are reshaping the way these planets and systems have organized themselves. These books also have a stronger helping of action than “A Memory Called Empire.” In the beginning, we see smaller fights between the young adults battling each other to earn spots in the greater spectrum of society. And from there we see action-packed space battles with large forces coming together with a clash. While we have one hero, he is surrounded by a larger cast of characters, another common trait found in space operas where the stories follow ensembles and ships with large crews.

Book: “The Word for World is Forest” by Ursula K. LeGuin

This is a classic example of “space opera.” It’s also part of a very loose series (there are concepts and references to technology that are the focus of other books, but it can be read as a standalone story). This book stands out from the first two I highlighted in that it has the more old-fashioned space opera focus on interactions between humans and the native alien species of the planets they encounter (the first two I mentioned above are mostly focused on the politics between various human factions). The story itself follows a fairly traditional colonization conflict. The human race show up at a planet whose environment is essentially one huge forest. The native people have built their entire system of life around this habitat. They are also unfamiliar with the concepts of tyranny and slavery, so the culture clash is real and painful. When a terrible event sparks resistance, the trajectory of both cultures is changed forever. The story definitely is of the time it was written (the late 70s), but it’s an excellent example of classic space opera.

Book: “Leviathan Wakes” by James S. A. Corey

I mean, it’s right there on the front page: “kickass space opera.” But it would also be fairly impossible to create this list currently without including this book, the first in the “Expanse” series that inspired the popular Amazon show. While “Star Trek” reigns alongside “Star Wars” as some of the most popular space operas stories to grace the silver and big screens, the “Expanse” series is one of the few, popular science fiction shows that is currently running. Fantasy seems to be in vogue a bit more at this time (the lasting affect of “Game of Thrones,” likely). Like “Red Rising,” “Leviathan Wakes” focuses on the politics of various human colonies within our solar system, Mars, the Moon, and the Asteroid belts. But it also narrows in on a group of individuals who begin to uncover secrets that will forever shake the boundaries of these systems and their conflicts. It deftly balances the grand scale of various factions within the solar system with the smaller, personal stakes of one ship’s crew and a few key players. It’s a long-running series and definitely one to check out if you’re interested in a multi-book space opera story.

Book: “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie

This is space opera at its most removed. The story is set far in the future and features such a shift in the culture and world-building that in many ways very little is recognizable. Which makes the book particularly challenging and definitely one that will likely only appeal to the strongest science fiction fans. In a time where gender is essentially not even recognized and “she” pronouns are used to identify everyone, a individual crew member who was once a great starship wanders a remote planet. With a sharp focus on loss and the collective nature of a ship and its crew, the story is a slow build of redemption and justice. It’s probably one of the hardest books to tackle on this list, but it is also very beloved by many science fiction fans and an award-winner to boot.

Book: “A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

This is a more recent example of a science fiction novel that meets the more classic definition of space opera. It features a crew made up of quirky individuals, both alien and human, and the story essentially follows their adventures as they travel the galaxy. It’s more light-hearted than any of the other books on this list and places a greater emphasis on the characters themselves and how their escapades affect each of them individually. It’s not a soap opera, by any means, but it’s definitely the kind of book that the original penners of the term “space opera” would have thought was beneath the dignity of “true” science fiction. It’s a fun read and probably the most approachable book on this list for those looking to dabble their feet into science fiction and “space opera.”

What’s your favorite space opera??

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