Kate’s Review: “A History of Wild Places”

Book: “A History of Wild Places” by Shea Ernshaw

Publishing Info: Atria Books, December 2021

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

Book Description: Travis Wren has an unusual talent for locating missing people. Hired by families as a last resort, he requires only a single object to find the person who has vanished. When he takes on the case of Maggie St. James—a well-known author of dark, macabre children’s books—he’s led to a place many believed to be only a legend.

Called Pastoral, this reclusive community was founded in the 1970s by like-minded people searching for a simpler way of life. By all accounts, the commune shouldn’t exist anymore and soon after Travis stumbles upon it… he disappears. Just like Maggie St. James.

Years later, Theo, a lifelong member of Pastoral, discovers Travis’s abandoned truck beyond the border of the community. No one is allowed in or out, not when there’s a risk of bringing a disease—rot—into Pastoral. Unraveling the mystery of what happened reveals secrets that Theo, his wife, Calla, and her sister, Bee, keep from one another. Secrets that prove their perfect, isolated world isn’t as safe as they believed—and that darkness takes many forms.

Hauntingly beautiful, hypnotic, and bewitching, A History of Wild Places is a story about fairy tales, our fear of the dark, and losing yourself within the wilderness of your mind.

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

I read the book “The Wicked Deep” by Shea Ernshaw, and while I thought that a story of three witch sisters who were executed and now have a curse upon the town that wronged them would be my jam, I didn’t really care for it. I didn’t really think about it again, but when I saw the description for “A History of Dark Places”, her adult fiction debut, I was incredibly intrigued by the premise of missing people and a possible forest cult. And boy am I glad I picked this up, because this? This WAS my jam!

“A History of Wild Places” pulled the wool over my eyes and totally tricked me. And I went into it sniffing out the twist and the surprises, which I know probably isn’t the BEST way to go into a novel with twists, but hey, it still managed to take me by surprise. So kudos! Ernshaw balances an elephant in the room mystery with another, incredibly intense mystery, and manages to interconnect them in ways that felt satisfying and that pay off. The first mystery is what happened to missing novelist Maggie St. Clair, as well as the man looking for her Travis Wren. The second mystery has to do with the town that St. Clair and Wren found themselves within, an isolated wilderness commune called Pastoral, as some years after their disappearances, the villagers are cut off from the world due to a plague… or is it? In that storyline we follow the perspectives of married couple Theo and Calla, and Calla’s blind sister Bee, who is in love with Levi, the leader of Pastoral. The comparisons to “The Village” are well earned on many levels, but I felt like this book did a good job of actually pulling off what “The Village” was trying to do. I mean, I knew that something was off, and as Theo, Calla, and Bee all got closer and closer to the secrets of Pastoral, the secrets of evidence of Maggie’s and Travis’s presence, and the secrets that they keep from each other as well, the intensity goes higher and higher until it’s completely through the roof. I found myself charging through a good chunk of the book in one sitting because I needed to know what was going to happen, and if my predictions were right. Side note: they rarely were. Ernshaw pulled almost all of her twists off, and they all felt earned.

I also liked all of the characters. Theo, Calla, and Bee are all well thought out and seeing all of them start to question Pastoral, and start to unlock mysteries and memories, was deeply satisfying. I think that Bee was probably my favorite, as she is intrepid, incredibly caring, and a little bit psychic (a trait that she shares with Travis; this wasn’t really explored as much as it could have been, however, and that’s one of the few qualms I had with this book). As he deeply in love with Pastoral leader Levi, but after Levi makes a decision that supposedly keeps the community safe at the expense of the life of one community member, she starts to question everything about the town, and Levi himself. Ernshaw writes a woman who is devoted to her sister and her community, and whose love for a man is starting to crack apart as she begins to realize that he may not be what he seems to be. It’s a woman who is realizing that she is in a cult, and it’s heartbreaking and a little bit scary, as it becomes clear that she is very possibly in serious danger.

“A History of Wild Places” also has a very dreamy quality to it that makes it feel like a dark fairy tale as much as a bone chilling thriller. We have people who have walked into the woods and seemingly disappeared, we have people with the power of visions and deep empathy, and we have a dark and disturbing wood both in an overlapping narrative of Maggie St. Clair’s “Eloise” books (which we get excerpts from here an there), and in the forest surrounding Pastoral that may contain a deadly disease for those who try and cross its borders. A strange and eerie presence is on the pages of this book, and it worked so well for me that I closed the book and let out a long sigh when I was done. It is such a satisfying tone to go with a creepy cult story with a hint of missing person mystery, and it combines to make something so unique and enjoyable.

“A History of Wild Places” is a great dark fairy tale of a thriller. I’m so glad I decided to try out Ernshaw again, because this one worked SO well for me. It’s a wonderful read for a cold winter’s night.

Rating 9: Strange and dreamy, but unsettling and tense, “A History of Wild Places” is a surprising thriller that kept me guessing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A History of Wild Places” is included on the Goodreads lists “Cults and Communes in Fiction”, and “2021 Horror Novels Written by Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Find “A History of Wild Places” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 3): Crown of Shadows”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 3): Crown of Shadows” by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, July 2010

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The dead plot against the living, the darkness closes in on Keyhouse, and a woman is shattered beyond repair, in the third storyline of the Eisner-nominated series, Locke & Key! Dodge continues his relentless quest to find the key to the black door, and raises an army of shadows to wipe out anyone who might get in his way. Surrounded and outnumbered, the Locke children find themselves fighting a desperate battle, all alone, in a world where the night itself has become their enemy.

Review: I continue to find myself becoming completely immersed in this re-read of “Locke & Key”, Joe Hill’s fantastic dark fantasy horror series. I think that it had been long enough since I read it that I had forgotten some things that have been nice surprises, which is good. But even the things that I have stark memory of are still hitting me where it hurts. I didn’t remember that it’s a slow build up of actual plot progression in favor of character development, and that is made pretty clear in “Crown of Shadows”.

Dodge is making some moves in this book when it comes to trying to get the keys, though it wasn’t as much as I thought it would be. His first big plot point is dealing with the angry ghost of Sam, who is still trapped in Key House and is PRETTY pissed that Dodge manipulated him. The other is his continued quest for the keys. We are about halfway through the series at the end of this, and while Dodge does have some moments of significance here (outside of Sam’s ire), Hill is still taking his time. The biggest development is a Shadow attack on Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, in which Dodge uses literal shadow creatures to try and find the keys and take out anything, i.e. the Locke Kids, that stand in the way of that. It’s the first significant battle between Dodge and the kids, with Tyler at the helm for the most part, and I was once again enthralled with the directions Hill took this, even though I’d read it before. It’s a BIG battle, but we still don’t really know what Dodge’s end plan is, and why he wants all these keys. Again, I know that we get there, and I know that Hill is biding his time, but it just surprised me that we still haven’t gotten clarification on that, NOR have we found out much more about where Rendell fits into all of this outside of a couple sinister clues. It’s a slow burn. Hill is good at that, but I just wanted a little more clarity right now as I think it’s going to get a bit hectic, if I remember correctly.

But it’s the subplots involving Nina and Kinsey that really stuck chords with me as I re-read “Crown of Shadows”. When I initially read it, I don’t think that Nina’s plight caught my attention as much as it should have, as when I read it this time I was just shattered for her and where she is. She’s still drowning in the trauma that she has endured due to the brutal murder of her husband, as well as the violent rape committed against her during the home invasion, and now that Duncan is off dealing with Brian’s injury she is adrift with her three children, and her dependence on alcohol is far more obvious to them now. Her agony is compounded by the horrible guilt she feels as a mother who can’t give her children the love and support and protection that they need, and that sends her into an even deeper spiral, which leads to more drinking, and it just keeps cycling. Hill always covers this with empathy and care, and it never felt exploitative to me. He just knows how to tell it the right way. But then we get an interesting development involving her daughter Kinsey. When we left Kinsey in the last volume, she had used the Head Key to remove her sense of fear. We now see that playing out in two ways in “Crown of Shadows”. The first is the obvious way: she isn’t fearful of risky or dangerous situations anymore. In this volume Kinsey finds herself in a couple of dangerous situations. The first is the aforementioned shadow attack at the house, in which she is cool as a cucumber and completely unphased, while the second is when she and her new friends get trapped in a cave with rising water. While the other teens are understandably freaking out, Kinsey is casually trying to figure out a solution. She’s also a bit more adventuresome in her interactions with others, no longer insecure about being around other people. But the less obvious path Hill takes her upon has everything to do with Nina and Nina’s emotional spiral: Kinsey has absolutely no problem telling her mother what a fuck up she thinks she is, completely comfortable to unload on her whenever Nina has a bad moment. Hill ties the idea of empathy to fear, at least it seems that way to me, and that is SUCH a fascinating theme to lay out with these two women, with one who is consumed by it and one who has excised it, and how bad both scenarios are.

“Locke and Key (Vol. 3): Crown of Thorns” may have given Dodge just a little more ground in his quest to get the keys, but the lack of key movement gave the Lockes, especially the women, more time to shine. Things have to be looking up for the Lockes soon, right? I mean, I think I remember the answer to that question, but we’ll see when I go on to “Keys to the Kingdom”!

Rating 8: We get some slow plot progression and some dark but well done character development, and “Locke & Key: Crown of Shadows” continues the moving tale of the Locke Family, and those who are after them.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol. 3): Crown of Shadows” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Coming of Age Horror Novels”, and “Graphic Novels That Are Quality”.

Find “Locke & Key (V0l. 3): Crown of Shadows” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “You’ll Be the Death of Me”

Book: “You’ll Be the Death of Me” by Karen M. McManus

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, November 2021

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

Book Description: Ivy, Mateo, and Cal used to be close. Now all they have in common is Carlton High and the beginning of a very bad day.

Type A Ivy lost a student council election to the class clown, and now she has to face the school, humiliated. Heartthrob Mateo is burned out–he’s been working two jobs since his family’s business failed. And outsider Cal just got stood up…. again.

So when Cal pulls into campus late for class and runs into Ivy and Mateo, it seems like the perfect opportunity to turn a bad day around. They’ll ditch and go into the city. Just the three of them, like old times. Except they’ve barely left the parking lot before they run out of things to say…Until they spot another Carlton High student skipping school–and follow him to the scene of his own murder. In one chance move, their day turns from dull to deadly. And it’s about to get worse.It turns out Ivy, Mateo, and Cal still have some things in common. They all have a connection to the dead kid. And they’re all hiding something.

Now they’re all wondering–could it be that their chance reconnection wasn’t by chance after all?

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

It’s almost guaranteed by now that whenever Karen M. McManus releases a new book, I’m going to have a helluva fun time reading it. So when I saw that “You’ll Be the Death of Me” was coming out at the end of 2021, I was absolutely hyped. And I am so happy to say that this one MIGHT be my favorite of hers yet. Which is high praise, since I enjoyed all of her previous books. And it’s kind of funny that it’s my favorite, because it has a lot of winks to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, a movie that I don’t particularly enjoy outside of Cameron and Jeanie. But that said, one of our main characters is basically a Jeanie, so maybe it’s not surprising after all.

Look, if you don’t like Jeanie Bueller, I don’t have time for you. (source)

“You’ll Be The Death of Me” centers on three former friends. The first is Ivy, a high strung Type A overachiever who tries to be the best at everything because she feels her brother is favored over her due to his intelligence. There’s Mateo, a quiet kid who lives with his cousin and his newly out of work mother, who is dealing with a medical condition that is prohibitively expensive in its treatment. And there’s Cal, a wise ass loner who is pining after someone he shouldn’t be. When they spontaneously decide to ditch out of school one day, they stumble upon the dead body of a classmate. On top of that, they all have a connection to the crime, and they all have dark secrets. The question isn’t so much if any of them did it, as we know they didn’t. The question is who did, and what secrets ARE they hiding that could be related. We alternate between first person perspectives of all the characters, and we get into their personalities as well as the complications of their former friendship that kind of fizzled out over the years, as friendships sometimes do. I had a true affection for all of them as we got to know them, and I thought that they were all pretty realistic in some of the choices they made and how they reacted to the situation they were in. I especially liked Ivy, as her desperation to be a high achiever and her insecurities were very relatable. It’s a character type we’ve seen a couple of times in McManus’s books, and I thought that Ivy was the most well rounded version of the trope in both her character strengths and weaknesses. And I thought that the way she portrayed all of them together felt very real, especially as we slowly find out the reasons that they stopped hanging out. Let’s just say it’s all very mundane, but in a good, true to life way.

And as for the mystery and the various reveals, be they connected to the murder or not, I was genuinely surprised and stumped for basically the most of the book! There are some really good twists and turns in this book, and when I thought that I had something figured out, or pegged something for a red herring, I was never quite on point. We get the clues interspersed with insight into how the community, specifically the school community, starts to theorize and start rumors about what happened, and how dangerous that kind of thing can be in terms of misinformation. And the mystery is quite complex, with threads reaching out to other characters that I didn’t expect, and going to some pretty dark places, involving the opioid crisis and grooming. And McManus made these themes fit into the overall story pretty well, and handled them in responsible and empathetic ways. And the best part? There is the possibility of a sequel that’s been set up here. If it doesn’t happen, that’s fine, of course. But I would absolutely read to see what happens next.

“You’ll Be the Death of Me” is supremely entertaining and a good mystery. With winter setting in, add this to the reading pile to get through these upcoming, colder months!

Rating 9: Supremely entertaining and a well crafted mystery with likable characters. McManus is still a titan in the YA thriller community!

Reader’s Advisory:

“You’ll Be the Death of Me” is included on the Goodreads list “YA Suspense/Thriller/Mystery”.

Find “You’ll Be the Death of Me” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “All These Bodies”

Book: “All These Bodies” by Kendare Blake

Publishing Info: Quill Tree Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Sixteen bloodless bodies. Two teenagers. One impossible explanation.

Summer 1958—a string of murders plagues the Midwest. The victims are found in their cars and in their homes—even in their beds—their bodies drained, but with no blood anywhere.

September 19- the Carlson family is slaughtered in their Minnesota farmhouse, and the case gets its first lead: 15-year-old Marie Catherine Hale is found at the scene. She is covered in blood from head to toe, and at first she’s mistaken for a survivor. But not a drop of the blood is hers.

Michael Jensen, son of the local sheriff, yearns to become a journalist and escape his small-town. He never imagined that the biggest story in the country would fall into his lap, or that he would be pulled into the investigation, when Marie decides that he is the only one she will confess to. As Marie recounts her version of the story, it falls to Michael to find the truth: What really happened the night that the Carlsons were killed? And how did one girl wind up in the middle of all these bodies?

Review: Back in October I found myself in a super stressful situation. The pipes in our house were continuously backing up, with supposed solutions being trotted out and then falling through, all while my husband was out of town for a week for work. After a third plumbing misadventure led to pipes backing up into even MORE sinks than previously, I eventually packed our daughter up and went to stay with my parents until it could all be sorted out. But since they live near my favorite children’s bookstore, I took an excursion one day to do some book retail therapy, and that was where I saw “All These Bodies” by Kendare Blake on a Halloween display. And that was how a book about a number of murders with bloodless bodies at the forefront was added to a self care regimen. I’d read Blake before, be it in short story form or her book “Anna Dressed in Blood”, and felt that it was high time to dive back in. Bonus: this book takes place in Minnesota, and as a typical Minnesotan I LOVE media that references my home state. And if you combine that with a story that takes influence from Starkweather and Fugate AS WELL AS the Clutter Family Murders, AND THROW IN SOME VAMPIRE LORE TOO?

You betcha I’m interested in that kinda thing. (source)

“All These Bodies” is a horror novel when it comes down to it, but it takes a couple of horror themes and smashes them together. The first is the small town loss of innocence post murder horror theme, one that usually is seen more in thrillers, but if implemented properly can be full on horror. Blake is clearly influenced by two huge American cases from the middle of the 2oth Century that I mentioned above: the murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, and the Clutter Family Murders. The first involved a young man and his teenage girlfriend who traveled on the interstates randomly killing people, the second was an entire family killed in their home in the middle of the night by intruders looking for cash. Both completely obliterated the idea that rural America is totally safe from violence at the hands of strangers. Blake captures the absolute fear and disillusionment of Black Deer Falls, Minnesota, as tension builds up and neighbors question all they believed about their safe community. When the only suspect is a teenage girl covered in blood named Marie, our protagonist Michael wants to find out what happened, not only because he’s a budding reporter, but also because he just wants to make sense of something so senseless. Everyone else in town is convinced that Marie is the perpetrator, as are authorities from Nebraska, where other victims were found. Blake does a superb job of creating a rapport between that of a naive teenage boy, and a teenage girl who knows the horrors of the world and what will ultimately become of her, even if she, herself, is a victim of something very, very dark and supernatural in nature. Marie is a combination of creepy in her own right, but also vulnerable and tragic. She knows that she’s going to be the bad guy because of hysteria, because of her gender, and because of her background, even though someone much worse is out there, no matter her role. Because someone has to pay for this, and she fits the bill. It’s eerie and sad, and Blake mastered blurring the lines between potential murderer and potential victim.

And the other horror element is that a vampire is quite possibly the real culprit of all of this, and continues to stalk Black Deer Falls and Michael as he tries to get the truth from Marie. Vampires have been a bit neutered in recent YA stories, and since a lot of iconic vampire lore is so closely tied to sensuality and eroticism it’s hard to be mad about it. But Blake taps into the idea of a vampire being a predator through and through, be it when it comes to feeding on people and draining them of their blood, or manipulating a desperate girl to possibly do unspeakable acts. This vampire is mostly off page in this book, and that just made the tension all the more freaky as the book went on, as unseen threats just give me the willies in a primal way. There is one particular moment in the woods while Michael and a friend are tracking a deer, and Michael starts to get the feeling that it isn’t just the deer being tracked, and let me tell you, it is UNSETTLING AS HELL.

But that is the best thing about “All These Bodies”: the ambiguity of it all. Instead of deciding to be clear cut in her story and what is going on, Blake instead opts to leave some things a bit open ended so the reader has to draw their own conclusions as to what happened to all the bodies drained of blood. Sometimes the need for ambiguity made the story run a bit long, however, and while I like the due diligence of trying to make things grey, there were sometimes that it got repetitive as Michael contemplates if Marie is a monster or a damsel in distress. But that aside, I’m pretty sure I know where I fall in terms of conclusions, but you could make the argument for it to go the other way. Healthy debate in horror is always welcome, and I would love to hear what others think, if you’ve read this!

“All These Bodies” brings bittersweet pathos to a vampire tale, and I think it’s a nice way to explore vampirism and what it symbolizes in a YA setting. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rating 8: A creepy, ambiguous, and somewhat tragic story about small town innocence lost and predatory men, vampires or not, “All These Bodies” is melancholy and unsettling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All These Bodies” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Horror Releases”, and “2021 YA Horror Written By Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Find “All These Bodies” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “A Lesson in Vengeance”

Book: “A Lesson in Vengeance” by Victoria Lee

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Felicity Morrow is back at Dalloway School.

Perched in the Catskill mountains, the centuries-old, ivy-covered campus was home until the tragic death of her girlfriend. Now, after a year away, she’s returned to graduate. She even has her old room in Godwin House, the exclusive dormitory rumored to be haunted by the spirits of five Dalloway students—girls some say were witches. The Dalloway Five all died mysteriously, one after another, right on Godwin grounds.

Witchcraft is woven into Dalloway’s history. The school doesn’t talk about it, but the students do. In secret rooms and shadowy corners, girls convene. And before her girlfriend died, Felicity was drawn to the dark. She’s determined to leave that behind her now; all Felicity wants is to focus on her senior thesis and graduate. But it’s hard when Dalloway’s occult history is everywhere. And when the new girl won’t let her forget.

It’s Ellis Haley’s first year at Dalloway, and she’s already amassed a loyal following. A prodigy novelist at seventeen, Ellis is a so-called “method writer.” She’s eccentric and brilliant, and Felicity can’t shake the pull she feels to her. So when Ellis asks Felicity for help researching the Dalloway Five for her second book, Felicity can’t say no. Given her history with the arcane, Felicity is the perfect resource. And when history begins to repeat itself, Felicity will have to face the darkness in Dalloway–and in herself.

Review: You give me a YA thriller that involves a boarding school with a bloody history, and I am one hundred percent here for that kind of narrative. And if you throw in witches, or even the rumor of them, I’m even MORE interested. So obviously when I read about “A Lesson in Vengeance” by Victoria Lee, I definitely wanted to give it a read.

The thing that worked best in “A Lesson in Vengeance” was the eerie setting and atmosphere of Dalloway School, the prestigious boarding school that our protagonist Felicity attends. It has a long history of educating women, but a notorious past involving five students who were supposed witches, and who died under strange circumstances. Lee builds this history up through Felicity’s perspective, as well as research that she and new student/prodigy author Ellis are conducting. We know that Felicity has been through some kind of trauma involving her former girlfriend Alex, who also died, and whose death is haunting Felicity for various reasons. As she and Ellis start to dig into the occult rumors, the tension builds at a well paced rate. I was definitely wondering just what Felicity was hiding, both from the reader as well as herself, and while I kind of figured out some of (okay, a lot of) the twists and reveals that we had along the way, the creepy setting and atmosphere that Lee had in place made the journey work for me. I also thought that the tension between Felicity and Ellis was nice and taut, as they are playing a game of sexual and romantic desire and want, while also perhaps not being able to trust each other for various reasons that are slowly peeled back as the book goes on.

But that brings us to the characters themselves. “A Lesson in Vengeance” has a harder time with keeping the characters interesting as the story goes on, as I felt that both Felicity and Ellis were pretty two dimensional. Or at the very least, tropey in their characterizations. Felicity is the unreliable poor little rich girl, whose toxic relationship with her now dead ex girlfriend has damaged her, but also perhaps has her hiding something. Ellis is the cold and blunt child prodigy whom everyone loves due to her fame (as she is a published author) but who is also potentially hiding secrets and ulterior motives. They have a slow building romance that may or may not be dangerous, but it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before in thrillers where characters are potentially fatales, femme or otherwise. The tension is there, and it is effective, but at the end of the day neither Felicity nor Ellis had much unique to their characters, and came off more flat than anything else.

“A Lesson in Vengeance” is definitely an effective Dark Academia thriller, but it doesn’t reach the high levels I was hoping for.

Rating 6: A creepy and atmospheric thriller involving a history of witches, dangerous romance, and a school full of secrets. The characters, however, are a little flat for the tale they inhabit.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Lesson in Vengeance” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”, and “2021 Sapphic Releases”.

Find “A Lesson in Vengeance” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Mary Shelley Club”

Book: “The Mary Shelley Club” by Goldy Moldavsky

Publishing Info: Henry Holt & Company, April 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: New girl Rachel Chavez is eager to make a fresh start at Manchester Prep. But as one of the few scholarship kids, Rachel struggles to fit in, and when she gets caught up in a prank gone awry, she ends up with more enemies than friends.

To her surprise, however, the prank attracts the attention of the Mary Shelley Club, a secret club of students with one objective: come up with the scariest prank to orchestrate real fear. But as the pranks escalate, the competition turns cutthroat and takes on a life of its own.

When the tables are turned and someone targets the club itself, Rachel must track down the real-life monster in their midst . . . even if it means finally confronting the dark secrets from her past.

Review: Though Halloween is over, we all know that it lives on in my heart year round, and that I’m always into reading something creepy and crawly no matter the time of year. But I am definitely kicking myself a bit for not reading “The Mary Shelley Club” by Goldy Moldavsky during the Halloween Season, because it would have been SO PERFECT. I was basically able to read it in one day, for one, and for another it wraps itself up in the comfort and familiarity of horror movies, and those who love them. Honestly, that sounds like a great Halloween read. Kicking myself just a little bit here for sitting on it.

When it comes to the foundation and bare bones of this book, we have Rachel Chavez, a teenage girl who survived a traumatic home invasion that left her attacker dead, and her psyche on edge. She’s moved to a new school for a fresh start, but is having trouble fitting in outside of her one friend Saundra, so she turns to horror movies to try and control her anxiety. Rachel as a main character is great. I thought that her characteristics have all the boxes you like to see for a ‘final girl’, so following her made narrative sense. I also liked how her trauma is introduced early, but parsed out over time and shows actual mental and emotional fallout for her. And her love for all things horror is so, so endearing, as I am always for stories that have spooky girls whose love for scary things may be more about exploring the horrors of life in a safe way (because I feel this on a deep cellular level). I also liked seeing her interact with various members of The Mary Shelley Club, a secret group that specializes in all things horror as well as setting up elaborate and scary pranks on unsuspecting targets. From the sarcastic and catty Thayer to charismatic and charming Freddie, Rachel has her allies and people she can bond with, while making the usual mistakes that someone desperate to fit in may make. Especially when other members, like sullen Felicity and mysterious Bram aren’t as warm to her presence as a new member.

The plot and mystery itself is a little bit weaker. The big question about this story is who is starting to target the members of the Mary Shelley Club as their pranks start to go wrong, and there may be an outsider who is hoping to take one of them out. While I thought that Moldavsky has the pacing down well, and while there were a couple moments of surprise as the mystery continues, overall I thought it was kind of easy to see what was happening in terms of red herrings and reveals. But some of those weaknesses were easy to overlook, because what I liked best about “The Mary Shelley Club” that elevated it from mere ‘okay’ status is the love of horror movies that is displayed on the page. Moldavsky has made a cast of characters, especially in Rachel, that showcase a wide range of horror movie affection, and the references are ample and peppered throughout the narrative. And while they aren’t as in depth or expansive as, say, “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”, there are still so many that made me smile from ear to ear. Rachel and the other club members debate the merits of the original “Black Christmas”, they dress up as various horror movie icons for Halloween, the movies on their watch lists are fun to spot, and even when I didn’t agree with the things Rachel said about various horror movies, I still appreciated the references(but seriously, “Sleepaway Camp” being described as the worst horror movie of all time is a BIT much. Cheesy, yes. Inadvertently transphobic, probably. But the WORST?).

When stupid trying to be funny but completely unwatchable dreck films like “ThanksKilling” exist, there is no way “Sleepaway Camp” is the worst horror film of all time, (source)

Overall, “The Mary Shelley Club” is a fun book because it has such an earnest love of horror and all the beautiful things and people that come with it. Goldavsky has set up for potential sequels, and I would probably read them with relish.

Rating 7: A fun tribute to horror movies and the people who love them, “The Mary Shelley Club” isn’t super unique narrative wise, but has a couple surprises, and some good moments of suspense.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Mary Shelley Club” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books in Academia”, and “2021 YA Horror Written by Women (cis and trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Find “The Mary Shelley Club” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Our Violent Ends”

Book: “Our Violent Ends” by Chloe Gong

Publishing Info: Margaret K McElderry Books, November 2021

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

Book Description: Shanghai is under siege in this captivating and searingly romantic sequel to These Violent Delights, which New York Times bestselling author Natasha Ngan calls “deliciously dark.”

The year is 1927, and Shanghai teeters on the edge of revolution. After sacrificing her relationship with Roma to protect him from the blood feud, Juliette has been a girl on the warpath. One wrong move, and her cousin will step in to usurp her place as the Scarlet Gang’s heir. The only way to save the boy she loves from the wrath of the Scarlets is to have him want her dead for murdering his best friend in cold blood. If Juliette were actually guilty of the crime Roma believes she committed, his rejection might sting less.

Roma is still reeling from Marshall’s death, and his cousin Benedikt will barely speak to him. Roma knows it’s his fault for letting the ruthless Juliette back into his life, and he’s determined to set things right—even if that means killing the girl he hates and loves with equal measure.

Then a new monstrous danger emerges in the city, and though secrets keep them apart, Juliette must secure Roma’s cooperation if they are to end this threat once and for all. Shanghai is already at a boiling point: The Nationalists are marching in, whispers of civil war brew louder every day, and gangster rule faces complete annihilation. Roma and Juliette must put aside their differences to combat monsters and politics, but they aren’t prepared for the biggest threat of all: protecting their hearts from each other.

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

Last year I took a bit of a chance on the book “These Violent Delights”, Chloe Gong’s historical fiction fantasy romance thriller retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”. That’s a true mouthful for a genre description, but it’s the only way to truly describe the wide breadth that this book had. I ended up enjoying it, and found myself waiting anxiously to find out what happened next. Well great news! The conclusion, “Our Violent Ends”, has been released, and let me tell you, the year long wait was worth it. Juliette and Roma are back, and I happily dove into the sweet, sweet agony that was sure to follow.

Me fully ready to watch things go horribly south for all my favorite characters in 1920s Shanghai. (source)

Just as a quick additional refresher, this “Romeo and Juliet” retelling takes place in 1920s Shanghai, as two rival gangs, the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers, have a blood feud that has led to constant tension and violence. Juliette is the heir to the Scarlet Gang, Roma is the heir to the White Flowers, they had a passionate love affair and in the last book teamed up to try and stop a monster from wreaking pure havoc on the city they love. When we finished the first book, Juliette had just killed Roma’s best friend Marshall, though she hadn’t REALLY killed him, it was all a ruse to keep Roma safe vis a vis his hatred of her.

Plot wise, Gong balances the source material with a lot of new themes and plot points, as well as an update to the time and place that the story takes place. There are still threats from monsters in this one, which makes the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers have an uneasy truce/team up in hopes that Juliette and Roma can find the vaccine that is rumored to stop the monsters (and of course the tension is off the charts in all kinds of ways). But there are also threats of the time period, like the simmering tensions between the Nationalists and the rising Communists. And we are still dealing with the two gangs having conflicts, which could be ceasing due to a common enemy of the monsters, but is always on the precipice. It’s a lot to cram in there, and while sometimes it felt like it was a little too much (and that we’d gloss over aspects of the plot because of it), overall Gong still managed to have a clear connection to the original play through things that would happen in the story. Even when she would twist some things around to better fit the story that she was telling. These moments were done in such a way that usually felt more true to the circumstances, however, and never like she was just trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

It is still the characters, however, that are the books greatest strengths. While the original cast of “Romeo and Juliet” has a kind of charisma to a degree (I mean, I don’t like the play but I recognize the appeal of the characters), Gong continues to draw far more complexity from her versions of the players. With Roma you have a brooding and brokenhearted Romeo, who is mourning the supposed death of his friend Marshall at the hand of his former lover. With Juliette you have a woman who is being torn up by her feeling of duty to her family as the heir to the Scarlet Gang, as well as her deep love for a man that she had to pretend to betray. And oh how I continued to love this version of Juliette. She gets shit done and isn’t given ANY credit for it, and I loved her inner turmoil even as she has to hold EVERYTHING together to be the strongest player in the whole damn story. It gives both the main characters FAR more pathos than the play did, and I really enjoyed how Gong gave both of them a lot more agency, smarts, and will than their inspirations were ever given. I was actively rooting for both of them, but especially Juliette, who is constantly trying to prove herself as worthy, though as a woman she is never going to be seen as such (and her psychopathic cousin Tyler is given more glory than she ever gets). But it’s also side players that are highly enjoyable, be it Juliette’s cousins Kathleen and Rosalind, or Roma’s younger sister Alisa. For me, though, I LOVED Marshall and Benedikt, the two lovers who have been separated due to Marshall faking his death, and Benedikt’s agony over it. Oh these two. You cannot help but root for them.

“Our Violent Ends” finished out the duology on a perhaps expected but still satisfying high note. Chloe Gong made me into a “Romeo and Juliet” fan, at least the way she tells it, and I definitely recommend checking it out if you want to see a really unique twist on the original tale!

Rating 8: A complex and satisfying end to a truly unique Shakespeare retelling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Our Violent Ends” is new and not included on any Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Rewriting Shakespeare (YA Edition)”, and “YA Fiction Set in the 1920s”.

Find “Our Violent Ends” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: “These Violent Delights”.

Kate’s Review: “The Keeper of Night”

Book: “The Keeper of Night” by Kylie Lee Baker

Publishing Info: Inkyard Press, October 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I won an ARC in a contest run by the author.

Book Description: Death is her destiny.

Half British Reaper, half Japanese Shinigami, Ren Scarborough has been collecting souls in the London streets for centuries. Expected to obey the harsh hierarchy of the Reapers who despise her, Ren conceals her emotions and avoids her tormentors as best she can.

When her failure to control her Shinigami abilities drives Ren out of London, she flees to Japan to seek the acceptance she’s never gotten from her fellow Reapers. Accompanied by her younger brother, the only being on earth to care for her, Ren enters the Japanese underworld to serve the Goddess of Death… only to learn that here, too, she must prove herself worthy. Determined to earn respect, Ren accepts an impossible task—find and eliminate three dangerous Yokai demons—and learns how far she’ll go to claim her place at Death’s side.

Review: Thank you to Kylie Lee Baker for the ARC she sent me through a contest!

As well all know by now, for the most part fantasy as a genre isn’t my jam. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule: “The Lord of the Rings” is my favorite book series of all time, and if there are dark elements or things that have to do with creepy things in the story, I am definitely all in. And this brings me to “The Keeper of Night” by Kylie Lee Baker, a dark fantasy novel about demons, death collectors, and the trauma of being rejected due to one’s identity. When I read the description I knew that this would be one of my exceptions. And given that I had recently read another book that talks about Yokai and Japanese folk lore (and wanted more), “The Keeper of Night” was a great follow up to “Nothing But Blackened Teeth”.

First and foremost, I loved our main character Ren. Right from the start she’s a bit rougher around the edges than I was expecting. Since she grew up being targeted by other Reapers due to her Shinigami heritage, and since her father has merely tolerated her but favored her half brother Neven, Ren has dealt with constant Othering and emotional abuse. It makes sense that she is desperate to find a place where she fits in, so going to Japan in hopes of allying herself with the Shinigami is a logical choice. Of course, Ren soon realizes that in Japan she is also out of place due to her Reaper heritage. It makes for a protagonist who has to internalize a lot of self loathing, and as her journey to find acceptance goes on she makes harder and harder decisions, which push her more and more morally grey. I liked seeing this progression, and I felt that Baker was careful to show the reasons why someone who has dealt with so much oppression, pain, and harm could turn to violence and cruelty, without necessarily condoning some of the darker choices Ren made. And without spoiling anything, the place that she ended up not only set up for the sequel in a really well done manner, it also took me by surprise in where it went, I will DEFINITELY be picking up the next in the series to see where Ren is going to go next.

The one constant better angel with her is Neven, whose genuine goodness has two effects on Ren: the first is that she wants to be better, because she loves her brother and he’s the only person who has shown her true warmth and kindness. The other is that she resents him, because his naïveté is not only hard to deal with, but it also reflects the comparatively privileged existence he has had compared to her. Things become more complicated when they meet Hiro, a disgraced Shinigami who offers to help Ren prove her worth to the Goddess of Death to serve her. Ren feels connected to Hiro due to their heritage, and this causes tension between her and Neven, as he can’t understand some of the things Hiro, as a former Shinigami, does. And this of course, makes Ren feel judged by the one person who never judged her BECAUSE it’s based in cultural differences. It’s no surprise that a lot of this can serve as allegories to sexism, racism, and privilege, and while I think Neven probably could have used a bit more of a dressing down from Ren on occasion, overall the dynamic was enjoyable. And treaded towards heart wrenching in some moments.

As for the fantasy elements, Baker uses a lot of Japanese folk lore, exploring Death mythology as well as a litany of Yokai, from fox spirits to fish spirits to very disturbing and threatening creatures. We got to see these things act out within the story, as well as got some actual folk lore stories to give the various characters Ren meets along the way context. And a lot of it is very dark and creepy, which made it all the more enjoyable for me, as someone who does love dark fantasy within the fantasy realm.

I definitely enjoyed “The Keeper of Night”, and will be waiting on pins and needles for the next book. And if you like dark fantasy, you should definitely seek this one out.

Rating 8: A unique and dark fantasy that threw me for a loop by the end, and makes me excited for the next in the series!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Keeper of Night” is included on the Goodreads lists “Monsters and Magic Society”, and “Awesome Swordswomen”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Getaway”

Book: “Getaway” by Zoje Stage

Publishing Info: Mulholland Books, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: It was supposed to be the perfect week away . . . 

Imogen and Beck, two sisters who couldn’t be more different, have been friends with Tilda since high school. Once inseparable, over two decades the women have grown apart. But after Imogen survives a traumatic attack, Beck suggests they all reunite to hike deep into the Grand Canyon’s backcountry. A week away, secluded in nature . . . surely it’s just what they need.

But as the terrain grows tougher, tensions from their shared past bubble up. And when supplies begin to disappear, it becomes clear secrets aren’t the only thing they’re being stalked by. As friendship and survival collide with an unspeakable evil, Getaway becomes another riveting thriller from a growing master of suspense and “a literary horror writer on the rise” (BookPage).

Review: We’ve established this again and again, but I’m not really a camping person. While I am absolutely down for going up North to a remote location, more often than not I want that location to have a hotel that I can rest my weary head in. But I do love thrillers and horror stories that involve being out in the wilderness, as it probably lights up a deep seated fear that I have that prompts me to go for a cabin versus a tent. “Getaway” by Zoje Stage caught my eye for two reasons: 1) I read her previous novel “Wonderland”, and while it didn’t really connect with me as much as I’d hoped, I knew that I wanted to read more of her work, and 2) I am always, ALWAYS going to be on board for a danger in the wilderness story!

Let’s be real, this movie is why I’m not a camper. (source)

Stage creates the perfect set up for this danger in the wilderness story, and at first glance it sounds a lot like the film “The Descent”, in terms of motivation. Imogen is a woman who survives a mass shooting at her synagogue, and has been experiencing PTSD on top of OTHER PTSD that stems from another trauma in her life (known as ‘The Thing’ at first). Her older sister Beck and their long time friend Tilda (who has a somewhat strained relationship with Imogen) think that a backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon would be beneficial for Imogen’s mental health and great way to reconnect, but, as the description says, once they are in the thick of their trip, it’s clear that someone else is out there with them. Stage has a good blend of personal strife to go along with the slowly building unease, as the three women, all friends at one point but now drifting for multiple reasons, may not really trust each other as much as they should in a situation like this. We slowly start to learn the dynamics of this group, and how they have gotten to the point of mistrust, and I liked that Stage makes sure to be careful in how she portrays sticky themes while still giving all of these women room to grow, room to be messy, and room to adapt as their situation becomes more and more dire. I fully expected the characters to mostly stick to tropes (and Beck kind of does, as the reliable and logic minded doctor), but by the end they all have well explored characterizations that made them complex and realistic. This made it so I was all the more attached to them as the story progressed, which in turn made the tension all the more dire as they find out just who it is that is nearby (I’m being vague! I’m sorry! I just don’t want to spoil anything).

And let’s talk about that tension. “Getaway” absolutely touches on every point that I love in a wilderness thriller story, from the unrelenting apathy of nature to the elements being a danger to the foreboding sense of being watched in the dark. And even when Stage kind of showed her cards earlier than I was expecting and made it clear as to what Imogen, Beck, and Tilda were dealing with, I was still totally immersed even though I probably would have been happier to string it out even longer. By the end things were going at a breakneck speed, and the suspense was making me unable to put the book down so easily. It was also pretty cool that the tension wasn’t just limited to the danger that they didn’t calculate for. Because there are plenty of moments of suspense that just involve being on a backpacking hike in the Grand Canyon, given that rough trails and narrow paths overlooking cliffs are things that the characters DO know about, and have to maneuver through even when they don’t realize they are being tracked. I love it when stories can incorporate the actual horrors of these kinds of things. I mean, going back to “The Descent” again, some of the scariest moments involve the claustrophobia and unpredictability of caving, and “The Blair Witch Project” milks a lot of terror from being lost in the woods. “Getaway” has plenty to work with when it comes to The Grand Canyon and how dangerous it can be on its own.

“Getaway” is a tense and satisfying thriller that doesn’t relent on the suspense once it gets going, and the characters likability makes it all the more stressful. In a good way. I’m glad I went back to Zoje Stage, because this one really worked for me.

Rating 8: Incredibly tense and filled with realistic characters and dramatic moments, “Getaway” doesn’t let up on the intensity of being in danger in the middle of nowhere.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Getaway” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Wilderness Horror Stories”, and “2021 Horror Novels Written By Women (Cis and Trans), and Non-Binary Femmes”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, 2009

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Following a shocking death that dredges up memories of their father’s murder, Kinsey and Tyler Locke are thrown into choppy emotional waters, and turn to their new friend, Zack Wells, for support, little suspecting Zack’s dark secret.

Meanwhile, six-year-old Bode Locke tries to puzzle out the secret of the head key, and Uncle Duncan is jarred into the past by a disturbingly familiar face.

Open your mind – the head games are just getting started.

Review: I am definitely enjoying going back and reading “Locke and Key” if only because of how it still manages to surprise me on my second read through. I’m curious to try and give the Netflix series a chance again, as I watched the first few episodes and then kinda lost interest. But reading “Head Games” has reminded me that Joe Hill was laying groundwork for so many things early on, and while it’s a slow process, you can see that it’s all going to fall into place as time goes on. “Head Games” takes its time. But it is definitely laying a lot of foundation, while still hitting emotional beats.

There is still a fair amount of groundwork to be laid out in this series, and “Head Games” continues to slowly peel back the origins of the demon Dodge, who has taken on the form of a teenage boy named Zack, and gone to the high school gym teacher, Ellie Whedon to be used as cover. Because this form is the exact replica of Rendell Locke’s high school friend Luke Caravaggio, who was Ellie’s boyfriend at the time. We don’t know as of now what happened to Luke, nor do we know when we start what hold Dodge has on Ellie, and Hill carefully and methodically starts to reveal various elements of Ellie, Rendell, and their connections to Dodge and the keys. Ellie’s story is particularly sad, as she is wracked with guilt over the unknown thing that happened in high school, and is trying to care for her special needs son Rufus. Dodge/Zack knows just how to manipulate and terrify her, and it reinforces the insidiousness of Dodge, as well as some dark secrets that Rendell and his friends may have been hiding.

We also get to see Dodge/Zack start to realize that staying incognito may not be so easy. After all, Duncan Locke, Rendell’s brother and the uncle to Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, was a little kid during the time that Rendell et all were headed on an unknown dark path to Dodge and the keys, and seeing this new teenager hanging out his nephew and niece could be tricky for the demon should he put two and two together. This also opens up the door to see a little bit more about Duncan’s life now, having to step in as a parent to his nephews and niece given that his sister in law is incredibly traumatized and unable to care for them too well at the moment. We also see his romantic life at the front of a subplot, as he and his boyfriend Brian find themselves targets of homophobic violence. It’s not super great that this is the big storyline for Duncan, but I will say that it does flow into a bigger picture storyline with Dodge and the keys, so that’s something anyway.

But in terms of straight up fantasy world building, “Head Games” starts to dig into the depths of another one of the keys that the Locke siblings have discovered. The focus this time is on the Head Key, in which a person can insert the key into their head, and open up their consciousness and imagination to add things, or remove them. Bode stuns his siblings with this trick, and while Tyler is interested in what you can add (after all, inserting a book makes it so you know all the contents within that book), Kinsey, still deeply feeling the trauma of her Dad’s murder and the family attack, is more concerned about what you can remove. And decides to remove her ability to fear, and her ability to cry. Going through the first time I didn’t think too much of it, as there was still so much going on that I was trying to wrap my head around, but now that I’m going through again with a lot more knowledge, I could appreciate just how utterly heartbreaking Kinsey’s arc is. While Bode was probably too young to understand everything that happened as of now, and while Tyler has been pushing it down, Kinsey’s deep pain has made it so she just doesn’t want to deal with any of it anymore, and decides to remove crucial parts of herself to do so. It’s such a fascinating place to take this Head Key storyline, and I think it’s so well done.

And the illustrations are still excellent. Gabriel Rodríguez really gets to let loose in this volume, since the Head Key is so abstract and outside the box.

A look into Bode’s mind. (source)

Rating 8: Still a lot of groundwork being laid into the mythos, but “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” is starting to slowly unravel all the secrets of Key House.

“Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” continues to bring a strong dark fantasy/horror feel to a cerebral and funky series. I am very stoked to go back and revisit the next volume, as I’m sure I will continue to be surprised at what I do and don’t remember.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” is included on the Goodreads lists “Graphic Novels That Are Quality”, and “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”.

Find “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: