Kate’s Review: “The Black Queen”

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Book: “The Black Queen” by Jumata Emill

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2023

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

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

Book Description: Nova Albright, the first Black homecoming queen at Lovett High, is dead. Murdered the night of her coronation, her body found the next morning in the old slave cemetery she spent her weekends rehabilitating.

Tinsley McArthur was supposed to be queen. Not only is she beautiful, wealthy, and white, it’s her legacy–her grandmother, her mother, and even her sister wore the crown before her. Everyone in Lovett knows Tinsley would do anything to carry on the McArthur tradition.

No one is more certain of that than Duchess Simmons, Nova’s best friend. Duchess’s father is the first Black police captain in Lovett. For Duchess, Nova’s crown was more than just a win for Nova. It was a win for all the Black kids. Now her best friend is dead, and her father won’t face the fact that the main suspect is right in front of him. Duchess is convinced that Tinsley killed Nova–and that Tinsley is privileged enough to think she can get away with it. But Duchess’s father seems to be doing what he always does: fall behind the blue line. Which means that the white girl is going to walk.

Duchess is determined to prove Tinsley’s guilt. And to do that, she’ll have to get close to her. But Tinsley has an agenda, too.

Everyone loved Nova. And sometimes, love is exactly what gets you killed.

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

I love being taken surprise by a book. Whether it’s because I hadn’t heard of it before, or because a new author is on the scene and I’m totally unfamiliar, it’s a joy and a treat when one ends up in my hands, I have no expectations, and it ends up working for me and then some. That was my experience with “The Black Queen” by Jumata Emill. I hadn’t heard of the book until it was offered to me (thanks again, Delacorte Press!), and the premise was interesting and I was feeling up to trying something new. And then I ended up really, really enjoying it!

This story is told from two first person perspectives. The first is that of Duchess, a Black teenage girl in a Southern Community that is dealing with unofficial segregation and disparities for the Black community. Her best friend Nova is another Black girl, and is named the first Black Homecoming Queen the school has ever had. When Nova is murdered, Duchess is determined to prove that the privileged and wealthy Tinsley, a white classmate who wanted to be Homecoming Queen, is the culprit, as Tinsley was not only cruel to Nova during the race, but was also seen on TikTok making threats after the crowning. But the other perspective is actually of Tinsley, who is desperate to clear her name in the murder, and who is conducting her own investigation. Eventually, both girls team up despite the bad blood and past baggage, and it makes for a hell of a story. Not in the sense of ‘look at these two learning from each other’ kind of way, but because Emill doesn’t shy away from very uncomfortable moments regarding Tinsley’s character, and also explores lots of complexities with Duchess’s father, who is a police captain in town, and how his role has an effect on Duchess and her peers. Watching Tinsley be really difficult to like and slowly start to realize how terrible she has been, and how her race and privilege has made her entitled and venomous, is a very interesting choice to make with the character, and it was really neat to see that while we do get growth and remorse, she isn’t let off the hook for her really shitty actions. Watching her do the work first because she wants to clear her name, but then slowly start to realize that she has a lot to atone for was a fascinating character arc. I also like Duchess’s storyline and character growth, as she goes from making assumptions about things to then starting to find hard to reconcile nuances that make her question what she thinks she knows. It’s just really cool to see Emill delve into these deep issues about race in America and doesn’t water it down or package it in a way that some may think would be more palatable for a teen audience. She makes it easy to understand while still trusting the reader to be able to parse out a lot of complex, not so easy to answer questions.

The mystery at hand was very entertaining and pretty well put together. We know from the jump that Tinsley was guilty of being a shit head but not guilty of murder, so having her Duchess start to piece the mystery together separately and then together led to some good reveals and some good clue drops. There were a lot of facets to the story, and to Nova’s character, and many puzzle pieces that come together to give many options for why someone would have wanted her dead. Emill is fairly successful in pulling everything off and throwing readers off the trail here and there, and while I did kind of call one of the big solutions pretty early on in my read, there were a few well done red herrings that made me think ‘well maybe…?’, before they were revealed to be misdirections. But they were all plausible. The pace is kept fairly brisk and the plot moves in a way that keeps you interested, and I devoured this book in a couple of sittings because it was just that addictive.

So all in all “The Black Queen” was a well done YA thriller that successfully injects bigger, relevant issues into the plot. I really enjoyed it and I will be looking for more fiction from Jumata Emill in the future!

Rating 8: Some really good reveals, complex main characters, and a lot of relevant and important themes about race in America come together to make a well done YA thriller.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Black Queen” isn’t included on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Black Lives Matter and Anti-Racist Books”and “Young Adult Thrillers”.

Kate’s Review: “Unshod, Cackling, and Naked”

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Book: “Unshod, Cackling, and Naked” by Tamika Thompson

Publishing Info: Unnerving, January 2023

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

Where You Can Get This Book: Amazon | Author’s Website

Book Description: A beauty pageant veteran appeases her mother by competing for one final crown, only to find herself trapped in a hand-sewn gown that cuts into her flesh. A journalist falls deeply in love with a mysterious woman but discovers his beloved can vanish and reappear hours later in the same spot, as if no time has passed at all. A cash-strapped college student agrees to work in a shop window as a mannequin but quickly learns she’s not free to break her pose. And what happens when the family pet decides it no longer wants to have “owners?”

In the grim and often horrific thirteen tales collected here, beauty is violent, and love and hate are the same feeling, laid bare by unbridled obsession. Entering worlds both strange and quotidian, and spanning horror landscapes both speculative and real, Unshod, Cackling, and Naked asks who among us is worthy of love and who deserves to die?

Review: Thank you to Beverly Bambury for sending me an eARC of this short story collection!

Even though I am typing this whilst looking at a VERY out of control book pile on my nightstand, I’m not lying when I say that I’m always on the lookout for something new in my reading rotations. Especially if that something new is something horror related. So when I was approached with “Unshod, Cackling, and Naked”, a collection of short horror stories by Tamika Thompson, I was quite interested in giving it a go! I like finding new to me horror authors to check out, and the title alone had a lot of promise. And while it’s true that short stories aren’t always reliable for me, I’ve had luck with them recently, so I was down to try more. And happily, that once again worked out pretty well!

As I always do with short stories collections I will talk about the three that I liked the best, and then talk about the collection as a whole.

“Under the Crown”: This is actually, to me, the least ‘horror’ horror story of the collection, though there are still aspects that make it tread that way. But at the end of the day I found it to be a really satisfying tale of self liberation. A woman has been competing in beauty pageants for most of her life at the behest of her mother, and she is starting to get tired of it. During a really important pageant that she never wanted to do in the first place, the various tricks of the trade to make her look pretty start to take their toll, as the dress itself feels like its biting into her skin. This story is more about the very real pain that some people go through for beauty, be it physical or emotional, and our protagonist has a lot of body horror moments that are rooted in truth (teeth whiteners that burn, a dress that is so uncomfortable it draws blood, and something involving jelly beans that made me cringe). Beauty pageants, beauty standards, and misogyny are all themes in this story and I thought it had some nice moments of dark humor too.

“Mannequin Model”: Way back when during an early season of Top Model one of the challenges was for the contestants to stand in store windows as living mannequins, and my mind immediately went to that when I started this story, but it would be if the contestants then had to endure a psychological torture session (moreso). A woman who is strapped for cash and needs money to support her family in crisis takes a job as a living mannequin at a store, told to stand perfectly still in the store window between two actual mannequins. But as the shift lingers on and on and she has to endure physical pain, the leers of onlookers, and a cruel boss, she starts to hear the mannequins talking to her. This one is very unnerving, a look at objectification, of bad labor practices, of misogyny and racism, and how it can all come together to take a serious toll.

“Abduction Near Knife Lake”: I think that this was my favorite story in the whole collection, and it was the last one so it made the book end with a bang. Remnants of a bridal party and driving in the backroads of Michigan after the wedding when an Amber Alert comes through on their phones, describing the abduction of a young Black girl. When bridesmaid Samiah thinks she sees the car she convinces groomsman and ex-boyfriend Will to try and help her save the girl, as help is far away and missing Black children aren’t prioritized. Their good samaritan choice, however, lands them in unexpected danger. There are so many tension points in this story, between the suspense of whether or not Samiah and Will are going to get caught by the possible abductor, to the tension of being in an isolated wilderness, so things perhaps not being as they seem. It’s a really fun scary story, one that stood out for all the right reasons.

As a collection it’s cohesive and pretty solid! I don’t think there were any stories that didn’t work for me, though some I enjoyed more than others. But overall I found Thompson’s voice and storytelling to be unique and engaging, and given that I tend to be hit or miss with short stories collections I’m always happy when there is a pretty clear ‘hit’.

I think that there is something for everyone in “Unshod, Cackling, and Naked”, so definitely give it a go if you are looking for some enjoyable horror short stories! Tamika Thompson is a fun horror voice, and I will be going back to read “Salamander Justice” this Spring for sure!

Rating 8: A solid horror collection of various sub genres that explore supernatural terrors, as well as the terrors of being a Black woman in racist and misogynistic societies.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Unshod, Cackling, and Naked” isn’t included on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but it would fit in on “Horror Short Stories by Authors of Color”, and “Great Reads for Halloween”.

Kate’s Review: “All Hallows”

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Book: “All Hallows” by Christopher Golden

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, January 2023

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

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

Book Description: With the 80’s nostalgia of Stranger Things, this horror drama from NYT bestselling author Christopher Golden follows neighborhood families and a mysterious, lurking evil on one Halloween day.

It’s Halloween night, 1984, in Coventry, Massachusetts, and two families are unraveling. Up and down the street, horrifying secrets are being revealed, and all the while, mixed in with the trick-or-treaters of all ages, four children who do not belong are walking door to door, merging with the kids of Parmenter Road. Children in vintage costumes with faded, eerie makeup. They seem terrified, and beg the neighborhood kids to hide them away, to keep them safe from The Cunning Man. There’s a small clearing in the woods now that was never there before, and a blackthorn tree that doesn’t belong at all. These odd children claim that The Cunning Man is coming for them…and they want the local kids to protect them. But with families falling apart and the neighborhood splintered by bitterness, who will save the children of Parmenter Road?

New York Times bestselling, Bram Stoker Award-winning author Christopher Golden is best known for his supernatural thrillers set in deadly, distant locales…but in this suburban Halloween drama, Golden brings the horror home.

All Hallows. The one night when everything is a mask...

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

I’m a person who holds Halloween in my heart all year round, so it’s not a huge stretch for me to pick up a Halloween themed novel or movie or what have you any month of the year. But I think that there’s just something that hits different if you read a certain book during a certain season, and boy am I kicking myself for not picking up my eARC of “All Hallows” by Christopher Golden during October. I’m by no means saying to delay reading this book until NEXT Halloween (don’t sleep on this book until then, it’s super enjoyable and horror fans should read it ASAP), but man oh MAN is this just the perfect Halloween book. It’s the kind of book that makes you feel like you can feel the crisp air of an autumn night, or that you can smell the leaves and woodsmoke in the air. It just screams Halloween, and that isn’t just because it takes place on Halloween in 1984. The aesthetic of masked children running around for tricks and treats after dark jumps off the page, and it feels like a love letter to my favorite holiday. Especially since some of these masked children are, perhaps, not what they seem.

Sam would fit right in. (source)

In the description there is a comparison to “Stranger Things”, and I think that that is correct in the sense of “Stranger Things” feeling like a 1980s Spielberg/”Goonies”/”Stand By Me” vibe of kids being realistic kids in the face of danger or adventure. More danger, in this case. I really loved all of the kids in this book, as we’d shift from one perspective to another and see how they are spending this momentous Halloween in which all their lives are going to be changed. Whether it’s punk and closeted lesbian Vanessa, or earnest and serious Rick, or kind and a bit downtrodden Julia, all of the kids out on Halloween are grappling with their own baggage even before mysterious masked children they haven’t met before start infiltrating their evenings, and begging them for help to protect them from ‘The Cunning Man’. The neighborhood kids can kind of tell that something is off with these new kids, whether it’s their weird behavior or their vague pleadings, but they know that kids have to stick together, and it makes for a camaraderie that may or may not be a good thing. I loved all of the neighbor kids and got a good feel for them, and I liked the building unease surrounding the stranger children, and not knowing just what their deal was. It did feel like a nostalgic take on childhood friendships at the precipice of everything changing, and I really liked how that affected how we cared about these characters.

The other big component of this book that I really liked was the way that Golden focused in on the ennui, dissatisfaction, and toxic aspects of 1980s suburban life. While the kids are running around on Halloween night, encountering strange masked children, the adults are so focused in on their own dysfunction brought on by their troubled lives and relationships that they are a bit distracted during a dangerous time. Whether it’s Barb, whose husband Donnie is a drunk and a philanderer and whom she has just thrown out, or Tony and Alice, who run the neighborhood haunted attraction and are about to lose their home due to financial issues, to the mysterious Zach and Ruth who are the only childless couple and seem… off, Golden has created some suburban drama that fits in the story’s greater themes of how adults can fail the children in their communities and the consequences that can bring. You could just see how this was all going to come to a head and it was very unnerving.

And finally, the more supernatural horrors. Golden really knows how to create creepy moments, characters, and aesthetics. We don’t know just what the Cunning Man is, and we don’t know why he wants these mysterious children who have just appeared, and as we slowly learn more and more we get some very disturbing and scary beats here and there. And even when we think we know something, Golden will pull the rug out from under us and it will be something else completely. I do think that I could have used a little more world building, or at least mythos building, when it came to the supernatural forces at work. I definitely liked how Golden created a scenario that could so easily be turned upon its head through misdirection and clever hints here and there, but once we did get one of the more surprising reveals thrown out there, I felt like we didn’t really focus too much on what exactly the driving force was and how we got to where we were. I know this sounds strange, but I do want to be vague because I don’t want to wreck or ruin anything, plot wise. It’s worth having all the tricks that Golden is hiding revealed in their own time! I just wanted a bit more explanation on some things.

“All Hallows” is a very twisty horror story that will surely send chills up a reader’s spine. Maybe break out some candy and a Fall themed candle to set the mood while reading it, as it will give you all the Halloween feels and everything that implies.

Rating 7: Creepy and nostalgia driven with some pretty good surprises, “All Hallows” has tricks and treats in store.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All Hallows” is included on the Goodreads lists “Horror To Look Forward To in 2023”, and “Recommended by Seanan McGuire”.

Kate’s Review: “American Vampire: Vol. 6”

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Book: “American Vampire: Vol. 6” by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque (Ill.), et al.

Publishing Info: Vertigo, March 2014

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: This volume of American Vampire collects eight amazing stories set in the world of American Vampire, with “lost tales,” new characters and old favorites. Don’t miss these stories brought to you by series creators Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque, as well as other awesome comics talent like Becky Cloonan (Batman), Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon (Daytripper), Jeff Lemire (i>Sweet Tooth), Greg Rucka (The Punisher, Batwoman), Gail Simone (Batgirl) and many more! Also collected here is the stand alone tale of Fan-favorite character Travis Kidd–the vampire hunter who likes to “bite them back”.

Review: So during my first read-through of “American Vampire”, there is a clear shift that I remember that kind of started after “Volume 5”. I looked into “Volume 6”, saw that it was a short stories anthology, and decided that I was going to skip it. After all, I wanted more plot. I wanted to see the aftermath of Pearl losing Henry, and the aftermath of Felicia and Gus going up against the Carpathians. I didn’t want a bunch of short stories that didn’t seem to progress anything. But since I’m doing the full read this time around, I got myself a copy of “Volume 6”, and figured I’d just grin and bear it. But I was such a fool, guys, because I actually ended up really liking the anthology series that is “American Vampire: Volume 6”.

While it’s true that these stories don’t really progress the main plot forward after the huge changes and aftermaths of the previous collection, it actually ended up being nice to have a breather after all the things that happened. It also serves as a way to see some more explored characterizations of some familiar faces, while also introducing characters from the past who end up tying into characters that we recognize, and how vampires have touched the family lines decades or even centuries previously. Since this is a short stories collection, I will do my usual thing of talking about my favorite three in depth, and then expanding upon the collection as a whole.

“The Long Road to Hell” by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque (Ill.) : This is another Travis Kidd offshoot story, and while Travis hasn’t ingratiated himself TOO much into our main characters timelines as of yet, I thought this was not only a good way to show another, more empathetic side of him, while also showing the inherent tragedy of some vampires. Young lovers Billy Bob and Jolene are in love and running scams of unsuspecting people, when they are targeted and turned by a vampire gang in hopes of using their thievery skills. But Billy Bob and Jolene run, and are desperate to find a cure of their new conditions. On the road they pick up a transient little boy who can read people’s personalities, and try their best to keep their monstrous nature at bay. Then they run afoul Travis Kidd, vampire killer, and they have a choice to make. I loved how tragic this one was, with two really likable and scrappy lovers just doing their best in a world that has kicked them down, only to be doomed because of bad luck. I just adored Billy Bob and Jolene, and seeing Travis have to reckon with the fact that not all vampires are soulless killers was some good growth for him as well.

“Bleeding Kansas” by Rafael Albuquerque and Ivo Milazzo (Ill): Albuquerque shifts roles from illustrator to author, and while I didn’t REALLY like the art design, I really loved the concept of the story. Gil and Marie Jones are a young married couple with abolitionist ideals, hoping to move to Kansas to help build a new state that shares their dreams for social justice and equality. But when they arrive to find a hostile town filled with slave owners and sellers, who are hiding other secrets about themselves. I HIGHLY enjoyed the references to the future pro-slavery vs abolitionist violence and conflicts that were going to come up in Kansas later, the most famous probably being John Brown, and I liked seeing some of Pearl’s ancestors (grandmother and grandfather I believe) having to go head to head with the kinds of creatures their granddaughter would ultimately become.

“Essence of Life” by Gail Simone and Tula Lotay (Ill): This is my favorite story in the collection, and it centers of secondary antagonist Hattie, Pearl’s old roommate turned femme fatale vampire. In this story we get to see the life she was living in Hollywood before she met Pearl, where she is so desperate for stardom that she trusts in the wrong people. She’s now writing a letter to Pearl to explain why she did what she did, and to tell her that she felt like she really had no choice after everything she’d been through. I love that Gail Simone was the author for this one, because she does a stupendous job of turning Hattie from simple backstabbing jealous bitch into a somewhat sympathetic, but still very vile, villainess. It’s hard not to feel for her when you see the horrible crap that happened to her, just as it’s hard not to let out a shout of ‘GOOD FOR HER!’ when you get to the rage-filled and cathartic conclusion.

Forgive the bad photo, I needed this one specifically. (source: Vertigo)

The other stories have their strengths and weaknesses. I don’t really feel like I ever need to know more about Skinner Sweet (I’m still on the anti-Skinner train!), so I kind of skimmed his stories. But I did like seeing other villains get some background, as well as more explorations about race, class, and American violence. All in all, it’s a solid collection!

Don’t make the same mistake I did, friends! If you are reading “American Vampire”, don’t skip over “Volume 6”! It expands things in ways that make the story richer.

Rating 8: This is a pretty solid set of tales within the “American Vampire” universe, with some expansions on character connections, characterizations, and general vampire lore and history inside the universe.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Vampire: Vol. 6” is included on the Goodreads lists “Vampire Anthologies”, and “Best Comics Series Since 2000”.

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “How To Sell a Haunted House”

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Book: “How To Sell a Haunted House” by Grady Hendrix

Publishing Info: Berkley, January 2023

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

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

Book Description: Every childhood home is haunted, and each of us are possessed by our parents.

When their parents die at the tail end of the coronavirus pandemic, Louise and Mark Joyner are devastated but nothing can prepare them for how bad things are about to get. The two siblings are almost totally estranged, and couldn’t be more different. Now, however, they don’t have a choice but to get along. The virus has passed, and both of them are facing bank accounts ravaged by the economic meltdown. Their one asset? Their childhood home. They need to get it on the market as soon as possible because they need the money. Yet before her parents died they taped newspaper over the mirrors and nailed shut the attic door.

Sometimes we feel like puppets, controlled by our upbringing and our genes. Sometimes we feel like our parents treat us like toys, or playthings, or even dolls. The past can ground us, teach us, and keep us safe. It can also trap us, and bind us, and suffocate the life out of us. As disturbing events stack up in the house, Louise and Mark have to learn that sometimes the only way to break away from the past, sometimes the only way to sell a haunted house, is to burn it all down.

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

It has been a little bit, but the time that many horror fans have been waiting for has arrived! Grady Hendrix has another horror novel out! “How To Sell a Haunted House” has been on my radar for quite some time now, as I have been a fan of Hendrix for years now, ever since my old boss handed me “Horrorstör” from our New Materials delivery and said ‘is this something you may like?’. I’ve been reading his books ever since as he takes on various horror sub genres with humor, heart, and well done scares. And guys, the time I have been waiting for has finally arrived: this one is a haunted house story.

But of course it has a twist. It’s Grady Hendrix, after all! (source)

Excited is an understatement. And by the time I did sit down to read it, I was happy that it was a holiday weekend, because I pretty much tore through this thing whenever I had down time. It’s a top 3 Hendrix book for me, to be sure.

Hendrix is kind of known for cheeky and quirky horror stories that do have legitimate scary foundations, and “How To Sell a Haunted House” continues that streak, this time giving his take on a haunted house story. We have Louise and Mark, estranged siblings who have to come together after their parents are killed in a car accident and leave behind their childhood home and all their possessions. As the bitter siblings try to sort through the house and all the things, weird noises start to come from a nailed shut attic, and memories of strange moments from their childhood start coming to the surface. I’m going to keep things kind of vague with the specifics, but Hendrix combines some genuinely creepy and scary moments of horror and dread that build at a great pace with super funny moments. He is always able to combine two different tones without giving too much distracting weight to one or the other. The scary moments aren’t negated by the humorous bits, just as the really funny bits don’t feel out of place or unwarranted because of the scary stuff. Hendrix knows how to make the balance hit just right. He’s SO good at that.

The portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics and generational trauma is really well done in this book (this has kind of been a theme in the books I’ve been reading lately, but hey, I’m down for metaphors!). We go into this story from Louise’s point of view, who has left her childhood home of Charleston for California, and who is returning due to her parents’s deaths. Her relationship with her brother is strained at best, and the usual tension in the wake of a sudden loss is exacerbated by the fact they seem to hate each other. I went in fully expecting to hate Mark due to the way he was acting and how Louise was reacting, but this is the thing about Hendrix, by the time we had gotten through the book I was rooting for both of them in all of their complicated, nuanced and imperfect selves. As mentioned above it isn’t like the idea of using family trauma and dysfunction as horror is a very new idea in the genre, but Hendrix really sells it because of the compelling characters, be they two antagonistic siblings, quirky relatives, or a free spirited woman who performs exorcisms on dolls. Hendrix always comes through with the characters in his stories, and it was because I cared about them so much in this one that I felt the stakes were super high, and that makes for high tension horror as two damaged people try to stop harmful family cycles before they damage the next generation. Watching this very messy sibling relationship go through ups, downs, and evolution was emotional as hell, and Hendrix nails all of the complex feelings and actions between Louise and Mark.

I can once again say that Grady Hendrix has knocked it out of the park. “How To Sell a Haunted House” is freaky and funny and emotional, and I really, really enjoyed my time with it.

Rating 9: A fun and at times quite scary horror novel about how houses aren’t the only things that can be haunted, “How To Sell a Haunted House” is another triumph from Grady Hendrix.

Reader’s Advisory:

“How To Sell a Haunted House” is included on the Goodreads lists “Architectural Horror/Fantasy”, and “Horror to Look Forward To in 2023”.

Kate’s Review: “Episode Thirteen”

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Book: “Episode Thirteen” by Craig DiLouie

Publishing Info: Redhook, January 2023

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

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

Book Description: A ghost-hunting reality TV crew gain unprecedented access to an abandoned and supposedly haunted mansion, which promises a groundbreaking thirteenth episode, but as they uncover the secret history of the house, they learn that “reality” TV might be all too real — in Bram Stoker Award nominated author Craig DiLouie’s latest heart pounding novel of horror and psychological suspense.

Fade to Black is the newest hit ghost hunting reality TV show. It’s led by husband and wife team Matt and Claire Kirklin and features a dedicated crew of ghost-hunting experts.

Episode Thirteen takes them to Matt’s holy grail: the Paranormal Research Foundation. This crumbling, derelict mansion holds secrets and clues about the bizarre experiments that took place there in the 1970s. It’s also, undoubtedly, haunted, and Matt hopes to use their scientific techniques and high tech gear to prove it. 

But, as the house begins to slowly reveal itself to them, proof of an afterlife might not be everything Matt dreamed of

A story told in broken pieces, in tapes, journals, correspondence, and research files, this is the story of Episode Thirteen — and how everything went horribly wrong.

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

Back in college, when I first had access to cable TV, I was profoundly fascinated by the ghost hunter reality shows that you could find here and there. I’m a person who is very much a Mulder who ‘wants to believe’ (I even have the sticker of that poster on my bedside water bottle), so for a bit I was very into the likes of “Ghost Hunters”, “Paranormal State”, and “Ghost Adventures”. It became pretty clear pretty quickly that they were all pretty silly and staged, but I still have a fondness for the concept of ghost hunting reality shows, goofy as they can be. So obviously when I read the description of “Episode Thirteen”, an epistolary novel about a reality show ghost hunting crew going into a notorious house and finding something terrifying, I really, really felt the need to give it a whirl. Do it for Jason and Grant, Kate!

This book is bursting with creativity, there is no denying that. You get a little bit of reality TV manipulative nonsense, you get some MK-Ultra-esque conspiracy shit, you get unnerving epistolary segments, it’s quite the mix and I thought that it came together pretty well. I liked that DiLouie thought outside of the box when it comes to a run of the mill haunted house/ghost hunters story, and I liked the small homages to classic tales like “The Haunting of Hill House”. It’s a strange brew but for the most part it works. I also really liked the overall ‘found footage’ structure of it, be it emails and text messages between members of the ghost hunting crew and family members or executives at the network, and I liked how they would sometimes be in direct contradiction of the ‘public’ archives like the website promotions. I also thought that DiLouie was pretty adept at writing out descriptions of what one would be seeing on camera and on the screen, and given that this can be a tricky thing to pull off I was very happy to see that it felt natural as well as descriptive. It read like footage from a television show or footage from behind the scenes, very visual and very easy to translate to the minds eye. And I also felt like we got to know most of our characters on the ghost hunting crew. Whether it’s true believer Matt, who needs to prove that there is, in fact, an afterlife, or his skeptical wife Claire who wants to support him but is deeply rooted in her physics background, or crew member Jessica who merely wants to break it big in the industry, I felt like I really understood who these people were, for better or for worse.

The one downside, at least for me, is that by the end we started stretching our genres out into something more metaphysical and downright trippy, and then it kind of lost control of itself. As the climax speeds up and our players start to descend into pure chaos as the final pages unfold, I started to lose the ability to really sense out what was happening, and got a bit muddled with the spiraling narrative. I definitely get the sense that it’s supposed to feel crumbling and out of control, but I think that for me it just got a little too fraught and unhinged. I understand that the goal is to feel the disorientation of it all, but it never came together for me as a reader in a way that felt taut. I’m not sure if that’s a personal taste thing or not.

But having said that, overall I found “Episode Thirteen” to be a solid take with a weird and creepy twist on a ghost hunt gone wrong.

Rating 7: Creepy and trippy, and a fun epistolary tale with some unique storytelling devices, “Episode Thirteen” is a solid new entry into the found materials genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Episode Thirteen” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Fictional Books About Found Footage”.

Kate’s Review: “Bad Cree”

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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Bad Cree” by Jessica Johns

Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, January 2022

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

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

Book Description: In this gripping debut tinged with supernatural horror, a young Cree woman’s dreams lead her on a perilous journey of self-discovery that ultimately forces her to confront the toll of a legacy of violence on her family, her community and the land they call home.

When Mackenzie wakes up with a severed crow’s head in her hands, she panics. Only moments earlier she had been fending off masses of birds in a snow-covered forest. In bed, when she blinks, the head disappears.

Night after night, Mackenzie’s dreams return her to a memory from before her sister Sabrina’s untimely death: a weekend at the family’s lakefront campsite, long obscured by a fog of guilt. But when the waking world starts closing in, too–a murder of crows stalks her every move around the city, she wakes up from a dream of drowning throwing up water, and gets threatening text messages from someone claiming to be Sabrina–Mackenzie knows this is more than she can handle alone.

Traveling north to her rural hometown in Alberta, she finds her family still steeped in the same grief that she ran away to Vancouver to escape. They welcome her back, but their shaky reunion only seems to intensify her dreams–and make them more dangerous.

What really happened that night at the lake, and what did it have to do with Sabrina’s death? Only a bad Cree would put their family at risk, but what if whatever has been calling Mackenzie home was already inside?

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

I’ve said to so many times, but we are living in a great time for horror literature. We have so many great authors out there right now, with so many awesome ideas and so many different experiences and truths, and I am hoping that we just keep getting more. The book that has reminded me of how hashtag blessed we are this time around is “Bad Cree” by Jessica Johns, the story of a Cree woman named Mackenzie who, after leaving home in the wake of older sister Sabrina’s tragic death, is drawn to return after she starts having strange dreams that she can pull things out from. I mean, come on, if that description alone hasn’t sold you, I don’t know what to tell you! And while I had a feeling that this was going to have some hard emotional beats, I wasn’t totally ready for what was to come. In a good way!

The actual horror elements in this one, supernatural wise, have some well done horror imagery and moments. They are rooted in Indigenous folklore, whether it be the powers of dreaming and melding the dream world with the corporeal world, or the spectre of the monstrous wheetigo, and the stakes are high as these Cree women need to come together to try and save themselves from the same fate as Sabrina. Johns creates some truly haunting and visceral moments in this book, and by rooting the horror within Mackenzie’s culture it makes her connections to her family members all the more important and all the more dread building as they hurtle towards danger in hopes of finding answers and safety. I loved some of the moments that Johns puts on the page, whether cold dream scapes or flashes to the past or conflicts with monsters that wish to do harm.

And it’s probably no surprise that this story is also dripping with metaphors, and Johns makes it seamless. We have a family torn apart by trauma and grief, a trauma and grief that has been direct but also handed down just by way of being an Indigenous family in a racist society. With Mackenzie fleeing her pain guilt and therein disconnecting from her roots, we have a woman who is adrift and adding to a splintering of a family line, and who is literally haunted by this. We also have the themes of the wheetigo, a cannibalistic monster that feeds upon its victims, but also serves as the way that people can be all consumed by their trauma and grief and how that can pass down through generational trauma. There are also the greater implications of monsters that take and take and take and how that can apply to Imperialism and Colonialism, which adds to the cycles of trauma (and which is why it feels especially ghoulish when this folklore is appropriated by non-Indigenous artists). It all comes together to form a very emotional horror story about the many things that haunt us.

“Bad Cree” is a well done debut from an author I am very eager to follow. Definitely seek this one out.

Rating 8: Haunting and visceral, “Bad Cree” explores a woman haunted, not only by bad dreams, but by generational trauma and grief.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bad Cree” is included on the Goodreads lists “All Indigenous Peoples List 3”, and “Horror To Look Forward To in 2023”.

Kate’s Review: “Bound Feet”

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Book: “Bound Feet” by Kelsea Yu

Publishing Info: Cemetery Gates Media, September 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Where You Can Find This Book: Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: On the night of the Hungry Ghost Moon, when spirits can briefly return to the living world, Jodi Wu and her best friend sneak into Portland’s Chinese Garden and Ghost Museum. Kneeling before the pond where Jodi’s toddler drowned one year before, they leave food offerings and burn joss paper—and Jodi prays that Ella’s ghost will return for the night.

To distract Jodi from her grief, the two friends tell each other ghost stories as they explore the museum. They stop at the main display, a centuries-old pair of lotus slippers belonging to a woman whose toes were broken and bound during childhood. While reading the woman’s story, Jodi hears her daughter’s voice.

As Jodi desperately searches the garden, it becomes apparent that Ella isn’t the only ghost they’ve awakened. Something ancient with a slow, shuffling step lurks in the shadows

Review: It has become more and more clear that ever since I became a mom that I have a harder time with stories and movies and what have you that involve endangered or dying children. Or hell, even moments where parents have to grieve or mourn or see the deaths of their older progeny. I cannot watch the opening scene of “Scream” anymore once Casey’s parents arrive home, in the middle of her being murdered. I had to step away from watching “Cujo” when Terror Tuesday had it as the feature, telling my friends I’d return to the keyboard eventually. So maybe me deliberately picking up “Bound Feet” by Kelsea Yu seems like an odd choice, given that right in the description it talks about a mother trying to connect with the ghost of her dead toddler. Well, I never said I was a reasonable person when it comes to exposing myself to this kind of stuff. But “Bound Feet” was a very worthwhile read, even as I was sobbing on and off as well as being VERY freaked out by ghostly imagery.

The story centers around Jodi and her friend Sarah, who have decided to break into the Portland Chinese Garden and Ghost Museum. It is during the Hungry Ghost Festival, when it is said that spirits are more likely to reach out from the spirit world, and Jodi is hoping to connect with her daughter Ella, who drowned in that very garden a year prior. The setting is already fraught and tense, as they are there after dark, illegally, with a deep personal trauma at its center. As Jodi hopes to get closure with Ella, the restlessness of the garden awakens other threats, and Yu really nails the slow tension of the suffocating grief as well as the ghostly imagery of a vengeful spirit. There is lots of built up dread that has a great pay off as the weird turn to the outright horrifying, and the descriptions of the ghosts and the things that they do really got under my skin. I also really liked some of the cultural aspects that Yu brought to the tale, be it the Hungry Ghost Festival itself, the Chinese folklore that the story takes a lot of inspiration from, and the dark realities of what it meant to be a woman in the past and the awful shit they would sometimes have to do to survive.

But the grief aspects were the strongest part of the narrative for me. I went into “Bound Feet” able to emotionally prepare myself for the themes of losing a child, which was good, because even with the preparedness I had it was still a bit of a gut punch. Jodi’s grief and her desire to see her dead child again is a theme that has been tapped into a number of times in horror literature’s past (“Pet Sematary” is the one that comes to mind for me), and Yu does it in the length of a novella while still being able to explore it well and thoroughly in the limited pages. There were moments that just killed me, but they also felt necessary and not overwrought so that we could get into the true motivation of this mother who is making a lot of CRAZY choices that are getting her and her companion into deeper and deeper danger. It’s a more realistic layer of horror that drives our protagonist but also makes her, at least to me, all the more relatable and understandable. Even when there was a very uncomfortable finale that set my teeth on edge, I still, in a basal part of my soul, understood. There is also a very personal Afterword section by the author that I found to be really, really powerful and enlightening. Do not skip that section.

“Bound Feet” is a quick, emotional, and scary read. I definitely recommend it, but steel yourself. It’s not the supernatural that left this story lingering in my head after finishing, but the very real horrors within its pages.

Rating 9: A genuinely terrifying and emotionally gut-wrenching horror novella about grief.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bound Feet” isn’t included on any relevant Goodreads lists as of now, but it would fit in on “Horror Novellas”.

Kate’s Review: “The House in the Pines”

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Book: “The House in the Pines” by Ana Reyes

Publishing Info: Dutton, January 2023

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22.

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

Book Description: Maya was a high school senior when her best friend, Aubrey, mysteriously dropped dead in front of the enigmatic man named Frank whom they’d been spending time with all summer.

Seven years later, Maya lives in Boston with a loving boyfriend and is kicking the secret addiction that has allowed her to cope with what happened years ago, the gaps in her memories, and the lost time that she can’t account for. But her past comes rushing back when she comes across a recent YouTube video in which a young woman suddenly keels over and dies in a diner while sitting across from none other than Frank. Plunged into the trauma that has defined her life, Maya heads to her Berkshires hometown to relive that fateful summer–the influence Frank once had on her and the obsessive jealousy that nearly destroyed her friendship with Aubrey.

At her mother’s house, she excavates fragments of her past and notices hidden messages in her deceased Guatemalan father’s book that didn’t stand out to her earlier. To save herself, she must understand a story written before she was born, but time keeps running out, and soon, all roads are leading back to Frank’s cabin.

Utterly unique and captivating, The House in the Pines keeps you guessing about whether we can ever fully confront the past and return home.

Review: Thank you to Dutton and ALAAC22 for providing me with an ARC of this novel!

It’s nuts to think that The ALA Annual Conference in 2022 was already almost half a year ago. I feel like I did a pretty okay job going through my ARCs and taking them on, and given that a few I grabbed were for early 2023, I did have some stragglers by the end of the year. One of those was “The House in the Pines” by Ana Reyes, which had been touted as an eerie thriller with a creepy as heck cover to boot. As someone who likes creepy cabins (“Evil Dead” really set the bar, be it the movies OR the musical), the cover alone commanded my attention. By the time I was diving in, long after the conference had ended, it didn’t take long to become invested even beyond the core concept and solid cover.

What I liked most about this book is that I wasn’t sure if it was going to ultimately be a horror story with potentially supernatural elements, or a very off kilter thriller that does, in fact, have a possibly plausible explanation. Where it ultimately ended up, I’m not quite sure, but the ride was pretty well worth it. I liked how we jumped through time in the narrative, seeing our protagonist Maya in the present day as she grapple with her past relationship with a man who may have killed her best friend. How, she isn’t sure, as Aubrey just dropped dead, and Frank was right there and seemingly did nothing. But Maya can’t shake the feeling that he did it, especially when she stumbles upon a viral video of ANOTHER woman just dropping dead, with Frank being present again. In the present we see her obsess and try to figure out how he could have pulled this seemingly impossible murder off. But then we jump to the past, and see how Frank manipulated, groomed, and influenced Maya at seventeen years old. It’s sometimes a bit jarring to see the two time lines so close to each other, especially since the jumps aren’t as predictable, but I liked the contrast and how it brings the story together.

As for the strange elements that I was referring to up-post, as to whether this is a horror story or a thriller, Reyes really knows how to make her pages and moments disorienting. I really couldn’t tell if I could at all trust what I was reading, and had to skip back a couple times here and there to re-read to make sure I was getting everything I was theoretically supposed to be getting. This is all, mostly, a positive and deliberate thing, as it is very much in control and doesn’t feel due to sloppy or haphazard writing. And ultimately, this book is less about the weird and disorienting things, and more about the fallout and trauma that Maya has experienced, and how that in and if itself can lead to disorientation. I think that my only qualm with all of this is that, because it’s more about that and less about Frank and true answers, the ending feels a bit drawn out and unresolved. I know that a lack of resolution definitely has its place in stories with themes such as these. But I think that for me the narrative would have benefited a bit from some more concrete answers and resolutions.

Overall, “The House in the Pines” is strange and twisty, with bleak but interesting themes. I will be very curious to see the reactions this one receives as more people read it, and I’m very curious to check out what Ana Reyes brings forth next.

Rating 7: Weird and upsetting with some intriguing twists, “The House in the Pines” is a solid way to start your thriller reading in 2023.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The House in the Pines” is included on the Goodreads list “Latinx Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Kate’s Favorite Reads of 2022: Picks 5-1

Another a year, another almost impossible task trying to each choose our Top 10 Reads of the year! Like past years I won’t be including re-reads, sometimes my opinion of a book could change and evolve after I had read it, so some surprises may be up near the top, as well as perhaps a book or two that didn’t make my reviews on here initially due to genre limitations. But here they are, ready for a countdown! And since it’s the end of the reading year, don’t forget to enter our “Twelve Days of Christmas Giveaway”! Today I’m going to countdown my favorite reads, five to one. 

5. “The Violence” by Delilah S. Dawson

“The Violence” Review

This was one of my first 10 star ratings of 2022, and boy was I in for a wild ride from start to finish. It was also the first mysterious plague novel that I could read in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which, to me, was a symbol of my emotional coping becoming more robust. In this thriller, a mysterious illness infects people and makes them apoplectically violent, where they have absolutely no control over their faculties. And stay at home mom Chelsea, who is trapped in a violent marriage and fears for herself and her daughters, sees it as a way to get rid of her husband once and for all. But things don’t go according to plan, and now Chelsea and her daughters are separated and trying to survive. It’s an action packed thrill ride, and I loved all of the center stage female characters, from Chelsea to her daughters to her complicated mother.

4. “House of Hunger” by Alexis Henderson

“House of Hunger” Review

I loved Alexis Henderson’s previous novel “The Year of the Witching”, so I was of COURSE very interested to see what she would do next. And “House of Hunger” was yet another unsettling and dread filled and unique take on another of my favorite sub genres: the vampire horror. But much like “The Year of the Witching”, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Marion is an impoverished woman, barely making ends meet and being abused by her ill brother. So when she is approached to become a Blood Maid to an aristocratic and enigmatic woman, where she is guaranteed riches and security, she jumps at the chance to start over. Soon she is her mistress’s favorite, her blood being her chosen nourishment. But then Marion starts to wonder what exactly happened to the other Blood Maids in the House of Hunger. Henderson doesn’t ever write the word ‘vampire’ in this book, but the mythos is there, though it is unique and imaginative. And so, so creepy.

3. “The Weight of Blood” by Tiffany D. Jackson

“The Weight of Blood” Review

Tiffany D. Jackson is a favorite author of mine, and way back when when I found out she was doing a “Carrie” reimagining I am pretty sure I shrieked in glee. And she knocked this reinterpretation out of the park, making it her own with new characters and themes involving identity, race, and bigotry. Madison has been white passing her entire life, but when an unpredicted rain storm reveals that she is, in fact, Black, her already shunned status is now tinged with racist attacks from her classmates. When her torment goes viral, some in charge of the Prom want to rehabilitate the school’s image, and decides to host the first integrated Prom the town has seen. Meanwhile, Madison is starting to realize that she has strange powers. And when the popular quarterback asks her to the dance, it sets off a chain of events that fans of “Carrie” will find VERY familiar. I loved this book. It’s my favorite of Jackson’s books, hands down.

2. “White Horse” by Erika T. Wurth

“White Horse” Review

This one was a bit of a surprise for me, if only because I was a bit late to the game in figuring out it was a book I wanted to read. It had gone under my radar for awhile, and then when it did come across my consciousness I basically requested it and read it pretty quickly without the anticipation of a long awaited release. But “White Horse” almost immediately connected with me, and I ended up really, really loving it. Kari is an urban Indian who loves metal music, Stephen King books, and spending her evenings at The White Horse bar. She tries not to think about the mother who abandoned her just days after her birth. So when her cousin gives her a bracelet she found that used to belong to her mother, Kari isn’t super enthralled. But then she starts having visions of her mother. As well as something far more monstrous. This ghost story is scary as hell, and also has some very poignant themes about motherhood, family, and generational trauma. It’s phenomenal.

1 . “The Pallbearers Club” by Paul Tremblay

“The Pallbearers Club” Review

I knew this was going to be my favorite read of the year the moment I finished it. I was basically weeping uncontrollably and saying to myself ‘oh my God’ over and over. Paul Tremblay always breaks me, but this was a special kind of broken. And who would have thought I’d be so broken over a faux memoir with snarky peanut gallery comments from a woman who may or may not be a vampire. This is the memoir of Art Barbara, a man who had spent his teenage years sickly and lonely. That is, until he met Mercy, a mysterious woman that joined his high school community service group that would be pallbearers and mourners at the funerals of those who had no one. Mercy is cool and enigmatic, and Art adores her. But their friendship is clouded by the fact that he thinks that she may, in fact, be a vampire. And as it ebbs and flows over the years, Art is both scared of her and drawn to her. And Mercy, unwilling to stand by as he tells HIS side of the story, has notes for his book. It’s hard to know what the truth is in this book. But I highly, HIGHLY recommend checking it out to draw your own conclusions.

So that’s it! My Top 5 of 2022! What have been some of your favorite reads of 2022?

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