Giveaway: “Things Not Seen”

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Book: “Things Not Seen” by Monica Boothe

Publishing Info: Peniel Press, January 2023

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: 17-year-old Kristin has selective blindness. She can’t see, hear, feel, or smell, her brother. This doesn’t stop them from becoming best friends, turning his unique invisibility into a game, but when the two of them are stranded alone during a blizzard, it doesn’t feel like a game anymore. Kristin will do everything she can to keep her little brother alive, but she’s the least qualified person in the world to do so.

Giveaway Details: Monica Boothe reached out to me about reviewing her upcoming book “Things Not Seen” a few months ago. After reading the excerpt, I was very excited to check out the entire novel! The voice of the teenage protagonist, Kristin, was immediately catchy and relatable. Add that to a very interesting concept, that of a sibling relationship where the sister has never been able to see/hear/feel her brother, and you have yourself a very compelling novel! Per the usual, my full review (spoiler: I really liked it!) will go live this Friday. Until then, don’t forget to enter to win a copy of “Things Not Seen!” The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and runs through January 24, 2023.

Enter to win!

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”.

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Portal Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wayward Children” series by Seanan McGuire

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

“The Fionavar Tapestry” series by Guy Gavriel Kay

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

“The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman

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

“In Other Lands” by Sarah Rees Brennan

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

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

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

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

Blog Tour: “The Rose and the Thistle”

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Book: “The Rose and the Thistle” by Laura Frantz

Publishing Info: Revell, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publicist!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: In 1715, Lady Blythe Hedley’s father is declared an enemy of the British crown because of his Jacobite sympathies, forcing her to flee her home in northern England. Secreted to the tower of Wedderburn Castle in Scotland, Lady Blythe awaits who will ultimately be crowned king. But in a house with seven sons and numerous servants, her presence soon becomes known.

No sooner has Everard Hume lost his father, Lord Wedderburn, than Lady Hedley arrives with the clothes on her back and her mistress in tow. He has his own problems–a volatile brother with dangerous political leanings, an estate to manage, and a very young brother in need of comfort and direction in the wake of losing his father. It would be best for everyone if he could send this misfit heiress on her way as soon as possible.

Drawn into a whirlwind of intrigue, shifting alliances, and ambitions, Lady Blythe must be careful whom she trusts. Her fortune, her future, and her very life are at stake. Those who appear to be adversaries may turn out to be allies–and those who pretend friendship may be enemies.

Review: Once again, thank you to Laurel for reaching out to me about my participation in another blog tour! Per the usual, I love getting to collaborate on projects like this and promote books that may not be getting the attention they deserve. I was also excited when I read the book description for this one. I think “Outlander” has really sucked up a lot of the public’s awareness of the Jacobite period of history, so it’s always exciting to see a different and new version of this time period brought to the page.

When Lady Blythe finally returns to her father’s home after an extended stay in France, she’s excited to pick up the reigns of her quiet country existence, leaving behind the excesses of the French court. But when her father comes under suspicion for being a Jacobite sympathizer, she is once again forced from her home. And this time she lands in the home of Everard Hume, a man who is already consumed with problems of his own and has no time for another in the form of a lonely young woman. With tensions running high within the country and no one knowing whom they can trust, will Everard and Lady Blythe find comfort or danger in one another?

I don’t read more straight-forward historical fiction very often, but that’s been something these blog tours have really helped with. Yes, they often have a romantic component, but they aren’t bodice rippers ala “Bridgerton” which is its own sort of subgenre of historical romance. Instead, this book, like the others, is equally focused on the details of this piece of history as it is in the main characters themselves.

And here, we have a different insight into the Jacobite rebellion seen through the eyes of two different perspectives. As I alluded to, “Outlander” really zeroed in on this point of history, but that story only gets at a few aspects of this tumultuous time. For one thing, it doesn’t get into the religious dynamics at play, which was a major factor for many of the regular people who supported one king or line of kings over another. Here, the massive swings of religious persecution and power are highlighted, and the author really dives into the struggles that existed for those whose leader and religion were not currently holding the reigns. Given the prominence of general Christianity as a major worldwide religion, it’s easy to forget that it has had its own bloody history of internal fractions and strife. And that England was ground zero for much of it.

Beyond this, I enjoyed the detailed descriptions that really paint a picture of life in this time period, particularly the depiction of Edinbourgh. I was really impressed by the authors obvious dedication to research, and it was apparent in every meticulous scene. There’s an interesting author’s note at the end of the book that explains the author’s own family connection to this story, so that does shed some light on the personal importance of this research. But it’s always a pleasure either way to read a historical novel that proves an author did his or her work.

I also liked Lady Blythe and Everard well enough, though I will say that they weren’t my favorite parts of the book. While they are both competently drawn characters, I never felt myself truly invested in their stories or their characters as a whole. From the very beginning, each felt just the tiniest bit flat. In some ways, this could be due to the very realistic manner in which they are portrayed, which, again speaks to the author’s commitment to creating a believable and true-feeling story. This is definitely a very subjective take, however, and I’m sure these characters will jump off the page for many other historical fiction fans.

Rating 8: A fresh look at a fairly familiar portion of British history, this book will likely appeal to many historical fiction fans, particularly those who enjoy a sweet love story at its heart.

Reader’s Advisory:

“” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Jane Austen Books, Sequels, Bios and more.

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”.

Serena’s Review: “Mysteries of Thorn Manor”

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Book: “Mysteries of Thorn Manor” by Margaret Rogerson

Publishing Info:Margaret K. McElderry Books, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Elisabeth Scrivener is finally settling into her new life with sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn. Now that their demon companion Silas has returned, so has scrutiny from nosy reporters hungry for gossip about the city’s most powerful sorcerer and the librarian who stole his heart. But something strange is afoot at Thorn Manor: the estate’s wards, which are meant to keep their home safe, are acting up and forcibly trapping the Manor’s occupants inside. Surely it must be a coincidence that this happened just as Nathaniel and Elisabeth started getting closer to one another…

With no access to the outside world, Elisabeth, Nathaniel, and Silas – along with their new maid Mercy – will have to work together to discover the source of the magic behind the malfunctioning wards before they’re due to host the city’s Midwinter Ball. Not an easy task when the house is filled with unexpected secrets, and all Elisabeth can think about is kissing Nathaniel in peace. But when it becomes clear that the house, influenced by the magic of Nathaniel’s ancestors, requires a price for its obedience, Elisabeth and Nathaniel will have to lean on their connection like never before to set things right.

Previously Reviewed: “Sorcery of Thorns”

Review: I don’t think I can express exactly how excited I was when I saw this title pop up on Edelweiss+. A sequel to “Sorcery of Thorns” that would give all the juicy details about Elisabeth and Nathaniel’s developing relationship? Yes, please! The only dampener being that it was a novella instead of a full-length sequel. But hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Its been a few months since the fantastical events that changed her life, and Elisabeth is still slowly becoming comfortable with her new circumstances. So much that is unknown surrounds her, be that the full history of her love, Nathaniel, the mysteries of the demon Silas whose motives are his own, or even the secrets that are hidden within the walls of the manor itself. And when the house itself turns against them, all three will have to work together to put things to right before the face their greatest test yet: a Midwinter Ball.

Margaret Rogerson essentially described this book as “an author writing fanfiction for their own work.” And I have only one thing to say to that: why don’t more authors do this?? There’s a reasons fans turn to fanfiction in the first place. Often, it is a place to find quieter, more character-centric works that dive into the smaller moments that wouldn’t make it onto the page in a full novel. (Obviously, this is not always the case, but I think the generalization stands for much of it). I know for my own part, I often turn to fanfiction when I want, essentially, a cozy read with familiar, beloved characters who I want to spend more time with. So it’s almost a “smack the forehead” level of obvious that authors themselves could write books like this and then have them gobbled up by their fans. I guess the question would be whether or not publishers would print these types of books. Well, I hope this book is a massive success and proves that this is viable route for novellas like this in the future.

I loved everything about this book. It did feel like fanfiction in the best of all ways. Just one lovely character moment after another. Not only do we get a lot more development for Nathaniel and Elisabeth (two characters whose romance only barely began by the end of the first novel itself), but we also get many more moments between Silas and these two characters as well. In some ways, Silas’s moments were even more compelling than the romance. Yes, the relationship between Nathaniel and Elisabeth and funny, sweet, and adorable, but the complicated connections that Silas has to them both held a lot more nuance. It was the sort of thing where the relationships that had a hint of pain and torment were just a bit more compelling than the straight-forwardly sweet one. This is in no way a slight against the central romance, just that I think Silas’s history and nature added a level of complexity to his relationship with Nathaniel and Elisabeth that I found extremely riveting.

I also really liked the fantasy elements we had here. Again, because this is a novella with a decidedly cozy tone, there was nothing overtly threatening or dark. Instead, the action came through moments of magical absurdity, such as a house fighting against its occupants using a grandmother’s clothes as weapons. Throughout the book, it was exciting to follow Elisabeth as she uncovered more and more about the house and the previous occupants who left their mark upon it. I also really enjoyed the final third of the book, neatly wrapping up all the loose ends and throwing in one last excellent twist.

I loved this book. It was the kind of story that I’ll likely read again and again next to a fire on a cold, winter’s night. I know I’ve used the word “cozy” a few times, but that really sums it up well. I do think it’s necessary to read “Sorcery of Thorns” before this one, however, as there is a lot of backstory there that is needed to understand the dynamics we get on the page here. But for fans of that book, this is definitely a must!

Rating 8: A perfect slice of life from characters I was dying to hear more from! Sweet, funny, and surprisingly heart-felt, this is a must read for fans of “Sorcery of Thorns.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mysteries of Thorn Manor” can be found on this Goodreads list: Novels of “Thorns”.

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”.

Book Club Review: “Travelers Along the Way: A Robin Hood Remix”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is retellings and reimagings.  For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Travelers Along the Way: A Robin Hood Remix” by Aminah Mae Safi

Publishing Info: Feiwel Friends, March 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

Retelling/Reimagining: Robin Hood

Book Description: Jerusalem, 1192. The Third Crusade rages on. Rahma al-Hud loyally followed her elder sister Zeena into the war over the Holy Land, but now that the Faranji invaders have gotten reinforcements from Richard the Lionheart, all she wants to do is get herself and her sister home alive.

But Zeena, a soldier of honor at heart, refuses to give up the fight while Jerusalem remains in danger of falling back into the hands of the false Queen Isabella. And so, Rahma has no choice but to take on one final mission with her sister.

On their journey to Jerusalem, Rahma and Zeena come across a motley collection of fellow travelers—including a kind-hearted Mongolian warrior, an eccentric Andalusian scientist, a frustratingly handsome spy with a connection to Rahma’s childhood, and an unfortunate English chaplain abandoned behind enemy lines. The teens all find solace, purpose and camaraderie—as well as a healthy bit of mischief—in each other’s company.

But their travels soon bring them into the orbit of Queen Isabella herself, whose plans to re-seize power in Jerusalem would only guarantee further war and strife in the Holy Land for years to come. And so it falls to the merry band of misfits to use every scrap of cunning and wit (and not a small amount of thievery) to foil the usurper queen and perhaps finally restore peace to the land.

Kate’s Thoughts

I was very happy that book club decided to do a Re-imaginings and Remixes theme for this new session, as I like seeing the way that authors will recreate classic characters and settings with new twists and turns. But, because of course this had to happen, we started with a story whose source material I am patently unfamiliar with. Yeah, I never got much into Robin Hood, outside of the Disney version, Mel Brooks’s film “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”, and one viewing of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” with two college friends who were as obsessed with Alan Rickman as I was. So I went into “Travelers Along the Way” knowing full well I was going to be potentially adrift without knowledge of source material. Which meant that author Aminah Mae Safi had a heftier job to do due to my unfamiliarity.

I’m happy to report that even without a foundational knowledge beyond a sexy fox, a spoof, and Bryan Adams, I was very into “Travelers Along the Way”. I really enjoyed all of the characters as we gathered them up and got to know them, and I enjoyed trying to figure out who was supposed to be whom (though I did have to ask more knowing people in book club, i.e. Serena, who a few of the counterparts were). I think that my favorite aspect of this was how both Rahma and Zeena have such different personalities and opinions on how they should be proceeding, and how they butt heads but still care deeply for each other, even if there is undercurrents of tension between them. I especially liked how by gender bending the characters AND giving it the POV of the OTHER side of the Crusades that Robin Hood wasn’t really dealing with in a tangible way that we got a glimpse into just how fucked everything was for the common people in the Holy Land, especially women. And finally, I enjoyed how Safi gave us not only insights into the main group of characters who were the Robin Hoo equivalents, but also into the minds and motivations of the warring figureheads, be it King Richard, Queen Isabella, or Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub. I didn’t feel like we waded into any problematic areas by getting into their minds a little bit, but it did show the deep, deep complexities that came with this truly awful and violent conflict.

Overall, I enjoyed this one! I don’t have much to compare it to, source content wise, but it was a fun listen and it was a well done re-imagining!

Serena’s Thoughts

I’ve read and watched a lot of versions of “Robin Hood.” My sister and I, predictably, loved “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” when we were younger, mostly because we had a crush on Carey Elwes, of course. My devotion to the tale even extended to watching the horrendous Russell Crowe adaptation that came out in 2010. Thank goodness this version is way, way better than that one!

There was a lot to like about this version of the classic tale. For one thing, I think it was really interesting to change the setting from England to the Middle East. I have to say, I’m not overly familiar with this period of time or the actual strategy and political mechanizations at work in the Middle East during the Crusades. This is a fairly short book with a lot to pack in, but I was impressed by what we got as far as the dynamics all swirling around at once during this period of time. Particularly, I thought it was interesting how the author delved into the three major religions that all hold Jerusalem as a sacred city and how this causes constant tension for all involved.

I also really liked the gender-swapping of all the characters. And boy, there were a lot of characters. But, again, especially for a rather short story, I was impressed by how well I felt like I knew every one of the “merry men/women” that made of the band of thieves. They were slowly introduced over the course of the story, but even with some of the later characters that came onto the scene, I felt like I cared about them all. Of course, I had favorites, like our main character and her fiery sister Zeena. I really liked the exploration of their sibling dynamic, and much of the love and frustration all felt very real and sympathetic.

I do wish we had seen a bit more of Rahma’s famed abilities with a bow and arrow. We hear a lot about it, but we don’t really see it much on the page until pretty close to the end of the novel. That said, I liked how the author worked in the green hood and other classic aspects of the Robin Hood tale. Overall, I definitely recommend this book to all Robin Hood fans!

Kate’s Rating 8: An intriguing re-imagining of “Robin Hood” that looks to a very different situation regarding the conflict at the heart of the original tale.

Serena’s Rating 8: A really clever reimaging of the classic tale with enough to make it familiar but a lot of new takes on characters and setting.

Book Club Questions

  1. How familiar were you with other versions of the Robin Hood story before reading this one? How does this stack up to any others you’ve read/seen?
  2. As a reimaging of the original story, many of the characters appear very different here then they do in their traditional form. Were you able to identify most of the characters with their counterparts? Were there any that you felt were particularly successful/unsuccessful reimagings?
  3. The version of Robin Hood is still set during the Crusades, however it changes the location from England to the Middle East, particularly the cities around Jerusalem. How much did you know about this period of time before reading this? Was there anything that stood out to you about how it was portrayed here?
  4. There are a few interludes in this story told from other characters’ perspectives. What did you think of these chapters? What did they add to the story or did they distract you from the primary plot?
  5. Our bookclub had a lot of fun going over the chapter titles. Did you notice these? Did you have any favorites?

Reader’s Advisory

“Travelers Along the Way: A Robin Hood Remix” is included on the Goodreads lists Gender Flip and Books That Are Perfect for Assassin’s Creed Fans.

Next Book Club Pick: “The Poison Heart” by Kalynn Bayron

Serena’s Review: “A Ruinous Fate”

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Book: “A Ruinous Fate” by Kaylie Smith

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Calliope Rosewood is a witch with a long streak of bad luck. Like all witches in Illustros, her fate is directly tied to Witch’s Dice—powerful artifacts that have blessed her kind with limitless magic but also set them on a path toward destruction. Cursed with unspeakable powers that terrify even the most dangerous witches and fae, Calla deserted her coven four years ago and has been in hiding with her two best friends since. But Calla is also hiding a grave secret: She is only three Rolls away from becoming the last Blood Warrior and starting the Final War that will decimate her people and eradicate their magic.

After a betrayal from her ex leads her one step closer to fulfilling that age-old prophecy, Calla is desperate to do whatever it takes to reset her fate . . . even if that means journeying into the deadly Neverending Forest with said ex and his enticing, yet enigmatic older brother to find the one being who can help her forge her own path. As Calla ventures farther into the enchanted woods, she finds her heart torn between her past desires and the alluring new possibilities of her future and learns that choosing your own destiny may come with deadly consequences.

Review: First off, thanks to Disney Hyperion for reaching out to me with an ARC for review! I was excited to check it out for a few different reasons. For one thing, I’ve always enjoyed the cover art done by this cover artist. And for a second thing, I thought the description sounded very unique. The concept of witches who are dependent to some extent on a dice game of chance, with either the opportunity to gain massive powers or fall into peril. And, of course, our main character who seems to be fearful of becoming essentially what sounds like the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse. Let’s dive in!

Since I kind of just gave a description of the book above, I’m going to skip that paragraph in my post and just jump right into the review. First off, the uniqueness of the premise did hold up in the book itself. The idea of the magical dice and the way they tie into the fate of any given witch is interesting and adds new dynamics to what could have otherwise been a very familiar sound magic system. On top of the ordinary way the dice work (“ordinary”), our main character is dealing with a situation where she has rolled three very unique rolls already. So unique that they point to a dark and grim fate not only for her but for the entire world.

However, while the greater concept of the dice was solid, I did get caught up a bit in a few of the details. While clarity did come slowly but surely, the first quarter of this book just throws the reader in with very little explanation. As such, I did find myself struggling to connect to the main character and the story as a whole, since so much of my attention was getting caught up in the “whys” and “hows” of the whole thing.

I do think, however, that this magical system was the best part of the book, and something that will probably interest a lot of YA fantasy fans. However, the wheels came off the bus for me with the characters themselves. Honestly, I found almost every single character fairly annoying and obnoxious, not least Calla herself. Her decisions and reasoning for said decisions were so difficult to not only understand but sympathize with when they inevitably lead to dramatic outcomes. Worst of all, she’d often claim to be working for the good of others, but again and again, she ultimately came across as a fairly selfish and brash character.

And…there were love triangles. Love trainglesssssss! Plural! So, that wasn’t a win for me. I have a really hard time imaging any situation where multiple love triangles is necessary or enhances a story. Indeed, I’m on record as saying there are very few situations where ANY love triangle is necessary or enhances a story. This is definitely not an exception to that rule. Worse, said love interests were just as frustrating and infuriating as the other characters, both main and side.

All of this to say, I think this is the sort of YA book that will appeal to bigtime YA fantasy fans. Those who are devoted to this genre will likely appreciate the creative world building. And all of the rest, the main character’s personality and the love triangles, are familiar archetypes of this genre, so major fans will probably not bat an eye in the same way that I did. However, for general fantasy fans, I’m not sure this one is worth the time.

Rating 7: Familiar elements will likely draw in the regular YA fantasy crowd, but I’m not sure it has enough to appeal to a larger fantasy audience.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Ruinous Fate” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Best Books Featuring Witches and Upcoming 2023 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads.

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”.

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