Kate’s Review: “Trace of Evil”

43263388Book: “Trace of Evil” (Natalie Lockhart #1) by Alice Blanchard

Publishing Info: Minotaur Books, December 2019

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

Book Description: A riveting mystery that introduces a bold and audacious rookie detective assigned to hunt for a killer who is haunted by the past in this gripping murder case…

Natalie Lockhart always knew she was going to be a cop. A rookie detective on the Burning Lake police force, she was raised on the wisdom of her chief-of-police father. These cases will haunt you if you let them. Grief doesn’t come with instructions.

But the one thing her father couldn’t teach her was how to handle loss. Natalie’s beloved sister was viciously murdered as a teenager, and she carries the scars deep in her heart. Although the killer was locked up, the trace evidence never added up, and Natalie can’t help wondering―is the past really behind her?

As the newest member on the force, Natalie is tasked with finding nine missing persons who’ve vanished off the face of the earth, dubbed “the Missing Nine.” One night, while following up on a new lead, she comes across a savage crime that will change everything.

Daisy Buckner―a popular schoolteacher, wife to a cop, and newly pregnant―lies dead on her kitchen floor. As Natalie hunts for Daisy’s killer in the wake of the town’s shock, her search leads to a string of strange clues―about the Missing Nine, about Daisy’s secret life, and reviving fresh doubts about her sister’s murder.

As the investigation deepens, Natalie’s every move risks far-reaching consequences―for the victims, for the town of Burning Lake, and for herself.

Spellbinding and gripping, Trace of Evil is a novel of twisting suspense that will leave you breathless.

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

Awhile back one of the librarians I follow on Twitter was speaking highly of a book by an author I hadn’t heard of. He had an ARC of “Trace of Evil” by Alice Blanchard, and when I clicked on the description it sounded like it would be up my alley. Small town police detective, missing people, a victim with secrets, all matters that will pull me into a story on any given day. I got it from NetGalley, and opened it up, expecting all of those things but maybe not much more. And what else did I get?

Witchcraft, covens, and teenagers with secret ties to black magic rituals.

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Oh HELL YES. (source)

“Trace of Evil” has three main mysteries that make up the guts of the plot. The first is the most obvious, that of the murder of Daisy Buckner. Natalie Lockhart, our plucky but haunted protagonist, has her own personal connections to Daisy. Not only is she colleagues with Daisy’s husband, Natalie’s older sister Grace wa very close with Daisy, so Natalie’s personal investment is high. I enjoyed seeing Natalie slowly piece together various components to the murder, and how Blanchard was sure to show some of the downfalls of being a woman detective in a small town where everyone knows everything about your past. The second mystery involves a number of missing women, or the Missing Nine, that Natalie has been trying to solve since she joined the force. But along with that obsession, Natalie has her own personal mystery to try and solve; when she was a kid, a masked boy attacked her in the woods. Natalie has spent the rest of her life trying to find out who that boy was. Throw in the fact that her oldest sister Willow was the victim of a horrific murder, and you have a lady cop with a lot of emotional baggage on top of the usual caseload that she has to take on every day. But these various bits of backstory never bog Natalie down, nor does Blanchard make it an excuse to make Natalie overly prickly, overly reckless, or overly damaged. Her traumas absolutely have shaped her, but instead of taking the obvious route of ‘broken but brilliant cop’, Natalie is instead multifaceted and achingly human. I really, really like her as a protagonist (and yes, I’m already rooting for her and her colleague Luke to hook up. She’s had a thing for him since childhood, y’all, it’s great!). Blanchard also is able to take all three mysteries and to show how they are connected, even in the most superficial of ways, and really make the reader buy into the connections. This was one of those instances where I didn’t guess any of the solutions to any of the mysteries, and that left me tickled.

And yes, there is a witchcraft element that I thoroughly enjoyed, if only because I totally saw my own dabbling in Wicca within this plot point. Burning Lake, the town Natalie lives in, has a history of witchcraft and witch trials, and it has permeated a lot of the culture and turned it into a Salem-esque community. Not only did Natalie and her sisters dip their toes into it, but now Natalie’s niece and her friends have started to dabble. But, as is the case in other tales, cliques and infighting tends to lead to a misuse of the ‘magic’, and I loved seeing Blanchard bring that into this story and finding ways to not only connect it to the mystery at hand, but to also show how teen girls who feel powerless can be drawn in to the idea of magic and ritual.

I really, really loved “Trace of Evil”. My hope is that Natalie Lockhart comes back soon, because I now have a new mystery series that I fully intend to keep up with. I highly recommend this thriller to all fans of the genre, and hope that you love it as much as I did.

Rating 10: Suspenseful, detailed, engaging, and filled with great characters, “Trace of Evil” is a promising start to a new series that I thoroughly loved.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Trace of Evil” is new and not included on many Goodreads lists. But I think that it would fit in on “Small Towns with Secrets”, and “Spellbinding Fiction”.

Find “Trace of Evil” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Ninth House”

43263680Book: “Ninth House” (Alex Stern #1) by Leigh Bardugo

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, October 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Review: I was never going to be Ivy League material and I never had the aspirations to be. The only thing that sounded at all interesting about Yale was the collection of secret societies that are scattered throughout the campus community, but even that came off as pretentious as hell to teenage me (though secretly I thought how cool to be admitted into one). Never did I consider that these secret societies would make a genuinely solid premise to a dark fantasy novel, but if anyone could pull it off, it would be Leigh Bardugo. Which brings us to “Ninth House”, Bardugo’s foray from YA fantasy into adult dark fantasy, a jump that I was very interested in seeing in motion. While I haven’t really cared for Bardugo’s fantasy tales like the “Grisha” series or the “Six of Crows” duology, I liked her take on “Wonder Woman”, and LOVED her short story “Verse Chorus Verse”. It stood to reason that Bardugo would probably do something at least interesting with a dark fantasy magic story set on the Yale Campus. I went in with midlevel expectations, and those expectations were blown out of the water. I loved “Ninth House”.

Bardugo has created a fun melding of the real world and a magical environment, with Yale University as an unlikely and yet seamless backdrop. She brings in themes class, privilege, and misogyny, and stirs them into magic, ghosts, the afterlife, and the occult. It’s no surprise that these themes can blend together with little problem, but Bardugo does it in a way that really packs a punch and gets her intent across. At first glance the idea of Yale’s secret societies as magical groups could feel a bit “Harry Potter”, but the darkness is there from the get go, with histories of said groups abusing their powers and preying on the less privileged and ‘less valued’, at least in their eyes, all for a perceived ‘greater good’. It’s up to Lethe House to keep them in line, lest they start abusing their stature and powers again, though you get the impression that Lethe is more there to work as ‘fixers’ should things go wrong, as the corruption is still very much in play. The social commentary may seem a little obvious, but it’s written in such a charming and engaging way that I didn’t even care. Bardugo also creates a unique ghost system. The ghosts, or ‘Grays’ as they are called, are everywhere, though they are mostly unseen by regular people (more on that in a moment). They can also disrupt magical rituals, and that would be a bad thing to the secret societies. I loved the descriptions of the Grays, from the ones who just meander around campus, to the more sinister and scary, to one whose notorious reputation may not be earned. This one in particular was great. His name is North, he may have killed his fiancee during the Victorian Era, he’s dark and broody and I, of course, fell in love with him almost immediately.

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Is he a potential murderer? Yes. Do I care even a little bit? No. (source)

The person tying all of this together is Alex Stern, a first year student at Yale who has a dark past and a purpose for her enrollment. Stern has been able to see Grays her entire life, and a horrific encounter with one left her traumatized (quick content warning moment here: there is a scene of sexual assault in this book that was upsetting and potentially triggering). After falling into drugs to cope, Alex fell into the wrong crowd and ended up the lone survivor of a multiple murder. This is when Yale set their sights on her, her talent to see Grays incredibly valuable, valuable to offer her a full ride and a fresh start. Alex is a fish out of water at Yale, and her pluckiness and grit makes for a fun character whose determination is very easy to root for. While at first she’s perfectly happy being a member of Lethe house and getting the perks of the Ivy League, the murder of a townie girl plunges her into the very dark past of the secret societies. Add in the loss of her mentor, Darlington, and Alex has to find her footing in a strange and dangerous world. Her story is told through time jumps and a nonlinear structure, and it’s an effective way to show how Alex got to where she is, and the influences people and events from her past have shaped her. I especially liked her relationship with Darlington, a Golden Boy of Lethe whose idealistic nature and earnest personality is a fun contrast to Alex, and whose absence makes for a lingering sense of sadness over the story, for both the characters and the reader. But it also makes Alex figure things out on her own, which makes her journey and investigation a bit more empowering.

On top of all this, the story is very engaging and paced perfectly. I had a hard time putting it down, finding myself reading during my down time when I should have been taking care of various tasks around the house. Oh well! What’s a neglected laundry pile in comparison to an addictive read?

“Ninth House” was a fun and fantastic dark fantasy story with lots to love. It’s set up for another book, and I for one cannot wait to get my hands on the next one. I need to know what Alex is going to do next!

Rating 10: A fast paced and well plotted dark fantasy, “Ninth House” builds a complex world of magic and ghosts within an unlikely setting. I’ll be looking forward to the next Alex Stern adventure!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ninth House” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”.

Find “Ninth House” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Starless Sea”

43575115._sy475_Book: “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues–a bee, a key, and a sword–that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library, hidden far below the surface of the earth.

What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians–it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also those who are intent on its destruction.

Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly-soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose–in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

Review: I had to do a double-take when I saw this book pop up on Edelweiss+. I was like, “I know that author! But…but is she finally publishing something new??” It’s been several years since “The Night Circus” was published. Long enough that I look fondly at the book on my shelf but hadn’t really thought to check up again on what the author was doing. This is not a complaint about the time taken between books. Some authors can pump them out seemingly one after another. But as it stands, Morgenstern can take all the time she wants if it means we keep seeing books like “The Night Circus” and now the wonder that is “The Starless Sea.”

Once upon a time there was a book. And in that book were stories. And in those stories were characters reading books. Too, there were doors. And through those doors more books, and characters reading those books. The story winds in and out, but this one begins with Zachary, a college graduate who once saw a door but chose not to open it. A simple moment, seemingly, until he discovers that same moment described in detail in a book he discovers in the library while conducting research. But his is only one among many stories contained with this book’s pages. And as he searches for answers, he finds that through that door that he didn’t take are a million other doors just waiting to be opened.

Books, authors, and readers have a strange, self-celebrating relationship. Readers love books. Some readers love them so much that they go out and write their own. Often about how much they love books. Other readers find those books and gain all the more pleasure from reading a book about characters who love reading books. And some readers go on to be librarians who like nothing more than stocking their shelves with books, especially those books that wax poetic about a love for reading, libraries, and, of course, books themselves. It’s all very “snake eating its own tail,” but in the best of ways possible. All of this to say: “The Starless Sea” is one of the most beautiful love letters to stories and books that I have ever read.

The book starts off slowly, with several seemingly unconnected stories coming one after another to the point that the reader may start to question whether they are reading a collection of tales or a novel. But soon enough Zachary’s story starts to come together and the pieces oh, so slowly begin to fall into place. It takes the entire book to get a full picture of what Morgenstern has accomplished here, which makes it all the more challenging to review. This is a nested-doll of a story and even now I feel that I might have missed some clues here and there.

The world itself is intricate, lush, and a bit spooky around the edges. Like Hogwarts is to many of us, the Starless Sea and its vast libraries are to readers. What reader doesn’t wish to live Zachary’s story? To open a door and find oneself part of a story? And if not that, I want to go there just to cozy up with the millions of books and the hundreds of cats wandering around (I mean, honestly, it’s like she wrote this book for me). There are details galore and half of the fun is simply wandering into the next scene alongside Zachary to see what marvels lay beneath the next. There are just enough strings holding it all together to make it feel connected and approachable. But I was still caught off guard again and again by the directions the story took in its many twists and turns.

There are two love stories at the heart of this book. One, a love that spans centuries, a story that keeps looking for its ending. And the other is Zachary’s. Each is beautiful in its way, one highlighting the testament of love over time and the other the connections that can be formed more quickly but still inspire the greatest of undertakings on each other’s behalf. Each was lovely in its own way, though given Zachary’s role in this book, his stood out all the more.

Like “The Night Circus,” this book highlights just how well-matched Morgenstern’s creativity is with her stylistic writing. In another author’s hands, some of these scenes could have come off as pretentious or grandiose, but her simple, yet delicate, manner of laying down words on a page makes them seem like just more magic to be discovered. As I said, the book builds slowly, and even towards the end when the action begins to pick up, Morgenstern still devotes a decent amount of page time to her descriptive settings and poetic observations. Readers who enjoyed her previous book will be pleased to see her talents put to work in another such story. Those looking for a faster-paced story might struggle a bit, however.

So close to the end of the year and with my “Top 10” on the mind, this was an instant winner for me. I think I would even go so far as to say that I preferred this book to “The Night Circus.” In many ways, that book now seems as if it was a primer, or simply Morgenstern testing the water, as she prepared for the tour de force that is “The Starless Sea.”

Rating 10: A love letter to stories and books that makes you wish for nothing more than to visit the Starless Sea yourself.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Starless Sea” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Books with Underground Setting” and “Scifi/Fantasy for when you are feeling down.”

Find “The Starless Sea” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Highway of Tears”

40538634Book: “Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference, and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” by Jessica McDiarmid

Publishing Info: Atria Books, November 2019

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

Book Description: In the vein of the astonishing and eye-opening bestsellers I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and The Line Becomes a River, this stunning work of investigative journalism follows a series of unsolved disappearances and murders of Indigenous women in rural British Columbia.

Along northern Canada’s Highway 16, a yellow billboard reads GIRLS, DON’T HITCHHIKE. KILLER ON THE LOOSE. The highway is a 450-mile stretch of dirt and asphalt, surrounded by rugged wilderness and snowy mountain peaks. It is known as the Highway of Tears. It is here that at least twenty women and girls—most of them Indigenous—have vanished since 1969.

Highway of Tears explores the true story of what has happened along this troubled road. Journalist Jessica McDiarmid reassembles the lives of the victims—who they were, where they came from, who loved them, and what led them to the highway—and takes us into their families’ determined fight for the truth. The book also indicts the initial police investigation marred by incompetence and systemic racism, even as it shines a light on a larger phenomenon: more than a thousand missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada, a topic brought to international attention when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened an official inquiry into the case.

Combining hard-hitting reporting with a keen, human eye, Highway of Tears is a penetrating look at decades’ worth of tragedy and the fight to honor the victims by preserving their stories and providing them the justice they deserve.

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

I’m a true crime aficionado to the bone, and I have been for as long as I can remember. But I do recognize that there are problematic issues within this genre that should definitely be acknowledged and worked on. One of those issues is that the stories that usually get paid the most attention to involve pretty white women victims, and other victims, especially POC, are not as widely acknowledged. One of the most egregious examples of this is the case of the Highway of Tears in British Columbia, Canada. Highway 16 is a highway that runs a number of miles, and a number of Indigenous women have either disappeared altogether near it, or have been found murdered in the vicinity. Almost all of the cases have gone cold and unsolved, and the victims have been deprived of justice. In “Highway of Tears”, Jessica McDiarmid jumps into a deep and emotional investigation of the crimes, but also of the stories of the women who have been victimized and cast aside, and the life that they were leading before. And boy oh boy, this is one of the most emotionally wrenching true crime books I’ve ever read.

The most important aspect of this book I mentioned above. McDiarmid is very conscientious to give backgrounds and back stories to a large number of the victims, whose disappearances and murders have been happening since the 1970s and up through today. Instead of just being a number of names and a group of lumped in all together, as if their violent ends were their only defining traits, we get comprehensive stories about the various lives that these women led, and the people who were left behind to mourn their loss. I had known about the story of Alberta Williams because of the podcast “Missing and Murdered”, but as each profile and backstory was explored my heart grew heavier and heavier. She makes all of them personalized individuals, and by seeing the trauma that some experienced in life and all of their families experienced in death just shows how unjust it is that not only did they meet these horrible ends, but they haven’t gotten answers or justice.

McDiarmid doesn’t pull any punches when she talks about how the victimization of these women, and in turn their families, is a direct result of a racist system that doesn’t value these women because of their race, their place in society, and their gender. She also does a very good job of showing how the system perpetuates multiple social injustices towards the First Nations population, and how in turn these injustices create an environment where this kind of victimization is far more prevalent compared to other populations in Canada. She also pulls in colonial practices throughout Canadian history, and the direct line that these practices have to modern fallouts for Indigenous groups. From residential schools to alcoholism to poverty to many more, McDiarmid makes it VERY clear that many of these practices have consequences that are still felt today. And on top of all of that, she juxtaposes the differences in approach, attention, and outcomes between the Indigenous women who are missing and murdered, and a few cases where the victims are white women. Suffice to say, Missing White Woman Syndrome plays a huge role, and while the missing and murdered Indigenous women fade into the background, white women get lots of media attention, and lots of resources are poured into the investigations surrounding them. It’s all very upsetting, but all too true.

On top of all of this, McDiarmid has a writing style that will suck you in, and will set the scene so that you feel like you are there. I had a very hard time putting this book down, even though the topic was very upsetting and hard to read about. But McDiarmid insists that you do so, because the story is far too important and has gone unacknowledged by too many for too long. I want this to become the next “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark”. I want this to be read and I want these womens’ stories to be heard and I want them to be seen as who they were. There is no closure with this story. Justice hasn’t been served. But one can only hope that if more people learn about this and speak up, perhaps more will be done.

“Highway of Tears” is a must read. One of the year’s best.

Rating 10: An incredibly powerful and evocative examination of the Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered along Highway 16 in British Columbia, “Highway of Tears” in unforgiving in its indictment of a racist society, and emotional in its profiles of many victims who have been cast aside or forgotten.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Highway of Tears” is new and not on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Best True Crime”, and “Canadian Indigenous Books”.

Find “Highway of Tears” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Doctor Sleep”

16130549._sy475_-1Book: “Doctor Sleep” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Scribner, September 2013

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Stephen King returns to the characters and territory of one of his most popular novels ever, The Shining, in this instantly riveting novel about the now middle-aged Dan Torrance (the boy protagonist of The Shining) and the very special 12-year-old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals.

On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless – mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance knows, and spunky 12-year-old Abra Stone learns, The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the “steam” that children with the “shining” produce when they are slowly tortured to death.

Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant “shining” power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes “Doctor Sleep.”

Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul and survival. This is an epic war between good and evil, a gory, glorious story that will thrill the millions of hyper-devoted fans of The Shining and wildly satisfy anyone new to the territory of this icon in the King canon.

Review: Around the time the trailer for Mike Flanagan’s film “Doctor Sleep” dropped, I was texting back and forth with the aforementioned Blake. He told me that he had never actually picked up “Doctor Sleep”, as he’d heard it was middling at best, but wanted to know what I thought. I told him how much I loved it, but admitted that I hadn’t read it for a long time. So when he later told me that he’d picked it up and was, so far, really liking it, I decided that I needed to go back and re-read it. One, so he and I could potentially have a mini-book club over the sequel to the book that started our friendship, and two because the movie was coming out and I wanted to have the novel fresh in my memory. So I picked up “Doctor Sleep”, figuring I’d meander through it at a lazy pace… But then I ended up binging the entire thing in a couple of days. The continuing story of Danny Torrance post-Overlook once again sucked me in. 

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Poor Danny can’t escape the past. (source)

What you need to know about “Doctor Sleep” is that while it’s a sequel to “The Shining”, the tone, feel, and approach are very different. While they both take a look at addiction (though in different ways, as King was in the middle of his during “The Shining” and in recovery during “Doctor Sleep”), “The Shining” is about ghosts, an evil place, and the slow violent spiral of a husband and father because of the influence of the two. “Doctor Sleep”, however, goes in a different direction. Instead of relying mostly on the ghosts and ghouls, at its heart is a story about trauma and coming to terms with your past while finding a hopeful future. And, of course, still dealing with supernatural themes like psychic abilities and monsters. Dan Torrance is now an adult, who has tried to escape his memories of The Overlook and his abilities by falling into a bottle. Seeing Danny all grown up is a very bleak, but realistic, look at what trauma can do to a person, and how sometimes people cope in ways that are incredibly destructive to others and to themselves. You are already invested in Dan because you know he was that little boy at the Overlook, and some of the best moments of dread in this book have less to do with the visions he still has, and more to do with whether or not he is going to fall off the wagon. It just so happens that around the time he decides to fully commit to recovery, he makes a psychic connection with a newborn girl named Abra, whose Shining abilities are above and beyond his own. Abra is a fantastic new character to bring into the story, as her childhood is a reversed mirror image of what Danny went through as a child. She comes from a loving family, she easily makes friends, and her powers are accepted (albeit hush hush and not totally understood) by her parents, while Danny’s powers were cultivated and nurtured in a dark, abusive setting and a lonely childhood. You definitely get the sense that their connection isn’t pure happenstance, but that doesn’t really matter; what matters is that they are both vital to each other’s survival. Abra needs someone who understands her and understands the dangers of her powers, and Dan needs a reason to keep going and to keep his addictions at bay. King captures an authentic and very likable, yet complex, voice in Abra, and her kindness and joy radiates off of the page, just as her own inner darkness rears in relatable and believable ways. Her friendship with Dan brings out the best in both of them, and as they learn from each other and protect each other from impending dangers, you get super invested in their connection, even if you aren’t completely sure as to why it’s happening.

And let’s talk about those dangers, too. King creates a malevolent and wholly original villain group as only he can with the True Knot, a nomadic group of vampirelike beings that feed on psychic energy. They target children with The Shining, as the True Knot can achieve eternal life by extracting their abilities in ‘steam’ form. The leader of the group is Rose the Hat, a charismatic and vicious woman who kills without remorse for the good of her group. Rose the Hat is a top three King villain for me, as she is intimidating, mysterious, and alluring in every sense of the word. You see this group stalk and murder other children, and once their sights set on Abra a slow burn game of cat and mouse begins, with some unexpected surprises for all parties thrown in along the way that up the ante even more. King doesn’t rush this prolonged confrontation, and he sets the pieces into place in very intentional ways that come together seamlessly. But I think that one of the best achievements that King does, at least for me, is that he makes you kind of care about The True Knot as well, at least in some ways. You get a deep dive into who they are and how they function, and by the time things start to go down you find yourself invested, even if you know that they are monstrous and terrible. He gives them, especially Rose, complexity and nuance, and I ended up loving her when all was said and done, even if it was because of what a horrible and terrifying villain she is. 

I think that a lot of people believed that there was no way that King could write a sequel to “The Shining”. And, in some ways, I think they are right. Because “Doctor Sleep” is its own story, its own identity, and while it may be the continuing story of Danny Torrance, it doesn’t feel like a direct sequel. It feels like King achieved a lot more than that, and has expanded a world and a story in ways that only time and experience could have aided. It’s not a perfect book; there are some hiccups, and moments of cloying coincidence or sappiness, but honestly, I love this story so much that I can easily forgive these stumbles. I have high hopes going into the movie, but even if I don’t care for the adaptation, I know that I can revisit this book and find deep, deep enjoyment. “Doctor Sleep” is probably my favorite of the recent King novels. You don’t have to be a fan of “The Shining” to enjoy it.

And with that, we end Horrorpalooza 2019! I hope that everyone has a Happy Halloween and that you get all the scares. And if you don’t want the scares, all the candy!

Rating 10: A deep, emotionally wrenching, and quite creepy follow up to a classic horror story, “Doctor Sleep” examines familiar characters and themes with an eye for trauma, redemption, and hope.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Doctor Sleep” is included on the Goodreads lists “Adult Books That Feature Powerful or Magic Children”, and “Creepy Halloween Reads”.

Find “Doctor Sleep” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Gods of Jade and Shadow”

36510722Book: “Gods of Jade and Shadow” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edeweiss+

Book Description: The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own. 

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

Review: It’s no secret that I love fairy tale fantasy fiction, and while the genre is definitely getting a lot of attention recently, many of its stories are fairly familiar. At best, they may be pulling from lesser known tales, but many are still set in a European setting of some sort. The description of this story promised a fairy tale of a very different sort. And, wow, did it deliver.

Casiopea has grown up wishing to be anywhere but where she is, the lesser family member in a small village removed from a world that is moving ever forward, full of music, dancing, and fast moving cars. She has dreams of driving one of those cars one day, swimming in the ocean, and so much more. Adventure finally does arrive on her door, but in no manner that she could have expected. Now, bound to the fate of a god who is in the middle of a battle with his brother for the throne of their underworld kingdom, Casiopea begins to realize that the world is even bigger and more strange than she had ever imagined.

There are so many things I loved about this book that it’s hard to know where to start. I guess, with the writing itself, probably. What I’ve always enjoyed about fairy tale fantasy is the freedom it gives authors to simply write beautiful stories. While I appreciate a good magic system as much as the next person, there’s something particularly beautiful about wondrous and strange scenes that require no explanation for the whys and hows. The author perfectly capitalizes on this freedom while deftly avoiding the pitfalls of flower-y or saccharine writing that can often come hand in hand. Particularly, the scenes in the underworld were fascinating. Beautiful, yet treacherous. Dark, mysterious, and filled with creatures and beings that were out of this world but written in such a way that they seemed to simply appear in the mind’s eye, fully formed.

I’m not familiar with any of the Mayan folktales that inspired portions of this story (though there is an interesting afterward from the author that goes into a few details), so it’s hard to know which of these fantastical elements are traditional to these stories and which were objects of the author’s own imagination. I guess it doesn’t matter as the most important test has been passed simply by the fact that I couldn’t distinguish. Moreno-Garcia’s story feels as if it could be as well-known as some of the European fairy tales we all know, complete in every way.

I’ve only read one other book by this author, “The Beautiful Ones,” which I also very much enjoyed. The books are completely different, but there is one connecting factor that also seems to be a unique aspect of this author specifically as I haven’t seen used often (or well) by other authors. That is in both of these books we are given chapters from the villains’ point of view. What’s so great about these chapters is that while they do give insight into the mindset of these characters, they don’t ask readers to like them, in the traditional sense, or forgive them for the wrongs they have done or, often, are in the midst of still doing. It’s a tough feat to pull off, humanizing them just enough to be understood but not so much that one feels guilty about siding completely with the hero/heroine, even though they are often operating on less knowledge than the reader, not being privy to the villains’ thoughts and feelings. In this book, more so that “The Beautiful Ones,” the villains are not even villainous in the traditional sense. They each have major flaws, but by the end of the book, I was satisfied that their characters had a satisfactory arc of their own.

As for the heroine of our story, Casiopea is excellent. She is intrepid, bold, and compassionate, meeting the challenges set before her, bizarre as they often are, with acceptance and courage for the role she must play. The relationship that builds between her and her god-companion is perfectly real, full of individual flaws and pain, but gaining in mutual respect and regard as they make their way across the country.

I also really loved the setting for this book. I haven’t read many books that take place in Mexico (let alone fantasy novels that do). And I also haven’t read many books that take place during the Jazz Age. In many ways, the cities they visit, vibrant with the signs of the local culture and this point in history, are just as magical feeling as the actual fantasy locations that are introduced. The story feels just as colorful and vibrant as the buildings and people its describing.

This was a wonderful book. If you enjoy fairy tales, this is definitely a must. But I also feel that fans of historical fiction will appreciate this story simply based on the strength of its setting and time period. Really, there’s no excuse not to check this book out!

Rating 10: Rich, vibrant, transporting the reader into a time and place that feels magical, and I’m not only talking about the fantasy elements.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Gods of Jade and Shadow” is included on these Goodreads lists: “2019 Latinx/Latin American SFF” and “Fantasy Novels by Women of Color.”

Find “Gods of Jade and Shadow” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Sorcery of Thorns”

42201395Book: “Sorcery of Thorns” by Margaret Rogerson

Publication Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, June 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: All sorcerers are evil. Elisabeth has known that as long as she has known anything. Raised as a foundling in one of Austermeer’s Great Libraries, Elisabeth has grown up among the tools of sorcery—magical grimoires that whisper on shelves and rattle beneath iron chains. If provoked, they transform into grotesque monsters of ink and leather. She hopes to become a warden, charged with protecting the kingdom from their power.

Then an act of sabotage releases the library’s most dangerous grimoire. Elisabeth’s desperate intervention implicates her in the crime, and she is torn from her home to face justice in the capital. With no one to turn to but her sworn enemy, the sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his mysterious demonic servant, she finds herself entangled in a centuries-old conspiracy. Not only could the Great Libraries go up in flames, but the world along with them.

As her alliance with Nathaniel grows stronger, Elisabeth starts to question everything she’s been taught—about sorcerers, about the libraries she loves, even about herself. For Elisabeth has a power she has never guessed, and a future she could never have imagined.

Review: “An Enchantment of Ravens” was a book with a pretty cover that I just happened to nab at ALA. And then it quickly turned into one of my favorite original fairytale fantasies in quite a while. So I was thrilled when I saw a new story coming out by this author (and with another gorgeous cover to boot!). And I was not disappointed; I may have liked this one even more than the other!

Elisabeth is a child of the library, an orphan who has been raised with in its walls, surrounded by the magical, and sometime dangerous, grimoires that also call it home. She has been raised to protect the realm from the threat that is posed by sorcerers and the magic that rest in these books. But when a grimoire goes bad, becoming a monstrous beast, Elisabeth gets caught up in a conspiracy that is much larger than she ever could have suspected. And to get through it she has to rely on the help of a sorcerer himself, the mysterious Nathaniel Thorn and his demon companion, Simon.

Authors and librarians have a symbiotic relationship. Many authors grow up going to libraries which is where they develop their love for reading. They go on to write, and it makes sense that they would often write about they love, and thus we end up with a good number of books about libraries. Librarians, for their part, love nothing more than reading books about libraries and librarians (we’re a self-interested lot, it seems) and will rush out to get our hands on any title that focuses on our beloved profession. The cynical side of me could say that authors might suspect this love on librarians’ parts and figure their books have a better chance of being purchased and stocked en masse in libraries if they focus on this topic. But I choose to think that mostly it’s the former: an act of real love for reading and libraries as the source of so much of it.

This book takes this all one step further, making its librarians not only purveyors of knowledge, but literal warriors who protect both the books within the library walls as well as the people throughout the realm should those books’ worse nature take over. It’s an interesting concept, and beyond just being a blast of fantasy action adventure, there are some parallels that can be drawn for the wonder and danger of books. There is an argument presented at one point that questions whether protecting the grimoires is worth it, if they have potential to become so deadly. But the librarians’ answer is always this: the knowledge they hold is unique and precious, even if it can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and thus must be protected.

As for the characters, Elisabeth is a fantastic leading lady. She’s brave, not a little reckless, but so full of heart that you can’t help but fall in love with her immediately. Her story is one of self-discovery as well as reconciling what she has been taught growing up with the reality in which she suddenly finds herself, once outside the Great Library’s walls. Her connection with the Great Libraries and the grimoires is a mystery that plays out deliciously.

As her supports, Thorn and Simon are excellent as well. Written with the trademark wit that I now associate with this author, the dialogue between Elisabeth and these two is quick and snappy. Simon, especially, was developed as a nuanced and mysterious character. And as the romantic interest, Thorn checks all of the boxes for me. He is powerful in his own right, but never outshines Elisabeth, and both come to realize that only together will they be able to defeat the evil that is rising around them. While the romance is not the focus of the story as much as it was in “Enchantment of Ravens,” I think I enjoyed this balance even better, with it playing a more minor role to the Elisabeth, Thorn, and Simon’s mission to save the world more at the heart.

The story itself was pure fun. It romps along from exciting action piece, to witting repartee, to touching emotional moments. All caught up in a unique fantasy world that feels lush and colorful. Potentially killer books or no, this is a world I’d like to visit. I mean, hey, I’m pretty sure all of us librarians would be happy to adopt the word “warrior” before our title.  Readers looking for an original fairytale adventure are sure to enjoy this!

Rating 10: Just excellent, checking every box for me: a superb heroine, a swoon-worthy romance, and an adventure story that pulls you along from start to finish. Featuring libraries, none the less!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sorcery of Thorns” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “Magical Books, Libraries and Bookstores.”

Find “An Illusion of Thieves” at your library using WorldCat!