Kate’s Review: “The Silence of the Lambs”

Book: “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, July 1988

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A serial murderer known only by a grotesquely apt nickname—Buffalo Bill—is stalking women. He has a purpose, but no one can fathom it, for the bodies are discovered in different states. Clarice Starling, a young trainee at the FBI Academy, is surprised to be summoned by Jack Crawford, chief of the Bureau’s Behavioral Science section. Her assignment: to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter—Hannibal the Cannibal—who is kept under close watch in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

Dr. Lecter is a former psychiatrist with a grisly history, unusual tastes, and an intense curiosity about the darker corners of the mind. His intimate understanding of the killer and of Clarice herself form the core of The Silence of the Lambs—an ingenious, masterfully written book and an unforgettable classic of suspense fiction.

Review: I first read “The Silence of the Lambs” when I was a freshman in high school. My mom and I were at a local drug store and they had the mass market paperback for sale, and she was kind enough to purchase it for me because she never censored what I wanted to read (even if she probably sighed to herself about her daughter’s morbid curiosities). I read it very quickly, completely immersed in the story. I saw the film shortly thereafter, and both are now very high on my lists in terms of favorite books and films. There has been a debate lately between film fans on Twitter as to whether “The Silence of the Lambs” is horror or not. Given that I watch it ever Halloween Season and my friends and I did a Netflix Party of it on one of our weekly Terror Tuesdays, I can see the argument for it being within the horror genre (though I myself flip flop between yes and no). Because of this, I decided that it was time to revisit the story in book form, and that I would include it in this year’s Horrorpalooza. And picking it up again felt like I was visiting an old friend.

But not one that I’m planning on having for dinner or anything… (source)

This book is still so good. While I think that I PROBABLY like the movie better, that is only because the movie is so perfect at bringing all of these three dimensional and amazing characters to life. Hannibal Lecter is a literary villain who stands above so many, but this book is 100% Clarice Starling’s. Harris created a ‘badass female protagonist’ who feels so real, so relatable, and so nuanced that I’m continually shocked that a man wrote her (given that sometimes male authors can miss the mark when it comes to writing lady characters). You feel Clarice’s ambition, her frustration, her smarts and her anxiety and her need to solve the Buffalo Bill case, and you completely understand why she would go to the lengths she does… like getting close to Hannibal, even though he is incredibly manipulative and dangerous. I also really appreciated the moments of misogyny and sexism that she has to endure, as for 1988 for a guy to put those in, and to make them sting and hurt without feeling overdone or corny, that’s impressive. Clarice is such an important and formative feminist icon for me, and I was worried that revisiting her might not hold up as well. But it did. Hannibal, too, is a fascinating character, and while he doesn’t have the same amount of page time as Clarice (which is just fine), his insidiousness and his charm makes him very creepy, as well as vastly entertaining. But for me, it’s all about Clarice.

I had also forgotten how well Harris slowly builds to the Buffalo Bill mystery that is the true heart of “The Silence of the Lambs”. You get small references to it here and there, but it takes awhile to realize that this story is the one that Clarice is going head first into. Seeing her slowly gather her evidence, be it through talking with Lecter or going into a storage container to find evidence, or going to an autopsy and finding a bug, we get to go along with Clarice, see the pathology unfold, and then see Bill in action. And Harris really knows how to write a suspenseful scene. Even though I have read the book before and seen the movie countless times, I found myself getting nervous and anxious during some of the action moments. Especially during the Buffalo Bill kidnapping we get to witness on the page.

I will say that Buffalo Bill, while a really well done villain (and completely under appreciated in the movie. Ted Levine is GOD TIER and gets overshadowed by Hopkins. I get why, but my GOD, every time I watch Levine just blows me away), feels problematic now given that Bill is clearly dealing with some kind of gender dysphoria. I do know that Bill is based on a whole smorgasbord of serial killers, and that Jerry Brudos is almost assuredly the one who manifests in Bill’s obsession with womanhood (as during one of his attacks he was dressed like a woman, would dress up in his victims clothing, and had a huge thing about womens shoes). But while it’s stated that Bill isn’t ‘actually transsexual’ (paraphrasing from the text here) in the book, it still feels like there are shades of transphobia with the character. I think it says more about the time it was written than much else, but it’s definitely something to think about, and stands out for all the wrong reasons today.

Overall, “The Silence of the Lambs” is still a gripping, scary, and masterful classic that blurs the lines between thriller and horror. Re-reading was a joy, and I am glad I jumped back into it.

Rating 10: An enduring thriller classic that touches on real life horrors and (mostly) holds up.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Silence of the Lambs” is included on the Goodreads lists “I Like Serial Killers”, and “Best Female Lead Characters”.

Find “The Silence of the Lambs” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “A Deadly Education”

50548197._sy475_Book: “A Deadly Education” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Learning has never been this deadly

“A Deadly Education” is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets. There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere. El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.

Review: Naomi Novik has quickly become a must-read author for me. After this book, she’s pretty much a must-buy author (I only have maybe 5 of those, so that says something, I think!). But, still, when requesting this book, what I’d read from her had been both of her fairytale retellings and the first several of her Napoleonic wars/dragon historical fantasy series. This didn’t sound remotely like either of those, instead being billed as a modern, more grim, “Harry Potter” style boarding school story. But man, Novik can do anything, and my trust is now fully earned, no matter how strange the book description is!

Scholomance is technically a school. There are no teachers and students are on their own to make classes and finish homework, sure. But that’s only half, and arguably the less important half, of what this school provides. Instead, it offers magical kids the best chance they have of surviving their juvenile years. Sure, their odds are still pretty darn bad in the school, but better than the next to nothing they have outside. El’s chances have been even worse from the start. Yeah, she has the raw power, but she seems to repel people for some reason. And in a place where forming alliances is a necessary survival tactic, that’s not good. But here, in her second to last year at the school, staring down the barrel of a final year full of even more likely death, El begins to uncover secrets about not only the school, but herself, and the boy who has been roaming around annoyingly playing savior to all this entire time.

I adored everything about this book, so it’s kind of hard to think of where to start when reviewing it. It’s also so totally unique, interesting, and complicated that it’s hard to find the middle ground between reviewing important aspects of the story and not spoiling the fun for new readers. There’s just so much good stuff to unpack!

I guess I’ll start with the world-building itself. The book description has a tough job trying to describe what Scholomance really is, and, as you can see, I probably struggled too in my own summary. That’s because it’s so complicated and well-constructed that it’s almost impossible to really give a broad overview. Novik seems to have thought out every intricate detail for this magical place, from how the cafeteria works, to the menacing library, to the simplest of things, like how the school assigns and monitors homework and what happens if students fall behind. And it’s all just so creative! I can’t think of a single other fantasy story that has anything like the place Novik has thought up here. And that’s saying something, I think, in a genre that is becoming more crowded by the day (especially YA that has a tendency to become trope-ridden and bogged down in certain themes every few years).

One of the most impressive aspects of all of this that, being as complicated and detailed as it all is, our narrator is given a heavy load of information to be handing off to readers. There’s a significant portion of the first half of the book that is largely devoted to detailing all of these little aspects. It would have been so easy for it to have felt like info-dumping or to have dragged down the pacing and plot of the story. But, for one thing, the information being provided is just too interesting on its own to feel bored by. And secondly, our narrator had a fantastic voice from the start that is strong enough to carry this type of detail-ridden load.

El is everything I like in a narrator: snarky, consistently characterized, yet vulnerable in ways that we (and she) discover throughout the story. From the book description, I was kind of expecting some type of tired anti-hero story or quasi-villain plot line for her, but it’s really nothing like that. Sure, her powers are destructive and there’s this pesky doomsday-esque prophesy lingering around her, but she’s just as skeptical of all that nonsense as the reader wants to be. El’s story, here, is not only finding acceptance with some key friends around her, but in accepting what she has to offer. On one hand, she can be overly confident, but on the other, we see her realize her own values and where her personal lines are between survival and standing up for some moral greater good.

And to balance her out, of course, we have a “Chosen One.” This friendship was everything! Both El and Orion’s characters play perfectly off each other. She, stand-offish, uninterested, and, again, snarky. He, bumbling, clueless of his affect on people, and obnoxiously heroic. I loved everything about this friendship and the slow build to sort of romance that it comes to towards the end.

It’s also clear, here, where the comparisons to “Harry Potter” are coming from. Orion Lake is definitely a response to Harry Potter and all of the other “chosen” heroes we see in fantasy fiction. Novik has said that “Spinning Silver” was essentially her “yelling” at the “Rumpelstiltskin” fairytale, and that this would be her yelling at “Harry Potter.” Comparisons to “Harry Potter always make me nervous. For one thing, I love Harry Potter so, for me, a book being compared to it is either going to be a massive let-down of trying to copy something that shouldn’t be copied. Or it’s going to be some type of “response” piece that spends more time criticizing another book series than in being its own thing. Luckily, this falls right in the middle and does it perfectly.

You can definitely see where Novik is making a point about the type of “chosen one” story that Harry Potter tells, but, while she does touch on some of the obvious themes, she also deep dives into a lot of aspects of this type of storyline that one doesn’t often think about. There’s a strong focus on inequality and injustice, but it’s approached through angles and perspectives that are unique to this world. The themes, of course, carry over, but it stays true to the fantasy world it is and the types of justice and injustice that would be inherent to it. It’s left to the reader to transcribe these thoughts onto our own world and our own experiences of injustice within society.

This review has already gotten pretty long, and I could go on and on. But, in this case, I almost feel like the less said the better! There’s so much great stuff to discover here that I don’t want to spoil any more of it! Needless to be said, my copy is already pre-ordered, and I highly recommend any and all fantasy fans to get their hands on this book ASAP!

Rating 10:Breaking fantasy walls that I didn’t know even exited! Simply fantastic!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Deadly Education” is a new title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “Non JKR Magic School Novels.”

Find “A Deadly Education” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Year of the Witching”

49789629Book: “The Year of the Witching” by Alexis Henderson

Publishing Info: Ace, July 2020

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

Book Description: A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.

In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.

But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.

Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.

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

So for the past few months some friends and I have been continuing our ‘Horror Movie Club’ that we had just started before social distancing became the name of the game. We log into Netflix and open up Netflix Party, then watch a scary movie every Tuesday. Back in May we watched “The VVitch”, one of my favorite witch movies because damn, that ending. I was the only one who had seen it, and when that ending twist came the chat exploded with glee and I basked in the (what I see as ) feminist message at the end. You intertwine witchcraft and feminism and I am totally there. So when I read the description for “The Year of the Witching” by Alexis Henderson, I immediately, IMMEDIATELY, requested it from NetGalley. I want MORE feminist witchcraft in my reading, after all.

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EMPOWERMENT! HEXES! PATRIARCHY SMASHING! I WANT IT ALL! (source)

First and foremost, it should be noted that “The Year of the Witching” is a dark fantasy, bordering on straight horror story. Horror in terms of scary imagery, but also horror in terms of the horrors of fundamentalism, misogyny, racism, and corruption. Bethel is a community that seems to take some of its inspiration from Puritanism and the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints, with nods to Puritan beliefs of witch craft and the FLDS notions of a Prophet and polygamy. Citizens are kept in line with religion, and girls and women are the ones who bear the brunt of the hardships and the punishments for stepping out of place. Immanuelle is accepted by her family and mostly by the community, but is always Othered because of her mother’s ‘sin’ and because of her race. It’s far too seldom that witch stories involve Black of brown witches (with a few recent exceptions), so for Immanuelle to have the potential for magical powers and to be biracial with dark skin is pretty awesome. It also opens up the potential to  not only explore misogyny in Bethel, but also misogynoir as well. The entire society is an exploration in how a society can use fear and religion to exert control and power over its members, and at the top of this is the Prophet, who leads the town and passes judgements that sometimes end in pyres where women and outsiders are burned for the sins of being women and outsiders. And while the people in Bethel are being subjectted to this, it’s very clear that they are still complicit in this system.

That isn’t to say that Henderson falls into the trap of ‘one side is completely evil and the other side is completely good’, as the witches of the Darkwood that Immanuelle is drawn to (as was her mother) are described as evangelists in their own right. Immanuelle is caught between two extremes, and has to suss out if out of reaction to one side she will swing all the way to the other side, which has its own malevolence. Henderson really figured out how to find the nuance, which we don’t always get to see in stories that have as much rage and revolution in them as “The Year of the Witching” does. Which is awesome. Instead of falling merely into rage, even if that rage is completely justified, Henderson lets Immanuelle explore other ways to proceed when it comes to the liberation of herself and the women in her life. And I loved that.

And yes, this is a very creepy tale with some really neat witch mythos inside of it. You have your usual ‘cast out women who were seeking power’ tale, but Henderson goes a little further with it, giving each witch in the coven a specific backstory, specific roles they played before and after the clash, and unique descriptors that harken to folk horror as well as body horror. I especially loved the descriptions of Lilith, aka The Mother, who is the leader and in direct opposition of The Father and what the people of Bethel believe. I don’t want to spoil her description because I really want it to to be a surprise to readers, but holy hell, it’s both something out of a nightmare and also powerful as hell.

“The Year of the Witching” is an excellent YA horror novel with a lot to say. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on it. Especially if you loved the end of “The VVitch”.

Rating 10: Spooky, angry, feminist and empowering, “The Year of the Witching” is a dark and scary tale of agency, independence, and discovering your inner power.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Year of the Witching” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dystopias with Gender or Religion-specific Phobics”, and “Black Heroines 2020”.

Find “The Year of the Witching” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Empire of Gold”

46033842._sy475_Book: “The Empire of Gold” by S.A. Chakraborty

Publishing Info: Voyager, June 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Daevabad has fallen.

After a brutal conquest stripped the city of its magic, Nahid leader Banu Manizheh and her resurrected commander, Dara, must try to repair their fraying alliance and stabilize a fractious, warring people.

But the bloodletting and loss of his beloved Nahri have unleashed the worst demons of Dara’s dark past. To vanquish them, he must face some ugly truths about his history and put himself at the mercy of those he once considered enemies.

Having narrowly escaped their murderous families and Daevabad’s deadly politics, Nahri and Ali, now safe in Cairo, face difficult choices of their own. While Nahri finds peace in the old rhythms and familiar comforts of her human home, she is haunted by the knowledge that the loved ones she left behind and the people who considered her a savior are at the mercy of a new tyrant. Ali, too, cannot help but look back, and is determined to return to rescue his city and the family that remains. Seeking support in his mother’s homeland, he discovers that his connection to the marid goes far deeper than expected and threatens not only his relationship with Nahri, but his very faith.

As peace grows more elusive and old players return, Nahri, Ali, and Dara come to understand that in order to remake the world, they may need to fight those they once loved . . . and take a stand for those they once hurt.

Previously Reviewed: “City of Brass” and “Kingdom of Copper”

Review: Oh man, I’ve been looking forward to this book for so long! It’s pretty funny to think that I discovered the first book in this excellent trilogy when Kate and I were accidentally trespassing early in the main room of the convention hall at ALA several years ago. I nabbed a copy before we figured out that we weren’t supposed to be there. (By the by, we had planned to go to ALA again finally this year as a reward for surviving our first year as mothers…damn you, Covid!!) Anyways, there was an even longer wait between this book and the last, a year and a half compared to the usual year, so I was really excited when I nabbed an early review copy. And, best of all, this is the perfect ending to such a great series!

The wheel of violent retribution has turned, and like so many other revolutions and wars of the past, Daevabad must suffer through it. But while tragedy and violence are nothing new to a city that throughout history has been fought over, this time is different, as much more has been lost then ever before. And Dara, Nahri, and Ali are the keys to moving forward. But to do so, they each must grapple with the truths of their past: the unknown, the forgotten, and all of the things buried deep in themselves. What they each discover will not only reshape who they are but will reshape the future of Daevabad itself.

The last book in this trilogy left off on a massive cliffhanger. Daevabad had just been horrifically invaded by Dara and Nahri’s mother who used a dastardly plan that involved mass genocide of Ali’s father and people. Nahri and Ali fled the city and somehow ended up back in Nahri’s homeland of Cairo, Egypt, the powerful ring of Suileman in their possession. The stakes were nothing if not high. And given the incredibly long history of tensions between the various daeva tribes, the shafit (their part-human progeny), and the various other magical players on the board, it was almost impossible to imagine how all of the various threads would be tied up in this final book.

And obviously I won’t spoil it for you! There are so many surprises and twists and turns to this book that completely blew me away. I had a few ideas about what could come to pass. But let me just say, I’m so pleased I wasn’t the author, as not only did none of my ideas happen, but they were all massively underwhelming compared to what we were given! This book not only tackles the tangled web of politics and horrible tribal tensions within Daevabad itself, but it expands the world out so much further than we’ve seen in previous books. We spend more time in Nahri’s Cairo. We travel down the Nile and meet crocodile kings. We get captured by pirates and end up in a wondrous jungle empire. And that’s all probably in the first half of the book, before things really go crazy!

In my past reviews for this series, I’ve talked a lot about the dark history that is laid out before us in this trilogy. And all of that is here as well, with a few extra knife twists to just make it all the more grim. But what stood out to me in this book was just how incredibly funny Chakraborty’s writing is as well. As I was reading, I found myself agian and again highlighting passages on my Kindle that made me laugh out loud. I’m sure this was present in the first two books as well. Indeed, it kind of must have to balance out said darkness. But for some reason, the casual and effortless humor really stood out here. Especially with regards to Nahri and Ali’s characterization, and their tenuous relationship.

Nahri concludes this series as probably one of my all-time favorite fantasy heroines. She never loses sight of who she is throughout this entire series, and she’s just the sort of level-headed, pragmatic, no-nonsense character that I prefer. And, like I said, she’s hilarious. But Ali is really the character to go through the biggest arc in this book. In the first book, I remember being slightly put-off when I discovered I had to give up page time with Nahri to hear about this rather ridiculously idealistic princeling. But over the course of the trilogy, Ali has really come into his own, and it’s in this last book where I really fell in love with him and his story. With the world crashing around him, Ali is forced to finally confront the balance between his ideals and the world that is before him. Not only this, but his is the story that holds the most mysteries and goes to the most unexpected places.  I really loved how both of these characters’ story turned out in the end.

Dara, on the other hand…oof. We all knew his story was tragic, and it’s more of the same here. His lows are just so much lower than anyone else’s that it’s hard to know how he gets through it. He’s half villain, half victim, but you can’t help but feel for him at every turn. Really, though, any villainous acts that he commits are so out-shown by the main villain, Manizeh that it pales in comparison. The villains have always been strong in this book, but wow, she takes the cake.

The writing and world-building is just as strong here as it was in the first two books, so there’s not much new to report here other than the fact that excellence remains excellent. It’s a testament to the strength of the author though that she managed to pull out this conclusion. Like I said before, it was almost impossible to see how she would write herself out of the seemingly inescapable corner the story was in at the end of the last book. It looked like there was no possible ending that didn’t result in death and despair for at least one of our main characters. And while we did still have some of that, I will say that I was completely and utterly satisfied with the conclusion of this story. If you’ve been gobbling up these books like I have, you’re in for a treat with this last one!

Rating 10: A feat of masterful story craft, exploding out the world while also never losing sight of the intimate moments driving its main characters. Simply excellent.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Empire of Gold” is a newer title so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Upcoming 2020 SFF with female leads or co-leads.”

Find “The Empire of Gold” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Glass Hotel”

45754981Book: “The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel

Publishing Info: Knopf Publishing Group, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: From the award-winning author of Station Eleven, a captivating novel of money, beauty, white-collar crime, ghosts, and moral compromise in which a woman disappears from a container ship off the coast of Mauritania and a massive Ponzi scheme implodes in New York, dragging countless fortunes with it.

Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star glass and cedar palace on an island in British Columbia. Jonathan Alkaitis works in finance and owns the hotel. When he passes Vincent his card with a tip, it’s the beginning of their life together. That same day, Vincent’s half-brother, Paul, scrawls a note on the windowed wall of the hotel: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for a company called Neptune-Avramidis, sees the note from the hotel bar and is shaken to his core. Thirteen years later Vincent mysteriously disappears from the deck of a Neptune-Avramidis ship. Weaving together the lives of these characters, The Glass Hotel moves between the ship, the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the wilderness of northern Vancouver Island, painting a breathtaking picture of greed and guilt, fantasy and delusion, art and the ghosts of our pasts.

Review: Though I cannot possibly imagine going back and reading it right now, I really loved Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic book “Station Eleven”. While it’s true that it takes place in a world that has been ravaged by a super flu (no thanks right now), it is also a lovely and quiet meditation on the power of art, the ties and connections that keep us together, and humanity as a whole. When I saw that she had a new book coming out called “The Glass Hotel”, I put it on my library hold list. And when the libraries closed, it was the first book that I decided to buy to own. Honestly, Mandel should be one of my must buy authors anyway, and she once again has delivered a quiet and introspective tale, this time about Ponzi schemes, of all things. Of course, it’s about as much about Ponzi schemes as “Station Eleven” was about a pandemic. It’s merely a backdrop to something much more intimate.

We follow a few different paths in this book, and a few different timelines, realities, and narratives. They do all connect together in ways that seem more tenuous than they are, but then that’s one of Mandel’s greater talents. The three main characters, I would argue, are the half siblings Paul and Vincent, and John Alkaitis, Vincent’s eventual husband and Ponzi scheme perpetrator. All are running away from something, be it guilt, or the truth, or grief, though it could be argued that all of them are running from all three in different ways and manifestations. Though the biggest thing they’re all running from is responsibility, and all start seeing various ghosts as they do so. It’s unclear as to whether they are real or not, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter. In the end, they are seen because they are the unshakeable reminders of those that these characters have hurt or wronged, so even if they aren’t ‘real’, they still very much are.

None of these characters we meet are exactly ‘good’ people, but because of their depth and their perspectives you become invested in them and their outcomes regardless of their likability. Vincent’s story, being the largest connector of all narratives, is in many ways the most engrossing and haunting, as her complicated relationship with her brother, her ill fated marriage to a criminal, and her longing for her mother (who died when Vincent was a tween, her death mysterious, and mirroring Vincent’s own disappearance later in life) drive her constant moves, shifts, and changes in lifestyle and in some ways personality. Alkaitis, too, runs from his responsibility in the wreckage of so many lives, though his running is mostly done by letting himself disappear into a ‘counterlife’ in which he was never caught, a life that bleeds in and out of his narrative, and then some. Paul’s story is perhaps the smallest of the threads, but in many ways it has some of the largest impacts on the paths that all the characters take. As his overall purpose and his role in the story slowly fell into place, I found myself astounded by the intricacies and how carefully Mandel made sure to bring it all together. And truly, it’s a wonder to behold as it all does flow and merge. By the time I had finished this novel, having read it mostly in one night and definitely staying up far too late to finish it, I just let out a long sigh, knowing that by reading it I had really experienced something remarkable. Like “Station Eleven”, “The Glass Hotel” has a lot of pain and trauma, but it almost feels muted and quiet, as those are not the points of the story. The point is resilience, no matter the cost. It’s wonderful and tragic all at once.

(and yes, this story does have connections to “Station Eleven”. But it stands so well on it’s own it’s more like Easter Eggs than an actual canonical link.)

Gosh I loved this book. It’s haunting and I know that it’s going to stick with me for a long while.

Rating 10: Phenomenal. Mandel has done it again.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Glass Hotel” is included on the Goodreads lists “Covid-19: Books to Read on Lockdown”, and “Books Unbound Podcast”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Daughter of the Forest”

45046625Book: “Daughter of the Forest” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor 1Books, April 2020 (originally published in 1999)

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Lovely Sorcha is the seventh child and only daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters. Bereft of a mother, she is comforted by her six brothers who love and protect her. Sorcha is the light in their lives, they are determined that she know only contentment.

But Sorcha’s joy is shattered when her father is bewitched by his new wife, an evil enchantress who binds her brothers with a terrible spell, a spell which only Sorcha can lift–by staying silent. If she speaks before she completes the quest set to her by the Fair Folk and their queen, the Lady of the Forest, she will lose her brothers forever.

When Sorcha is kidnapped by the enemies of Sevenwaters and taken to a foreign land, she is torn between the desire to save her beloved brothers, and a love that comes only once. Sorcha despairs at ever being able to complete her task, but the magic of the Fair Folk knows no boundaries, and love is the strongest magic of them all… 

Review: I was thrilled to see this book pop up on NetGalley. It’s been one of my favorite reads (and the book that introduced me to one of my favorite authors) for many, many years. I couldn’t think of a series that is more due for a re-release than the original Sevenwaters trilogy. Plus, this was the perfect excuse to re-read this book and finally feature a full review for the story on this blog!

Sorcha’s life is full of family and love. With six older brothers who adore her and seek to protect her from everything, her life seems to be on a straight, bright path. Until her family falls under the shadow of her father’s new wife, a powerful sorceress who puts her brothers under a terrible spell, dooming them to the short life of swans. Now Sorcha must become the protector, undertaking a near-impossible task, forced to weave shirts out a painful plant and not allowed to make any noise until task is finished and spell lifted. Life is not made easier when she finds herself caught up by the enemy English and now living in a foreign land among those who distrust and fear her. But Sorcha persists in the face of it all, even has her task seems more and more doomed.

I love fairytale retellings, and this book really introduced me to them and set the bar for what they can be. The “Seven Swans” fairytale is a lesser known tale, and while there have been several other ones that I’ve found since reading this, none have even come close to fully realizing the full potential of the story. Marillier doesn’t simply stick to the basic outline; she creates an entire world, magic system, and fully-fleshed cast of characters, many of whom don’t feature in anything other than name in the original tale and some not at all. But beneath this all, the heart of the story is consistent (though some details differ). All the major plot points are hit, but the book is over 500 pages long, so you know it is rich in detail and not in a rush to get through its story.

Too often fairytale retellings fail to really establish themselves as anything unique from the original stories. Main characters are often lacking in any real personality (fairytales themselves often give them basically none, so there’s not much to go off for the author adapting it). And often the story doesn’t expand much further out than the original tale. Not so, here. Sorcha is the cornerstone around which this entire story hinges. And, given the she spends two thirds of the book not able to speak out loud, it’s important that her character feel real and compelling. We spend the entire book in her head and experience some fairly traumatic things alongside her. But, importantly, you’ll notice that I said “two thirds.” That’s because, smartly, Marillier adds a bunch of extra story to the beginning of this book. This not only gives Sorcha ample opportunity to be set up as a compelling character, but it adds stakes to her quest. We’ve met her brothers. We know their individual strengths and weaknesses, and, importantly, their close attachment to their sister. This makes their loss feel real and helps the reader feel fully committed to the terrible task set out before our leading lady.

The book also deals with some pretty serious and tough topics. There’s a very graphic, traumatic scene that occurs fairly early in the story. The author doesn’t hold back on the details of this attack, but what justifies this, I think, is the great work she does to explore how this affects Sorcha going forward. It’s not swept away or easily solved. Instead, we see how this experience shapes all of Sorcha’s choices and reactions going forward. And, ultimately, we see how she slowly goes through the experience of healing from it. This book is probably the best example I can point to for how a tough topic like this can and should be handled. Not only does our heroine go through the entire process, the book lays down some needed examples of how those around her help and wait as she deals with this.

Marillier’s writing is also exceptional. Atmospheric, lyrical, and emotional, she makes you feel the same strong connection to the forests and lakes of Sorcha’s wild home. Small moments land with unexpected emotion, and the action is tense and high stakes while not straying far from the intimate perspective we have through Sorcha’s eyes with everything that is going on around her. Throughout all of Marillier’s books, her writing is always consistent, but it’s a joy to go back to this first book that I read of hers and see why it stood out so much in the first place.

Marillier started a new trilogy this last fall, and I’m eagerly awaiting getting my hands on the second boo, due out this September. If you’re waiting as well, take this chance to explore her backlog with this beautiful renewed edition. I love the cover art for this and the other two books in the trilogy. If you haven’t read any of Marillier’s work before, boy, are you in for a treat! Get started with this one, and away you go!

Rating 10: Everything that a fairytale retelling should be and then some!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Daughter of the Forest” is on these Goodreads lists: “The Best Fairytales and Retellings” and “Best Romance in Traditional Fantasy.”

Find “Daughter of the Forest” at your library!

Bookclub Review: “Gods of Jade and Shadow”

36510722We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub 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 “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

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

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2019

Where Did We Get This Book: We both bought it!

American Girl Book: “Josefina Saves the Day” by Valerie Tripp

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.

Serena’s Thoughts

I read this book for the first time last summer and raved all about it. But when it came time for me to pick my book for bookclub, I was having a hard time finding one that I felt matched up at all with the “American Girl” I had. I tossed out this book’s title and as no one else had read it, that was all the excuse I needed! Not only to pick it as my bookclub book, but to order a copy for myself for this re-read.

This second time around, I enjoyed the story just as much as the first time. I was reminded just how unique of a story this is. I haven’t read any other book about this time period and place, and I’ve especially never read anything combining it with traditional Mayan folklore and all of the fantasy elements the author threw in. While the beginning of the story definitely has a “Cinderella” vibe, it deviates from that traditional tale so quickly and so completely that it wasn’t even until this re-read that I made that connection at all.

Like my first read through, what really stood out was the writing itself and the way the use of the unique narration style was able to really draw complete, full-bodied pictures for the reader. The images of these locations and cities, both real and fairytale, all feel so vivid and colorful that it’s impossible not to be drawn in, even if one has no familiarity to base any of these visuals on. The writing is strong enough to get you there on its own.

I obviously still really enjoyed Casiopea herself. She’s a very strong protagonist and her journey of self-discovery was compelling. She learns many of the same lessons anyone who travels from home the first time does: that the world is both much larger and grand than you ever could have imagined, but it’s also still just people, going about their lives, no matter the change of scenery. This time around, I was able to focus more Hun-Kame’s story and his slow transition from godhood to humanity. I really appreciate the way the author went about this, as all of his changes were subtle and believable, something that can be hard to pull of with this type of story arc.

Overall, I still really enjoyed this book. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her, and she has a new book, “Mexican Gothic,” that’s coming out this June that I can’t wait to check out! If you want to read my full review from last summer, you can find it here.

Kate’s Thoughts

I have been interested in digging into Silvia Moreno-Garcia for a bit now. I have “Mexican Gothic” waiting for me in eARC form at the moment, so when Serena suggested that she pick “Gods of Jade and Sorrow” for book club I was wholeheartedly in favor. True, while fantasy isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, mythology is an exception to that general rule. Especially mythologies that I’m not as familiar with (though when I was in grade school we had a unit on the Mayans and the mythology associated with it. Of course, it was by no means expansive).

I quite enjoyed “Gods of Jade and Shadow”, for a few reasons. The first, like Serena mentioned, was the time and place. 1920s Mexico isn’t a setting I’ve encountered much in the books I’ve read, and while I have a working knowledge of some aspects of it thanks to reading about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in the past, it’s still fairly novel. The road trip and journey that Casiopea and Hun-Kamé take together all over Mexico and into the U.S. is engaging and entertaining, and the other magical beings they encounter were fascinating and well crafted. I thought that their very important journey aligned with Casiopea’s own journey of self-actualization against a backdrop of a burgeoning freedom of society was stark and powerful.

And, like Serena, I also enjoyed Casiopea herself. She grows and changes, but always remains true to herself and her characterization. She has a lot to learn, but she also has a lot that various characters, be it Hume-Kamé or her cruel cousin Martín, could learn from her. Some of the choices that she makes when it comes to how to deal with the cruelty and viciousness of others are refreshing in that they are steeped in more empathy and compassion as opposed to revenge or evening the score.

And of course, the Mayan Mythology was great. I have vague recollections of Xibalba and the various Death Gods from my early experiences of reading up on them in grade school, and seeing them put into this story and really dug into was awesome. It also gives the feel of this story a distinctly Indigenous one, which I greatly appreciated, especially since an Own Voices author was taking on the subject matter.

Overall, I really liked “Gods of Jade and Shadow”, and I’m even more stoked to dig into Moreno-Garcia’s next works!

Kate’s Rating 8: A fun and unique coming of age story with a distinctly Indigenous voice, “Gods of Jade and Sorrow” really entertains.

Serena’s Rating 10: I loved this book just as much the second time around and highly recommend it for fantasy-lovers looking for a story set in a time and place not typically found in the genre.

Book Club Questions

  1. Casiopea’s story starts out as a sort of “Cinderella” tale that involves into one of self-discovery and independence gained. What stood out to about her story arc or characterization?
  2. In many ways, Casiopea and Hun-Kame’s relationship evolves from city to city as they travel. What did you make of this progression? Did you enjoy the romance in this story? What did you think of the larger balance being struct between humanity and godliness?
  3. The story takes place during the Jazz Age in Mexico and covers a lot of ground. Was there a particular location or aspect of this time/place that stood out to you?
  4. The author combined traditional Mayan words and stories with her own unique tale. Were there any aspects of the fantasy elements that stood out to you? Were you familiar with any of these terms or Mayan tales previously?
  5. The narration for this story is omniscient, allowing the author to provide a lot of detail and context for her tale as it meanders across Mexico. It also provides insights into the villain’s perspectives. What did you make of this narrative style and the balance between characters that we’re given?

Reader’s Advisory

“Gods of Jade and Shadow” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Aztec, Maya & Inca – Fiction” and “2019 Adult SFF by Authors of Color.”

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

Kate’s Review: “The Last Book on the Left”

43261154._sx318_Book: “The Last Book on the Left: Stories of Murder and Mayhem from History’s Most Notorious Serial Killers” by Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, and Henry Zebrowski

Publishing Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley, and I own it!

Book Description: An equal parts haunting and hilarious deep-dive review of history’s most notorious and cold-blooded serial killers, from the creators of the award-winning Last Podcast on the Left

Since its first show in 2010, The Last Podcast on the Left has barreled headlong into all things horror, as hosts Henry Zebrowski, Ben Kissel, and Marcus Parks cover subjects spanning Jeffrey Dahmer, werewolves, Jonestown, and supernatural phenomena. Deeply researched but with a morbidly humorous bent, the podcast has earned a dedicated and aptly cultlike following for its unique take on all things macabre.

In their first book, the guys take a deep dive into history’s most infamous serial killers, from Ted Bundy to John Wayne Gacy, exploring their origin stories, haunting habits, and perverse predilections. Featuring newly developed content alongside updated fan favorites, each profile is an exhaustive examination of the darker side of human existence. With appropriately creepy four-color illustrations throughout and a gift-worthy paper over board format, The Last Book on the Left will satisfy the bloodlust of readers everywhere.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book.

I first discovered the podcast “The Last Podcast on the Left” in early 2018. I had just left my job, I was feeling a little aimless and sad (not to mention a bit taken advantage of), and was looking for any kind of distraction. It’s not too hyperbolic to say that hosts Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, and Henry Zebrowski brought me the most joy I had felt since leaving that position. Not only were they very funny, the research and presentation of stories about serial killers, aliens, supernatural incidents, and other tales of the macabre was phenomenal. So I was, of course, overjoyed when they announced that they were going to release a book. And when I was approved to get an eARC from NetGalley? I could have exploded from excitement.

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I actually screamed. (source)

Now I did have my reservations. After all, while I mostly enjoyed the other podcast based book that made a splash in the book community, I was a little nervous that this would be similar in that it just wouldn’t capture the essence of the source content. Let’s be real, “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered” is a fun book, but it’s not true crime, which is the draw of the podcast to begin with. But I was foolish to doubt Parks, Zebrowski, and Kissel. “The Last Book on the Left” is everything I wanted it to be and more.

As I vaguely mentioned before, one of the things that I love the most about the podcast is that Marcus Parks, the head researcher for the show, does a fantastic job of researching and presenting the topics that they cover in each episode. And he brings the same zeal and drive to the book. This book covers a number of notorious serial killers, from Ted Bundy to BTK to Son of Sam and many more. While I’m familiar with a lot of the cases in this book, I still found myself learning new information because of the deep dives that Parks does. I also appreciated that the book made the note that while all of their subjects have been covered on the podcast, they have tried to bring new information and content to the book. How easy would it have been to do an easy copy paste job from past scripts and witty rapport (looking at you, “Lore” podcast!)? And yet Parks, Kissel, and Zebrowski want to do their very  best for their fans and for the people reading the book, and refuse to cut corners, and because of that the reading is wholly original and fresh. Throw in some really fun and darkly funny graphics and imagery, and you have a fun and informational reading experience!

And if that wasn’t enough, “The Last Book on the Left” also achieves what I thought would be the unachievable: they manage to translate the podcast format to the page without being clunky or untrue to their natures. The premise of the podcast is that Parks will tell the stories, and Kissel and Zebrowski will make commentary and banter throughout the narrative. I figured that it was going to be straight information, which was completely okay in my book. But then “The Last Book on the Left” went and surprised me. Using graphics and color coded speech bubbles, they manage to put the witty and dark humored Kissel and Zebrowski commentary throughout the narrative, using their likenesses with varying facial expressions depending on the tone of the comment. It works, it’s creative, and it’s ingenious. I found myself laughing out loud probably as much as I do during each podcast episode, and was thrilled to see that they managed to translate their wicked charm to book form.

Now I do have to admit that I’m probably wholeheartedly biased when it comes to “The Last Book on the Left”. I was pretty much guaranteed to love this book given how much I love the podcast and it’s creators. So I’m going to try to level with everyone here for a moment. Do I think that this book is going to be for anyone and everyone? Probably not. If you aren’t into true crime it’s really not for you, and I am the first to admit and acknowledge that the comedy aspects of the podcast are not going to sit well with everyone. The book tones it back a lot, but it’s still not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. That said, as a fan of the show, I loved it. And I do think that the impeccable true crime content and research is God tier.

I loved, LOVED “The Last Book on the Left”. It was everything I hoped it would be, and it’s a true testament to the talent that these three hosts have.

Rating 10: “The Last Book on the Left” is a well researched and presented overview of a number of notorious serial killers, and manages to capture the banter and charm of the podcast and put it to the page. Well worth the wait. Hail yourselves, fellas!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Book on the Left” is included on the Goodreads list “Books of Podcasts”, and I think it would fit in on “Best True Crime”.

Find “The Last Book on the Left” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood”

9516We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub 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 “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

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: “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi

Publishing Info: Pantheon, June 2004

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Samantha Learns a Lesson” by Susan S. Adler

Book Description: Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran and of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life. Marjane’s child’s-eye view of dethroned emperors, state-sanctioned whippings, and heroes of the revolution allows us to learn as she does the history of this fascinating country and of her own extraordinary family. Intensely personal, profoundly political, and wholly original, Persepolis is at once a story of growing up and a reminder of the human cost of war and political repression. It shows how we carry on, with laughter and tears, in the face of absurdity. And, finally, it introduces us to an irresistible little girl with whom we cannot help but fall in love. 

Kate’s Thoughts

While it’s true that I read and reviewed “The Complete Persepolis” a couple years back, I really wanted to read it for book club. It was my turn for the American Girl theme, and I knew that I wanted to do “Samantha Learns a Lesson” (as Samantha has always been my favorite American Girl). So I decided that “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” would be the match up, as both are about girls from upper classes who have to learn hard social justice lessons about the lower classes in the society in which they are living.

My opinion of “Persepolis” hasn’t changed since I last addressed it here. It’s still one of my favorite graphic novels of all time, like top ten no question. But with the focus specifically on Satrapi’s childhood for this reading, mixed with the lens I had on social class, AND the current tensions the U.S. is having with Iran, this reading was all the more meaningful for me. Satrapi does a very good job of disseminating how Iran changed so fundamentally as a society in the aftermath of the fall of the Shah, and addresses the complexities of those changes, showing how it isn’t a black and white, right or wrong situation. She also points out her own privileges within Iran during the Cultural Revolution. While she was a girl and her family wasn’t as socially favored as some, they had enough wealth and means that not only could she carefully rebel against societal norms with little repercussions (though some of this was pure luck), she also wasn’t part of the social class that was being used as cannon fodder during the war with Iraq. Along with all that, she also had the means to be sent away for school in Austria when it was becoming clear that being a teenage girl was becoming more and more unsafe.

I’m so pleased that we read “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” for book club! It fostered a lot of good conversation, and I will take any excuse to revisit this stunning memoir.

Serena’s Thoughts

My only previous familiarity with this book was through reading Kate’s glowing review of the complete collection. But with that strong recommendation, I was excited to finally get the excuse (more like the push, but “excuse” sounds better) to finally read it myself. And, put simply, like always, Kate was spot-on in her stamp of approval for this title!

I will admit to having only the barest understanding of the events that happened during Iran’s Cultural Revolution. I knew the end result, of course, but had very little clarity on the progression of events. In that way, this book does a fantastic job at bringing reader’s down to the street level of a topic that is often discussed, at least here in the U.S., at very global levels. Her life also offers an interesting window, coming from an educated and modern family who have many privileges at their finger tips that can help mitigate the experience.But, with those privileges, we also see the increased strain of a change that is felt quite acutely, especially for a young girl growing into her teenage years. We see the burgeoning of the obligations towards social justice weighed against the practicalities of safety and one’s own welfare.

I also loved the illustration style of this book. The choice to use only black and white colors not only parallels the movement of a society towards a more black and white way of thinking about life, but leaves the readers to focus largely on the content before them. It is not “prettied up” in anyway that could distract from the fact that this is based upon a woman’s real life experience. That said, the style of drawing is also very approachable to young readers and nicely balances out the stark color palette.

I really enjoyed this book and am so glad Kate picked it for bookclub. Like the broken record I often am, I’m yet again thankful to be part of a group of readers who expose me to books that I would likely not get around to reading on my own.

Kate’s Rating 10: An all time favorite of mine that I will happily revisit over and over.

Serena’s Rating 10: A must read for fans of graphic novels and those looking for more insights into life growing up in Iran during the Cultural Revolution.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the choice to tell her personal story in graphic form? How do you think it would have been different had it been written in a traditional narrative structure?
  2. “Persepolis: A Story of a Childhoold” is set before, during and after the Cultural Revolution in Iran. How much did you know about this historical period before reading this book?
  3. Like Samantha, Marjane is a child who has to learn some hard truths about the society she’s living in as a child. Are there any obvious differences between how Marjane experienced this period vs other Iranian children from other backgrounds may have?
  4. In an interview Satrapi said that she wanted “Persepolis” to show that Iran wasn’t only the society and culture that is shown through western lenses (that of a fundamentalist culture). Do you think she succeeded? Why or why not?
  5. Captivity and freedom are themes that are prevalent throughout the narrative. What are some of the ways they are presented within the story?
  6. How does a persons personal history interact with the history of a society or a culture they live within? How do you think your own personal history ties with the history of your country?

Reader’s Advisory

“Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” can be found on the Goodreads lists “Best Memoir Graphic Novels”, and “Reading Recommendations for a Young Feminist”.

Find “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club book: “It’s Not The End of the World” by Judy Blume

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!