Kate’s Review: “Bury the Lede”

Book: “Bury the Lede” by Gaby Dunn & Claire Roe (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Boom! Studios, October 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Twenty-one-year-old Madison T. Jackson is already the star of the Emerson College student newspaper when she nabs a coveted night internship at Boston’s premiere newspaper, The Boston Lede. The job’s simple: do whatever the senior reporters tell you to do, from fetching coffee to getting a quote from a grieving parent. It’s grueling work, so when the murder of a prominent Boston businessman comes up on the police scanner, Madison races to the scene of the grisly crime. There, Madison meets the woman who will change her life forever: prominent socialite Dahlia Kennedy, who is covered in gore and being arrested for the murder of her family. The newspapers put everyone they can in front of her with no results until, with nothing to lose, Madison gets a chance – and unexpectedly barrels headfirst into danger she never anticipated.

Review: As I continue to try and up my graphic novel stats after a few months of a whole lot of novels, I found “Bury the Lede” by Gaby Dunn on a list about dark graphic novels with LGBTQIA+ themes and characters. Both wanting to get out of the fantasy realms of graphics, and always wanting to read more books by LGBTQIA+ authors about LGBTQIA+ characters, I found it at my library and placed it on hold. When it came I was a little shocked to see how short it was, but hey, a story about a young wannabe reporter getting close to a potential murderer in hopes of solving a baffling case? That could be covered in a trade paperback collection sized graphic, right? Right. Then it was too bad that “Bury the Lede” had far more plot points and aspirations than just that, because it’s a lot to cram into one thin book.

In terms of what did work for me, there were some really cool ideas in this book. I love the concept of a budding journalist wanting to prove herself getting in a bit over her head. I really liked the sapphic obsessive relationship that our journalist, Madison, starts up with accused murderess and socialite Dahlia. On paper it sounds very “Silence of the Lambs”, with a prisoner perhaps manipulating an investigator, but also leading them to a much bigger case nonetheless. I thoroughly enjoyed every scene that Madison and Dahlia had together, the weird sexual chemistry oozing and crackling when you aren’t exactly certain if this is something you’re supposed to be cool with. That works so, so well. I also enjoyed the ‘ripped from the headlines’ character of Raquel Stief, a woman in an education position that is being considered for a place in the President’s circle of advisors and administrators, and who is CLEARLY based on that demon Betsy DeVos. There may have been some living vicariously going on here as I read, given that one of the true monsters in this story is Stief, and Madison is hoping to take her down. And hell, I liked that there was a broader conspiracy afoot, because something like that is a really good idea that has a lot of potential to explore. And as mentioned earlier, this book does have numerous LGBTQIA+ characters and themes, and any time we get some diversity in graphic novels written by Own Voices authors, it’s going to be positive.

But oh, the stumbles within the good ideas and broad themes. While the idea of a sweeping political conspiracy theory with implications that could go all the way to Washington D.C. is very interesting, this isn’t a very long book, and it all feels like it goes VERY fast. Madison uncovers connection after connection at break neck speed, and it gave very little space to breathe by the time we get to the big reveal and climax of the book. And while the book pulls you in with the mystery of Dahlia, the murder of her husband, and her missing child, by the time we do get to the revelations involving that whole thing, it feels like a bit of a cobbled together afterthought. So does the connection that Dahlia has to Stief. By the end it feels more like Dunn wanted to have an “All the President’s Men” kind of story, but thought that the only way to get people to read such a thing in graphic novel form was to throw in a nice carrot on a stick in the form of murder. And by the end, neither aspect felt wholly explored. Hasty plot points aside, in terms of the characters, there really isn’t anyone to root for. I like that Madison is determined, but not only do we really only get to see this one side of her, she is also wholly, WHOLLY unethical in her journalistic ways. I’m sure that it was meant to establish her as a morally gray character whose drive to do ANYTHING for a story is damaging, but that’s not exactly a new theme to stories about journalists. And if anything, she left the morally gray area and went into straight up villain territory (mild spoiler alert: she roofies someone to get information out of them. Like, holy shit.), but it never seemed to be treated as such.

But, I did like the artwork and the character designs. Claire Roe uses some effective shadows and colors to establish mood, and it definitely felt neo-noir in her illustrations.

I had expectations for “Bury the Lede” that weren’t met. Though it had glimmers of really cool ideas, the execution didn’t get off the ground.

Rating 5: Definitely has a well conceived plot with some good ideas, but it just felt like it was executed a little too quickly with not enough focus. Throw in unlikable characters, and it’s just meh.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bury the Lede” is included on the Goodreads lists “Journalists, Photographers, Etc. in Comics”, and “Novels with Bisexual Protagonists”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Don’t Tell a Soul”

Book: “Don’t Tell a Soul” by Kirsten Miller

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2021

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

Book Description: People say the house is cursed. It preys on the weakest, and young women are its favorite victims. In Louth, they’re called the Dead Girls.

All Bram wanted was to disappear—from her old life, her family’s past, and from the scandal that continues to haunt her. The only place left to go is Louth, the tiny town on the Hudson River where her uncle, James, has been renovating an old mansion. But James is haunted by his own ghosts. Months earlier, his beloved wife died in a fire that people say was set by her daughter. The tragedy left James a shell of the man Bram knew—and destroyed half the house he’d so lovingly restored.

The manor is creepy, and so are the locals. The people of Louth don’t want outsiders like Bram in their town, and with each passing day she’s discovering that the rumors they spread are just as disturbing as the secrets they hide. Most frightening of all are the legends they tell about the Dead Girls. Girls whose lives were cut short in the very house Bram now calls home.

The terrifying reality is that the Dead Girls may have never left the manor. And if Bram looks too hard into the town’s haunted past, she might not either.

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

I decided to pick up “Don’t Tell a Soul” by Kirsten Miller after a Minnesota snow storm, one of the first of the season and no doubt a precursor to a long winter ahead. There is just something about the dead of winter that makes a haunted house story feel all the more ominous, probably the isolation factor (which is amped up by the pandemic we are facing right now), and while my review is just now coming out in the Spring, I will say that had I read it now that feeling would have been different. I hadn’t read anything by Miller before this book, so I had no idea what to expect. All I wanted was something creepy and satisfying to match the atmosphere, as well as a story that would keep me on my toes and tick all the boxes of a genre that I love. And I didn’t really get that from this book, unfortunately.

We will start with what I did like about this book. For one, there were some really creepy moments within the manor house, moments that felt like they could have fit right in in a classic haunted house story. From flashes of someone running across the property at night, to the sense of someone standing just around the doorway but right out of sight, the unsettling moments were crafted and described very well. I also liked how Miller takes the idea of the tragic woman in a Gothic haunted house story and tweaks with it a bit. There was a line I loved in particular, “Ghosts and girls go hand in hand. Why do you suppose that is?” It gave me chills, as so many ghost stories, especially in this subgenre, do have to do with women who were probably victims in one way or another. Instead of running with the outcome as interesting, Miller decides to look at the victimization at hand and show the injustice of that. Many of the women in this story are victims of misogyny and rape culture, and there is a lot of pushback against that, which I appreciated.

But the qualms I had with “Don’t Tell a Soul” skewed my ultimate enjoyment of the novel. For one, while we get a lot of hints about Bram’s tragic backstory, up until the reveals about her circumstances we get a lot of ‘other girls aren’t like me’ and ‘but if they knew who I REALLY was they wouldn’t think that’ kind of malarky that I find frustrating. “I’m Not Like Other Girls” is frustrating when it’s used to make a girl seem cooler, and it’s just as frustrating when it’s used to make a girl seem tragic. By the time we did find out what was going on with her, the build up didn’t match the way that it was just kind of stated and then not explored. It also felt like a lot of the people in her circles were just there to be awful and unsympathetic to bolster her tragic-ness, but it made them feel more two dimensionally villain-y than actual real world problematic people. On top of all that, while I DID like how Miller takes apart the idea of the ‘crazy girl in the haunted manor’ trope we’ve seen many a time before, it was done in a lot of heavy handed ways that felt more like telling as opposed to showing.

My biggest problem, however, was that while “Don’t Tell a Soul” wanted to make good points about misogyny and the dangers that women face, too often was the bad behavior of certain men written off as okay. There were many times where Bram was feeling intimidated by local men in the town, while characters who are supposed to be ‘good’ would tell her that she didn’t have anything to worry about when it came to them. My biggest issue of this was with the character Maisie. Maisie is a local girl who befriends Bram, and is there to be the character that makes you question the ‘crazy woman’ tropes, as she actively pushes back against it in theory, and also has to deal with a mother who has a reputation for being a crazy alcoholic (but is in actuality dealing with trauma). Maisie continuously brings up some really good points, but she herself is toxic in many ways. One of the biggest examples was how she was quick to defend the very clearly abusive and bad behavior of local men (spoilers here: at one point in hopes of ‘saving’ Bram from a situation, she literally gets two local men to kidnap her and tries to write it off as ‘oh their intentions were good you don’t have to worry about the men here’. WHAT THE FUCK). I was fine with the taking down of the privileged wealthy men who were abusing the town and its locals in various ways, but it felt like others who were behaving in other bad ways got more of a pass, and that didn’t sit right.

Overall, I found “Don’t Tell a Soul” mundane and frustrating. There were glimmers here and there, but it missed the mark for me.

Rating 5: Character development felt left behind in favor of messaging, but “Don’t Tell a Soul” brings up some interesting, though not terribly unique, points about misogyny.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Don’t Tell a Soul” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Find “Don’t Tell a Soul” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Mirrorland”

Book: “Mirrorland” by Carole Johnstone

Publishing Info: Scribner, April 2021

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

Book Description: With the startling twists of Gone Girl and the haunting emotional power of Room, Mirrorland is a thrilling work of psychological suspense about twin sisters, the man they both love, and the dark childhood they can’t leave behind.

Cat lives in Los Angeles, far away from 36 Westeryk Road, the imposing gothic house in Edinburgh where she and her estranged twin sister, El, grew up. As girls, they invented Mirrorland, a dark, imaginary place under the pantry stairs full of pirates, witches, and clowns. These days Cat rarely thinks about their childhood home, or the fact that El now lives there with her husband Ross.

But when El mysteriously disappears after going out on her sailboat, Cat is forced to return to 36 Westeryk Road, which has scarcely changed in twenty years. The grand old house is still full of shadowy corners, and at every turn Cat finds herself stumbling on long-held secrets and terrifying ghosts from the past. Because someone—El?—has left Cat clues in almost every room: a treasure hunt that leads right back to Mirrorland, where she knows the truth lies crouched and waiting…

A twisty, dark, and brilliantly crafted thriller about love and betrayal, redemption and revenge, Mirrorland is a propulsive, page-turning debut about the power of imagination and the price of freedom.

Review: Thank you to Scribner for sending me an ARC of this novel!

Right before I picked up “Mirrorland” by Carole Johnstone, I gave up on a thriller novel involving twin women, one of whom goes missing off a boat, and the other who finds herself getting closer to her twin’s husband after her sister’s supposed death. I actually ended up giving up on it, and it just wasn’t gelling with me. So imagine my double take when I picked up “Mirrorland”, and found a story about twin women, one of who goes missing off a boat, and the other getting closer to the MIA twin’s husband. Coincidence like whoa! Very “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano”! All that aside, I did find myself more interested in “Mirrorland”, and didn’t find it hard to finish. But that only gets one so far.

“Mirrorland” has a lot of promise and potential that made me interested to read it, but the execution was a little lackluster. In terms of the good, I loved seeing Cat try to hunt through her old home, finding out piece by piece what someone (could it be El?) has left for her to find. As she slowly peels back the clues and starts to piece together what could have happened to her sister, we get a really fun narrative device that feels like it could also be unreliable. I also liked slowly learning about what Mirrorland’s purpose was for Cat and El, and the slow reveal as to what their home life was like that necessitated a place like Mirrorland. There were genuine surprises to go with it, and some of the big reveals totally caught me off guard.

But that is part of the problem with this book. For a few of the twists and reveals, one in particular that I don’t want to go into too much detail about, we have to really, REALLY do some suspension of disbelief and plot gymnastics for it to work. By the time we got to that big reveal, it was so out of left field that we had to have a character actively sit down and explain it, in the ultimate telling versus showing strategy. It feels a lot like the end of “Psycho”, where we get a stilted monologue about what the heck was going on with Norman Bates kind of offsets the entire film. It doesn’t work very well there, and it doesn’t work very well here either. And really, it’s so farfetched and unbelievable, and the story before it isn’t strong enough to make up for it (unlike “Psycho”). I was kind of flabbergasted that we got all of the wrap up in a monologue, as that feels like a big no no to me.

And to add insult to injury, I really didn’t connect with any of the characters. The only one that we really got to know was Cat, and she didn’t feel like she was reinventing the wheel when it comes to unreliable and tortured protagonists in stories like this one. And everyone else fit into very familiar and well worn tropes we see in the genre without really exploring beyond. Overall, it just felt like more of the same. While I definitely don’t doubt that this book and the book I had given up on previously were complete coincidences when it came to plot details and ideas, the fact remains that there just didn’t feel like there was a lot of originality going on in this book, nor were the characters people I was invested in.

“Mirrorland” was a bit of a letdown. Books don’t always have to reinvent the wheel, but if you’re going to lean into familiar themes and ideas, I want a seamless execution.

Rating 5: Lots of twists and turns, but some real plot gymnastics to make some of them work and not terribly interesting characters makes “Mirrorland” a bit of a letdown.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mirrorland” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2021”.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep”

Book: “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” by Lauria Faria Stolarz

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, March 2021

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

Book Description: Bestselling author Laurie Faria Stolarz returns with a thrilling novel where an eighteen-year-old girl’s search for answers lands her in one of the most terrifying situations imaginable.

Four days…Trapped in a well, surrounded by dirt, scratching at the walls trying to find a way out. Four days of a thirst so strong, that when it finally rains, I drink as much as possible from the dripping walls, not even caring how much dirt comes with it.

Six months… Since my escape. Since no one believed I was taken to begin with – from my own bed, after a party, when no one else was home… Six months of trying to find answers and being told instead that I made the whole incident up.

One month… Since I logged on to the Jane Anonymous site for the first time and found a community of survivors who listen without judgment, provide advice, and console each other when needed. A month of chatting with a survivor whose story eerily mirrors my own: a girl who’s been receiving triggering clues, just like me, and who could help me find the answers I’m searching for.

Three days…Since she mysteriously disappears, and since I’m forced to ask the questions: will my chance to find out what happened to me vanish with her? And will I be next? 

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

Back at the beginning of 2020 I reviewed the book “Jane Anonymous”, in which a kidnapping survivor has to readjust to her life after returning home. I thought that it did a great job of combining legitimate thrills with a realistic and responsible take on trauma. So when I saw that Laurie Faria Stolarz had written a new book within that same universe, “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep”, I was pretty interested! I really like the idea of a series that gives stories to different characters who are on the Jane Anonymous blog and support chat board that was established at the end of the first book, so I was really eager to jump into this one to see what story was up next. But unfortunately, this book didn’t live up to the high hopes I had for it.

I do want to say right off the bat that I think that Stolarz does her due diligence to portray mental illness and the effects of trauma on a person in realistic and non-romanticized ways. Terra has two big, horrible things that she has to deal with: the traumatic death of her parents, who died in a house fire that she survived, and being kidnapped and held captive for days, only to escape and have people not believe her. These two things would of course weigh on anyone, and the crap that Terra has to deal with, be it the disassociation, the PTSD, the fugue states, etcetera is only exacerbated by people who either can’t handle her very difficult behavior, or are openly hostile towards her or wary of her. Sometimes I think that mental illness can be portrayed in ways that doesn’t do it justice in the sense that it can be VERY hard for the person suffering, and it can be constant and repetitive. That was all well done. The problem, however, is that when you have a character going through these kinds of things in realistic ways, it can make for a plot that feels like its spinning its wheels or repeating itself. “Jane Anonymous” was able to balance both the trauma themes and the plot progression, so it was disappointing that this one couldn’t quite manage it.

And in terms of the plot progression, we have two mysteries at hand. The first is the mystery that is always in the air, and that is what happened to Terra when she was abducted, or if she was abducted at all. As the story goes on Terra has pretty much stopped trying to convince people of what happened to her, as she is met with those who think she’s flat out lying, or those who think that her previous trauma of losing her parents has led her to a psychotic break of sorts. There are moments of her looking for proof, and scenes of her maybe seeing clues that she is still being watched, though she lets it fall by the wayside a bit because she just doesn’t really know how to approach it lest she be met with derision. The other, more active mystery is what happened to her online friend Peyton, someone she met on the Jane Anonymous support boards, who has been talking about her own trauma of being kidnapped, and is worried that her kidnapper is stalking her again as well. After Peyton disappears, Terra is motivated to try and find her, and therein perhaps find the man who took her, as their stories have similarities. The problem with this storyline is that the action doesn’t pick up until we are more than halfway done with the book. I kept waiting for it and waiting for it, as it’s in the description that this is the main plot line, but it was very late, in my opinion a little too late in the progression. And by the time we do get to the big climax, which I won’t spoil here, there were things that just felt wrapped up a little too quickly, or too conveniently, and then the plot lingered a little too long post climax. Ultimately, it felt muddled and haphazard.

Given that I still think that there is a lot of potential for more books within the “Jane Anonymous” world that looks at different survivors and their stories, I’m not writing off the series as a whole. But “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” was a bit of a let down that couldn’t quite find a good balance between important messages and captivating story.

Rating 5: Though I had hopes for this sequel to “Jane Anonymous”, “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” was a repetitive and muddled follow up. That said, the candid look at how difficult mental illness and trauma could be was well handled.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sweet Vicious”, and “YA Suspense/Thriller/Mystery”.

Find “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: “Jane Anonymous”

Kate’s Review: “Burn Our Bodies Down”

Book: “Burn Our Bodies Down” by Rory Power

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: From the author of the New York Times bestseller Wilder Girls comes a new twisty thriller about a girl whose past has always been a mystery—until she decides to return to her mother’s hometown . . . where history has a tendency to repeat itself.

Ever since Margot was born, it’s been just her and her mother. No answers to Margot’s questions about what came before. No history to hold on to. No relative to speak of. Just the two of them, stuck in their run-down apartment, struggling to get along.

But that’s not enough for Margot. She wants family. She wants a past. And she just found the key she needs to get it: A photograph, pointing her to a town called Phalene. Pointing her home. Only, when Margot gets there, it’s not what she bargained for.

Margot’s mother left for a reason. But was it to hide her past? Or was it to protect Margot from what’s still there? The only thing Margot knows for sure is there’s poison in their family tree, and their roots are dug so deeply into Phalene that now that she’s there, she might never escape.

Review: After I read “Wilder Girls” I was left a little cold. Which was odd, because Rory Power’s debut novel had all the elements of something I thought I’d love: a boarding school, a post-apocalyptic event, sapphic characters, a mystery, the list goes on. I was thinking that maybe it was just me, and given that I liked her writing style a lot (the atmosphere! The world building!), I wanted to give her another go. Enter “Burn Our Bodies Down”, a YA horror story with a gorgeous cover, a strange small town setting, and family secrets. Again, things that I love in a story, whatever the genre. I gave it a go, hoping that it would click. But, once again, I was left a bit cold.

I wil start with what I did like, however. Power really has a skill at creating atmosphere and setting, and once again I was sucked into the world building of Phalene, the small town our protagonist Margot runs to in hopes of connecting with her estranged grandmother. Phalene feels like the kind of rural town that I remember passing through in my childhood, with familiar characters and places, as well as familiar hardships and hurdles. I could practically see the cornfields, and the town area, as well as the vast farmscapes and openness. Phalene itself felt like its own character that Margot was getting to know. I also will be the first to say that, without giving too much away, the big mystery that Margot’s grandmother is trying to hide, and that has affected Margot’s mother so profoundly that it has damaged her relationship with her daughter, is pretty unique and an interesting concept. I had a feeling that I knew what it was (once it became clear that this was, indeed, a horror story with fantastical elements, but I will talk about that in a bit), but it was still an angle that felt fresh and not like many others that I’ve seen before. Power had some of that going for her story in “Wilder Girls” as well, there is no denying that she has some really cool ideas!

But there were too many things that didn’t work for me. My biggest gripe was that it took a long time for the actual horror elements to arrive within the plot. I honestly went into this with very little knowledge as to what the general tropes and themes were, and while I was reading I was wondering if Power had decided to forgo her past horror genre foray and go into more of a family secrets thriller. And I guess that this could kind of be considered that as well, but by the time the actual can’t be argued as anything else horror elements popped up it was about half way through the book. That seems a little long to me. I understand that we had to have some set up of Margot’s family dysfunction before we could really explore the other issues, given that the dysfunction and the issues tie in together very tightly. But the dragging of feet didn’t really build up suspense, it just felt like it took too long. Along with that, I didn’t feel like we got to really know Margot as the story progressed, at least not past a kind of superficial level. There was so much potential for us to peel back layers of her, and hints to who she was outside of a teen who has a fraught relationship with her mom, but none of that really gets explored. Which, in turn, made it harder for me to care about her and what the deal was with her and her weird family.

I gave Rory Power another shot, but I think that this may be the end of the road for me and her books. “Burn Our Bodies Down” shines bright in the ideas department, but the execution was lacking.

Rating 5: Lots of solid ideas, but none of them fully execute in time for the big reveal for me to have investment in them.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Burn Our Bodies Down” is included on the Goodreads lists “Corn Books”, and “2020 Horror to Scream For”.

Find “Burn Our Bodies Down” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Harrow Lake”

Book: “Harrow Lake” by Kat Ellis

Publishing Info: Dial Books, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: Ebook from the library!

Book Description: Things I know about Harrow Lake: 1.It’s where my father shot his most disturbing slasher film. 2.There’s something not right about this town.

Lola Nox is the daughter of a celebrated horror filmmaker–she thinks nothing can scare her.

But when her father is brutally attacked in their New York apartment, she’s quickly packed off to live with a grandmother she’s never met in Harrow Lake, the eerie town where her father’s most iconic horror movie was shot. The locals are weirdly obsessed with the film that put their town on the map–and there are strange disappearances, which the police seem determined to explain away.

And there’s someone–or something–stalking her every move.

The more Lola discovers about the town, the more terrifying it becomes. Because Lola’s got secrets of her own. And if she can’t find a way out of Harrow Lake, they might just be the death of her.

Review: Even though I generally have my finger on the pulse of upcoming horror fiction, it does happen that I miss titles here and there. Because of that, I like to see various lists of horror and thriller titles that are in the pipeline. “Harrow Lake” by Kat Ellis ended up being one of those titles, as I hadn’t heard of it before I saw it on a YA horror list. I was rather bummed that I missed it, as the elements of a slasher movie, a secretive small town, and an urban legend check a lot of boxes for my horror fiction jollies. Luckily the wait wasn’t too long for the eBook hold list, and I got “Harrow Lake” in a timely manner.

As mentioned, “Harrow Lake” has a lot of potential when it comes to hitting many a thing that I like in horror fiction. Our protagonist, Lola, is the daughter of a notorious slasher film director, so we get a fun and extensive look into a fictional filmography of splatter gore flicks that sound like a hoot. We also have the small town of Harrow Lake that has some strange inhabitants, a reputation because of the movie Lola’s Dad filmed there (where he met her mother, who disappeared from her life when she was little). The eeriness of the town was palpable and built slowly, which was a nice way to build unease as well. The biggest factor in the strangeness is the urban legend of Mister Jitters, a being that sounds like he has chattering teeth and who keeps haunting Lola at every turn as she finds herself stranded in Harrow Lake with her maternal grandmother after her father is attacked and hospitalized. I loved the lore of Mister Jitters, the kind of small town monster story that I never got to experience as a child given my upbringing in a bustling urban area, and I thought that Ellis really captured it well. Her writing style was also interesting, giving me a good feel for the town itself and the reasons why it was the way it was.

But as the book kept going, it became pretty clear that “Harrow Lake” wasn’t living up to the potential that was oozing from its description. Lola is an unreliable narrator in a lot of ways, but I didn’t really find myself connecting with her even as the story went on. It does start to make sense as to why she is the way that she is, but even that reveal and explanation didn’t quite make up for a cliched personality and uninteresting characterization. The ways that her background was slowly pulled out felt a little garbled in some ways, with the sudden appearance of an imaginary friend feeling abrupt while other ways that addressed her mental state not feeling well explored. I could see a few of the twists coming from a mile away, and there were a few plot points that built up mysteries that didn’t really pay off for me. And I don’t want to spoil anything for those who do want to go on and read it, but let’s just say that Mister Jitters didn’t live up to all that I had hoped for him. Ultimately the pay off wasn’t that scary, and I had gone in with high hopes of urban legend scares.

At the end of the day, I felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities in this book, and that was really too bad. It may be that this book will connect with other people who give it a try, but for me it was a bit of a miss. I could see myself trying again with Ellis as her writing style was intriguing, but this one didn’t work.

Rating 5: There was a lot of interesting potential here, but “Harrow Lake” never quite clicked with me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Harrow Lake” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Small Towns with Secrets“.

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

Serena’s Review: “Deadly Curious”

Book: “Deadly Curious” by Cindy Anstey

Publishing Info: Swoon Reads, June 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: 1834. Sophia Thompson wants nothing more than to be one of the famed Bow Street Runners, London’s most elite corps of detectives. Never mind that a woman has never before joined their ranks–and certainly never mind that her reclusive family has forbidden her from pursuing such an unladylike goal.

She gets the chance to prove her capabilities when an urgent letter arrives from her frantic cousin Daphne, begging Sophia to come look into the suspicious death of Daphne’s brother.

As Sophia begins to unravel the tangled threads of the case–with the help of a charming young policeman–she soon realizes that the murderer may be even closer to her family than she ever suspected.

Review: I’m fairly predictable in the types of books I’ll select when I have no previous knowledge of a series or author. If it has a pretty cover, is a historical fiction mystery novel, and features an intrepid female detective, there’s a fairly decent chance I’ll pick it up. This method has lead me to some of my favorite series, sure, but it’s also not a very surefire way of finding quality books. Alas, here is proof of the failures of this particular approach to book selection.

With no marriage prospects on the horizon, Sophia Thompson has set her mind on an alternative path, namely becoming a Bow Street Runner and investigator herself. Of course, she’ll need to solve some actual mysteries for this plan to move forward. Luckily (?) a mystery finds her in the murder of her cousin, a case she’s begged to solve by her frantic, beloved cousin Daphne. But she won’t be alone. A down and out current Bow Street Runner, Jeremy, has also been sent to the solve the case with the warning that if he can’t manage it, he need not return. Between these three, will they be able to solve this deadly curious case?

I really struggled with this book. Honestly, it was half a page away from being a DNF for me. Not because it was overtly offensive in any way, but because it was just so…nothing. It had all the pieces of being a YA historical mystery, but they were the most flat, cardboard versions of these tropes that I’ve come across in a long while. I’m really struggling to come up with many pros to really point to before diving into my complaints. I guess the cover is still pretty. But now I just view that as yet another negative as it draws in unsuspecting readers who are looking for a quality story and are likely going to be disappointed by the shallow work on display.

The characters were all supremely disappointing. We immediately learn that Sophia’s supposed interest in being a detective has come about after reading one, that’s right, one!, book on the topic. Based on this, she feels her self perfectly capable of not only solving this murder but joining an entire organization dedicated to this career. The naivete is astounding to the point of being comical. It would be more comical, in fact, if it wasn’t quite so sad that the story expects us to take this, and Sophia herself, seriously. It doesn’t help matter that the mystery itself is incredibly simplistic. When the reader can figure out the murder long before the supposed detective, it’s never a good sign. Even less for for a wanna-be as sad as Sophia. In the end, it felt like the answer came through sheer luck than any deductive abilities on her part, providing the last nail in the coffin of my interest in her story.

Jeremy isn’t any better. Did he even have a character arc or personality to speak of? Not that I remember. Mostly his good looks and fine eyes were elaborated upon by Sophia, solidifying his role as “generic love interest” right from the start. Here, too, the book had very little new to offer and the characters trotted obediently through the standard set pieces expected of a romance such as this.

The writing was also weak in my opinion. There were anachronisms all over the place (something that I can look past if the characters and story are strong). And there were numerous jumps in time, scene, and logic that left me confused. Simple elements like the timeline of the murder itself were often garbled, and I felt like I had missed something. The style of writing was also fairly generic, and I struggled to feel truly invested in anything that was going on. It felt utilitarian and bland.

This book wasn’t for me. It felt like the author simply cobbled together basic plots and characters from other popular works in the genre and spun out a book as quickly as possible. There was such a lack of passion to the story that it’s hard to feel like anyone really cared overly much about this book. There are numerous better examples of this type of story out there, so I suggest reading those instead of spending any time on this.

Rating 5: Mediocre to the extreme.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Deadly Curious” is on these Goodreads lists: Georgian Era in YA & Middle Grade Fiction and Profiles in Silhouette.

Find “Deadly Curious” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Court of Miracles”

Book: “The Court of Miracles” by Kester Grant

Publishing Info: Knopf Children’s, June 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: In the violent urban jungle of an alternate 1828 Paris, the French Revolution has failed and the city is divided between merciless royalty and nine underworld criminal guilds, known as the Court of Miracles. Eponine (Nina) Thénardier is a talented cat burglar and member of the Thieves Guild. Nina’s life is midnight robberies, avoiding her father’s fists, and watching over her naïve adopted sister, Cosette (Ettie).

When Ettie attracts the eye of the Tiger–the ruthless lord of the Guild of Flesh–Nina is caught in a desperate race to keep the younger girl safe. Her vow takes her from the city’s dark underbelly to the glittering court of Louis XVII. And it also forces Nina to make a terrible choice–protect Ettie and set off a brutal war between the guilds, or forever lose her sister to the Tiger.

Review: Like every YA fantasy that has came out in the last couple of years or so, this book was marketed for fans of “Six of Crows.” Now, typically, that’s almost a warning off sign for me these days, as it seems this strategy almost always leads to disappointment when the book either turns out to be nothing like that one or, perhaps worse, way too similar. But this was also listed as an alternative history of the French Revolution and a retelling of “Les Miserables,” so I thought it was worth checking out.

After the failure of the French Revolution, the divide between the nobility and commoners has only gotten worse. In in the wake of much disorder, new points of power have risen in the form of nine crim guilds. Nina, a talented thief, works for the Thieves Guild, scraping together a life for herself and her adopted sister. But no one can stay hidden forever, even a master thief, and soon enough Nina finds herself thrust out of the comforts of her criminal underworld life and instead in a glittering and even more dangerous royal court.

Just to get it out of the way right away, I didn’t enjoy this book. I’m sure there are readers who will, but for me, it failed to deliver on any of the promises it set out for itself: It had no connection to “Six of Crows” that I could identify (other than ridiculously broad strokes in that they both deal with criminal underworlds); As a retelling of “Les Mirables” it pick and chose to such an extent that I’m not sure I would have made the connection between the two stories on my own; And as an alternative history, I found it to be wildly anachronistic and shallow in its world-building. So, yeah.

These were all issues on their own, of course, but the book isn’t helped by weak characterization and chopping storytelling. Many of the characters who were pulled from “Les Miserables” can be reduced to one trait descriptions that seem to serve as the entire foundation for their character. We’re given very little more than “This person is a revolutionary!” “This person is a thief!” Readers are either supposed to be satisfied with these bare minimums or superimpose more characterization onto these individuals from their comparative characters in the original story.

And the story itself is very choppy and includes several large time jumps. And during those time jumps, you guessed it, all the necessary character development has already occurred! Readers are just informed of the improvements in main characters without seeing any progression or natural development for themselves. Motivations are laid down in a clinical, info-dumping manner, and the story continues on.

Lastly, I really hated the “romance” in this book. I add the quotes because tehre really is no actual romance laid out. But there are so many possibilities of it that it began to feel ridiculous. I counted at least three love interests that were introduced over the course of this book. And while Nina didn’t devote any crazy amount of time towards any of them, it was still pretty annoying to be given the impression that everyone/anyone who came into contact with her was immediately attracted to her and has the potential of becoming a more serious love interest in the future. I’m so tired of this trope, and while it does seem to be slowing down in general, I’m always still disappointed when I see it pop up again.

I’m unclear who to really recommend this book to. It’s not like it was absolutely abysmal, but I also don’t think that it’s the kind of book that would appeal to the people it most seems to be trying to attract. Super fans of “Les Miserables” for sure will be disappointed. And fans of “Six of Crows” at this point know to be wary of most books that promote themselves as readalikes. I guess if you’re at all intrigued by the alternative history angle and have a fairly flexible approach to what history means, this may be worth checking out?

Rating 5: Not for me. It fails to live up to its own promotional tactics and fell into the trap of introducing too many love interests all at once.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Court of Miracles” is on these Goodreads lists: 2020 YA Historical Fiction and Glittering Glamorous Fantasies.

Find “The Court of Miracles” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Storm and Fury”

40291564Book: “Storm and Fury” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Publishing Info: Inkyard Press, June 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Trinity Marrow may be going blind, but she can see and communicate with ghosts and spirits. Her unique gift is part of a secret so dangerous that she’s been in hiding for years in an isolated compound fiercely guarded by Wardens—gargoyle shape-shifters who protect humankind from demons. If the demons discover the truth about Trinity, they’ll devour her, flesh and bone, to enhance their own powers.

When Wardens from another clan arrive with disturbing reports that something out there is killing both demons and Wardens, Trinity’s safe world implodes. Not the least because one of the outsiders is the most annoying and fascinating person she’s ever met. Zayne has secrets of his own that will upend her world yet again—but working together becomes imperative once demons breach the compound and Trinity’s secret comes to light. To save her family and maybe the world, she’ll have to put her trust in Zayne. But all bets are off as a supernatural war is unleashed…

Review: This book had been hanging out on my audiobook holds list long enough that I had forgotten completely why I put it on there! Which can be a good and bad thing. For the good, it was a complete surprise, as I typically don’t read this type of book and probably wouldn’t have prioritized it if I had known that it was a modern YA fantasy. For the bad, I didn’t realize that this was a companion series to another, already finished series. Not that it had a huge effect on this read, but it was a factor. But, overall, I wasn’t super impressed with this book.

Trinity has been raised by the Wardens, taught to fight demons, and hidden from humans. But she is not any of them. Though going blind, Trinity’s unique abilities, aided by her excellent combat skills, have made her a force to be reckoned with. Her future, however, is anything but clear. It is made all the more murky when a group of stranger arrive with ill-boding news. And soon that news strikes closer than home than any of them would like. Now Trinity, with the help of the oddly appealing but supremely frustrating Zayne, must venture outside her home and put her true powers to the test.

So, as I said, this is the beginning to a companion series that had already completed. I will give props to the writer, however, for making this one feel pretty approachable all on its own. I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of the world and various players in it fairly early on. Once the main character and her love interest from the previous story showed up, I did feel like some background on their story and, particularly, their histories with Zayne would have been helpful. But even there, as they are all new to Trinity, it wasn’t hard to be introduced to them the first time through her eyes. If anything, I was more fully in her boat than I would have been otherwise, also not knowing what to believe between the various histories being told.

I also liked Trinity’s voice well enough at the beginning. She was funny and only ridiculous at times. Unfortunately, these traits swapped as the story went on, and she quickly became less funny and more ridiculous. Surprising no one, this change corresponded with the increased page time devoted to the romance. Again, not knowing the history between other characters and Zayne, it was all too easy to have to be mired in the nonsense of insecurity and drama alongside our main character.

The romance itself was everything I hated. First off, we have instalove or instattraction. Tons of mentions of how Trinity felt an inexplicable draw and interest in him. And he, too, with very little true development, is of course interested in her as well. Then you add in the forced drama in the middle. And then you get to the end and find out it was all just kind of pointless? I don’t want to spoil it or anything…but it’s another of my least favorite tropes. So the book strikes out three for three in the romance department.

The story is also incredibly long, something like 500 pages? Much of this is devoted to witty repartee and smaller character moments. Some have value, others not so much. And the few action scenes we get are brief and over before you really realize what’s going on. Overall, the story probably could have lost about 200 pages worth of filler and been a tighter, more compelling story for it.

I also really, really disliked the “reveal” at the end of the book. It wasn’t so much that I could see it coming, as that it just didn’t make that much sense. We get a bland, villain speech as an explanation, but no groundwork or character development had been laid down beforehand to make any of it feel earned or believable.

Yeah, so not much about this book worked for me. I was mildly intrigued by the characters who were introduced from the other book, but I also don’t trust this author anymore as far as developing an interesting, trope-free romance. So, I think I’ll probably skip those and not continue this either. If you’re a fan of her other series, this may be worth checking out. But if you’re new to this author, I can’t recommend this. If it sounds like your thing, probably just read the other series first and go from there.

Rating 5: A cringe-worthy romance really killed the mood on this one.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Storm and Fury” is on a bunch of fairly random Goodreads lists, but this one made me laugh and given my rating…“I’ve Thought About Reading… But I Probably Won’t.”

Find“Storm and Fury” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Into the Crooked Place”

INTO_THE_CROOKED_PLACE6Book: “Into the Crooked Place” by Alexandra Christo

Publishing Info: Feiwel and Friends, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The streets of Creije are for the deadly and the dreamers, and four crooks in particular know just how much magic they need up their sleeve to survive.

Tavia, a busker ready to pack up her dark-magic wares and turn her back on Creije for good. She’ll do anything to put her crimes behind her.

Wesley, the closest thing Creije has to a gangster. After growing up on streets hungry enough to swallow the weak whole, he won’t stop until he has brought the entire realm to kneel before him.

Karam, a warrior who spends her days watching over the city’s worst criminals and her nights in the fighting rings, making a deadly name for herself.

And Saxony, a resistance fighter hiding from the very people who destroyed her family, and willing to do whatever it takes to get her revenge.

Everything in their lives is going to plan, until Tavia makes a crucial mistake: she delivers a vial of dark magic—a weapon she didn’t know she had—to someone she cares about, sparking the greatest conflict in decades. Now these four magical outsiders must come together to save their home and the world, before it’s too late. But with enemies at all sides, they can trust nobody. Least of all each other.

Review: I never got around to reading Christo’s “To Kill a Kingdom,” but I heard a lot of good things about it. So when I saw she had another book coming out this fall, I was eager to jump in and see what the fuss was about. I’ll admit, I was a bit wary when reading the book description, because I think these ensemble/gang/YA fantasy stories ala “Six of Crows” have become the number one genre to regularly burn me recently. But I thought I’d still give it a go based on the recommendations for the author herself. Unfortunately, my wariness was deserved, and this book wasn’t the hit I was hoping for.

Creije is both a wondrous and dangerous place. But whether if is dangerous or wondrous depends largely on one’s own abilities. And four different individuals know that with the right combination of magic, wits, and guts, the streets are where you make a life for yourself. Each with their own role to play and their own proficiency, a simple misunderstanding will quickly draw them together in an adventure where no one can be trusted.

Confession: I read this book back in the fall closer to when it was actually published. But I had also just reviewed (rather negatively) several other books that were very similar to this (ensemble, YA fantasy novels that centered around gangs/heists) and was, frankly, too tired out to want to right up yet another review. But as I did receive this book from a publisher, I thought better late than never. Alas, all of that leads to the obvious point: this book was not my jam and was way too familiar to a million other books that I’ve read just like it.

Look, I loved “Six of Crows.” But in retrospect I’m starting to hold a serious grudge against the deluge of similar YA titles that have now flooded the market. I swear, there was a point where I read about five of these in a row and was beginning to confuse them all (there’s at least two others that I’ve read and *sigh* will get around to reviewing at some point). I mean, the genre has always had trends that come and go, but for some reason this one seems worse than others. I think its because, other than “Six of Crows,” I’ve yet to come across a version of this trope/subgenre that I’ve actually liked.

I hate love triangles (a previous trope found all too often), but I can name at least two books I’ve read in the last year that had this trope and were still good! Because the authors still managed to make it their own and add new and interesting twists to the concept. But for some reason, with these ensemble, YA gang stories…they’re all almost literally exact copies of each other. To the point that some of the staple characters could be interchanged between books with a simple name change and not much would alter. Their personalities are the same. Their relationships are the same. The general mood/banter in the group as a whole is the same. It’s just…exhausting. I don’t know if there’s just not enough to plum with this this particular subgenre or whether “Six of Crows” just set too high of a bar. But something has gone wrong here, and it needs to stop.

And look, I’ve written two entire paragraphs without even talking about this book itself. And that’s because it’s just the same as all of the others. The characters feel like bland re-imaginings of characters we’ve seen before. The dialogue was tired and familiar. The relationships were…ok, I liked that they added the relationship between the two women, but the other was super familiar and predictable. The plot did pick up about half way through the book, but it never felt like it was really coming into anything of its own. Instead, it feels like the author just cobbled together a bunch of things that have been popular in other stories and whipped this one out there as fast as she could. There’s really not much to say in reviewing this book that I haven’t said before about similar books in the past that have tried and failed at this plot.

Eventually, I guess, I’ll have to get around to reviewing the other two books like this I’ve read. One I won’t be continuing and the other I already have the sequel to (though this more a case of “not as bad as the others” than anything else). But I have to space them out so my poor readers don’t have to just re-read the same review from me over and over again. I’m sorry! I just seem to keep reading the same book over and over again, and this is the result!

Rating 5: Adds nothing to a tired and needs to be put to bed subgenre of YA fantasy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Into the Crooked Place” isn’t on any relevant lists (other than ones having to do with the year of its publication), which I think is telling. But it probably should be on “Villain Protagonists.”

Find “Into the Crooked Place” at your library using WorldCat!