Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “The Goblins of Bellwater”

33973968Book: “The Goblins of Bellwater” by Molly Ringle

Publishing Info: Central Avenue Publishing, October 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: e-galley from NetGalley

Book Description: Most people have no idea goblins live in the woods around the small town of Bellwater, Washington. But some are about to find out.

Skye, a young barista and artist, falls victim to a goblin curse in the forest one winter night, rendering her depressed and silenced, unable to speak of what happened. Her older sister, Livy, is at wit’s end trying to understand what’s wrong with her. Local mechanic Kit would know, but he doesn’t talk of such things: he’s the human liaison for the goblin tribe, a job he keeps secret and never wanted, thrust on him by an ancient family contract.

Unaware of what’s happened to Skye, Kit starts dating Livy, trying to keep it casual to protect her from the attention of the goblins. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Kit, Skye draws his cousin Grady into the spell through an enchanted kiss in the woods, dooming Grady and Skye both to become goblins and disappear from humankind forever.

It’s a midwinter night’s enchantment as Livy, the only one untainted by a spell, sets out to save them on a dangerous magical path of her own.

Review: First off, thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book! I’ve had my eye on it for a while, with its intriguing description mixing goblin trickery, a romantic plot line, and set in my own home region of the Pacific Northwest. It was a quick read and I buzzed through it in one day, however, I did have a mixed reaction to the story as a whole.

The description sums up the plot pretty well, so I won’t re-hash much there. And the portions of the story that stuck to this plot were strong. The goblins themselves were probably the most intriguing part of the story. It was clear that the author had a clear vision and voice for these otherworldly beings, and their magic and mischief jumped off the page with every scene they stole. I loved the mix of the dark, wet forests of the Puget Sound area that are the perfect setting to hide a mysterious and dangerous fae realm. The goblins were tricky, smart, and best of all, viciously witty. We also got much more actual characterization for a few of the goblins than I had been expecting, backstories and all, that added greater depth of meaning to the choices they made and their interactions with humanity, in particular, Kit and his family.

As I said, setting the story in the Puget Sound worked well for this plot line. All too often fae stories always pop up in the typical places like Ireland and Great Britain. But at the same time, the tropes of the area seemed to jump out at me in a kind of grating way. Of course Skye is a barista who loves art and the woods. Of course Livy works for the Forest Services and is first introduced while kayaking around the sound. Of course Kit is a chainsaw sculpture artist in his spare time. It’s just a bit too on the nose.

Reading the description, I remember it mentioning that this was a contemporary romance, so perhaps it’s on me that I focused more on the fantasy elements and assumed the romance was a supporting piece to this story. Especially for the first half of this story, the book is almost purely a romance novel, and not the kind that I enjoy.

Look. I’ve read my share of romance and I’ve read my share of YA romance. This book is in the unfortunate position of existing somewhere between the two. Our main characters are all adults, early to mid twenties (though here’s another problem: Kit and Livy are constantly referring to themselves as “long-time bachelors.” Um. Guys. You’re barely at the mid-point of your twenties! It seems like such an easy fix to write them in their 30s, a choice that I think would have fit their more mature characterization much more naturally). But for some strange reason, the author chose to write about everything before and after the sex scenes themselves. Which would be fine if she was setting out to right a clean novel.  But the before and after descriptions are of the very unclean, erotic variety. Way too many descriptions about condom management, and some pretty smutty imaginings on all characters’ sides. So then to fade to black at the critical moment…just read strange.

Not to mention that there was a noticeable shift in writing style during these romantic subplots. During the fantasy story lines, the authors writing is strong and assured. But the romantic plot lines seemed to stumble around, filled with disjointed sexual language, an unfortunate bout of magically-induced instalove, and just a whole heap of awkwardness where there shouldn’t be any (phrases like “soak up her hotness” and “congenial sex” were used a few times too many for my taste.) It all read as very strange. Kit and Livy’s relationship was definitely the stronger of the two, but even it progressed in a way that didn’t seem to fit comfortably alongside the other subplots. It’s hard to put my finger on just what felt off about all of this, but something did. I will give credit for the author’s choice to make her two women characters older than their love interests, something you don’t often see in romance novels.

Towards the last half to last third of the story, the fantasy elements began to take over the story again, and I felt like the book gained back a bit of its footing, ending on a strong note. All of this to say, I have very mixed feelings about this book. Part of it is a failure of expectations on my end, and a general preference for A.) fantasy stories and B.) romance novels that are going to at least commit to being a romance novel, something this one always seemed to shy away from. But the story also felt awkward at times and uncomfortable in its own skin, some dialogue didn’t land as solidly as one would hope, and all four characters weren’t equally strong, with Kit and Livy washing out Skye and Grady.

The publisher is hosting a massive giveaway for this book, however, so you have the chance to judge for yourself! If you enjoy clean (for the most part??) romance novels with more of a hint of fantasy (rather than fantasy with a hint of romance), you might find yourself enjoying this book more than I did. Never hurts to give it a go! See below for full descriptions of the prizes available. Open to U.S. entrants only and running late into October!

Enter the Giveaway!

 

Rating 5: Right down the middle. I didn’t particularly love it, but I didn’t hate it either.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Goblins of Bellwater” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Goblin Books” and “Books about Faery.”

Find “The Goblins of Bellwater” at your library using WorldCat

Prize Descriptions

Grand prize package:

• Signed paperback copy of The Goblins of Bellwater
• $10 Starbucks gift card
• “Flowerwatch” necklace/pocket watch
• Artistic guided journal/sketchbook
• Copy of Brian Froud’s Goblins!


Air prize package:

• Signed paperback copy of The Goblins of Bellwater
• Air-element necklace
• 1 oz of Goblin Market tea from Dryad Tea
Earth prize package:

 

• Signed paperback copy of The Goblins of Bellwater
• Earth-element necklace
• 1 oz of Goblin Market tea from Dryad Tea


Fire prize package:

 

• Signed paperback copy of The Goblins of Bellwater
• Fire-element necklace
• 1 oz of Goblin Market tea from Dryad Tea


Water prize package:

 

• Signed paperback copy of The Goblins of Bellwater
• Water-element necklace
• 1 oz of Goblin Market tea from Dryad Tea

 

Kate’s Review: “The Devil Crept In”

29430798Book: “The Devil Crept In” by Ania Ahlborn

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, March 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Young Jude Brighton has been missing for three days, and while the search for him is in full swing in the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon, the locals are starting to lose hope. They’re well aware that the first forty-eight hours are critical and after that, the odds usually point to a worst-case scenario. And despite Stevie Clark’s youth, he knows that, too; he’s seen the cop shows. He knows what each ticking moment may mean for Jude, his cousin and best friend.

That, and there was that boy, Max Larsen…the one from years ago, found dead after also disappearing under mysterious circumstances. And then there were the animals: pets gone missing out of yards. For years, the residents of Deer Valley have murmured about these unsolved crimes…and that a killer may still be lurking around their quiet town. Now, fear is reborn—and for Stevie, who is determined to find out what really happened to Jude, the awful truth may be too horrifying to imagine.

Review: Summer is here and my summer childhood memories have a lot of ‘wandering through the woods’ in them. My childhood home was near a wooded area along the Mississippi River, and my sister and I would wander down to a secret waterfall and to the banks of the river. So there is something a bit familiar about a story that involves children spending their time exploring in the woods. I’m thankful that nothing bad ever happened to us while on our adventures, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy reading about bad things happening to other people in the woods! So I was very interested when I heard about “The Devil Crept In” by Ania Ahlborn. Kids disappearing in a forest that holds many secrets? Oh hell yeah, I’ll read that, I’ll read the HELL out of that!

But I think that the ultimate problem I had with this book was that it kind of had two stories going on, and though they sort of connected, there were too many questions left behind for both of them. To really review this, I’m going to go into spoilers for this book, so that’s a warning to you all who may want to read it. And for posterity…

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(source)

Our first story is the one that is put in the description of the book. You have Stevie, an awkward and lonely ten year old in a fraught home life. His older brother Duncan is a bully, his Mom doesn’t really understand him, and his stepfather Terry is abusive and cruel. His only friend is his cousin Jude, who has problems and behavioral issues of his own, as he’s carried quite a bit of rage in him since his father died. When Jude disappears, Stevie is obsessed with finding him, even if he’s heard stories and rumors about the woods and those who have disappeared before. Specifically a young boy named Max, who disappeared and whose body was found weeks later. While those around him want to believe that Jude just ran away, Stevie thinks that the weird shadow he’s seen in the woods, especially around an old abandoned house, is the real answer to Jude’s disappearance.

The second story involves that house. A woman named Rosie lives there. Years before she was married to a doctor, and she desperately wanted children, but couldn’t carry a pregnancy to term. After a traumatic miscarriage, she drove down to Big Sur in a tizzy, and met a strange biker hippie named Ras. He asked her what she would do to have a baby. And she said “Anything.”

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Hasn’t anyone ever read “Faust”?!?! (source)

After she goes home, shortly thereafter her husband dies in a car accident. Shortly thereafter, she discovers she’s pregnant. For whatever reason that I didn’t think was properly fleshed out or explored beyond “I already am anxious around people and how mortifying to be a pregnant widow!”, she stays isolated in her cabin the woods and basically gives birth to a monster, who likes to eat flesh and blood. She names him Otto, and is perfectly fine with the fact he grows up eating cats, dogs, stray animals, and then….. Max Larsen.

So you see where this is all going. Jude disappears because he falls into the thrall of Rosie and Otto. But he isn’t killed by Otto, and when he gets home, he keeps hearing the siren’s call to go back and be with them. So there is a connection between story one and story two. And I loved that I could see the woods and the atmosphere, as well as the creepy shadows out in the trees or on the porch or through the window. That is the kind of creep that I live for. But boy oh boy, do I have so many questions that are never explained or answered. Sometimes this is okay. But in this case, t’s done in a way that comes off as less ambiguous and more forgotten about. My biggest issue is that Ras storyline. Ras plays such an important role in this book for obvious reasons, but he we don’t get any answers about him. What is he? What are his motivations? Is he the Devil? Is he a servant of the Devil? How does he keep track and tabs on Otto and Rosie (because it is implied near the end that he does), is it because he’s magic? I don’t necessarily need all the answers about this guy, but I would like a little more to him as opposed to just being a super convenient plot device! There is also some ambiguity at the end, which I WILL keep under wraps because it’s relevant to the endgame, that didn’t quite sit well with me. I had a hard time figuring out if it was the case of an unreliable narrator, or a magical system that was at play, or people unable to believe or accept the things they see. And also, WHY is it that Jude seems to be able to be possessed by Otto all of a sudden? So now Otto can astral project? It was a lot of mythos that didn’t have much rhyme or reason, and only worked because it needed to work for the story to progress.

Also, I had a hard time with the characters and their personalities. I understand that our protagonist and his family are flawed and have all had hard lives, but for a horror story to be very effective you need to care about the characters to some extent. If you don’t, you won’t be afraid for them. I was afraid for Stevie, because he was pretty sympathetic, but everyone else was pretty cardboard cut out antagonistic (always fun to see the evil stepdad knocking kids around, or the mean older brother hurling anti-Semitic comments here and there) or simpering (Stevie’s Mom and Aunt Mandy are understandably passive, but it was hard to deal with when their passivity leads to their kids being hurt). I basically was just waiting for them all to have horrible things happen to them so I could move onto the next moment, and then onto the next story. Which isn’t how I want to feel when getting to the end of a horror novel.

“The Devil Crept In” had promise, but it didn’t live up to my expectations. I’m not looking at the woods I can see through my kitchen window and feeling afraid, so you know it didn’t bring the scares. I’ll stick to “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock” if I want lost child and scary nature fiction.

Rating 5: Definitely had some creepy moments and imagery, but there were too many threads that were left untied. Plus I couldn’t find much to like about the characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Devil Crept In” is new, and isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But I think that it would fit in on “Books To Avoid While Pregnant”, and “The Devil Made Me Do It”.

Find “The Devil Crept In” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Black Canary (Vol.2): New Killer Star”

29633017Book: “Black Canary (Vol.2): New Killer Star” by Brendan Fletcher, Annie Wu (Ill.) and Sandy Jarrell (Ill.).

Publishing Info: DC Comics, November 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The Black Canary world tour begins here! But instead of playing sold out areas, the band is scouring the globe in search of their missing lead singer, Black Canary herself.

Following the rockin’ conclusion of Black Canary, Volume 1: Kicking & Screaming, Dinah Lance has disappeared and now she finds herself in the clutches of a mysterious white ninja who might have more in common with the Canary than anyone expected. In this continent-spanning adventure, secrets from Dinah’s past are revealed, questions about the future of the Black Canary band are answered and faces are melted with epic rock ‘n’ roll and action brought to you by a comics supergroup including writer Brenden Fletcher (Batgirl) and artists Annie Wu (Hawkeye) and Sandy Jarrell (Meteor Men).

Review: As I’m sure you all remember, I am a big Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary, fan. There’s something about her carefree and badass attitude that I really enjoy, and I was excited to find that she had her own “New 52” arc in the DC Comics world. While I love her in the supergroup Birds of Prey, it was nice seeing her get some time to shine all for herself in “Kicking and Screaming”, the first in the “Black Canary New 52” series. We also got to see a new group of awesome kick butt women in the form of her band: Paloma, Lord Byron, Ditto, and Bo Maeve. So when I finally grabbed “New Killer Star”, I was thinking that I would get more adventures of this group of awesome ladies.

But….. Unfortunately, that was not to be.

We pick up with our poor Dinah Lance being held captive in a strange prison-like setting. Her bandmates don’t know where she is, and the fate of the band hangs in the balance. It was a little hard seeing the group separated, as I feel like they only make each other stronger. I was also a bit frustrated that we kind of found ourselves in a situation that I wasn’t totally on board with, as Dinah being held in a strange prison by strange demon cultists perhaps because of who her mother was seems so old hat to me. I appreciated seeing a bit of the mother/daughter drama and baggage regarding Dinah, but it kind of felt like it came out of nowhere, as I don’t THINK that there was all that much in “Kicking and Screaming” (I could be wrong, I just don’t remember any)? By the time Dinah and her bandmates were reunited for a final showdown with the demon cult, we get taken into a completely DIFFERENT direction with a speculative arc that takes Black Canary into a potential future-scape of her life. And when the story does eventually get wrapped up, we still have a couple of side stories that have nothing to do with the original story arc, some of which aren’t even “Black Canary” titles. It felt like a bit of a mess, to be honest, which was such a disappointment because I so enjoyed “Kicking and Screaming”. I’ve looked around and it looks like one of the problems is that the DC “Rebirth” event happened, in which the titles in DC were rebooted yet again. So of course this was going to interrupt this fairly new series. The wrap up came fast and it was hard to swallow.

But there were things that I did like in “New Killer Star”. We got a fun side story in the “Gotham Academy” storyline involving the band’s tour manager Heathcliff, who was a former student at that boarding school. So we did get to see the band in action in that story, as well as my favorites from “Gotham Academy” like Maps and Olive. It turns out that he and Pomeline may have had a thing!!! I’m super down for all that, so that was a fun little crossover story. There is a stand alone story with just the Band that doesn’t involve aliens or demon cults, which gave me the girl power camaraderie that I felt the actual arc didn’t have. We also got a nice little insight into the new “Birds of Prey” arc, which brings Batgirl and Black Canary together again, as well as bringing back Huntress to round out the group. I highly enjoy “Birds of Prey”, and while it was a bit disappointing to see that yes, indeed, Oracle is a thing of the distant past, it was also good to see her recognized not just as something negative. But my praise for these things ultimately goes to show that the actual final arc for Dinah in her main comic series was a bit too weak to stand on it’s own two feet.

So while the stand alone stories were good fun and everything I was looking for, the actual finale to the “Black Canary New 52” arc fell kind of flat. And it worries me that some of the “New 52” series I’ve been following will end just as abruptly. All that said, I will look back fondly on “Black Canary” and her band as a whole, because when it was strong it was super fun. It will be interesting to see where “Rebirth” takes all of these characters. But for now I bid adieu to my girl Dinah, and hope that when we meet again she’ll be everything she was in this.

Rating 5: A weaker end to a promising start, “Black Canary (Vol.2): New Killer Star” wasn’t as fun as I hoped it would be. The standalone stories are pretty good fun, but that only emphasizes my disappointment with how the main arc ended before “Rebirth” happened.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Black Canary (Vol.2): New Killer Star” is not on any Goodreads lists (oddly enough), but I think it would fit in on “Ladies in Capes”, and “Girls Read Comics”.

Find “Black Canary (Vol.2): New Killer Star” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “Black Canary (Vol.1): Kicking and Screaming”.

Kate’s Review: “Girls on Fire”

26074200Book: “Girls on Fire” by Robin Wasserman

Publishing Info: Harper, May 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Girls on Fire tells the story of Hannah and Lacey and their obsessive teenage female friendship so passionately violent it bloodies the very sunset its protagonists insist on riding into, together, at any cost. Opening with a suicide whose aftermath brings good girl Hannah together with the town’s bad girl, Lacey, the two bring their combined wills to bear on the community in which they live; unconcerned by the mounting discomfort that their lust for chaos and rebellion causes the inhabitants of their parochial small town, they think they are invulnerable.

But Lacey has a secret, about life before her better half, and it’s a secret that will change everything…

Review: Who here has seen or heard of the movie “Heavenly Creatures”? It’s kind of a noteworthy gem for a number of reasons. The first is that it was one of the break out roles that Kate Winslet had before “Titanic”. It was also one of the movies Peter Jackson made before he took on the “Lord of the Rings” movies. But the third reason is the kicker: it’s also a true story, in which two girls in New Zealand, bolstered forth by their obsessive friendship, kill one of their moms because she didn’t approve of their closeness. And then one of them grew up to be Anne Perry the crime author. I think that “Heavenly Creatures” kind of sets a standard for the ‘dangerous obsessive female friendship’ trope, even if it was a real life occurrence. When I read about “Girls on Fire” I was pretty intrigued. I was hoping that I would find a new rumination on a story that’s been told many times over, from “Heavenly Creatures” to last year’s smash hit “The Girls”. But sadly I found more of the same old, same old.

I think that it’s definitely important to note that “Girls on Fire” does tackle a lot of important questions about what it means to be a teenage girl in American society, and what expectations are thrust upon this group in terms of how to behave and interact with others. Both Lacey and Hannah (or “Dex” as Lacey renames her early in their friendship) are perceived in certain ways by not only their peers and their community, they are perceived in certain ways by their families, the people who are supposed to know them best. This, too, can be said for the bane of their existence, Nikki Drummond, the most popular girl in school who mistreats Hannah and anyone she sees as beneath her. Nikki has facades that she puts on for different people, and while Hannah thinks she knows one side, Lacey knows another one. The perspectives in this book are mainly those of Hannah and Lacey, alternating in sections called ‘Us’. But every once in awhile we’ll get an outside perspective from one of those close to them, under the sections called ‘Them’. I loved how this was set up, as it really reinforced the ‘us vs the world’ mentality that these two obsessed friends shared. I also liked how the structure served to explain just what happened with the popular boy who committed suicide, as it’s pretty clear from the get go that it’s not as cut and dry as it all seems.

But now we get to the crux of the issue, and that is this isn’t a book that I enjoyed much beyond that. “Girls on Fire” didn’t really do anything new in terms of characterization and plotting. Both Hannah and Lacey were pretty two dimensional, even with their perspectives being laid out in the open. Lacey is the bad girl who has the terrible upbringing and just wants to be loved and turns to drugs, alcohol, and Kurt Cobain (as well as dabbling in the most milquetoast of stereotypical Satanism). Hannah is the quiet one who is so mousy that everyone is shocked when she starts to turn darker, and has darker deeper demons than anyone could have imagined. These are character tropes that we’ve seen before, and neither of them went beyond these tried and true depictions. Even the parents were stereotypes of what we imagine parents with kids like these to be. Hannah’s Mom is banal and unassuming and resents that her daughter is branching out into a more interesting realm. Her father is a former wild child who misses his days of being free, and therefore longs for Lacey both sexually and philosophically. And Lacey’s mother is an alcoholic who has married an abusive man. The only character who intrigued me and surpassed my expectations was Nikki, and even then she still ultimately lived up to our basal expectations of what a mean girl is and why a mean girl might be mean. It’s a real shame, because there was some serious potential in all of these girls to examine how our perceptions of them might be undue. But then they really didn’t have much more to say beyond what their main stereotypes were. And the central mystery isn’t really that much of a mystery, in all honesty. You can guess it pretty early on in the unspooling of that particular thread.

I had higher hopes for “Girls on Fire” than the book was able to deliver. If you are interested in a story examining the perils of dangerous girl friendships, just get your hands on “Heavenly Creatures”.

Rating 5: Though the themes are interesting and the perspectives creatively structured, this book wasn’t reinventing the wheel in any way, and it didn’t really bring a new take to a story we’ve heard before.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Girls on Fire” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books About Female Friendship”, and “Best Quietly Creepy Novels”.

Find “Girls on Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Scary Out There”

28954124Book: “Scary Out There” by Jonathan Maberry (Editor)

Publishing Info: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, August 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Multiple Bram Stoker Award–winning author Jonathan Maberry compiles more than twenty stories and poems—written by members of the Horror Writers Association—in this terrifying collection about worst fears.

What scares you? Things that go bump in the night? Being irreversibly different? A brutal early death? The unknown?

This collection contains stories and poetry by renowned writers such as R. L. Stine, Neal and Brendan Shusterman, and Ellen Hopkins—all members of the Horror Writers Association—about what they fear most. The stories include mermaids, ghosts, and personal demons, and are edited by Jonathan Maberry, multiple Bram Stoker award winner and author of the Rot & Ruin series.

Review: During one of our recent book club meetings, our fellow member Aimee mentioned to me a book of short stories she was reading for a book committee she was on. That book was “Scary Out There”, and as the resident (and kind of lone) horror buff she felt that this might be a good fit for me. I’ve read horror short story collections for teens before. One of the very best ones I’ve read is the FABULOUS book “Slasher Girls and Monster Boys”, and knowing that there are some great horror authors out there for young adults, I was pretty intrigued by “Scary Out There”. The problem with short stories collections is that sometimes you may have a set of stories that may have some stand outs, but are, as a whole, a dud. And unfortunately, “Scary Out There” pretty solidly fell into this unfortunate trap.

But I will talk about the stand out stories first. Because there were a few that I really liked.

“Danny” by Josh Malerman

Josh Malerman is the author of the incredibly creepy and completely ambiguous “Bird Box”, so when I saw that he had a tale of terror in here I had high hopes. The man did NOT disappoint. This story is about Kelly, a fifteen year old girl who wants to start babysitting, even though her parents aren’t sure she’s up to the task. After some convincing on their part, she answers an ad for The Donalds, who need a babysitter for their young son Danny. After her Dad drops her off for the job, the Donalds come clean. They don’t actually have a son, but really, really wish that they did, so could she just go through the motions of acting like she’s babysitting their nonexistent while they go out for the night? Kelly, wanting to seem responsible and not get an ‘I told you so’ from her folks, agrees. But is she actually alone in the house? HOW SCREWED UP, but also, how Josh Malerman. This story really hit all the right notes, as you spend the majority of this book wondering if the Donalds are totally insane (scary enough on it’s own), or if there is actually something else in this house with Kelly. I was completely unsettled and freaked out by this one, and Malerman did a great job of building suspense slowly, and being deliberate in turning the screws on the reader.

“Corazón Oscuro” by Rachel Caine

This one is definitely an old school, nightmare fuel ghost story, with horrifying imagery and revenge. When Zenobia and her doctor mother are driving in the desert at night, they come upon a car accident. While her Mom goes to help, Zenobia calls 911, but instead of connecting to help, she connects to something else. Shortly thereafter they realize that they are not alone in this desert scape, as illuminated eyes and strange noises can be seen in the darkness. Help in the form of a man in a pickup truck comes to them, and he tells them about the ghost of a girl covered in scorpions. Zenobia and her mother get caught up in the unfinished business of this girl. I loved this story. It had a taut and scary plot, really creepy moments, and hit all of my ‘NOOOOOPE’ bingo squares with the description of the girl ghost (strange movement, sounds, AND scorpions?! YIKES).

“Death and Twinkies” by Zac Brewer

This one stood out mainly because it’s more sad and melancholic than it is scary. Jeremy is a depressed teenager who is on a quest to kill himself to get away from his terrible life. But when he goes to jump off a bridge, a mysterious teenage boy is there. They start talking, and Jeremy realizes that he’s talking to Death. As they talk, Jeremy starts to wonder if he can go through with what Death should want him to do. I liked this one because, oddly, it was one of the more tender stories in this book. Definitely not scary or unsettling, but kind of sweet and hopeful. Plus, Death is a fun and snarky character, as any personification SHOULD be, in my opinion.

“Non-Player Character” by Neal and Brendan Shusterman

Neal Shusterman is just a powerhouse in the YA world, and this time his son came along for the ride! Darren is a teenager whose parents are obsessed with an online video game. Darren pretty much cares for himself they’re so far gone, and cares for them too. But then he sees a strange girl inside the game, a non-player character. Darren is compelled to pick up the controller and play too, if only to get closer to her. But as he does get close to her, his own dangerous obsession begins. This one was upsetting on a few levels. The first is that Darren’s parents are the absolute worst in how they neglect him. The second is all about the power of the game itself, and what it can make people do. The end was screwed up beyond belief, and I loved that about it.

But guys. These are just four stories out of twenty one. The rest didn’t really do it for me. They were either boring, pointless, or ended abruptly and felt haphazard. There were multiple times that I would feel like the story built up so much that it didn’t work where it ended, feeling incomplete and unfulfilling. Other times there would be such hamfisted ‘issues’ stories that could have used horror as a good metaphor, but ended up falling pretty damn flat. OR, they ended on a cliffhanger and that was it. Come on! I don’t want so many stories to end with a big ol’ question mark, or a ‘she ran away but doom was certain… but was it?’ kind of resolution.

So while four of these stories were pretty damn awesome and I shall sing their praises to hell and back…. the rest were rather disappointing. If you can find these mentioned stories on their own, definitely do. But if you want want a more well rounded book of horror short stories for teens, I would say definitely go with “Slasher Girls and Monster Boys”. “Scary Out There” just doesn’t have the balance.

Rating 5: While four of the stories stand out as strong contributions, the rest of them are rather lackluster and not as scary as they want to be.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scary Out There” isn’t on many Goodreads lists that reflect the material, but I think it would fit in on “YA Short Stories and Collections”, and “Short Horror/SciFi Collections”.

Find “Scary Out There” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Scarlet”

11983940Book: “Scarlet” by A. C. Caughen

Publishing Info: Walker Childrens, February 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it from the library’s weeding cart!

Book Description: Will Scarlet is good at two things: stealing from the rich and keeping secrets – skills that are in high demand in Robin Hood’s band of thieves, who protect the people of Nottingham from the evil sheriff. Scarlet’s biggest secret of all is one only Robin and his men know…that she is posing as a thief; that the slip of a boy who is fast with sharp knives is really a girl.

The terrible events in her past that led Scarlet to hide her real identity are in danger of being exposed when the thief taker Lord Gisbourne arrives in town to rid Nottingham of the Hood and his men once and for all. As Gisbourne closes in a put innocent lives at risk, Scarlet must decide how much the people of Nottingham mean to her, especially John Little, a flirtatious fellow outlaw, and Robin, whose quick smiles have the rare power to unsettle her. There is real honor among these thieves and so much more – making this a fight worth dying for.

Review: I found this one on the weeded cart at my local library and snatched it up right quick! I love Robin Hood re-tellings, and this one has gotten quite a bit of positive attention in the last few years. (I only discovered after finishing it that it is the first in a trilogy. *Sigh* Sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice to find a nice, simple stand-alone novel in YA fiction!) The book description gives a good summary for the book and didn’t lead me astray, both with the positive aspects of the book (a female Will Scarlet!) and the negative aspects (a love triangle!).

In the positive arena, Scarlet is a strong protagonist for the story. The book is written from her perspective and the author made an interesting choice to word Scarlet’s narrative using the unique dialect in which Scarlet talks. I can’t speak to how historically accurate it may be, but it did align with what we traditionally think of as a “British commoner” dialect, substituting “were” for “was” and other, similar changes. At first I was put off by this, even quickly skimming further in the book to see if ever changed, but after discovering that it did not and reading on for a few more chapters, I found that I actually appreciated the added layer this writing style gave the story. Readers’ mileage may vary on this point, as it still was a bit jarring to get used to.

Further, towards the back half of the book, I did have a few questions about the authenticity of this choice given Scarlet’s own history. Some of this history was fairly easy to guess and I’m sure many readers will be looking for this outcome from the start, but there were a few added elements to the tale that added some unexpected twists to what was, largely, an expected reveal.

From the get go, I appreciated Scarlet’s spunk and often brass approach to life as an outlaw. She doesn’t let herself be pushed around by the men in her life, and from the very beginning, we are shown that she has the skills to backup her talk. Further, Scarlet discusses the challenges she went through to gain those skills as well, referencing her scarred hands that came from learning to wield her knives. Too often in YA lit readers are simply told that the heroine is a badass, but given very little evidence to back up this claim. Further, any attributes that they do have seem to just appear from nowhere ala “maybe she was born with it!” Not so with Scarlet.

Alas, there were also negatives to this story, both a few that were expected and a few unexpected. Firstly, yes, there is a love triangle between Scalet, John Little, and Rob and it is just as unfortunate as it sounds. As with many love triangles, the “true pairing” is projected from the beginning of the story, there is some event that pushes the heroine to fall into the arms of the second best option during a moment of weakness, “true pairing” dude finds out, much angst ensues, but in the end, in a complete and utter shocker to all, heroine ends up with “true pairing” guy anyways. There was absolutely nothing new in this set up.

The more unexpected negatives had to do with Rob himself. For the first half or so of the book, I really liked Rob, the author’s take on his history, and the relationship he had with his men and Scarlet. Then the love-triangle-angst-moment happened, he discovered Scarlet’s hidden past, and he went crazy saying horrible things and calling her a “whore” at one point. The whole scene and his reaction is so completely blown out of proportion that I had a hard time every getting back on board with him as a character. Love triangle confusion aside, Scarlet’s decision to keep her past a secret was completely her own to make and one that has been keeping her alive for years. She didn’t owe those around her anything more than she felt comfortable giving. His reaction to this choice is deplorable, as is the use of the word “whore.” Later in the book, he attempts to explain his maltreatment of Scarlet in these moments by saying something along the lines of “Don’t you understand? Hurting you was the best way to hurt myself!” Unpacking all the craziness in that statement is not worth my time. But all of this did add up to a very weak reaction on my part to Scarlet and Rob’s inevitable pairing at the end.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. I loved Scarlet herself, and the added twists at the end of the story makes me curious to read more. However, I’m very much not on board with the current direction of her relationship with Rob, and, call me crazy, but not loving the Robin Hood character in a Robin Hood re-telling series seems like a recipe for disappointment as a reader.

Rating 5: A strong leading lady, but a predictable love triangle and rather horrid Robin Hood character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scarlet” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Fictional Robin Hood” and “Kingdoms and heroines.”

Find “Scarlet” at your library using Worldcat!

 

 

Kate’s Review: “Dear Amy”

26244587Book: “Dear Amy” by Helen Callaghan

Publishing Info: Harper Paperbacks, October 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: As a thirty-something Classics and English literature teacher, working at a school in Cambridge, Margot Lewis leads a quiet life. In her spare time, she writes an advice column for the local newspaper. But she can’t help feeling that she’s the last person who should be doling out advice, because her marriage has failed.

When one of Margot’s students, fifteen-year-old Katie Browne, disappears, the police immediately suspect she’s been kidnapped. Then, not long after Katie goes missing, Margot receives a disturbing letter at the newspaper offices. The letter is supposedly from Bethan Avery, a fifteen-year-old girl who was abducted from the local area twenty years ago…and never found. In the letter, Bethan states that she is being held captive and is in terrible danger. The letter ends with a desperate plea for her rescue.

The police analyze the letter and find it matches a sample of Bethan’s handwriting which they’ve kept on file since her disappearance. This shocking development in an infamous cold case catches the attention of Martin Forrester, a criminologist who has been researching Bethan Avery’s puzzling disappearance all those years ago. Spurred on by her concern for both Katie and the mysterious Bethan, Margot sets out—with Martin’s help—to discover if the two cases are connected. But then Margot herself becomes a target…will she be next?

Riveting to the final page, this is a masterful, sophisticated, and electrifying debut.

Review: Oh Grit Lit, I wish I could quit you. Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh. When it’s good, it’s really quite entertaining, a genre that keeps me interested and on my toes. When it’s bad, well……

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(source)

Given the pendulous possible outcomes, I definitely go in treading lightly, and try to keep my expectations low enough that I’m not terribly disappointed, but high enough that I don’t just give up on it. Sometimes this works. Other times it kind of just a was from the get go and I can see it from a mile away. And this is what happened with “Dear Amy” by Helen Callaghan. I found myself charging through it not so much because I wanted to know what was going to happen, but because I just wanted to get it over with. Which is never really a resounding cheer for a book. Now it wasn’t “Gone Girl” levels of hot boiling rage on my part, but I did have just a few too many qualms with it as a whole that left me less than enthused about it. So let’s just kind of unpack it, shall we? I think there are going to be spoilers here, guys. I need to talk about them to really show you why I’m irritated.

So first of all, Margot just punches every single Bingo square for stereotypical Grit Lit Heroine. She has been betrayed by her rat bastard husband (Eddy left her for another woman). She is outwardly pretty together as a teacher and advice columnist, but is afraid that if her dark past were to come out (heroin addiction being the worst part of it in her mind) everything would be ruined. And she is, of course, mentally unstable, with moments of questioning her sanity and the things that she is seeing in front of her. Old hat stuff, to be sure. But that’s not all. Oh no. Because in trope-y fashion, there of course has to be a huge twist, and this one was a doozy. Okay, here come the spoilers, folks. Get ready. Skip ahead if you really don’t want to be spoiled.

Margot is Bethan. Bethan is Margot. Margot has been in a dissociative fugue state all this time in regards to her trauma, and has been writing the letters to herself, as the Katie kidnapping set her off.

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Of course she is. (source)

Okay, look, I like a good twist as much as the next person, but this one was a bit too ludicrous for me to swallow. I’m all for unreliable narrators, but when you have to work really hard to make them unreliable, going to ludicrous lengths to do it, that’s when I start to have a hard time with it. I think I actually said ‘what?’ when it was revealed, and then it felt like just a way to say ‘what is real and what is a lie?!’. Come off it. And given that this is the second thriller novel I’ve read in the past couple of months that has ‘dissociative fugue!’ as one of the ‘what a twist’ moments, it’s already starting to feel played out as well as totally random and unnecessary. That said, there is one more twist that I did like, involving Margot and a friend of hers named Angelique from when she was in a halfway house as a teenager. This was a plot point that I did enjoy, and while I saw it coming as well, it was still more believable than the huge Bethan Avery twist. Hell, had this twist I did like been the only curveball, I probably would have liked it more.

Overall I was more interested in the Katie parts of the book, but even they felt a bit out of place because while Margot’s were in the first person, we’d jump to Katie’s chapters in the third person just so we could see what was going on with her. I think that it may have worked better if she had been in the first person as well, just because the way that it jumped into a different perspective made it feel almost like a cheat instead of a literary device to tell both stories in a consistent and interesting way. If this book had been from Katie’s POV I probably would have liked it more, even if it would have had the potential to get a BIT exploitative.

So while I liked parts of this book, “Dear Amy” ultimately didn’t really do much for me. I think that Helen Callaghan definitely has writing skills, and I think that I could see myself giving her another shot, this one was a little too far on the Billy Eichner side of the pendulum.

Rating 5: “Dear Amy” had promise but then it fell into far too many familiar traps of the Grit Lit genre. Some parts were interesting, but overall it wasn’t my thing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dear Amy” is not on any Goodreads lists yet. But it will fit in on “Female Psychological Thrillers/Suspense”, and “If You Enjoyed “Gone Girl” You Might Also Like…”.

Find “Dear Amy” at your library using WorldCat!

Joint Review: “One Was Lost”

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Though we do tend to read different genres, there is sometimes overlap in the books that we pick up and devour. When this happens, we decide to do a joint review, giving our thoughts through our own personal lenses of what we look for in reading material. When we were putting together our October Highlights post, we discovered that we each had picked this book. Obviously, a joint review was in order!

Book: “One Was Lost” by Natalie D. Richards

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, October 2016

Where Did We Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Damaged. Deceptive. Dangerous. Darling. Are they labels or a warning? The answer could cost Sera everything.

Murder, justice, and revenge were so not a part of the plan when Sera set out on her senior camping trip. After all, hiking through the woods is supposed to be safe and uneventful.

Then one morning the group wakes up groggy, confused, and with words scrawled on their wrists: Damaged. Deceptive. Dangerous. Darling. Their supplies? Destroyed. Half their group? Gone. Their chaperone? Unconscious. Worst of all, they find four dolls acting out a murder—dolls dressed just like them.

Suddenly it’s clear; they’re being hunted. And with the only positive word on her wrist, Sera falls under suspicion…

Serena’s Thoughts

Whelp, I knew going in that this book was either going to be a great hit or potentially a big miss for me. A little background: I grew up in a very, very rural part of northern Idaho. I’m talking “only had an outhouse/had to sno-mobile 5 miles in during the winter/wood stove for heat and cooking/solar power/etc” type of remote. That  being the case, I spent large portions of my childhood running around in the woods with my sister. So, for one, the woods aren’t a natural “fear factor” for me. And for two, I grew up learning a lot about how to survive in these types of situations. All of that said, because of this, I always find myself gravitating to books like these that focus on the experiences of others in the woods, just because I love the setting. But that also means that I approach these types of stories from a hyper critical standpoint, which isn’t the book’s fault. So I have to spend a lot of time balancing my personal reaction to a book like this against that of the average reader. But, since we’re joint reviewing this, Kate will be here to give her perspective as the  non “woodland wild child” reader!

But first, I don’t want to give the impression that this book was a complete failure for me. I feel like the main cast of characters were very likable. They were a diverse group (if perhaps a bit too stereotypical), and I liked the attention that was spent addressing the difference challenges that each of these teens had faced in the typical highschool experience. Sera herself was a very good narrator. While the writing and voice were rather simplistic, she was likable and for the most part I was fully on board with her as a protagonist. There was an interesting backstory with her mother and with the impact that this relationship has had on Sera’s own life and sense of self. I wish there had been even more on this, as the ending felt a bit rushed with her ability to resolve what has to be a huge, ongoing personal conflict. There was also a romance that, while I still don’t feel that it was necessary and had an overly dramatic backstory that proved to be a let down when it was revealed, wasn’t as terrible as I first suspected. Just wish there was less of it.

But, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I had some very specific issues with this book, and what frustrates me the most is that much of it comes down to poor research on the author’s part. Look, I know this book is about teens out in the wilderness and that, due to this, they aren’t going to know all the ins and outs of wilderness survival. However, they make SO MANY WILDLY BAD DECISIONS!

About a third of the way in, after they wake up with the words written on their wrist, there are a few chapters that are made up of just one bad decision after another. There’s the very basics that most people know: never wander off. If you’re completely lost, stay put. Here, not only are they not lost, but they have a perfectly good trail with only a three days’ walk out, which in the grand scheme, really isn’t much. So it’s a million times more stupid to instead go wandering out into the wilderness with the hope that you might not get turned around and you might find the road and maybe rescuers will find you even though you are now putting miles between yourself and where they would know to look.

Then there are more specific things that are just common sense. Obviously, water is your most important priority (after not wandering off! And not fixating on food, which they do. Obsessively. For the record, you can live three weeks without food and do not, in fact,  start feeling massive effects after ONE DAY).  And maybe, maybe, river water is a safer bet than water that is being left for you by a madman who has ALREADY POISONED YOUR WATER ONCE! Any bacteria in a river (if there even is any, fast moving water is usually a safe bet as long as it’s not draining directly out of a cow field) is going to be curable once you’re found. And if you’re not found…you have bigger problems.

And then, just because you shouldn’t camp near a river that may flood, this does NOT somehow make it too dangerous to follow (civilization is found near water). Like, what do they think is going to happen? The river is somehow going to instantaneously flood enough to take them out in seconds if they’re walking along it? Walk a ways above the water line, for crying out loud.

The story was much stronger when it simply focused on the thriller aspects and left aside any survival choices. After this initial string of events ends, the mystery/thriller aspects picked up again and I was able to shut my brain off for a good portion. And if it had maintained this until the end, I might have given the book a pass. Unfortunately, near the end, it lost me again with what was the last straw for me as far as poor research goes. Sera has a cut hand. They find peroxide to put on it. And then there are several paragraphs about how horribly painful it is applying the peroxide….

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Annndd…I’m out. (source)

Peroxide is painless. The author clearing didn’t do one iota of research and simply failed to spend the time differentiating between rubbing alcohol and peroxide. Which, look, I get that it’s a small thing. But after all the rest, it was the final straw to my patience with this book. If you, an author, are going to write a survival story about teens in the woods, it is not too much to ask that you do basic research. And I, the reader, expect more. There was some more nonsense about finding a 4 wheeler but not leaving immediately because “Omg, cliffs!”…as if headlights aren’t a thing. And the fact that they find a RV along with the 4 wheeler, but somehow  there are no roads (how did it get there??) necessitating said wandering in the woods. And…I was done with the book at this point.

Kate’s Thoughts

And then there’s me, City Girl Kate! I was raised in the city, by two parents who grew up on farms and decided that nature just wasn’t their bag once they could escape it. So nature isn’t MY bag either! And therefore, I went into “One Was Lost” with less knowledge about what the dos and don’ts are when it comes to wilderness trekking and survival. While some of the obvious mistakes jumped out at me, most of the others Serena mentioned went right over my head. I’d probably die in the woods, because I’m pretty clueless.

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Oh, you can drink fast running water? Huh! (source)

So I guess I was kind of able to go in with less critical eyes in my head, at least when it came to the survival skills trope. HOWEVER, when it came to horror tropes and thriller plot points, I too had a harder time swallowing “One Was Lost”. I was hoping for some kind of “Blair Witch Project” story (For crying out loud, the cover alone is a nod to it), but sadly it didn’t quite live up to the expectations that I placed upon it. Perhaps unfairly, but placed upon nonetheless.

I did like the characters that we followed, I want to make that perfectly clear. Sera was a relatable and interesting protagonist, whose baggage is kind of unique when looking at YA protagonists. I liked her backstory and I thought that it was believable enough to explain some of her reasoning and decisions she made down the line, as well as parallel some of the revelations as they were exposed. I agree with Serena that the romance she had with Lucas was a bit unnecessary, though I did like Lucas and the foil he provided when verbally sparring with Sera. Emily and Jude were also interesting enough, though we didn’t get to see as much of either of them so they fell a bit more into their stereotypes (Emily as the quiet victimized girl, Jude as the spoiled and privileged adoptee. Side note, I think Jude could have been VERY interesting being a transracial adoptee of two gay men, but that wasn’t focused on at all). I think that their introductions were a little rushed, as we pretty much hit the ground running. As the plot kept going and as they all found themselves in worse and worse situations, I got a pretty good idea as to what was going on, at least in terms of who was probably harassing them and stalking them. Maybe not in the bigger picture as to motive, granted, but I called who the culprit was long before the big reveal. I know that I’m a horror girl and a thriller girl, and I know what to look for. But there were things that tipped me off and they are things that have been seen in many, many other stories of both genres.

I also found myself rolling my eyes when the urban legend/ghost story that was told had to do with “Cherokee Spirits” living in the woods. Jeeze. Why is it that sometimes these stories feel a need to trot out Indigenous stories while totally butchering them? It was uncomfortable for me, especially given the recent dust up with “The Continent”. Luckily this was kept to a minimum, but really, it shouldn’t have been in there in the first place.

So for me, “One Was Lost” was also a disappointment, though I did like Sera and the personal journey that she went through. I just wish that this book had done more, because the potential really was there, and I wish that some choices that were made had been taken out before publishing.

Serena’s Rating 5: A strong premises and lead character, all foiled by very poor research that kept kicking me out of the story.

Kate’s Rating 5: I liked the characters and I liked the backstory, but the plot was a bit too predictable for me, and some of the storytelling devices were a bit aggravating.

Reader’s Advisory:

“One Was Lost” is a new book so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “Wilderness Horror Stories.”

Find “One Was Lost” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Prisoner of Hell Gate”

26114305Book: “The Prisoner of Hell Gate” by Dana I. Wolff

Publishing Info: Picador, July 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: FOUR DECADES AFTER TYPHOID MARY WENT TO HER GRAVE, FIVE CURIOUS GRADUATE STUDENTS STRUGGLE TO ESCAPE ALIVE FROM THE ABANDONED ISLAND THAT ONCE IMPRISONED HER. CONTAGION DOESN’T DIE. IT JUST WAITS.

In the Hell Gate section of New York’s East River lie the sad islands where, for centuries, people locked away what they most feared: the contagious, the disfigured, the addicted, the criminally insane.

Here infection slowly consumed the stricken. Here a desperate captain ran his doomed steamship aground and watched flames devour 1500 souls. Here George A. Soper imprisoned the infamous Typhoid Mary after she spread sickness and death in Manhattan’s most privileged quarters.

George’s great-granddaughter, Karalee, and her fellow graduate students in public health know that story. But as they poke in and out of the macabre hospital rooms of abandoned North Brother Island—bantering, taking pictures, recalling history—they are missing something: Hidden evil watches over them—and plots against them.

Death doesn’t only visit Hell Gate. It comes to stay.

As darkness falls, the students find themselves marooned—their casual trespass having unleashed a chain of horrific events beyond anyone’s imagination.

Disease lurks among the eerie ruins where Typhoid Mary once lived and breathed. Ravenous flies swarm puddles of blood. Rot and decay cling to human skin. And spiteful ghosts haunt the living and undead.

Soon five students of history will learn more than they ever wanted to know about New York’s foul underbelly: the meaning of spine-tingling cries down the corridor, of mysterious fires, of disfiguring murder, and of an avenging presence so sinister they’d rather risk their lives than face the terror of one more night.

Review: Here is a brief history lesson for those who may not be as privy to the genuinely tragic story of Typhoid Mary. Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant who came to America in 1883, and eventually took a position as a cook for upper class families. For immigrant women during this time period, choices were limited, as servitude or prostitution were two very common end games for them. Mary was lucky enough to find work as a cook, but unfortunately she was an asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid Fever. She was quarantined twice in her life, and when she was released the first time she was explicitly told that she couldn’t be a cook anymore. So she worked as a laundress for awhile, but unsatisfied with the pay she changed her name and started cooking again…. and more typhoid infections broke out. Eventually she was found, and spent the rest of her life in quarantine (source). “Prisoner of Hell Gate” kind of takes liberties with the history of Typhoid Mary, and twists it a bit to suit the story and the message that Wolff wants to convey. While I don’t necessarily disagree with the message (mistreatment of lower class women during the turn of the 20th century was wrong, oppressive, and had high consequences), I do think that “Prisoner at Hell Gate” was a bit too focused on this message and sacrificed scares for a soap box.

Also, to really talk about the issues I had with this book, I’m going to have to delve into spoilers. So if you want to read this book, you may want to avoid this review.

The core group of protagonists (known as the Sewer Rats for their Public Health focus in grad school) are mostly flat caricatures. The main character, Karalee, is the great grand-daughter of George Soper, the man who hunted Typhoid Mary down and ultimately confined her in isolation for the rest of her life. Karalee has mixed feelings about her legacy and feels a need to defend Typhoid Mary, not really necessarily because of Mary herself, but because of the toxic pride that her father took in the Soper legacy that negatively affected her and because of the cruddy situation women had during that time period in general. She is the most complex character in this group, and is leaps and bounds more fleshed out than her companions. Chick is her boyfriend and he’s the epitome of misogynistic jerk that we are supposed to want dead. He’s a creep, he’s racist, he’s potentially anti-Semitic, and he’s sleeping with Karalee who is his student, but he was so moustache twirly in his evilness that it just felt lazy. Root for him to die because HE’S TERRIBLE was how it felt. I’m never into easy outs like that. There’s Josh, who embodied the neurotic Jew stereotype to the point that I was feeling uncomfortable. There’s Gerard, who is pretty boring and forgettable. And then there’s Elena, who I thought could have had some serious potential, but who didn’t get to be much more than the sassy Latina. I liked that we did have some diversity in this group (Josh, Gerard, and Elena), but it was very unfortunate that none of them were terribly complex.

And then there’s Mary. In this story, Typhoid Mary isn’t necessarily a carrier of Typhoid, but some kind of superhuman being that has evolved beyond being sick and even aging itself. We aren’t really told why, it’s just given as the reality to fit the narrative so that Mary can still be alive and antagonistic forty years after her supposed death. When our group of Sewer Rats stupidly maroon themselves on the supposedly abandoned island where she was left to rot, Mary decides that they all deserve to die, especially Karalee, the descendent of the man who sent her there. And this is where I just can’t totally buy in to this story. I myself do have sympathy for Mary Maron, because yeah, wow, what a shitty hand to be dealt. You are a carrier of a deadly disease without known treatment, and because of this your life has been changed and you cannot exercise the same, LIMITED rights that lower class women have in society. But, that said, I am just not totally willing to say because of this, these dumbasses who crash land on her island deserve to contract typhoid and die. If I’m feeling SUPER generous, maybe I’ll give you Chick. Maybe. But Elena, Josh, Gerard, and Karalee? Nope. Not at all. If it was an attempt to empower Mary, it didn’t work for me. If there had been some actual retribution towards George Soper as he was written in this book, I could have probably been on board! But analogs for him through his descendent and a chauvinist, plus three to round out the body count, just didn’t have the same empowering effect.

In terms of scary moments, this book did have a few of them. At first I was really intrigued by the atmosphere of the Sewer Rats tromping through an abandoned island with remnants of humanity. Abandoned buildings, shadows in the dark, scary noises in the night, all of these things made for some tense moments that genuinely set me on edge during parts of this story. It felt very “Blair Witch” meets “Abandoned By Disney” , which is the kind of story that freaks me out. What we don’t see is far scarier than what we do, in my opinion. But once they met up with Mary the story started to suffer. Hell, once it was made clear that Mary had her own perspective chapters, I was immediately put off. Had we not had the Mary perspective at all, and had the Sewer Rats been stalked by an unknown person or thing in the woods around them, I think it would have been far more interesting as a horror novel. As it was, the seeming need to justify the aggression that Mary felt and exercised towards the Sewer Rats really hindered what could have been a creepy and genuinely scary narrative.

It’s too bad that “Prisoner of Hell Gate” wasn’t what I wanted it to be. It had promise, but fell flat.

Rating 5: Unlikable characters, an unsympathetic antagonist who is meant to be sympathetic, and a frustrating focus made this a frustrating book to read. There are decent scares and moments in it, but overall didn’t live up to what I’d hoped it would be.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Prisoner of Hell Gate” is not on any Goodreads lists yet, but if you’re interested in books on illness look at “Public Health”. And while I wouldn’t consider this book a ‘best of’, the list “Best Wilderness Horror Stories” could be something you want to look at.

Find “The Prisoner at Hell Gate” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Reviews: “Ink and Bone”

27276336Book: “Ink and Bone” by Lisa Unger

Publishing Info: Touchstone, June 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Twenty-year-old Finley Montgomery is rarely alone. Visited by people whom others can’t see and haunted by prophetic dreams, she has never been able to control or understand the things that happen to her. When Finley’s abilities start to become too strong for her to handle – and even the roar of her motorcycle or another dazzling tattoo can’t drown out the voices – she turns to the only person she knows who can help her: her grandmother Eloise Montgomery, a renowned psychic living in The Hollows, New York.

Merri Gleason is a woman at the end of her tether after a ten-month-long search for her missing daughter, Abbey. With almost every hope exhausted, she resorts to hiring Jones Cooper, a detective who sometimes works with psychic Eloise Montgomery. Merri’s not a believer, but she’s just desperate enough to go down that road, praying that she’s not too late. Time, she knows, is running out.

As a harsh white winter moves into The Hollows, Finley and Eloise are drawn into the investigation, which proves to have much more at stake than even the fate of a missing girl. As Finley digs deeper into the town and its endless layers, she is forced to examine the past, even as she tries to look into the future. Only one thing is clear: The Hollows gets what it wants, no matter what.

Review: I had originally put “Ink and Bone” as one of my highlighted books for the month of June, but then it got bumped off in favor of “The Girls” by Emma Cline. But in an ironic twist of fate, I got to “Ink and Bone” before I got to “The Girls”. I do like a good mystery, and I do like themes of psychic consultants and procedural dramas that center around missing or kidnapped people. Perhaps that makes me morbid, but meh, I’ll own it. So I was pretty excited to actually get my hands on “Ink and Bone” when it came in at my library. But I think that what was ultimately the downfall of this situation was that as far as grit-lit thrillers go, I’ve read quite a few really good ones as of late. And “Ink and Bone” just didn’t quite live up to those.

I will start with the good, though. The opening prologue, in which Abbey is kidnapped, was very well written and did suck me in. Unger did a very good job with how she set up the scene, how she laid clues to later plot twists inside of it, and how she put the reader in Abbey’s shoes, so profoundly that I was on edge throughout the whole segment. It definitely started the story off with a serious bang, and I was very interested in finding out what happened. It started at such a high and tension filled level that I was thinking that it could only go up from there. Unfortunately, at least for me, the rest of the book never quite reached the same levels of intensity and suspense that the first few pages did. And for a thriller novel, that is quite the no-no.

I really did like Finley, our main character and tormented psychic. I liked that she wasn’t perfect, and wasn’t exactly the trope that many of these psychics in stories like this fall into: the serene, calm, almost ethereal enigma. Finley doesn’t have the temperament for that. She is young, and a bit insecure with herself, and hasn’t quite come to terms with her gifts. Her grandmother, Eloise, is trying to guide her in hopes that she will be able to hone her craft, but Finley, at first, isn’t quite sure that she has what it takes. After all, Eloise is basically the go-to psychic for cops and investigations that are at the end of their ropes. It was fun seeing a young psychic trying to get her sea legs, as so many in pop culture (like Alison DuBois in “Medium” or Billie Dean in “American Horror Story”) are already in tune with what they can and cannot do. I also liked her relationship with her tattoo artist on-again off-again lover, Ranier. Their relationship isn’t exactly the healthiest, but I could understand why she was drawn to him, and how he is both good and not so go for her. Her need to get tattoos all over her body as a coping mechanism to her visions was a very fascinating character trait, and gave her a bit more of an edge without seeming cloying.

Most of the other characters, however, were fairly predictable. Eloise definitely fell into the role of serene and wise psychic grandmother, and while she was perfectly nice it didn’t exactly do anything new for the old chestnut of a trope. I felt the same way about Merri and Wolf, the parents of Abbey, the kidnapped girl. Wolf is, of course, a shitty human being who has been sleeping with other women throughout his entire marriage. Of course he is. And Merri is the woman who stands by her man in spite of it all. I think that perhaps she was meant to be a bit more well rounded because she fully knows what he’s doing and has a certain amount of disdain for him and his actions, but it just felt odd to me. I know that they were both dealing with shared grief, but I just couldn’t quite get on board with them as a couple. Maybe I wasn’t meant to. The kidnappers were also the usual suspects: a crazed man who is also a pedophile (at least implied), and his naive wife who is trying to replace their dead daughter with other girls, who happen to be psychic as well (or at least highly sensitive). It felt a little “Doctor Sleep” to me in that regard, as while they weren’t eating the psychic girls’ life forces they were forcing them to speak to the ghost of their dead daughter in hopes of keeping a part of her with them, and therein sucking the life out of them that way. I couldn’t tell if we were meant to feel sympathy for the mother or not. Their mentally disabled son, Bobo, is another story. He bonds with the present ‘Penny’ (the name that all the kidnapped girls take on, after the dead daughter) and doesn’t want to hurt her, as he didn’t want to hurt the others, but is domineered by his mother and his need to please her.

Again, pretty standard tropes for a thriller.

I even guessed the twist pretty early on, which never gives a book any points. Doesn’t take away points, mind you, but in this case, other problems couldn’t quite save this book for me. It isn’t a bad book by any means, it just wasn’t really what I was looking for.

Rating 5: I really wanted to like this book more than I did, but it didn’t draw me in as much as I had hoped it would. I liked Finley enough, but other characters are pretty familiar tropes and the story hasn’t added much to the genre.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Ink and Bone” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Most Anticipated Mysteries of 2016”, and “2016: What the Over-35s Are Reading”.

Find “Ink and Bone” at your local library using WorldCat!