Serena’s Review: “All of Our Demise”

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Book: “All of Our Demise” by Amanda Foody & Christine Lynn Herman

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: For the first time in this ancient, bloodstained story, the tournament is breaking. The boundaries between the city of Ilvernath and the arena have fallen. Reporters swarm the historic battlegrounds. A dead boy now lives again. And a new champion has entered the fray, one who seeks to break the curse for good… no matter how many lives are sacrificed in the process.

As the curse teeters closer and closer to collapse, the surviving champions each face a choice: dismantle the tournament piece by piece, or fight to the death as this story was always intended.

Long-held alliances will be severed. Hearts will break. Lives will end. Because a tale as wicked as this one was never destined for happily ever after.

Previously Reviewed: “All of Us Villains”

Review: “All of Us Villains” was one of those rare beasts for me last year where it was a very hyped book that I felt actually lived up to the hype. More surprising still, it was a multi-POV fantasy story that actually managed to create a cast of characters all of whom felt unique and whose stories I was interested in reading individually and collectively. All of this to say, I was very excited about this second half of this duology to release this year (especially given that my main gripe about the first book was the cliffhanger it all wrapped up on).

The stakes could not be more high. What once was a brutal, secretive battle royale has had all of its mysteries torn away with the fall of the veil that used to separate the city of Ilvernath and the harsh landscape where the contestants fought. But, while much may be different, many things are still the same, like the deathly importance of alliances and the fear that one never knows friend from foe. For some, however, the goal is no longer to win this most brutal of tournaments, but to destroy it once and for all.

Well, while there was a lot to like about this book, I feel a controversial review coming on! But first let’s get into the parts of my review that will probably line up nicely with everyone else’s reaction. For one thing, there’s no denying the general quality of this duology. The writing remains one of its strongest aspects, across both dialogue and descriptive portions. There were several pieces that I re-read and several moments where I knew that the high quality of the writing was helping assuage some of my annoyances at what I felt were missed opportunities, story-wise.

I also still like the overall concept of the story. Though, I do have to say that this was one of the places where this book began to fall short of the first. There was such a feeling of a breath of fresh air in that first book. Not only did I find all of the characters’ stories interesting, but in a world where I’ve read a million and one “magical competition” fantasy novels, this one managed to stand out from the crowd. But that being the case, this book had a higher task at hand since that initial good will based purely on a new world and concept had already been spent. And while I still enjoyed returning to this world, I did start to feel as if some of the alliances and character drama was beginning to overtake the enjoyment that could have been found in continued world-building.

And really, this is where I was really held up: the characters. While I enjoyed almost all of them in the first book, here I began to feel that several of their storylines began to fall apart, especially when you looked back over the two books together. There were character decisions and betrayals that began to feel more like they were driven by the authors wanting to create shock value than in any organic change in the characters themselves. More and more, I found myself feeling frustrated by some of the characters and the lack of consistency in their reactions to other characters and other plot points.

My biggest annoyance comes with a plot point that I can’t really talk about without some major spoilers. I wasn’t against this particular point in a vacuum, but specifically in the story we see here, it began to represent my overall frustration with the character arcs overall. I felt like the authors not only set the reader up in the first book in a way that was misleading (this second-book-switch could have worked if a bit more effort had been laid down to hint at this change of path, but I don’t feel that was the case), but I also felt like one of the biggest emotional cliffhangers from the first book was kind of wasted. In other words, I feel like I was really revved up to be invested in certain things and then…those things weren’t anything, ultimately. This will be the most unpopular opinion in this review, I’m sure, as I know that the outcome seen here is going to appeal to a lot of fans. And I feel like I could have been on this train too, but I was left frustrated by the feeling that the authors intentionally wound me up into an emotionally invested situation that they were using purely as misdirection. And, as a reader, this kind of thing at best, doesn’t work for me. And at worst, annoys me. And here it really annoyed me because I thought that the abandoned storyline had been set up in a really interesting way.

I also have to say I was a bit let down by the lack of brutality in this book. Maybe I’m just sadistic, but I didn’t feel like any of the big moments in this book really landed and that most of the decisions that would have felt like true gut punches were avoided. But, like I said, the writing was still excellent, and I know this will be seen as an excellent end to the story for many readers. Just not as much for me, sadly.

Rating 7: Unpopular opinion from me in that I felt like a lot of the build up of the first book was wasted here in the second.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All of Our Demise” is on this Goodreads list: YA Releases August 2022

Serena’s Review: “Notorious Sorcerer”

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Book: “Notorious Sorcerer” by Davinia Evans

Publishing Info: Orbit, September 2022

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

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

Book Description: Welcome to Bezim, where sword-slinging bravi race through the night and rich and idle alchemists make magic out of mixing and measuring the four planes of reality.

Siyon Velo, Dockside brat turned petty alchemist, scrapes a living hopping between the planes to harvest ingredients for the city’s alchemists. But when Siyon accidentally commits an act of impossible magic, he’s catapulted into the limelight—which is a bad place to be when the planes start lurching out of alignment, threatening to send Bezim into the sea.

It will take a miracle to save the city. Good thing Siyon has pulled off the impossible before. Now he just has to master it.

Review: This is one of those books where the title was doing a lot of the work in my reasoning for picking it up to review. Plus, I thought the cover was pretty cool. Other than that, I really only understood it to be a fantasy novel that involved alchemy somehow and may or may not be a portal fantasy. But I’m always game for an unknown debut book, so I was excited when I received an ARC from the author.

Bezim is a land strictly divided by the haves and have nots. Those in the upper class have easy access to education and, through that education, magic, while those in the lower classes must struggle by. Of course, alchemy is a magic that has its dangers as well as its powers, so a firm understanding of its uses is necessary to prevent some of the horrific disasters that have been suffered in the past. But for Siyon, he’s happy enough to live somewhere in the middle, patching together his own small time alchemy with very little adherence to the rules that are meant to govern it. That is until he performs a shocking act of magic that both impresses and concerns all who witness it. For now, the future of Bezim is in question again and it seems only an unlearned amateur may be capable of saving it.

This was definitely one of those middle-of-the-road books for me. There was nothing glaringly wrong with any of it. And, in fact, much that was right. Yet, I still struggled to feel fully immersed in the story. The pacing is fast right from the start, with the story galloping along from one action-packed scene to the next. On one hand, this made the story a fun, quick read. But on the other hand, I felt like I was struggling to fully connect to the characters I was meeting on the page, as they were so quickly vaulting from one action set piece to another, with very little time given to any sort of introspection.

I did really like the magic system we were given, and the interesting ways that staples from classic portal fantasy and other alchemy stories were woven together. There was enough that was familiar to make the story approachable (and to help with the fact that, again, the fast pacing left less room for lengthy explanations than other, slower fantasy novels), but there were a lot a lot of original ideas on display as well.

I had also heard a lot of references in early blurbs of the book to the funny and light-hearted tone of the story, and those definitely check out. But, again, I wasn’t necessarily blown away by any of comedic elements. For one thing, I began to struggle with Siyon as a main character when it came to this balance of comedy and primary protagonist. His character is introduced as an “act first, think second” type of person, and we see that again and again. Some of this plays to great comedic affect. But there also came a point when he had been warned again and again about the dangers of alchemy and continued to hand-wave these warnings away. After a bit, I began to feel more frustrated by his poor decision-making than amused.

Overall, this was a perfectly fine debut fantasy novel. There was a lot of potential every where you looked: intriguing world-building, humorous writing, interesting characters. But it also felt like every one of these aspects could have been fleshed out just a bit more to make something truly noteworthy. That said, fans of fast-moving, action-packed fantasy novels should definitely check this one out.

Rating 7: A quick, fun read, but perhaps lacking some of the depth I look for to make a book really feel like it’s going to stick with me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Notorious Sorcerer” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Alchemy Books.

Serena’s Review: “To Kiss a Wallflower”

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Book: “To Kiss a Wallflower” by Jen Geigle Johnson, Heather B. Moore, & Anneka R. Walker

Publishing Info: Mirror Press, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publicist!

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

Book Description: THE WALLFLOWER’S DANCE by Jen Geigle Johnson

Lottie Hughes likes people, as long as they aren’t too close. Does it bother her that no one asks her to dance? Yes, but she’s not sure how to drum up dance partners when she has almost no dowry, no title, and freezes up when anyone tries to talk to her. When she suddenly inherits a huge amount and is the new center of attention all over London, her secret dreams might come true but also her worst nightmares. Suddenly everyone wants to talk to her. Men ask her to dance. And she is inundated with interested suitors. She fights to stay close to the few friends she knows are true. One man saw her before her life changed forever. But does she want to accept his help when he, too, might be insincere?

LETTERS TO A WALLFLOWER by Heather B. Moore

Ellen might be beautiful and considered a diamond of the first water by Society, but she is so very tired of the pressure to marry a titled gentleman so that her beauty won’t go to waste. When her cousin Dinah dares Ellen to attend a ball with no frills and to stand with the wallflowers, Ellen takes on the dare. What’s in the wager for her? The prize cuttings of her aunt’s extraordinary roses. But what Ellen isn’t expecting is Lord Ravenshire to engage her in the most interesting conversation. When she confesses to him of her opposition in marrying for a title, he confesses his distaste of the London scene. They strike a bargain together, one which will either push them apart or lead to a future sweeter than either of them could have imagined.

TO MARRY A WALLFLOWER by Anneka R. Walker

Charlotte Winters is destined to spinsterhood until she turns down an unwanted proposal and everything changes. With gossip rampant, her father attempts to salvage her reputation by betrothing her to another. Soon she is sent off to her aunt’s to meet Lord Templeton, her intended. Anxiety-ridden, Charlotte begs her aunt to let her observe Lord Templeton from afar before their introduction. She never planned to pretend to be her fictional cousin to learn more about him, or to fall in love with Lord Templeton’s friend in the process. Lord Templeton dreads returning to the empty halls of Newcliff Manor. When his father’s old friend, Mr. Winters reaches out for assistance, Lord Templeton finds himself returning home engaged to a woman he has never met. Desperate to learn more about Miss Winters, he befriends her cousin. He wouldn’t have spoken to her, or lied about his identity, if he’d known the quiet woman would sneak into his heart.

Review: A few months ago, I participated in a blog tour for this book and posted an excerpt here on the blog. Well, today I’m back with my full review of the collection. Since there are three entirely separate stories contained within this book, I thought I’d split my review into three mini reviews, one for each story.

“The Wallflower’s Dance”

This is your classic friends-to-lovers romance, and it covered every base you want to see in this type of story. The friendship between the hero and the heroine was believable, as was the fact that it seemed understandable that each was so caught up in this type of interaction that it would take a certain sort of jolt to shock their systems into seeing each other in different ways.

I did struggle a bit towards the end of this story, however. It seemed that that solid foundation of friendship was easily undercut with doubts about the other’s intentions. This would have felt believable with other characters, but with two people who have known each other for so long, it was a bit hard to buy their sudden decision to believe complete strangers over a longtime friend. There was also one last shot of complete insanity on the heroine’s part after the truth was made known to her. It was only one paragraph, which honestly made it all the more frustrating. Just take that one bit out and nothing would change in the story, except a better opinion of your heroine!

That said, I still had a fun time reading this story.

“Letters to a Wallflower”

This was another classic romance trope: the fake dating/courtship romance. As is implied by the title, there’s a brief (luckily very brief!) period of time when our hero and heroine set-up a correspondence to get them each out of the eyes of pestering mothers and society and back to their beloved country abodes.

To be fair, this one plays fast and loose with the whole “wallflower” theme. Ellen is in fact a very beautiful, sought after young lady who tires of getting asked to dance too many times. So she makes a deal with her friend to try to hide as a wallflower and see if she is asked to dance at all. Unfortunately for her, Lord Ravenshire sets out with the purpose of dancing with all of the wallflowers. But through this mishap they hit on the idea to fake a relationship.

There were a few anachronisms early in this book (the word “hairdo” and an ordering of earl as one of the highest ranks, which is incorrect), but overall I think the writing in this book was the best. After I got past the first few errors, I really enjoyed this one, and it was probably my favorite of the three.

To Marry a Wallflower”

We wrap up our regency romances with the “secret identity” trope. For all that this is the trope I picked in our recent romance tropes bookclub theme, it’s probably one of my least favorite. All too often I have a hard time believing the essential lie at the heart of these kind of confusions wouldn’t do more lasting damage than they seem to. So, I was the most nervous going into this one of the three.

Honestly, I did struggle a bit with this story. There was a lot of terrible advice given out, and I thought the excuse to pose as different people was a bit weak for both Charlotte and Luke. Their interactions were sweet and I did become invested in their relationship as the story continued. But I could never fully get past the secret identity thing that tinged every moment. The reveal itself was a nice payoff, but I think I would have enjoyed this one more if it hadn’t been this trope to begin with. But that’s a purely subjective opinion, and fans of “secret identity” romances may love this one!

As a whole, I think this is a really solid compilation of clean, sweet Regency romances. This is part of a very long series of Regency romances made up of short stories, so fans of those are sure to enjoy this. Readers who are also looking for a low commitment, sweet romance read should also check this out. They’re the perfect reads for someone looking to whip through a romance story in one night’s time!

Rating 7: I was left wanting just a bit more from all three of these stories, but they were also fun and satisfying reads on their own which are sure to appeal to fans of clean historical romance stories!

Reader’s Advisory:

“To Kiss a Wallflower” is part of the Timeless Regency Collection Series.

Kate’s Review: “You’re Invited”


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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “You’re Invited” by Amanda Jayatissa

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, August 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: From the author of My Sweet Girl comes a dangerously addictive new thriller about a lavish Sri Lankan wedding celebration that not everyone will survive.

When Amaya is invited to Kaavi’s over-the-top wedding in Sri Lanka, she is surprised and a little hurt to hear from her former best friend after so many years of radio silence. But when Amaya learns that the groom is her very own ex-boyfriend, she is consumed by a single thought: She must stop the wedding from happening, no matter the cost.

But as the weeklong wedding celebrations begin and rumors about Amaya’s past begin to swirl, she can’t help but feel like she also has a target on her back. When Kaavi goes missing and is presumed dead, all evidence points to Amaya. However, nothing is as it seems as Jayatissa expertly unravels that each wedding guest has their own dark secret and agenda, and Amaya may not be the only one with a plan to keep the bride from getting her happily ever after

Review: I always look forward to seeing what Book of the Month has in store for the monthly picks, and while I am egregiously behind in keeping up with my BOTM picks, I will prioritize ones that look especially interesting. So naturally, when I saw that one of the picks this summer was “You’re Invited” by Amanda Jayatissa, I was pretty stoked. I had mostly enjoyed “My Sweet Girl”, her previous thriller, and while it had stumbled in some ways I liked Jayatissa’s voice and perspective. And honestly, the idea of a lavish wedding being thrown into upheaval due to a bride going missing, possibly due to a jealous ex friend, is just too good to pass up. I LOVE A GOOD WEDDING MESS!

We all know I love drama, and wedding drama is a special kind of drama. (source)

Jayatissa has once again given us a protagonist who makes a lot of questionable choices and is clearly hiding something not only from those around her, but also from the reader. This time it’s Amaya, a woman born in Sri Lanka who is now living in the U.S., and seems to be on the verge of emotional collapse. When she finds out her former best friend Kaavi is getting married to her ex boyfriend Spencer, and having a lavish wedding in Sri Lanka, Amaya is dead set on stopping the nuptials. Amaya clearly has things bubbling beneath the surface, as it is clear she is damaged and unstable in a lot of ways, and I just couldn’t wait to see just what was going on. Because obviously there’s a bit more to it than a potential backstabbing from people she used to know (though admittedly on paper that sure does sound infuriating). In terms of the mystery itself, I enjoyed the way that it was set up and slowly unveiled, through both first person POVs (namely of Amaya and Kaavi, jumping through the timeline a bit between them) and also transcripts of the official police interviews as they investigate Kaavi’s disappearance. It’s a good way to get a lot of different perspectives not only on the mystery itself, but also on our protagonist and the potential victim that she may or may not have been entangled with right before the disappearance. It makes for a mix of unreliability AND clarity, depending on how the pieces fall into place. I found myself able to guess some of the twists, but was genuinely surprised by others, and the pacing was quick and snappy so that I was propelled forward and fully engaged in the plot and how it was all going to turn out.

All that said, I did think that some of the twists were a little haphazard and cobbled together to make for higher drama when there probably didn’t need to be as such. One of them was even the kind that I just don’t like in that it was thrown in basically at the las moment, as one final shock to the narrative. I’ve complained about this kind of thing in the past, and I’m pretty sure that I had that gripe with Jayatissa’s previous novel “My Sweet Girl”. What I will say about this one was that it wasn’t so involved that it completely changed the outcome of the story in the last few paragraphs, but sometimes that’s even more frustrating because then what even is the point of doing such a thing outside of just being able to say ‘well maybe I gave you one last shock’. I don’t really need one last shock so close to the end, and unless you REALLY earn it, it’s usually going to be the kind of thing that leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Sour taste aside, “You’re Invited” was entertaining, soapy, and suspenseful enough that I enjoyed my time reading it. Amanda Jayatissa is definitely going to be one of those authors I want to read, and I am very interested to see what her next book is going to be!

Rating 7: A couple twists felt out of left field and unearned, but overall I found this to be engaging and entertaining.

Reader’s Advisory:

“You’re Invited” is included on the Goodreads lists “Wedding Mysteries & Thrillers”, and “Books by Sri Lankan Authors About Sri Lanka”.

Serena’s Review: “Death at the Manor”

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Book: “Death at the Manor” by Katharine Schellman

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Regency widow Lily Adler is looking forward to spending the autumn away from the social whirl of London society. When she arrives in Hampshire with her friends, Lord and Lady Carroway, she doesn’t expect much more than a quiet country visit and the chance to spend time with her charming new acquaintance, Matthew Spencer.

But something odd is afoot in the small country village. A ghost has taken up residence in the Belleford manor, a lady in grey who wanders the halls at night, weeping and wailing. Half the servants have left in terror, but the family is delighted with the notoriety that their ghost provides. Piqued by this spectral guest, Lily and her party immediately make plans to visit Belleford.

They arrive at the manor the next morning ready to be entertained—but tragedy has struck. The matriarch of the family has just been found smothered to death in her bed.

There was no one else in her room, and the door was locked from the inside. The dead woman’s family is convinced that the ghost is responsible. The servants are keeping secrets. The local magistrate is flummoxed. Lily is determined to learn the truth before another victim turns up—but could she be next in line for the Great Beyond?

Previously Reviewed: “The Body in the Garden” and “Silence in the Library”

Review: I’ve really been enjoying this historical mystery series. There are a few others I’ve been reading recently, but they’ve all featured a heroine/hero combination that, while enjoyable, begins to feel familiar very quickly. This book stands out not only with Lily serving as the primary detective herself, but in the fact that her cast of supporting characters not only includes, yes, the hero character, but also some of her fellow lady friends. This has allowed the series to remain feeling fresh and unique as compared to contemporaries. So, of course, when I saw the new one coming out this summer, I was on top of things!

Lily Adler’s friend, Captain Jack, is heading back to sea. And while he is glad to be returning to his beloved ship, he worries that Lily has had quite the penchant for stumbling upon dead bodies recently. She, however, assures him that she will be heading to the country to spend time with her dear aunt. What body could possibly be found in these circumstances? Alas, Jack’s worries are all too astute. For Lily, accompanied by her friend Lady Carroway, not only stumbles upon another murder victim, but the primary suspect is none other than a manor house ghost. But when Lily stumbles upon some revelations she had never suspected, she begins to question her own abilities. Will she be able to solve yet another mystery?

So, unfortunately, this book didn’t quite live up to my expectations for it. Admittedly, they were quite high, so the book was by no means objectively bad. Just not as good as the two that came before. But first, there are a few things that definitely stood out in the positive category. For one, I liked Lily’s struggles with her own limitations. Up to this point, while Lily has struggled to garner the respect from her peers for her observational skills, she’s never suffered from any great crisis of faith in herself. Here, after a secret that has been sitting right under her nose for years finally comes to light, Lily must grapple with her own limitations and biases. It’s a great internal arch for the character, and one that you rarely see in detective mysteries such as this that rely on their main character’s almost supernatural ability to know all.

I also liked the addition of Lady Carroway. While we’ve seen the character quite a bit in other books, here, she is allowed a few of her own chapters and perspectives. These were excellent on their own, but also worked well as a balance point to Lily’s ongoing internal struggles. Lady Carroway has a very different view of society, both because of the challenges she faced as a biracial noblewoman, but also because of her differing temperament. Their friendship is not without its own ups and downs, and I liked this more honest depiction of female friendships, one where the waters are not always smooth.

I also liked the nods to the gothic novels that were popular during this period of time. This was a fun theme to explore in the story, and served as a nice change of pace from the more straight-forward murder mysteries at the heart of the previous two books.

That said, there are two major points where the book struggled, in my opinion. One of them is more subjective than the other, so let’s start with that one. One of the nice things about these books so far has been the very, very slow burn of any romance that may (or may not) be developing between Lily and Jack. On one hand, I very much like this. But on the other, when it became clear that Jack was going to cede his position in this book to Matthew Spencer, a gentleman who was introduced as a potential romantic interest in the previous book, I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I just couldn’t become invested in this character or this romance. It does seem like this might be setting the stage for Lily’s slow growth through her grief over her husband. And, objectively, the decision for her to not necessarily jump from one “great love” to another but instead have other interests between makes sense. But as a reader, I just spent most of the time missing Jack and rolling my eyes at Lily’s obtuseness (at least I had Lady Carroway right there with me on #TeamJack).

My second problem, sadly, came with the mystery itself. Because I don’t want to spoil it, there’s not a whole lot I can go into as far as details. It’s a closed-door mystery, so that lays out the stakes well enough right there. However, I found the way in which the murder took place incredibly obvious from the very first inspection of the murder scene. What’s worse, later in the book, Lily happens upon a particular happenstance in this same locked room that even more clearly illustrates the solution. And it still didn’t click! It was so blatantly obvious that it had the unfortunate effect of making Lily’s obliviousness increasingly at odds with her reputation for solving complicated mysteries. I also was able to identify the killer and a decent portion of their motivations fairly early, too. All in all, while I still enjoyed the process of reading about this mystery, it was incredibly anticlimactic given some of the obvious clues and red herrings.

However, I still very much enjoyed Lily as a character. And I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of viewpoints from Lady Harroway herself. So, in conclusion, this book was a bit hit and miss. I still think the writing is strong, and Lily’s long term arch holds a lot of potential. Fans of the previous books will likely enjoy this one, but be warned that the mystery was not as compelling as previous entries.

Rating 7: Has a bit of a “middle book” feel to it with a lackluster mystery at its heart, but Lily herself is still an interesting enough character on her own to carry the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Death at the Manor” can be found on this Goodreads list: Historical Mystery 2022

Kate’s Review: “Suburban Hell”

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Book: “Suburban Hell” by Maureen Kilmer

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, August 2022

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

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

Book Description: A Chicago cul-de-sac is about to get a new neighbor…of the demonic kind.

Amy Foster considers herself lucky. After she left the city and moved to the suburbs, she found her place quickly with neighbors Liz, Jess, and Melissa, snarking together from the outskirts of the PTA crowd. One night during their monthly wine get-together, the crew concoct a plan for a clubhouse She Shed in Liz’s backyard–a space for just them, no spouses or kids allowed.

But the night after they christen the She Shed, things start to feel . . . off. They didn’t expect Liz’s little home-improvement project to release a demonic force that turns their quiet enclave into something out of a nightmare. And that’s before the homeowners’ association gets wind of it.

Even the calmest moms can’t justify the strange burn marks, self-moving dolls, and horrible smells surrounding their possessed friend, Liz. Together, Amy, Jess, and Melissa must fight the evil spirit to save Liz and the neighborhood . . . before the suburbs go completely to hell.

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

I gotta say, back when my husband and I were looking to buy a house (gosh, almost ten year ago), I had a very firm line I didn’t want to cross: we had to stay in the city limits. I wanted to make sure that we were bonafide city dwellers, not living in suburbia and all of the baggage and shady history that comes with it. Well, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that if we wanted an affordable house that was spacious, suburbia it was gonna have to be. And I do love my house and my neighborhood these days, with parks, a library, and a lot of nature within a mile of my house. But the baggage is still there at times, as it’s still suburbia, and sometimes that can feel isolating. Because of this, I was VERY interested in the horror book “Suburban Hell” by Maureen Kilmer. That and the fact it sounded a bit “Desperate Housewives”-esque with a healthy dose of demonic possession.

“Suburban Hell” has a similar aesthetic and tone as “The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires”, in that it follows some unlikely exorcists who have to do battle with an angry entity that has possessed their friend, all because of unsettled soil due to an in process ‘She Shed’. These suburban women juggle their kids, the neighborhood relationships and the supportive (and sometimes not so supportive) men in their lives, and provide support for each other. Our main character is Amy, an out of work social worker who first realizes that Liz, She-Shed owner and kind nurse, is acting off. The usual fare when it comes to possession novels starts to tick off: weird smells coming from Liz’s vicinity, dead animals popping up unexpectedly, otherwise inanimate objects becoming threatening, all while Amy and friends Melissa and Jess think there has to be a rational explanation, until there just isn’t one. It’s pretty standard and straight forward horror fare, and it’s admittedly pretty light on the scares. That isn’t to say it isn’t enjoyable, as I did find it to be a breezy and fun read, even if it wasn’t particularly scary.

The thing that was the most effective for me in “Suburban Hell” was the depiction of suburban ennui and the highs and lows of being a stay at home mom. I loved that between the moments of demon battle and research, we got to see Amy cope with a life that she does love, but doesn’t fulfill her as much as she would like it to. The side comments about the way that her children would get into trouble, or the longing for a return to a life where she was working full time in the city, or the way that her loving and supportive husband just sometimes didn’t GET it, all of it really rang true to me, as did the themes about how important having friends who do get it can be. Lord knows that I have those moments where I will be taking my toddler to the park and having a ROUGH GO of it, but know that my neighborhood friend (also with a toddler in tow) is going to be there and we can commiserate, which makes it a little better. This was the kind of connection that made Amy’s dogged pursuit of trying to save Liz super believable, even when faced with supernatural threat to herself. The friendship at the heart of the book is the good vs evil conduit, and I love seeing a possession story be less about religion and more about the power of inner goodness of anyone from any background.

“Suburban Hell” may not provide the scares that an avid horror fan wants, but it is still very fun and entertaining. I think that it would be a great choice for someone who is looking for a little bit of ‘horror lite’ with the upcoming Halloween season, at certainly for the people in your life who are trying to navigate the intricacies of suburbia and the ‘horrors’ that can be found beneath a veneer of contentment.

Rating 7: Relatable and filled with humor, “Suburban Hell” is lighter on the scares, but still has a lot of fun, devilish moments.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Suburban Hell” isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but you would find a solid companion in “The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires”.

Kate’s Review: “The Honeys”

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Book: “The Honeys” by Ryan La Sala

Publishing Info: PUSH, August 2022

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

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

Book Description: Mars has always been the lesser twin, the shadow to his sister Caroline’s radiance. But when Caroline dies under horrific circumstances, Mars is propelled to learn all he can about his once-inseparable sister who’d grown tragically distant.

Mars’s genderfluidity means he’s often excluded from the traditions — and expectations — of his politically-connected family. This includes attendance at the prestigious Aspen Conservancy Summer Academy where his sister poured so much of her time. But with his grief still fresh, he insists on attending in her place.

What Mars finds is a bucolic fairytale not meant for him. Folksy charm and sun-drenched festivities camouflage old-fashioned gender roles and a toxic preparatory rigor. Mars seeks out his sister’s old friends: a group of girls dubbed the Honeys, named for the beehives they maintain behind their cabin. They are beautiful and terrifying — and Mars is certain they’re connected to Caroline’s death. But the longer he stays at Aspen, the more the sweet mountain breezes give way to hints of decay. Mars’s memories begin to falter, bleached beneath the relentless summer sun. Something is hunting him in broad daylight, toying with his mind. If Mars can’t find it soon, it will eat him alive.

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

There is something about bees and horror that just kind of goes together. From the classic horror film “Candyman” to the recent “Umma” (I quite enjoyed this one, I don’t agree with the critics scores), there are things you can do with bee imagery that just work in a scary context. I’m actually surprised I haven’t encountered it more in horror fiction, but luckily we have “The Honeys” by Ryan La Sala to tap into this imagery! I hadn’t heard of this book before it ended up on my doorstep, but the premise was definitely eye catching. It sounded a bit like “Heathers” meets folk and prep school horror, and if that isn’t an interesting combination I don’t know what is.

I will say that “The Honeys” is a little slow to start up and really get going, at least in my reading experience it was. We start with a bang, but then it takes its sweet time to build up the unease and high strangeness that is going on at Aspen, and to explore what it has to do with Mars, Caroline, and the Honeys. It just felt a bit like the pacing was uneven, and it had a hard time holding my attention at first because of it. But I will say that once we got into the thick of it, and stuff started happening, it had an iron grip on my attention and it really picked up. The horror elements to this book are so profoundly unique, and also have some really, REALLY creepy and upsetting imagery that felt straight out of an Ari Aster horror movie (funnily enough I mean that in a positive way, given that I don’t really like Aster’s movies too much, but the guy does know how to deliver on horror aesthetic). There was one moment in particular that practically broke my brain for a few moments and I just kind of froze up.

Like Jesus. What the fuck? (source)

What worked even better for me was how La Sala used this story to take on and deconstruct toxic gender norms within a rigid social setting, as Mars is genderfluid and Aspen, while pastoral and somewhat chill, has VERY stringent gender norms, some okay, others quite toxic. The Honeys themselves kind of break stereotypes of femininity, as they are hyper feminine but don’t meet the preconceived and sexist notions of what that means (aka, just because they’re girly it doesn’t mean they are weak, as femininity isn’t a weakness). On the flip side, the hyper masculine boys group at the school is seeping in toxic masculinity, and Mars being genderfluid makes them a target of animosity, but also a target of those who would prefer they go along to get along, given their prestigious status as the child of a Senator. I liked seeing how La Sala explores this through Mars’s eyes, and how even those who mean well towards them and their social acceptance at Aspen are still putting the onus on Mars as opposed to the people who are being cruel. And I don’t want to give spoilers here, but I will say that even the larger plan at the horror thematic center constrains itself to such societal mores, and it is up to Mars and their allies to take their power back. I thought all of this was well done.

So all in all, a slower start but a unique and worthwhile horror read! “The Honeys” is sure to get people talking in YA horror circles.

Rating 7: Kind of a slow start, but once it gets going “The Honeys” is a twisted and creepy horror novel that takes on corrupt powers that be and toxic societal gender constraints.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Honeys” is new and isn’t included on many Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Queer Dark Academia”.

Kate’s Review: “American Vampire (Vol. 2)”

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Book: “American Vampire (Vol.2)” by Scott Snyder & Raphael Albuquerque (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, May 2011

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: While trafficking in a bestselling sub-genre, American Vampire introduces a new strain of vampire — a more muscular and vicious species, born of the American West.

It’s Las Vegas circa 1935, and Skinner Sweet and our gal Pearl are about to learn the hard way that the bloodsuckers in Hollywood were nothing compared to what awaits them in Sin City.

In just a few short years, young police Chief Cash McCogan has watched his native city of Las Vegas go from cow-town to wild, glittering boomtown. And when the bodies of prominent businessmen start showing up drained of blood, Chief McCogan finds himself facing a threat much darker and deadlier than anything he could have imagined . . . and the only sure bet in town is that Skinner and Pearl are right in the thick of it.

Review: So “American Vampire”‘s second volume was the one I was most apprehensive revisiting, as I remembered not liking it so much on my initial read. So much so that I kind of stopped the series for awhile. I felt that it dove into some stuff that I had a very hard time with, ultimately, and I knew that while I had to read it again for this revisit, I wasn’t looking forward to it. But a completist I am when it comes to this stuff, and ya gotta judge a series but all of it’s canonical parts. So into “Volume 2” I dove. And it was a better experience this time around to be sure, just putting into the context of the greater storyline! But man, I still really hate that Skinner Sweet. And I think he’s getting off a little easy.

Starting with what I do like about this volume, as it does outweigh the negatives, I love how Snyder has taken another snapshot of a moment in American history, this time being the inception of Las Vegas’s reputation as a party town due to the construction of the Hoover Dam, and adds in some vampire touches that could link to real life ills of American society. This time it’s the idea of progress and innovation, as the dam has brought in a lot of workers, and with workers comes a certain rowdiness that Las Vegas Deputy Cash McCogan is wary of. So when high powered backers involved in the dam start ending up dead, drained of blood, he is approached by a mysterious couple of agents, one of whom is Felicia Book, the daughter of previous hero turned vampire James Book. I loved how we slowly peeled back what Felicia’s deal was, and what kind of group she is working for, as well as her ulterior motives beyond the group because of her connection to their target, Skinner Sweet. And of course Skinner has his disgusting claws planted firmly in Las Vegas’s underbelly. I thought that the mythos building in this issue was good, though some of the plot points introduced were very quickly resolved in ways that felt unsatisfying to me.

I think that my biggest qualms partially go back into my previous qualms with my initial read, though I did find more this time that aggravated me, though my overall dissatisfaction wasn’t as pronounced this time. For one, without going into specifics, Skinner Sweet continues to be the irredeemable worst, and continues to not have any interesting growth or nuance. It’s fine when it’s the first volume and we are just getting to know him, but if we are going to have such a focus on him as the story goes on, it would sit better with me if he was more interesting in his badness. As it is in this volume, he’s either exploiting sex workers as the head of a brothel, continuing his spiteful violence, and creating a pivotal turning point in the series for a few characters through a particularly terrible act that disturbed me as much this time as it did the first time reading it. I did like following our ‘heroes’, deputy Cash McCogan, as well as two mysterious agents for the hush hush group, one of whom being Felicia, but on the flip side there is a VERY serious lack of Pearl in this volume. Given that Pearl is the vampire I actually really like in this series, it was a shame she was kind of sidelined, even if it was rewarding in some ways. The lack of Pearl this time was especially galling. She is far more interesting than Skinner freakin’ Sweet.

But Raphael Albuquerque’s art is still pretty great! I like that this time around he gets to play with some vampire designs that think outside the box!

I mean this is just cool. (source)

I liked the expanded mythos of the vampire hunters, but didn’t like the central focus on Skinner Sweet this time around. But I am excited to revisit where things go next, as I remember liking it more than this foray into the storyline.

Rating 7: Another fun deep dive into vampire connections to American history, though it sometimes feels a bit haphazard in introducing and concluding plot points.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Vampire (Vol. 2)” is included on the Goodreads lists “Comic Books to Appreciate and Love”, and “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”.

Kate’s Review: “Zatanna: The Jewel of Gravesend”

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Book: “Zatanna: The Jewel of Gravesend” by Alys Arden and Jacquelin De Leon (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, July 2022

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

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

Book Description: There’s more to the mobsters, mystics, and mermaids at the last stop on the D/F/Q trains: Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue.

Zatanna’s not your typical New Yorker. She walks her giant rabbit on a leather leash down the boardwalk, lives in a colossal architectural wonder known as the Golden Elephant, had her first kiss in the Haunted Hell Gate ride–and wouldn’t have it any other way.

But the time for having fun in Luna Park comes to an end when a mystic’s quest for a powerful jewel unravels everything Zatanna thought she knew about herself and her beloved neighborhood. Mysteries and magic surround her as she reveals the truth about her family’s legacy, and confronts the illusion that has been cast over her entire life.

From the bewitching mind behind The Casquette Girls, Alys Arden, and with enchanting artwork by Jacquelin de Leon, comes the story of a girl stuck in the middle of a magical rivalry and forced to choose between love, family, and magic without hurting anyone…or worse

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

Though I have been fairly into DC for most of my life, I will fully admit that I haven’t encountered too much Zatanna. Sure, she does pop up here and there (I really liked her iteration in the “Bombshells” series), but she just isn’t really a character that I have encountered so much. Which is partially why I decided to pick up “Zatanna: The Jewel of Gravesend”. It was enticing in a few ways from the jump. For one, I love her design on the cover of his graphic novel: the the hat, the colors, everything. I also liked the concept of her being a Coney Island kid both in the sense of where she lives, but also in the sense of being part of a family of performers. I am always looking for more ladies in DC to enjoy, and “Zatanna: The Jewel of Gravesend” was a good primer for this character.

I liked Zatanna as a character in this, as she is very much a genial and intrepid teenage girl who loves her friends, loves her family, and loves her boyfriend. While her father Ezra puts pressure on her to join his magic act, which she isn’t really feeling, she has friends who are fortune tellers and other illusionists. She also has a boyfriend named Alexei who happens to be the son of a notoroious Russian mobster, though Alexei seems to be more tenderhearted than his family reputation. When Zatanna starts seeing strange backwards writing, and then starts to experience magic of her own, things get complicated. I liked the build up to this, as I felt that Alys Arden went at a good pace to build up background before really diving in to the story at hand. I liked the atmosphere of Luna City and Coney Island, and I liked seeing Zatanna deal with coming of age issues, be they pretty run of the mill, or more of the magical kind.

I do think that things get a little rushed in the last third. I mentioned above that I liked the background, and I definitely did, but then I felt that there was a rush to get to the heart of the story, with reveals and twists coming quickly. A lot of the time we didn’t get a moment to let some of these twists breathe, with a moment happening in one panel and then being yanked away only a couple panels later. I’m going to be vague because the moments I’m talking about are pretty spoiler heavy. But it made the focus between set up and conflict feel a bit unbalanced. Which is strange, because this is (apparently) a first volume of a continuing series. I don’t really know why the pacing got so disjointed when it could have been potentially spread out into another volume if need be, but hey, that could just be one reviewer’s opinion.

That said, I really liked the design of this book. I loved how Zatanna looked, and I loved the neon-y goodness of the Coney Island night life and the magical and opulent Luna City community.

I will probably keep going in the series as we have a true mystery at hand, and I did like this characterization of Zatanna. Plus, the artwork is to die for. I’m hoping the pacing can be a bit more balanced in the next volume, but I am intrigued by where Zatanna is going next.

Rating 7: A fun backstory for an underutilized DC heroine, with a lot of set up for future volumes, and a bit of a rushed conclusion.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Zatanna: The Jewel of Gravesend” is included on the Goodreads lists “DC Comics Female Creators”, and “Magical Fiction for Magicians”.

Kate’s Review: “The Last Comic Book on the Left (Vol.1)”

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Book: “The Last Comic Book on the Left (Vol. 1)” by Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, & Henry Zebrowski (Eds.)

Publishing Info: Z2 Comics, June 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: RISE FROM YOUR GRAVES
Not a joke, not a gag like a necromancer The Last Podcast on The Left is reviving the tradition of the humor comic magazine except this time as a series of graphic novels. Inside you will see stories edited and curated by your Last Podcast Hosts made to entrance the eyes and titillate the senses. SEE: Detective Popcorn solve the meaning of LIFE! WITNESS: The descendent of Albert Fish! GET AROUSED BY: Very Sexy Mothman! A mix of Comedy and Horror created by some of the best comic writers ,artists, warlocks in this dimension
.

Once read The Last Comic on The Left will change your life maybe for the better.

DISCLAIMER: The Last Comic on The Left has not been funded by an underground satanic cult. All Cryptid portrayals have come with the explicit permission of The Mothman, Sasquatch and Jersey Devil estates. By buying, reading or even looking at this book you are consigning your soul, spirit or any eternal animating entity to the creators of this book which again is not funded by a satanic cult

Review: It’s been a few years, but I am still wholeheartedly into the podcast “The Last Podcast on the Left”. While other podcasts have fallen to the wayside, partially due to not driving as much, partially due to other factors, this one is still a must listen for me, and I will support Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, and Henry Zebrowski in as many creative endeavors as I can. So of course I was going to pick up “The Last Comic Book on the Left”, the new graphic novel horror anthology inspired by the show, and designed by a number of writers and artists working in today’s comics industry. I preordered it and it took awhile after some delays, but when it did arrive, I dove in.

This is a collection that has a lot of entries, from short stories to ongoing tales to odd artwork that sends up pin ups and ads from old comic anthologies from back in the day. You can tell that all of the contributors have a clear vision that they are putting forth, and it’s a mish mash of varying successes. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit, haphazard as it was. There were a few stand outs for me. My favorite things were the pin up artworks of various cryptids, from the Jersey Devil to Mothman to Sasquatch, designed in ways that make them out to be Playboy centerfolds with sexy designs and insights into their favorite things (the Mothman one was particularly hilarious, as it’s just otherworldly gibberish with the occasional unsettling bits of English). There is also a really interesting story by Noah Van Sciver that starts out as a seemingly graphic history of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, the offshoot Mormon cult that is known for egregious abuses and fanaticism, but instead turns into a meditation on how we tell these stories (this was probably my favorite in the collection; I have been deeply fascinated by the FLDS and I really liked how Van Sciver turned the whole concept of comic histories on its head). There is also a creepy comic that is based on the Sandown Clown Incident, which was just unsettling and tense because of not only the source material, but also the framing of the tale itself with two small children encountering a creepy clown-like figure, the tension building and building into high strangeness discomfort.

But here is the thing. While I think that fans of the podcast (like myself) will find a lot to love in this collection, I’m not sure that there will be a lot of crossover appeal to broader audiences. With the previous LPOTL book being the fantastic “The Last Book on the Left” there was so much great content and context beyond the podcast lore that I felt any fan of true crime could pick it up and enjoy it. “The Last Comic Book on the Left” is definitely a love letter for the fans who have been with the show for awhile, with references to such characters as Detective Popcorn and Scungilli Man that a layman just isn’t going to get. I think it’s super fun, and I think that there will probably be some people who like the weirdness of a lot of it. And a lot of the stories have outside accessibility to be sure. But it does feel niche. I’m okay with niche, however. This comic is written for me as a fan of the show. It’s chaotic and wild. But it’s absolutely a matter of ‘your mileage may vary’ in terms of other readers.

That said, let’s just look at one of my favorite bits of artwork. BEHOLD: SEXY JERSEY DEVIL by artist Sean Van Gorman!

The caption at the bottom sent me into hysterical laughter. (source: Z2 Comics)

It’s out there, it’s nutty, it’s funny and strange. I had a fun time with “The Last Comic Book on the Left”. It fuses the humor of my favorite podcast with some creative graphic novel designs and storytelling.

Rating 7: It’s going to be very niche, I feel, geared towards fans of the podcast, but I enjoyed the chaotic energy this collection was serving.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Comic Book on the Left” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists as of now, but I think it would fit in on “Horror Comics Anthologies”.

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