Kate’s Review: “All Hallows”

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Book: “All Hallows” by Christopher Golden

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, January 2023

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

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

Book Description: With the 80’s nostalgia of Stranger Things, this horror drama from NYT bestselling author Christopher Golden follows neighborhood families and a mysterious, lurking evil on one Halloween day.

It’s Halloween night, 1984, in Coventry, Massachusetts, and two families are unraveling. Up and down the street, horrifying secrets are being revealed, and all the while, mixed in with the trick-or-treaters of all ages, four children who do not belong are walking door to door, merging with the kids of Parmenter Road. Children in vintage costumes with faded, eerie makeup. They seem terrified, and beg the neighborhood kids to hide them away, to keep them safe from The Cunning Man. There’s a small clearing in the woods now that was never there before, and a blackthorn tree that doesn’t belong at all. These odd children claim that The Cunning Man is coming for them…and they want the local kids to protect them. But with families falling apart and the neighborhood splintered by bitterness, who will save the children of Parmenter Road?

New York Times bestselling, Bram Stoker Award-winning author Christopher Golden is best known for his supernatural thrillers set in deadly, distant locales…but in this suburban Halloween drama, Golden brings the horror home.

All Hallows. The one night when everything is a mask...

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

I’m a person who holds Halloween in my heart all year round, so it’s not a huge stretch for me to pick up a Halloween themed novel or movie or what have you any month of the year. But I think that there’s just something that hits different if you read a certain book during a certain season, and boy am I kicking myself for not picking up my eARC of “All Hallows” by Christopher Golden during October. I’m by no means saying to delay reading this book until NEXT Halloween (don’t sleep on this book until then, it’s super enjoyable and horror fans should read it ASAP), but man oh MAN is this just the perfect Halloween book. It’s the kind of book that makes you feel like you can feel the crisp air of an autumn night, or that you can smell the leaves and woodsmoke in the air. It just screams Halloween, and that isn’t just because it takes place on Halloween in 1984. The aesthetic of masked children running around for tricks and treats after dark jumps off the page, and it feels like a love letter to my favorite holiday. Especially since some of these masked children are, perhaps, not what they seem.

Sam would fit right in. (source)

In the description there is a comparison to “Stranger Things”, and I think that that is correct in the sense of “Stranger Things” feeling like a 1980s Spielberg/”Goonies”/”Stand By Me” vibe of kids being realistic kids in the face of danger or adventure. More danger, in this case. I really loved all of the kids in this book, as we’d shift from one perspective to another and see how they are spending this momentous Halloween in which all their lives are going to be changed. Whether it’s punk and closeted lesbian Vanessa, or earnest and serious Rick, or kind and a bit downtrodden Julia, all of the kids out on Halloween are grappling with their own baggage even before mysterious masked children they haven’t met before start infiltrating their evenings, and begging them for help to protect them from ‘The Cunning Man’. The neighborhood kids can kind of tell that something is off with these new kids, whether it’s their weird behavior or their vague pleadings, but they know that kids have to stick together, and it makes for a camaraderie that may or may not be a good thing. I loved all of the neighbor kids and got a good feel for them, and I liked the building unease surrounding the stranger children, and not knowing just what their deal was. It did feel like a nostalgic take on childhood friendships at the precipice of everything changing, and I really liked how that affected how we cared about these characters.

The other big component of this book that I really liked was the way that Golden focused in on the ennui, dissatisfaction, and toxic aspects of 1980s suburban life. While the kids are running around on Halloween night, encountering strange masked children, the adults are so focused in on their own dysfunction brought on by their troubled lives and relationships that they are a bit distracted during a dangerous time. Whether it’s Barb, whose husband Donnie is a drunk and a philanderer and whom she has just thrown out, or Tony and Alice, who run the neighborhood haunted attraction and are about to lose their home due to financial issues, to the mysterious Zach and Ruth who are the only childless couple and seem… off, Golden has created some suburban drama that fits in the story’s greater themes of how adults can fail the children in their communities and the consequences that can bring. You could just see how this was all going to come to a head and it was very unnerving.

And finally, the more supernatural horrors. Golden really knows how to create creepy moments, characters, and aesthetics. We don’t know just what the Cunning Man is, and we don’t know why he wants these mysterious children who have just appeared, and as we slowly learn more and more we get some very disturbing and scary beats here and there. And even when we think we know something, Golden will pull the rug out from under us and it will be something else completely. I do think that I could have used a little more world building, or at least mythos building, when it came to the supernatural forces at work. I definitely liked how Golden created a scenario that could so easily be turned upon its head through misdirection and clever hints here and there, but once we did get one of the more surprising reveals thrown out there, I felt like we didn’t really focus too much on what exactly the driving force was and how we got to where we were. I know this sounds strange, but I do want to be vague because I don’t want to wreck or ruin anything, plot wise. It’s worth having all the tricks that Golden is hiding revealed in their own time! I just wanted a bit more explanation on some things.

“All Hallows” is a very twisty horror story that will surely send chills up a reader’s spine. Maybe break out some candy and a Fall themed candle to set the mood while reading it, as it will give you all the Halloween feels and everything that implies.

Rating 7: Creepy and nostalgia driven with some pretty good surprises, “All Hallows” has tricks and treats in store.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All Hallows” is included on the Goodreads lists “Horror To Look Forward To in 2023”, and “Recommended by Seanan McGuire”.

Kate’s Review: “American Vampire: Vol. 6”

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Book: “American Vampire: Vol. 6” by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque (Ill.), et al.

Publishing Info: Vertigo, March 2014

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: This volume of American Vampire collects eight amazing stories set in the world of American Vampire, with “lost tales,” new characters and old favorites. Don’t miss these stories brought to you by series creators Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque, as well as other awesome comics talent like Becky Cloonan (Batman), Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon (Daytripper), Jeff Lemire (i>Sweet Tooth), Greg Rucka (The Punisher, Batwoman), Gail Simone (Batgirl) and many more! Also collected here is the stand alone tale of Fan-favorite character Travis Kidd–the vampire hunter who likes to “bite them back”.

Review: So during my first read-through of “American Vampire”, there is a clear shift that I remember that kind of started after “Volume 5”. I looked into “Volume 6”, saw that it was a short stories anthology, and decided that I was going to skip it. After all, I wanted more plot. I wanted to see the aftermath of Pearl losing Henry, and the aftermath of Felicia and Gus going up against the Carpathians. I didn’t want a bunch of short stories that didn’t seem to progress anything. But since I’m doing the full read this time around, I got myself a copy of “Volume 6”, and figured I’d just grin and bear it. But I was such a fool, guys, because I actually ended up really liking the anthology series that is “American Vampire: Volume 6”.

While it’s true that these stories don’t really progress the main plot forward after the huge changes and aftermaths of the previous collection, it actually ended up being nice to have a breather after all the things that happened. It also serves as a way to see some more explored characterizations of some familiar faces, while also introducing characters from the past who end up tying into characters that we recognize, and how vampires have touched the family lines decades or even centuries previously. Since this is a short stories collection, I will do my usual thing of talking about my favorite three in depth, and then expanding upon the collection as a whole.

“The Long Road to Hell” by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque (Ill.) : This is another Travis Kidd offshoot story, and while Travis hasn’t ingratiated himself TOO much into our main characters timelines as of yet, I thought this was not only a good way to show another, more empathetic side of him, while also showing the inherent tragedy of some vampires. Young lovers Billy Bob and Jolene are in love and running scams of unsuspecting people, when they are targeted and turned by a vampire gang in hopes of using their thievery skills. But Billy Bob and Jolene run, and are desperate to find a cure of their new conditions. On the road they pick up a transient little boy who can read people’s personalities, and try their best to keep their monstrous nature at bay. Then they run afoul Travis Kidd, vampire killer, and they have a choice to make. I loved how tragic this one was, with two really likable and scrappy lovers just doing their best in a world that has kicked them down, only to be doomed because of bad luck. I just adored Billy Bob and Jolene, and seeing Travis have to reckon with the fact that not all vampires are soulless killers was some good growth for him as well.

“Bleeding Kansas” by Rafael Albuquerque and Ivo Milazzo (Ill): Albuquerque shifts roles from illustrator to author, and while I didn’t REALLY like the art design, I really loved the concept of the story. Gil and Marie Jones are a young married couple with abolitionist ideals, hoping to move to Kansas to help build a new state that shares their dreams for social justice and equality. But when they arrive to find a hostile town filled with slave owners and sellers, who are hiding other secrets about themselves. I HIGHLY enjoyed the references to the future pro-slavery vs abolitionist violence and conflicts that were going to come up in Kansas later, the most famous probably being John Brown, and I liked seeing some of Pearl’s ancestors (grandmother and grandfather I believe) having to go head to head with the kinds of creatures their granddaughter would ultimately become.

“Essence of Life” by Gail Simone and Tula Lotay (Ill): This is my favorite story in the collection, and it centers of secondary antagonist Hattie, Pearl’s old roommate turned femme fatale vampire. In this story we get to see the life she was living in Hollywood before she met Pearl, where she is so desperate for stardom that she trusts in the wrong people. She’s now writing a letter to Pearl to explain why she did what she did, and to tell her that she felt like she really had no choice after everything she’d been through. I love that Gail Simone was the author for this one, because she does a stupendous job of turning Hattie from simple backstabbing jealous bitch into a somewhat sympathetic, but still very vile, villainess. It’s hard not to feel for her when you see the horrible crap that happened to her, just as it’s hard not to let out a shout of ‘GOOD FOR HER!’ when you get to the rage-filled and cathartic conclusion.

Forgive the bad photo, I needed this one specifically. (source: Vertigo)

The other stories have their strengths and weaknesses. I don’t really feel like I ever need to know more about Skinner Sweet (I’m still on the anti-Skinner train!), so I kind of skimmed his stories. But I did like seeing other villains get some background, as well as more explorations about race, class, and American violence. All in all, it’s a solid collection!

Don’t make the same mistake I did, friends! If you are reading “American Vampire”, don’t skip over “Volume 6”! It expands things in ways that make the story richer.

Rating 8: This is a pretty solid set of tales within the “American Vampire” universe, with some expansions on character connections, characterizations, and general vampire lore and history inside the universe.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Vampire: Vol. 6” is included on the Goodreads lists “Vampire Anthologies”, and “Best Comics Series Since 2000”.

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “Episode Thirteen”

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Book: “Episode Thirteen” by Craig DiLouie

Publishing Info: Redhook, January 2023

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

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

Book Description: A ghost-hunting reality TV crew gain unprecedented access to an abandoned and supposedly haunted mansion, which promises a groundbreaking thirteenth episode, but as they uncover the secret history of the house, they learn that “reality” TV might be all too real — in Bram Stoker Award nominated author Craig DiLouie’s latest heart pounding novel of horror and psychological suspense.

Fade to Black is the newest hit ghost hunting reality TV show. It’s led by husband and wife team Matt and Claire Kirklin and features a dedicated crew of ghost-hunting experts.

Episode Thirteen takes them to Matt’s holy grail: the Paranormal Research Foundation. This crumbling, derelict mansion holds secrets and clues about the bizarre experiments that took place there in the 1970s. It’s also, undoubtedly, haunted, and Matt hopes to use their scientific techniques and high tech gear to prove it. 

But, as the house begins to slowly reveal itself to them, proof of an afterlife might not be everything Matt dreamed of

A story told in broken pieces, in tapes, journals, correspondence, and research files, this is the story of Episode Thirteen — and how everything went horribly wrong.

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

Back in college, when I first had access to cable TV, I was profoundly fascinated by the ghost hunter reality shows that you could find here and there. I’m a person who is very much a Mulder who ‘wants to believe’ (I even have the sticker of that poster on my bedside water bottle), so for a bit I was very into the likes of “Ghost Hunters”, “Paranormal State”, and “Ghost Adventures”. It became pretty clear pretty quickly that they were all pretty silly and staged, but I still have a fondness for the concept of ghost hunting reality shows, goofy as they can be. So obviously when I read the description of “Episode Thirteen”, an epistolary novel about a reality show ghost hunting crew going into a notorious house and finding something terrifying, I really, really felt the need to give it a whirl. Do it for Jason and Grant, Kate!

This book is bursting with creativity, there is no denying that. You get a little bit of reality TV manipulative nonsense, you get some MK-Ultra-esque conspiracy shit, you get unnerving epistolary segments, it’s quite the mix and I thought that it came together pretty well. I liked that DiLouie thought outside of the box when it comes to a run of the mill haunted house/ghost hunters story, and I liked the small homages to classic tales like “The Haunting of Hill House”. It’s a strange brew but for the most part it works. I also really liked the overall ‘found footage’ structure of it, be it emails and text messages between members of the ghost hunting crew and family members or executives at the network, and I liked how they would sometimes be in direct contradiction of the ‘public’ archives like the website promotions. I also thought that DiLouie was pretty adept at writing out descriptions of what one would be seeing on camera and on the screen, and given that this can be a tricky thing to pull off I was very happy to see that it felt natural as well as descriptive. It read like footage from a television show or footage from behind the scenes, very visual and very easy to translate to the minds eye. And I also felt like we got to know most of our characters on the ghost hunting crew. Whether it’s true believer Matt, who needs to prove that there is, in fact, an afterlife, or his skeptical wife Claire who wants to support him but is deeply rooted in her physics background, or crew member Jessica who merely wants to break it big in the industry, I felt like I really understood who these people were, for better or for worse.

The one downside, at least for me, is that by the end we started stretching our genres out into something more metaphysical and downright trippy, and then it kind of lost control of itself. As the climax speeds up and our players start to descend into pure chaos as the final pages unfold, I started to lose the ability to really sense out what was happening, and got a bit muddled with the spiraling narrative. I definitely get the sense that it’s supposed to feel crumbling and out of control, but I think that for me it just got a little too fraught and unhinged. I understand that the goal is to feel the disorientation of it all, but it never came together for me as a reader in a way that felt taut. I’m not sure if that’s a personal taste thing or not.

But having said that, overall I found “Episode Thirteen” to be a solid take with a weird and creepy twist on a ghost hunt gone wrong.

Rating 7: Creepy and trippy, and a fun epistolary tale with some unique storytelling devices, “Episode Thirteen” is a solid new entry into the found materials genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Episode Thirteen” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Fictional Books About Found Footage”.

Serena’s Review: “A Ruinous Fate”

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Book: “A Ruinous Fate” by Kaylie Smith

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, January 2023

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

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

Book Description: Calliope Rosewood is a witch with a long streak of bad luck. Like all witches in Illustros, her fate is directly tied to Witch’s Dice—powerful artifacts that have blessed her kind with limitless magic but also set them on a path toward destruction. Cursed with unspeakable powers that terrify even the most dangerous witches and fae, Calla deserted her coven four years ago and has been in hiding with her two best friends since. But Calla is also hiding a grave secret: She is only three Rolls away from becoming the last Blood Warrior and starting the Final War that will decimate her people and eradicate their magic.

After a betrayal from her ex leads her one step closer to fulfilling that age-old prophecy, Calla is desperate to do whatever it takes to reset her fate . . . even if that means journeying into the deadly Neverending Forest with said ex and his enticing, yet enigmatic older brother to find the one being who can help her forge her own path. As Calla ventures farther into the enchanted woods, she finds her heart torn between her past desires and the alluring new possibilities of her future and learns that choosing your own destiny may come with deadly consequences.

Review: First off, thanks to Disney Hyperion for reaching out to me with an ARC for review! I was excited to check it out for a few different reasons. For one thing, I’ve always enjoyed the cover art done by this cover artist. And for a second thing, I thought the description sounded very unique. The concept of witches who are dependent to some extent on a dice game of chance, with either the opportunity to gain massive powers or fall into peril. And, of course, our main character who seems to be fearful of becoming essentially what sounds like the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse. Let’s dive in!

Since I kind of just gave a description of the book above, I’m going to skip that paragraph in my post and just jump right into the review. First off, the uniqueness of the premise did hold up in the book itself. The idea of the magical dice and the way they tie into the fate of any given witch is interesting and adds new dynamics to what could have otherwise been a very familiar sound magic system. On top of the ordinary way the dice work (“ordinary”), our main character is dealing with a situation where she has rolled three very unique rolls already. So unique that they point to a dark and grim fate not only for her but for the entire world.

However, while the greater concept of the dice was solid, I did get caught up a bit in a few of the details. While clarity did come slowly but surely, the first quarter of this book just throws the reader in with very little explanation. As such, I did find myself struggling to connect to the main character and the story as a whole, since so much of my attention was getting caught up in the “whys” and “hows” of the whole thing.

I do think, however, that this magical system was the best part of the book, and something that will probably interest a lot of YA fantasy fans. However, the wheels came off the bus for me with the characters themselves. Honestly, I found almost every single character fairly annoying and obnoxious, not least Calla herself. Her decisions and reasoning for said decisions were so difficult to not only understand but sympathize with when they inevitably lead to dramatic outcomes. Worst of all, she’d often claim to be working for the good of others, but again and again, she ultimately came across as a fairly selfish and brash character.

And…there were love triangles. Love trainglesssssss! Plural! So, that wasn’t a win for me. I have a really hard time imaging any situation where multiple love triangles is necessary or enhances a story. Indeed, I’m on record as saying there are very few situations where ANY love triangle is necessary or enhances a story. This is definitely not an exception to that rule. Worse, said love interests were just as frustrating and infuriating as the other characters, both main and side.

All of this to say, I think this is the sort of YA book that will appeal to bigtime YA fantasy fans. Those who are devoted to this genre will likely appreciate the creative world building. And all of the rest, the main character’s personality and the love triangles, are familiar archetypes of this genre, so major fans will probably not bat an eye in the same way that I did. However, for general fantasy fans, I’m not sure this one is worth the time.

Rating 7: Familiar elements will likely draw in the regular YA fantasy crowd, but I’m not sure it has enough to appeal to a larger fantasy audience.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Ruinous Fate” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Best Books Featuring Witches and Upcoming 2023 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads.

Kate’s Review: “The House in the Pines”

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Book: “The House in the Pines” by Ana Reyes

Publishing Info: Dutton, January 2023

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22.

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

Book Description: Maya was a high school senior when her best friend, Aubrey, mysteriously dropped dead in front of the enigmatic man named Frank whom they’d been spending time with all summer.

Seven years later, Maya lives in Boston with a loving boyfriend and is kicking the secret addiction that has allowed her to cope with what happened years ago, the gaps in her memories, and the lost time that she can’t account for. But her past comes rushing back when she comes across a recent YouTube video in which a young woman suddenly keels over and dies in a diner while sitting across from none other than Frank. Plunged into the trauma that has defined her life, Maya heads to her Berkshires hometown to relive that fateful summer–the influence Frank once had on her and the obsessive jealousy that nearly destroyed her friendship with Aubrey.

At her mother’s house, she excavates fragments of her past and notices hidden messages in her deceased Guatemalan father’s book that didn’t stand out to her earlier. To save herself, she must understand a story written before she was born, but time keeps running out, and soon, all roads are leading back to Frank’s cabin.

Utterly unique and captivating, The House in the Pines keeps you guessing about whether we can ever fully confront the past and return home.

Review: Thank you to Dutton and ALAAC22 for providing me with an ARC of this novel!

It’s nuts to think that The ALA Annual Conference in 2022 was already almost half a year ago. I feel like I did a pretty okay job going through my ARCs and taking them on, and given that a few I grabbed were for early 2023, I did have some stragglers by the end of the year. One of those was “The House in the Pines” by Ana Reyes, which had been touted as an eerie thriller with a creepy as heck cover to boot. As someone who likes creepy cabins (“Evil Dead” really set the bar, be it the movies OR the musical), the cover alone commanded my attention. By the time I was diving in, long after the conference had ended, it didn’t take long to become invested even beyond the core concept and solid cover.

What I liked most about this book is that I wasn’t sure if it was going to ultimately be a horror story with potentially supernatural elements, or a very off kilter thriller that does, in fact, have a possibly plausible explanation. Where it ultimately ended up, I’m not quite sure, but the ride was pretty well worth it. I liked how we jumped through time in the narrative, seeing our protagonist Maya in the present day as she grapple with her past relationship with a man who may have killed her best friend. How, she isn’t sure, as Aubrey just dropped dead, and Frank was right there and seemingly did nothing. But Maya can’t shake the feeling that he did it, especially when she stumbles upon a viral video of ANOTHER woman just dropping dead, with Frank being present again. In the present we see her obsess and try to figure out how he could have pulled this seemingly impossible murder off. But then we jump to the past, and see how Frank manipulated, groomed, and influenced Maya at seventeen years old. It’s sometimes a bit jarring to see the two time lines so close to each other, especially since the jumps aren’t as predictable, but I liked the contrast and how it brings the story together.

As for the strange elements that I was referring to up-post, as to whether this is a horror story or a thriller, Reyes really knows how to make her pages and moments disorienting. I really couldn’t tell if I could at all trust what I was reading, and had to skip back a couple times here and there to re-read to make sure I was getting everything I was theoretically supposed to be getting. This is all, mostly, a positive and deliberate thing, as it is very much in control and doesn’t feel due to sloppy or haphazard writing. And ultimately, this book is less about the weird and disorienting things, and more about the fallout and trauma that Maya has experienced, and how that in and if itself can lead to disorientation. I think that my only qualm with all of this is that, because it’s more about that and less about Frank and true answers, the ending feels a bit drawn out and unresolved. I know that a lack of resolution definitely has its place in stories with themes such as these. But I think that for me the narrative would have benefited a bit from some more concrete answers and resolutions.

Overall, “The House in the Pines” is strange and twisty, with bleak but interesting themes. I will be very curious to see the reactions this one receives as more people read it, and I’m very curious to check out what Ana Reyes brings forth next.

Rating 7: Weird and upsetting with some intriguing twists, “The House in the Pines” is a solid way to start your thriller reading in 2023.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The House in the Pines” is included on the Goodreads list “Latinx Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Kate’s Review: “Blackmail and Bibingka”

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Book: “Blackmail and Bibingka” (Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mysteries 3) by Mia P. Manansala

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, October 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

Book Description: It’s Christmastime in Shady Palms, but things are far from jolly for Lila Macapagal. Sure, her new business, The Brew-ha Cafe, is looking to turn a profit in its first year. And yes, she’s taken the first step in a new romance with her good friend, Jae Park. But her cousin Ronnie is back in town after ghosting the family fifteen years ago, claiming that his recent purchase of a local winery shows that he’s back on his feet and ready to give back to the Shady Palms community. Tita Rosie is thrilled with the return of her prodigal son, but Lila knows that wherever Ronnie goes, trouble follows.

She’s soon proven right when Ronnie is accused of murder, and secrets and rumors surrounding her shady cousin and those involved with the winery start piling up. Now Lila has to put away years of resentment and distrust to prove her cousin’s innocence. He may be a jerk, but he’s still family. And there’s no way her flesh and blood could actually be a murderer…right?

Review: We are in the full swing of Hanukkah in my house and Christmas is this weekend, so you know that I am both feeling pretty good but also PRETTY frazzled. By this time at the end of the year I am almost always teetering towards burnout, and this year is no different, as we’ve been dealing with child illness AND a surgery in the family this past month. So I was looking for some light hearted reads that were within the holiday spirit, and I realized that Mia P. Manansala’s new “Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mysteries” book, “Blackmail and Bibingka”, was not only out, but also Christmas themed! What’s more festive than delicious recipes and a little bit of premeditated murder, after all?

In terms of the story itself, it’s a solid and fun continuation of Lila Macapagal’s amateur detective adventures in her small town of Shady Palms. She’s running a successful coffee shop, her Tita Rosie is still running her successful cafe, and everything is hunky dory… until Rosie’s son Ronnie shows up after a fifteen year absence, with a winery business in tow. Trouble follows Ronnie, and shortly thereafter the wife of a big investor in the winery is poisoned at an event, and Ronnie is seen as a suspect. So once again Lila is thrust into trying to clear a family member’s name, all while trying to get through the holidays and her own stresses. It’s a pretty standard formula we get here, as with a lot of cozy mysteries as that is part of the point of the genre, but there are strengths and unique bits elsewhere. Whether it’s Lila’s Filipino background and cultural aspects that enter into the plot, or the fact that Manansala does a really good job of bringing in diverse characters and experiences, or that the characters are just downright likable (mostly) and interesting, this series really connects with me beyond the mystery itself. I actually thought that the mystery this time was pretty easy to discern, but that didn’t matter because the journey getting there was enjoyable and well paced. I also thought that Manansala was very good and tackling some of the more difficult sides of Lila’s family. In some ways it is black sheep Ronnie who can’t get his act together, or how Rosie can’t help but forgive him even as he’s hurt her so much. But it actually also shows how someone like Ronnie, who has been pretty hurtful, can be a product of his own hurt at the hands of those who love him and his mother, even if they didn’t really mean for it to be that way. It’s melancholy stuff, but it never felt like it was too much.

And yes, we’re going to talk about the recipes. Because once again we have a slew of delicious sounding recipes that have both Filipino origins, but also a recipe for Coquito, a Puerto Rican coconut egg nog, as one of the characters is Puerto Rican and plays a pretty significant role in the story. It’s always so great to see these recipes that I am unfamiliar with being shared and explained in really simple ways, and I am fully considering trying to make some bibingka (a rice cake with many toppings options) for one of the family get togethers. There are also twists on recipes that I am more familiar with, like a snickerdoodle recipe with ginger that also sounds so freaking good. I said it once and I’ll say it again: give me cozy mysteries with all the food.

“Blackmail and Bibingka” was a fun mystery that brought a little reading zazz to my holiday season after a pretty brutal lead up. It’s always nice to be able to settle in to decompress with an entertaining read, and this one definitely provided that.

Rating 7: A fun holiday themed mystery with even more delicious recipes, “Blackmail and Bibingka” shows the dysfunctional side of Lila Macapagal’s family, but keeps it light.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blackmail and Bibingka” is included on the Goodreads list “ATY 2023: Asian Diaspora”, and would fit in on “Holiday Themed Cozy Mysteries”.

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens”

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Book: “Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens” by Andrea Penrose

Publishing Info: Kensington Publishing Corporation, September 2021

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

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

Book Description: One advantage of being caught up in a whirl of dress fittings and decisions about flower arrangements and breakfast menus is that Charlotte Sloane has little time for any pre-wedding qualms. Her love for Wrexford isn’t in question. But will being a wife–and a Countess–make it difficult for her to maintain her independence–not to mention, her secret identity as famed satirical artist A.J. Quill?

Despite those concerns, there are soon even more urgent matters to attend to during Charlotte and Wrexford’s first public outing as an engaged couple. At a symposium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, a visiting botanist suffers a fatal collapse. The traces of white powder near his mouth reveal the dark truth–he was murdered. Drawn into the investigation, Charlotte and the Earl learn of the victim’s involvement in a momentous medical discovery. With fame and immense fortune at stake, there’s no shortage of suspects, including some whose ruthlessness is already known. But neither Charlotte nor her husband-to-be can realize how close the danger is about to get–or to what lengths this villain is prepared to go…

Previously Reviewed: “Murder at the Queen’s Landing

Review: This has been a series of highs and lows for me. While I love the detailed historical insights that come with these mysteries, I’ve also been befuddled by overly complex mysteries and an ever-increasing cast of characters. That said, I enjoyed the last book quite a bit, and I’m still thoroughly on board with keeping up with the series. Is my investment in Charlotte’s and Wrexford’s relationship a large part of that? Yes, what of it?

While Charlotte and Wrexford’s love for one another has never been in question, Charlotte is increasingly concerned about the burdens of marriage that will soon be hers to bear. Regardless of the equality and freedom that Wrexford has worked so hard to ensure for her, Charlotte will still be a Countess, and with that comes certain responsibilities to society. And where can her work as a satirical artist fit into this increasingly all-encompassing role. With all of these thoughts plaguing her, Charlotte is almost relieved to stumble upon yet another murder mystery, this one throwing the two into the mysterious world of medical science and recent discoveries that could change the face of medicine.

While there have been ups and downs in other areas of the stories, there is no question that Penrose is a devoted researcher. Each books does a deep dive into unique aspects of this particular time period and thoroughly expands on the intricacies involved. This one tackles recent discoveries in medicine and pharmaceutical science. But it doesn’t stop with just discussing changes to treatments and understanding of certain illnesses and their effects on the body. Penrose dives into how, even in this time period, control over these sorts of discoveries is understood to hold an enormous potential for wealth and power. I really enjoyed learning all about this, and thought the mystery itself regarding this topic was complicated and engaging.

Which leaves us with the rest of the book, which is where I struggled a bit more. For one thing, this is book number five in the series. At this point, I generally think authors should trust that readers have either read the previous books or are the sorts of reader who are fine jumping into a series where they don’t know all of the details. Instead, Penrose picks the worst of the options and spends a significant portion of the beginning of the book reintroducing the, now large, cast of characters and how their relationships weave in and out. Not only does this all just feel like unnecessary page filler, but it delays the start of the actual plot and sets up the pacing to fail. I’m not sure what the thinking was with this decision, but I think it hurt the book fairly significantly right off the bat.

From there, other than my interest in the actual subject of the mystery, I struggled to feel the same connection to our main two characters. Charlotte was especially frustrating, spending huge chunks of this book stuck in an indecisive swirl of anxiety. And by the end of the book, it didn’t feel like any of this time spent on these emotions contributed to much change for her character or much of a character arc at all. Wrexford, too, felt very bland. While I wasn’t as actively frustrated with his story, there was also just wasn’t much there for him. Again, what character arc or growth did he experience in this book, cuz I really couldn’t find any.

Overall, I found this to be disappointing entry into the series. The chemistry between Charlotte and Wrexford seemed pale in comparison to previous books, and both character individually felt flat. It is still a well-researched, interesting mystery. But without its main character providing any emotional stakes, the whole thing felt rather deflated and more of a trial to get through than other entries.

Rating 7: Fairly disappointing, the interesting historical aspects weren’t enough to make up for the lackluster character arcs.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.

Kate’s Review: “Effects Vary”

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Book: “Effects Vary” by Michael Harris Cohen

Publishing Info: Cemetary Gates Media, October 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: Amazon

Book Description: Effects Vary features 22 stories of dark fiction and literary horror that explore the shadow side of love, loss, and family. From an aging TV star’s murderous plan to rekindle her glory days, to a father who returns from war forever changed, from human lab rats who die again and again, to a farmer who obeys the dreadful commands of the sky, these stories, four of them award winners, blur the thin line between reality and the darkest reaches of the imagination.

Review: Thank you to Michael Harris Cohen for reaching out an sending me an eARC of this novel!

Halloween season may be over (ugh, it always goes way too fast), but you know me and you know how much I love scary stories. So we aren’t staying away from horror for too long, as today I am taking on “Effects Vary” by Michael Harris Cohen. When this ended up in our inbox, I thought that it was probably about time that I pick up a horror short stories anthology. It has been awhile, after all. And the info I found about it piqued my interest, even though I tend to be a little gun shy about short story collections in general. But the good news is that “Effects Vary” was another positive experience with this format!

The stories in this collection run a real gamut! From different sub genres to different perspective construction to different lengths, the twenty two stories fit together well but all stand on their own in different ways. As always when it comes to short stories, I’ll talk about my favorite three, and then about the collection as a whole.

“Pain Is Your Teacher” : This is one of the shorter stories in the bunch, which is about the length of a drabble (for people who aren’t familiar with fan fiction, that’s a few hundred words at most). A woman writes a farewell letter to her husband as they are settling up their divorce, and as the letter winds down she reveals a last laugh she got upon him after years of abuse. Again, this is a short story, one of the shortest in the collection, but it gets right to the point and goes for the throat almost immediately. I felt like I learned everything I needed to know about Alexander and his nameless soon to be ex wife, and I thought that it was vicious and satisfying in all the right ways.

“Everything Is Forever”: A self proclaimed psychic and mostly charlatan is making an appearance on a TV show and having to explain how one of her recent predictions got things so wrong. As someone who has vivid memories of my nanny watching Sylvia Browne on “Montel”, and as someone who loves a medium story (legitimate or otherwise), I really liked the trajectory this one took. It’s another shorter story in this collection, but even in the limited pages Cohen manages to create a broad narrative and backstory for Joyce the psychic, and creates a tragic circumstance that cuts right to the emotional quick and is absolutely haunting.

“The Ex-Court Painter, Goya, and The Princess”: This one was almost certainly my favorite story in the collection, as it’s unsettling as hell but also has a certain bittersweetness to it. An ex-court painter for Spanish King Charles IV is called back to the palace to paint for the King, even though Goya has taken over. He finds out that the King wants him to paint a portrait of the princess, who as a baby has died tragically shortly after being born. As the painter comes back every year to create a new portrait that imagines how she would have aged, his obsession with the dead princess he has created starts to grow. This one is very creepy, as our ex-court painter becomes more and more fixated on a girl who has been long dead (and who died as an infant no less!), but it also captures grief, regret, and madness in ways that treat more towards melancholy rather than flat out shock or distaste.

The rest of the stories were kind of hit or miss for me, though I do think that there were more hits than misses. Cohen can easily jump from setting to setting and has so many characters and circumstances that all feel well thought out and envisioned, and I thought that all of them did a good job of setting a scene and going on a journey in ways that were quick but satisfying.

If you, reader, are wondering why this has a 7 rating instead of a higher one when I have been generally pretty positive, I will say that there were some ongoing themes in the collection that were really hard for me to deal with, specifically child death. I felt like there was more child death in this collection than I was able to really handle at the time of reading it, as it’s a difficult theme even once in a story. So in a collection of multiple stories that have multiple moments of children dying, it’s probably no surprise that I had a hard time with this. What can I say, I’m unfortunately one of those people that, now that she has a child, is far more sensitive to such things (for examples, I can’t watch Alex Kintner’s death in “Jaws”, and I have to stop watching the opening scene of “Scream” when Casey’s parents come home). This is obviously VERY subjective from reader to reader, so while I had a difficult time dealing with it, another reader may be totally okay with it as a theme in their horror fiction. But it still did have an effect on my reading experience. One could say that effects vary.

You have no idea how proud I was with that little joke. (source)

Overall, “Effects Vary” is an effective and varied collection of dark fantasy and horror tales. I’m sure that most horror fans will find a lot to like here!

Rating 7: A huge array of horror stories for any horror fan, “Effects Vary” is a varied collection of scary tales.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Effects Vary” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of now, but it would fit in on “Best Horror Short Stories”.

Kate’s Review: “After Dark with Roxie Clark”

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Book: “After Dark with Roxie Clark” by Brooke Lauren Davis

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury YA, October 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22

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

Book Description: Roxie Clark has seen more dead bodies than your average seventeen-year-old. As a member of the supposedly-cursed Clark family, most of her ancestors have met tragic ends, including her own mother. Instead of fearing the curse, however, Roxie has combined her flair for performance and her gruesome family history into a successful ghost tour. But her tour never covers the most recent body she’s seen-her sister Skylar’s boyfriend, Colin Riley, found murdered in a cornfield.

A year after the murder, Roxie’s desperate to help Skylar find closure and start to heal. Instead, Skylar becomes fixated on finding the killer. As the sisters dig into what really happened, they discover that more than one person has been lying about that night. And the closer they get to the truth, the more Roxie starts to wonder if some scary stories might be better left untold. Brooke Lauren Davis offers another thought-provoking and eerily satisfying tale, perfect for fans of Kara Thomas and Cruel Summer

Review: Thank you to Bloomsbury YA for giving me an ARC of this book!

It’s been a few months now and I’m getting near the end of my ALAAC22 ARC stack, thinking back fondly of the conference and the massive suitcase sized haul of books I left with. So many end up being books I either grabbed on a whim, or those that were hyped by representatives of the publishing houses. “After Dark with Roxie Clark” by Brooke Lauren Davis was one of the more effective hype moments, as when walking by the table with the ARC, the rep overheard me saying something about horror. And she said ‘would a book about a Goth teenager who runs her own ghost tour business be of interest to you?’ What other possible response could I have had, other than

Between this woman and the woman who gave me the Spike book, the hype people were on point this past year (source).

And what the perfect premise for an October read. Ghost tours, a maudlin teenage girl, a murder mystery, a family curse? Hell yeah. Perfect spooky season reading.

In “After Dark with Roxie Clark” we meet Roxie, the aforementioned Goth girl who has her own ghost tour business, which takes stories from her own tragic family history and turns them into folklore that can help her process the angst around her family tree. Roxie is exactly the kind of character I would have loved as a teenage girl, as her love of all things horror and her spunky attitude would have spoken to me on every level. Even as a grown woman who still has that Goth girl in her I really loved Roxie. Did I need to suspend a little disbelief about her having a successful business? Sure. But independence and autonomy are big pluses in a teenage reader’s mind, so I am more than happy to forgive it. I liked her personality, I liked her wit, I just liked everything about her. I also liked the mystery at hand, about who killed Colin, her older sister Skylar’s boyfriend, and the brother of Roxie’s best friend (and crush) Tristan. I enjoyed how the worries of a Clark family curse enter into Roxie’s anxieties, and I liked how she and grief stricken Skylar team up after being distant to try and solve it (more on Skylar later….). In terms of the mystery itself, sure there were some things that were patently obvious as being red herrings, but there were definitely a few things that took me by surprise, and I mostly liked seeing Roxie grapple with the mystery at hand that is so personal to her, and how she has made a business of family tragedy, even if doing so in a respectful (in her mind) way. All of these things worked wonders for me.

The reason that this doesn’t have a higher rating is mostly because of my own personal struggles with one major aspect. That aspect is Skylar, Roxie’s older sister who is mourning the death of her boyfriend, and who is not coping well. I can’t even tell you why, as from what I can tell she is a pretty good representation of what terrible grief can do to a person when they don’t have the access to help that they need. But I had a very hard time with her as a character, and her actions as they try to figure out what happened to Colin, mostly because in her obsession and grief she does not care who she hurts, even if that person is her younger sister. I am grappling with the fact that I found a mourning and traumatized teenager wholly unlikable, and that may very well be something on my end, as she sure doesn’t have to be likable! But ruminating on it, I think it was more that a lot of it felt a bit overwrought, characterization wise, and with few peaks and valleys to it. Mourning and traumatized or not, I felt she was almost always at the highest level, and that gets a bit tiring.

But again, the mystery was taut, I was caught off guard by a few of the reveals, and Roxie as a character will surely be fun self insertion fantasy for Goth girls everywhere! “After Dark with Roxie Clark” is a great Halloween read for those who want to celebrate the season, but don’t want too much horror to go with it.

Rating 7: A solid YA mystery with a very enjoyable main character, “After Dark with Roxie Clark” is a good Halloween themed book for those who want an appropriate seasonal read without too much horror.

Reader’s Advisory:

“After Dark with Roxie Clark” is included on the Goodreads list “What To Read After Riverdale”.

Serena’s Review: “Princess of Souls”

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Book: “Princess of Souls” by Alexandra Christo

Publishing Info: Feiwel Friends, October 2022

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

Book Description: For sixteen years, Selestra has been trapped in her tower on the Floating Mountain, preparing to take her mother’s place as the King’s Witch, who foretells deaths in the Festival of Predictions. Outrunning your fate earns a wish and the chance to steal the King’s immortality. But die and your soul is forfeit. And though thousands have tried, nobody has ever beaten death.

A soldier in the King’s army, Nox is an unlikely candidate for the Festival, but, driven by revenge, he is determined to steal the King’s immortality and kill the entirety of his court, starting with Selestra.

Yet when Selestra touches Nox in her very first prediction, their fates become entwined, and death seeks to take both their souls. Only by working together can they survive long enough to escape the dark fate and the immortal King that now hunts them.

Review: I’m going to try really hard to resist going on a rant against Macmillan Publishing right now. Long story short, the Macmillan booth at ALA foolishly decided to allot 5…FIVE!!!!…ARCs of each of their books per day of the conference. So unless you were crazy enough to line up at the entrance to the convention center at the crack of dawn, chances were low you were going to get your hands on any books from them. This is truly an insane policy at a convention where you’re entire purpose is promoting your titles to librarians who will hopefully than purchase your books. No, no I will NOT wait in line for an ARC copy of a book I’m not sure I’ll even like. Ok, enough of that. All of that to say, this was the one ARC I was able to snag from Macmillan over the entire conference. And the fact that (spoiler alert) it was a solid “meh” is exactly why I would never get up early to get ARCs, especially by unknown authors. So…change your plan next time Macmillan!

For years, Selestra has remained trapped within the castle walls, standing to the side of her mother learning to one day take her place foretelling death for those foolish enough to bet their souls on the chance of riches. Every year, hundreds take this risk, with only a small few making any gains; and any who risk their lives, always losing. Selestra has always wondered what would make these individuals choose these odds. So when she has a vision of her life tied up alongside one of these foolish risk takers, she is more confused than ever. For his part, Nox has very fixed reasons for why he has entered this tournament. And getting involved with the King’s magical protégé is definitely not part of the plan.

This book was one of those strange reads where I started it up and thought “Wow, I’m really liking this. It’s definitely going to get a solid rating from me.” And then the longer I read, the more and more it began to feel like a chore. Until by the end, I had a very ambivalent feeling towards the entire experience. I can’t even point to very clear reason for this, but we’ll try and tease something out. But, to start with positives, I did enjoy this to start with and I’m sure that for many other people, this positive first impression will last. The writing is entertaining and smooth. The plot moves quickly. And both of our main characters were interesting and had distinct inner voices. Nox, in particular, was the type of witty guy lead that I typically very much enjoy.

But, again, I simply couldn’t sustain interest in this story. For one thing, I thought all of the twists were incredibly predictable, especially as the story continued. I also struggled with the world-building as the plot progressed. Things that had started out as interesting concepts began to stick in my brain and raise continuing questions about how exactly any of this works or how this history/culture really came to be. I understand that this book is set in the world of the author’s previous book, “To Kill a Kingdom,” but the success of a stand-alone book relies on the fact that it is meant to be approachable to readers who may not have read related works.

I also had heard that this book was a re-imaging of “Rapunzel,” part of the reason I was on the look-out for it at all at ALA in the first place. And…I just can’t see it? I mean, sure, she’s a girl stuck in a tower (and even this is highly questionable as she breaks out with ease within the first quarter of the book). But that’s about it. Her hair is kind of a thing, but not at all in the same way as the story. And really, there were no obvious connections to that fairytale at all in the way the story was plotted or paced. I really dislike being sold this type of false premise. If you’re going to try to hook a reader in with a specific reference like this, you better follow through with a story that actually meets that expectation in some way.

So, overall, this was a miss for me. However, I can also see it working for a lot of YA fantasy readers. For one thing, if you liked “To Kill a Kingdom,” this will probably be a nice return to a familiar world. And, like I said, there was a lot of immediate appeal to the characters and style of writing, so for many, this will likely carry them through. But if you’re looking for a tightly plotted story or a complex exploration of character and motivation, this probably won’t be.

That being said, if you’re one of those fans of the first book or are a YA fantasy reader who’s looking for a fast-paced read, don’t forget to check out our giveaway! It is open to U.S. residents only and ends Oct. 26.

Enter to win!

Rating 7: A promising start sadly wasted away over the course of this read, though I still think it will appeal to a lot of YA fantasy fans looking for lighter fare.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Princess of Souls” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Rapunzel Retellings.

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