Kate’s Review: “How To Sell a Haunted House”

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Book: “How To Sell a Haunted House” by Grady Hendrix

Publishing Info: Berkley, January 2023

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

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

Book Description: Every childhood home is haunted, and each of us are possessed by our parents.

When their parents die at the tail end of the coronavirus pandemic, Louise and Mark Joyner are devastated but nothing can prepare them for how bad things are about to get. The two siblings are almost totally estranged, and couldn’t be more different. Now, however, they don’t have a choice but to get along. The virus has passed, and both of them are facing bank accounts ravaged by the economic meltdown. Their one asset? Their childhood home. They need to get it on the market as soon as possible because they need the money. Yet before her parents died they taped newspaper over the mirrors and nailed shut the attic door.

Sometimes we feel like puppets, controlled by our upbringing and our genes. Sometimes we feel like our parents treat us like toys, or playthings, or even dolls. The past can ground us, teach us, and keep us safe. It can also trap us, and bind us, and suffocate the life out of us. As disturbing events stack up in the house, Louise and Mark have to learn that sometimes the only way to break away from the past, sometimes the only way to sell a haunted house, is to burn it all down.

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

It has been a little bit, but the time that many horror fans have been waiting for has arrived! Grady Hendrix has another horror novel out! “How To Sell a Haunted House” has been on my radar for quite some time now, as I have been a fan of Hendrix for years now, ever since my old boss handed me “Horrorstör” from our New Materials delivery and said ‘is this something you may like?’. I’ve been reading his books ever since as he takes on various horror sub genres with humor, heart, and well done scares. And guys, the time I have been waiting for has finally arrived: this one is a haunted house story.

But of course it has a twist. It’s Grady Hendrix, after all! (source)

Excited is an understatement. And by the time I did sit down to read it, I was happy that it was a holiday weekend, because I pretty much tore through this thing whenever I had down time. It’s a top 3 Hendrix book for me, to be sure.

Hendrix is kind of known for cheeky and quirky horror stories that do have legitimate scary foundations, and “How To Sell a Haunted House” continues that streak, this time giving his take on a haunted house story. We have Louise and Mark, estranged siblings who have to come together after their parents are killed in a car accident and leave behind their childhood home and all their possessions. As the bitter siblings try to sort through the house and all the things, weird noises start to come from a nailed shut attic, and memories of strange moments from their childhood start coming to the surface. I’m going to keep things kind of vague with the specifics, but Hendrix combines some genuinely creepy and scary moments of horror and dread that build at a great pace with super funny moments. He is always able to combine two different tones without giving too much distracting weight to one or the other. The scary moments aren’t negated by the humorous bits, just as the really funny bits don’t feel out of place or unwarranted because of the scary stuff. Hendrix knows how to make the balance hit just right. He’s SO good at that.

The portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics and generational trauma is really well done in this book (this has kind of been a theme in the books I’ve been reading lately, but hey, I’m down for metaphors!). We go into this story from Louise’s point of view, who has left her childhood home of Charleston for California, and who is returning due to her parents’s deaths. Her relationship with her brother is strained at best, and the usual tension in the wake of a sudden loss is exacerbated by the fact they seem to hate each other. I went in fully expecting to hate Mark due to the way he was acting and how Louise was reacting, but this is the thing about Hendrix, by the time we had gotten through the book I was rooting for both of them in all of their complicated, nuanced and imperfect selves. As mentioned above it isn’t like the idea of using family trauma and dysfunction as horror is a very new idea in the genre, but Hendrix really sells it because of the compelling characters, be they two antagonistic siblings, quirky relatives, or a free spirited woman who performs exorcisms on dolls. Hendrix always comes through with the characters in his stories, and it was because I cared about them so much in this one that I felt the stakes were super high, and that makes for high tension horror as two damaged people try to stop harmful family cycles before they damage the next generation. Watching this very messy sibling relationship go through ups, downs, and evolution was emotional as hell, and Hendrix nails all of the complex feelings and actions between Louise and Mark.

I can once again say that Grady Hendrix has knocked it out of the park. “How To Sell a Haunted House” is freaky and funny and emotional, and I really, really enjoyed my time with it.

Rating 9: A fun and at times quite scary horror novel about how houses aren’t the only things that can be haunted, “How To Sell a Haunted House” is another triumph from Grady Hendrix.

Reader’s Advisory:

“How To Sell a Haunted House” is included on the Goodreads lists “Architectural Horror/Fantasy”, and “Horror to Look Forward To in 2023”.

Kate’s Review: “Bound Feet”

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Book: “Bound Feet” by Kelsea Yu

Publishing Info: Cemetery Gates Media, September 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Where You Can Find This Book: Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: On the night of the Hungry Ghost Moon, when spirits can briefly return to the living world, Jodi Wu and her best friend sneak into Portland’s Chinese Garden and Ghost Museum. Kneeling before the pond where Jodi’s toddler drowned one year before, they leave food offerings and burn joss paper—and Jodi prays that Ella’s ghost will return for the night.

To distract Jodi from her grief, the two friends tell each other ghost stories as they explore the museum. They stop at the main display, a centuries-old pair of lotus slippers belonging to a woman whose toes were broken and bound during childhood. While reading the woman’s story, Jodi hears her daughter’s voice.

As Jodi desperately searches the garden, it becomes apparent that Ella isn’t the only ghost they’ve awakened. Something ancient with a slow, shuffling step lurks in the shadows

Review: It has become more and more clear that ever since I became a mom that I have a harder time with stories and movies and what have you that involve endangered or dying children. Or hell, even moments where parents have to grieve or mourn or see the deaths of their older progeny. I cannot watch the opening scene of “Scream” anymore once Casey’s parents arrive home, in the middle of her being murdered. I had to step away from watching “Cujo” when Terror Tuesday had it as the feature, telling my friends I’d return to the keyboard eventually. So maybe me deliberately picking up “Bound Feet” by Kelsea Yu seems like an odd choice, given that right in the description it talks about a mother trying to connect with the ghost of her dead toddler. Well, I never said I was a reasonable person when it comes to exposing myself to this kind of stuff. But “Bound Feet” was a very worthwhile read, even as I was sobbing on and off as well as being VERY freaked out by ghostly imagery.

The story centers around Jodi and her friend Sarah, who have decided to break into the Portland Chinese Garden and Ghost Museum. It is during the Hungry Ghost Festival, when it is said that spirits are more likely to reach out from the spirit world, and Jodi is hoping to connect with her daughter Ella, who drowned in that very garden a year prior. The setting is already fraught and tense, as they are there after dark, illegally, with a deep personal trauma at its center. As Jodi hopes to get closure with Ella, the restlessness of the garden awakens other threats, and Yu really nails the slow tension of the suffocating grief as well as the ghostly imagery of a vengeful spirit. There is lots of built up dread that has a great pay off as the weird turn to the outright horrifying, and the descriptions of the ghosts and the things that they do really got under my skin. I also really liked some of the cultural aspects that Yu brought to the tale, be it the Hungry Ghost Festival itself, the Chinese folklore that the story takes a lot of inspiration from, and the dark realities of what it meant to be a woman in the past and the awful shit they would sometimes have to do to survive.

But the grief aspects were the strongest part of the narrative for me. I went into “Bound Feet” able to emotionally prepare myself for the themes of losing a child, which was good, because even with the preparedness I had it was still a bit of a gut punch. Jodi’s grief and her desire to see her dead child again is a theme that has been tapped into a number of times in horror literature’s past (“Pet Sematary” is the one that comes to mind for me), and Yu does it in the length of a novella while still being able to explore it well and thoroughly in the limited pages. There were moments that just killed me, but they also felt necessary and not overwrought so that we could get into the true motivation of this mother who is making a lot of CRAZY choices that are getting her and her companion into deeper and deeper danger. It’s a more realistic layer of horror that drives our protagonist but also makes her, at least to me, all the more relatable and understandable. Even when there was a very uncomfortable finale that set my teeth on edge, I still, in a basal part of my soul, understood. There is also a very personal Afterword section by the author that I found to be really, really powerful and enlightening. Do not skip that section.

“Bound Feet” is a quick, emotional, and scary read. I definitely recommend it, but steel yourself. It’s not the supernatural that left this story lingering in my head after finishing, but the very real horrors within its pages.

Rating 9: A genuinely terrifying and emotionally gut-wrenching horror novella about grief.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bound Feet” isn’t included on any relevant Goodreads lists as of now, but it would fit in on “Horror Novellas”.

Serena’s Review: “Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries”

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Book: “Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries” by Heather Fawcett

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Cambridge professor Emily Wilde is good at many things: She is the foremost expert on the study of faeries. She is a genius scholar and a meticulous researcher who is writing the world’s first encyclopaedia of faerie lore. But Emily Wilde is not good at people. She could never make small talk at a party–or even get invited to one. And she prefers the company of her books, her dog, Shadow, and the Fair Folk to other people.

So when she arrives in the hardscrabble village of Hrafnsvik, Emily has no intention of befriending the gruff townsfolk. Nor does she care to spend time with another new arrival: her dashing and insufferably handsome academic rival Wendell Bambleby, who manages to charm the townsfolk, get in the middle of Emily’s research, and utterly confound and frustrate her.

But as Emily gets closer and closer to uncovering the secrets of the Hidden Ones–the most elusive of all faeries–lurking in the shadowy forest outside the town, she also finds herself on the trail of another mystery: Who is Wendell Bambleby, and what does he really want? To find the answer, she’ll have to unlock the greatest mystery of all–her own heart.

Review: This book wasn’t on my radar at all, somehow. Horror of horrors, since, spoiling myself here, I loved this book! Instead, it ended up on my TBR list only because I saw that it was likely going to be the December Adult Fairyloot book, and I wanted to get an idea of what it was all about ahead of time. So I read this about a month ago, but saved my review for closer to the publishing date. And here we are, ready and willing to give a rave review for this book!

When Emily Wilde arrives at the remote, northern town of Hrafnsvik, she is there for one purpose and one purpose only: studying the local Fae for inclusion in her in-progress encyclopaedia. While she is an excellent scholar, she is less skilled at ingratiating herself with the locals and quickly finds herself on the outs with most everyone in the village. Even more infuriating is the arrival of her charming academic rival who quickly attaches himself to her work and seems to soon have the entire town besotted with him. As the two work together, Emily begins to uncover clues of larger, nefarious curse that is plaguing Hrafnsvik…as well as clues that her rival may be more than he seems.

We have again one of those situations where I stumbled upon a book completely by chance and am now terrified of how many other lovely titles I’m missing out on! Alas, such is the life of an avid reader, I guess. Whatever way it made it onto my TBR pile, I’m sure glad it did. This book was pretty much everything I like about fantasy. It has a quasi historical setting, a buttoned-up, bookish leading lady who seems to always get herself into trouble, an adorable animal companion, a charming love interest with a subdued romantic subplot, and an interesting, but not overly embellished (side-eying Sarah J. Maas here) Fae world.

On this last point, the story is definitely a slow-burn on its fantastical elements. The plot, of course, is centered on Emily’s research of Fae and the story starts out simply enough with her following these regular steps of study. But the plot takes a few sudden twists and turns towards the middle and final third of the book that truly bring these fantasy Fae elements to the front. I was both surprised and delighted by these twists. There were a couple of choices, particularly towards the end of the book, that definitely took the story in a direction I hadn’t anticipated (or, at least, I hadn’t anticipated just how much the author would commit to these decisions).

But because this book is a slow-burn story, plot-wise, much of its success rests on just how charming Emily Wilde is as a narrator. As I said, I particularly enjoy this type of scholarly, semi-stoic woman protagonist. The unintentional hilarity of this type of narrator’s way of speaking is half the fun, and such is the case here as well. It was all the better when Wendell arrives, and the the whole “fire and ice” dynamic gets going. Their chemistry is immediately charming, and the reader gets to enjoy being on the “in” about Wendell’s obvious feelings for Emily while she remains the obtuse dunderhead she is about human interactions.

Like Wendell, I think “charming” is probably the best word to describe this entire book. I definitely recommend this book for most all fantasy readers, especially those who like subdued but lovely romances and new versions of Fae and Fae courts.

Rating 9: A delight from start to finish, never stumbling in its tone while weaving together a subtle romance and a heartfelt journey of discovering the importance friends and community.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Upcoming 2023 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads and First AND Last Name Please

Kate’s Review: “In Every Generation”

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Book: “In Every Generation” by Kendare Blake

Publishing Info: Disney-Hyperion, January 2022

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

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

Book Description: Frankie Rosenberg is passionate about the environment, a sophomore at New Sunnydale High School, and the daughter of the most powerful witch in Sunnydale history. Her mom, Willow, is slowly teaching her magic on the condition that she use it to better the world. But Frankie’s happily quiet life is upended when new girl Hailey shows up with news that the annual Slayer convention has been the target of an attack, and all the Slayers—including Buffy, Faith, and Hailey’s older sister Vi—might be dead. That means it’s time for this generation’s Slayer to be born.

But being the first ever Slayer-Witch means learning how to wield a stake while trying to control her budding powers. With the help of Hailey, a werewolf named Jake, and a hot but nerdy sage demon, Frankie must become the Slayer, prevent the Hellmouth from opening again, and find out what happened to her Aunt Buffy, before she’s next.

Get ready for a whole new story within the world of Buffy!

Review: Thank you to Disney-Hyperion for sending me an eBook copy of this novel!

It’s so funny, when the shows “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” ended I never really went back to revisit them. I wrote a hell of a lot of fan fiction about my favorite characters, but I don’t think I’ve ever done a full rewatch. This is odd because “Buffy” is a show that had a huge impact on me as a teen for a litany of reasons, but between dissatisfaction with some of the way the stories ended and the fact that Joss Whedon is a massive prick, actually getting back into my “Buffy” love has been pretty much sidelined until the past year or so. Whether it was watching “Cobra Kai” and seeing striking parallels between bad girl Tori and my favorite dark slayer Faith, or getting books at ALAAC that were part of the “Buffy” universe, 2022 kind of brought back some of that love. So when I was approached to read Kendare Blake’s new Buffy books, starting with “In Eery Generation”, I went in with an open mind, because I like Blake as an author and I’ve been feeling extra nostalgic. That said, I was not prepared for how much I was going to enjoy “In Every Generation”, the first book in her Frankie Rosenberg series. Guys. I REALLY LIKED THIS BOOK! I was transported back to when the whole family would watch “Buffy” and then my high school best friend Blake would call to dissect the episode!

Queen. (source)

There is always a bit of a risk when a franchise is rebooted for a new generation, and given that “Buffy” ended almost twenty years ago (oh GOD I’m getting old) it may have seemed odd that suddenly we are getting a lot of new content that stems from our favorite vampire slayer. It doesn’t really help that Buffy Summers’s creator Joss Whedon has been exposed as a total shithead in recent years. But Blake takes a job that could have been VERY difficult and makes it seem so easy, in that not only does she effectively capture the pure snarky, heartfelt, and very 2000s essence of “Buffy”, but she also creates new characters that feel real, believable within the world, and makes them just as likable and able to hold their own against old favorites. I really, really loved Frankie Rosenberg, the daughter of Willow who has been awakened as the first Slayer-Witch after an attack on a gathering of slayers that may have left Buffy, Faith, et al dead. We have familiar call backs to Buffy’s own original journey through Frankie and her new group of Scoobies (such as her best friend Jake Osbourne, teen werewolf and cousin to Willow’s ex-boyfriend Oz, and Hailey, a human girl with a missing slayer sister), but Frankie is wholly different from Buffy and really feels like a well thought out person and character. I wholly believed her as an awkward teenage girl who grew up around some of Sunnydale’s best and brightest combatants against evil, and also liked that there was a certain Gen Z flair brought to her character I also liked how Blake taps into vampire lore beyond the “Buffy” stuff, as Frankie may or may not be gearing up to fight against Countess Elizabeth Báthory, notorious Hungarian murderess who, in this, may or may not be a vampire. Blake has used historical events for inspiration before in her horror fiction, vampire fiction no less, and I really liked how it worked here too. It makes the stakes (hurr hurr) higher and it feels more interesting than just having it be Dracula or something (yes, that is a read, if you know, you know). Frankie is just so likable, her friends are adorable too, and I am wholly eager to follow then through this trilogy.

But here is the thing that really sold it for my elder millennial self: BLAKE HAS BASICALLY SHOWCASED A FEW OF MY FAVORITE CHARACTERS FROM THE SHOW AND MADE THEM EVERYTHING I EVER WANTED THEM TO BE! We all know what a big Spike fan I am thanks to my review for William Ritter’s “Bloody Fool for Love”, and I have very high standards and expectations and hopes for any interpretation of my favorite snarky ensouled vampire. Blake has made him SO, SO EXCELLENT!! She has his voice down, she gives him a lot of really fun things to do, and she really knows how to tap into his more vulnerable sides by making him Frankie’s Watcher (with full school librarian aspects and everything, much to his chagrin) and making him care for her like a daughter. I also really loved Willow in this, as she is very much Willow but with a motherly bent, but also a woman who has been thrust back into a magical role that she had been limiting because of her past with dark magic getting out of control. And the one that surprised me the most but also made me SO happy was seeing that Oz is here!! This surprised me a bit because he left in Season 4 and was barely ever mentioned again, but I always had a soft spot for him because Seth Green was the reason I started watching “Buffy” in the first place. Blake expertly taps into the Willow and Oz connection without erasing the fact that Willow is a lesbian, but still keeps their care for each other feeling very real even if platonic. Honestly, everything Blake did with these characters, be it their interpretations or the backstory she built to get from the “Angel” finale to here (I’m fine with erasing the comics canon), made it feel so, so perfectly “Buffy”. Hell, she even limited Xander’s role, and as someone who has never liked Xander (don’t even get me started, I could do a TED talk) but understands why he kind of needs to be here, I was very okay with the part he did play. If Faith shows up as the series continues, I will be on cloud nine. I WANT TO SEE WHAT SHE DOES WITH FAITH. And I, of course, want to see Buffy. But I appreciate that Blake is holding off a bit. Frankie needs to grow into her own thing without THAT weight on her shoulders, so I will bide my time for Buffy to show up. Because she has to.

Overall I super, super enjoyed “In Every Generation”. I am SO amped to see where we go from here, and I am so happy that Kendare Blake has taken on a universe near and dear to my heart and continued it so well. “Buffy” fans old and new need to seek it out.

Rating 9: Boy did this hit every single “Buffy” note that I ever hoped for. So good to see an old favorite in good hands.

Reader’s Advisory:

“In Every Generation” is included on the Goodreads lists “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, and “Countess Elizabeth Báthory – Fiction and Non-Fiction”.

Kate’s Review: “American Vampire: Volume 5”

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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “American Vampire: Volume 5” by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque (Ill.), & Dustin Nguyen (Ill.)

Publication Info: Vertigo, March 2013

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: In the first story, series mainstays Skinner Sweet, Pearl and company return to Hollywood in the ’50s during the Red Scare. In a time where America was on the lookout for the next Communist threat, was the real danger something far more insidious? A major turning point in American Vampire lore begins here!

In the second tale, familiar face and vampire hunter Felicia Book is “retired” from vampire hunting when she gets called back into action to track down and kill the most powerful vampire of all time. The hunt takes our heroes through post-war Europe, behind the Iron Curtain and into the heart of Russia to track this deadly enemy

Writer Scott Snyder (Batman, Swamp Thing) and artist Rafael Albuquerque bring together even more threads to the complex tapestry that is the world of American Vampire.

Review: When it came time to pick up “American Vampire: Volume 5” for this re-read, I remembered that I liked this volume a lot the first time I read it, but didn’t really remember why. So I was wondering if taking it on again almost ten years later was going to be a different experience, as lord knows I’ve already had some perspective shifts in the first four volumes. But almost immediately upon jumping in I realized that there was a reason I liked this volume so much, and it was pretty evident that was going to be the case once again.

Our first big story is set in 1950s Europe, with Felicia Book and her son Gus (both living more normal lives due to the supposed ‘cure’ for vampirism she got at the end of her last major arc) spending their time in France. When Felicia is approached by her former VMS boss Hobbes asking her to help the group track down a stolen Dracula (yep, THAT Dracula, the long dormant leader of the Carpathian vampires) she gets pulled back into a job she left behind because Gus is now being compelled by the notorious Count. Felicia continues to be my favorite character in this series, and I loved seeing her fight tooth and nail to keep her son safe, while also feeling lots of resentment about being pulled back into the Vassals at behest of her old friend and boss. I also think that Snyder did a good job of bringing in Dracula without making it hokey or, frankly, stupid. It’s certainly not the first time a modern vampire story has brought Dracula into the fold, but it’s a successful way to bring him in because it feels unique but also rooted in the source material, but also doesn’t overwhelm. Watching Felicia, Hobbes, Gus, and other unlikely allies track down Dracula in ways that mirror the way Dracula is tracked down in the original novel is just fun (I especially like the way that they bring in a Renfield character as well as substituting Soviet soldiers for glamored peasantry), and it all leads to a significant shift in Felicia’s and Gus’s storyline. I’m always happy to spend time with Felicia and Gus, and this really puts them at the forefront of their lovely mother/son relationship.

The other big story is back in the U.S. and has Pearl and Skinner (gag) at the forefront, and brings them back to her origins as an American Vampire in Hollywood. Now it’s the 1950s and Hollywood is undergoing the Red Scare, and Pearl and Sweet are recruited to investigate studio execs and other power players who may be harboring vampires. Pearl, however, is also contending with her husband Henry’s coma, as his attack at the end of her last arc has left her worried that she’s going to lose him. The relationship between Pearl and the absolutely sweet and wonderful (but mortal) Henry has been such a mainstay in this series, but time has been aging Henry while Pearl has stayed youthful, and his mortality is oh so very clear right now. I have always loved Pearl and Henry, and as the series has gone on Snyder has subtly addressed the elephant in the room of how she will ultimately have to say goodbye just due to the reality of their situation. I couldn’t give less of a fuck about how Skinner fits into all of this, though I do admit that I DO enjoy seeing a sire and his fledgling team up, especially after she believed she killed him during WWII. On my first read of this I remember really resenting the fact that Skinner is actually kind of tolerable in this arc, but because it’s mostly due to Pearl and their connection I guess I’m going to allow it. That said, he’s still so static and boring in his malevolence. It was just nice seeing Pearl be able to deal with the baggage there at least a little bit, while also revisiting the trauma that started it all back in Hollywood and the cesspit it is. The women continue to be the shining stars of the series, and, like Felicia, Pearl finds herself at a crossroads by the end of this volume. But hers is far more melancholy.

This was the best volume yet. Snyder both brings things to proper ends, but also opens new doors with more possibilities on the horizon. Keep Pearl and Felicia in the spotlight, “American Vampire”. They continue to be amazing in their complexity and resilience.

Rating 9: The strongest volume yet, with many things coming to conclusions and other things just beginning.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Vampire: Volume 5” is included on the Goodreads lists “Vertigo Titles: Must Read Comic Books A-E”, and “Best Adult Vampire Books”.

Serena’s Review: “The Lies of Locke Lamora”

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Book: “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch

Publishing Info: Spectra, September 2006

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

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

Book Description: An orphan’s life is harsh—and often short—in the mysterious island city of Camorr. But young Locke Lamora dodges death and slavery, becoming a thief under the tutelage of a gifted con artist. As leader of the band of light-fingered brothers known as the Gentleman Bastards, Locke is soon infamous, fooling even the underworld’s most feared ruler. But in the shadows lurks someone still more ambitious and deadly. Faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game—or die trying.

Review: I’ve seen this book popping up on “best of” fantasy lists for quite some time. Likewise, it has been languishing on my TBR list for years now. But, as December is always a really slow time of year for new books, I figured now was the time to get to this one. I also found a very good audiobook version at the library with a narrator who I’ve always enjoyed listening to. I don’t have a lot more to say about the audiobook version in particularly, so I’ll just preface the entire review with a general recommendation to try out this version if you enjoy audiobooks as a whole.

If one can call an orphan “lucky,” Locke Lamora is it. Having escaped the tragic fate of many such children, he grew up under the tutelage of a master con artist and now runs his own gang of thieves and tricksters. So deep are their cons that even the renowned gangster lords who rule the streets are unaware of just how successful Locke’s small band really is. But, in the midst of what should be one of their biggest takes yet, things begin to unravel beneath Locke’s feet. And as the noose slowly tightens, Locke must face his most cunny adversary yet.

This was a really enjoyable read! As I said earlier, the narrator did a fantastic job, his style very much emphasizing the excellent dialogue written for all of the characters. The story plays out in a rather unique way, with a lot of time jumps and such. Which means that as the story continues, we’re slowly piecing together Locke’s life up to this point, how he gained the skills he did, and how he formed the friendships that are at the heart of his existence. However, we also don’t get all of the information. For example, there is a love interest who is repeatedly referenced. But we never see this character, not in the flashbacks and also not in the present. It’s an interesting and bold choice, to have so many references that are just left hanging until the next book. Personally, as this book felt full to the brink as it was, I was fine with this choice. But it could nag at other readers to a certain extent.

There were also interludes between certain chapters which told various stories and histories of this world. I found these to also be very interesting. I’m not sure if the physical book had a map or any sort of glossary, but I would say this was the one area where I struggled with the audiobook version. While all of this extra detail added flavor and texture to the world, very much making it feel like a living, breathing place, I also struggled to keep track of all of the locations and people. This is very much a high fantasy story, and with that comes a whole bunch of new words and names, which added to some of my struggles.

I really enjoyed the story and action found in this book. There were definitely a few shocks and twists, especially around the midway point of the book, that really threw me off of what I had thought was the direction of the story to come. But I also struggled a bit with some of these plot points. This book is going on twenty years old, at this point. Which means there have been a lot of “brilliant thief” books to come out since. And I’ve read a bunch of them. That being the case, I kept having expectations of certain characters and certain plot twists, and kept feeling a bit let down when things resolved in a different way. Like I said, I think this is very much a “me” issue and comes from having read books like this that, in the twenty years since this book was written, have pushed the boundaries on this sort of story. So while much of this is perfectly good and still very enjoyable, there were aspects of it that felt a bit dated, particularly to those who have read books like this before.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I would recommend it to most high fantasy readers, especially those who like action-packed stories full of twists and turns.

Rating 9: Witty and clever, much like its titular character, this book is definitely deserving of its placement on many “best of” fantasy lists!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Lies of Locke Lamora” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Thieves and The anti-hero in fiction.

Kate’s Review: “The Babysitter Lives”

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Book: “The Babysitter Lives” by Stephen Graham Jones

Publishing Info: Simon and Schuster, August 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Where You Can Get This Book: Amazon | Libro.fm

Book Description: When high school senior Charlotte agrees to babysit the Wilbanks twins, she plans to put the six-year-olds to bed early and spend a quiet night studying: the SATs are tomorrow, and checking the Native American/Alaskan Native box on all the forms doesn’t mean jack if you choke on test day.

But tomorrow is also Halloween, and the twins are eager to show off their costumes—Ron is a nurse, in an old-fashioned white skirt-uniform, and Desi has an Authentic Squaw costume, complete with buckskin and feathered headdress. Excitement is in the air.

Charlotte’s last babysitting gig almost ended in tragedy, when her young charge sleepwalked unnoticed into the middle of the street, only to be found unharmed by Charlotte’s mother. Charlotte vows to be extra careful this time. But the house is filled with mysterious noises and secrets that only the twins understand, echoes of horrors that Charlotte gradually realizes took place in the house eleven years ago. Soon Charlotte has to admit that every babysitter’s worst nightmare has come true: they’re not alone in the house.

The Babysitter Lives is a mind-bending haunted house tale from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, Stephen Graham Jones.

Review: I did very little babysitting in high school. I had two families that I did the occasional babysitting job for, and they were family friends so it wasn’t really a ‘business’ relationship. Basically it was guaranteed pizza, soda, and the promise of watching “X Files” in syndication after the kids went to bed with a chunk of change to show for it. But I love a horror story involving a scrappy babysitter, so when I read that Stephen Graham Jones had a new audiobook about that very thing I was very, very excited. The man has already solidified his place as a favorite horror author of mine, and this trope just makes it all the more tantalizing! I went into “The Babysitter Lives” with a unique reading experience from the get go: it’s rare that I do audiobooks these days as I am not in a car nearly as much as I used to be. Because of this, I didn’t devour this book with as much aplomb as I may have a print book. But it’s still Stephen Graham Jones, and he is still a master of strange and entertaining horror stories, so as that was my only option, it was necessary, albeit a change from how I usually enjoy him.

Overall, I enjoyed “The Babysitter Lives”. I love a haunted house story, and Jones is always up to the task of tinkering with a classic trope and making it fresh and deeply unsettling or weird. It’s pretty clear pretty quickly that this isn’t your average haunted house or babysitting in trouble story, and as we follow Charlotte and her charges through a terror filled night things get more and more dire, and the plotting gets more and more compelling. There are a lot of different horror elements at play; a haunted house, shadow doubles, space/maybe time rifts, and some good old fashioned body horror and splatterpunk gore that had me cringing throughout. There were so many what the HELL is going on moments and twists and turns that it felt a bit like whiplash, but we were always grounded in Charlotte and her drive to be a responsible and effective babysitter, especially after a close call involving one of her other charges. She goes through some serious shit as this babysitting job goes on, and Jones really knows how to milk the scares and unease for all they’re worth. While it’s true that I wasn’t the BIGGEST fan of how some things shake out, I definitely get why they have to go the way they do when it comes to the story that Jones is trying to tell.

But the aspect of this book that made this all the more layered was Charlotte herself, whose babysitting duties are well honed and whose characterization makes the tale richer. Charlotte is a driven teenage girl who has dreams for herself, but is always having to deal with perceptions of those around her because of her Indigenous heritage. Whether it is the twins she is caring for who have Indian Halloween costumes, or hints of microaggressions for their parents, or even well meaning but sometimes insensitive girlfriend Murphy, Charlotte has lots of experience having to combat racist bullshit, and unfortunately it’s just another thing she has to fight against during this babysitting job. Jones balances this pointed commentary with other things at hand, so it always flows really well and just feels like another, more realistic horror (along with other aspects I haven’t touched upon here, but let’s just say that as a teenage girl Charlotte also has to protect herself from a more worldly creep than any spectre this house could create) to permeate the narrative and make it all the richer.

And finally, this is an audiobook, and I have found that even the strongest story can be derailed by an audiobook narrator who is lackluster. But we are in very good hands with Isabella Star LeBlanc, who brings all of the characters to life with varied performances, and who builds up tension with her stylistic choices in narration. I don’t do audiobooks as much anymore, but LeBlanc is a narrator who makes me think that perhaps I should carve out more time to do so.

“The Babysitter Lives” is a scary and relentless horror story that turns the haunted house and babysitter slasher tropes on their heads. We are so lucky to have Stephen Graham Jones here in the horror world! He consistently delivers!

Rating 8: Stephen Graham Jones keeps up with the weird and unsettling terror in a book about a badass babysitter!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Babysitter Lives” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of now, but it would fit in on “Haunted House Books”.

Serena’s Review: “Gilded”

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Book: “Gilded” by Marissa Meyer

Publishing Info: Feiwel and Friends, November 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Long ago cursed by the god of lies, a poor miller’s daughter has developed a talent for spinning stories that are fantastical and spellbinding and entirely untrue.

Or so everyone believes.

When one of Serilda’s outlandish tales draws the attention of the sinister Erlking and his undead hunters, she finds herself swept away into a grim world where ghouls and phantoms prowl the earth and hollow-eyed ravens track her every move. The king orders Serilda to complete the impossible task of spinning straw into gold, or be killed for telling falsehoods. In her desperation, Serilda unwittingly summons a mysterious boy to her aid. He agrees to help her . . . for a price.

Soon Serilda realizes that there is more than one secret hidden in the castle walls, including an ancient curse that must be broken if she hopes to end the tyranny of the king and his wild hunt forever.

Review: We read “Cinder” for bookclub many (many) years ago, and I remember enjoying it for the most part. Which is why I bewilder myself that I haven’t read any of the rest of the books in that series or by this author! She writes creative fairytale retellings (some times even including science fiction angles!) for heaven’s sake! That sounds right up my alley! Whatever the case, I did request an e-galley of this book back in 2021 when it came out….and again failed to prioritize it. But when I saw that the second one was coming out this fall, I finally decided that enough was enough, so here we finally, finally are.

Serilda is a story-teller at heart, spending her days spinning wonderous tales of magic and danger. Most of the time, however, this propensity for tall-tales is only appreciated by the village children. Indeed, most others see the mysterious wheels of color that mark her eyes and see nothing but trouble, a young woman touched by a god known for lies. Soon enough, however, magic seems to escape from the world of words and Serilda finds herself caught up in a tall tale herself, forced to spin straw into gold (a skill she foolishly claimed during one of her stories) for a cruel Fae king. Luckily for her, she meets a strange young man who does in fact have this skill. But what will he ask for in return?

I have to say, discovering that you’ve been missing out on something awesome has to be one of the few times where you’re almost rewarded for your own delay. I mean, I loved this book and I had the second book already primed and ready to go and got to merrily skip out on the year-long wait that other fans had to put up with! But it also means I’ve just been missing good books for years. I’ll definitely be checking out those other “Cinder” books now, that’s for sure.

This book was a solid fairy-tale retelling, meeting all of the requirements I look for in this sort of book. The plot hits all the major markers that readers are familiar with from the original “Rumpelstiltskin,” but other than these basic points, the world, characters, and story all feel fresh and unique. Obviously, the biggest change is that Gild himself is not the villain but the love interest. This is definitely an example of a “less is more” romance, and I appreciated that the author didn’t abandon her premise to give more page time to this character or the romance in general. Indeed, it proves just how well-written Gild was that I was fully invested in his story and the romance between him and Serilda given we only see him briefly here and there, broken up by large sections of the story that follow only Serilda.

But this choice is even neatly referenced by Serilda herself at times, noting that this is her story and not Gild’s. While the mystery surrounding him and his ability to spin gold is at the heart of much of the story, Serilda’s own motivations and priorities are what drives things: her love for her father, a mother she lost to magic years ago, and to the young children she tells stories to in her village. She was an excellent character in that you can see her making choices that you, as the reader, know will lead to mischief and sorrow, but they also feel true to the character she is. She also never shies away from the fallout of her own decisions, good and bad. She’s an incredibly strong and brave character, and, at times, laugh out loud funny.

But the story was also much darker than I was expecting. The Erkling was a terrifyingly cruel character, his presence seeming to leak off the page and let you viscerally feel the fear that everyone experiences when around him. There were several moments in the story where it felt like the author was going in a certain direction and I thought “oh, she won’t follow through on that, there will be a way out.” Nope! This had all the darkness and grim horror that is often found in classic fairytales where innocence is not a magical shield that protects characters from bad outcomes.

I loved this book. For all that it had dark, sob-worthy moments, I also found the dialogue and inner monologue to be clever and witty, giving the reader a nice reprieve from too much gloom. It does end on a pretty massive cliff hanger, but luckily for me (and anyone else who hasn’t read it yet) the second book in the duology is coming out this month, so there’s not much of a wait there. I definitely recommend this for fairy-tale fantasy readers. It might also fall into the rare “new adult” fantasy genre.

Rating 9: Sooooo good! An excellent fairytale retelling that takes a familiar story and character and remakes them into something entirely new and fresh.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Gilded” can be found on these Goodreads lists: YA Fractured Fairytales/Radical Retellings and YA/NA Fantasy Romance Book Club Nominations.

Serena’s Review: “Poster Girl”

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Book: “Poster Girl” by Veronica Roth

Publishing Info: William Morrow & Company, October 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: WHAT’S RIGHT IS RIGHT.

Sonya Kantor knows this slogan–she lived by it for most of her life. For decades, everyone in the Seattle-Portland megalopolis lived under it, as well as constant surveillance in the form of the Insight, an ocular implant that tracked every word and every action, rewarding or punishing by a rigid moral code set forth by the Delegation.

Then there was a revolution. The Delegation fell. Its most valuable members were locked in the Aperture, a prison on the outskirts of the city. And everyone else, now free from the Insight’s monitoring, went on with their lives.

Sonya, former poster girl for the Delegation, has been imprisoned for ten years when an old enemy comes to her with a deal: find a missing girl who was stolen from her parents by the old regime, and earn her freedom. The path Sonya takes to find the child will lead her through an unfamiliar, crooked post-Delegation world where she finds herself digging deeper into the past–and her family’s dark secrets–than she ever wanted to.

With razor sharp prose, “Poster Girl” is a haunting dystopian mystery that explores the expanding role of surveillance on society–an inescapable reality that we welcome all too easily.

Review: While I wasn’t a big “Divergent” fan (I didn’t even finish the trilogy), I’ve really enjoyed the adult/new adult fiction Veronica Roth has written recently. There’s also no denying that, like Margaret Atwood, Roth has a keen eye for producing dystopian works that can feel all too believable. It’s this sort of believability that truly gives dystopian works their chills, and with this book’s focus on technology and the surveillance state, I knew we’d be deep-diving into some uncomfortable ideas. And sure enough, it was uncomfortable and it was great!

For Sonya, time has stopped. After serving as the face of a regime known as the Delegation, after a revolution overturned society, she and other prominent members of the fallen system are now locked in a prison complex with no hope of rejoining society. But when she’s given the change to earn her freedom tracking down a missing girl, Sonya ventures back out into a world very unlike the one she left a decade before. As she digs into her past as well as her present, Sonya discovers dark truths that reorganize everything she once believed.

As I said earlier, in my opinion what makes a great dystopian story is the ability to create a world and society that is believable, thus all the more horrific. Here, with the creation of a society existing beneath an authoritarian regime that monitors and rewards behavior, the path to this destination is obvious. The Aperture, an implant that is placed in the eye that essentially acts like a smart phone that is even more accessible, is very easy to imagine. The story neatly demonstrates how the ease and functionality of a device like this would have a lot of immediate appeal. We see similar choices being made today; the ease and convenience of smart devices already leave many people unaware of how much of their personal information they are giving up for these creature comforts. The turn of this information then being used against the populace is easy to imagine.

Beyond that, it’s also incredibly easy to see this type of authoritarian system of governance grow into existence. What makes it even more compelling is that some of the rationales behind certain “esteemable” behaviors are easy to understand or agree with. Again, a dangerous slippery slope that is very recognizable. I was also impressed by Roth’s ability to side-step current political positions and parties; it was all too easy to go into it trying to paint both the Delegation and the system that came after it onto our current political parties. But neither fits the other perfectly, so there are no easy conclusions to be had.

Sonya was also an interesting character. She grew up as a “success story” to an oppressive system, largely benefiting from a government that hurt countless others. But we are meeting her ten years after the fact, trapped in a prison compound where she and many others expect to live out their days. Through her eyes, we see how various different individuals and groups have dealt with this shift in power and position. As Sonya ventures back into the world, she’s in a unique position to not only reflect on the world that she grew up in, but in the world that replaced it. Like all revolutions, though they may be replacing a great evil, they aren’t often followed with utopias of their own. She also is forced to confront the decisions that she and her family made and benefited from. I really liked her journey, especially the fact that it felt true to character. Nothing is hand-waved away or excused, but it is ultimately a hopeful story for her.

For this world? I’m not so sure. But I think the not knowing is what is important and what forces the reader to reflect on the messages and themes of the story afterwards. This book definitely touched on a lot of current issues we as a society are grappling with. This is just one direction that someone imagines things could go. But through this lens, we’re invited to do our own critical thinking. I know “critical thinking” isn’t the type of fun, exciting endorsement that often gets people galloping to the nearest bookstore. But it’s also a refreshing, unique read that will stick with you long after you’ve finished the last page.

Rating 9: Uncomfortably believable, this story asks readers to reflect on the nature of technology, surveillance, what we give up for convenience; that right and wrong are not as easy of concepts as we may wish them to be.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Poster Girl” isn’t on any relevant lists but it should be on Adult Dystopia.

Kate’s Review & Giveaway: “Gallows Hill”

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Book: “Gallows Hill” by Darcy Coates

Publishing Info: Poisoned Pen Press, September 2022

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

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

Book Description: The Hull family has owned the Gallows Hill Winery for generations, living and working on the beautiful grounds where they grow their famous grapes. Until the night Mr. and Mrs. Hull settle down for the evening…and are dead by morning.

When their daughter, Margot, inherits the family business, she wants nothing to do with it. The winery is valued for its unparalleled produce, but it’s built on a field where hundreds of convicts were once hanged, and the locals whisper morbid rumors. They say the ground is cursed.

It’s been more than a decade since Margot last saw her childhood home. But now that she’s alone in the sprawling, dilapidated building, she begins to believe the curse is more than real―and that she may be the next victim of the house that never rests…

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me and eARC of this novel and thank you to Poisoned Pen Press for sending me a print ARC of this novel!

I can’t believe that Halloween is almost here. While I love Halloween to death, I always get a bit melancholy around the end of October, as it’s my favorite time of year, and when Halloween happens, then it’s over. But fear not! Just because the season is ending, that doesn’t mean that the scares are going to stop on this blog, and let me tell you do I have a doozy of a haunted house story to close out the month with. “Gallows Hill” by Darcy Coates is the second of her novels that I have read, and I went into it with solid anticipation, as I enjoyed “From Below” a great deal. So going from ghost ship to haunted house seemed like a good transition, and hoo boy, I was NOT prepared for this book. This book was SCARY!

One night in particular as I read was filled with anxiety, and I loved it. (source)

In terms of plot and cast of characters, I thought that “Gallows Hill” was well imagined and well presented. I liked Margot, the woman who left the winery as a child with no explanation from her parents for her exile, and who has now returned for the first time, an adult who is inheriting now that her parents have died strange and premature deaths. Coates takes her time in slowly revealing just what is going on with Gallows Hill and the winery, laying out puzzle pieces bit by bit and letting us investigate along with Margot. Everything that seems strange or farfetched has a well thought out explanation, and every character has a part to play. Margot herself is easy to like and easy to relate to, as she discovers what is going on at the same pace the reader does, and I thought that all the pieces came together well, with some solid surprises along with reveals that are perhaps obvious but still weighted with some mystery. Coates makes it easy to invest in every character, which makes the stakes all the higher when creepy things start to turn into the flat out horrifying. And the Gothic setting of an isolated winery with a new owner who has no idea what she is getting into, and what secrets the people around her are keeping from her, fits the sub genre so well while also being a bit unconventional, which was super satisfying for someone who loves a good Gothic horror story.

And let’s talk about scary. This book is SCARY. I absolutely found myself setting my Kindle down in the middle of one particularly scary moment, and told myself ‘I should probably put this down for the night’. But after I went to brush my teeth and get ready for bed, I crawled back into bed and picked it right back up. So obviously it’s also incredibly addictive. Coates really knows how to create a tense moment, and then to ratchet it up about ten times, and the grotesque imagery uneasy history of the horror points, and the isolated and suffocating setting of a country estate haunted by its history is a perfect horror combination. I am not going to go into specifics as it’s far more effective to be surprised. But holy cow, we absolutely get the sense of being stalked and hunted in this moment that I told myself I was walking away. But along with that, Coates doesn’t feel tempted to leave ambiguity open as the story progresses and comes to a close. The end is definitive, and I appreciate that in a time where sometimes horror stories feel a need to leave things open in an effort for a fear of the unknown. Which, fine, if done well. But there is something to be said about committing to a conclusion, and I love that Coates does that.

You can’t do much better than a classic haunted house tale during Halloween, and “Gallows Hill” is a great example of that. I really enjoyed this book and how freaky it was. Darcy Coates is officially a must read horror author for me now, which means I have a lot of back catalog to explore. And I can’t wait.

And wait, there’s more! Given that this is the end of Horrorpalooza 2022, I thought it would be fun to end with a special treat. So I am running a giveaway of a print ARC of this book, that also has Darcy Coates’s signature in the front (thanks again to Mandy Chahal for providing the book!)! The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and will end on November 3rd.

Enter The Giveaway HERE

And that is the end of Horrorpalooza 2022! I hope that everyone has a fun, safe, and spooky Halloween!

Rating 9: Scary, entertaining, and the perfect Halloween read. If you haven’t tried Darcy Coates yet, start with “Gallows Hill”.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Gallows Hill” is included on the Goodreads list “2022 Gothic”.

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