Serena’s Review: “Murder on Black Swan Lane”

Book: “Murder on Black Swan Lane” by Andrea Penrose

Publishing Info: Kensington Books, June 2017

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

Book Description: In Regency London, an unconventional scientist and a fearless female artist form an unlikely alliance to expose unspeakable evil . . .

The Earl of Wrexford possesses a brilliant scientific mind, but boredom and pride lead him to reckless behavior. He does not suffer fools gladly. So when pompous, pious Reverend Josiah Holworthy publicly condemns him for debauchery, Wrexford unsheathes his rapier-sharp wit and strikes back. As their war of words escalates, London’s most popular satirical cartoonist, A.J. Quill, skewers them both. But then the clergyman is found slain in a church—his face burned by chemicals, his throat slashed ear to ear—and Wrexford finds himself the chief suspect.

Review: I’m not quite sure how I missed this series when it started up a few years ago. It’s quite obviously up my alley: historical mysteries featuring a man and woman duo. It’s to the point where I almost feel guilty about how specific my reading tastes are for both historical fiction and mysteries. But I finally tracked it down and received my audiobook from the library. Bonus points for being narrated by one of my faves!

The Earl of Wrexford and A.J. Quill operate in very different circles. Their paths only seem to intersect when Wrexford becomes the unwilling star of Quill’s satirical cartoons. But when the feud between Wrexford and a priest that Quill had so delightfully been illustrating goes south with the priest dead and Wrexford suspected, their paths cross in real life. Both are not what the other had thought, with Wrexford hiding a true scientific mind behind his rakish outward persona and Quill turning out to be not a man, but a widow who has her fingertips on the pulse of the city. As they begin investigating the priest’s death, more mysteries begin to appear and the perpetrator may be closer than either had suspected.

Recently, most of the historical mystery pair-ups I’ve read have a distinct “comfort mystery” vibe to them. Both the Amelia Peabody series as well as the Veronica Speedwell are very light-hearted, with equal attention given to the romance and comedy of the story as the mystery itself. So I was excited to see that this was a more serious mystery series. The murder itself is violent, the motives for the various players are appropriately dastardly, and the story doesn’t shy away from the very real challenges of life in this time period.

Mrs. Sloane, of course, most represents this aspect of the story. A widow making a living for herself as a satirical cartoonist, you can feel the way her livelihood balances on the edge of the knife. But her two young wards, a pair of brothers who have grown up on the streets, paint an even more stark picture. At every turn, we see Mrs. Sloane’s desperate attempts to carve out a place for herself and these two boys, both representing groups that society neglects and forgets. She is an excellent character, and I love the fact that there were a number of mysteries about her past and character that were not fully resolved even here. We have enough to paint a general picture and become attached to the character, but enough teases are left to have me eager to pick up the next entry.

For his part, Wrexford is the more typical rich, snarky, seemingly care-free aristocrat. But as the story progressed, he, too, began to reveal new layers. There are fewer mysteries to be found here, but I’m equally intrigued by his ability to put together the pieces behind Mrs. Sloane’s secrets as I am about their ultimate reveals. I also liked the fact that Wrexford was a nice balance between the cluelessness that would be natural to a man in his position dealing with a woman like Mrs. Sloane, while also being progressive enough to be heroic. The balance struck between these two aspects felt believable and compelling.

I also really liked the mystery itself. There were a good number of red herrings and a lot of historical scientific elements that were all particularly interesting. The author also included a great note at the end that went into how she used these elements and which are based in fact and which had been adjusted somewhat to meet the needs of the story. The writing was also very strong and drew me immediately into the story, deftly painting scenes and grounding the world in Regency London. Fans of historical mysteries should definitely check this out, especially if you’re looking for a more serious tone than some of the cozy historical mystery series running right now.

Rating 9: A super solid start to a new historical mystery series with two compelling protagonists at its heart. Of course, I already want them to just kiss.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Murder on Black Swan Lane” is on these Goodreads lists: Regency and Victorian Mysteries and Art & Artists in Fiction.

Find “Murder on Black Swan Lane” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Cackle”

Book: “Cackle” by Rachel Harrison

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, October 2021

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

Book Description: All her life, Annie has played it nice and safe. After being unceremoniously dumped by her longtime boyfriend, Annie seeks a fresh start. She accepts a teaching position that moves her from Manhattan to a small village upstate. She’s stunned by how perfect and picturesque the town is. The people are all friendly and warm. Her new apartment is dreamy too, minus the oddly persistent spider infestation.

Then Annie meets Sophie. Beautiful, charming, magnetic Sophie, who takes a special interest in Annie, who wants to be her friend. More importantly, she wants Annie to stop apologizing and start living for herself. That’s how Sophie lives. Annie can’t help but gravitate toward the self-possessed Sophie, wanting to spend more and more time with her, despite the fact that the rest of the townsfolk seem…a little afraid of her. And like, okay. There are some things. Sophie’s appearance is uncanny and ageless, her mansion in the middle of the woods feels a little unearthly, and she does seem to wield a certain power…but she couldn’t be…could she?

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

I used to be terrified of spiders. It was a phobia that I eventually outgrew, and now I usually do okay with arachnids (unless they are too big, as well as too big AND inside my house. Then I’m not as fine). I’ve talked about eventually getting a tarantula as a pet, though my husband has nixed that idea. So when I saw that Rachel Harrison had a new book coming out that touted not only the story of a witch, but also an adorable spider pet named Ralph, I was absolutely interested. That is “Cackle”: the story of a woman a bit lost, a witch friend, and a kind and supportive pet spider.

If I’m going to have a spider gif, it’s going to be a cute one. (source)

Is “Cackle” a terrifying follow up to the highly enjoyable “The Return”? Not really. But what it may not have in terror, it has oodles of in charm and feel good lady pal narrative. Our protagonist, Annie, has found herself newly single after he long time boyfriend Sam breaks up with her due to no more ‘spark’ in their ten year relationship. She takes a teaching job in the small town of Rowan, and immediately befriends Sophie, a charming, mysterious woman whom the rest of the town seems terrified of, or at the very least wary. Annie is a relatable (though admittedly a little sad sack-y) main character who feels lost, and Sophie is properly mysterious and perhaps a little intimidating. You blend that together and you find a story that has some familiar notes and beats of one woman helping another become self actualized, but is still framed in a novel way. After all, I can’t think of other lady friendship stories that have a jovial spider named Ralph. Yes, I’m obsessed with Ralph. I loved seeing their friendship slowly grow and blossom, and how said friendship helps Annie become a strong and confident person, even if with that confidence comes a little bit of darkness that she never anticipated (as well as questions about whether or not Sophie is dangerous… she is a witch, after all). Oh, and a spider infestation, a set of angry ghosts, and newfound powers that may be running a bit amok.

I went in expecting something a little more toxic, just because of how Harrison’s previous novel went, but “Cackle” is actually a really lovely story about two women who feel alone and isolated and then find joy in each other’s company. It just so happens that one of them is a witch. I really loved Sophie, from the way that she looked at the world to how Harrison addresses her past traumas (being a witch makes you a target, after all), to how supportive, but also lonely, she is. True, there are questions about her actual intentions and motivation, but it becomes clear that this is less a toxic friendship story, and more a woman discovering herself story. Annie is the less interesting character, but as she starts to believe in herself, she starts to take her power back. In some cases, literally. As Annie believes in herself more, partially due to Sophie’s cheerleading, she starts to develop powers of her own. And THIS is where some of the ‘horror-esque’ moments happen. There are definite gnarly moments that involve spells, bones, blood, and more, but it never feels too scary and is always rooted with a tongue firmly in cheek. True, I think that Harrison kind of leads us down a primrose path with some red herrings, but by the end I just had a smile on my face as two women go on a journey find friendship and self sufficiency in a society that has told them they have to tamp down their true selves. It’s cathartic and enjoyable.

“Cackle” isn’t the scary book I thought it would be, but it’s a good choice for a Halloween read if you want something a little spooky, but not terribly horror filled. Why not spend the Season of the Witch with Sophie?

Rating 9: A fun witchy tale about friendship, finding yourself, and the joys of spiders as pets. “Cackle” is a bit of light horror for his Halloween season!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cackle” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Horror Novels Written by Women (cis and trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”, and would fit in on “Witchy”.

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

Monthly Marillier: “Foxmask”

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “Foxmask” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor Fantasy, November 2005

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Norseman Eyvind, a fierce and loyal Wolfskin, came to a new land on top of the world to find his destiny. With his priestess bride Nessa he saved the land and weathered the treachery that was caused by Eyvind’s blood-sworn friend Somerled. After much pain and sorrow the two lovers have managed to create a society where the Norse warriors and the gentle folks of the Orkney Isles live and thrive in contentment at last. A decade and more has passed since the devastating events of the creation of the settlement and Eyvind and Nessa have watched their children grow and thrive in peace.

But not all on the islands are content or at peace. Thorvald, the young son of Margaret, widow of the slain king and Eyvind’s war leader, has always felt apart and at odds with all he knows. He learns upon his coming to manhood that he is not his father’s son but that of the love that Margaret bore for the hated Somerled and that Somerled was not killed for his treachery but sent on a boat, adrift with little more than a knife and skein of water, doomed to the god’s will. Thorvald is determined to find a boat and cast off to the West in a desperate bid to find a father he never knew…and to find out if he is made of the same stuff as the henious traitor.

The tragedy of this scheme would be horrific enough…if it were not for the fact that Creidhe, the winsome daughter of Eyvind and Nessa has loved Thorvald since birth and unbeknownst to him conspires to go along on this most perilous of quests.

What happens to them on their journey of discovery will ultimately change the lives of all they know and love…and will doom (or redeem) an entire people.

Review: It seems that I have distinct favorites and less-preferred books in all of Marillier’s duologies and trilogies. There’s no rhyme and reason to it either. Sometimes the first book is my favorite (“Wildwood Dancing”), sometimes the second (“Son of Shadows”), and sometimes even the third (“Flame of Sevenwaters.) So, too, I much prefer “Foxmask” to “Wolfskin.” I hadn’t even re-read “Wolfskin” until I read it again for this series. This book, on the other hand, is quite worn down from multiple re-reads.

A new generation has been born, and life is quiet, homely and comfortable for Creidhe, the daughter of Nessa and Eyvind. Thorvald, the secret son of the banished Somerland, is less content. When he sets out on a perilous journey to discover the truth of his heritage, Nessa secretly joins him, convinced that her dear friend and secret love will need her help. What they discover will change the course of not only their own futures, but that of so many more. In islands shrouded in clouds and mystery, will they discover the truth before it is too late?

I do love this book, and I will freely admit that’s mostly because of how much I love the romance at the heart of the story. Sadly, that doesn’t show up until about halfway through the book, but in the end, it’s well worth the wait. I’ll also admit to the fact that many of my re-reads involve me skipping right to this halfway point. That being the case, it was great to approach this re-read from the beginning of the book. I forgot just how much quality character work goes into the first half of the story and into slowly building up the mysteries and moral challenges that will later pay off in the end of the book.

Creidhe is your fairly typical Marillier heroine: quiet, loves the home and family, but filled with an iron will and inner strength. Luckily, she’s not a healer or a seer, two of the types of characters we’re most likely to see from this author. Instead, she’s a skilled weaver and creates a majestic embroidered tapestry that details her life. As a embroiderer myself, I’ve always love this trait about this character. It’s a really interesting look at this form of art as a storytelling mechanism.

This book is also unique for just how much I dislike Thorvald, the other POV character. Usually when Marillier uses multiple POVs I do end up having a favorite. But that’s just a preference between two character who are each fine on their own. Here? I pretty much spend most of the book wanting to punch Thorvald in his self-centered, whiny face. I even want to punch Creidhe at times for tolerating the amount of nonsense she does from him. There are a few moments in the book where Creidhe and their friend Sam both tear into Thorvald and, while I skip large chunks of his chapters in my casual re-reads, I always read these scenes for the pure joy of watching him get taken to task for being such a jerk. I will give credit to Marillier, though, for writing such a unique character. Very rarely does she write POV character who are anywhere near as flawed as Thorvald is. His journey is interesting enough, but you do have to tolerate a lot from him to get to the eventual pay-off.

I really, really liked the magical elements in this story. There were a good number of twists and turns that were both unexpected and heart breaking. Again and again are heroes must face impossible choices where it seems no one will win, but, in true Marillier fashion, everything is resolved by the end. I don’t want to spoil it by talking about certain characters, but the love interest is probably one of my favorites in all of Marillier’s work. And there are a few other characters that show up later who I also really, really enjoyed.

This is an excellent example of Marillier at her best. Both Creidhe and Thorvald read as very distinct characters from one another, their voices and perspectives so different throughout the story. Her lyrical style of writing perfectly fits the mysterious and magical locations that make up the landscape of the story. And, of course, the romance is beautiful, tragic, and heart-warming.

Rating 9: One of my favorites for sure, perfectly combining many of the elements I most love about Marillier’s work.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Foxmask” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Paranormal & Fantasy Romances and Best Romance in Traditional Fantasy.

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

Kate’s Review: “As Good As Dead”

Book: “As Good As Dead” (A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #3) by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2021

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

Book Description: The highly anticipated, edge-of-your-seat conclusion to the addictive A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder series that reads like your favorite true crime podcast or show. By the end, you’ll never think the same of good girls again.

Pip’s good girl days are long behind her. After solving two murder cases and garnering internet fame from her crime podcast, she’s seen a lot.

But she’s still blindsided when it starts to feel like someone is watching her. It’s small things at first. A USB stick with footage recording her and the same anonymous source always asking her: who will look for you when you’re the one who disappears? It could be a harmless fan, but her gut is telling her danger is lurking.

When Pip starts to find connections between her possible stalker and a local serial killer, Pip knows that there is only one choice: find the person threatening her town including herself–or be as good as dead. Because maybe someone has been watching her all along

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

Whenever I get to a final book of a series I have genuinely enjoyed, I am torn between wanting to devour it to see how it all plays out, and savoring it to stave off the end as long as possible. When I saw that “As Good As Dead”, the last book in Holly Jackson’s “A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder” series was coming out, I was thrilled and saddened. I think part of me had hoped that perhaps Jackson would make Pippa Fitz-Amobi, true crime obsessive and amateur detective, a series a la Temperence Brennan or Amelia Peabody. But if this is truly the end for Pip, I have to say that, while I was sad to say goodbye, this goodbye was so satisfying that I have few regrets.

Me saying goodbye to this series (though all three books are on my shelf to revisit whenever). (source)

When we left Pip at the end of “Good Girl, Bad Blood”, she had just survived a house fire and witnessed the brutal murder of sometimes ally, sometimes thorn in her side Stanley, who had been revealed as the son of a notorious murderer and who was killed out of revenge though he himself was a child at the time of the murders. Pip has been downward spiraling ever since, as while she’s counting the days down until she leaves for college, she’s also been taking Xanax on the sly to help her sleep, having PTSD episodes in secret, and fighting back unbridled rage issues. Especially since serial rapist Max Hastings, whose actions had far reaching consequences for Pip and those she cares about, has gone free. I had a very clear idea of what I thought was going to happen with this book. Pip is very unwell, understandably so, and I figured that we were going to get an exploration of a detective on the edge, who is after one last case to try and absolve herself of her roles in past cases and tragedies that came from them. As well as trying to solve the newest case of who is stalking her before it is too late.

In terms of these things, Jackson soars. I completely believed Pip’s mental state, and I loved that Jackson decided to go in this direction. I also found the slowly escalating stalker events in her life to be very creepy and unsettling, and through a combination of narrative as well as pictures, graphs, and epistolary segments (much like the previous books), we have a new case of a long supposedly solved serial killer that Pip now has to attend to, lest she be the next victim. Did this seem a little out there? Sure. But I was totally willing to buy in. Mostly because Jackson really knows how to plot a thriller that has wonderful characters and good connections to previous books/cases in the series.

It was about halfway through this book that I realized that Jackson had something else in store for the reader, and when I realized where it was all going, I was both blown away and a little bit horrified. I’m not going to spoil anything here, as it’s definitely worth keeping close to the vest. But “As Good As Dead” does away with preconceived notions of where this final book could go, even more so than just making Pip a complete emotional wreck. At first I was skeptical and a little bit incredulous, but as the plot goes on, it becomes very clear that Jackson has plans for Pip, and they are probably a foregone conclusion for her storyline given how things have been building since the first book. It’s so well done, and so suspenseful, and it made this final book a serious firecracker of a thriller. And I found myself going back to the previous two books to look for clues to see just how far back Jackson was planning this whole thing. It’s very well done. As mentioned above, while the main issue that Pip is facing (being the target of a potential dormant serial killer) did feel a little bit much, Jackson tells that story and the whole new other story so well that I was just enjoying the hell out of the ride. As well as getting my emotions totally run through the wringer. Sweet, sweet agony.

“As Good As Dead” is a satisfying end to a very enjoyable series! I look forward to seeing what Jackson writes next, and I wouldn’t mind revisiting Pip and all her loved ones down the road.

Rating 9: A supremely satisfying (and at times very very bleak) conclusion to a YA series I love, “As Good As Dead” takes Pip on her darkest case yet.

Reader’s Advisory:

“As Good As Dead” is included on the Goodreads lists “Young Adult THRILLERS”, and “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2021”.

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

Previously reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Daughter of the Salt King”

Book: “Daughter of the Salt King” by A.S. Thornton

Publishing Info: CamCat Books, February 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As a daughter of the Salt King, Emel ought to be among the most powerful women in the desert. Instead, she and her sisters have less freedom than even her father’s slaves … for the Salt King uses his own daughters to seduce visiting noblemen into becoming powerful allies by marriage.

Escape from her father’s court seems impossible, and Emel dreams of a life where she can choose her fate. When members of a secret rebellion attack, Emel stumbles upon an alluring escape route: her father’s best-kept secret—a wish-granting jinni, Saalim.

But in the land of the Salt King, wishes are never what they seem. Saalim’s magic is volatile. Emel could lose everything with a wish for her freedom as the rebellion intensifies around her. She soon finds herself playing a dangerous game that pits dreams against responsibility and love against the promise of freedom. As she finds herself drawn to the jinni for more than his magic, captivated by both him and the world he shows her outside her desert village, she has to decide if freedom is worth the loss of her family, her home and Saalim, the only man she’s ever loved.

Review: I’ll be honest, I requested this book way back in February the month it was coming out. I remember being intrigued by the description (I’m always in for a good jinni story) and happy to find an adult fantasy novel featuring a leading lady (something that I had been struggling to find at the time). But…then it just sat on my Kindle. And the reason I never looked at it to remind myself? The cover! Yes, I was one of those people who definitely started judging it on the cover and what my judgement was saying was: wow, that looks dull. And that’s too bad, because this book is way more exciting than the rather lackluster cover suggests.

As one of the more beautiful daughters of the Salt King, Emel has never understood why she can’t fulfill the only purpose her father allows her and her sisters: to seduce potential suitors whose connections wouldn’t benefit the Salt King. With a harrowing deadline growing steadily closer, Emel dreams of escape. As cracks begin to crumble around her seemingly all-powerful father, Emel stumbles on the secret to his success: a captive jinni who must fulfill his every wish. Soon Emel and Saalim form a strong attachment, but even with Saalim’s power at their fingertips, it’s a volatile thing, more like to harm them than help them. However, other forces are moving and soon their hands will be forced.

This book was such a pleasant surprise! Sometimes it seems that I know from the very first few sentences that a book will be for me. It’s something in the writing: longer, detailed sentences with expert use of a large vocabulary to begin drawing in the reader right away. This was definitely one of those stories. I felt immediately drawn to Emel, even when first meeting her in very tough circumstances when her choices are very much of the practical, if difficult, sort and not those that we often see from the “strong, feisty” heroines at the heart of these stories. Instead, half of Emel’s story is her growing to dream of more for herself and to slowly take control of the limited choices she has before her to direct that future into existence. She still made some puzzling choices, but they felt natural to this type of growth from a character’s whose life has been completely directed by an outside force for the entirety of her existence.

I also loved the romance. While this is a fantasy story first, the romance is a strong, driving element in the overall plot, so readers have to be onboard with that from the get go to enjoy the novel as a whole. I love a romantic fantasy, and both Emel and Saalim were compelling individually and even better together. It wasn’t exactly a slow-burn romance, but it also wasn’t instalove, with enough suspicion and miscommunication to ensure it read as realistic. The foibles that are set up before them also felt earned and also significant. I had a few ideas for how to get out of one snag or another, but most of the time the author quickly stomped out these plots, slowly twisting the screws on our tragic couple.

The world and magic were also interesting. There wasn’t anything incredibly unique to it all, being at times a fairly standard desert fantasy featuring a jinni with the usual abilities. But there added histories and beliefs tangled up in the magical elements that slowly began layering on top of one another as I read, until, in the end, the tapestry felt appropriately detailed and nuanced. In particular, I liked the brief exploration of the goddess behind the jinni’s power and his own backstory.

I really, really liked this book. It was simply solid in every way. It’s only lacking that 10 rating for having a few inexplicable character beats and having pacing that was a bit disjointed early on in the story. But those are real nitpicks on my part. There was also a fairly decent cliffhanger at the end. So, in this way, I was rewarded for dragging my feet about getting to this one as now my wait should be shorter before the second book comes out. Fans of jinnis and romance-heavy fantasies should definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: A wonderful surprise with two main characters you can’t help but love.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Daughter of the Salt King” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021 and Desert Fantasy.

Find “Daughter of the Salk King” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 1): Welcome to Lovecraft”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 1): Welcome to Lovecraft” by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.).

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, 2008

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Locke & Key tells of Keyhouse, an unlikely New England mansion, with fantastic doors that transform all who dare to walk through them. Home to a hate-filled and relentless creature that will not rest until it forces open the most terrible door of them all…

Review: Back when I was still in graduate school, I decided to look into Joe Hill’s comic series “Locke and Key”. I didn’t know that much about it outside of the fact that I loved Joe Hill, and I checked out Volume 1, “Welcome to Lovecraft” from the library with very little to go off of. I eventually tore through the whole series, with my husband giving me the complete set as my graduation present in 2015. Since I’ve had a good time re-reading graphic series that I’ve loved, I thought that I would make my next re-read “Locke and Key”. I remembered how much I enjoyed the series overall. But I had forgotten how bleak the first volume is. Like, holy shit this is relentless in its bleakness bleak.

Had it been a weekend evening as opposed to a midday during the week that I finished this volume, I would have been Roy Kent upon finishing. (source)

“Welcome to Lovecraft” introduces us to the Locke family, which has just experienced an unspeakable tragedy. The family patriarch Rendell was a principal of a high school, and two of his students broke into his home, raped his wife, murdered him, and attempted to hunt down his three children Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode. Now the surviving family members are moving back to Rendell’s childhood home out east, a humungous and strange mansion called Keyhouse where Rendell’s brother Duncan lives. What appears to be a couple of psychopathic teenagers run amok is, anything but, however, as the surviving assailant, Sam, is communicating with something otherworldly that is living in the well of Keyhouse from his prison cell across the country. This first volume does a lot of heavy lifting, from giving voice and perspective to all of the Locke kids (and how they are all faring after this tragedy), to slowly unfolding the demonic presence in the well, to staring to sprinkle in the magical systems and objects that Keyhouse has hidden within its walls. It is a LOT, but Hill manages to fit it all in without it feeling overwrought or hurried. Granted, the magical systems are barely touched upon as of yet, but I am a-okay with building up the family members and their dynamics first. Hill isn’t in a rush, and I think that the characterizations benefit.

The magical elements we do have remain shrouded in mystery. We know that there are keys, and we know that they can do different things, like make you be able to leave your body and travel in a ghostly manner, or change from male to female. But where they come from, and what the deal is with the demon in the well, who is communicating with both murderer Sam and youngest Locke, Bode. They keys are important, and we get a taste as to why. I loved how we slowly see how the demon in the well (unnamed as of yet) inserts itself into both Sam’s consciousness, and the role that it plays in Sam’s violence AND how it manipulates Bode because of his age and naivete. Again, we don’t know much about this demon yet. The creepiness is well established through other means.

But I had really forgotten how freakin’ dark this first volume is. From the attack on the Locke Family at the beginning to Sam’s cross country murder spree after he is set free by the well demon, I found this volume harder to read now than it was the first time I dove in. I will say that some of the worse stuff is left off page in terms of graphic content (specifically Nina Locke’s rape, and it is a relief that we didn’t have to see it), but Hill absolutely pulls out the horrors in the aftermath of it all. I don’t remember the rest of this series being this upsetting, but who knows, maybe I blocked it out? My point is that there are lots of content warnings here. None of this seems exploitative to me in how Hill writes it, but it’s still disturbing.

And finally, I had forgotten about how much I really like the art of Gabriel Rodríguez. It definitely has a ‘cartoon-y’ vibe, but he really knows how to capture pain, sadness, joy, and all things macabre in his designs.

Even though diving back into “Locke and Key” was a bit rough with “Welcome to Lovecraft”, I have a feeling that this is once again going to be a successful re-read. This is old school Joe Hill, and it was clear even then that he was a horror and dark fantasy force to be reckoned with.

Rating 9: A fantastical and incredibly grim start to a dark fantasy series I love, “Locke and Key (Vol.1): Welcome to Lovecraft” will suck you in from the get go.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol.1): Welcome to Lovecraft” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”, and “Comics + Graphic Novels To Read for Halloween”.

Find “Locke & Key (Vol.1): Welcome to Lovecraft” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “White Smoke”

Book: “White Smoke” by Tiffany D. Jackson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, September 2021

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

Book Description: The Haunting of Hill House meets Get Out in this chilling YA psychological thriller and modern take on the classic haunted house story from New York Times bestselling author Tiffany D. Jackson!

Marigold is running from ghosts. The phantoms of her old life keep haunting her, but a move with her newly blended family from their small California beach town to the embattled Midwestern city of Cedarville might be the fresh start she needs. Her mom has accepted a new job with the Sterling Foundation that comes with a free house, one that Mari now has to share with her bratty ten-year-old stepsister, Piper.

The renovated picture-perfect home on Maple Street, sitting between dilapidated houses, surrounded by wary neighbors has its . . . secrets. That’s only half the problem: household items vanish, doors open on their own, lights turn off, shadows walk past rooms, voices can be heard in the walls, and there’s a foul smell seeping through the vents only Mari seems to notice. Worse: Piper keeps talking about a friend who wants Mari gone. But “running from ghosts” is just a metaphor, right?

As the house closes in, Mari learns that the danger isn’t limited to Maple Street. Cedarville has its secrets, too. And secrets always find their way through the cracks.

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

Tiffany D. Jackson is one of my must read authors, whose books I clamor to get my hands on as soon as they come out. It comes as no shocker that when I heard she was writing a horror novel I was even more eager, insofar as I not only requested it from NetGalley, but I also pre-ordered it so that I could just have a copy for my own physical collection. That book is “White Smoke”, a YA horror novel that is described as “The Haunting of Hill House” meets “Get Out”, two big horror flexes if there ever were some. I dove in with high hopes, and Jackson didn’t disappoint.

I’m not going to to into spoilers here, as “White Smoke” is a book that greatly benefits from letting all of its twists and turns jump forth when they are ready to do so. But what I will say is that it is a haunted house story that has a bit of a twist. Mari and her (newly blended) family move into a new house, strange things start happening, and she has to figure out if these things are real, or if they are manifestations of her high anxiety and/or her history with drug use. These themes are, of course, the perfect recipe for a Gothic horror story, and if it was just this it would have been golden. But Jackson takes it a few steps further and not only has a potentially ghostly horror, but also the horrors of systemic racism that takes down communities and holds Black people down under the boot of white supremacy. Mari and her family are part of a neighborhood revitalization project, as they have moved into a long abandoned house in hopes of bringing people back to the neighborhood, but all is not what it seems in the community of Cedarville, which has a dark history of racial disparities and injustice, from prison pipelines to property discrimination. I loved how Jackson wove in these themes along with the strange and terrifying things that are happening in Mari’s house. She also addresses the issues of race and racism in Mari’s own family, as Mari’s mother, Raquel, has married a white man named Alec who has moments of not considering the experiences and grievances of his wife and stepchildren, as he as a white man has never had to deal with it. Jackson makes sure to give all the members of this family moments of being less than optimal, but also gives them all moments of grace to show that they are all adjusting to a new family situation, as well as a new home (WHICH MAY BE HAUNTED!). Mari is also a character whose experiences as a Black teenage girl have shaped some of her as a person, from being criminalized more easily due to her race to being expected to be strong when she has plenty of perfectly reasonable fragilities, like mental health issues and past trauma. All of these real world horror themes work very, very well.

And now the haunted house aspect. Mari’s new house is notorious in Cedarville, specifically in her Maplewood neighborhood, for supposedly being haunted by The Hag. The moment I saw reference to “The Hag”, I could have exploded in excitement, as this is one of my favorite ghost stories/pieces of folklore of all time. The Hag is a spirit that supposedly sucks your essence out of you as you sleep, and will ride you until you have nothing left. The Hag will then take your skin and appearance and wreak havoc. I first heard of this when I was visiting Savannah, Georgia the first time, and it scared the shit out of me. So Jackson using The Hag folklore in this story as the thing that is maybe haunting Mari’s house is SO perfect, as not only is it a bit unique, it is also said that The Hag targets young women who are especially susceptible to mental and emotional problems. And Jackson captures every aspect of the tale and makes it INCREDIBLY scary in this book, from strange shadows and noises to vocal mimicry and manifestations. There were moments where I was on the edge of my seat with suspense, and happy that I still had the lights on as I was reading on my eReader. Not that I was completely spared from jumping out of my skin.

At one point my cat jumped on the bed and I could have fainted. (source)

“White Smoke” is a great horror novel from Tiffany D. Jackson. You don’t want to miss this one with the upcoming Halloween season being right around the corner.

Rating 9: Tiffany D. Jackson effortlessly crosses into the horror genre, and presents a haunted house story that also takes on systemic injustices in American society.

Reader’s Advisory:

“White Smoke” is included on the Goodreads lists “Black Heroines 2021”, and “ATY 2022: Gothic Elements”.

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

Book Club Review: “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Bram Stoker Award for a Young Adult Novel

Book Description: Elizabeth Lavenza hasn’t had a proper meal in weeks. Her thin arms are covered with bruises from her “caregiver,” and she is on the verge of being thrown into the streets . . . until she is brought to the home of Victor Frankenstein, an unsmiling, solitary boy who has everything–except a friend.

Victor is her escape from misery. Elizabeth does everything she can to make herself indispensable–and it works. She is taken in by the Frankenstein family and rewarded with a warm bed, delicious food, and dresses of the finest silk. Soon she and Victor are inseparable.

But her new life comes at a price. As the years pass, Elizabeth’s survival depends on managing Victor’s dangerous temper and entertaining his every whim, no matter how depraved. Behind her blue eyes and sweet smile lies the calculating heart of a girl determined to stay alive no matter the cost . . . as the world she knows is consumed by darkness. 

Kate’s Thoughts

This isn’t the first time that I’ve read “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White, as I read and reviewed it when it first came out a couple years ago. But I knew that for an Award Winner book I wanted to pick something that was a Bram Stoker Winner, but also wasn’t super terrifying since I know a lot of my book club friends aren’t as into horror as I am. This book seemed to be a good meet in the middle kind of compromise, as it isn’t terribly scary, but also won the Young Adult award the year it came out. So reading it again was perfectly acceptable, as I enjoyed it so much the first time!

And I enjoyed it again this time too. I don’t think that my opinion has really changed too much since the last time I read it (here is the original review if you want context). I was once again struck by how White made comment on gender in English society and culture at the time, and how Elizabeth has sacrificed a lot, including a good deal of her morals, to keep herself safe and secure lest she fall through the cracks. I also liked seeing White compare and contrast three different women characters in this story, as Elizabeth, Justine the governess, and Mary the book seller/amateur scientist all, to me, are three different facets of female protagonist tropes that all have a little bit of exploration and deconstruction. And of course it’s always interesting to look at the character of Victor Frankenstein and to ponder upon who is truly ‘the monster’ within the original story, and let me tell you, White does a really good job of making the case for a VERY clear choice (even if it does still come off a bit two dimensional at times). I think that the only change I had from my initial read was, upon re-reading, I didn’t think that enough was done with The Monster in this retelling. I still like what White did with The Monster in terms of making it feel like a unique take, but I found myself wanting more this time around.

Overall, I still really like “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein”! Nice to give women a voice in a book by a pioneering woman in the horror and Sci-Fi genres!

Serena’s Thoughts

I was super excited when Kate selected this book for her choice for book club. Not only am I a fan of Kiersten White in general, but I really like the original “Frankenstein.” Really like, as in I’ve read it probably three or four times. Kind of a strange choice, I know, for someone who doesn’t count horror as one of her favorite genres! But I’m a sucker for exactly that sort of use of supernatural aspects to delve into the ugliness (and beauty) at the heart of humanity. I also just love the style of writing in that time period with the long, drawn out sentences and extensive vocabulary.

And man did White excel or what! I really liked what she did with this retelling. It was great reading this book as a fan of the original, to see all of the little nods and winks she gives to readers who are familiar with that story. Her use of the classic characters was also on point, reading as familiar enough to their original versions, but also clearly uniquely reimagined for her own take on the story. Elizabeth, of course, is the biggest chance as this is now her story (rather than her fairly unfortunate experience in the original story…).

Not only did White use Elizabeth to expound on the impossible choices faced by women in this time, unable to create their own futures without tying themselves to men, but she also used the character to further explore the same themes of the original “Frankenstein.” Elizabeth is by no means a “good” character. She’s not “bad” either, but her choices are definitely walking a pretty stark moral line. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the story knows that it is meant to highlight the true villainous nature of Victor as the monster rather than his creation. So it was an interesting take to not simply focus on that tired ground (Victor is pretty obviously evil here) but to instead use Elizabeth as the character to exist in shades of grey.

Like Kate said, I do wish there had been a bit more of the Monster here. I liked what we had from him, but that was clearly not the focus of White’s story. I also had a bit of a struggle with the end of the story. A few things felt rather sudden, and, strangely for my own usual preference, I almost wish the very last chapter hadn’t existed and the initial ending at stuck. But that’s just me! Overall, I thought this was a clever, imaginative re-imaging of a beloved classic.

Kate’s Rating 9: Still a fun and feminist retelling of a horror classic!

Serena’s Rating 9: Definitely worthy of the award it received and an excellent read for fans of horror and supernatural books alike!

Book Club Questions

  1. How familiar are you with the original “Frankenstein” story? Do you think that this retelling complements that story? Why or why not?
  2. Elizabeth’s characterization has gone from passive side player to Victor’s protector and enabler. What did you think of this change?
  3. Why do you think Elizabeth was so attached to Justine? What did you think of their friendship?
  4. What do you think White was trying to say about gender expectations and society in this book? How did Elizabeth, Justine, and Mary represent different angles of ‘womanhood’?
  5. Does Elizabeth bear any responsibility on how Victor turned out? How much? What about others around him? Or is Victor solely to blame?
  6. Do you think the Monster played a big enough role in this story? Why or why not?
  7. What did you make of the ending?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Gothic Retellings”, and “Homages to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein”.

Find “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!!

Next Book Club Book: “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Kate’s Review: “When the Reckoning Comes”

Book: “When the Reckoning Comes” by LaTanya McQueen

Publishing Info: Harper Perennial, August 2021

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

Book Description: A haunting novel about a black woman who returns to her hometown for a plantation wedding and the horror that ensues as she reconnects with the blood-soaked history of the land and the best friends she left behind.

More than a decade ago, Mira fled her small, segregated hometown in the south to forget. With every mile she traveled, she distanced herself from her past: from her best friend Celine, mocked by their town as the only white girl with black friends; from her old neighborhood; from the eerie Woodsman plantation rumored to be haunted by the spirits of slaves; from the terrifying memory of a ghost she saw that terrible day when a dare-gone-wrong almost got Jesse—the boy she secretly loved—arrested for murder.

But now Mira is back in Kipsen to attend Celine’s wedding at the plantation, which has been transformed into a lush vacation resort. Mira hopes to reconnect with her friends, and especially, Jesse, to finally tell him the truth about her feelings and the events of that devastating long-ago day.

But for all its fancy renovations, the Woodsman remains a monument to its oppressive racist history. The bar serves antebellum drinks, entertainments include horrifying reenactments, and the service staff is nearly all black. Yet the darkest elements of the plantation’s past have been carefully erased—rumors that slaves were tortured mercilessly and that ghosts roam the lands, seeking vengeance on the descendants of those who tormented them, which includes most of the wedding guests. As the weekend unfolds, Mira, Jesse, and Celine are forced to acknowledge their history together, and to save themselves from what is to come.

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

One of my favorite places to visit on a semi-regular basis (at least in the beforetimes) is Savannah, Georgia. It’s such a funky historic town, and I really enjoy staying in the historic area, walking around the squares, and doing haunted pub crawls and ghost tours. I also try to go on historic house tours, as there is a lot of interesting history there, but I almost always found it hard to really enjoy because so many of the tours would completely white wash the slavery aspect of said history. That isn’t to say that doesn’t happen in Northern historical institutions: as someone who has worked at historic sites before, one of which had a significant tie to Dred Scott, it happens up North too (admittedly, the sites I worked at did try to start the conversations, they just also didn’t give us tools to handle the visitors who would meet those conversations with either derision or flat out hostility. THE STORIES I HAVE.). Horrors of some of our historic sites can get lost, and a lot of the time it’s because of the fact America hasn’t really faced those horrors yet. “When the Reckoning Comes” by LaTanya McQueen takes this idea, and makes it into a full blown vengeful ghost story, and boy does it work.

In terms of ghostly plots, we have a little bit of everything. Childhood friends Mira and Celine have grown apart, but Mira returns home for Celine’s wedding at a rural plantation house that may or may not be haunted. We see this story unfold in a few ways. The first is the present, as Mira attends the wedding celebrations in spite of her very understandable discomfort. But that discomfort isn’t just because of the terrible things that happened to Black people on that land (and Celine deciding to have a lavish party there in spite of that), but also because of another timeline we see: when they were kids, Mira and hers and Celine’s friend Jesse went onto the land when it was run down and abandoned, as the rumors of ghosts were intriguing. But what they both saw and experienced on that visit changed their lives. For Mira, she saw things that she couldn’t explain, but for Jesse, the mysterious death of a white local on the property led to him being suspected of murder due to his proximity, but mostly his race. All of these things come to a head during Celine’s wedding celebrations, but there is also the aspect of the vengeful ghosts that want to take out any descendants of those who brutalized them in life… who happen to be a lot of the wedding guests and wedding party members. The ghost aspects of this book hit all the marks I wanted them to hit: they have VERY legitimate reasons for being angry, there are a lot of creepy moments with imagery and pacing, and we have Mira who just can’t quite believe that she is seeing something supernatural, even as it becomes more and more clear that something strange is happening. McQueen knows the beats to hit for an effective ghost story, and she hits them pretty well.

But this ghost story, while absolutely having creepy ghost moments, is also about the way that history and trauma can haunt for generations. The metaphors are rich in this book, the ghosts of America’s sins being a huge theme, and characters like Mira and Jesse who have to reckon with them, while characters like Celine don’t feel like they have to. Mira and Jesse bear the brunt of American racism in different ways, be it Jesse being accused of a crime he didn’t commit because of his race, or Mira internalizing that racism and trying to be an ‘ideal’ Black woman in a society that is fueled by white ideals and supremacy. For them to be invited by white childhood friend Celine to her LITERAL plantation wedding, and for her to not see what the problem is with it and to dismiss how fucked up it is, is truly a perfect set up for this kind of story. Celine is a bit more than the caricature that she could have been, in that you do see her complex friendship with Mira for both the bad and the good. You do see how she, too, had a hard time growing up in their community as someone who was poor. But you also see that she always, ALWAYS, falls on the side of her whiteness, even when it is on the side of those who mistreated her for other things, and how insidious whiteness can be because of that. It’s heavy stuff, and McQueen lays it all out expertly. And really, the true horror story moments are moments of interlude that are from the generalized POV of the ghosts of the slaves, who tell their experiences in all of their devastating truths. It is so hard to read, but it is very important to do so. We have so much reckoning to do still.

“When the Reckoning Comes” is certainly a horror story, but it’s the horror story of the disgusting legacy of chattel slavery in America. And it’s long past time we face that horror head on.

Rating 9: Lots of suspense and scares, as well as on point commentary, “When the Reckoning Comes” is a seething and scary horror story!

Reader’s Advisory:

“When the Reckoning Comes” is new and not on many Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Diverse Horror”.

Find “When the Reckoning Comes” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Forestborn”

Book: “Forestborn” by Elayne Audrey Becker

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, August 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Rora is a shifter, as magical as all those born in the wilderness–and as feared. She uses her abilities to spy for the king, traveling under different guises and listening for signs of trouble.

When a magical illness surfaces across the kingdom, Rora uncovers a devastating truth: Finley, the young prince and her best friend, has caught it, too. His only hope is stardust, the rarest of magical elements, found deep in the wilderness where Rora grew up–and to which she swore never to return.

But for her only friend, Rora will face her past and brave the dark, magical wood, journeying with her brother and the obstinate, older prince who insists on coming. Together, they must survive sentient forests and creatures unknown, battling an ever-changing landscape while escaping human pursuers who want them dead. With illness gripping the kingdom and war on the horizon, Finley’s is not the only life that hangs in the balance.

Review: Everything about this book promo worked to lure me in. The cover is gorgeous and speaks to the fairytale-like fantasy novels that I’m always on the search for. And the book description just cemented it for me. A young woman with magical abilities setting off on a dangerous quest? Yep! Siblings relationships? Yep! Friendship and potential romance? Yep! But even with all of these high expectations, I wasn’t prepared for just how much I was going to enjoy this book.

Though the last several years have seen Rora and her brother taken under the wing of the royal family, there life before this was very different. As shifters, they have been hated and feared almost their entire life and grew up struggling to remain alive in a land riddled with dangerous magic. Nothing could compel Rora to return to that frightful land. Or so she thinks. When her best friend, the young prince Finley comes down with a deadly illness that is sweeping the country, Rora knows there is only one hope of saving him. Now, she, her brother, and Finley’s older, serious brother must set out on a quest to retrieve the cure. But along the way, they discover that more is going wrong in the land than just this illness. And soon, the choices before them will become more and more impossible as they fight for all they love.

I really, really enjoyed this book. From the very beginning, I could tell the writing style was exactly of the sort that I prefer: descriptive, lyrical, and confident in its readers to pick up on small lines here and there to build a picture of the world around them. It’s always so nice when authors trust their readers. It allows the story to play out slowly and in a more natural way, with reveals about past events perhaps being referenced early but not made clear until a more organic moment later in the book. It’s quite a ways into the book before we fully understand Rora’s past and how (and why) it affects her views of herself in the present. But not only do we piece together these past revelations, but there are number of twists and turns within the story as well. I could predict one or two, but there were a number that were genuinely surprising, especially how they interwove with each other and our characters.

I also really enjoyed the fantasy and magical elements of the story. While we’ve all read “humans are afraid of those with magic and thus persecution” stories, this one played this out in a rather unique way. The magic itself was also appropriately wild and dangerous. While there are wonderous aspects of it, it’s also seen to be dark and terrifying. Like the tag line on the cover, magic is neither good or bad, but instead is a force of nature unto itself. Even those with magical abilities, like Rora and her brother, both fear and respect the forces of magic around them. There were some magical encounters that were truly creepy, and the fantasy creatures were also very unique and interesting.

Overall, the story was darker than I had expected going in. There is violence, death, and loss. Especially towards the end of the book, things became much more grim than I was expecting. But all of this darkness is nicely woven into Rora’s personal arch of self-acceptance and her struggles with abandonment, loyalty, and trust. She was an excellent character all around, and I really enjoyed her narration of the story. Not only does she go through a lot of self-reflection, but we see her readjust her opinions of those few individuals who have gotten close to her through her life. She learns that not everyone is who she believed them to be, for better and for worse. This translates best into her relationship with her brother, one that goes through the natural ups and downs of two siblings transitioning from the simply relationship they had as children to the more complicated one they share as adults. But we also see these themes play out in the lovely slow-burn romance.

There were a lot of big events towards the end of this story. Much of what feels like the main arch is somewhat resolved halfway through, and then we see the story shift into an entire new gear. I don’t see a sequel currently planned on Goodreads, but I think it must be a duology given the end of this book. It’s not a straight-up cliffhanger, but there is definitely a strong set-up for a continuing story. I’ll be keeping my eyes out for sure. And in the meantime, I strongly recommend this book for fantasy fans of all sorts!

Rating 9: So, so good! Strong, confident writing mixed with excellent characters and dark fantasy elements result in a near-perfect debut book!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Forestborn” is a new title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on 2021 Debut MG/YA Novels.

Find “Forestborn” at your library using WorldCat!