Serena’s Review: “The Poppy War”

35068705Book: “The Poppy War” by R. F. Kuang

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, May 2018

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

Book Description: When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

Review: Whew! That book description is about half the length of my entire post usually! But I guess given that this is a 600+ page book, it kind of makes sense. There’s a lot to pack in there! This summer continues to be the summer of catching up on books that were quite a hit a year or so ago, and that for whatever reason, took me forever to get to! I have clear memories of seeing this cover and title being thrown about everywhere and yet I never really knew anything about what it was about! Which, having read it now, I kind of get! There’s a lot in here, and it’s the kind of book that’s hard to pin down or to compare to some other, obvious read-alike. And, while I was not prepared for everything in this, I really loved it!

Rin has always been a fighter. Maybe not in the classical sense, though she gets even there eventually. No, she is one who fights against the life that others have chosen for her. A war orphan from a poor providence, through sheer stubbornness and force of will she studies hard enough to earn her ticket out of an arranged marriage. Then, in a northern school that looks down on her lowly beginnings, Rin, again through sheer stubborness, finds a way to become one of their best students. And then the war hits, and her real fight begins. Not only against an almost unstoppable invading force, but the fight within herself to define her future. Will she follow a beloved teacher, warning of dark paths ahead? Or an esteemed leader who asks her to embrace every bit of power she has always hid within herself.

This book took me by complete surprise. For one thing, it almost reads as two entirely different books, so right when you’re getting settled in and think you understand the type of story you’re read, bam! Nope! The first half is your classic coming-of-age, boarding/military school story ala Tamora Pierce’s “Alanna” series. You have Rin, the girl who has nothing going for her, proving to everyone again and again that sheer stubbornness is enough to get you through most everything. She’s an outcast among her peers with the one sweet friend and the one big enemy in the local school enemy. She befriends the quirky teacher. It’s all lovely. And as familiar as that all sounds, the author imbibes her story with such a complicated history, culture, and mythology that the reader never once feels like these aspects of the story are coming off as tropes.

And then, whoops! Not the innocent school story anymore! A foreign army invades and suddenly the story takes a steep turn into a grim and gritty war story. And even that came with surprises. It starts out well enough with a few things going Rin’s way as she learns more about her abilities, her history, and her potential. She joins up with a crew of other “freaks” and they have a few wins. And then…it gets dark. Pretty suddenly even. And when I say dark, I mean dark. I’m not a prude about violence by any means, but man, I wasn’t prepared for where this book headed. I definitely teared up a number of times and had to put the book down (metaphorically, as it was an audiobook) at least two or three times. Some parts of it were really hard to get through.

I will say that this is the one part of the story that knocked it back a point from being a full “10 rating” book: at times, it felt like the violence was almost a bit too much. There was one section in particular about three fourths of the way through where I felt like the book just seemed to linger and repeat examples of the atrocities. While a lot of this was necessary for Rin’s own arc and to justify her choices and how she ends up where she does, I think the point was made even without some of the circling round again through all of the horror. It’s a fine line to walk, and it’s the kind of thing that many readers will have different tolerances for. But, the warning stands: this book goes to some awful places. I wasn’t prepared, so I’ll let you know so you can be!

I really liked Rin’s character. Her arc is incredibly compelling, especially as we see her struggle through some awful choices. And by the end, we have a character who is very different than the one we started with. But at the same time, completely recognizable. And the changes are so subtle and the influences on her pile up so slowly, bit by bit, that by the grand conclusion, we’re not shocked by what should be shocking.

I also loved the incredibly world-building, history, and mythology. This story felt completely fresh, and even after 600+ pages, I still only felt like I was scratching the surface of this world. This is the first book in a trilogy, and while I have a few guesses as to where one or two things are going, I’m also prepared to be dead wrong. Since I was completely blown off my feet with this one, it’d be the height of arrogance for me to assume I know what’s coming next! That said, I will need to give myself a bit of breathing time before getting into the second one. My heart can only take so much!

Rating 9: A little late to the game and repeating what’s been said a bunch of times already, but this book is incredible.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Poppy War” is on these Goodreads lists: “Asian Speculative Fiction by Asian Authors — #ownvoices” and “Fantasy of color.”

Find “The Poppy War” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Only Good Indians”

49045750Book: “The Only Good Indians” by Stephen Graham Jones

Publishing Info: Gallery/Saga Press, July 2020

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

Book Description: The creeping horror of Paul Tremblay meets Tommy Orange’s There There in a dark novel of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition in this latest novel from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, Stephen Graham Jones.

Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.

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

It wasn’t until recently that I decided to give Stephen Graham Jones a try in terms of looking at a new horror author. I knew that he was a favorite of a friend of mine, and I had requested his book “Mongrels” but never got around to reading it. But when I saw that his newest book, “The Only Good Indians” was available as a ‘Wish For It’ option on NetGalley (aka if you throw your hat in the ring, you may get lucky and get a copy. Kind of a literary lottery for us book reviewers!), I thought why the heck not, and clicked the wish button. To my great (and pleasant) surprise, I was sent an eARC of the book, and waited until it was closer to the publication date to give it a go. It became very clear from the get go of two things: this was going to be quite the experience, and that I had really missed out during my wishy washy ‘I’ll get to him eventually’ malarkey.

“The Only Good Indians” is a horror novel, but it takes great care to go much deeper than merely trying to scare the reader. Along with the tension and scares, we get a deep and heartfelt look into the minds and lives of our main players, all of whom are marked for doom, though the reasons as to why are held close to the vest. Four men, Lewis, Gabriel, Cassidy, and Ricky are four Blackfeet men who were friends in their youth but have vaguely grown apart for various reasons. But the biggest thing that connects them now is a decade old hunting trip that ended with not only the breaking of important traditions. Not only did they hunt on a part of the reservation that was reserved for the elders of the group, they also killed far more elk than they really needed to, including one young female that really, really fought to live. Though they tried to make things right by using as much of the bodies as they could, and giving all the meat to the elders, they were banned from hunting on the reservation ever again. And now, something is hunting them down one by one. It seems like it could be a paint by numbers vengeance folk horror story, but Jones dives in deeper, slowly letting the reader get to know each of these men and the various highs and lows that they reckon with in their day to day lives. By the time vengeance has arrived, you know so much about these men that them being in danger raises the stakes higher than they normally would be. And not only do we get to know them, Jones intermingles their stories along with themes of what modern Indigenous people both on and off the reservation have to contend with, from a loss of identity to a disconnect from traditions to substance abuse to flat out racism. When you take this weaving of social justice issues into a horror motif, what you get is a story that hits you all the more in the gut, but also brings in bits of humor and joy and hope that, if not for these men, that things can slowly be better for those they care about of the younger generations. That is, if this hellbent on revenge and angry entity doesn’t get to them first.

And let’s talk about the horror aspects. Because HELL YES, this is EXACTLY what I want from my folk horror. Jones lets the tension ebb and flow, with slow burning building up and explosive climaxes, and a slow build up again onto the next. It makes the dread feel palpable and makes it so that it’s hard to put the story down. On top of that, the reader really gets into the minds of not only the four hunters, but also that of the thing that is after them. You understand it’s motives, you understand it’s rage, and you can’t help but feel like all of that is justified. It’s easy just to have a monster that slowly takes people out one by one, but far more satisfying to see what makes the monster tick. And with the more subtle and cerebral horror of that we also get some very graphic, gross you out body horror and unsettling imagery that has stuck with me ever since I finished the book. Take all this into account with the social justice issues, and I think that the comparisons between Jones and Jordan Peele are fairly justified. Though that said, Jones stands on his own, no question.

“The Only Good Indians” was a fantastic and emotional horror novel. Don’t make the same mistake I did, people! If you’ve been sleeping on Jones, go out and read this book. You will not regret it.

Rating 9: Haunting, horrifying, and hopeful, “The Only Good Indians” is an examination of revenge, identity, and the circles of violence that can cause such pain.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Only Good Indians” is included on the Goodreads lists “2020 Books by Native Authors and Authors of Color”, and “2020 Horror to Scream For”.

Find “The Only Good Indians” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House”

25099Book: “The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” by Neil Gaiman, Steve Parkhouse (Ill.), Chris Bachalo (Ill.), Michael Zulli (Ill.), Mike Dringenberg (Ill.), & Malcolm Jones III (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, June 1990

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A being who has existed since the beginning of the universe, Dream of the Endless rules over the realm of dreams. In The Doll’s House, after a decades-long imprisonment, the Sandman has returned to find that a few dreams and nightmares have escaped to reality. Looking to recapture his lost possessions, Morpheus ventures to the human plane only to learn that a woman named Rose Walker has inadvertently become a dream vortex and threatens to rip apart his world. Now as Morpheus takes on the last escaped nightmare at a serial killers convention, the Lord of Dreams must mercilessly murder Rose or risk the destruction of his entire kingdom.

Collecting issues #9-16, this new edition of The Doll’s House features the improved production values and coloring from the Absolute Edition.

Review: Our revisit of this classic comic series presses on, and now that Morpheus/Dream has reclaimed his power over The Dreaming, he has more work to do! As I continue my re-read I have been struck by how visceral and enchanting “The Sandman” universe is, and while it does still harken to other DC characters and mythos on occasion, we have started to stay firmly within a world of Gaiman’s making. And it is just as engrossing this time as it was the first time.

I don’t know why I waited so long to revisit Dream, The Endless, and the Dreaming, because going back to “The Sandman (Vol. 2): The Doll’s House” really hit home how much I love this series. There’s dark humor, there’s lovely fantastical world building as you get more familiar with The Dreaming (Dream’s domain he rules over) and begin to meet other Endless (specifically Desire in this arc), and there’s an undercurrent of horror to go along with the fantasy. Our main drive this time is that of Rose Walker, a woman who is, unknown to her, a Dream Vortex, and therefore something very dangerous for The Dreaming as her very existence could damage it beyond repair. On top of that, a few of Dream’s Nightmares have escaped, and are wreaking havoc in different ways. In this volume Dream is still trying to re-steer his ship after his captivity, and we see just how far the damage of his absence has  gone. Rose has her own mission, and it is to find her little brother, who has gone missing. With the help of a mysterious but kind man named Gilbert, Rose goes looking for her brother, just as Dream starts looking for her. We see a few callbacks to other parts of “Preludes and Nocturnes”, which were done in slow and subtle ways, which made them feel all the more satisfactory as they were peeled back and revealed. The dreamlike atmosphere of this series is still present, as is the darkness. This time that horror aspect is in the form of a ‘Cereal Convention” that Rose and Gilbert stumble upon, which is actually a gathering of serial killers that are hoping to share insight with each other. I had forgotten how twisted this entire thing was, and let me tell you Gaiman doesn’t hold back. To the point that I really feel a need to give a content warning for abuse and sexual assault (and also a note that there is descriptions of violence against trans people in particular. Which felt very problematic but also very of the time that this series was going).

But once again, it’s a standalone story that has a lot of philosophical oomph and a lot of heart that stood out to me in this volume. While the arc of Rose Walker and the ‘cereal’ convention is definitely stellar, it was the story “Men of Good Fortune”, in which Dream and Death decide to give a man named Hob Gadling eternal life after they hear him waxing philosophical about mortality in a pub in 1389. Every hundred years, Hob and Dream meet at this pub, and Hob tells Dream about what he is doing with his eternity. There are highs and lows as Hob experiences the evolution of London, and we get to see how he changes the direction of his life and how it leads to success and devastation. What struck me the most about this story, outside of seeing how one person might shift and evolve with the world they live in were they to have eternity to do so, is that Hob and Dream are an unlikely set of friends whose friendship feels natural and touching. I remembered that Hob pops up here and there throughout the series, but I had forgotten how lovely his introduction was.

The art is still excellent. We’ve started to see more experimentation in design, style, and placement, and while sometimes there is a very traditional art style (like in “Men of Good Fortune”), sometimes it is very abstract. It really just adds to the flavor of the atmosphere that they’re all trying to create, and for the most part it works.

“The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” opens up the series to more possibilities, and more darkness. You can tell that this is something very special on these pages.

Rating 9: More chills and world building along with introductions to more of the Endless, “The Sandman (Vol. 2): The Doll’s House” keeps the horror elements up while also showing moments of true tenderness.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” is included on the Goodreads lists “Great Non-Superhero Graphic Novels”, and “Psychological and Philosophical Comics”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: 

Kate’s Review: “Home Before Dark”

50833559._sx318_sy475_Book: “Home Before Dark” by Riley Sager

Publishing Info: Dutton Books, June 2020

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

Book Description: What was it like? Living in that house.

Maggie Holt is used to such questions. Twenty-five years ago, she and her parents, Ewan and Jess, moved into Baneberry Hall, a rambling Victorian estate in the Vermont woods. They spent three weeks there before fleeing in the dead of night, an ordeal Ewan later recounted in a nonfiction book called House of Horrors. His tale of ghostly happenings and encounters with malevolent spirits became a worldwide phenomenon, rivaling The Amityville Horror in popularity—and skepticism.

Today, Maggie is a restorer of old homes and too young to remember any of the events mentioned in her father’s book. But she also doesn’t believe a word of it. Ghosts, after all, don’t exist. When Maggie inherits Baneberry Hall after her father’s death, she returns to renovate the place to prepare it for sale. But her homecoming is anything but warm. People from the past, chronicled in House of Horrors, lurk in the shadows. And locals aren’t thrilled that their small town has been made infamous thanks to Maggie’s father. Even more unnerving is Baneberry Hall itself—a place filled with relics from another era that hint at a history of dark deeds. As Maggie experiences strange occurrences straight out of her father’s book, she starts to believe that what he wrote was more fact than fiction.

In the latest thriller from New York Times bestseller Riley Sager, a woman returns to the house made famous by her father’s bestselling horror memoir. Is the place really haunted by evil forces, as her father claimed? Or are there more earthbound—and dangerous—secrets hidden within its walls?

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

Back when I was a teenager and I was using my Blockbuster privileges to rent horror movies, I took an opportunity to rent “The Amityville Horror”, classic haunted house/’based on a true story’ horror movie. I remember eating take out tacos form a local taqueria and sitting in the basement watching this movie, banished there as no one else in my family likes horror movies and the upstairs VCR was reserved for something else. I remember really enjoying it at the time. It was a few years after that that I came upon the ample evidence that it was all a hoax, a lie to give the Lutz family a nice pay day and to set up a murder defense for Ronny DeFeo, who had murdered his entire family in the house before the Lutzes moved in. I read the book a couple years ago, and taking it as the fiction story that it is I thought it was fun, if not a little cliche. When I found out that Riley Sager’s new book “Home Before Dark” was a haunted house story, and that was basically a homage to the entire “Amityville” saga, let me tell you I was incredibly excited and couldn’t wait to see what kinds of twists and haunts Sager was going to bring to this concept.

tumblr_ojjgcyvx0c1ut1d6co1_540
I will admit I was hoping for a ghost pig. Maybe not named Jody. But some kind of ghost pig anyway. (source)

“Home Before Dark” has two stories within its pages: it tells the story of the book ‘House of Horrors’, a narrative of the Holt Family, who moved into the notorious Baneberry Hall, tried to live within its walls, but then ran after being there for a few weeks due to an increasingly violent haunting, never to return. The second is that of Maggie Holt, the daughter and the main target of the ghosts within the book, who had to live with the runaway hit that ‘House of Horrors’ became, even if she has no memory of such horrors happening and believes that it was all lies her father Ewan made up. The juxtaposition of Maggie’s present reality, and the reality that Ewan perhaps made up for his book, mesh very well together, and lend context to each other just when it’s most needed. Both mysteries we follow are interesting and kept me guessing, and as Maggie starts to wonder if perhaps her father wasn’t lying when her stay at Baneberry Hall starts to take strange and disturbing turns, it makes the reader all the more interested in what is coming next in the ‘House of Horrors’ section in the book. Sager puts the pieces in all the right places, and the suspense keeps building and you will keep questioning if maybe, just maybe, there are ghosts after all that are lying in wait for Maggie after all. I didn’t figure any of the twists or surprises out, which gives this extra points to be certain. Sager has always kept me guessing, and “Home Before Dark” was no different.

The scary moments are very well done, creepy and ominous and definitely scary enough to make me giggle with glee and just a little bit of hesitance. Sager sets the atmosphere and gives the house a very dark history, and while it definitely references some of the tropes that you expect in stories like this, it still feels very fresh and interesting. And ‘House of Horrors’ is just the perfect love letter to “The Amityville Horror”, with cheeky references and nods to an iconic haunted house that still lives (on even if it’s all bullshit at the end of the day). It was a great idea to give us that entire narrative as well, because that way you get two great tales for the price of one, and one of those tales is a stellar ghost story.

“Home Before Dark” continues Riley Sager’s streak of great thriller/horror stories. I always go into his new books worried that there will be a stumble, but as of now, he’s four for four. And “Home Before Dark” might be my favorite of the lot.

Rating 9: Another great scary story from one of my favorite scary story authors, “Home Before Dark” will give you the willies even on the warmest summer day.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Home Before Dark” is included on the Goodreads lists “Horror To Look Forward To in 2020”. And if you want to experience the book it seems to take inspiration from, pick up “The Amityville Horror”.

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

Joint Review: “Mexican Gothic”

53152636._sx318_sy475_Book: “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publishing Info: Del Rey, June 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: NetGalley; Edelweiss

Book Description: An isolated mansion. A chillingly charismatic artistocrat. And a brave socialite drawn to expose their treacherous secrets. . . .

From the author of Gods of Jade and Shadow comes “a terrifying twist on classic gothic horror” (Kirkus Reviews) set in glamorous 1950s Mexico—“fans of classic novels like Jane Eyre and Rebecca are in for a suspenseful treat” (PopSugar).

After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

Serena’s Thoughts

I love Silvia Moreno-Garcia. She’s such a unique talent.  I’ve now read three or four books by her, and they all spanned different time periods, genres, and themes. It’s truly incredible to find an author who can succeed in so many different lanes. We’ve got fairytale fantasy; we’ve got historical regency romance with a dash of fantasy; and now she comes with a new story mixing fantasy (of course) with gothic horror. And while horror isn’t typically my thing, I do like the creepy novel now and then, and this one seemed like just the thing for me.

The story definitely has some “Yellow Wallpaper” vibes, and I loved every bit of it. When Noemi arrives at the mysterious mansion, High Place, everything is just enough off to feel strange and eerie, but not too strange as to immediately raise alarm. Instead, it’s just the type of creepy dread that makes Noemi, and the reader, begin to question just where the line is drawn between reality and superimposed horror. Are their true mysteries here or is the setting, people, and house, all in their equal strangeness, just enough to spark a wild imagination?

Throughout the story, I found myself routinely falling into the classic horror-bystander role where you scream “just get out of there” at your heroes as they creep into a dark basement or linger in a mysterious place. But the author does a great job creating a situation where the threats are of the sort that if I had been in Noemi’s place, I, too, may have questioned my own reactions. This ties nicely into some fairly well-covered themes about women and how they are almost trained to question their perception of things and doubt their own observations. The question of whether one will be believed or not, or simply dismissed as hysterical, is very real today as it was in the past. And, of course, in the past and the time period during which this is set, women’s choices were that much more limited, especially when married.

I did find elements of the fantastical elements involved in the story to be a bit confusing and hard to track. A long history begins to unfold, and I wasn’t quite sure how exactly it all tied together. But most of the time, this didn’t matter as I was so caught up in the tension that it was enough to accept that it just was. I really loved the Gothic vibes that were brought into the story, and they were blended seamlessly into a location and culture where you don’t typically find this type of story. Overall, I really enjoyed this book, creepiness and all!

Kate’s Thoughts

I love the horror genre as a whole, but it’s hard to deny that a lot of the powerhouses and more popular works are very white dominated. That isn’t to say that progress isn’t being made; on the contrary, as pushes for diversity ramp up in publishing we are seeing more horror tales written by BIPOC. But we still have a long way to go. When I heard about “Mexican Gothic”, I was thrilled to see that we had a take on the Gothic genre from a perspective that wasn’t a white woman, as is the usual suspect within this kind of tale. I will admit that I was a little nervous going in, as Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s other work I’m familiar with is fantasy. Would she be able to make such a huge switch in genre tone? Turns out I was a dope to worry about it, because she nailed the scare factor and creepiness in “Mexican Gothic”.

Noemí is the perfect Gothic protagonist, as she comes from a gregarious and effervescent lifestyle in Mexico City and being thrust into the isolation of the Mexican countryside. It is the exact kind of scenario you see in the genre, and her personality of wanting to figure out what is going on, and then questioning if she is just overreacting when those around her dismiss her, feels so right for the Gothic vibes. But Moreno-Garcia takes it a couple steps further, not only taking on the themes of sexism and misogyny that are prevalent in Gothic lit, but also that of racism and prejudice. Noemí and her cousin are two Latina women who are now living in an English family’s estate, and their history of colonization in the area is what built up their wealth… and also may have something to do with the secrets they are hiding. For Noemí and Catalina, not only are they vulnerable because they are women, but also because they are brown women, and that fact is a really great way to make this story feel all the more fresh and relevant.

And the horror elements were definitely unsettling and outright scary. Not only the fantastical and supernatural ones, but also the real life horrors that Noemí discovers during her time at High Place. As Serena mentioned above, there are the questions as to whether or not Noemí is slowly losing her grip on reality, or if the things she’s experiencing, unsettling imagery and sounds and feelings, are actually happening. There were some really well described moments that made me squirm, which is exactly what I want from a Gothic horror novel.

“Mexican Gothic” is a great spooky read, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia continues to delight and show off her talents! Fans of Gothic novels absolutely need to check it out.

Serena’s Rating 9: Tension-filled and scary, this book makes it easy to feel as if you, too, are being sucked into the mysteries of High Place.

Kate’s Rating 9: A creepy and refreshing take on the genre, “Mexican Gothic” will fill all you may need from a good Gothic tale!

Reader’s Advisory

“Mexican Gothic” is included on the Goodreads lists “2020 Gothic”, and “Paper Lantern Writers: Best Own Voices Historical Fiction”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Know My Name”

50196744._sx318_sy475_Book: “Know My Name: A Memoir” by Chanel Miller

Publishing Info: Viking, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: She was known to the world as Emily Doe when she stunned millions with a letter. Brock Turner had been sentenced to just six months in county jail after he was found sexually assaulting her on Stanford’s campus. Her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral–viewed by eleven million people within four days, it was translated globally and read on the floor of Congress; it inspired changes in California law and the recall of the judge in the case. Thousands wrote to say that she had given them the courage to share their own experiences of assault for the first time.

Now she reclaims her identity to tell her story of trauma, transcendence, and the power of words. It was the perfect case, in many ways–there were eyewitnesses, Turner ran away, physical evidence was immediately secured. But her struggles with isolation and shame during the aftermath and the trial reveal the oppression victims face in even the best-case scenarios. Her story illuminates a culture biased to protect perpetrators, indicts a criminal justice system designed to fail the most vulnerable, and, ultimately, shines with the courage required to move through suffering and live a full and beautiful life.

Know My Name will forever transform the way we think about sexual assault, challenging our beliefs about what is acceptable and speaking truth to the tumultuous reality of healing. It also introduces readers to an extraordinary writer, one whose words have already changed our world. Entwining pain, resilience, and humor, this memoir will stand as a modern classic.

Review: Honestly, when I started “Know My Name” by Chanel Miller, I realized that while I wanted to review it, I had a conundrum in front of me. How do you fully review such a deeply personal memoir about a very personal event in someone else’s life? For those who may be unfamiliar with the name Chanel Miller, perhaps you know the name Emily Doe, the woman that Brock Turner raped, and then was only sentenced to six months in jail (he eventually only served three, by the way). His sentence set off a firestorm across the world, and was one of the many focuses on the disparities in our justice system when it comes to class, race, gender, and sexual assault. I really wanted to read and review this book because Miller’s story is so important. But again… how does one review a story such as this?

Chanel Miller has such a powerful and all consuming writing style, and her story focuses on the night she was raped and what followed afterwards, from having to process her trauma, having to go to court, and having to be dragged and scrutinized in the public spotlight, even if she was technically anonymous. She is unflinching and candid about what happened the night that Turner assaulted her and how it was in the days afterwards, and while those moments are especially hard to read in this book Miller does such a great job of really laying everything on the table. She isn’t afraid to put herself completely out there, and her honesty about what her experience was like really hits the reader in the heart. Her writing style is beautiful, and really gets her sadness, anger, incredulity, and fortitude across. You saw glimpses of this in her victim impact statement that went viral shortly after it was made public, but now seeing it with the complete context of her life and experience just shows how very talented she is as a writer.

She also really emphasizes what it is like to be a victim of a high profile sexual assault case, and how trying and awful it can be. From having to see her actions before the assault dissected and laid out in the open, to having people imply that she asked for it because of said actions, to seeing how Brock Turner’s potential was held in higher regard than her experience of being victimized by him, Miller shows how hard it is for victims to come forward. The entitlement of Turner and the way that the judge sentenced him based on his potential as a wealthy white man is infuriating, and Miller gets to address these issues with her own words. And in the process she shows the world the story that a lot of people may not think about when a man with ‘high potential’ or high profile is outed as a predator: the story of a victim who will have to live with a traumatic event for the rest of their life, and how the fallout is going to effect them. Miller emphasizes how society favors protecting men like Turner at the expense of victims like her, and while we may know that, it doesn’t hurt any less to have it reaffirmed.

I highly recommend “Know My Name”. It is going to be a hard read, and it’s going to probably hurt, but it’s an important story, and Chanel Miller deserves to have her truth amplified.

Rating 9: A very personal, powerful, and beautifully written memoir.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Know My Name: A Memoir” is included on the Goodreads lists “Breaking The Silence: Talking About Violence Against Women”, and “ATY 2020 – Books Related to News Stories”.

Find “Know My Name: A Memoir” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.1): Preludes and Nocturnes”

23754Book: “The Sandman (Vol.1): Preludes and Nocturnes” by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth (Ill.), Mike Dringenberg (Ill.), and Malcolm Jones III (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1989

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: New York Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman’s transcendent series SANDMAN is often hailed as the definitive Vertigo title and one of the finest achievements in graphic storytelling. Gaiman created an unforgettable tale of the forces that exist beyond life and death by weaving ancient mythology, folklore and fairy tales with his own distinct narrative vision.

In PRELUDES & NOCTURNES, an occultist attempting to capture Death to bargain for eternal life traps her younger brother Dream instead. After his 70 year imprisonment and eventual escape, Dream, also known as Morpheus, goes on a quest for his lost objects of power. On his arduous journey Morpheus encounters Lucifer, John Constantine, and an all-powerful madman.

This book also includes the story “The Sound of Her Wings,” which introduces us to the pragmatic and perky goth girl Death.

Review: After re-reading “Transmetropolitan”, I knew that I wanted to re-read another comic series that I have great affection for. I wasn’t sure which one I wanted to tackle, as I have a few that I REALLY love, but then fate interceded and announced that Audible was going to do an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus, “Sandman”. “Sandman” is probably up there with “Watchmen”, “The Dark Knight Returns”, and “Maus” when it comes to influential graphic novels and comics. It is absolutely my favorite of Neil Gaiman’s works, and now the time has come to get reacquainted with Dream, Death, and all the other Endless and dream worlds.

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I don’t know why I waited so long. (source)

When we first meet Morpheus, aka Dream, he’s become a prisoner to those who wanted to try and capture his sister Death for their own devices. “Preludes and Nocturnes” is not only the story of how he escapes, but his quest to gather his three sacred objects: his bag, his helmet, and his ruby. Along the way Morpheus meets familiar faces from the DC Universe, as this is a Vertigo title (RIP you magnificent company) and we’re bound to see other licensed characters. It’s great seeing the likes of Martian Manhunter, Scarecrow, Mr. Miracle, and more, as it gives us a familiar footing to introduce us to a VERY complicated world and mythos that Morpheus is coming from. As of now in the story, Morpheus is rather one track minded, desperate to get his objects back and going to many lengths to do so. His journeys lead him to some very dark places, and the plot and tone is what tells you that this is starting out as dark fantasy that is right in the middle of fantasy and horror. I had forgotten how dark this volume goes until I was in it, and it gave me chills. There are moments of sheer horror, absolutely, but they almost always have a dreamy feel to them, as they should (though I’m excluding all the stuff that happens with John Dee in the diner… You’ll know what I mean when you get to it. It’s just complete nightmare fuel). All the while, Morpheus remains stoic and intimidating, and yet feels ruminative and introspective as well. As of now we don’t know much about him and his backstory, but you still get the feel that he contains multitudes that are just waiting to be explored. It gets you hyped to keep going on.

For me, however, the most effective and greatest tale of this volume, and one of the best of the entire “Sandman” story, is the standalone “The Sound of Her Wings”. It is within this tale that we actually get to meet Dream’s older sister Death, the original target for the capture that Dream got caught up in. It’s a quiet, bittersweet tale of Dream accompanying her as she makes her rounds, releasing mortals from their lives, and seeing the peace for the dead, and the anguish for those left behind. Death is a Top 3 Sandman character for me, and probably most fans, as she is kind, bubbly, and compassionate. She also looks like a fan of the Cure circa 1987, but that just adds to her charm. This is probably the story I remembered best in all of the “Sandman” lore, and reading it again was just as lovely and emotional as it was the first time.

Finally, the artwork is so of it’s time but also very well done. Sam Kieth has been seen on this blog before, probably most notably in the review of the “Alien” comic series. While I didn’t feel that Kieth’s work matched the tone of that endeavor, it is pitch perfect for “Sandman”. The use of shadow and blanched colors is great on it’s own, but it’s the weird little details that are put in to give an extra sense of unreality.

 

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Look at that cape!! Just look at it! (source)

Honestly, if you are a fantasy fan and you haven’t read “Sandman”, I really encourage you to do so. It’s Gaiman’s best work, and “Preludes and Nocturnes” will get you hooked with just a little taste of what is to come.

Rating 9: A dark and dreamy introduction to one of the greatest comic series of all time, “Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes” builds a world that is wholly unique and almost otherworldly.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.1): Preludes and Nocturnes” is included on the Goodreads lists “500 Essential Graphic Novels”, and “Quality Dark Fiction”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.1): Preludes and Nocturnes” at your library using Worldcat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Mountains Sing”

49631287._sy475_Book: “The Mountains Sing” by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Publishing Info: Algonquin Books, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Tran family, set against the backdrop of the Viet Nam War. Tran Dieu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Noi, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Ho Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that will tear not just her beloved country but her family apart.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Viet Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope. This is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s first novel in English.

Review: I’ve decided that every once in awhile I’m going to branch out from my usual genres that I review on here and dive into something different. Don’t worry, reviews of all that’s scary, thrilling, or picture heavy will still be dominant when it comes to what I talk about on here! But when I come across a book like “The Mountains Sing” by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, I really want to share it with anyone who will listen! Because while I love me horror and thrillers, I also really love family sagas in my fiction. And “The Mountains Sing” is the best family saga I’ve encountered since “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi.

“The Mountains Sing” is a lyrical and bittersweet family saga that follows the Tran Family in North Vietnam. There are two main perspectives. The first is that of Hương, a young girl who is living with her grandmother during the last days of the Viet Nam War as her parents are fighting on the Ho Chi Min Trail. The second is the story of her grandmother, Dieu Lan, who had to escape her farm during the Land Reform Movement lest she and her children be murdered as landowners. These two stories follow significant moments in North Vietnamese/Vietnamese history, and the repercussions for the people who were living there during those times. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai paints a beautiful picture of the setting, and draws complex and engrossing characterizations. Both Dieu Lan and Hương have to confront difficult decisions for themselves, and the difficult decisions of others. As someone who grew up in the United States, Vietnamese history isn’t something that was covered in the classes I took in high school. Hell, even though I went to a pretty progressive private school with better and more honest history texts than others, we still didn’t take a deep look into the Vietnamese side of the Viet Nam War. So reading this book from the perspective of a Vietnamese author whose characters had to live the consequences of the war as civilians on the Northern side, it was eye opening and very worthwhile. It should also be noted that the deep complexities living under the North Vietnamese Communist Party’s rule aren’t ignored or swept away. I had never heard of the Land Reform, and it is absolutely horrific. That said, the horrors of being attacked by the United States with imperialist motivations isn’t dismissed as nothing. If anything, this story shows how those seeking power will exploit those below them to do their dirty work, be it French colonists trying to take over and using locals to inflict rule, or farmers murdering landowners to take land for the movement, or soldiers from America being sent to fight a war for the upper classes and killing civilians on the ground.

I also greatly liked the characters and the various journeys that each one took, and the emphasis on family. Hương learns the truth about her family history, just as she learns the truth about the things that her family members have had to do to survive during times of great violence and tragedy, and you see her grow in empathy and character. But it was Dieu Lan’s story that really hit me in the heart, as she tries to keep her children safe as they escape their village and go on the road to Ha Noi. The horrible choices that she had to make, and the repercussions of those choices, were heartbreaking and left me in tears many times, and seeing her become more resilient and tough was a character journey that had the most effect on me. I enjoyed the contrast between these two women and their experiences, and how each of them had ripple effects upon the other. Their strengths manifest in different ways, but it’s a great way to show that strength comes in many forms.

“The Mountains Sing” is a heart rendering and hopeful story from a gifted voice. I eagerly await any other novels that Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai may write in the future.

Rating 9: A beautifully written family saga set in Viet Nam, “The Mountains Sing” gives the perspective of the Vietnamese people during times of conflict and shows how hope and family can get people through difficult times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Mountains Sing” is included on the Goodreads lists “Family Saga Novels”, and “Books by Vietnamese/Vietnamese-Diaspora Writers”.

Find “The Mountains Sing” at your library using WorldCat, or at your local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Body in the Garden”

51318896._sx318_sy475_Book: “The Body in the Garden” by Katharine Schellman

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, April 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: London 1815. Though newly-widowed Lily Adler is returning to a society that frowns on independent women, she is determined to create a meaningful life for herself even without a husband. She’s no stranger to the glittering world of London’s upper crust. At a ball thrown by her oldest friend, Lady Walter, she expects the scandal, gossip, and secrets. What she doesn’t expect is the dead body in Lady Walter’s garden.

Lily overheard the man just minutes before he was shot: young, desperate, and attempting blackmail. But she’s willing to leave the matter to the local constables–until Lord Walter bribes the investigating magistrate to drop the case. Stunned and confused, Lily realizes she’s the only one with the key to catching the killer.

Aided by a roguish navy captain and a mysterious heiress from the West Indies, Lily sets out to discover whether her friend’s husband is mixed up in blackmail and murder. The unlikely team tries to conceal their investigation behind the whirl of London’s social season, but the dead man knew secrets about people with power. Secrets that they would kill to keep hidden. Now, Lily will have to uncover the truth, before she becomes the murderer’s next target.

Review: I’m always on the look out for a new historical mystery series. And while I love my Amelia Peabody and Veronica Speedwell mysteries, the two together can begin to feel a bit repetitive. They each are excellent on their own, but Amelia and Veronica have similar personalities and their strong women personas both play of the gruff-with-a-heart-of-gold romantic interests in very similar ways. The mysteries and settings are very different, but reading this last Veronica Speedwell book (I didn’t love it in general, so that doesn’t help), left me feeling a bit like the genre was starting to all feel the same. So I was both excited and nervous when I saw the book description for this one. On one hand, a recently widowed heroine is definitely different than those other stories. But then you add “roguish navy captain”…and would this really be all that different? Yes, it was, and it was just the breath of fresh air I was looking for!

Only one year into mourning her beloved husband, Lily Adler decides that enough is enough: it is time to rejoin the world and what better place than London itself in the midst of a Season? With the help of her dear friend, Lady Walter, Lily is quick to fall back into society, making new friends and visiting with old acquaintances. But amid all the typical gossip and small dramas that are always to be found in society, Lily suddenly finds herself caught up in a mystery: a young man murdered in Lady Walter’s own garden. A murder that no one seems to care much about but Lily and a few of her new friends. Soon enough, however, it seems that this young man’s death was only one small part of a much greater scheme and one that now begins to threaten Lily herself.

I really loved this book. And mostly this was down to the refreshing new characters that the story centers around. Lily is by no means the plucky, go-get-em leading lady that we see in Amelia Peabody or Veronica Speedwell. Instead, her strength comes in a calm, steely resolve to do what she sees right, while always maintaining a strong sense of dignity and knowledge of where her own particular strengths and weaknesses lie. She doesn’t seek out this investigation out of any sense of adventure, but rather she pursues it only because of her strong sense of justice. If, by the end of it all, she finds a new direction for her life, it’s not due to any intrepidness that has always persisted throughout her life. She’s a much more quiet, reserved leading lady, but just as skillful in being more withdrawn. Indeed, I think some of her observations, not only about the case but about people’s general behavior, were even more striking for being discussed in cool tones without much flair or fanfare.

I also really liked Jack Hartley, the aforementioned navy captain. Lily’s recent loss and continuing grief over the loss of her husband is never forgotten, which leaves this book to build up a solid friendship and partnership between these two without any real vibes of romance. Whether the series goes that direction or not is yet to be determined (I’d guess yes, but I’m also fine with it staying as is). One that that really stood out for me with this character were a few brief moments when Jack’s beliefs of himself as a man who greatly respects women was truly put to the test. We all to often see these historical pieces with men that “respect women” in the most obvious ways, but the story never really addresses the underlying tones that undermine this supposed respect. Lily calls Jack out on a few of these points, making him aware that as much as he does respect her, he still can fall into traps of limiting his perception of her due to her gender. These are smaller moments, but they are the kind of observations that often are left without being addressed in historical books like this.

I also really liked the inclusion of Ofelia Oswald, a POC heiress who becomes the third partner in this little crime team (Jack Hartley is also of mixed heritage). It’s rare to find historical books that include many POC characters, let alone two in prominent roles in the story. The author also included a great note at the end about her research into the challenges POC people faced in London society at this time and how she chose to position her characters in a way that was historically accurate but also put them at the forefront of the story.

The story was a bit on the slower side, but as I enjoyed the three main characters so much, I never had a problem with this. But I do want to put it out there for those thinking to pick it up: this book is definitely meant to feel immersive and spends a lot of time putting together all the details and pieces of the mystery and the characters involved. I really enjoyed the mystery itself, too. I was able to guess the villain about halfway through, but I didn’t get all of the pieces to fit together until much later in the book. The mystery was well thought out and the pieces were laid craftily throughout the story. Readers looking for a new take on historical mysteries should definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: Excellent. Lily Adler may be quieter than some other heroines in the mystery market, but she’s definitely one to pay attention to!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Body in the Garden” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Historical Mystery 2020.”

Find “The Body in the Garden” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Long Bright River”

43834909Book: “Long Bright River” by Liz Moore

Publishing Info: Riverhead Books, January 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Two sisters travel the same streets, though their lives couldn’t be more different. Then, one of them goes missing.

In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore, but Mickey never stops worrying about her sibling.

Then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey becomes dangerously obsessed with finding the culprit–and her sister–before it’s too late.

Alternating its present-day mystery with the story of the sisters’ childhood and adolescence, Long Bright River is at once heart-pounding and heart-wrenching: a gripping suspense novel that is also a moving story of sisters, addiction, and the formidable ties that persist between place, family, and fate.

Review: My sister and I aren’t thick as thieves or anything like that. We get along pretty well, though we’re very different people. Lockdown has actually made us interact more than we have in awhile, vis a vis our Switches, playing “Mario Kart” and “Animal Crossing” together. But even though we aren’t best friends, I do love her very much (and am trying not to worry about the fact she and her wife are in New York City, the worst hit place for COVID-19 in this country). So whenever I see a story about sisters, I am bound to relate to it at least a little bit, which was part of the reason I was drawn to “Long Bright River” by Liz Moore. I figured that I could kind of justify it within the mystery or thriller genre, but once again this is a bit more literary than most thrillers I read.

While there are a couple of mysteries that “Long Bright River” centers around, this is more of a character study about two sisters who grew up in poverty, dealing with generational trauma and addiction. Mickey became a police officer, persuaded in part by her need to escape her familial situation, and by a cop who took an interest in her when she was a teen. Kacey, however, was swept up in drugs and addiction, like many people in their community as the opioid crisis looms. We see Mickey as she tries to find her sister as a serial killer starts to prey on addicts and sex workers on her beat, and as Mickey searches for her we get insight into both sisters through the present and through flashbacks. Moore really captures the complications of their relationship, exploring how their differences and their upbringing influenced them and changed them, and the ways they have both loved and hurt each other over the years. Though the perspective is Mickey’s, I felt like I knew both sisters by the time we came to the end, and could understand both of them, even their darker and rougher sides. You see how their sad home life (raised by their grandmother after their young mother died of a drug overdose and their father fled the coop) shaped them both, and can see why each took the paths that they did.

The mystery of the serial killer targeting addicts and sex workers definitely takes a back seat the the sisterly relationship, but the story of the sisters was so well done and so emotional that I didn’t really mind, even though I thought it would be more of a mystery than a character study. The character study was damned good, and it doesn’t limit itself to a sister theme. Along with the themes of childhood trauma and generational poverty and addiction, we also get a hard look at police corruption, and how communities seen as expendable are easily ignored by those who are supposed to protect them. Or sometimes, even explicitly targeted by them. I feel like sometimes books about police officers or detectives are more inclined to either ignore the systemic problems within the police, from racism to corruption to militarization that targets some groups while upholding the power of others. Or, if it’s not outright ignored there is assurance that the protagonist, and the protagonist’s unit, are not part of that problem, that they are good cops. But what I really liked about “Long Bright River” is that Moore acknowledges that Mickey is in it for the right reasons…. but a lot of the time, that isn’t enough.

I also really enjoyed the writing style of this book. Similar to the works of Cormac McCarthy, the dialogue isn’t in the usual punctuation. Instead it’s minimal, with dashes and not a lot beyond that. It always takes a little bit for me to get into this style, but once I’m in I’m in, and I thought that it was a complement to the overall story. I also liked that Moore played with the timeline, as mentioned above, going back in time to expand upon the narrative and to provide insight along the way. And finally, there are many, many references and moments that acknowledge the opioid crisis that has many people firmly in its grip. The story starts off with a list of people who have OD’d within the community that Mickey and Kacey have grown up in, which really sets the scene and serves to show that there is a pall that hangs over the story, just as there is a pall that’s hanging over society right now.

“Long Bright River” was a fantastic and heart rendering mystery that kept me on the edge of my seat. Steel yourself for something dark. But definitely take it on.

Rating 9: A dark and gritty mystery that examines police corruption, the opioid epidemic, and the powerful, if sometimes fraught, relationship between sisters, “Long Bright River” is a fantastic read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Long Bright River” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sister Mysteries”, and I think it would fit in on “Books of Philadelphia”.

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