Kate’s Review: “Parachute”

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Book: “Parachute” by Holly Rae Garcia

Publishing Info: Easton Falls Publishing, May 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: Amazon

Book Description: Angela Rodriguez and her friends aren’t sure what they want out of life now that they’ve graduated high school, but they think there is plenty of time to figure it all out. When a trip to an abandoned elementary school leads to a break-in, they discover an old gym parachute.

Raising the fabric above their heads, the group expects it to balloon out around them like it did when they were younger. But instead, the parachute reveals alternate universes and terrifying worlds.

There’s only one ruleDON’T LET GO.

Review: Thank you to Holly Rae Garcia for sending me an eARC of this novella!

Grade school gym class was never a favorite of mine. This is probably not so shocking, given that I was fairly unathletic and very much an outcast, so there would be MANY reasons to pick me last for the various exercises and games that we would be playing. But there was always one gym class theme that I was super excited for, and that was when we’d walk into the gym and there would be the huge parachute all spread out. That usually meant we were just going to be dicking around as opposed to having to be skilled at sports. So when Holly Rae Garcia sent me the summary of her new novella “Parachute”, I immediately was interested (and definitely let her know that I LOVED the parachute in gym class, which I imagine she has probably heard a lot as of late). A horror novella that makes a gym class parachute into a tool of horror is so out of the box and interesting that I just couldn’t pass it up!

“Parachute” is a novella that takes place during the course of one evening where a group of friends, soon leaving high school behind and feeling a bit lost because of it, decide to break into the old elementary school, and find a gym class parachute. Nostalgia is a huge theme in this story, as not only does it take place during the 1990s (and has many quirks and moments that harken back to my youth), it is about young adults who are nostalgic for a dynamic they are leaving behind. As someone who can’t get enough of nostalgia, especially during trying times, I loved all the 90s references and tidbits. Now I more came of age around the Y2K part of the late 90s, so some of this was a little out of my personal experience wheelhouse, but Garcia made it feel realistic with a little bit of camp value for good measure. I felt like she nailed the time and place, and I thought that I got a good sense of the characters, their group dynamic, and their bravado that also hides insecurity. Of course this group would leap at the chance to play with a relic of their childhoods! Even if that relic is in actuality a portal to other places, dimensions, and supernatural dangers!

But what really sells this tale is how imaginative it is, with alternate dimensions, cosmic and inter-dimensional horrors, chaos, and no true answers to be found. Why can this parachute do this? Where are the places that these teens are being taken to? How many people have fallen victim to this? None of it really matters and I hope you don’t want concrete solutions. And that worked for me, because it adds to the chaotic breakdown of this friend group as one by one they are either lost in time and space, or become victims of the creatures they stumble upon. It really makes the reader have to feel the confusion and terror at the breakneck pace that our characters are feeling, and it amps the anxiety levels up in a way that felt super effective to me. And having the catalyst be an honest to goodness gym class parachute? That’s bananas! We run a gamut from generally unsettling moments of the uncanny to straight up gorefests, Garcia utilizes a lot of horror types and they all work pretty well. It was fun seeing what new weird scary thing Angela et al were going to find with each ripple of the parachute!

“Parachute” is a quick and tension filled horror novella that works outside of conventions in wholly unique ways. It both utilizes and weaponizes nostalgia, and it’s weird and funky. Definitely a fun read.

Rating 8: A quick, scary, and super imaginative read, “Parachute” jumps through time, space, and dimensions, and will make you rethink elementary school gym class activities.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Parachute” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Best Reality Warping Fiction”.

Kate’s Review: “Goddess of Filth”


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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Goddess of Filth” by V. Castro

Publishing Info: Creature Publishing, March 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: One hot summer night, best friends Lourdes, Fernanda, Ana, Perla, and Pauline hold a séance. It’s all fun and games at first, but their tipsy laughter turns to terror when the flames burn straight through their prayer candles and Fernanda starts crawling toward her friends and chanting in Nahuatl, the language of their Aztec ancestors.

Over the next few weeks, shy, modest Fernanda starts acting strangely—smearing herself in black makeup, shredding her hands on rose thorns, sucking sin out of the mouths of the guilty. The local priest is convinced it’s a demon, but Lourdes begins to suspect it’s something else—something far more ancient and powerful.

As Father Moreno’s obsession with Fernanda grows, Lourdes enlists the help of her “bruja Craft crew” and a professor, Dr. Camacho, to understand what is happening to her friend in this unholy tale of possession-gone-right.

Review: I will wholeheartedly admit that I was one of those girls in middle and early high school who fancied herself a witchcraft enthusiast, as me and some of my girlfriends held the occasional spell casting after school. Whether it be at the far end of the baseball fields or in the fourth floor computer lab, we would cast spells, call to the directions, and do our best impressions of the characters in “The Craft”. Needless to say, when V. Castro’s novella “Goddess of Filth” opened with five teenage girls doing a spell while reminiscing about “The Craft”, I felt seen. Of course, the worst thing that happened at my spellcasting endeavors was some spilled non alcoholic wine on my backpack, not a possession from an ancient goddess…

Honestly, those were some good memories, stained backpack notwithstanding. (source)

“Goddess of Filth” may be my favorite story from V. Castro, and that is because she has not only hit all the sweet spots in terms of feminist spell casting and/or witch tales, she also subverts the traditional possession tale in ways that I have been aching for for a very long time. The first big win for me was our group of friends, consisting of Lourdes, Fernanda, Ana, Perla, and Pauline. When quiet Fernanda is possessed by an ancient Aztec deity during a seance, it is up to her friends to figure out how to help her. This is a novella, so the pages are limited, but Castro shows the fierce loyalty between this group of friends, and how they all have endured difficulties in their lives due to their race and class in their Texas community. Through flashback moments and action in the present we see how Lourdes and her friends are viewed by the people around them, and how Fernanda has been put on a pedestal that has both buoyed her but also put a significant weight upon her shoulders. They are seen only as Madonnas and Whores, and it hurts all of them, but they always have each other.

But what I loved most about “Goddess of Filth” is how Castro decides to tackle this whole ‘possession’ storyline. Fernanda’s behavior, on the surface, harkens to the classic demonic possession tropes, so much so that her devout mother calls in a priest to try and exorcise her. She becomes wilder, she masturbates, she speaks in Nahuatl, and at first it seems like things have gone terribly wrong. But Castro flips it, and decides to explore this through a lens that is more positive than one might think. Fernanda is now becoming more in tune with her sexuality and her desires. The deity inside of her, Tlazoltéotl, is a ‘Goddess of Filth’, but she is also a cleanser of sins. While Fernanda’s parents and Father Moreno see this as a demon, they are seeing it through a colonized and Western worldview. For Fernanda, Lourdes, and their other friends (as well as a professor of pre-Columbian cultures they seek out), they see Tlazoltéotl not as ‘bad’, per se, but as a necessary, if not sometimes violent, force. One of my favorite lines in this book was when Professor Camacho decides that a better word as opposed to ‘possess’ is ‘inhabit’, as Tlazoltéotl isn’t really doing anything to Fernanda that is oppressive or possessive. Rather, they work together to free people of their sins, whether it be through helping them come to terms with them, or through punishing them if the sins are very, very terrible. This partnership between Fernanda and Tlazoltéotl, as well as the friendships between Fernanda, Lourdes, and everyone else, are so fantastically feminist. And I could rave about the way that the obsessive and dangerous Father Moreno is a representation of violent imperialist religious oppression probably forever. I love how Castro brings in these bits of social commentary and makes them fit seamlessly and without any clunks along the way.

“Goddess of Filth” is an awesome, quick read, and one that fans of witch stories and possession stories absolutely need to look into. If you haven’t picked up anything by V. Castro yet, make this the one. It’s sure to satisfy.

Rating 9: Feminist, fantastical, and witchy to the bone, “Goddess of Filth” deconstructs possession horror in all the ways I’ve ever wanted.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Goddess of Filth” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Summer Horror Books”, and “Celebrate Horror 2021”.

Kate’s Review: “The Route of Ice and Salt”

Book: “The Route of Ice and Salt” by José Luis Zárate

Publishing Info: Innsmouth Free Press, January 2021 (originally published in 1998)

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A reimagining of Dracula’s voyage to England, filled with Gothic imagery and queer desire.

It’s an ordinary assignment, nothing more. The cargo? Fifty boxes filled with Transylvanian soil. The route? From Varna to Whitby. The Demeter has made many trips like this. The captain has handled dozens of crews.

He dreams familiar dreams: to taste the salt on the skin of his men, to run his hands across their chests. He longs for the warmth of a lover he cannot have, fantasizes about flesh and frenzied embraces. All this he’s done before, it’s routine, a constant, like the tides. Yet there’s something different, something wrong. There are odd nightmares, unsettling omens and fear. For there is something in the air, something in the night, someone stalking the ship.

The cult vampire novella by Mexican author José Luis Zárate is available for the first time in English. Translated by David Bowles and with an accompanying essay by noted horror author Poppy Z. Brite, it reveals an unknown corner of Latin American literature.

Review: I think that for a lot of people, if they hear the phrase ‘homoerotic vampire fiction’ they are going to immediately think of Anne Rice (may she rest in peace). After all, “Interview With the Vampire” is at its heart the story of two guy vampire lovers who have a bad marriage and make the mistake of having a baby to try and save it (I am NOT wrong). Louis and Lestat have an undercurrent (and overcurrent) of sexual tension that Rice explores more through Lestat in later books, but it was definitely the formative relationship for gay vampire fiction in modern times. And to be fair, vampire lore is usually pretty charged with sexuality, even going back to Bram Stoker’s grand daddy of vampire tales “Dracula”. That book is horny as hell, something that Francis Ford Coppola took FULL advantage of in his 1990s adaptation. So it’s not really surprising that “The Route of Ice and Salt” by José Luis Zárate takes a mysterious element of “Dracula” and gives it a shot of homoerotic adrenaline, and pulls it off with ease.

I’ll let you decide what that ‘one thing’ is. (source)

“The Route of Ice and Salt” is the story of the Demeter, the ship that transported Count Dracula and his many boxes of Wallachian soil to London, and arrived aport with no crew left and a dead captain, tied to the mast with a rosary in hand. It’s a moment in the original source material that’s really just there to show that Dracula is brutal and has had his fill, so is at full strength when he arrives in England. But Zárate lets us have a look into what happened on the doomed voyage, and creates a story that is both horrifying and absolutely heartbreaking. It’s told through both the Captain’s own thoughts and experiences as well as his ship log, and the first half of the story is a LOT of him fantasizing about the men on his crew, but unwilling to act upon it as he finds his same sex attraction repulsive and monstrous. We slowly find out that he has his reasons to feel that way, as a man he once loved was treated as a monster after being accused of a crime he did not truly commit, which had to do with his sexuality. As the Captain grapples with his attractions, something else, an ACTUAL monster, is stalking the ship, feasting upon the crew in a far more literal and violent way.

Though it took a bit to get there, once we got to the slow progression of crewmen disappearing, while the others slowly realize they are being hunted, I was fully invested not only in how we get to where we end up in the original tale, but how The Captain is going to ultimately make his sacrifice. As well as if he’s going to be able to forgive himself for his perfectly natural attractions (though certainly not at the time; Stoker himself has lots of rumors about his own sexuality that may have subconscious laid out hints within “Dracula”. Like I said, that book is horny as hell). Zárate made the Captain very believable and sympathetic, and once he realizes that he is alone on the boat with a monster, an ACTUAL monster, even though I knew the ending, I still felt a deep attachment to him, in spite of myself. And while MAYBE I thought that I was going into a story that had Count Dracula and the Captain getting it on over and over (please don’t judge me, I will say it again, “DRACULA” IS A SEX FUELED BOOK!!!), what I got was far more satisfying, emotional, and terrifying. The descriptions of the ship at night in the fog, with crewmen’s screams starting and then stopping…. GOD, it set me on edge, and it’s the perfect companion to one of my favorite vampire stories. And not for nothing, this updated version has a FANTASTIC Afterword by Poppy Z. Brite that addresses the transgressive nature of this book, and it gives a lot of great context that I thought was SUPER interesting.

“The Route of Ice and Salt” is sexually charged and scary as hell. It now lives on my shelf next to the source material (all three versions I own), and in my mind it absolutely belongs in the “Dracula” canon.

Rating 8: Haunting and erotic and oh so creepy by the end, “The Route of Ice and Salt” takes the voyage Dracula takes across the sea and turns it into a creepy (and horny) nightmare.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Route of Ice and Salt” is included on the Goodreads lists “Queer Horror”, and “Books About or Consisting of Vampires”.

Find “The Route of Ice and Salt” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Nothing But Blackened Teeth’

Book: “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” by Cassandra Khaw

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, October 2021

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

Book Description: Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a gorgeously creepy haunted house tale, steeped in Japanese folklore and full of devastating twists.

A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company. It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends.

But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.

And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.

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

While I’ve seen and read a fair number of Japanese and Japanese inspired horror things, I know that there are many, MANY stories out there that I haven’t come across as of yet. I don’t have a very vast knowledge of Japanese folklore in general, and therefore I’m definitely game to read anything that would broaden my horizons in that manner. Enter “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” by Cassandra Khaw, a new horror novella that takes place in a rural Heian-Era mansion in Japan that is super, super haunted. I’m no stranger to various Japanese haunted house stories, from “Ju-On” to “Hausu”, but the cover alone of this book caught my attention. And hey, haunted house stories? Absolutely my jam. I held onto “Nothing But the Blackened Teeth” for what was supposed to be a stormy night, and though we didn’t get the rain we were promised I still found myself reading the book at night, which was, perhaps, a mistake. Because it’s SCARY.

“Nothing But Blackened Teeth” is a novella clocking in at around 120 pages, but Khaw has no trouble building a plot, pulling out everything they can from their characters, and leading them to a terrifying ending. It never feels rushed to get to that point, it never feels like we could have learned more about our cast or the house itself, and it is engaging and definitely terrifying. Khaw has a gift for description and atmosphere, as I could see the mansion as it goes from abandoned but docile home to an incredibly disturbing hellscape. While Cat is definitely the character we get to know the best, we still get to know enough about most of her friends and all of the tenuous relationship strings between them to fully buy into the choices they make, from the good to the bad. It feels like a slow burn at first, but the tension starts to build from the get go and when it finally releases it’s SO unnerving and scary.

And a lot of the scares come from the Japanese folklore that the horror elements derive themselves from, namely the Ohaguro-Bettari, a spirit that takes the form of a bride whose facial features are only a mouth filled with black teeth. I know a little bit about Japanese folklore and ghosts, specifically the Onryō, so seeing another yokai (spirit) at the forefront was refreshing and new to me. It made me do some independent reading on more Japanese folklore regarding ghosts and entities, which was really fun for me as a horror fan who likes lore of all kinds. And boy does Khaw really make this the stuff of nightmares. Cat is the first to start seeing this yokai, and given that she has a history of mental problems we get the usual ‘is this really happening or am I going crazy’ questioning that comes with such a history in stories like these. But what I liked is that for the most part Cat isn’t portrayed as hallucinating to the reader, and instead of an unreliable narrator we get a woman who is seeing something VERY wrong, and therein slowly sending shivers up our spines every time she sees something. Until, that is, it goes full gonzo bloodsoaked horror show. Khaw nails every part of the horror here, and the end was so incredibly disturbing that I had to flip back to re-read a few things to make sure that THAT was what had happened. I think that I would have liked even more suspense before we got to the gory ending, and maybe a little more easing into the wrap up, but overall it was enjoyable as hell and a sinister ghost story soaked in viscera and blood. And very easy to read in one sitting (though maybe not late at night, a tip from me to you)!

“Nothing But Blackened Teeth” is an enjoyable novella that set me on edge. Halloween is almost here, and if you haven’t read this one yet you should make it a part of your reading list before the holiday passes us by!

Rating 8: Disturbing, atmospheric, and brimming with Japanese folklore and yokai, “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” is the perfect short read for this Halloween season!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Nothing But Blackened Teeth” is included on the Goodreads lists “Celebrate Horror 2021”, and “Diverse Horror”.

Find “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Fireheart Tiger”

Book: “Fireheart Tiger” by Aliette De Bodard

Publishing Info: Tor.com, February 2021

Where Did I get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.

Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.

Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?

Review: I’ll admit that this was another book that pulled me in on the strength of the cover art alone. I mean, that’s just a gorgeous cover, and there’s no second opinion about it! The description comparing it to “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “The Goblin Emperor” couldn’t help but add more intrigue. Plus, it’s a novella, which I haven’t read one of for quite a while. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite live up to all of those expectations!

Life as a political hostage is not easy, but then no one ever expects it to be. More surprising for Thanh, a princess returning home at long last, is that her homecoming proves to have its own set of challenges. Haunted by a first love now thrown back in her path who sees her own path forward, Thanh begins to understand that she will need to evolve. As a passive hostage, her life had been simple. But as princess, wielding great power and responsibility, she has choices, some of which could impact the future of her entire country.

While I can think of several good examples of novellas that I’ve read in the past (Seanan McGuire’s entire “Wayward Children” series, for example), unfortunately, this book highlights much of how to do them wrong. With the strict word count limit imposed on writing a shorter story, the author has to be incredibly efficient with world-building and character development. And even then, you can’t spend too much time on it, necessitating that both the world, story, and character are fairly interesting and compelling on their own from the very start. And in these key areas, this book fails the test.

Particularly, Thanh herself is a fairly paper-thin character. She doesn’t stand out in any bad ways, but she’s also not very interesting and lacks the charisma needed to drive a short story like this. Her lack of a strong voice makes the necessary info-dumping portions of the story stand out more than they should. Beyond that, I found the character to be a bit unlikable, seeming to wallow in self-pity more often than not and easily distracted by her own personal dramas over the larger state of affairs going on around her.

I also was very uninvested in the love interest and romance of this story. We simply aren’t given enough here to care. Ephteria’s attraction is almost entirely contained in the author’s telling rather than showing style. She has blue eyes…that’s about all we get. But Thanh spends pages upon pages obsessing over her, and the readers are stuck there with her, just not understanding why. The thin depiction of this relationship is mirrored in Thanh’s other relationships as well, with her mother, and with another young girl she befriends.

Beyond this, the writing didn’t work for me. I found it often to be jarring and uninspired, pulling out cliches when you’d most expect them and not helping to build any tension as the story worked its way through its plot points. The dialogue was at times particularly egregious, with some of the villains just one mustache-twirl away from being comical.

There may have been a good story here somewhere if the author had had more word-count to work on. But I’m also not convinced that the characters, world, or overall plot could have supported an increased page count. It’s kind of a chicken or the egg thing: did the page count limit the creativity of the characters and flow of the writing, or were these aspects weak on their own and would have just struggled more in a full-length novel?

Rating 6: Pretty disappointing overall. Though the cover is still one of the best I’ve seen in a while.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fireheart Tiger” is a new title so it isn’t on too many Goodreads list, but it is on Upcoming 2021 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads.

Find “Fireheart Tiger” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Night of the Mannequins”

49246963Book: “Night of the Mannequins” by Stephen Graham Jones

Publishing Info: Tor.Com, September 2020

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

Book Description: Stephen Graham Jones returns with Night of the Mannequins, a contemporary horror story where a teen prank goes very wrong and all hell breaks loose: is there a supernatural cause, a psychopath on the loose, or both?

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

While the “Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark” books had many stories that messed me up, the one that scarred me the most was that of “Harold”, in which two farmers create a scarecrow to be a joke of a friend, which then comes to life and wreaks havoc. The idea that an inanimate but human looking object could come to life and kill you really scared me. So doing some research into “Night of the Mannequins” by Stephen Graham Jones (beyond the appropriately vague description) got me pretty hyped for the idea of a mannequin coming to life and killing teens in a friend group. After all, mannequins are a bit creepy enough on their own, right?

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And we can buiiiiild this thing together, staaanding strong forever… (source)

Now, it is admittedly going to be hard to talk about this novella in detail without potentially treading towards spoiler territory, and I REALLY don’t want to spoil anything for those who don’t want to be spoiled. So just be warned…. there may be hints of spoilers in this review.

Our protagonist/first person narrator is Sawyer, a teenage boy in a group of friends who like to pull pranks on each other, and who at one time found a department store mannequin that they decided to make into their mascot. They called him Manny, and brought him along on all kinds of adventures. As they grew up, Manny was left behind, but as they are nearing the end of high school Sawyer thinks that one more prank with Manny could be fun. And it is… until Sawyer sees Manny stand up and walk away. What comes next is a story that reads like a slasher movie, with a lot of weird deranged action, a very funny narrative voice, and a lot of ambiguity as to what exactly is happening to Sawyer and his friends, and whether or not a mannequin has come to life with a taste for revenge. There isn’t much dread to be found here, but what you do have is a lot of splatterpunk gore descriptions, action that reads like a movie, and a twisted up perception of what is real and what isn’t.

Sawyer is both incredibly funny to follow as well as authentic in his frenzied teenage voice, his ruminations and planning clearly leaving some logic out of his plans in his hopes to save people from Manny the Mannequin. I found myself laughing out loud, even at moments where it probably wasn’t appropriate to be doing so, but like in a slasher film, part of the entertainment is seeing the crazed and over the top kill scenes. Jones sprinkles a little bit of interesting pathos in every once in awhile, be it hints as to Sawyer’s family life or the lives of his friends, as well the fear of losing your childhood and what comes next. I also have to say that Jones does a really good job of making the reader question almost everything in terms of reliability and reality. By the time I got towards the end I thought that I had everything clear in my mind, but then Jones managed to pull the rug out from under me again! His stories have a bit of a brutality to them, but there is always a bit of wryness to go with it, and I really like that.

“Night of the Mannequins” is strange and filled with splatterpunk themes, but it definitely has some inner machinations that are intriguing to find and explore. Plus, it’s a quick read, the perfect one for a season-appropriate afternoon of horror leisure reading. Discover Stephen Graham Jones if you haven’t, and you could totally start here.

Rating 8: A weird and disturbing (but also fun) slasher kinda story. It’s a hoot as well as a trip, and it’s exactly the kind of entertainment a slasher kinda story should be!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Night of the Mannequins” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Haunted Dolls”, and “Indigenous Fiction Books”.

Find “Night of the Mannequins” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Cirque Berserk”

04 Cirque Beserk CoverBook: “Cirque Berserk” by Jessica Guess

Publishing Info: Unnerving, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I was sent an eARC by the author.

Book Description: The summer of 1989 brought terror to the town of Shadows Creek, Florida in the form of a massacre at the local carnival, Cirque Berserk. One fateful night, a group of teens killed a dozen people then disappeared into thin air. No one knows why they did it, where they went, or even how many of them there were, but legend has it they still roam the abandoned carnival, looking for blood to spill.

Thirty years later, best friends, Sam and Rochelle, are in the midst of a boring senior trip when they learn about the infamous Cirque Berserk. Seeking one last adventure, they and their friends journey to the nearby Shadows Creek to see if the urban legends about Cirque Berserk are true. But waiting for them beyond the carnival gates is a night of brutality, bloodshed, and betrayal.

Will they make they make it out alive, or will the carnival’s past demons extinguish their futures?

Review: Thanks to Jessica Guess for sending me an eARC of this novella!

If there are two things you should know about me and my pop culture affinities, I love slasher movies, and I love the 1980s (in terms of the art and music scene, NOT the political one). And if you give me slasher movies from the 1980s, I’m golden. When Jessica Guess contacted me asking if I would be willing to read her new novella “Cirque Berserk”, the description alone sucked me in. A haunted/evil carnival? Urban legends? A mention of the 1980s? And then, the cover had ROLLER SKATES?! I was IN!! If anything I figured it would be campy and entertaining, but “Cirque Berserk” was more than that. It achieved something I’ve seen a few horror novels fail: it felt like I was reading a slasher movie.

Guess creates a fun urban legend, some visceral gore and violence moments, and wicked characters that are easy to root for even when they are committing horrendous acts of violence. You assume that you’re going to be reading a novella that hits the usual slasher tropes and check boxes: the supernatural or unstoppable/ faceless killer, the final girl, the innocent but expendable teenagers, and on and on. But Guess takes those tropes and manages to subvert them in various ways that kept catching me by surprise. I thought I knew where certain characters or scenes were going, and then the rug would be yanked out from under me and I’d be genuinely surprised. I really don’t want to spoil anything about the plot’s big reveals, and I found them to be fun and effective, but I WILL say that Guess created not only a good mythology for Cirque Berserk and the horrifying things that go on there, she also gives the baddies some real motivation, motivation that the reader can, in some ways, relate to. She also gives the killers identities and backgrounds that aren’t generally seen as much in slasher stories, at least in the sense of how they are fully explored and given some actually tangible and relatable reasons for why they do what they do, at least at first. The focus is less on the expendable teenagers who’ve wandered into the fairgrounds, and more on the baddies, and how they got to where they are when we meet them.

And honestly? This novella is, pardon the bad pub, a scream to read. It opens with a classic slasher movie situation, and goes balls to the wall in terms of visceral horror violence as well as showing the stakes that we are dealing with. We get flashbacks to the fateful and dreadful night when Cirque Berserk went bad, we get some really gnarly kills right out of the Tom Savini playbook, and we get some pretty creepy moments and concepts AND a cameo from my favorite Biblical demon Lilith. On top of all that, it becomes quite clear, quite quickly that this candy coated fever dream of a slasher story is going to be accompanied by a bitchin’ 80s sound track, including tracks by Whitney Huston, Bonnie Tyler, and A-ha.

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(source)

Honestly, if you like old school slasher movies that are dropping in day glo 80s nostalgia, “Cirque Berserk” is a novella that you should absolutely check out. It’s fun, it’s a quick read, and it has some great curveballs.

Rating 8: A hell of a fun ride that reads like a slasher movie on the page, “Cirque Berserk” was an entertaining read that I greatly enjoyed.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cirque Berserk” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of now, but for a similar read I would steer you towards “My Best Friend’s Exorcism”.

“Cirque Berserk” isn’t in WorldCat yet, but you can find it HERE at Unnerving Magazine.

 

Serena’s Review: “Finding Baba Yaga”

39680799Book: “Finding Baba Yaga” by Jane Yolen

Publication Info: Tor.com, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Netgalley!

Book Description:

You think you know this story.
You do not.

A harsh, controlling father. A quiescent mother. A house that feels like anything but a home. Natasha gathers the strength to leave, and comes upon a little house in the wood: A house that walks about on chicken feet and is inhabited by a fairy tale witch. In finding Baba Yaga, Natasha finds her voice, her power, herself….

Review: I don’t read a lot of novels in verse, but I’ve been a fan of Jane Yolen for quite a while. Pair that with a Baba Yaga story, and I’m in! This was a quick read, and while it took me a bit to really feel invested in the story, in the end, I really enjoyed this interpretation of Baba Yaga and the writing decisions behind presenting it as a story in verse.

The story follow Natasha, a girl running from a very unhappy home. As the cover of the book so beautifully depicts, she makes her way into the woods where she finds a certain house walking about on chicken feet. From there, the modern setting from which Natasha came mixes with the fairytale version of Baba Yaga that readers are more familiar with.

There are a bunch of incredibly strong themes in this book. Natasha, coming from a bordering on abusive home, travels an intense journey of self-discovery throughout the story. Through her, we see the struggles that face those who live in shut-down families, like the challenges to not only find one’s own voice, but even to give validation to one’s own thoughts as valid and worthy of expression. In her “new life,” she must not only tackle these growth areas, but deals with both sides of the emotional coin in loss and love. There’s also a very nice through-line about found families and the strength of connections that can be forged between two individuals who, outwardly, have nothing connecting them.

I also very much enjoyed the poetic style of the book. Like I said, I don’t read a lot of novels in verse. If anything, I’m more likely to pick up a collection of poetry than I am to read a book like this. In the past, I’ve often struggled to feel truly connected to a story that reads like a novel but is told through such a reduced number of words and often presented in challenging formats on the page itself. Maybe this comes from too many poetry classes, but I’m often so distracted trying to analyze line breaks and why a certain piece was laid out on the page the way it was and what that says about the content to maintain a consistent connection with the ongoing story.

I had the same problem with this story, but about halfway through, I was able to get more fully into the action. I think this slow dive in also had to do with the way that Yolen tells her story. Things aren’t all simply revealed from the beginning. Instead, we’re slowly introduced to who Natasha really is, what her life has been, and how the events she’s currently experiencing connects to it all.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a very short read (not only page count, but word count), so readers are likely going to be able to finish it in one setting. If you’re skeptical about novels in verse, I’d also say that this might be a good introductory piece, especially if you have an interest in fairytales and Baba Yaga in particular (I didn’t get into her much, but I really enjoyed Yolen’s interpretation of this classic character as well!). And, of course, fans of Yolen’s work will not be disappointed by this new entry.

Rating 8: Though it starts slow, the style of the story adds power to the deeper themes it is presenting throughout, such as self-discovery and finding one’s own power in the world.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Finding Baba Yaga” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant lists. But it should be on “Novels in Verse.”

Find “Finding Baba Yaga” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Beneath the Sugar Sky”

27366528Book: “Beneath the Sugar Sky” by Seanan McGuire

Publishing Info: Tor, January 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Beneath the Sugar Sky” returns to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. At this magical boarding school, children who have experienced fantasy adventures are reintroduced to the “real” world.

Sumi died years before her prophesied daughter Rini could be born. Rini was born anyway, and now she’s trying to bring her mother back from a world without magic.

Previously Reviewed: “Every Heart a Doorway” and “Down Among the Sticks and Bones”

Review: I read and loved the first book in this series of novellas, had complicated feelings about the second, though still largely enjoyed it, and was counting down the days until I could get my hands on this one (even better, I got it early so I was able to do away with my “counting calendar” before the madness really took over).

“Beneath the Sugar Sky” introduces us to Cora, yet another girl who has been unwillingly returned to a world where she feels she no longer belongs. New to the Home for Wayward Children, she is just beginning to make friends with the others around her and beginning to understand the far-reaching and complicated network of other worlds that children have traveled to and from for years. But, like them all, she wants only to find her door and return as soon as possible. Instead, what she finds, is a girl who has traveled to this “regular world” with one goal and one goal only: to resurrect her mother, Sumi, who died so tragically way back in the first book.

First off, I loved the combination of introducing a completely new character and world through Cora, but also directly tying the plot to the action from the very first book in the series, and using this contrivance to more naturally bring in characters from the first two books with whom we are familiar and enjoy. I particularly loved the surprise appearance of a past main character and exploring more fully the world she loves.

And that was another great thing! We got to visit multiple fantastical worlds in this book! I always love adventure/quest stories, and that it was lovely following our band of strange heroes through various worlds and seeing how they reacted/experienced each of these worlds. We know that the worlds choose children who are natural fits for those worlds, so seeing those characters out of place in a strange new world was very interesting, highlighting how “high nonsense” worlds would have a negative impact on characters who are more aligned to “logical” worlds. And how the world itself could actively resist those rules being pushed upon it.

Alongside some returning characters, the two new faces are Cora and Rini. Cora, our main character, was an excellent addition to a ever-growing pantheon of characters who push against conformative exceptions of society that make quick judgements of who a person is. In this particular story, we see Cora dealing with the judgements based on her weight. Her athleticism, particularly in the water, was continuously dismissed before she finds her own door that leads to a water world where she goes on adventures as a mermaid. There, in the freezing depths, her extra layers and strong, poweful body are an asset. So, here, returned to a world that sees only a “fat girl,” Cora is struggling to re-assert the powerful self within her.

While I did like the exploration of the judgements and insecurities that Cora deals with in this aspect, I was also a little underwhelmed with its resolution. Namely, there never was much of a resolution to speak of. Throughout the story Cora remains insecure about the judgements she assumes others are making about her. At the same time, she knows her own strength and begins to see how truly in-tune her own world was to her particular strengths. But she also finds ways to use those same strengths in other environments. However, I felt that this particular thread was left a bit hanging in the end. The plot itself was resolved, but this arc seemed to just peter out without any true revelations, either on Cora’s part or on other’s.

Rini was very fun, being the first “native” other world character we’ve seen. It was fun watching her character travel through the book with a “nonsense” perspective on everything. So far, we’ve only seen children from our world who, while particularly attuned for one world or another, understand that strangeness of it when compared to our “real world.” Through Rini, we see a character who has grown up in one of these strange lands and understands its rules and history (there was some great stuff with a creation story here) as as “obvious” as we consider our own world’s rules and history.

This was an excellent third story to McQuire’s Wayward Children series. While some of the internal conflicts weren’t resolved to the extent that I wish they had been, I very much enjoyed her combination of new worlds and characters with familiar faces. Further, each book seems to build upon the last as far as the mythology and connection between all of these various worlds. Even more fun, the characters themselves are learning right along side us! For fans of this series, definitely check this one out. And for those of you not on this train yet, get on, but start with the first as it’s a “must read” to fully appreciate this on.

Rating 8: Whimsical and dark, but coming up just short on a few of its character arcs.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beneath the Sugar Sky” is a newer book, but it is on this Goodreads list: “2018 Queer SFF Releases.”

Find “Beneath the Sugar Sky” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Weaver’s Lament”

31375770Book: “Weaver’s Lament” by Emma Newman

Publishing Info: Tor, October 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Charlotte is learning to control her emerging magical prowess under the secret tutelage of Magus Hopkins. Her first covert mission takes her to a textile mill where the disgruntled workers are apparently in revolt.

But it isn’t the workers causing the trouble. The real culprits are far more extranormal in nature.

And they have a grudge to settle.

Previously Reviewed: “Brother’s Ruin”

Review: The second novella in Newman’s “Industrial Magic” series see Charlotte still learning to control her powers in the hopes of avoiding life in the restrictive, but privileged, Royal Society. Her brother, however, has been recently admitted to the Society, and is beginning to run into problems of his own. There is something going on at the textile mill that he has been tasked to oversee. He recruits Charlotte to work undercover and discover what is going on. But what she finds is more than he expected, or either of them wanted to know. “Weaver’s Lament” raises all the stakes, and I found myself enjoying it even more than I did the first!

Charlotte, as ever, is an excellent protagonist. She’s capable, curious, and still a bit naive about the Royal Society and, especially, the role her brother is now playing by being involved within it. I had a fairly good understanding of her motivations and character from the first book, and this one simply built upon what we already knew. More and more, we understand why she resists joining a society that in many ways would elevate her to a life of riches and success. But her characterization wasn’t one of the stumbling blocks I found in the first story.

After reading the first book, most of my confusion and qualms came from not understanding who I was supposed to be rooting for among the cast of secondary characters. Charlotte’s own confusion here didn’t help. But as this story moves along, I was relieved to see that, while Charlotte may still have the wool pulled over her eyes, we, as readers at least, are beginning to understand the roles these other characters play in her life. Specifically, we begin to see the true colors of her brother Ben and Mage Hopkins, the member of the Royal Society who has been training Charlie over the last several months. At the same time, as we begin to understand the motivations, priorities, and loyalties of these two men, we are still seeing them through Charlotte’s eyes and her perspective is very much colored by her experiences and wishes. She wants her brother to be the same man he was when he left, and even her evaluation of the man he was then is forever seen through the lens of her love for him as a sibling. Mage Hopkins, too, is both the man who is training her as well as her greatest liability for being turned in to the Royal Society should he ever suspect that her training is not enough to keep her from going “wild.”

The primary mystery was also very compelling. Not only did it expose more tidbits of knowledge of how the magic system in this world works, but we saw how the Royal Society uses its magic in industrial work like the textile mill. But the other half of the story is the more human one: Charlie’s shock and horror at the conditions of the mill workers and, at best, the complacency of those in power to the situation. At worst, she finds active participation and collusion.

We also learn more about what it means for an untrained mage to “go wild,” as Charlie struggles to hold herself and her power in check. But even as she discovers the price that comes with remaining free, she, and the reader, begins to question the truth behind any of it. There were a couple surprises wrapped up in this aspect of the story that added new layers to the fantasy aspects of this world. I’m excited to see where Newman is going with all of this.

There’s a lot going on in a very short book, but I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it. My only criticisms would come down to a writing style that at times felt stunted, perhaps due to the constraints of the shorter page count. But this by no means hindered my reading experience, and I would highly recommend both this book, and the previous novella, to any fans of historical fantasy fiction or steampunk fantasy.

Rating 8: It’s always thrilling when a second book out performs the first, and here we really see Newman coming into her stride with this series!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Weaver’s Lament” is a newer book and isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Gaslamp Fantasy.”

“Weaver’s Lament” does not yet have a library catalog entry, but request it from your local librarian!

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