Book: The Angel Maker Author: Alex North Publisher: Celadon Books Year: 2023 Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Synopsis : “Growing up in a beautiful house in the English countryside, Katie Shaw lived a charmed life. At the cusp of graduation, she had big dreams, a devoted boyfriend, and a little brother she protected fiercely. Until the day a violent stranger changed the fate of her family forever.
Years later, still unable to live down the guilt surrounding what happened to her brother, Chris, and now with a child of her own to protect, Katie struggles to separate the real threats from the imagined. But then she gets the phone call: Chris has gone missing and needs his big sister once more.
Meanwhile, Detective Laurence Age is facing a particularly gruesome crime. A distinguished professor of fate and free will has been brutally murdered just hours after firing his staff. All the leads point back to two old cases: the gruesome attack on teenager Christopher Shaw, and the despicable crimes of a notorious serial killer who, legend had it, could see the future.”
Review : Why is it that the books that come with the coolest ARC packaging always turn out to be the biggest duds? The Angel Maker arrived with several envelopes, each with a sticker dictating after which chapter you should open each. Inside the envelopes were cute little references to the revelations in each corresponding chapter: a small card, a newspaper article, and a box of matches. I love getting ARC packages, they are always an extremely enjoyable aspect of receiving and reviewing books, but what I’ve come to notice is that if a book has a detailed and intricate package, it’s likely to be pretty rough reading.
The Angel Maker did not disappoint in terms of living up to the ARC package let-down. North, a former New York Times best seller, wrote a book with a unique story in a truly bizarre way. I found myself wondering several times if he had simply hit “replace all” for certain words, given the strange wording of so many of his sentences. There were many instances of sentences that seemed to go nowhere, that wove a strange web of words that didn’t go together, it felt almost as if it had been poorly translated into English. I found myself baffled more than not reading through this one – and I realize it’s an uncorrected proof so it’s probably pretty likely that by the time it’s available to buy these problems will have been corrected, but I think it speaks volumes when an ARC reads so poorly.
I will give North credit, though, the story he’s created is interesting and strange. It unravels at the speed you’d hope from a suspense/thriller novel. Told from the point of view of several people, it hops between the present and the past, unveiling more and more details as you read. Something North did that I didn’t enjoy, however, was relying on the unreliable female narrator trope – once again we see a female protagonist, Katie Shaw, who’s had two whole glasses of wine and suddenly no one around her can possibly believe a word she says, so what does she do? Investigates on her own, of course! What else could she possibly do? This is the trope. It’s old, it’s over done, it’s worn out, and it’s lazy. And I’m not exaggerating, she had two glasses of wine in one single scene and suddenly her husband no longer believes a word she’s saying. But let’s not even focus on the fact that her husband regularly leaves their five year old daughter alone to watch tv by herself while he makes music in the basement with the door closed, a fact that Katie finds bothersome and irritating while her husband, Sam, finds completely acceptable.
I find it hard to want to read a book that employs the aforementioned trope, particularly as a woman. Not only is it overdone, but it plays into a stereotype that honestly isn’t a good look coming from yet another male author. I was slow to read The Angel Maker for all of the above reasons, it took me longer than most of the ARCs I’ve read this year because, while the story was interesting, it was written so poorly and in such a lazy way that it was no longer even a compelling read. It’s unfortunate that an author can take a quality premise and mess it up so badly that it isn’t even worth turning pages to see the finale. I’ve said many times that a book doesn’t have to be well written to be compelling, and unfortunately The Angel Maker is neither well written nor compelling.
Advice: Unless Alex North is your favorite author, this is a pass for me. It contains depictions of attempted and successful murder, snuff films, houselessness, substance abuse, and gaslighting. If you enjoy a book with worn out tropes, you might actually like this one. If you don’t, this isn’t it.
Book: Into the Light Author: Mark Oshiro Publisher: Tor Teen Year: 2023 Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Synopsis: “It’s been one year since Manny was cast out of his family and driven into the wilderness of the American Southwest. Since then, Manny lives by self-taught rules that keep him moving – and keep him alive. Now, he’s taking a chance on a traveling situation with the Varela family, whose attractive but surly son, Carlos, seems to promise a new future.
Eli abides by the rules of his family, living in a secluded community that raised him to believe his obedience will be rewarded. But an unsettling question slowly eats away at Eli’s once unwavering faith in Reconciliation: why can’t he remember his past?
But the reported discovery of an unidentified body found in the hills of Idylwild, California, will draw both of these young men into facing their biggest fears and confronting their own identity – and who ethyl are allowed to be.
For fans of Courtney Summers and Tiffany D. Jackson, Into the Light is a ripped-from-the-headlines story with Oshiro’s signature mix of raw emotions and visceral prose…but with a startling twist you’ll have to read to believe.”
Review: In both the ARC pamphlet I received with this book and the author’s note at the end of the book, Oshiro alludes to a childhood trauma that inspired and birthed this book, what I suspect, based on little tidbits throughout Into the Light, was conversion camp. The air of conversion, of being forced to undergo something dangerous, something heartless, and cruel at the hands of the people who should be the most loving and protective forces in your life, runs throughout this book. While it isn’t at all about that type of conversion, it is about the damage that the church causes at the hands of people who have no business holding positions of power.
Into the Light follows Manny, a young adult who grew up with his sister Elena, bouncing from foster home to foster home, seeing the worst of the worst, and finding that as he gets older the likelihood of seeing a real adoption happen grows smaller and smaller. Manny and Elena, however, find themselves being adopted blindly into a family with direct ties to a cult-ish christian community called Christ’s Dominion. The family quickly decides that Manny needs to participate in something called Reconciliation and sends both he and his sister to a three-day “retreat” in the Californian mountains. What Manny experiences at Reconciliation is not quite conversion camp, but it is detrimental, traumatic, and extremely dangerous. He arrives to find that all the families in attendance are white with adoptive children who are not, across the board, most have come directly from other countries, several from within the foster system, and all with something deemed wrong with them – whether that be their gender identity, their sexual preferences, or the color of their skin.
Into the Light is told from Manny’s perspective, jumping from the present, as he lives his life with the newly found Varela family traveling the country trying to find his sister Elena, to the past as he experiences Reconciliation, and yet from a third time period as he (known as Eli, having succeeded in Reconciliation in some ambiguous, nebulous way) lives his life at the compound in the mountains, sharing his success story with newcomers and their “wrong” children. I found this style to be confusing, as the chapters had no headings to tell you what point of view you would be reading – the perspective shift was shown by a slight change in font that got more confusing as the story ramped up and all three perspectives were being shared closer together than they had previously in order to get to the climax of Manny’s journey with Christ’s Dominion. I think some headers would have been a huge help particularly as the book wrapped up, jumping quickly from one perspective to another in order to round out the entirety of the narrative.
My biggest issue with this book is the plot twist at the end, I think it detracted from the weight of the story, took away from the very real issues being discussed in the book, and didn’t serve a function. We read through 90% of the novel as a realistic fiction book, yes quite troubling and pointed, but not a horror novel in that sense. With about 10% of the book remaining, the “truth” is revealed and the book becomes sci-fi or horror in an unrealistic kind of way, which I tend to enjoy but not when it shifts the entirety of the book into a new genre with no time to spare. I felt like there were some many important aspects of this book, so many important things being discussed in a first-person narrative that need to be spoken, that need to have a light shed on them, that when Oshiro changed the book with a strange plot twist that took Manny’s separation from Eli from being explainable as trauma, which he absolutely endured, to being explainable as a sci-fi impossibility it lessoned the weight of what Oshiro was trying to get across. Suddenly we have nothing more than a science fiction book with a weird ending that’s so disjointed from the majority of the book that I don’t know how to reconcile the two, and frankly I think that does a huge disservice to what Oshiro could have achieved.
With a rise in anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation, a rise in christian nationalism, and a rise in spoken hatred, books like Into the Light that share what children are really experiencing at the hands of people who should be doing their best to protect them are incredibly important. I found it disappointing that this book shifted in the way it did, that the twist wasn’t more seamlessly included throughout the rest of the book, and I left it thinking more about how disjointed it was than I did thinking about how realistic the rest of it was for thousands of teens and young adults across the country. Manny’s story, and by proxy, Oshiro’s personal story, deserve to be told and heard and believed with compassion and care and love. I fear that the twist has only served to detract from something so important.
Advice: This book contains depictions of the foster care system, of sexual harassment of a minor, of religious trauma, of conversion, of racism, of parental abandonment, of physical assault, and of very real trauma and ptsd experiences following. It is, however, a great read that moves swiftly and keeps you reading to see what’s going to happen. I think if you like a singular viewpoint told from multiple timeframes, you’ll probably read through this and really enjoy it. If you find that style to be confusing, this might not be the best or easiest book to read. If you have experienced religious trauma or conversion, this may be a pretty intense and difficult read for you as well.
Book: Junkyard Dogs Author: Katherine Higgs-Coulthard Publisher: Peachtree Teen Year: 2023 Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Synopsis: “Josh’s father has gone missing without a trace. Now Josh and his 9-year-old brother, Twig, are stuck living with Gran in her trailer. Problem is, Gran didn’t ask to take care of any kids, and she’s threatening to call social services unless Josh can find his dad. After paying off his Gran to take in his little brother, Josh risks truancy and getting kicked off his basketball team to take to the streets and hunt for his dad. But when Josh digs too deep, he suddenly finds himself tethered to a liminal scrapping ring that his father was accomplice to. If Josh wants to keep Twig out of the system and return to some sense of normal, he’ll have to track his dad down and demand honest answers.”
Review: Set in a town not all that far from where I’ve lived, Junkyard Dogs feels eerily close to home. Set in South Bend, Indiana, this book tells the story of a pair of brothers experiencing houselessness during a brutal midwest winter. As I was on my way to a coffee shop to write this review, in fact, I passed a billboard that said 7,800 youth and young adults in my town would experience houselessness this year alone. It hits close to home in more ways than one.
Coming from the midwest herself, Higgs-Coulthard hits the nail on the head with her depictions of this part of the country, including how easy it is for many living in a semi-large city to absolutely miss the fact that so many of it’s residents are struggling and just barely scraping by. While this story centers around one particular incident with Josh and Twig, as Josh reminisces about the past with a mother who died when he was young and a father who ran a junkyard during Josh’s formative years, it’s clear that the blurred lines between temporary housing and houselessness are grey at best. This is a liminal space of transience, shifting from a junkyard house on the brink of condemnation by the city to a trailer owned by their Gran to an abandoned warehouse, to tent city under an overpass, to no shelter at all, we see all the ways in which someone without stability grapples to survive in a world that requires a lot of money and connections to get by.
Junkyard Dogs is somewhat infuriating in that as readers we’re privy to all the ways in which the world beats Josh down; from his Gran telling him he’s garbage and worse on a daily basis, to his dad who runs off early on in the book without even leaving Josh with enough money to pay for rent to keep him and his little brother housed at his Gran’s trailer, to the shelter that requires an adult for any minor to eat. It’s hard to read at times.
I think Higgs-Coulthard has created a book that’s deeply human, moving, and gripping; emerging us in a mystery that takes an entire book to unravel completely. While I was able to figure out the central twist pretty early on, I don’t think it ruined the book in any way, and I sort of suspect that Higgs-Coulthard meant for her readers to grasp the twist at least part way through the plot. While this book does end with a pretty neat ending that I think is unlikely to be reality for most unhoused youth, making it pretty unrealistic in my opinion, I did enjoy the way in which she chose to end the story. It isn’t easy, but it’s certainly the best case scenario. I think the book could have been more impactful by being more realistic in it’s ending, but I also think as a young adult read it almost demanded a hopeful ending. It ends by giving us some sense of hope for humanity, hope for the way people experience each other, and hope for the empathy the world might bestow upon people who are down on their luck.
Advice: If you are empathetic at all, this may very well not be a book for you, particularly if you don’t enjoy crying over books. If you enjoy a book with a hopeful ending, with hope for a better future in spite of a tough start, this might be the book for you! If you enjoy stories about real things, about real problems that impact real people, this is probably a great place to start.
Book: Witch King Author: Martha Wells Publisher: Tor Year: 2023 Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Synopsis : “Kai-Enna is the witch king, though he hasn’t always been, and he hasn’t even always been Kai-Enna!
After being murdered, his consciousness dormant and unaware of the passing of time while confined in an elaborate water trap, Kai wakes to find a lesser mage attempting to harness Kai’s magic to his own advantage. That was never going to end well.
But why was Kai imprisoned in the first place? What has changed in the world since his assassination? And why does the Rising World coalition appear to be growing in influence?
Kai will need to pull his allies close and draw on all his pain magic if he is to answer even the least of these questions.
He’s not going to like the answers.”
Review : Martha Wells is no first timer at the fantasy rodeo, her list of past works spans an entire front page in Witch King, including several long-term series, and honestly you can tell this is the work of a person deeply familiar with the inner workings of creating a successful fantasy world. It was a joy to read.
Like many of the advanced reader copies I receive, Witch King came with a little letter from the author. In it, Wells explains her motivation for creating this book: it was conceived in the early months of the pandemic, attempting to visualize what it would look like to see a “conquering genocidal attacker” ultimately defeated by an uprising of ordinary people (or semi-ordinary). She wanted to visualize what that world would look like during the attack and several decades later, hence the perfect setting for a fantasy novel full of immortal beings and beings who can live incredibly long lifespans.
Witch King is written from a singular point of view, but it’s told by jumping back and forth between the present (several decades following the defeat of an attacker) and the past (during the actual uprising). Kai-Enna is an immortal underworld demon prince inhabiting a mortal body, the only way he is able to exist in the upper world. Thanks to a treaty that his half mortal-half immortal grandmother brokered between the Grass Kings, a nomadic people group in the upper world, and the demons of the underworld, Kai is able to partake in a sacred ritual that allows him to enter into a recently deceased mortal body. This ritual allows the loved ones of the deceased to hear the final thoughts and words of their beloved while also giving them a demon who will both learn the ways of the upper world in order to fully understand and appreciate mortal life, and bring protection to the clan they’ve entered into a relationship with. Because Kai is still a demon, he will be able to live as long as he pleases inside a mortal body without being wounded thanks to his ability to heal inordinately fast, and the only real give-away that he isn’t mortal are his all black eyes.
Kai is still a young demon (and living in a young mortal body) when the Heirarchs, a ruling class of people from an unknown land, take over and conquer the known world. The Grass Kings fight back, but being a nomadic group of people, they are unaware of the reach the Heirarchs have, the weapons they’ve acquired, and the magical tools at their disposal. The Heirarchs, unbeknownst to Kai or his mortal family, have a super weapon that can knock the life out of a mortal and inflict incredible pain on an immortal, allowing demons to be captured and imprisoned.
Wells returns us to these moments of war throughout the book, jumping back to Kai’s former body, his former life, and his fight to overturn the Heirarchs. In the present moment, some 60 years in the future, we see that the Heirarchs have been defeated, the passage from the upper world to the underworld permanently blocked, and Kai, though a demon, is referred to as the Witch King. As the book begins, we find Kai’s consciousness awakening outside of a deceased mortal body he’s been occupying for several years – no longer the young body of the Grass Kings. His body has died, but he has been imprisoned in a tower of water, the only real achilles heel for a demon. Because of this prison, he’s been in a suspended state, unaware of how much time has passed or where his friends and chosen family are located. We spend the rest of the book reuniting this family and seeking the remaining members who have gone missing, all the while eerily retracing his steps from the past when he worked to defeat the Heirarchs.
Wells has created a book that functions on multiple fantasy levels; it can be read alone, it ties up nicely in the end, and we get to see how Kai defeated the Heirarchs in the past, and worked to defeat a growing world alliance that’s attempting to create an empire in the present; I believe it will also function as an excellent book one of several and I look forward to seeing where Wells goes in the future. And I hope she does, because while this book didn’t end on a cliffhanger or leave you wishing for more of the story, there are pieces and parts of the past that remain untold, certain adventures to be had now that the family is reunited, and we make it to the end of the book without finding out definitively how Kai came to earn the monicker “Witch King”. While it can be inferred, I’m craving the full story and I have hope that Wells will add another book to this title and make it a series.
Advice: If you love fantasy, if you enjoy getting wrapped up in a world of unearthly creatures, if you love an excellent retelling of past events, this is it. It’s well written, it’s easy to understand, and it resonates with current events without being in your face or even hard to read. This book uses gender-neutral pronouns for several characters without being fussy about it and exhibits a great deal of inclusivity as well, making it a must read for so many reasons. I highly recommend it.
Book: The Carrefour Curse Author: Dianne K. Salerni Publisher: Holiday House Year: 2023 Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Synopsis: “Twelve-year-old Garnet doesn’t know her family. Her mother has done her best to keep it that way, living far from the rest of the magical Carrefour clan and their legendary mansion known as Crossroad House. But when Garnet finally gets summoned to the estate, it isn’t quite what she hoped for. Her relatives are strange and quarrelsome, each room in Crossroad House is more dilapidated than the last, and she can’t keep straight which dusty hallways and cobwebbed corners are forbidden. And then she learns a terrifying secret/l the dying Carrefour patriarch fights to retain his life by stealing powers from the others. Every household accident that isn’t an accident, every unexpected illness and unexplained disappearance grants him a little more time. While the Carrefours squabble over who will in heritage his role when (if) he dies, Garnet encounters evidence of an even deeper curse. Was she brought to Crossroad House as part of the curse…or is she meant to break it?”
Review: I don’t often read middle grade novels, but this looked too cute to pass up! I clearly didn’t retain the synopsis because when I found out our protagonist, Garnet, was 12 (about 3/4 through the book) I was shocked. While The Carrefour Curse reads like a mid-grade novel, Garnet reads as much older than 12. But, this could be how little I read books in this realm!
As the novel begins, we find Garnet in a very wizard-with-a-lightning-bolt-scar predicament: she’s spitting up frogs and has no idea how to reverse the effects of whatever has gone wrong. We find her riding in the car with her mother, Emerald, getting closer and closer to the old family home, Crossroads House. Convinced that this is a summoning spell gone wrong, Emerald brings her daughter to the family home she’s never before allowed her to visit, in the hopes that this will satisfy a magical spell she believes her siblings and cousins have placed on her daughter. As it turns out, the family has been experiencing their own fair share of mystical conundrums and once Emerald and Garnet arrive at Crossroads House, they find they cannot leave without experiencing some kind of physiological distress.
As the story progresses, we begin to get glimpses into a murky past that only Garnet is privy to. While each member of the Carrefour family has their own magical powers, Garnet’s are beginning to awaken now that she’s in the vicinity of the home. She’s always had a special connection to the element Earth, but the more time she spends at Crossroads House, the more she comes to realize that she can also see and walk in the past; a time traveler. It is this special gift that allows Garnet to begin to unravel the mystery of the old house, the original location of Crossroads House, believed to be built directly on top of magical lay lines. The current house sits off from the old ruins, as anyone who goes near the old house mysteriously vanishes. It soon seems as though Garnet is the only person who will be able to release the curse, and with it the missing people.
Salerni does a good job of creating a magical world in Carrefour Curse, she lays out the family tree in a way that’s easy to follow in spite of the fact that it spans multiple generations and several of the family members share the same name. I think it’s no small feat to not only make a confusing and convoluted family tree seem manageable, but to also take a mansion and make it’s layout feel understood. It’s helpful, of course, that she included both a house layout and a family tree in diagram form in the book, but I think, especially for a younger audience, this could have gotten confusing quick. It’s easy to step into this book and find yourself comfortably in the world Salerni’s created and I think that’s a huge positive!
The book itself feels like it misses a lot of opportunities for connections to be made, which on a positive note makes it harder to predict, but on a negative note makes it feel a bit frustrating at times. Salerni brings things up that you think will play out in a certain way based on context clues, but we find them unused pieces of information that don’t necessarily go anywhere. I think there’s some work that could have been done here to make the book even better, more rounded, and solid – for me. But all in all, it’s a fun and enjoyable mid-grade read with an ending I thought made sense, and that’s sometimes all you can hope for.
Advice: If you’re looking for a book that has a clearly built magical system in place, that feels light and fluffy to read, and that won’t make you frustrated, this is it! It’s a great read for a snow day in, it’s nice a quick, and it’s a good breather from other, more intense fantasy books. All around enjoyable and cute.
Book: The Spite House Author: Johnny Compton Publisher: Nightfire Year: 2023 Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Synopsis: “Eric Ross is on the run from a mysterious past with his two daughters in tow. When he comes across a strange ad for the Masson House in Degener, Texas, Eric thinks they may have finally caught a lucky break. The “most haunted place in Texas” needs a caretaker. All they need to do is stay in the house and keep a detailed record of everything that happens there. Provided the house’s horrors don’t drive them all mad, like the caretakers before them. A terrifying Gothic thriller about grief and death and the depths of a father’s love, Johnny Compton’s The Spite House is a stunning debut by a horror master in the making.”
The Spite House is Johnny Compton’s first novel and does a heck of a lot of work to lay the foundation for further moving novels in the future. While this book may not lend itself to sequels, the heart of the book gives me great hope for future works by Compton. Though the synopsis refers to this work as being about the “depths of a father’s love”, I think this book does so much more than that – I’m not sure it’s the theme I would point out for a review. This book is about the spite that drives and fuels us; the privilege and rage that keep us embittered and sour; the fear that turns each day into a waking nightmare of our own creation; perhaps this book is even about generational trauma that, when left unattended, may slowly poison an entire town. Yes, a father’s love knows no bounds, and Eric Ross, our protagonist, shows us just how far a father will go to protect his children and find answers, but it is not the theme of this book.
I’m finding myself having a hard time reviewing this book without writing what keeps turning into a book report. Due to the sheer strangeness of The Spite House, it’s a little hard to review without getting into the details of what happened. Eric Ross is a protagonist with a secret: when he was a child, he experienced the energetic imprint of a fire that had burned down most of his grandparents house long before he was born. The townspeople grew to have a healthy fear of his grandfather, a man they believed died in the fire and was reborn out of spite. As a Black man in a small southern town, Eric’s grandfather Fred, a man who had a tendency to say the wrong thing around the wrong people, found himself ticking off his neighbors. In the middle of the night, after making the wrong people mad, Fred’s house was burned to the ground by a group of white men from the neighboring town. After passing out in the burning house, Fred awoke to find himself safe, unharmed, and free of the house. The neighbors, rightfully so, began to fear that Fred possessed a paranormal ability to survive. In the years that followed the fire, every single one of the men who set fire to his house all met untimely deaths that could not be connected to Fred. Compton doles out little bits of Eric’s secret throughout the book, unraveling it in the best possible way. Not only do we not know that Eric’s secret runs much deeper than this, we don’t find out the totality of what that secret entails until nearly the end.
I found Spite House to be a compelling read, keeping me guessing through the entirety. It wasn’t predictable, it didn’t pander to the reader, and while it was technically a thriller, it didn’t keep me awake at night either. Compton has mastered the art of suspense with this book, weaving a tale that spans multiple generations, intertwining them with each other in ways that you don’t see coming. In my mind, this book was a clear success. My greatest criticism comes from the layout of the actual spite house that the tale centers around. I’d never heard of a spite house prior to this book, and upon a quick google search found that most spite houses share a similar style: tall, thin, and imposing. Built to be a visual representation of the spite someone feels toward their neighbors, spite houses are often built tall enough that they may actually block out the sun from the neighboring properties. I found myself wishing on multiple occasions that there was a drawn map showing the layout of the spite house in this book as I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the exact specifications. There’s an addition to this spite house on the second floor that comes in the form of a small hallway that I was never quite clear on. Where does it run between? I’m not sure.
For logistical reasons, The Spite House has earned 4 stars rather than 5, but for a first novel I found it excellent! I want to also note that in several advanced reader copies I’ve received, it’s turned out that there have been maps and other small additions missing that were included in the final copy, so it is possible this book will be published with some additional information regarding the layout of the house.
Advice: If you like a good mystery, a ghost story, or a slow burning suspenseful thriller, this is the perfect book for you! This book would likely not be a good fit for you if you are easily frightened, disinterested in ghosts, or have anxiety that makes suspenseful novels hard to read.
Book: Little Eve Author: Catriona Ward Publisher: Nightfire Year: 2022 Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Synopsis: “On the wind-battered isle of Altnaharra, off the wildest coast of Scotland, a clan prepares to bring about the end of the world and its imminent rebirth. The Adder is coming, and one of their number will inherit its powers. They all want the honor, but young Eve is willing to do anything for the distinction. A reckoning beyond Eve’s imagination begins when Chief Inspector Black arrives to investigate a brutal murder, and their sacred ceremony goes terribly wrong. And soon, all the secrets of Altnaharra will be uncovered.”
Review: Wow, can you believe it? A 5 star review for an uncorrected advanced reader copy? It seems almost too good to be true! I kid, of course, but you know how I’ve felt about a lot of the ARCs I’ve received – particularly suspenseful fiction, even more so with a female narrator. I did happen to read an ARC from Catriona Ward last year, Sundial, but never got around to reviewing it. In fairness, Sundial was so strange and creepy I wasn’t entirely sure how to review it, but it would have also certainly garnered at least 3 stars (it’s been a little while since I read it, so I can’t say for sure what I would have rated it but I can tell you it was very good, especially for the genre).
Little Eve bounces around between, mainly, two narrators. It jumps back and forth in time, ranging from 1917 to 1945, telling a twisting tale both as it unfolds in real time and as a series of letters written to the aforementioned Chief Inspector Black. This book is filled with turns, not everyone is who we think them to be and even as details are revealed we have to keep in mind that the narration is coming from characters who are nearly as in the dark as we are as readers. Little Eve tells the tale of a man, “Uncle”, who possesses a unique gift called The Eye. Uncle, with his powers of understanding and persuasion, convinces two women to move to his inherited home on the isle of Altnaharra – for all intents and purposes, a castle on the edge of the sea, behind which is a ring of towering stones Uncle and his family use for ritual-esque purposes. The three then adopt four children, three girls and a boy, who grow up and live on the isle with their somewhat cobbled together family.
The book begins with a retelling of the events that unfold on the cold morning of January 2 1921, when the local butcher, Jamie MacRaith, makes his way to the Castle of Altnaharra to deliver a slab of beef for Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve). Jamie is a few days late because of a wicked winter storm, and when he arrives at Altnaharra to deliver the beef, instead of a locked gate at the entrance to the lone isle, he finds the gate ajar and blood on the ground. Jamie is the first to discover the five bodies of those in residence at Altnaharra; each with a single eye removed, dead or nearly so, arranged in a circle within the stones behind the castle. The rest of the book tells the story of the previous four years and what exactly transpired to bring Uncle, the two women, and the four children who lived on the isle with him to their ultimate demise. (And yes, I correctly said five bodies and not seven, all is revealed in time.)
Little Eve weaves a web of cult-like behavior, made up religious beliefs, possible magical powers, and confusion through it’s story-line. Unlike other books I’ve read that have attempted to spin a yarn so complex and failed in a jumble of convoluted nonsense and confusion, Ward has managed to weave a web of complexity that unfolds in a pleasing way. Nothing is as it seems. Nothing plays out the way you expect it to, even if you’re like me and prefer to guess incessantly as the book reveals its secrets, it holds those secrets closely guarded until it’s ready to reveal them and astonish you. I referred to this book twice now as a woven web, and I would generally not repeat a phrase like that but it’s the only way I can think to explain the inner workings of what Ward has managed to achieve. Little Eve is complex in the best ways: you can’t ever quite rule anything out no matter how much your mind might want you to, all options are on the table until the last chapter, and even then there are still secrets being revealed right up until the end.
I was so surprisingly satisfied with how this book played out that I couldn’t help but give it 5 stars. Not only was it well constructed, it was a compelling story, and the best part? It was well written. And not just well written for an Arc, it was well written. I have not a single complaint or wish for this book and if you’ve been here for a bit, you know that’s no small feat. Little Eve left me stewing over how it might play out for several days when I accidentally left the book at home when I went on vacation – I couldn’t wait to get back to the plot, to see where it was going to take me! That’s the mark of a great book in my opinion. I can only hope to read more from Catriona Ward in the future, she has exceeded every expectation.
Advice: If you like a good suspenseful novel, a dark mystery, a cult story, or an ending you cannot predict then boy do I have the book for you. If you love a good twist (or four, or five), I think you’ll love Little Eve. If, however, you’re looking for something light and fluffy, or prefer a narrative that doesn’t jump around between characters, this is probably not quite the book for you. All in all, I found this to be an enjoyable, complex, engaging, and dark read.
Book: Bad City Author: Paul Pringle Publisher: Celadon Books Year: 2022 Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Synopsis: “On a cool, overcast afternoon in April 2016, a salacious tip arrived at the Los Angeles Times that reporter Paul Pringle thought should have taken, at most, a few weeks to check out: a drug overdose at a fancy hotel involving one of the University of Southern California’s shiniest stars – Dr. Carmen Puliafito, the head of the prestigious medical school. Pringle, who’d long done battle with USC and its almost impenetrable culture of silence, knew reporting the story wouldn’t be a walk in the park. USC is one of the largest private employers in the city of L.A. and it cast a long shadow. But what he couldn’t have foreseen was that this tip would lead to the unveiling of not one major scandal at USC but two, wrapped in a web of crimes and cover-ups. The rot rooted out by Pringle and his colleagues at the Times would creep closer to home than they could have imagined – spilling into their own newsroom. Pack with details never before disclosed, Bad City goes behind the scenes to reveal how Pringle and his fellow reporters triumphed over the city’s debased institutions, in a narrative that reads like L.A. noir. This is L.A. at its darkest and investigative journalism at its brightest.”
Review: I have to say, I feel like a bit of a schmuck giving a Pulitzer Prize winning author 4.5 out of 5 stars, but here we are. I want to start by disclosing that I did not finish this book, though I got 232 pages into it’s 270 pages of narrative and perhaps I could have finished it given how far I’d come, but boy did this one weigh on me. Let’s start by identifying the content warnings, because I’m not sure we can delve into a book based solely around drug abuse without first talking about what the book details. Bad City describes, often in detail, the supply and abuse of drugs by a person in power, the supply and abuse of drugs as a means of power and control, prostitution, both with and without drug abuse, sexual abuse, and sexual assault. It’s likely and possible that there are further warnings I should give you, as I stopped reading when we got to a section on blatant sexual abuse, medical misconduct, and USC’s history of enabling such behavior from its staff members.
This is one of those books that makes you want to rip your hair out, or rip pages out, or both maybe, while you scream at the top of your lungs. It is infuriating to read about how people in power work so hard to enable others within their sphere to do detrimental harm to those with less power and resources. It’s infuriating to see the struggle of someone who’s working to uncover the truth, particularly when their work is blocked at every turn. It’s infuriating to read this knowing that this is perhaps indicative of most major news networks through the country, wondering what else we aren’t privy to because people in power are using their seemingly unlimited resources and connections to tamp down any bit of truth. Carmen Puliafito, the former dean of USC’s medical school, behaved in a way that indicated he believed he was above the law. Pringle discovered that Puliafito had allowed himself, and even instigated, to be filmed in the presence of drugs and even using drugs (meth, I believe, but Pringle also uncovered that he was using heroin as well) all while he was not only leading future medical professionals, but continuing to operate, as a world-renown ophthalmologist. The head of USC was alerted to this danger, as were the editors of the Times and not one single person in these positions of power thought it was more important to ensure the safety of everyone involved by removing Puliafito than it was to uphold an image.
I gave this book half a star less than a 5 because it’s one of those books that has so many characters, some of whom share the same first name, most of whom have intricate job titles and functions within the newsroom, that in order for it to remain clear there needs to be a list of individuals and their relation to the story and/or narrator at the beginning of the book. There were times where Pringle would refer to someone exclusively by their last name within the newsroom, but would share email correspondences with them where their first name was used and things got confusing. I gave up on figuring out who some of the players in this story were about halfway through because I wasn’t sure when they’d been introduced in order to flip back and forth to figure out what role they were playing. While the majority of what I read was hard hitting and pointed, the name and occupation confusion definitely muddied the waters.
The synopsis indicates there are previously unreported aspects to this story that are only revealed with the publishing of Bad City and nothing about that was surprising to me as I read through it. This book, in fact, was not an advanced reader copy – the copy I got, while it arrived prior to the official publication date of July 19, is a final corrected version of the story. We were asked to write our reviews prior to the publication date, and I think there’s a lot said in those details alone. Pringle’s own editors were fired by the time all of the details about Puliafito and USC went live, some two years after the initial tip came across Pringle’s desk – their severance was preceded by an internal investigation that spanned a vast majority of senior management within the Times. There were many details Pringle was unable to publish at the time the story broke, due completely to the work of his editors who had close ties to USC.
I found myself fascinated by the inner workings and convoluted network of people who both graduated from USC and work to run the city of L.A. From city officials to the LAPD, the network of deception and rot spreads far and wide. While Pringle’s reporting was able to uncover important aspects of the network, I suspect we will never fully understand just how far reaching its roots run. I will say, there was something vindicating about finding out that the bad guys were sniffed out and got what was coming to them in terms of being fired and, in Puliafito’s case, losing his license to practice. While it’s so satisfying to see the corruption come into the light and the players involved get exactly what they had coming, all the things they thought they were so powerful and wealthy they could avoid, it doesn’t make up for the fact that in reading this book we still had to undergo reading the details.
Advice: If you like a good true crime story that doesn’t involve murder, this is a great read for you. It’s scandalous and corrupt and gives a detailed look behind the scenes of the investigation that uncovers the truth behind USC’s involvement in Carmen Puliafito’s career, resignation, and coverup. The synopsis was correct, this book reads like an L.A. noir and if that’s your jam then you’ll probably love Bad City. If you’re sick of seeing the bad guys get away with everything they think they can get away with then you’ll probably find this book satisfying and vindicating. If, however, you read through the content warning at the beginning of the review and felt like this might be too much, I can all but guarantee that it will be. Tread lightly here if you’re feeling overwhelmed already, this book is dark and heavy and a little too real.
Book: The Kingdoms of Savannah Author: George Dawes Green Publisher: Celadon Books Year: 2022 Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Synopsis: “Savannah may appear to be ‘some town out of a fable,’ with its vine flowers, turreted mansions, and ghost tours that romanticize the city’s history. But look deeper and you’ll uncover secrets, past and present, that tell a more sinister tale. It’s the story at the heart of George Dawes Green’s chilling new novel, The Kingdoms of Savannah. It begins quietly on a balmy southern night as some locals gather at Bo Peep’s, one of the town’s favorite watering holes. Within an hour, however, a man will be murdered and his companion will be “disappeared.” An unlikely detective, Morgana Musgrove, doyenne of Savannah society, is called upon to unravel the mystery of these crimes. Morgana is an imperious, demanding, and conniving woman, whose four grown children are weary of her schemes. But one by one she inveigles them into helping with her investigation, and soon the family uncovers some terrifying truths – truths that will rock Savannah’s power structure to its core. Moving from the homeless encampments that rings the city to the stately homes of Savannah’s elite, Green’s novel brilliantly depicts the underbelly of a city with a dark history and the strangely mesmerizing dysfunction of a complex family.”
Review: When I received this ARC, I was pleasantly surprised to find a little blurb by one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, that called this book “The apotheosis of Southern Gothic Noir.” Of course this made me want to read it all the more, and what perfect timing it was, arriving just as I finished In the Shadow of Lightning, so I cracked it open right away. I found myself confused and disappointed, though, by the way Kingdoms played out and I feel fairly well baffled trying to explain the complexities that went wrong in this book. I think the only place to start is with the disparities between the synopsis and the actual book, so let’s begin there.
The back cover refers to Morgana Musgrove as an unlikely detective, leading one to believe this will unfold as a murder mystery should: with a detective, with clues unraveling, and with a clear and defined story arc. What actually happens is far from what I’ve described. While Morgana plays a central role in the first third of the book, she falls into the background as other members of her family take center stage. Told from several differing points of view, we’re lead to believe based on the foundation of the book that while we’d jump between a few different family members, we would ultimately come back to Morgana, the backbone of the story. What actually happens is we get a base that the book is built upon and rather than return to Morgana, we find ourselves spending the majority of the book with her granddaughter Jaq. And that would be okay, given that Jaq is and interesting character with a great point of view, but Jaq is conducting her own investigation into aspects of the events that aren’t really the same as what Morgana is looking into.
The second issue I have with the book is the way in which Morgana speaks. Granted, she’s married into old Savannah money but she actually comes from a small town in Georgia; however, she behaves and speaks in a manner that gives away none of her upbringing. We’re given a small glimpse into what her thought process was when she moved to Savannah and began to infiltrate upper society, but her background remains largely unknown other than a small section that mentions she never retained her country twang, assimilating smoothly into a more Savannah way of speaking. On page 16 (the first chapter still!) we get a flashback from her son, Ransom, into just what kind of absurd creature Morgana truly is and I can’t think of a better way to describe the outlandishness than by simply letting you see for yourself: “Then at the front steps he has one more memory. Thirteen years old. Standing out here awaiting the carpool to school and daydreaming, when his mother appeared on the balcony. Although it was a bright sunny morning, she was drunk. Clearly she’d been out partying the night before and hadn’t been to bed yet. She began to disparage him in the third person, one of her favorite pastimes. She said, “While the kid dawdles there like an idiot, gathering wool, concocting his little fantasies about how the world should be, the real world keeps marching on, doesn’t it? Clomp clomp clomp, crushing his little dreams. Does he even notice? No, he’s too stupid. Is he going to be a hobo? Well, yes, that’s certain, unless he gets some ambition and starts kiting checks. Ha ha ha.” I don’t know about you, but that does not a drunk monologue make.
My third problem with the book are the little tidbits thrown into the plot that seem to surely have somewhere to go but fizzle out without so much as another mention. Some spoiler alerts here, so be warned! As the story progresses, we find that one of the central characters is being held hostage in one of several underground tunnels that were used during prohibition era, tunnels that bootleggers would use to store and transport contraband. The character has been spirited away into the tunnels by a cylindrical tube out in the middle of the woods, but we’re told at a few different places in the story that Morgana’s late husband had relatives who made their money as bootleggers back in the day. This is such an important tidbit of information that Dawes Green spends no less than three different instances describing the ominous door in the basement of the Musgrove home that supposedly leads into these very tunnels – in fact there are other homes with similar doors, though the other home’s doors are rumored to be closed up and filled in. I kept waiting for someone to open the door in the Musgrove basement and find their way down into the tunnels, but after it’s mentioned several times it simply…goes away. We don’t hear of it again and it’s never turned into a distinctive plot point. There are several instances of tidbits of interest dissolving into nothing, leaving me feeling confused as to their purpose and frustrated that they were dangled in front of me for nothing.
The last issue I’m going to mention is the fact that Jaq is Black. There are so few descriptors in this book that when I realized Jaq was a member of the Musgrove family, I found myself flipping back and forth trying to determine if I’d entirely misread every aspect of the Musgroves. Were they actually Black too? Was I misunderstanding that they were a white old money family? It took another one, maybe two, chapters before Jaq’s connection and background were unveiled, which was far too long to go without an understanding of who and what I’m reading. I don’t always need extremely detailed descriptions of characters to feel fulfilled and confident reading a character, but the basics are important especially if you’re going to hinge the entire story on Black history in Savannah – another spoiler, perhaps. I left the book having essentially no idea what any of the characters look like, other than knowing that about halfway through the book it’s mentioned that Ransom, Morgana’s son, has a beard. At that point I was so baffled about what he may or may not look like that the beard fully threw me off and I gave up trying to discern anything about it. Turns out I didn’t need to, as he went the way of Morgana, a central figure in the beginning of the novel who fizzled out about halfway through the book.
There are a lot of twists and turns in Kingdoms, twists and turns we aren’t privy to as readers. When Morgana solves the mystery in the end, it’s a confounding aha moment that ends up being quite the let down. We haven’t seen much of Morgana by the time she reveals how she’s solved the mystery and we’re never really given any specifics as to how she was able to unravel the details. As readers, we’re able to see a lot of what’s going on and make our own deductions, but it’s never made clear how in the world Morgana might have come to the conclusions she makes, and that leaves me disappointed; it takes all the punch out of the ending, to be completely honest. On top of which, we spend the entire book reading whispers of a treasure, a hidden treasure somewhere in Savannah, a treasure so important that people are willing to kill for it. It’s built up and built up and built up in such a way that when it’s revealed and we find it’s not exactly what we’d been expecting or hoping to find, the treasure ends up being quite the let down as well. The fact of the matter is that the treasure reveal should have been the most amazing part of the entire story, the treasure (spoiler alert!!!) is not monetary at all, it’s an archeological finding of an entire free Black colony pre-civil war, living on an island in Savannah. What I love about this treasure story is that it’s actually historically accurate though no one has yet been able to find the archeological remains as the particular island they lived on was a secret and has such been lost to time. It’s likely that with time and money and some high tech ground penetrating radar, the remains could be found, and that’s exactly what happens in Kingdoms. The treasure that everyone is willing to die for is simply the rights to develop crappy condos and apartment buildings on a swampy island in the middle of nowhere. It’s…lacking.
At the end of the book, Dawes Green spends 6 total pages explaining some of the historical facts and significance of some of what he’s written about. Those 6 pages were more interesting to me and, in my opinion, more well written than the entire rest of the book, and I think that’s really something. I love all the details provided in Kingdoms, but at the end of the day in order to tell the story he wanted to tell, I think Kingdoms could have been written completely differently and it would have made a much greater impact. I didn’t leave this book continuing to chew over the details or stew about what did or didn’t go down, I finished it and I put it down, and that’s the mark of a book poorly designed. I have to think, surely there’s no way that Neil Gaiman read this book.
Advice: If you like Southern Gothic Noir fiction, I really don’t think this fits the brief other than it’s set in the old south and includes a murder or two. If you like murder mysteries, this might be something you’d be interested in, but realistically it didn’t satisfy this mystery lover. I think it’s worth the read if it’s given to you for free or if you find it on sale somewhere. Otherwise, pick it up in the bookstore, flip to the back and read the 6 pages that mention the historical accuracies included in it – that should lead you down a rabbit hole of books and topics that would be well worth your time.
Book: In the Shadow of Lightning Author: Brian McClellan Publisher: Tor Year: 2022 Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Synopsis: “Magic is a finite resource – and it’s running out. Demir Grappo is an exile. A failure as a general, as a leader, and as a son. But when his own mother is brutally murdered, he must return to take his seat as the head of the family. Because she was killed for a secret, a secret so large it threatens the social order, the future of the empire, and the fate of the world: The magic is running out and no one knows how to stop it. A war is coming, a war unlike any other. And Demir is the only thing that stands in the way of the end of life as the world knows it.”
Review:In the Shadow of Lightning is one of those books I finished and immediately regretted. I regretted plowing through it as fast as I did, knowing full well its pub date is June of 2022 and as the first of several, I’ll have to wait a year (at least) to read the next installment. I was a little hesitant to pick this one up at first, after all it’s a 560 page behemoth of a book, and a fantasy novel on top of that. After The Bone Orchard, which left me feeling a little frustrated with fantasy, I wasn’t sure I was ready to dive into another unknown world on a wing and a prayer that the author would paint a picture I could get lost in. McClellan, however, as a seasoned pro with at least six other fantasy books under his belt came through with a fantasy world I saw clearly and understood with ease. It was a joy to read this book.
ITSOL is told from multiple viewpoints, bouncing back and forth between a few different interlocking storylines to unveil a broad, detailed view of all angles of the story – within reason, of course. There are aspects of the story that unfold slowly, only coming to light as we begin to find the book winding down, clearly setting the reader up for the second book, but there’s plenty unraveling throughout the entirety of the book that I wasn’t left feeling frustrated that I was able to figure the plot points and twists out before we even got into the good stuff, but at the same time I wasn’t left feeling like any part of the story was dragging on needlessly. Every plot point and twisting turn seemed to further the story and the development of the characters in a way that felt satisfying and well thought out.
Each character is developed in a way that feels organic and without being told how each person sounds I found myself creating voices for them in my mind as I read, which is not something that happens often for me with books – a truly well written book, yes. Demir is an enjoyable character known as a glass dancer, or someone who can move glass at will with a rare and dangerous telekinetic power, who is fighting to overcome both the perceived personal failings of his youth, and the stigma that comes with being one of a minority of people with a dangerous and, at times, deadly power. In a world where magical glass, godglass, has the power to augment reality, the word glass takes on a deeper meaning. “Glassdamn” takes the place of many a swear word in Demir’s world and the use of the word glass in this way does a great job of emphasizing it’s importance in the lives of the people of this world. It seems to span multiple countries and/or continents (being an ARC, my copy of ITSOL doesn’t have the maps that will be included in the published copy so I’m not sure what the exact geography is), each people group using the godglass for similar purposes. They do make reference to illegal forms of godglass that may be used to torture or perhaps even change the physical appearance of a human, and I’m fascinated to see where that takes us in the next book.
This book, like many fantasy novels, takes place during a period of war. In fact, the entirety of this massive book only takes place over the span of a couple days, a week at most, successfully at that! But, with the mention of war, I did want to touch briefly on the potentially triggering imagery in the book. There are depictions of gruesome deaths and murder, death of animals, and war time fighting. It’s not nearly as graphic as it could have been, though I don’t think it should have been, but it does hang out in these realms of blood and death for a good portion of the book, so that should be noted.
The reason I’ve chosen to give this book 4.5 instead of 5 comes down to a few nit-picky things. It’s written exceptionally well, but McClellan does seem to rely on the use of the word “spat” throughout. I love when a character spits words at someone, it’s such a visceral descriptor that I tend to dwell on it more than other words. Unfortunately, so many characters in this book are constantly spitting their words at others that it begins to grow redundant and annoying by the time you reach the end of the book. I think this is an easy fix, though. My second issue deals with the wording of a handful of sentences that I felt were confusing in their wording. I bookmarked all pages where I found one of these sentences, and the book is simply littered with bookmarked pages from front to back. The storyline is detailed and winding, so I think some of the problem lies in trying to get the point across, but there were several instances where I had to re-read a sentence several times to understand what McClellan was trying to get across. Neither of these are deal breakers for me or even big issues, especially with an ARC, but they were enough in volume to take half a point.
Advice: If you love fantasy that’s done well, that leaves you wanting to know so much more, that brings you into a brand new world and gives you a full view of the intricacies, then this book is for you. If you don’t enjoy depictions of war, this is probably not going to be your cup of tea. If you love a good, slowly unfolding mystery, twists you can’t predict, and the idea of monsters and magic in a foreign land, run to your nearest bookstore this month and grab a copy.