The Carrefour Curse Review

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.

Sister, Maiden, Monster Review

Book: Sister, Maiden, Monster
Author: Lucy A. Snyder
Publisher: Nightfire
Year: 2023
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “A virus tears across the globe, transforming its victims in nightmarish ways. As the world collapses, dark forces pull a small group of women together.
Erin, once quiet and closeted, acquires an appetite for a woman and her brain. Why does forbidden fruit taste so good?
Savannah, a professional BDSM switch, discovers a new turn-on: committing brutal murders for her eldritch masters.
Mareva, plagued with chronic tumors, is too horrified to acknowledge her divine role in the coming apocalypse, and as her growths multiply, so too does her desperation.
Inspired by her Bram Stoke Award-winning story “Mandala Amygdala”, Lucy A. Snyder delivers a cosmic tale about the planet’s disastrous transformation…and what we become after.”

Review: I’m going to do something I haven’t done before, I’m going to give a book I didn’t like 5 full stars. I did not like this book. It was weird, it was graphic, and it was dystopian which is absolutely not my favorite. But! But. It was well written, it unraveled at just the speed you’d hope, and it was entirely unique. You could not have predicted this book if you’d tried, and anyone who says they could is lying.

I was pretty apprehensive about reading a book about a pandemic; frankly I don’t think we’re far enough removed for a storyline about a world-wide virus to have any impact on me other than pure horror. Granted, I do think this book was dystopian horror novel, so perhaps my initial reaction was exactly as it should have been. Snyder does reference the current pandemic as a thing of the past, so the timeline for this novel is at least a few years or possibly decades in the future, though it could have taken place in our current reality based on the technology available. There are aspects of the virus in this book that have stuck with me and continue to feel frustratingly gross to think about, but I always say that the mark of a good book is that I continue to think about it long after I’m done reading it, so yet again I feel compelled to say that this book was good, just not for me.

I think, perhaps, the best and most accurate way to sum up this novel is with a quote Snyder leaves at the end of her acknowledgements, an excerpt from an editorial acceptance of her original short story “Mandala Amygdala” : “Lucy, what the fuck is wrong with you? Good grief that story was messed up. Thanks. I think.”

Sister, Maiden, Monster is told through the perspective of three different women, each being given one third of the book’s narrative. I initially thought I didn’t particularly like the way the story was told when Erin was the narrator, being the first. As the perspective shifts, though, to Savannah, I quickly realized Snyder had deftly used Erin’s voice to be the every-man of the story. Each point of view through each woman was completely different and served to move the plot forward, but perhaps the thing that was most impressive (and maybe it shouldn’t be, but it’s simply not always a given) was that each narrator had their own voice. While Erin’s was mundane and maybe even a little bland, Savannah’s was full of excitement and intrigue, telling her tale with zest that Erin lacked. As we made our way to Mareva, we encountered a scientific and logic-minded narrator who’s point of view varied so much so from Erin and Savannah’s that there was no missing the foil.

As the world roils from a plague that looks eerily like a vampire / zombie crossover virus, things start to change in strange and confusing ways. We see these changes first through the eyes of Erin, an infected survivor of the virus whose long haul (so to speak) symptoms require the consumption of brain matter to ensure her survival, making her a type 3 of 5, the rest of whom either never survive or require blood; then through the eyes of Savannah who begins to receive messages through her dreams from old gods she finds unfamiliar and strange, giving her just enough information to work with but not enough to reveal the final aspects of what this plague would do to humanity.

Just when you think you’ve got the plot figured out, Snyder goes and changes something in the weirdest and strangest ways all the way through to the very end of the book. I can’t even say that nothing is as it seems, because everything is as it seems, but how it seems is confusing and strange and twisted. I will say, not everything is revealed, and it unfolds slowly through each of the three women. We find ourselves at the end of the book with some answers, but not all. And while this lack of answers can often leave me feeling annoyed or frustrated, here it works. Nothing makes sense because none of what’s happening is familiar, so any unanswered questions are done so purposefully, rather than neglectfully. Snyder leaves ends untied and questions unanswered, and we get to speculate for ourselves. I suspect anything I might come up with in my mind would pale in comparison to anything Snyder could write.

Advice: “Sister, Maiden, Mother” is a truly graphic telling of an eldritch horror, ten times worse than anything Lovecraft himself could have thought up. It is not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone who may be squeamish in anyway, those who do not enjoy dystopian novels, or anyone who feels grossed out by the idea of a worldwide virus. If, however, you enjoy a truly unique, surprising, or even gross novel that’s written so well the only flaw you can find with it seems too minimal to mention, and you kind of relish the idea of looking at roadkill with curiosity, this may very well be the book for you.

The Spite House Reveiw

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.”

Review:

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.

Little Eve Review

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.

In the Shadow of Lightning Review

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.

Things We Do in the Dark Review

Book: Things We Do in the Dark
Author: Jennifer Hillier
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Year: 2022
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “In the dark, monsters are real. When Paris Peralta is arrested in her own bathroom – covered in blood, holding a straight razor, her celebrity husband dead in the bathtub – she knows she’s in serious trouble.
In the dark, it never happened. But as bad as it looks, the arrest is not what worries her the most. With the unwanted media attention now surrounding her, it’s only a matter of time before someone from her old life recognizes her and destroys everything she’s worked so hard to build.
In the dark, she could be anyone. Because Paris has a dark past. And she’ll do anything to keep it hidden.”

Review: Things We Do in the Dark has a promising synopsis, it sounds intriguing and dark, mysterious and interesting. To say it falls flat is an understatement. To be completely honest, I found myself bored reading this book. There was a tiny section where I grew more interested somewhere around 3/4 of the way through, but it was short lived and the book returned to it’s dull story-telling for it’s finale. Hillier skirts the more graphic details of Paris’ previous life, stopping short of telling you what’s really going on, leaving it up to the reader’s imagination. I personally think if you’re going to tell a story that requires some content warnings, and this does, you might as well go all in and embrace what you’re telling rather than apologize for it by simply not describing or naming the thing. So let’s talk about the content warnings: Things We Do in the Dark contains implications of pedopohelia, assault, domestic violence, and PTSD. It references harm to a minor, incest, and contains racist language. While all of the above sounds fairly graphic, this book would likely receive a PG-13 rating as a movie, do with that what you will.

Though this book has little to nothing to do with music, each chapter begins with a quote from a popular song. The song lyrics rarely, if ever, tie into the chapter, and the effect is meaningless. It adds to my distaste for how this book was put together, giving the impression that perhaps there are places in the book that should have been highlighted in order to tie in with the chapter lyrics. Why go through the trouble of choosing lyrics for each chapter of a book that has nothing to do with music? I believe it’s referenced one, maybe two times through the entire 397 page book. This is the least of my issues, however. While the writing was fine and I found almost no grammatical errors that seem to be common in ARCs, it lacked that thing that makes you want to keep turning pages. It took me much longer to read this book than the past few ARCs simply because I didn’t care what happened. Not only did I figure out what was going on long before it was revealed because it was glaringly obvious, the “twists” were revealed much too early to give the reader any incentive to keep going. I’ve said it many times before, you don’t have to be a good writer to write a compelling story. I’ve read many books that were poorly executed but I kept turning the pages because I needed to know what was going to happen. What We Do in the Dark is simply not that book.

Hillier doesn’t stay true to her character, Paris, toward the end stating “[she] had been trained not to cry.” But by this point, we’ve seen the main character cry several times. This might seem small, but this sentence was 301 pages into the book and by this time the main character has cried no less than five times that we know of. Hillier tells Paris’ story by jumping back and forth between Paris’ point of view in the present, her point of view in the past, and the point of view of her former best friend / roommate, Drew. Paris has lived a hard life full of oppression, abuse, and trauma, yet when she reconnects with Drew, supposedly the best person in her life, potentially the love of her life, he is condescending, offensive, and patronizing. While she stands up for herself, she doesn’t demand apology or change from Drew, she simply allows him to continue to be the bully he has always been. I’m not sure why he’s painted to be a savior figure here, but he becomes someone she relies upon once again as her perspective jumps back to the future (she relied on him a great deal in her younger years, before she had the wherewithal to stand up for herself), and I found myself feeling completely disgusted as I read.

Things We Do in the Dark, lastly, is entitled far too closely to the hit TV show What We Do in the Shadows and contains names of characters that share names of characters in other TV shows. While none are related, and I suspect are just coincidence, I couldn’t read through the book without making the connections and I have to wonder why an editor wouldn’t suggest some name changes. Least of all, the title of the book should be at least slightly more different, as What We Do in the Shadows is a current, and wildly popular show that has absolutely nothing in common with this book. These are semantics, I suppose, but added to my pile of issues with reading through this book, end up being more than small irritants I could look past.

Advice: Skip this book. There are no surprises, there are no twists that you won’t see coming a mile away, there’s nothing interesting here. While it may be sort of unique in plot, it’s not wholly unique and could be supplemented with several other suspense novels, including any of the past suspense novels I’ve read and criticized for being cookie cutter versions of each other. This one is not worth the read.

The Honeys Review

Book: The Honeys
Author: Ryan La Sala
Publisher: Push
Year: 2022
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Mars has always been the lesser twin, the shadow to his sister Caroline’s radiance. But when Caroline dies under horrific circumstances, Mars is propelled to learn all he can about his once-inseparable sister, who’d grown tragically distant.
Mars’ gender fluidity means he’s often excluded from the traditions – and expectations – of his politically connected family, including attendance at the prestigious Aspen Conservancy Summer Academy, where his sister poured so much of her time. But with his grief still fresh, he insists on attending in her place.
What Mars finds is a bucolic fairytale. Folksy charm and rigid gender roles combine with toxic preparatory rigor into a pristine, sun-drenched package. Mars seeks out his sister’s old friends: a group of girls dubbed the Honeys, named for the beehives they maintain behind their cabin. They are beautiful and terrifying – and Mars is certain they’re connected to Caroline’s death.
But the longer he stays in Aspen, the more the sweet mountain breezes give way to hints of decay. Mars’ memories begin to falter, bleached beneath the relentless summer sun. Something is hunting him in broad daylight, tying with his mind. If Mars can’t find it soon, it will eat him alive.”

Review: In the front of my review copy of The Honeys, La Sala has left a note for the reader. In it he writes: “As I write you this letter, another fear has found me. My first two books have shown up on a list concocted by a Texas lawmaker, to be investigated for their potentially discomforting themes around queerness, equity, and justice…This man fears me and my art. And I wish – like Mars – his reaction to fear was to learn. As an author, I do think of my works as edifying. I want The Honeys to shock and scare you, but after the buzzing fades, there is much to learn in these pages.”

As you may know from past reviews, I have read several YA books over the last few years and come away feeling frustrated and disappointed. I kept saying “YA can be better!” La Sala has proved me right with The Honeys. A quick-witted and sharp story, The Honeys is also a successful horror / suspense novel, and for that I find myself eternally grateful. I have spent so many hours reading essentially the same book over and over and over within the horror / suspense genre that I’ve grown bored and annoyed, at best. Finally. Finally! A YA novel, a horror / suspense novel at that, that breaks all the norms and blazes its own path forward. The Honeys unfolds slowly and you spend a majority of the book getting to know Mars and Aspen, learning what the camp looks like, discovering all the ways Mars has to fight for their very existence, and learning hints here and there about what may or may not have happened to his sister Caroline while attending the camp. I can appreciate a slow-to-unfold horror story, particularly when it begins it’s descent before there are 10 pages left. La Sala does not disappoint in this regard, as the book begins to gain momentum and work toward a conclusion with a good several chapters to go. In this way, the construction of the book is excellent, something I don’t find very often in both YA and horror novels.

I was a bit torn over whether to give The Honeys 4 or 5 stars when I got to the end – in full transparency, as I read I was convinced it was 5 out of 5 for the majority of the book. It was only when I got to the end that I started to question that rating. I came up against my own mind, thinking “but this is a queer novel” and wondering why there wasn’t some poignant sociologial meaning to draw everything together at the end. What I finally came to realize is that this is a young adult horror novel told from a queer narrator, not a queer novel with horror themes thrown in. While it does answer the brief and delve into Mars’ point of view and the way in which they interact with and are confronted by the world, it doesn’t to come to the end and force the reader to learn something profound – that happens slowly, as you get to know Mars through the bulk of the book. At the end of the day, this is a horror novel told from the point of view of a narrator with a different perspective than the majority of horror or suspense novels I’ve seen out there.

The writing is excellent, especially for a review copy. You have probably read by now, if you’ve been following my reviews for any length of time, that I often get review copies merely weeks before they’re published and still manage to find a plethora of grammatical errors and general mistakes throughout. In The Honeys I found two: one was a repeated word and one was a word left out. The Honeys doesn’t come out for mass reading until August of 2022, so La Sala is way ahead of the game as far as review copies go. I was so overwhelmingly surprised and pleased with the way this book was put together, the quality of the writing, and the overall storytelling, I finished the book and immediately looked up his other two books. YA isn’t a genre I tend to read on my own for fun, but I would gladly read another book from La Sala if his other two are anything like this one.

I can’t speak highly enough about The Honeys. It confronts themes I feel are important, and I think are becoming more important to young readers: the gender binary, traditional gender roles, and the danger that women and trans people feel in the presence of the “boys will be boys” mentality. I’ve read other queer review copies, and particularly within the YA genre it often feels as though the authors are trying too hard to fit these characters into their narrative. The Honeys didn’t feel forced, it didn’t feel over the top, or utterly absurd; it felt natural, it flowed in a way that felt organic, and it left me feeling as though the topic of gender fluidity wasn’t merely thrown in as a token to the audience. Perhaps it’s because La Sala is gender fluid whereas other YA books with queer characters that I’ve read to review have been written by authors who aren’t, or perhaps it speaks to La Sala’s talent as a writer, or maybe (most likely) it’s both. Either way, I came away both absolutely thrilled and disappointed that I’d read through it so quickly.

Advice: I don’t think you have to be a fan of YA books to read and enjoy The Honeys. I think if you enjoy suspenseful novels, beautiful imagery, and a good mystery then The Honeys is going to tick all the boxes for you. If you enjoy quality writing and a mystery that you can’t really solve on your own way ahead of the ending, you’ll love this book. If you’re interested in reading more gender fluid or queer character points of view, this book hits the mark. If you’re a fan of summer camp suspense, again, it checks all the boxes. I think this is a book for a wide and diverse range of audiences and I can’t recommend it enough.

Unmasked Review

Book: Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases
Author: Paul Holes with Robin Gaby Fisher
Publisher: Celadon Books
Year: 2022
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Most people know Paul Holes as the gifted cold-case detective with a big hear and charming smile, who finally caught the Golden State Killer. But until now, no one has known the man behind it all, the person beneath the flashy cases and brilliant investigations.
In Unmasked, Holes takes us through his memories of a storied career and provides an insider account of some of the most notorious cases in contemporary American history, including the hunt for the Golden State Killer, Laci Peterson’s murder, and Jaycee Dugald’s kidnapping. This is also a revelatory profile of a complex man and what makes him tick: the drive to find closure for victims and their loved ones, the inability to walk away from a challenge – even at the expense of his own happiness.”

Review: Unmasked does not come with any content warnings (and it should), so let me begin this review by providing a few. Unmasked contains graphic depictions of violent crimes including murder, kidnapping, criminal confinement, sexual assault, battery, domestic violence, robberies, and more. It describes PTSD, anxiety attacks, panic attacks, and both alcohol and drug abuse as coping mechanisms. That aside, if you are a true crime junky or have followed any of the above mentioned cases as they unfolded, Unmasked offers a rare insight into the forensic processes that led to the demise of many North American serial killers. If you’re taken with the true crime craze as much of the world seems to be, you have likely read some of the books written by former detectives who have solved high-profile crimes. They’re often interesting, though generally a bit dry, and may not offer the kind of skilled writing you’d get from a professional author – and I think that’s to be expected. There’s something familiar about the way a former detective writes a book, it’s often just the facts, ma’am, straightforward and to the point; outlining the details, the clues, and the methods they followed to get to a place where their subject was found and arrested (for the most part). But just because it’s familiar doesn’t mean it’s compelling. I find these books tend toward a historical retelling that can be boring and lacking narrative that I crave from a compelling work of non-fiction.
Perhaps it’s because Holes had Robin Gaby Fisher, a NYT best selling author and two time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, or perhaps it’s the particularly unique perspective Holes offers, but Unmasked reads like it’s written by an author, not a former crime scene investigator. And that’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the work of former detectives, but it can’t easily be said that they’re natural born writers (of course, this is a generalization). Holes weaves his own narrative throughout the book, taking us through the steps that led him to become a forensic investigator, that brought him down the path of working and, in many cases, solving cold cases largely on his own time. He speaks at length about his own psyche, discussing the obsession that drives him to solve murders, similar to his mother’s obsession that led her to have an eating disorder, and his brother’s obsession that was later diagnosed as OCD. He has woven himself into this book in such a delicate manner that the book has no choice but to reflect a strong narrative. I suspect that Gaby Fisher played a large part in the finessing of Unmasked and I can appreciate that effort – though, in the end it’s Gaby Fisher’s involvement that led me to give this book 4 rather than 5 stars. Despite their best efforts, Unmasked still retains some bit of dry, too-complex-for-layman details about forensics that, I assume, have likely been dumbed down a bit for the average reader to understand. I found myself skipping over these parts, though I’m sure Holes felt they were crucial to explaining his process as he used forensic technology to solve these crimes, they read as complicated and long-winded and if I skipped over them, surely they could have been pared down even further. I’m a bit torn over his long-winded descriptions of forensics and DNA technology, though, because he doesn’t treat the reader as if we’re too uneducated to understand, but at the same time, in fact I am too uneducated in the realm of forensic science to understand.
With the help of Gaby Fisher, there are aspects of the book that I wish had been stronger or more well put together. Holes jumps from one crime to another before returning to the original crime, and in the case of the Golden State Killer, or EAR as he’s initial referred to, so many of his crimes and victims resemble one another that it becomes a bit convoluted and hard to follow at times. I do like a narrative that can bounce around from one thing to the next in a seamless way, but I found myself wondering if I hadn’t just read the account a chapter earlier multiple times, so I think there’s still some clarity missing from this narrative. With the help of Gaby Fisher, I would hope there wouldn’t be so many of these instances, but it’s impossible to know where the book began in order to get to where it is now. Either way, there was still some work left to be done, but given that I received this review copy a mere month before it was published, I suspect that the book was altogether finished at that point.
I found this to be an excellent counterpart to Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Having read McNamara’s book when it came out a few years ago, right as the Golden State Killer was caught, I had already heard of Paul Holes and was familiar at least on a small level with what his work entailed. Having read about the detailed search for the GSK that spanned decades from McNamara’s side of things as a journalist and amateur internet sleuth, getting the bulk of Hole’s work from his perspective was genuinely an excellent counterpart. I appreciated, as well, that Holes addressed his working relationship with McNamara and also spoke about her death, something I was hoping for as I read through, and glad to see put into words. McNamara devoted much of her life leading up to her death by accidental overdose to the GSK search – in fact it was McNamara herself who gave him the formal name ‘Golden State Killer’.
Overall, I found Unmasked to be thorough, decently well written, and full of details that drove a complete and satisfying narrative.

Advice: If you struggle with true crime stories, this is absolutely not going to be the book for you. If, on the other hand, you live for true crime podcasts, books, and tv shows, you will probably love Unmasked. It ticks all the true crime boxes and leaves you feeling satisfied with the retelling. If you read and enjoyed I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, I think Unmasked is a logical next read for you.

The Magicians Trilogy Review

Book: The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land
Author: Lev Grossman
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 2007 – 2014
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: (from The Magicians) “Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A high school math genius, he’s secretly fascinated with a series of children’s fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory, and real life is disappointing by comparison. When Quentin is unexpectedly admitted to an elite, secret college of magic, it looks like his wildest dreams may have come true. But his newfound powers lead him down a rabbit hole of hedonism and disillusionment, and ultimately to the dark secret behind the story of Fillory. The land of his childhood fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he ever could have imagined….
The Magicians is one of the most daring and inventive works of literary fantasy in years. No one who as escaped into the worlds of Narnia and Harry Potter should miss this breathtaking return to the landscape of imagination.”

Review: To fill you in on a little background, I found The Magicians through a show on the SciFi channel appropriately named The Magicians. It was compelling, I was immediately struck by what a massive budget the show must have had, and I was completely sucked in by the quality effects and overall put-together-ness you often miss with fantasy and sci-fi shows. It wasn’t until this year, though, that I realized the show was originally a book series so without much thought I dove right in.
I’ve struggled to find ways to review this series without also reviewing the show, continuously finding ways to compare what was done in the show to what was written in the book, seeking out plot holes between the two, and being somewhat marveled by the apt characterization of each person in the show vs the book. It’s already a bit of a strange review, attempting to review a series rather than each book individually, but I found the stories blended so seamlessly, I could have been reading from one enormous book.
Despite plowing through this series in under a week, I chose to rate these books with ultimately 50% because I’ve found, particularly in more recently popular fiction, one does not have to be a great writer to turn pages. One only needs to be compelling, and Lev Grossman writes stories that are nothing if not compelling. If we look past the glaringly obvious copy-cat of The Chronicles of Narnia, we’re still confronted with an author who wields the trope of a miserable, privileged teenage boy as if it’s a blazing sword of originality. It isn’t. I remarked recently, in the show you’re presented with Quentin as a miserable, privileged boy in a way that points to the remarkably pathetic nature of his character, in the book, however, we’re supposed to believe wholeheartedly in his “nothing is ever good enough” facade. Was it meant to be written in a way that makes you want to gag slightly over how rough Quentin has it with his genius IQ that allows him access to a magical world he’s been dreaming about his whole life only to continue pining for something more (a something more that included access to every ivy league school he could possible wish for)? I doubt it. I think we’re truly meant to feel sorry for him and that’s not something I can find myself doing. Poor rich boy, with his magic and his smarts and all the doors opening for him – it hits harder when we realize that his best friend, a girl who is likely better at magic and just as smart as him, didn’t gain access to the magic world for reasons that are never fully explained in the book.
Moving on. Grossman is cavalier with his use of mental illness, he relies heavily on fat shaming, and throws around words I wouldn’t dare use as a conversational piece. Looking at the published date of 2007, I’m not entirely surprised by some of the language he uses, but it doesn’t stop Grossman from continuing to make light of horrific sexual trauma and deep depression even as his writing moves further into the 2010s. That alone is enough to knock the rating down at least two points, in my opinion. It neither adds to the story nor furthers any action, it merely serves to show how little Grossman cares for an audience that often seeks fantasy and sci-fi to escape from the realities of life; mental illness, trauma, abuse, and bullying.
Something I found hard to move past in this trilogy is the way in which Grossman sets up magic; it’s unattainable to the average person and unless you have an IQ higher than practically everyone you know, the idea that you could insert yourself into this world he’s created is implausible. He builds a world we are meant to love and wish to escape to and then holds it so high over the heads of his readers to keep them out that we couldn’t reach it if we jumped. It’s impossible to insert yourself as a reader into a world like that, and frankly isn’t that what sci-fi and fantasy are about? How can we, as readers, be expected to escape to a beautiful world of magic if it’s so far beyond our intellectual reach?
Grossman writes in such a way that I thought perhaps he was simply trying to convey how pretentious Quentin and his friends are throughout the series, but the more I progressed through the books the more I realized it isn’t Quentin and his fellow magicians who are pretentious, it’s Grossman. I found myself looking up words I absolutely never hear or read – thrown into books that read at a YA level, words that, again, don’t further the plot or move the action along; they serve merely as yet another tool to keep his readers at arms length.
Finally, as I finished the trilogy, I began to see the book devolve into a tangled mess of “probably”. I didn’t have the time, energy, or heart to go back through the entirety of the third book, but I did sift through a few of the final chapters (26-28) and found the word probably used over fifteen times – often as the start of a sentence, used both in narrative and conversation. What’s the point? I’m really not sure. Did the other two books and maybe even the remainder of the third contain more of the p-word than I realized? Probably.

Advice: These books are compelling, they really are. I found it hard to put them down, wanting to know what was going to happen next, reading quickly because the plot moved quickly. It’s an enjoyable read if you don’t think about it too much, or if you’ve watched the series and found it to be something you liked. It’s not an enjoyable read for a myriad of other reasons and I will likely not be reading anything further from Grossman in the future.

Where the Crawdads Sing Review

Book: Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens
Publisher: Putnam
Year: 2018
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl.
But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life – until the unthinkable happens.
Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject the the beautiful and violent secrets nature keeps.”

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing came highly recommended and it was absolutely without question as to why my book club chose this title to read. It is a New York Times Bestseller, it’s a book in Reese’s book Club, and it’s been highly praised. A quick online search shows it ranks between 4.5 and 5 stars from multiple rating sources. I began reading this book truly uncertain about how I would feel – I waited until the last minute to cram it in before our bookclub meeting and never actually read the synopsis. The story begins in 1952 when Kya, the “Marsh Girl”, is six years old and jumps back and forth between the years leading up to 1969 and 1969 itself. Crawdads is Owens’ debut novel, though it is not her first publication. As a native to North Carolina herself, Owens has a unique perspective of the swampy, marshy areas along the coast, and in fact she has written several books on wildlife (though, notably not about her time in NC). The writing of Crawdads is gorgeous and striking, at no point during the novel are you lost in imagining the marsh and the amazing creatures who call it home. This, at the very least, warrants Crawdads 50% of it’s rating. However, while Owens’ writing skills are clearly well developed, her novel writing skills are not. The conversation is stilted and unbelievable – most townsfolk speaking as Owens writes: in prolific, beautiful language, describing things people would likely think rather than say. She weaves an intricate tale of murder throughout the novel, something that the entirety of the plot relies upon, yet when it comes time to reveal who the murderer really was (gasp! plot twist??) we are left with an incomplete story, a predictable ending, and a story that would absolutely never have happened. And maybe that’s my fault for hoping that a realistic book would have a realistic plot line, but I’d rather read something realistic and deeply moving than something that Nicholas Sparks himself might have written and written better.
The ending leaves the story with gaping holes and I find myself stewing over this days after having finished the book. If what the novel was aiming for was a purely romantic plot line with absolutely no need for reality, it could have and should have been written differently. If, what I suspect Owens was trying to do, the novel was written to be poignant, address prejudices, and introduce the reader to the amazing wildlife and human life that reside within a marsh, it should have absolutely taken about three different turns and concluded in a much different manner. But what I’m left with is disappointment and frustration that I spent $25 on a hardcover copy of what ultimately turned out to be a Nicholas Sparks book in disguise and for that I would have passed it up.

Advice: If you are interested in a slow moving and deeply unrealistic love story, first of all, no judgement. Secondly, this is the book for you. It is a gorgeous book with amazing tales of wildlife and a truly remarkable coming-of-age story that turns on its head and becomes a sappy love story at the end. I can admit that this is not at all my style but is the style of many a summer book reader. If you are not looking to think deeply about the plot or the potential holes in it, definitely pick this book up. Again, I can’t say enough about the gorgeous imagery Crawdads provides, it is striking and compels you to continue reading without putting the book down. It’s a 50/50 for me, some good with a lot of, in my opinion, bad.