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.

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.

Carolina Moonset Review

Book: Carolina Moonset
Author: Matt Goldman
Publisher: Forge Books
Year: 2022
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “A family must race to discover the truth before one man’s memory fades forever. Joey Gren has returned to Beaufort, South Carolina, to look after his ailing father, who is succumbing to dementia. Marshall Green’s sort-term memory has all but evaporated, but, as if in compensation, his oldest memories are more vivid than ever.
At first this seems like a blessing of sorts, with the past providing a refuge from a shrinking future, but Joey grows increasingly anxious as his father’s memories begin to hint at deadly secrets, scandals, and suspicions long buried and forgotten that still have the power to shatter lives – and change everything Joey thought he knew.
Especially when a new murder brings the police to his door…”

Review: I was thrilled to receive a book set in my home state of South Carolina. I love to read books based in the Carolinas, no matter the author, they tend to wax poetic about all the aspects I love: palmetto trees, marshlands, water birds, thick summer nights, and sweet tea. I couldn’t seem to find if Goldman has actually spent any time in South Carolina, but I can tell you the book read as if he hadn’t. Anyone who’s from the palmetto state knows that the “palm trees” you find in South Carolina are in fact palmetto trees – they aren’t the palm trees you find in California or Florida. They’re short, stumpy, and don’t have coconuts. Goldman mentions the trees, but refers to them as palm trees and for this I was immediately baffled. There were small discrepancies like that through the book, aspects of the south that could have easily been googled or even found on a research trip, but didn’t ring quite true as a native. Maybe I’m being nitpicky here. Anyone who isn’t from South Carolina would likely not have cared a lick.
Carolina Moonset was an interesting murder mystery, I’ll give it that. The plot felt unique and not over-done in the way that a lot of suspense / mysteries can be, though it was told from a male perspective and most of my issue with the suspense / mystery genre these days comes from female based narratives. The biggest problems I found were glaring, though. While I had small bits to nitpick, the bulk of my problem with the book lay with the bulk of the book. Goldman’s bio proudly talks about his work as a television screenwriter for shows such as Seinfeld and Ellen among others. Carolina Moonset read like a television show – a fairly unrealistic television show, at that. The dialogue felt unrealistic in a flourishing kind of way, characters speaking and thinking in ways that felt like narrative rather than conversation. The interactions between characters felt forced and fake, perhaps best suited for a TV show I don’t have to put much thought into, and shouldn’t put much thought into because if I did I would probably have to turn the show off.
The plot was okay, it really was. The idea for the book is promising: a father, recently diagnosed with Lewey Body Dementia, begins to recall experiences from his past with great clarity. He begins telling stories he’s never told before, stories his family are shocked to hear, he even begins having hallucinations, seeing old friends and having upsetting conversations with people who aren’t there. His family, rightfully so, becomes worried. When a member of a prominent, wealthy local family is murdered, a family the father has recently spoken of vehemently, his son Joey fears the worst. After all, there’s a family gun that his mother somehow has no idea exists, though it’s been in the family since Joey was a child and has lived in his father’s tackle box, out in the open, happily aging in their shed. Though we’re told in detail how frail and ill Joey’s father is, somehow he becomes the prime suspect in the police’s murder investigation. Joey’s father, Marshall, not only grew up in Beaufort, but ran a no/low cost medical clinic for decades often putting in seventy hours of work a week for the community. He is not only an upstanding member of society, but his (somehow) 90-something year old brother who is (again, somehow) still practicing law is a pillar in the community with direct ties to the wealthiest families in Beaufort. That the police would zero in on a 75 year old man with dementia and virtually no body strength as the murderer feels…absurd. At best.
So much of the book is spent the the police hounding this family, hounding Marshall who cannot even remember that he’s spoken to the police twenty minutes ago, and hounding Joey that it feels almost not worth reading at points. In fact, when the book is all said and done and everything has been wrapped up, once the police find the murder weapon and arrest the murderer, they still find the time and the audacity to interrogate Joey and his brand new, as of 6 days ago, girlfriend over something completely unrelated to the crime just because they “don’t like loose ends”. It’s implausible. It’s outrageous. It’s unrealistic. Joey and his new girlfriend, suspecting this would happen, get married so they won’t have to testify against each other if a grand jury is, for some unspecified reason, called. Even though they had nothing to do with the case, even though the murderer confessed, even though everything is tied up in a nice little bow. And not only do Joey and his girlfriend suspect a grand jury, they’re threatened with it by the police in the last few pages of the book. Frankly, I don’t even know how to address the ridiculousness of this plot point, so I won’t.
The murder confession is equally ridiculous, bringing up aspects of a character we’ve seen and heard nothing about until they start spewing their confession at the end of the book. There are ties they make to Joey that make no sense given the interactions they’ve had and the entire confession feels incredibly forced, as if written by someone who knew they had to present a murderer but just couldn’t quite get their plot into a space where it would happen in a believable way. The entirety of the book is unrealistic, but the confession truly takes the cake. I was able to guess who committed the murder before I was halfway through the book, though the motive was complicated and again, you guessed it, unrealistic.
There are tidbits of information strewn throughout the book as if Goldman got to the end and realized he needed to tie things together, so rather than rewrite he simply added a few details here and there in a haphazard way, thinking that would placate his readers. And honestly, maybe it did – I haven’t read any other reviews of Carolina Moonset to say one way or the other, but for this reader they did not.

Advice: If you’re looking for a book about the Carolinas that leaves you feeling mesmerized, you’d be better off reading Where the Crawdads Sing and you know how I feel about that book (and if you don’t, the rating I gave it was equal to this book). If you’re looking for a murder mystery where you can zone out and not give it much thought, again, I don’t think this is the book for you. Though the book itself requires you to not participate with your analytical thought processes, it’s a genuinely sad story of a man losing his ability to interact with the world in any kind of meaningful way and in that regard I wouldn’t even recommend it as light reading. You’re better off trying a different book.

Omens Bite Review

Book: Omens Bite
Author: PC Cast and Kristin Cast
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Year: 2022
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis:Something wicked this way comes…
Twin sisters, Mercy and Hunter are witches, descendants of the Goode family of witches. After the murder of their mother at the hands of a foul demon, they have become the protectors of the Gates to different underworlds — ancient portals between their world and realms where mythology rules and the darkest of creatures exist.
The problem is that the Goode sisters have split from each other. Grief and anger have torn them apart, driving Mercy to save the cursed Gates on her own and Hunter in the arms of a dangerous goddess. And when Mercy shifts her focus to the Egyptian Gate and Khenti, the guardian of its Underworld, little does she know that her connection to him will land her in the kind of trouble that only Hunter can save her from.
When it comes to breaking the curse, Mercy and Hunter’s bonds are put to the ultimate test.”

Review: You may remember when, back in April 2021, I reviewed the first book in this trilogy “Spells Trouble”. I gave the first book in the series a 2 out of 5 stars and felt certain that after my fairly scathing review I would not be granted the opportunity to read the second book, but I have been proven wrong. As you may have noticed, I gave the second book a slightly higher review and despite the glaring grammar choices in the title of the book, I do think it deserves the 1/2 point boost. The first book left us with a cliffhanger that genuinely did make me curious about the second book – as a good cliffhanger should do! The second book has done the same to set up the third and in that regard, the Cast family does a good job of priming their readers for their upcoming creations. The writing was less disjointed this time around, as well, which was a pleasant surprise. Where the first book felt like a rough first draft, the second feels a bit more polished and thought out. They’ve begun to flesh out the characters in a way that’s working for the story and there’s more depth this time around.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fluffy piece of YA fiction that doesn’t challenge the reader on any level, but I think it’s worth noting that the writing has indeed improved from the first to the second book and one can only hope that trend will continue with the third.
I was in the bookstore the other day, browsing the YA section to see which of my ARCs have been published, when I stumbled upon what I can only refer to as a trove of books written by PC and Kristin Cast. This is not their first rodeo. Imagine my surprise! They have been in the writing game for quite a number of years, and frankly you would never know it. The storytelling is weak, at best, throughout much of the book as it was in the first, and while it’s compelling (and I think at this point I’ve established that I think a book can be compelling without being well written), it’s not well written. Need I say more than to point out the lack of apostrophe in the title? Omen’s Bite. Omens Bite. One has to wonder where the publisher is in all of this.

Advice: The fact that you have to read the first book in order to understand the second is a big deterrent in my advice here, because I stand by my first review: the first book is not worth the read. Despite the writing taking a turn for the better with the second, I still recommend that you pass this one up in favor of better writing and more interesting storylines. I, however, am a sucker for a cliffhanger and will be curious to see if next year I get the opportunity to review the third book. I will obviously keep you posted.

The Grimrose Girls Review

Book: The Grimrose Girls
Author: Laura Pohl
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Year: 2021
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “After the mysterious death of their best friend, Ella, Yuki, and Rory are the talk of their elite school, Primrose Academie. The police ruled Ariane’s death as a suicide, but the trio are determined to find out what really happened.
When Nana Estes arrives as their newest roommate, it sets into motion a series of events that no one could have predicted. As the girls retrace their friend’s final days, they discover a dark secret about Grimrose – Ariane wasn’t the first dead girl.
They soon learn that all the past murders are connected to ancient fairy-tale curses…and that their own fates are tied to the stories, dooming the girls to brutal and gruesome endings unless they can break the cycle for good.”

Review: This book left me frustrated. The cover is compelling and interesting and the synopsis sounds like this will be an enjoyable YA read, but frankly it was none of the above. Covering themes that are played out and tired in a way that is not fresh or new feels like a waste of time. How many times can we reread or re-watch Cinderella before we find that we no longer need to engage in the latest adaptation? The fact is, we already know how that story goes. Pohl crafted a story that revolved around fairytale stories, which could be interesting especially knowing that the fairytale stories she’s referencing in the book are the original versions and not the Disneyfied ‘happily ever after’ versions. But, sadly, we meet yet another character named Ella who lives with an evil step mother and two terrible stepsister. She’s literally covered in ash at one point, and spends her weekends cleaning the house – to the extent that her hands are covered in scars. There’s nothing new to this retelling other than the fact that the remainder of the characters barely resemble the fairytales they’re based on and there’s no continuity between them.
I’m not sure where Pohl was going with this book and I’m not sure we’ll know until the second (of how many?) book comes out. There’s a slow buildup followed by a quick and confusing falling action at the end, leaving me googling whether or not there would be a second book because honestly, it’s not clear. Pohl ties up enough of the loose ends to assume the end could truly be the end, but leaves just a few strings untied – instead of feeling like a cliffhanger that I need to see resolved, it feels like the mark of poor writing to leave just a few pieces untouched while the rest finds itself resolved. In fact, yes, there will be a second book to tie up the few remaining loose ends and, I assume, create new ones. I’m frustrated with how disappointing this book turned out to be, and I’m tempted to say “even for a YA read” but the fact of the matter is, a YA read does not have to be disappointing or poorly written. A fantasy YA read, for that matter, doesn’t need to be disappointing or poorly written! Where’s the precedent for a higher standard of book? Nowhere to be found in The Grimrose Girls, sadly, though the opportunity did exist. The challenge was simply not risen to, and I find myself yet again let down by poor writing.

Advice: The phrasing throughout this book was off, the pacing was slow, and the characters were shallow and lackluster. This book seemed like it had the potential to be engaging and interesting and it fell flat. There are better YA fantasy books out there. If you’re looking for something light where you won’t have to think much, if at all, this is going to do the trick. If you’re looking for compelling, interesting, and/or challenging, this is not it.

The Bone Orchard Review

Book: The Bone Orchard
Author: Sara A. Mueller
Publisher: Tor
Year: 2022
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Welcome to Orchard House – where the wealthy and influential men of Borenguard come to dine, drink, play cards, and talk politics. It’s where they come to visit with Mistress Charm and those birthed from the fruit of an orchard of bone trees, grown in vats, made to sere her and the needs of her guests.
But Mistress Charm herself is bound, a mind lock planted in her skull to harness her power and ensure her obedience. Now, the very emperor who destroyed her people and bound her to his will promises her freedom. If she can solve a murder – his own. Lying on his deathbed, he gives her one last command – discover which of his sons betrayed him and plotted his death.
Charm has lived a life of illusions, lies she told herself, lies she told others. The biggest lie of all was that she had choices in her life. But now, free to act at last, the fate of an empire rests in her hands.”

Review: I suppose fantasy is not one of my favorite genres when it isn’t done as seamlessly as I’m hoping for. We’re entering a world we know nothing about and relying upon the author to be given the gift of sight in this new dimension. We don’t know what this realm looks or sounds or smells like, we don’t know the intricacies of the inhabitants, there’s a need to an author to paint a picture in a fantasy book and I’m not entirely sure that Mueller did that as I was hoping or needing. I’ve been torn over how to review this book, quite frankly. There’s a disjointedness to The Bone Orchard that feels frustrating as you read, but I wonder if this was perhaps on purpose to give the reader a taste of what it’s like to live with a mindlock as so many of the characters in the book do. Unable to leave the compound, our main character(s) Charm only knows what she hears from her patrons and from what her bone ghosts tell her – one of whom does leave the compound regularly. The bone ghosts are literal representations of different aspects of Charm’s character, each named to show us which aspect they represent: Pride, Shame, Pain, Justice, and the like.
The book seems to jump back and forth between the complexities of the political system in this world, systems that include multiple sons of the emperor each with their own great failings, and the inner world of Charm. I found myself thinking at multiple points during the course of the book that this is a story that would benefit from a list of characters and their traits at the beginning of the book. Perhaps even a map of the country and surrounding countries. There’s a lot going on, a lot to wrap your mind around, and a lot of characters to keep straight – not helped in the least by the fact that half the main characters are all aspects of the same person. All the while, told as if being viewed through a small lens – no peripheral vision included. Is this a strategic literary tool used to give the reader the understanding of how little the main character(s) are aware of? Or a lack of detail missed by the author, the one person who truly understands and sees this world as we will never be able to? I finished the book and remained unclear.

I did enjoy this book, though there were several heart-breaking and graphic descriptions of war-time traumas and tragedies including assault, death of a child, and murder. It is however, in many instances, not for the faint of heart.

Advice: The pacing felt off, the complexities of the political system in this world were exhausting, and the story-telling felt disjointed. It did not strike me as the best execution of a fantasy novel. However, the underlying story was interesting, the characters had depth, and I was compelled to finish the book to find out who the murderer was. Overall, it’s okay. If you love fantasy, it might be worth your time. It fantasy is only a passing fancy, it’s probably best to skip this one.

The Other Black Girl Review

Book : The Other Black Girl
Author : Zakiya Dalila Harris
Publisher : Atria Books
Year : 2021
Rating : 4.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis : “Nella Rogers is an ambitious young Black woman trying to make her mark at the legendary Wagner Books. Needless to say, she is thrilled when Hazel joins the team and is eager for the friendship she assumes will be just around the corner, easy, and immediate. but when a moment of support goes horribly wrong (in a very public way), Nella retreats and finds herself watching and questioning Hazel’s every move. Urgent, propulsive, brilliant, and hilarious, The Other Black Girl is a psychological masterpiece, where micro aggressions and gaslighting turn a company’s “civilized” atmosphere into a slowly unraveling horror.”

Review : The Other Black Girl was a slow burning, psychologically thrilling, completely haunting novel. I’m torn, generally, between love and hate for a book who jumps between characters; it’s either done well or it’s not, there’s very little middle ground. Harris nearly-perfectly executes this technique (nearly, hence the .5 rating) throughout the entirety of the novel but lost me briefly at the end with a chapter that was not entitled and left me trying to guess who the character was supposed to be – probably the point of the chapter, but ultimately it felt disjointed. Aside from the minor disjointedness from the final chapter, the rest of the book read easily and enjoyably. Finally, a thriller that doesn’t follow the same, old, stale routine. It’s a miracle.
I loved the pacing of this book. It’s not clear it’s even entering into the world of thrillers and horror until you’re well into it, setting the stage for a deeply personal encounter. All of the build up had a point, it all lead to a conclusion that was surprisingly twisty, and I never once felt like there was story just for the sake of filling pages. I’m grateful when I find a book that engages details that further the plot rather than a book I come away from wondering why I read half of what I read.
Harris leaves us wanting more as she wraps the book up and for that I’m both frustrated and glad. I wish there was more! I still have questions and there are characters I was hoping to hear more from, but it doesn’t feel empty or come across as incomplete. It reads like a good book should: realistically (as much as can be expected from a thriller / horror novel). Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t always want a book to tie up a story into a neat little bow, they read as stilted and unlikely. Harris proves that you can have an unlikely story without creating a book that feels unlikely.

Advice : If you like thrillers, psychological movies, or an unexpected ending, you’ll love The Other Black Girl. It is a truly well written novel that will suck you in and keep you coming back for more. I highly recommend this book!

I Don’t Forgive You Review

Book : I Don’t Forgive You
Author : Aggie Blum Thompson
Publisher : Forge
Year : 2021
Rating : 2 out of 5 stars

Synopsis : “An accomplished photographer and the devoted mom of an adorable little boy, Allie Ross has just moved to an upscale D.C. suburb, the kind of place where parenting feels like a competitive sport. Allie’s desperate to make a good first impression. Then she’s framed for murder.
It all starts at a neighborhood party when a local dad corners Allie and calls her by an old, forgotten nickname from her dark past. The next day, he is found dead.
Soon, the police are knocking at her door, grilling her about a supposed Tinder relationship with the man, and pulling up texts between them. She learns quickly that she’s been hacked and someone is impersonating her online. Her reputation – socially and professionally – is at stake, even her husband starts to doubt her. As the killer closes in, Allie must reach back into a past she vowed to forget in order to learn the shocking truth of who is destroying her life.”

Review : I Don’t Forgive You employs tired tropes that seem to be plaguing the suspense / thriller book world. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Without any effort whatsoever, I can think of five recent thriller books that have the exact same plot – woman has a dark past, woman is too stubborn to share dark past with anyone in her life, woman drinks heavily and is considered unreliable by everyone in her life, woman is accused of crime, woman refuses to do anything to clear her name of crime, and finally, when the book is 99.5% complete, the truth comes out and within a page and a half the book is over. Throw in some blatant spousal gaslighting, police incompetence, a bumbling main character who somehow has no idea how the internet works, and you have yourself the outline of a brand new! never before seen! thriller novel!
Allie Ross is supposed to be somewhere around 35 with a slightly older husband, I’m guessing he’s older by 4 or maybe 5 years. At one point, when he asks her how to pay for an Uber, she rolls her eyes and calls him “such a gen-xer” and yet, when Allie’s home computer (not laptop, somehow) is taken from her house by the police, she wonders to herself how in the world she’ll pay her bills – all of which she pays online. She wonders this to herself as she holds her cell phone. But the epiphany doesn’t come in the form of her phone, it comes when she realizes they’ve left behind her laptop. We’re supposed to believe this woman in her mid 30s has zero concept of computer hacking, trolling, or that fake accounts using your name and likeness is something that happens on a regular basis. She bumbles her way through google searches, contacts Facebook and Tinder like they’re real people she expects to have conversations with, and ultimately acts like she’s never seen this new fangled thing called the internet before. As a woman who’s just a few years shy of Allie, I find this to be exceedingly unbelievable.
Laughable, even.
Can you tell I wasn’t impressed? I’m sick and tired of the “woman with a dark past who cannot open up to anyone in her life including her husband/boyfriend/family and in doing so ultimately makes things much worse for herself” trope. I’m even more sick and tired of the “woman drinks moderately but everyone in her life believes she’s an alcoholic because she has three glasses of wine occasionally and therefore becomes unreliable” trope. Surely in the year 2021 we could come up with more impactful plot lines for a thriller. Perhaps I’m asking too much.
I do not find solace in the online reviews for this book. On GoodReads, I Don’t Forgive You is rated 4.4/5 and on Amazon it’s called “a terrific page turner” both of which I profoundly disagree with.

Advice : I have little to say other than don’t waste your time or your money. If a thriller is what you’re looking for, you could walk into your nearest bookstore, go to the thriller section, close your eyes, choose a book at random, and you’d likely find yourself reading a book with the exact same plot.