Author Archives: jcodner

Book Review: Children of Chicago by Cynthia Pelayo

Rating: 5/5

For Fans Of: Tana French, Christina Henry, dark fantasy and crime novels

Trigger Warnings: Murder (both of children and adults), violence, gun violence, death of family members, abandonment, missing persons, mental illness, divorce, bullying

Image from Goodreads

I first discovered Cynthia Pelayo’s work with her collection Loteria, which features dark fantasy short stories and flash fiction based on the Mexican game with the same name. I own a copy of the game and absolutely love the illustrations associated with it. Sometimes for fun I’ll pull Loteria cards and then flip through Pelayo’s book to read her entry on that specific card. It’s a wonderful way to go through that collection. Pelayo is a well established name in horror and crime writing, especially for her poetry. Her most recent poetry collection, Into the Forest and all the Way Through, honors the life and stories of over one hundred missing or murdered women.

When I heard that Pelayo had a novel coming out this year, I rushed to Netgalley with the hopes it would be available. It was. I smashed the download button so hard. Children of Chicago is dark, gut-wrenching, emotional, and relatable. After having heard Pelayo talk on several panels and reading her past work, I know the deep admiration and affection she has for Chicago and its Latinx populations, having grown up there herself. It is clear that Children of Chicago is another tribute to this world she holds so close.

Detective Lauren Medina has dealt with loss her entire life, but now that her father has passed away, her divorce is finalizing, and her partner on the force is retiring, things seem to be coming to a head. When teenagers start turning up dead around Medina’s childhood neighborhood in Chicago along side new graffiti announcing the Pied Piper, Medina realizes that her painful past is anything but behind her. In fact, the deaths of her sister and stepmother are more closely connected to Medina’s current case than anyone could guess. What appears to be instances of gang violence and children attacking other children might have a deeper, more sinister origination. Something that has been around for centuries, and does not care about the rules of our world. Can Lauren stop the cycle and free the city and herself from terror in this dark modern retelling of an old fairy tale?

Pelayo writes about painful realities with a patina of folklore. I recently did some research on folklore, urban legends, and how we communicate, and the histories and connects between in all are really fascinating. It was incredibly fun to see this melding of urban legend with folklore and fairy tales in Children of Chicago. The book felt a lot like Candyman and Slender Man — Slender Man, in particular — which have both transcended urban legend status and gone on to a sort of mythological standing. The plot is an example of old folklore tropes being communicated through urban legend and interpreted through new technology to cause real harm, much like what happened with the Slender Man killings. But Children of Chicago is much more than that. It’s a look at real violence in real communities and the darkness that stretched across generations, across centuries, that causes it. And it’s about a beautiful, complicated city, which feels a lot like a stand-in for our society at large.

I think most people are familiar with Pelayo as a poet, so Children of Chicago is a bit of a change-up. Her skill as a poet is very apparent in her prose. I enjoyed her style of writing, especially for this dark fairy tale retelling. It had something like an affectation to it, which I felt added necessary atmosphere to the plot and characters. Her characters felt very present on the page. I really enjoyed Pelayo’s mixture of genres, adding a bit of crime, mystery, horror, and dark fantasy. Children of Chicago is dark and can be pretty terrifying at times. I recommend it to fans of authors like Tana French and Christina Henry, shows like The Killing and The Fall, and anyone who likes dark secrets coming home to roost.

Children of Chicago will be out on 02/09/21. Thank you to Netgalley and Agora Books for providing me with a digital ARC.

Book Review: Karma Moon: Ghost Hunter by Melissa Savage

3 stars. Middle Grade Audience. Published 1/19/21. Thanks to Crown Books for Young Readers and Netgalley for providing a digital ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Image from Goodreads

Sometimes the twists life throws at you make you stronger. They teach you who you truly are and what (who) is most important to you. And sometimes they also makes you really good at hunting ghosts. Karma Moon is a 12-year-old compulsive worrier and believer in all things “woo woo”. She lives in the West Village with her dad and helps him with his documentary company when she’s not hanging out with her best friend Mags. She also regularly sees her therapist, because ever since her mom left, Karma’s worries have been debilitating. But when her dad gets a call from Netflix about filming a ghost hunting documentary at a famous hotel in Colorado, she just knows everything is going to change for the better!

With Mag by her side, Karma tries to help her dad with this life-changing opportunity. They only problem? The ghosts don’t seem to want to cooperate. Can Karma, Mags, and their new (super cute) friend Nyx uncover the mysteries of the haunted hotel, save Karma’s dad from bankruptcy, and even maybe get Karma’s mom to come home finally? Karma soon learns that having the right people in your life means everything, and the ones who are gone are gone for a reason. And you know what? That’s ok.

This book is fun and cute, but it’s also very emotional. It tackles the pain and confusion of parental separation and abandonment, but also illustrates the power of family (both biological and chosen). The ghost story, which is genuinely creepy at times, is a fun mystery with several twists. But the main meat of Karma Moon: Ghost Hunter is Karma’s relationships with the people around her and herself. She experiences growth, grief, and joy, and her by the end of the book she is a different girl.

This book is perfect for young readers who enjoy Harriet the Spy, Scooby-Doo, and the idea of watching classic horror movies they’re still a bit too young for!

Book Review: The Killing Gift by Bari Wood

3 Stars. Published 1975. Trigger warnings for extreme bullying, child abuse, child death, suicide, murder, racism, sexism, addiction, animal cruelty.

Bari Wood has found a home in the Paperbacks from Hell contingent. In fact, her book The Tribe is part of Valancourt’s Paperbacks From Hell series of select ’70s and ’80s classic paperbacks, curated by our favorite Grady Hendrix and inspired by his own Paperbacks from Hell nonfiction exploration of the pulp horror fiction paperbacks published in these decades. This has really spoken to collectors and inspired a lot of bargain bin diving and Ebay hunting. The Paperbacks from Hell community could be considered the horror book community’s equivalent of tape collecting. These are classics, once considered pulp, now highly sought after books. Some are rare, some are trash. Some are actually amazing stories, and some are, again, trash. The Putnam Prize-winning The Killing Gift is definitely not trash. It’s actually highly enjoyable and features fantastic writing, and I recommend it to anyone interested. I’m giving it a mediocre rating because I feel like some serious opportunities were missed, and I can’t get past the outdated ideas about women and casual racism typical of the late ’70s.

I picked this book up several years ago in this cool shop in Vestal, NY called Sound Go Round that sells used books, DVDs/Blurays, vinyl, tapes, CDs, video games, tabletop games, clothing, and more. It was one of the few places my husband and I enjoyed spending time in when we lived in the Binghamton area. I saw The Killing Gift in a bin of cheap old paperbacks and was immediately sucked in by the cover. The description made it sound a bit like Jennifer’s Body, which is one of my favorite films. I had to have it and happily slapped down the $1.00! It’s nothing like Jennifer’s Body, but it’s still quite a bit of fun.

My below discussion of the book has hella spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Dr. Jennifer Gilbert is from a wealthy privileged family, but despite her pleasing appearance and familial connections, she can’t seem to make friends. Her whole life people have distanced themselves from her, but she never quite understood why. And then there are the deaths. More than one boy or man connected to Jennifer has died in her presence. And the autopsies reveal impossibilities. How does a boy who was simply pushed appear to have been mangled by a train? Or a man who just collapsed onto the floor have injuries consistent with falling 20 stories and landing on his head and neck? Jennifer has a curse: she’s telekinetic. When she gets angry or feels threatened, it lashes out. When one of these mysterious deaths catches the eye of Captain David Stavitsky (chief of homicide), it becomes clear that Jennifer is living on borrowed time.

The narrative switches between character and year, focusing on the ‘present’ from the perspectives of both Jennifer and Stavitsky, as well as flashbacks to Jennifer’s past as a child and young woman. We learn about Jennifer’s history with her gift (curse), and about Stavitsky’s growing obsession with her involvement in the mysterious death of a man breaking into her apartment. That obsession becomes confusing, however, as his feelings start to be sexual despite being terrified and repulsed by Jennifer.

My personal contribution to the Mass Market Paperbacks and Butts tag this year. A tag a never miss.

This is an odd and interesting trend in The Killing Gift. Jennifer is frequently described as being both ugly and beautiful. Her physical features are inconsistent, as are the ways men feel about her. This actually seemed like a good example of how many men feel about women who are more powerful than them. Jennifer is a member of the 1%. She has extreme generational wealth. She is a medical doctor doing critical research at a well respected institution. And, she has this incredible power that makes her physically more powerful and in control…something men are used to being. She is superior to the men in her life in all ways, and as a reaction to this men get physically ill in her presence. They become enraged for no reason. This is blamed on her powers, of course, the aura of energy pulsating around her. And yet, these men also covet her. Sounds like pretty standard misogyny to me. I found this pretty interesting, but Wood does not explore this idea on a deeper level in the book (at least not in my opinion), and I consider that a huge missed opportunity.

The ending of The Killing Gift might be the most interesting part and seems to set it up for a fun series concept that I would have loved to experience. Stavitsky offers her a deal…she can use her telekinesis to murder the criminals on his ‘list’ and he won’t expose her. He decides to offer her this deal instead of actually killing her, which is what the male doctors he consults with want him to do. He does this because he desperately wants to fuck her. I find it laughable that a) Stavitsky thinks he could actually kill Jennifer and b) that he thinks he has a shot with her, but this book is nearly 50 years old. Jennifer decides to take the deal, and that’s how it ends. I want to see them team up to take down disgusting criminals! But alas. It doesn’t appear that we were ever treated to those stories, however, and because of that the ending leaves Jennifer in a spot all women who hold power and value independence dread. She is left to the whims of an inferior man.

Despite all this, I generally enjoyed The Killing Gift and Wood’s writing! The concepts and characters were excellent, and her sense of place and setting are amazing. The Killing Gift is great for fans of The X-Files and quiet crime films like Zodiac. While a bit of a slow burn, it offers many intense moments and vivid descriptions that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. I have more of Wood’s work and will definitely be reading it.

This book fulfills a few reading prompts from the many reading challenges I’m tackling this year. It fulfills the “book with less than 200 Goodreads reviews” prompt for the Books in the Freezer challenge, hosted by the Books in the Freezer podcast, and the “book you’ve had on a TBR in the past” prompt for the If You Got It Read It challenge, hosted by the Spine Breakers on YouTube.

Favorite Books of 2020

Some, but not all, of my favorite books of 2020

This past year was both a successful and frustrating reading year for me. I finished 90 books, which is the most I’ve read in one year ever, but I saw a significant drop-off in my reading after March. This was mostly due to COVID-19 stress and anxiety. My husband and I also were fortunately enough to buy a house this year, so that took up a lot of time and brain power.

Here are my favorite books that I read in 2019 and 2018. These lists are on my old blog.

Below are my favorite books that I read in 2020. I’ve sectioned them off into different categories, and I think I’ll continue to do this for future Best Of lists. It’s fun and offers an opportunity for more explanation and context. If I have existing reviews of these books, I will link to them!

Favorite Backlist Titles

The Diviners by Libba Bray: I’ve owned this series for years, and now that Bray has finished it I have little excuse to hold off reading it! The Diviners (and the entire series) is an example of one of those books that I know will be perfect for me, so I think subconsciously I keep putting them off because I don’t want them to be over. Another example of this for me is My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix. The Diviners was everything I had hoped for! Exciting, action-packed, full of fascinating historical details, amazing characters, vivid settings, and extremely strong political commentary. This was the only book I could focus on during the worst parts of my reading slump. Read my full review here.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: I read this early in 2020 and was lucky enough to hear Machado speak when she visited Pittsburgh. She surprised and delighted me! Her writing is very serious, dark, introspective, and absolutely brilliant. When speaking casually, however, Machado is effervescent, warm, welcoming, and also still absolutely brilliant. I was intimidated by this essay collection about intimate partner abuse because I could feel the weight of it and even related to certain elements. The inventiveness with which she approached the formatting and narrative structure blew me away completely. Machado will always be a must-read for me.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner: I loved this quiet kooky little book! Written in 1926, the plot follows Lolly, an unmarried childless woman in England who, after a whole life of living with family members, helping to raise nieces and nephews, and following social norms, decides to move out to the country where she can be alone! This is shocking to her family, and they simply do not accept her decision. They don’t stop her from doing it, but they constantly question her choice. Living alone makes her feel free and joyful, but soon her family follows her and invades her new-found sanctuary. To rectify the situation, Lolly makes a deal with the devil. Literally. It kind of comes out of nowhere and I love it! The tone of this book is warm and a bit silly. You sympathize deeply with Lolly, and you can’t help but want to move to her remote little village (where apparently everyone are Satanists). This book does a wonderful job of describing why it is so important to have independence and autonomy, even when it comes to the little things.

Bunny by Mona Awad: Talk about a head-scratching ‘huh?’ of a book! I loved it, but I do not understand it hahaha I don’t want to say much because it’s best to go in cold for this one. Just know that it feels like a fever dream. This was very entertaining and distracting during a weird and hard year. It also made me have some deep thoughts that were fun to explore.

The Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams: I love this YA series that has been frequently and accurate described as Buffy meets the Babysitters Club! Esme is a normal teen. She loves fashion, music, babysitting, and spending time with her best friend. Cassandra is a new girl in town, a bit rough around the edges. When the football coach (and Esme’s Dad’s best friend) tells the two girls that they are actually chosen ones with supernatural abilities that need to be used to protect the human realm from the realm of the demons, they have questions. But there is no denying the fact that they are different. And when the little girl Esme is babysitting on Halloween is kidnapped, all hell breaks loose (literally). Esme and Cassandra have to achieve the unthinkable under shocking circumstances. This is a very fun series. The second book recently came out with another on the way!

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns: I think about this book all the time. I had never read any Comyns before, but I feel like I need to read all her work now. This short book is brutal and fantastical. It feels a bit like del Torro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in that way. A young woman in (I’m guessing 19th century) England watched her dearly beloved mother die of illness while her father’s indifference adds to the grief. Her father is a cruel, evil man who abuses his daughter constantly. When he’s not abusing her he’s neglecting her. During times of extreme stress, she discovers that her body floats of its own accord. It’s not long before this is discovered. This is a story of abuse, trauma, grief, and self-love. It does not end happily at all, but it completely blew my mind.

Severance by Ling Ma: I already planned to read this book in 2020, but luck would have it that I actually picked it up in March. I was one of those people who wanted to consume as much plague content as I could in the first few months of quarantine. I’m still down with the sickness, but not as heavily as back then. This was an honest, realistic look at what a situation like ours could become. It was unsettling, humorous at times, and made me feel grateful that our plague is not any worse (although I hear that a new strain is taking hold). Ling Ma’s writing is fabulous, and I recommend this book to anyone.

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer: Ho boy! This is a book about a woman who appeared to give birth to rabbits in 18th century England. What a bonkers tale. And it’s true! Kind of. This fictionalization of some incredibly bizarre events had me glued to the page. I feel like I learned a lot about general life in England at that time, as well as medical knowledge and how information was shared across the country. I really enjoy historical fiction that gives me a window into specific period of the past, and Dexter did a wonderful job of that. This was the book where I learned that people who write Science Fiction are usually also very good at writing Historical Fiction because both rely on intense world building and sense of era. Past and future. So interesting! This book is disturbing but completely fascinating.

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix: What a gift to readers Grady Hendrix is, am I right? Funny, exciting, absolutely terrifying. I really enjoyed this inventive horror comedy that takes place in an Orsk, an Ikea-like home goods mega store. I especially appreciated that it took place in Cleveland and referenced the Pittsburgh Ikea often, which is where I have purchased like 80% of my furniture. This book is super fun, and honestly very scary at times. Hendrix got a lot of attention for his new release in 2020, but don’t skip the backlist, people! You’ll thank me later.

Favorite New Releases

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: I loved Gothic fiction young in life and was delighted to take a class devoted to it in undergrad. I was so excited to see a bit of a resurgence in popularity this past year, led by Mareno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. This book has it all: 1950s Mexico, a strong female lead, an evil creepy house, madness, and mushrooms. It also has a clever take on eugenics and the occult that a certain brand of white person was obsessed with in the first half of the 20th century. Not saying that line of thought has died, but it’s no longer as accepted.

The Boatman’s Daughter by Andy Davidson: Do you like action? Brooding? Cults? Women highly skilled with a bow and arrow? Ancient swamp magic? REVENGE?? I’m sure your answers were all ‘yes’, and so I highly recommend to you The Boatman’s Daughter by Andy Davidson. This book is a thrill ride with plenty of bloody action, terrifying folk magic, and beautiful found family vibes. It feels like Winter’s Bone meet Beasts of the Southern Wild, and it’s amazing. Read my full review here.

The Return by Rachel Harrison: The Return is scary and thrilling with well crafted characters. It’s an excellent examination of female friendship, especially with groups of women who have known each other for a long time—the history you bring up and the history you agree to forget; the wrongs done to each other that can build up; the resentment, the judgement, but also the deep love. The Return nails it. Read my full review here.

Secret Santa by Andrew Shaffer: I’m sorry, but who DOESN’T need a lighthearted Christmas-themed horror romp set in the 1980s publishing world featuring Nazi occult paraphernalia?

Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones: As always, Stephen Graham Jones delivers an inventive and mind-blowing story that both completely disturbs and delights. Sawyer and his best friends are growing up. The end of high school is looming, and they’ve long since stopped playing games like they did as kids. But when they decide to prank one of their own at her job in a movie theater using an old mannequin they used to play with, Sawyer feels like they’re kids all over again. But then the mannequin stands up and walks away by itself, and only Sawyer sees it happen. Shortly after, people start dying. This novella has quite a few twists and a campy B horror vibe, but overall it’s a tight plot with a heartbreaking end. Night of the Mannequins is a delusional and demented coming-of-age story with Jones’ distinct tone (lighthearted and fucked up, pleasantly mixed together). 

Favorite Audiobooks

If you haven’t gotten yourself all hooked up with the Libby app yet, please take some time to treat yourself. It allows you to borrow audio and ebooks from your public library with your library card. It’s how I get a lot of my reading done.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray: Another hilarious, fast-paced, politically-minded novel from Bray! The audiobook is complete with fun sound effects and cues that really bring the story to life. I don’t usually enjoy those extra elements, but they are so well done here. I listened to this while driving from Pittsburgh to Rochester for a girlfriend’s bachelorette party. On the way I hit one of the worse snow storms I’ve ever driven through, which is saying a lot because I come from upstate New York. I was sure I was going to die. Luckily, this book helped me stay focused on the road and kept my spirits high. I made it to my final destination, and not in the Devon Sawa sense.

Gerald’s Game by Stephen King: I’m not sure what made me love this audiobook so much. It has elements I don’t normally enjoy, like random music spliced in, but I was so taken with the story. This book really surprised me! It’s definitely in my top five Kings. If you haven’t picked this one up yet, I highly encourage it. Perhaps…on audio??

Favorite Graphic Novel/Comic

The Last Halloween by Abby Howard: I laughed so hard and felt so much delight while reading this graphic novel. There were many references and jokes that horror fans will love. It’s a sweet story of found family working together against insurmountable odds with a very heavy dose of humor. This was such a pleasure to read, especially during a hard year. Read about this book and more coming of age stories here!

Favorite Short Story Collection

And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks: Cutting and imaginative with a killer cover! These stories and poems have really stuck with me and are perfect for lovers of dark fantasy and fairy tale retellings. There are several stories from this collection that haven’t left my mind.

Favorite Poetry

How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend by Linda Addison: This collection of mostly poetry (and some short prose) is packed full of style. These stories and poems range in genre from humor to fantasy, horror to scifi. The mastery in Addison’s writing is just so apparent. My favorite story is in the form of a series of emails between a corporate employee and a new artificial intelligence HR system. The system has her name misspelled in the records, but when she tried to correct the error she cannot get a hold of a human, and the AI system insists she is not who she says she is because the woman they have in their system has a differently spelled name. She is subsequently fired and framed for crimes that she never committed, all for the want of a human in the Human Relations department. Don’t worry, it ends hilariously.

Favorite Non-Horror Book

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk: I really enjoyed pretty much everything about this book. The protagonist is cranky and weird, but she still managed to endear herself to me. She enjoys her nature, her dogs, fake astrology readings, and being alone. Sounds like a woman after my own heart! When people turn up dead in her small remote Polish town, she takes it upon herself to get involved. This book has a very fun twist that I refuse to spoil for you.

Favorite Horror Book

Misfits by Hunter Shea: I read mainly horror and horror adjacent work, so most of these categories could actually be boiled down to ‘favorite horror’, but I wanted to have an excuse to single Misfits out. When I want a solid balls to the wall horror, I usually want something like this book. It has local legends, terrifying monsters, a rag-tag crew of *ahem* misfits fighting for survival! It’s brutal, bloody, and nonstop action. One of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read! If you like the movie Wrong Turn and ’90s grunge music, this is a must read. Read my full review here.

Most WTF Book Read

The Unsuitable by Molly Pohlig: While this category might not seem complimentary, trust me when I say it absolutely is. I love it when books blow my mind, and The Unsuitable managed to edge out many mind-blowing WTF books this year for this high honor. Iseult is odd: awkward, nervous, strangely pale, and has a huge scar where here collarbone broke during her delivery, killing her mother. But that’s ok, because her mother now lives in that scar and talks to her, telling her what to do and how to live. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the most disturbing. Read my full review here.

Best Distraction During a Hard Time

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: I read this on a trip to Knoxville for a library conference…on March 11th. My husband traveled with me, and on the 13th we were supposed to drive over to visit my Dad and two of our best friends in North Caroline and Virginia, and then drive home. But then everything shut down and lock downs started. We decided to leave Knoxville early and skip that last part of the trip. I read Ninth House on the drive back from Tennessee to Pittsburgh, and it was very helpful to stay distracted while the world got very scary very fast. It’s also my ideal book, so there’s that.

Favorite Book Overall

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: No surprise here! This book was so good. I don’t even know how many times it had me jumping to my feet yelling “WHAT!?”. My husband was probably very annoyed with me by the end of it because I kept insisting on reading him sections and exclaiming about the things that were blowing my mind and even acting out parts that I thought were super amazing. Poor man. But honestly, he’s better for it. The Only Good Indians is inventive, unique, terrifying, and jam-packed full of heart. I ordered myself a beautifully illustrated copy as a treat and can’t wait to read it again when it arrives! Read my full review here.

There they are…my favorite reads of 2020. I’m determined to make 2021 a good reading year. I hope to keep up with reviews (ha), but my only real resolutions are to read 100 books and increase the diversity in my reading in all ways. I always hope to read more of the books I already own…but with the library and Netgalley that can be a true challenge.

What were your favorites last year?

Book Review: For Better or Cursed by Kate M. Williams

3.5 Stars

Image from Goodreads

The Babysitters Coven series is so full of humor and adventure! I always have a good time when I’m reading them, and For Better or Cursed helped me cope with a fairly serious reading slump. Lighthearted and fun, For Better or Cursed follows Esme and Cassandra on to the next chapter of their Sitter experience. Sitters are like babysitters, but instead of babysitting children and keeping them safe, they’re babysitting the world and keeping it safe from demons. And instead of being CPR qualified, they have specialized magic powers. In the first installment of the series, Esme and Cassandra learned the truth about their birthright and their family legacies. In For Better or Cursed, they are summoned to a Sitters’ Summit, but corruption and conspiracy threaten not only the Sitterhood and Esme and Cassandra’s families, but also the entire world.

I love the characters in these books. I love that they feel like real teenagers with strong personalities and have to deal with real-life issues (like poverty and broken families) along with cosmic and paranormal threats. Kate Williams’ writing has great pacing that made me excited to pick this book up despite struggling to read anything at the moment. The pop culture references were very fun, and Esme and her best friend Janis really remind me of Andie from Pretty in Pink (one of my all-time favs still to this day). In fact, this series gets compared to The Babysitters Club and Buffy often, but I also think there is a strong comparison to the John Hughes universe. I know there is a lot to criticize and examine concerning those films, but there is a warmth to them that I have always enjoyed, and I feel that warmth here. Not everyone will feel that, however.

While I greatly enjoyed this book, it, unfortunately, suffers from middle child syndrome (in the bookish world). I felt that the external conflict was an afterthought, and the more interesting dynamics were the interpersonal relationships. I think Williams felt that as well because the external conflict seemed rushed and a bit lacking in emotional weight. Unfortunately, the plot was constructed in a way that also pushed the interpersonal and familial relationships aside. I think Williams started exploring some interesting emotional journeys for her well-crafted characters, but those seemed to drop off as the external conflict picked up. This resulted in a slightly unsatisfactory conclusion to this installment. Luckily we have another book coming, and I hope these lingering threads will be tied up.

What I did appreciate was the continuing expansion of the diversity of the characters. Williams’ strength truly is her character work (which is why I would like to see her focus in that direction). Her characters grew and developed in fascinating ways in For Better or Cursed (trying to avoid spoilers here), and I hope to see that continue into future books.

Overall, this was a delightfully fun read, and (surprise) it takes place during the winter holidays so it gave me a lot of Christmas vibes at just the right time of year! If you are struggling to finish a book right now (which is understandable) and are having a hard time feeling holly jolly during a difficult holiday season (also understandable), For Better or Cursed might be just the thing to cheer you up!

Book published 12/15/20. Thank you to Netgalley, Delacorte Press, and Random House Children’s for providing a digital ARC for review.

Book review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

5 Stars. Triggers for sexual assault, murder, violence.

I love Libba Bray. It took me far too long to read her work, but now I find myself in the horrible position of running out of Bray books to consume! Despite really enjoying all of Bray’s writing, and despite having purchased the first book when it came out years ago, and despite my mother and multiple friends telling me I needed to finally start reading it, I only just picked up The Diviners. I don’t regret it, though, because I’m currently suffering a pretty brutal pandemic-induced reading slump, and The Diviners turned out to be exactly what I needed. And what is even better is that I have three more books in the series to get me through what is sure to be a bleak and lonely winter.

The Diviners seems to have everything…at least everything I love. It’s set in 1920s New York City, a time in history I absolutely love to explore. It centers on a group of misfit teens who happen to have extraordinary supernatural abilities and are called upon to use those gifts (or curses) to protect the world from dangerous paranormal beings. It’s light, exciting, full of adventure, has a dash of romance, and is also genuinely terrifying at times! The Diviners is a scary-ass book!

Evie has outgrown her town in Ohio, and when she missteps at a party–using her supernatural ability to reveal an ugly truth about the town’s golden boy–she’s sent away to live with her oddball Uncle Will in Manhattan. She accepts this punishment, gladly. Once in New York City, she resolves to make the most of it. She enjoys shopping, attending glamorous variety shows, and visiting speakeasies about town! She blossoms into her true flapper self. But she can’t seem to stay out of trouble, which puts her uncle in a tough spot. His Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult isn’t exactly the hottest ticket in town, and Evie isn’t making his life any easier. But luckily, she finds a way to make herself useful to Will.

Not long into her stay in the city, Naughty John, a brutal serial killer, starts making his presence known. Will is called to consult on the case, and Evie can’t help but get involved. What they don’t know, at least at first, is that this case will put them in the middle of dangerous occult dealings. Evie, her uncle, and her unique set of rag-tag friends have to put the pieces together to stop Naughty John’s rise to power (and subsequent end of the world as we know it).

Bray’s writing is always sharp, smart, and witty. It shouldn’t have surprised me that The Diviners ended up being very political and historically detailed, having read her other work, but Bray went above and beyond with this one. I really appreciated how politically aware it was! Classism and racism are addressed head on, with generational clashes causing tensions along the way. I’m sure this will continue with the rest of the series.

Each character is well developed and a pleasure to spend time with. It’s also nice to have a relatively diverse crew. We’re still getting to know them in this first book, but I see the seeds of a deeply connected squad growing. I love found family stories, especially if there is an element of Scooby gang mixed in!

While Bray writes for a teen audience, there is nothing simplified or glossed over about The Diviners. This series is just as appropriate for someone firmly in their adult years as it is for someone in their mid-teens. I guarantee you’ll learn a little something about history as well, no matter how old you are! This book not only kept my attention during a particularly difficult and distracting time, but it also fully delighted and entertained me. Reading usually gives me a break from the world, but lately it’s been hard to escape into a book even for a few minutes. The Diviners gave that back to me, and I appreciate it. Looking forward to picking up book two: Lairs of Dreams.

Published 09/18/2012.

Book Review: Misfits by Hunter Shea

5 Stars. Triggers for violent rape on the page, child abuse and neglect, extreme violence, extreme gore. I discuss the rape in this review.

Image from Goodreads

Hunter Shea’s Misfits is a brutal, wild ride about found family and belonging. It’s incredibly entertaining, packed with frenetic energy, and will remind you what it was like to be a teen fighting against the world with just your friends as allies. That said, Misfits is not for everyone. It’s aggressive and will leave you feeling like you’re covered in mud. But it asks the questions, what lengths would you go to, and what would you sacrifice, to protect your own found family when the world seems to be literally ripping each of you apart?

Remember in high school, driving up and down back roads at night in your best friend’s car, music blasting, windows down, maybe passing a joint or splitting a cigarette, swapping stories? Remember how your whole crew would pile in and someone would put on whatever album completely captured your teenage experience, and you would all tool around, killing time? I guess that’s not necessarily universal, but one of the qualities of Misfits is that it brings back that particular memory for me, that specific brand of nostalgia.

Each setting we visited throughout the book felt so reminiscent to those I grew up around. In fact, if it hadn’t been explicitly stated that it takes place in Connecticut, I would have sworn this was the Finger Lakes region of New York. The mental image of driving down dark wooded back roads to someone’s cabin while Chris Cornell’s voice echoes hauntingly out of the car stereo is a personal memory of mine that I was able to inject directly into this book.

Mick, Vent, Chuck, Heidi, and Marnie are best friends, living in a small Connecticut town in the early 1990s. They’re the stoner grunge kids at their high school; more outcast than not. Most of them come from broken, abusive, or (at the very least) challenging homes. Most of them are neglected. But they have each other, and that’s what counts. When one of their own is brutally assaulted, they decide to take justice into their own hands. They take the attacker out to the woods and leave them for the Mellon Heads. The Mellon Heads are an old Connecticut folktale: deformed, violent, feral humans living out in the dark depths of the New England forests. Their plan backfires, however, and they find themselves in more trouble than they could have ever imagined.

This was my first Hunter Shea book, and all I knew about him going in was that he did creatures and monsters well. I can now confirm that is true, and I will add that he is also a master of character, action, and setting. The horror in this book stems from both fantastical folklore and the real world. Misfits deals a lot with the concept of belonging, as the name suggests. Our main characters and heroes feel themselves to be misfits and are certainly viewed that way by others. Their status as such make them easy targets for those looking to cause harm or take advantage. The villains of the story are also all misfits, some in a more conventional sense than others.

It’s not hard to feel sympathy for our main crew. We’ve all known kids like this or were kids like this. Shea builds that attachment between reader and heroes, and then exploits the fuck out of it. It’s made clear from the beginning that this is a group of kids who bad things happen to in life, regardless of whether it’s a monster delivering the blows or society at large. Despite knowing this, or perhaps because of it, you become invested in their journey. Just be prepared.

Shea’s writing had me on the edge of my seat throughout the entire book. Misfits starts with a crushing bang and increases in pace throughout. There are twists, insurmountable odds, extreme acts of love and heroism, and heart-wrenching losses. It was this characteristic of Misfits in particular that really hooked me and left me thirsting for more of Shea’s writing.

While I loved this book and think it will end up being one of my favorites of the year, I feel that I need to address the rape. There is a violent, though quick, rape scene that occurs within the first 10% of the book. It is the inciting incident that sets all the action in motion. The ongoing and important discussion about the use of rape as a plot device in entertainment, especially as a way to grow a female character, should always be considered for narratives like this. In this case, I feel that there could have been a different catalyst to the action that would have worked, but that being said I also feel that Shea handled the rape and subsequent fallout very well.

The character who is assaulted in Misfits does not suddenly become a brave warrior woman who exacts brutal and total revenge. No, she is broken and scared. She leans on her friends, terrified to make her attack public knowledge (an accurate reaction). She mourns the damage her body has gone through and how the assault has forever changed her life. It was believably and honestly written, and the event itself is not lingered on or glorified except to demonstrate the true love and support of her found family.

I think I understand why Shea chose rape as a device here: there needed to be an extraordinary crime committed against them for the misfits to do what they did, risking their own lives and ultimately setting off the extreme and terrifying events of the rest of the book. But I do wonder if the rape was completely necessary. After about halfway through the book you start to forget about it entirely. Could another inciting incident have gotten the job done?

Sexual assault is incredibly serious and needs to be used with extreme caution in all media. Each instance is different, however. Misfits is a brutal book. Much of it sheds light on everyday brutality along with the fantastical brutality of creature features and slashers. The brutality of the crime matches the tone of the book, and ultimately I think Shea navigated it well. That being said, I am not an assault survivor, and I believe that we need to listen to and take seriously the opinions of those who are in instances like this.

I recommend Misfits to people who enjoy The Hills Have Eyes, Mandy, Alice in Chains, and lots of blood and guts. It feels kind of like getting wasted on Smirnoff Ice in your friend of a friend’s cousin’s barn. It leaves you rattled and probably sick as hell, but there is a lot of heart there and a hell of a lot of entertainment.

Published 9/8/20. Thank you to Flame Tree Press and Netgalley for providing the ARC.

Book Review: Basket Full of Heads by Joe Hill

4 Stars. Trigger warnings for suicide, extreme gore and violence, rich entitled assholes.

Image from Goodreads

I was so intrigued by Hill House Comics’ selection when it first crossed my path. This horror comic pop-up, started by Joe Hill and housed at DC, offers an eye-catching collection with great cover art, great summaries, and great names attached! I was very excited when I was approved for the ARCs by Netgalley. And the first collection, Basket Full of Heads, did not disappoint.

Story by Joe Hill, Basket Full of Heads is a gory, campy adventure full of twists and humor along with the appropriate horrors. June goes to visit her boyfriend Liam in the sleepy fishing town of Brody Island where he’s working as a part-time cop over the summer. They’re having dinner with his boss when word that four escaped convicts are on the loose, reigning terror on civilians. As her boyfriend’s boss leaves with the other full-time cops on the force, the four escapees break into the boss’ house and attack June and Liam. They kidnap Liam and whisk him away, leaving June to fight off one remaining escapee herself. Luckily Liam’s boss has a huge collection of old Viking artifacts stored in the house, including weapons. June gets her hands on an axe, but it doesn’t exactly do its job quite as one would expect.

This collection of issues #1-7 was well paced, very funny, and incredibly entertaining. It reminded me of all the things I love about ridiculous ’80s slashers. I also appreciated that it was a one-and-done, so to speak. I don’t need to hunt down more issues or wait for them to come out. The entire story is contained in this one volume, and it wraps up very nicely! The artwork is likewise excellent and fits the story incredibly well. I tip my hat to Leomacs (Illustrator), Riccardo La Bella (Illustrator), Dave Stewart (Colorist), and Deron Bennett (Letterer).

I appreciated June as a main character. She is brave, savvy, capable, and full of love for herself and those near and dear to her. That is not to say she is naive. Despite being accused of that multiple times, June proves herself to be otherwise. In fact, when the gaping maw of the patriarchy comes for June in a painful and hurtful way, she does not hesitate to take action and fight for herself and all the women wronged by evil men. I have to applaud Joe Hill for his character work across the board, but especially with June.

Basket Full of Heads is the first installment of Joe Hill’s Hill House Comics pop-up. Next up is my most highly anticipated installment: The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado, out 09/28/20.

Out 09/08/20. Thank you to NetGalley and DC Comics for providing the ARC.

Book Review: The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry

4 Stars. Trigger warnings for death of a loved one, racial violence, murder and gore, inappropriate relationships between an adult and a minor.

Image from Goodreads

Holding on to her dark fantasy roots, Christina Henry delivers a brutal dose of nostalgia with her 1980s throw-back small town horror novel The Ghost Tree. Lauren is about to turn 15, and her life has been difficult lately. Her mom has been on her case about every little thing, her best friend Miranda is more interested in boys than hanging out at the Ghost Tree in the woods like they used to, and, oh yeah, Lauren’s dad was brutally murdered in those same woods a year ago. But her life is about to get a whole lot harder when the dark curse that has a tight hold on their small town of Smith’s Hollow starts to go off the rails and things get even more dangerous and terrifying than they already were.

Henry does an amazing job revealing the dark underbelly of small town life. As someone who grew up in a small town, the world Henry builds is very realistic and all the more terrifying for it. Smith’s Hollow feels so much like my own small home town. The woods we would play in, the rumors about witches and big scary houses, the annual festival and fair days every summer, the relationships you would have with everyone else in town, the politics unique to small town life…but I hope my small town was never in the clutches of a centuries old curse that delivered carnage and terror in exchange for prosperity.

There are many twists and reveals throughout The Ghost Tree that will keep you on your toes. Henry includes a rich mythology, and while there certainly are many moving parts and increased complications in her narrative, she succeeds in keeping a very tight plot. Her writing style is exciting and intimate, making you very invested in the story and characters.

The Ghost Tree felt a bit like Stephen King’s IT in that Lauren is faced with the dark events of her childhood and her coming of age. And the way that hate works as an infection and a tool of dark supernatural forces throughout the town feels a lot like Pennywise to me (in the best way). And I feel I must mention that fans of Stranger Things will surely enjoy this book. This was my first Christina Henry read, and I cannot wait to dig into her other series!

Out 9/8/20. Thank you to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group for providing an ARC.

Book Review: When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole

4 stars. Triggers for racism, white supremacy, gaslighting, racial violence, poverty/debt, death of a loved one, housing insecurity, gentrification.

Image from Goodreads

Alyssa Cole is a huge favorite of mine. Her romances are so much fun (and quite steamy), so when I saw she was coming out with a thriller I knew I needed to pick it up asap. That combined with the pitch of Rear Window meets Get Out…my excitement cannons were blasting! And let me just tell you, When No One Is Watching lives up to the excitement. It’s all the good stuff: excellent writing, rich and relatable characters, intrigue, thrills, romance, concise and relevant social commentary. But it’s also incredibly anxiety inducing, because it is so real.

Sydney Green has returned home to her mother’s Brooklyn brownstone after surviving a horrible marriage full of gaslighting and abuse. She was hopeful that the presence of her mother, best friend, and beloved neighborhood would offer her the love and support she needed to heal and thrive, but with her mother’s failing health and the predatory gentrification exploding around her, Sydney feels her life is spiraling out of her control.

As neighbors and familiar businesses start disappearing suddenly without a word, only to be replaced by white yuppies and their over-priced boutiques, Sydney starts to think there is a larger nefarious conspiracy going on…or is she going crazy? Everything happening around her goes against everything she’s known about her neighbors and herself, and when she can’t buy cigarettes or take an Uber without being directly or indirectly threatened by mysterious white people, how can she take action to discover what exactly is going on in her neighborhood?

It turns out that Sydney is not crazy at all. Something evil and insidious is happening, and Sydney might be her neighborhood’s last hope. Luckily she has a bit of help along the way from an unlikely source.

When No One Is Watching sheds a bright light on predatory and targeted gentrification and systemic racism and white supremacy. I live in a very gentrified city, and as I was reading this book I was thinking about the people I know who have been evicted from their homes that they’ve lived in for 15+ years, or folks who can’t afford to stay in a neighborhood that, for generations, meant home and community for them. All so that the Whole Foods can move to a larger lot. I even wondered about my own apartment building and neighbors. It was definitely hard to read some parts of this book, because it just felt so real.

While When No One Is Watching is not horror in the fantastical sense, it certainly is in the realistic sense. This is real life horror. Cole’s humor and style of writing make the book entertaining and exciting to read, but you would be wrong in thinking that When No One Is Watching isn’t making a clear statement. For people who are trying to understand more about systemic racism (as we all should be), this would be a good book to pick up followed closely by The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. I look forward to more thrillers by Alyssa Cole!

Out 9/1/20. Thank you to Netgalley and William Morrow Paperbacks / HarperCollins Publishers for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.