The nitty-gritty: A stylish, horrifying and wryly humorous reading experience like no other.
The weather that day was warm in the sunlight, cold in theThe nitty-gritty: A stylish, horrifying and wryly humorous reading experience like no other.
The weather that day was warm in the sunlight, cold in the shade. It had been a terrible summer in Manhattan, humid and wet; now the autumn was dry but feverish, with skies that seemed somehow the wrong color, lurid, like old nickel postcards of New England scenes. Winter would come eventually, and it would be ferocious.
Sax wondered, without much emotion, if he would live to see the spring.
Curious about Ben Tripp’s latest? Well, you should be. For those of you who like comparisons, I’m calling this one “Dracula meets Ocean’s Eleven.” The simplest way to describe it would be a heist story with vampires. But it’s so much more. The Fifth House of the Heart has officially risen to the top of my favorite books so far this year, and I would have to say it’s neck and neck with Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty at the moment.
There are layers upon layers to this complex story, but here’s the basic plot. Asmodeus Saxon-Tang (or Sax for short) is a notorious antiques dealer who has made a name for himself amassing incredible wealth over the years, mostly by seeking out vampire lairs and stealing their treasures. But his latest acquisition, a French Napoleon ormolu clock, has earned him the unwanted attention of a very dangerous vampire, and Sax fears his days may be numbered. When the clock is stolen from his warehouse, he knows exactly who stole it: the dreaded vampire. Sax gathers together a motley crew of thieves and killers to track down the vampire, and the game is afoot.
Oh, there is so much to talk about in this review! I’ve decided to abandon my regular format, and bring you my Top Ten Reasons To Read The Fifth House of the Heart instead:
“I’ve been infected since nineteen hundred and sixty-five, mate,” Sax complained. “There’s more vampire junk in me than in Nosferatu’s underpants.”
Sax is one of the most unique and enjoyable characters I’ve run across in a long time. He absolutely steals the show, and his wry humor and self-deprecating ways earned him a permanent home in my heart. Sax is a seventy-something unabashedly gay man, and despite his uncertain ability to keep an erection, he’s continually making titillating sexual comments. When he meets Fra Paolo, the young priest who joins the crew, he makes it his mission to seduce him. (Or at least that's what he tells himself.) Sax admits he’s a coward, despite all his adventures with vampires, and yet he’s willing to walk into danger in order to save his friends.
2. The rest of the characters.
Sax may steal the show, but the story wouldn't be nearly as interesting without the supporting characters. I absolutely loved the mismatched group of people he gathers together as his crew, to infiltrate the vampire’s lair: Paolo, the priest, who is lusting after Sax’s niece Emily; Min, the vampire killer, who has her own score to settle; Rock, the muscle, a big, bold and lovable hunk of man whose bravery is unmatched; Abingdon, the forger, who wants to sleep with everyone; and Gheorghe, the Romanian burglar. And more. Yes, it’s a big cast of characters, but somehow Tripp makes them all fit together.
3. The writing.
Ben Tripp is such a good writer he could probably convince the devil to let him go, were he ever to find himself trapped in Hell. There were so many times while I was reading that I wanted to grab someone and read out loud to them. I could honestly fill this review with quotes from the story, but I’d rather you discover (most of) them for yourself.
4. The humor.
I seriously laughed out loud more than I’ve ever laughed out loud before, while reading this book. Humor and timing go hand in hand, and Tripp has both down to a science. Sax had a way of stating the obvious that just worked for me every time. And Sax isn't the only character who made me chuckle. One of my favorite lines in the entire book—and there were a lot of them—was when Min is watching Abingdon forging weapons, wondering if she should sleep with him. She then observes that “He was just an erection with a man standing behind it.”
5. The history.
Tripp’s story spans not only the world—different scenes take place in Manhattan, Paris, England, Czechoslovakia, Mumbai and Rome—but centuries. We get to see Sax as a young man just making a name for himself, but Tripp takes us back even further, to the discovery of vampires in the Holy Land nearly a thousand years ago. I truly felt the weight of history while reading this book.
6. The story construction.
The Fifth House of the Heart is full of stories within stories within stories. Tripp leads the reader down a path that turns into a cave then falls down a rabbit hole. During his adventure in the present day, he remembers his dangerous encounters with two other vampires, one in 1965 and one in 1989, seamlessly tying everything neatly together. It was one of the most masterful displays of story building I’ve ever seen.
7. The details.
It was an odor Sax loved. It was the smell of ancient beauty, of things that needed bringing back to life. Gentle cleaning, damp sponges, white vinegar, beeswax and oil, new air, new eyes to gaze upon them: time itself leaves a skin on things, the way the air leaves sulfur on silver, turning it black. When that obscuring film is removed, the light in the heart of things radiates. The beauty, like some princess in a story by Perrault, awakens after a long sleep.
By making Sax a collector of all things antique, Tripp has wonderful opportunities to describe incredible works of art, antique furniture and fixtures, and rare gems in loving detail. And I never got bored with these descriptions. In fact, I eagerly soaked it all up. I could visualize each item as Tripp described it, and I could tell these details were carefully and painstakingly researched. Before this book, I had no idea there were famous paintings that have been lost to the world, and now I want to know more! And wait until you read his descriptions of food…
8. The name dropping.
Because Sax is so well known and infamous in his own right, he’s met some very interesting people over the past fifty years, including George Harrison, Grace Slick, and Givenchy, to name a few. I loved the way he remembers each one fondly,
9. The action.
The story may start out slow and meandering, but watch out, because just when you least expect it, all hell breaks loose. The Fifth House of the Heart is a page-turner even before the action starts, so you can imagine how quickly you’ll be turning pages once the gang meets up with the vampires. And remember, this is a heist story, which means Sax and his friends are stealing stuff. And sometimes things go wrong, and then you get more action.
10. The vampires.
And yes, the vampires are terrifying. I loved Tripp’s take on them, because even though vampires have been reinvented thousands of times, he manages to come up with fresh ideas, including the only way to truly kill a vampire, which I’ll let you discover for yourself. (Hint: it has something to do with the title of the book.) You won’t find any handsome, brooding types here. These vamps are fast and strong and deadly. Oh, and they love to collect beautiful things, which makes them the perfect target for one very determined collector of antiques. There were times when I clearly felt the influence of Dracula, its atmospheric and slow creeping terror, but there were other times when the story felt completely new.
If you read one horror story this year, I hope you'll read this one, because it's so much more than just a simple vampire tale. The Fifth House of the Heart is a feast of humor, beauty, terror and emotion. And blood, of course. Highly recommended.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Quotes above were taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.
The nitty-gritty: An unexpectedly awesome combination of urban fantasy, Buffy-like hijinks and cinematic action scenes, with a dollop of t4 1/2 stars.
The nitty-gritty: An unexpectedly awesome combination of urban fantasy, Buffy-like hijinks and cinematic action scenes, with a dollop of teen angst and emotion thrown in for good measure.
"So, how does this friend of yours know about me and what exactly did she say?"
"That you were familiar with situations like this. That you were a . . . " He cleared his throat. "That you're a witch."
Lucifer couldn't stop laughing. "A witch? Seriously? Wow, is your friend off the mark. I'm not a witch. Not even close."
"Then what are you?" he asked.
Lucifer gave him a broad smile. "I'm a thief."
"Don't worry. I don't rob banks or pick pockets. I specialize in stealing . . . other things."
I was recently in a reading slump, trying to make my way through a slow book, and I decided to take a break and read something else. Hexed was sitting right by my computer, and since the release date was only days away, I picked it up and started reading. It sucked me in, people, and I barely came up for air and only put it down when my eyelids wouldn't stay open. What fun I had with this book! Hexed is based on Nelson's popular comic series of the same name, which I haven't read, but you can bet I will now. It's the first in a series about the magical misadventures of teen Luci Jenifer Inacio das Neves, or Lucifer for short. Lucifer may be a teen, but she's anything but ordinary. She lives by herself, and she's hired to steal dangerous magical artifacts so they won't fall into the wrong hands. Her only "family" is a woman known as the Keeper of Secrets, or the Harlot, who Lucifer tried to steal from once, but was caught. Now she's been literally branded by the Harlot and forced into taking over her job someday.
All Lucifer wants is to be a normal girl with a boyfriend, but instead she skulks around at night, breaking into buildings and stealing things, with her bag of magic spells over her shoulder to help her out. When a cop named Buck approaches Lucifer and asks her to help find his missing daughter Gina, who has been kidnapped by a witch, she has no idea what hell she's about to get herself into. With Gina's boyfriend David in tow, Lucifer sets out on a wild and circuitous trail in order to find a magical object that will help her rescue Gina.
There were so many things I loved about Hexed. First of all, the pacing was first-rate, and never for a moment was I bored. Nelson tells the story exclusively from Lucifer's point of view, which was a nice change of pace from all the multi-POVs I've been reading lately. I can easily picture this book being made into a movie someday, it was that well done. Lucifer reminded me so much of Joss Whedon's Buffy Summers, a tortured girl who just wants to be like everyone else, but is destined for something different. There was even a scene near the end that involved an evil corporation, and I couldn't help but think of Wolfram & Hart from Whedon's Angel.
Lucifer was a fantastic character, with just the right combination of bad-assery and vulnerability. She's been in the magic world since she was little, after growing up poor in a favela in Brazil, having lost both her parents before she was brought to the United States. Now she gets by on her quick wits and extensive knowledge of the arcane. As she has to keep reminding David, she isn't magic herself, but she can use magic. Lucifer never heaves home without her "trick bag," which she fills with spells that help her in her job as a thief. She's a wonderfully strong female character, but she doesn't flaunt it. Her strength is just part of who she is. And she just wants to help others, which is how she justifies stealing dangerous objects that could potentially harm people.
Gina's boyfriend David wasn't nearly as strong or likable a character, but honestly, Lucifer made up for him. I was actually quite annoyed with him, since he starts to fall for Lucifer (yes, there is a romantic element to the story, but it doesn't overwhelm it), and he's supposed to be in love with Gina. Lucifer falls for him too, but I got the feeling that it was more his pretty-boy athletic looks she was interested in, rather than his personality.
But I loved most of the other characters, even the Harlot, who—as scary and dangerous as she is—always has a comfy sofa and a cup of hot tea waiting for Lucifer when she comes to visit. A character who appears near the end is most certainly going to feature in the next book of the series, a woman who ends up taking Lucifer under her wing and offering her a job. And I can't wait to read more about her!
If you're looking for a fast-paced urban fantasy that pushes all the right buttons, then look no further. Hexed is a quick but memorable read, and the next book in the series can't come fast enough for me! Highly recommended.
Big thanks to Pyr Books for supplying a review copy.
The nitty-gritty: If Pulp Fiction and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest went to church and got pregnant, Afterparty would be their crazy, drug-soaked baThe nitty-gritty: If Pulp Fiction and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest went to church and got pregnant, Afterparty would be their crazy, drug-soaked baby.
Oh, we were such geniuses. A company of smarty-pants. Mikala the chemistry wizard, Gil the tech brain, Edo the money man, and me—the neuroscientist with the brilliant idea that we could cure the Afghanistan of mental disorders.
This is probably going to be my favorite book of 2015, unless something even better comes along. And it wasn’t even published this year, for cryin’ out loud! You guys, I had heard great things about Afterparty, but I had no idea that Daryl Gregory actually wrote this book specifically for me! Don’t you love it when that happens? OK, maybe he didn’t write it for me personally, but it feels as if he did. This is my third Daryl Gregory book, and I swear that guy never writes the same book twice. You would never know that this is the same author of Harrison Squared and We Are Completely Fine, two books I also loved.
Afterparty is about drugs. And religion. And relationships. And being a parent. And dealing with addiction. It’s about trust and betrayal and murder. But if any of that sounds too heavy for you, never fear. This book is not heavy. It’s entertaining. It’s got crazy action and road trips and trying to cross the border. But mostly, it’s got amazing characters, dialog and pacing. In short, it’s everything I want and need in a book. For this review, I’ve decided to give you my top ten eleven twelve thirteen reasons you should get off your ass right now and read Afterparty:
1. Lyda Rose. Our MC was named after a song (yes, that song!) but she’s also had her brain permanently altered by a drug called Numinous, and now she has her own personal angel who follows her around and gives her (mostly) unwanted advice. The problem is, no one can see the angel except Lyda, so she’s been locked up in a mental institution for a while. Lyda loves to swear and she’s a super smart neuroscientist, and I adored everything about her.
2. Bobby and his treasure chest. Bobby is Lyda’s friend from the loony bin, and he thinks his soul lives in a plastic treasure chest that he wears around his neck.
3. A beautifully written lesbian relationship. Lyda used to be married to Mikala, until that fateful night (you’ll see when you read the book!), and now she’s falling for Ollie, a brilliant computer hacker who is just as damaged as Lyda. I’m even more impressed that this completely believable and honest relationship was written by a male writer. Even better? It’s also a mixed race one. Bonus points!
4. A story with Pulp Fiction-like attitude. Guns, drugs, hit men, black humor and did I mention drugs? This is high-octane story that knows when to stop and take a breather.
5. Dr. Gloria! Dr. Gloria is Lyda’s angel, and I pictured her the entire story as Oprah Winfrey. Yep. I loved their dialog because first of all, Lyda is an atheist and doesn’t believe for one minute that Dr. Gloria is real. And she sometimes says mean things to her. But just like Jesus, Dr. Gloria always forgives Lyda.
6. Drugs. It’s no secret that I have a thing for books about drugs. I’m not sure why, maybe because there is so much you can do with the subject, especially in science fiction. In Afterparty, drugs are everywhere, and even Joe Normal can whip up a recipe on a chemjet printer and swallow a piece of paper to get high.
7. Science and future tech. Gregory did lots of research for his story. I loved all the details about the brain and how drugs affect it, but I also loved the cool gadgets. Like everyone has smart pens instead of smart phones (you flick open the screen like opening a fan).
8. Vinnie/The Vincent. Not all the characters are good. Vinnie just wants to run his ranch (which is inside his house!), but when he becomes The Vincent, you want to stay away from him. Far away.
9. Tiny buffalo! You’ll need to read the book to see what this means. I just wanted to say I loved the tiny buffalo!
10. The mystery of what really happened that night. It’s a mystery that Gregory drags out until the very end, and it’s part of the reason this guy’s pacing is BRILLIANT.
11. Sasha and her IF Deck!!! OMG Sasha is probably my favorite character. Maybe ever. I won’t tell you exactly who she is, or what the heck an “IF Deck” is, it’s just another reason you’ll have to read the book for yourself. But I want more Sasha, more stories about her please!
12. So. Much. Emotion. Not only do you get a kick-ass action story with awesome characters, but Gregory made me SOB at the end. I’m not sure why, but I was crying, damn it.
13. The ending!! Never have I been so happy to have the ending in my head match the actual ending of a book. I knew what I wanted to happen, and it did! And then I cried some more.
I know lots of reviewers have tried to analyze this story to determine what it means. Is Gregory making some kind of statement about religion? Is God real, or is religion just our brain telling us what we want to believe? I’m not sure, but I do know that the author lets you draw your own conclusions. There were times when even Lyda isn’t sure about Dr. Gloria, and I loved the fact that she might be a drug-induced hallucination, or she might not.
Have I convinced you yet? You can come back next month when I have my book review giveaway, and try to win a copy of Afterparty, or you could splurge right now and get your own. Or there’s that place called the library that probably has a copy too:-D Highly recommended to the nth highest recommendation. And then triple that. Did I mention I loved this book?
The nitty-gritty: A short but highly entertaining—not to mention terrifying—tale about the dangers of the deep.
I’m so happy I bought myself a copy ofThe nitty-gritty: A short but highly entertaining—not to mention terrifying—tale about the dangers of the deep.
I’m so happy I bought myself a copy of this beautiful little book from Subterranean Press. It’s a signed and numbered edition, and as far as I know, it’s the only edition available at the moment, other than the e-book. Whichever way you read it, it’s a spectacular story that accomplishes big things in a tiny little package.
I won’t give too much of the story away, because it is very short, but here’s the set-up. The Imagine Network has just commissioned a documentary on mermaids, and they’ve arranged to film aboard the cruise ship Atargatis. The plan is to take the ship out into deep water where little sea exploration has been done before, film the hired scientists doing their thing with water and chemical analysis, and have a troupe of professional mermaid “performers” standing by to add authenticity to the documentary. But as the crew and visitors drop anchor and start to explore the deep waters above the Mariana Trench, people on board start to go missing. It isn’t long before the excitement of filming turns into everybody’s worst nightmare.
For a short novella, Grant’s pacing is really good. She divides her story up into five chapters, and each one is prefaced by a blurb from an Imagine Network documentary from the year 2017, looking back on the disaster of the Atargatis and speculating on what happened. It gives the story a bit of foreshadowing and unsettles the reader. You know something bad happened—it’s explained on the first page that the entire crew was lost, but you don’t know exactly what happened until the end. Grant plants her clues carefully, spaced apart just enough to make the reader anxiously flip the pages.
The story is filled with humor as well. Grant pokes fun at the entertainment industry with lots of jokes about contract fulfillment and how documentaries are edited to create whatever story the director wants to tell, whether it’s true or not. The scientists and actors on board know that mermaids don’t really exist, and so they’ve hired a group of professional mermaids, women who wear specially made mermaid tales and perform at parties and other events. (And yes, I Googled this, and it’s a real thing!) The Blue Seas mermaids have been hired to “appear unexpectedly” on film. Obviously, the Imagine Network isn’t above a little innocent hoax or two.
Despite the short length of Rolling in the Deep, Grant digs fairly deep into her characters’ lives and desires. Yes, there is some stereotyping, especially with the nerdy scientist characters and Anne, the actress who will be hosting the documentary. But it made the story all the funnier for me, and I didn’t mind it at all.
I did love the women of the Blue Seas, who have hair colored in every shade of the rainbow and wear custom fit neoprene mermaid tails. The women love what they do, and they’re nearly jumping for joy at the opportunity to practice swimming in open waters. We get to spend just enough time with them to understand their true love of swimming as mermaids has nothing to do with acting. They understand exactly what they’ve been hired for, to pretend to be “real” mermaids, and it doesn’t stop them from having a great time—well, at least until things go terribly wrong. I really liked the idea that Grant puts two of her mermaids in wheelchairs, to show that even someone who isn’t able to walk on her own can have complete freedom of movement in the water.
When events on the Atargatis start to take a turn for the worse, things go south fast. Get ready for a good old-fashioned monster tale with plenty of blood and terror. Grant could have expanded this into a full-fledged novel if she’d wanted to, but I like it just the way it is: a short but nasty tale of “be careful what you wish for.” Trust me, after reading this story, you'll never look at mermaids the same way again. This was my first time reading Mira Grant, but it’s certainly not going to be my last. Highly recommended.
The nitty-gritty: An allegorical story about one teen’s journey toward adulthood, and all the unusual challenges she and her friends4 1/2 stars *****
The nitty-gritty: An allegorical story about one teen’s journey toward adulthood, and all the unusual challenges she and her friends must overcome.
And it makes me wonder if one day I might be able to rediscover fully the child version of myself, before things fouled themselves up, when I was a little girl with commendable manners, when my father and I were two against the world, when my striving for goodness was so natural it was like leaves falling from trees everywhere around me, when I believed sacredness was to be found in many small things like ladybugs and doll toes, when I didn’t have a murderous thought in my head, not one.
This isn’t the easiest of stories to review. There’s very little plot to talk about, for one thing. Joshua Gaylord has written a book of ideas and emotions, and in When We Were Animals he gets to the meat of what it feels like—literally—to go through puberty. It was especially poignant for me, because I happen to have a boy and a girl who are sixteen and fourteen, respectively. These are the ages when teens in Gaylord’s small town “breach,” or turn feral. During the three nights of the full moon each month (with thanks to Joss Whedon for instructing me that yes, in fact, the moon is full for three nights a month!), these teens suddenly feel the urge to run outside at night and tear off their clothes, run wild through the streets, fight and have sex with each other, and let their wild sides run completely out of control. This odd behavior lasts about a year, and then it’s gone forever. After which time, supposedly the teen has crossed the final threshold into adulthood.
The story is about a girl named Lumen, who is approaching her sixteenth birthday but who hasn’t breached yet (and fears she never will). Coincidentally, she hasn’t started her period either, so it was pretty clear that the two are connected. Lumen tells her story from two perspectives: as an adult woman looking back on her time during the breach, and her current life as a wife and mother and how the past has affected her. She’s a very interesting character, in the sense that she seems detached from most of the emotions that the other kids her age feel, probably because she's telling her story from the distance of adulthood.
Lumen faces many of the same problems that any teen would face: being accepted by your peers, dealing with bullies and peer pressure, and having that feeling deep within yourself that something wants to break free, but not knowing how to deal with it. What Gaylord has done is taken all that teen angst and given it an outlet in the form of breaching, a completely acceptable rite of passage that every teen in town must go through. I loved the feral quality to these outings under the full moon, and while there isn’t anything supernatural to breaching—it seems as if the teens literally turn into animals, but they don’t—it felt dangerous and unpredictable.
Trigger warning: there are a few uncomfortable scenes that border on rape, although in one of the scenes the boy does change his mind and stop. But even those scenes weren’t as horrific as they could be. These teens know they’re out of control, and anything done during breaching is simply part of going through the process. In one scene, one of the more unlikable characters, a boy named Blackhat Roy, goes up to Lumen after she breaches for the first time and tells her, “Now you’re fair game.” It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what Roy is talking about.
My favorite relationship is the one between Lumen and her father. Because her mother died long ago, Lumen and her father have been alone for as long as she can remember. He loves her and trusts her to always do the right thing, and I felt bad for him when his perfectly behaved daughter was inevitably caught up in the breaching madness. It’s hard to read about a parent losing faith and trust in his child, and my heart broke for both of them.
Gaylord’s prose is delightful, and I honestly kept forgetting that a man had written this story! The voice of Lumen radiates femininity, and I’m so impressed by how well a male writer stepped up to the plate and convinced me that Lumen is indeed female, with all the emotions and desires that overtake teens at that age.
When We Were Animals cast a spell over me and made me think. It made me uncomfortable at times and sad at others. I know I’ll be looking at my own children with new eyes now that I’ve read this book, watching for signs of madness, which will hopefully never come. For those readers who enjoy unusual stories, this book is highly recommended.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote is taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.
The nitty-gritty: A hysterically funny Lovecraftian horror story, perfect for both teens and adults.
“What? You think I want you to go to school? ThenThe nitty-gritty: A hysterically funny Lovecraftian horror story, perfect for both teens and adults.
“What? You think I want you to go to school? Then who would entertain me? This place is stultifying. True, if there’s any news, they can tell you in school just as easily as here, but how much better to spend your time with your most beloved relative? I can teach you how to make a decent Bloody Mary.”
“You’re not a very good aunt.”
“Pardon me, but I’m fantastic. The best aunts aren’t substitute parents, they’re coconspirators.”
It’s nearly impossible to write this review without referring to another book by Daryl Gregory that I recently reviewed, We Are All Completely Fine. Harrison Squared is a prequel of sorts to WAACF, although you certainly don’t need to read one to enjoy the other, and the order that you read them in shouldn’t affect your experience either. I’ll talk more about the relationship between the two books later, but I do want to say that if I didn’t know any better, I would think these books were written by completely different authors! Gregory is a talented writer indeed, to be able to switch gears like he has in Harrison Squared.
I haven’t read H.P. Lovecraft in many years, but reading Harrison Squared brought back memories of Lovecraft’s shadowy worlds, filled with sea monsters and fish-like people. Gregory captures the tone of Lovecraft perfectly, but he adds a dimension all his own with laugh-out-loud dialog and brilliantly drawn characters. Harrison Harrison (or Harrison Squared as he calls himself) has just moved to the seaside town of Dunnsmouth with his mother Rosa, a scientist who has been awarded a grant to research the colossal squid, which she thinks lives in the icy waters of Dunnsmouth's sea. Harrison reluctantly starts school at the local Dunnsmouth Secondary School, a dank and dark stone structure with endless winding corridors and even creepier students and teachers.
But one evening when Rosa is out on the water working on her research, the boat is capsized and Rosa disappears at sea—or does she? Harrison is determined to find out the truth and get his mother back. With the help of some very unusual friends, Harrison follows the clues and uncovers a truth even bigger and more dangerous than he can imagine. It’s not safe in Dunnsmouth, especially for Harrison and his mom.
I think the biggest surprise for me was the humor in Harrison Squared. Gregory’s dialogue is so funny, and Harrison’s voice is so engaging, that I couldn’t help but tear through the pages. Harrison has had a bit of a strange life already, so he’s somewhat familiar with things that are odd. When he was three, he was out on a boat with his parents when it was attacked by a large sea monster, which ended up drowning his father and nearly killing Harrison. (Harrison lost a leg in the incident and now wears a prosthetic.) Or was it a sea monster? Harrison’s memories of that time are fuzzy to say the least.
And wow, the characters in this book! I don’t think I’ve ever run across so many well-developed and lovable secondary characters. In fact, many of them stole the show from Harrison, which is hard to do because he’s such a great character himself. I don’t want to give too much away, but I can’t write this review without mentioning Lub the fish boy, who stole my heart from the moment he opened his mouth (full of teeth!) Despite his, err, differences, Lub becomes a great friend to Harrison and helps him in more ways than one. I also adored Harrison's Aunt Sel, who takes over as his guardian after Rosa disappears. Aunt Sel’s arrival in Dunnsmouth is like a breath of fresh air, and believe me, the dank and fishy smells of town could certainly use someone like her! At first I thought, “Oh, poor Harrison! He’s got to put up with his aunt from the big city.” But she won me over, and she’ll win you over too.
Gregory adds many Lovecraft references and touches that a true HPL fan will have a blast spotting them all. I particularly loved the name of the town—Dunnsmouth—which I believe is an ode to Lovecraft’s famous short story, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. He also pays tribute to Moby Dick by having Rosa, like her counterpart Ahab, search for the illusive monster who killed her husband. Gregory begins each chapter with a line or two from the famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which fit perfectly with both the tone and subject matter of the story. Do you know where the expression "to wear an albatross around your neck" comes from? Well, you will after you read this book!
For me Harrison Squared at times had that magical Harry Potter feel to it, with its mysterious school and wonderfully imagined characters. I can’t find any evidence that this book is the start of a series, although a very abrupt ending (which is really the only thing I have to complain about) left me wondering if Mr. Gregory has more adventures planned for Harrison and his friends.
Which brings me back around to We Are All Completely Fine. A very important character shows up in both stories, the terrifying and deadly Scrimshander. In Harrison Squared, he’s a much more real and immediate character, but even though he’s merely referred to as someone from a character’s past in We Are All Completely Fine, he was just as terrifying. I loved both of these books, but We Are All Completely Fine is much, much darker, with a gritty violence that may turn some readers off. For those of you looking for a highly entertaining adventure with plenty of slimy creatures just waiting in the shadows and lots of mysteries to solve, then Harrison Squared is not to be missed.
Big thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book....more
The nitty-gritty: A sweet and magical story, perfect for readers ten and up.
When you set out to find the answers to your questions, you have to be preThe nitty-gritty: A sweet and magical story, perfect for readers ten and up.
When you set out to find the answers to your questions, you have to be prepared to be surprised by what you discover.
I’ve had the pleasure of reading several of Hoffman’s young adult stories—including Aquamarine, Green Angel and Indigo—and so I was curious to read her latest, which is being marketed to a slightly younger crowd, but still maintains Hoffman’s trademark magic realism. Her adult books often deal with gritty themes like abuse and death, and even her YA stories contain subjects that can be tricky for young people, like the death of a parent. But this time around, Hoffman has left out the heavy storylines and focused on something that may be closer to a ten-to-twelve year old’s experience: trying to make friends when you feel as if your life is completely abnormal.
Twig Fowler lives in an old farmhouse in Sidwell, MA with her older brother James and her mother, where they keep to themselves and tend to their large apple orchard. Ever since Twig’s mother brought them here from New York, she’s discouraged Twig from making friends or letting people into their lives. Twig’s brother, you see, is…different. He was born with wings, and he’s resigned himself to a life locked away in his house in order to keep their family secret safe.
Until the day new neighbors move in next door. Sixteen-year-old Agate and twelve-year-old Julia are everything Twig’s mom doesn’t like, but Twig is determined to make a new friend, and she and Julia click immediately. And as for James, once he gets a glimpse of the lovely Agate, he realizes how unhappy his life has been, and he begins to sneak out at night to meet with her. Meanwhile, a mysterious winged “monster” has been spotted in the woods, and random items in town start to go missing. Cryptic spray-painted messages begin to appear around town, along with a drawing of a blue monster.
Twig and Julia discover a centuries-old spell that was cast on the men in Twig’s family—hence, James’ wings—and together they decide to find a way to break the spell for good. It’s a magical summer indeed as the girls gather ingredients to break the spell and solve the mystery of the monster in the woods.
No one brings magic to life like Alice Hoffman. Reading this book took me back to my own childhood, when I actually believed in magic, and even though I’m way beyond the age group this book is written for, I got chills—the good kind!—while reading this story. Hoffman is a genius at using symbolism and recurring themes that tie everything together. And yes, she does tend to use the same imagery over and over in her books, but having read a great many of them over the years, I have come to find this comforting. In Nightbird, Hoffman uses bees, flowers, herbs, apples, feathers, and owls over and over again to cast a spell over the reader. If you’ve read Alice Hoffman before, you know exactly what I’m talking about. (And if you haven’t, you really should:-D)
Twig’s mom bakes pies and sells them in town, her own secret recipe using a very special apple called the Pink that grows in the orchard behind their house. Like many of Hoffman’s story elements, these pies are transforming and practically magic themselves, so delicious are they. I also loved the saw-whet owls that live in the woods, owls that James sometimes rescues and nurses back to health. When James goes flying at night, the owls he’s made friends with fly with him. Such a lovely and simple story element, but one that feels magical like everything else about this book.
Because this is for younger readers, Twig, James, Julia and Agate steal the show. Hoffman avoids turning adults into bad guys in this story, which I was grateful for. Several of the adult characters turned out to be favorites of mine, including Twig’s mother, a flawed woman with a terrible secret (her son James, who can never be seen in public); and Mr. Rose, the mysterious journalist who comes to town and helps Twig solve her mysteries.
I would have to call this a “kinder, gentler” Alice Hoffman story, which is perfect for ages ten and up. Nothing really terrible happens in the book, although there are plenty of mysteries to solve and a few tense moments that will have pre-teens on the edge of their seats. But as an adult reader, I clearly saw everything that was coming. Nothing surprised me about the plot, and I easily predicted every twist and turn.
But Nightbird is a simply delightful tale, full of Hoffman’s special brand of luminous and magical writing. Young readers will identify with Twig’s and James’ loneliness and their desire to make friends and be part of the world. I have not seen the finished hardcover version of this book, but I suspect it will be a lovely gem, with color illustrations and even colored ink, if the ARC is anything to go by. As with everything I've read by Alice Hoffman, Nightbird is highly recommended.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy!...more
The nitty-gritty: A gorgeous and surreal world filled with broken but hopeful characters, beautifully written.
Back in her bunk, tucked in beside the mThe nitty-gritty: A gorgeous and surreal world filled with broken but hopeful characters, beautifully written.
Back in her bunk, tucked in beside the musty warmth of her bear, North fell asleep with her hands linked tight over her belly. In her dream, she was her child: tiny as a bulb of seaweed, tight as a balled fist. Above her, the beat of an enormous heart shushed and roared like waves. Through her closed eyelids, the world showed in reds and purples: the branching lines of anemones, the nodules of coral, the hard lumps of rock and mussel. Inside North was the sea. Her child had come from the sea.
When I finished reading this book, after brushing away my tears, I turned immediately to Twitter to shout out into the void. Last year’s surprise read for me was Station Eleven, and I knew right away that it was going to be BIG (I was right). I had the same feeling after reading The Gracekeepers, knowing with certainty that Kirsty Logan’s debut is something special. It may not be on everyone’s radar at the moment, but just you wait. This book is also going to be big, as in Station Eleven big, mark my words.
What does this story have that makes it so wonderful? Just a few things you might enjoy: a floating circus, a bear, birds in cages who act as grave markers for the dead, a girl with webbed fingers and toes, gender bending, subversive clowns, a sunken city, and much much more. I don’t want to tell you too much of the story, but here are the basics: North is a young girl who performs with a traveling circus. Her closest companion is her bear, with whom she does her circus act. Callanish is a gracekeeper, someone tasked with performing Restings, where the dead are buried at sea. In Logan’s eerie world, the ocean covers most of the world, with archipelagos of land few and far between. When a terrible storm tears the circus asunder, the gracekeeper Callanish meets the crew of the Circus Excalibur, and their lives begin to change forever. Secrets and lies, enemies and lovers, all meet under the bright lights of the big top, as the characters try to find their way in a world with very little hope.
I’m not sure whether The Gracekeepers can be classified as fantasy or not, since nothing magical happens at all (with the exception of one character who is not quite human, but I won’t reveal who that is!). We can assume it’s a post-apocalyptic world since the oceans have risen and buried much of the earth. I was immediately entranced by Logan’s lovely descriptions of the ocean and those who try to survive in it.
There are two different types of people in this story: landlockers, who are fortunate enough to live on land, and tend to be much better off because they can grow food; and damplings, who spend most of their lives at sea, scrounging for every scrap of food and always hungry. North and her circus friends are damplings, since their circus stage is on a boat, and they travel from island to island performing, hoping that the landlockers will love their show and shower them with food and gold.
Callanish, on the other hand, is a landlocker. Her job as a gracekeeper earns her a small parcel of land, where she tends to her graces, the tiny birds whose sole purpose is to help people grieve for their lost loved ones. In general, landlockers look down on damplings, who are not rich enough to live on land. Damplings must wear bells, like a badge of shame, when they venture onto land so the landlockers know who they are. You can substitute any destitute people of present day earth for the damplings and you’ll begin to see why I felt so sorry for them.
So many wonderful characters make up this story! North and her bear were my favorites, especially since they sleep in the same bunk together (!!). The ringmaster’s wife, a devious and jealous woman named Avalon, hates North and tries everything in her power to get rid of her and the bear. And the other members of the circus are just as strange and wonderful. The clowns—named Cash, Dough and Dosh—refuse to follow the ringmaster's rules and come up with their own risky performances.
And then there is Callanish, a lonely woman who spends her days with the dead and the grieving, tending to her graces and trying to ration the small amounts of food she gets as payment from performing a Resting. Callanish has secrets as well, one of which involves her estranged mother. Several heart-wrenching scenes between the two of them brought tears to my eyes, especially since I finished this book on Mother’s Day. When eventually the lives of the gracekeeper and the circus collide, Callanish discovers that there is more to life than being a gracekeeper.
Logan’s writing is pure joy, and I highlighted so many passages that I wanted to share in this review, that it was hard to choose just one. Her world-building was strange and sad, and the lives of the characters were harsh, yet there was so much beauty in the story. At the end, everything comes full circle, plot lines are resolved, and most of the characters find what they have been searching for. When I finished the last page, I wanted nothing more than to read The Gracekeepers again, for the first time. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.
The nitty-gritty: A gritty follow-up that delivers on action and chills, with plenty of awesome characters.
Sunrise came slow, preceded by an uptick inThe nitty-gritty: A gritty follow-up that delivers on action and chills, with plenty of awesome characters.
Sunrise came slow, preceded by an uptick in the distant sound of traffic, honking horns, and sirens. Anna wondered if there was anywhere you could go in L.A. and not hear it. The city’s circulatory system, as clogged and dysfunctional as it was. Omnipresent, like the blood rushing in her ears, like the sound of her own breath. It had its own rhythms, locked tighter to the clock than to the sun or the stars.
I would definitely call Jamie Schultz’s Arcane Underworld series urban fantasy, but if you’re also a horror fan, then you shouldn’t miss these books. Schultz infuses his story with black magic and evil creatures born of blood sacrifice, all of which scream “horror” to me. And if you’re looking for diversity in your reading material, you seriously couldn’t find any better. Splintered has diversity and then some, with a multi-race cast of characters and a really well done lesbian relationship as well. And let’s not forget about the guns. Yes, lots of guns!
This time around, the focus shifts from Karyn, the main character in the first book, Premonitions, to Anna, Karyn’s best friend, who takes on the lead role in this book. Karyn has gone into a sort of fugue state without the drug that enables her to keep her visions of the future in check. Now she’s seeing multiple scenarios play out in her head and is unable to communicate with anyone. (This totally reminded me of Buffy Season 5, when Dawn’s been kidnapped and Buffy just shuts down for a while. Anyone?) And even though I loved her character in the last book, I really enjoyed seeing more of Anna and Nail and Genevieve. Karyn is still in the story, but we only see glimpses of her.
When the story begins, Anna and the gang are still doing heist jobs for money, and once again they’ve hooked up with the dangerous crime lord Enoch Sobell. This time he wants them to kidnap a man named Van Horn, who lives in a sketchy part of town and has gathered together a motley group of followers who surround him at all times, making it difficult to snatch him. When Anna gets wind of a magical item that could help—even cure—Karyn, she sets her sights on stealing it. But Anna and her crew didn’t count on the fanaticism of Van Horn’s followers, and it doesn’t take long before everyone is in danger.
I think my favorite thing about this series is Schultz’s ability to create realistic characters that feel like someone you might meet on the street. OK, maybe that street is in a bad part of town, littered with broken glass and a dead body or two, but even though his characters might be into the dark arts and traffic with demons, at heart they come across as down-to-earth. Take the character of Nail, for instance. I loved Nail in this book, mostly because he plays a bigger role and his personality really shone through. Nail is the muscle of the crew and fearless in every way, but he’s also loyal to his brother DeWayne, a man who can’t seem to stay out of trouble. I enjoyed seeing both sides of Nail, and I hope he has just as complex a role in the next book.
Anna and Genevieve are still a couple, but Genevieve’s magic habit is starting to erode their relationship. Anna can clearly see that magic is not good for Gen, but Gen doesn’t think she’s got a problem at all, and so she won’t listen to any of Anna’s pleas to stop. Sound familiar? This isn’t the first time magic use has been substituted for drugs (I’m looking at you, Buffy!), but I liked the way it was handled. It made their relationship very uncomfortable, but sometimes that’s the way relationships are.
There’s a fair amount of graphic violence and just plain “yuk” factor in Splintered. and I admit to feeling queasy during a few scenes. But if you’re OK with that kind of horror, don’t worry. You’ll be rewarded in the end. All of Schultz’s decisions in the violence department fit the plot very nicely and didn’t seem gratuitous at all. And get ready for some very creepy scenes. At one point, Anna and Genevieve go into the house of a witch to steal something, and their experiences in that house were pretty scary.
As far as what didn’t quite work for me, well, there is a lot going on in Splintered, almost more than I could keep track of. You’ve got multiple groups of people in different locations, going back and forth, chasing each other, looking for missing members of their groups, and so on. I guess if I had to pin down my thoughts on this, I would say the plot wasn’t quite as tight as it was in Premonitions. Eventually, however, everything does come together, and all the parts make sense. And something happens to Anna near the end of the story, and I’m dying to find out how the author is going to resolve it in book three!
I haven’t heard the title for the next book, but there is a short sampler of it at the end of Splintered to whet your appetite. If you love your urban fantasy dark and your characters complex and unpredictable—and at times unsavory—you really should be reading this series. With solid writing, snappy dialogue and tons of exciting action, Splintered is a well-done “middle” book that makes me anxious for the next one.
Big thanks to the author for supplying a review copy.
The nitty-gritty: A top-notch horror story with depth and emotion, beautifully written, with enough chills to keep me on edge.
Sometimes** 4 1/2 stars
The nitty-gritty: A top-notch horror story with depth and emotion, beautifully written, with enough chills to keep me on edge.
Sometimes there is a scent that precedes her appearances, less borne on the air than held tight against my face, an invisible, smothering cloth. And soaked in this cloth an odor that carries a feeling with it, particular as the past. It's the same sugary, teenaged-girl perfume that clouded the rec room parties and school gym dances of our youth, combined with something foul, something gone wrong. A neglected wound spritzed with Love's Baby Soft.
This was my first Andrew Pyper book, but it certainly won’t be my last! The Damned is a fresh take on ghost stories and life after death, and at times it reminded me of both The Lovely Bones and What Dreams May Come, although it’s completely different from either of those books. Pyper has come up with one chilling and terrifying ghost named Ash, who hitches a ride back from hell to terrorize her family. This story scared the pants off me, and if you love the kind of atmospheric horror that creeps up on you slowly, rather than the bloody slasher variety, then you will love this book.
Danny Orchard is a semi-famous author who wrote a book about his experience in “heaven” when he briefly died in a house fire but was resuscitated soon after. But unfortunately, Danny didn’t come back alone. He brought back his twin sister Ashleigh, who died in the fire with him. Ash was a disturbed girl in life, and she’s even worse as a ghost. Danny’s grown up now and has met a wonderful woman named Willa that he wants to get to know better. But Ash is determined to keep Danny from ever finding happiness, because she’s convinced he shouldn’t be alive. If Danny wants to start a new life, he’s going to have to figure out a way to get rid of Ash for good.
That’s a very brief synopsis of a rather complex story, but I didn’t want to get into too much detail, because you’re going to want to experience each surprise for yourself. Danny narrates the story and flits back and forth through time, gradually revealing what’s happening. I love this method of storytelling, which may frustrate some readers, but it works so well for a story like this with so many mysteries to unravel. Danny tells us of his near-death experience in the fire, but he later admits that it wasn’t the only time he died and went someplace else. Little by little, the reader comes to understand what a terrible and lonely life Danny is living, all because he is being haunted by his psychopath of a dead sister who will go to any lengths to keep him from any kind of lasting relationship.
The best part of the story for me was Pyper’s atmospheric descriptions of Detroit, a city that nearly becomes a character itself. After reading The Damned, I’m convinced that the best city in the world to set a horror story in has got to be Detroit (side note: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes is set there as well). I’ve never been there, and after reading this book I’m not sure I ever want to go there. Not only do we get to experience Detroit as it is today, with its seedy, rundown neighborhoods and abandoned car factories, but Danny’s various trips to the afterlife take place in a Detroit that is a scarier and more twisted version of the real place. I don’t think I’ve ever run across a story that pulls off this kind of “duality” as well as this one.
If you’re going to write a proper horror story, then you need to have some tormented characters who suffer at the hands of an evil entity, and Pyper gives us plenty of torment in this book. It seems Danny can never live a life of happiness, because each time he starts to get close to someone, sister Ash comes along and ruins things for him. And when I say “ruins,” I mean she injures or kills the new person in Danny’s life. So he has resigned himself to a lonely existence, rather than cause harm to someone he loves.
That is until he meets Willa at a support group for people who have had near-death experiences, called “Afterlifers.” Willa is an outspoken woman with a ten-year-old son named Eddie, who has her own terrifying death experience to deal with, but she and Danny recognize something in each other, and despite his fear of Ash screwing things up, the two begin dating. I loved their relationship, mostly because Willa is such a strong woman and doesn’t scare easily. She sticks with Danny even after she sees proof of Ash’s evil. I also loved Danny’s growing relationship with Eddie, who is wise beyond his age and even saves Danny's life at one point.
And Ash. I can barely talk about her without getting goosebumps! She is the epitome of evil, a girl who is popular and beautiful on the outside, but has a twisted mind and is able to manipulate people to do the unthinkable.
If you’ve ever given any thought to what happens when we die (and who hasn’t?), I’m afraid The Damned will not offer any comfort to you, because even those souls who are “good” end up in places that aren’t necessarily considered heaven. Pyper doesn’t actually use the words “heaven” and “hell” to describe the afterworld, but readers will understand what he’s talking about without them. In this version of the afterlife, heaven and hell are inexorably entwined, and Danny, who is intimately familiar with both life and death, can easily navigate this strange territory.
The only misstep for me, and really I can hardly call it that, was an odd shift at about the half-way point of the story, when Danny decides to investigate Ash’s death, convinced that someone murdered her. Suddenly I found myself in the middle of a murder mystery, and although the horror elements were still present, the tone of the story at that point felt different. As it turns out, Danny uncovers even more horrors surrounding his sister, and this section ultimately made the story stronger.
Pyper throws in lots of small details—like Danny’s mother’s Omega watch that he brings back from the afterlife—that give this story so much depth. A final showdown (you know there had to be one!) between Danny and Ash takes place in a location that is not only poignant but somehow brings the realms of the living and the dead together. The Damned is a perfect book for fans of horror stories, but it will resonate with many types of readers, and therefore I recommend it to everyone!
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy! Quote above was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.