A darkly imagined Cinderella retelling... but I was so, so bored, confused by its purpose, and ultimately bothered by the lack of female agency.
Sense of urgency: ★
Oh boy, I do not want to write this review. It's always hard when you expected to love a book and then...you really, really don't.
The Shadow in the Glass follows Ella, the protagonist, as she works as a housemaid in the Pembroke's manor home where she used to grow up as a cherished ward. But then Mrs. Pembroke died, and everything changed. Mr. Pembroke's money dwindled and Ella transformed from reluctant ward to hired help.
Now a housemaid in a dark, dim manor where the female maids leave one by one in disgrace when Mr. Pembroke...tarnishes them....(spoiler: (view spoiler)), Ella is running out of options and hope.
But then in a mysterious book in the library, Ella summons a woman with black eyes. The woman says she can grant Ella 7 wishes in exchange for her soul.
Ella, being the kind of stupid that the plot needed her to be, says yes without thinking it through. It's only a matter of time before Mr. Pembroke turns his eye on Ella—and to Ella's worry, on the even younger Aoife—and Ella feels this is her only choice.
So then some wishes happen, Mr. Pembroke happens, Mr. Pembroke's son arrives on the scene with interesting results, and...yeah.
I had three large issues with this story.
I'm verging into pseudo-spoiler territory to discuss them, so consider yourself warned!
1.) This plot was so transparent and boring to have to sit through. From the get-go, we know the set up. Mr. Pembroke is a sexual predator in their home, Ella and the other girls need an out, and Ella takes that out in the form of a deal with the devil for 7 wishes. This concept was fine, but then it never, not once, adapted or grew into something rewarding. In a frankly bizarre form of storytelling, we as readers had to just sit through that plot with no growth, no surprises, no stakes, no intrigue. That is what happens, with the additions of some side characters doing unimportant things. I needed adaptability? Intrigue? Something to surprise me into being interested? Because I wasn't interested, at all, after the setup finished and things just stagnated with more and more of the same.
2.) Ella was not a strong enough character to fill this story. Given the issues of the first point above, I would have been satisfied if Ella was a strong character on the page. I would have been invested in Ella for Ella's sake, and that would have been fine. But I didn't care about Ella. There was something distanced about how she was written, and her stupidity in her choices and the plot holes left around her character's childhood and placement in this world just left me irritated with her and confused.
3.) The discussion of female agency and the historic predation of women was just...not handled to my satisfaction. I know that this novel did not set out to be a feminist retelling, or even contain female-agency themes. But my lingering feelings after reading this novel were sour when it came to the female representation and agency. Mr. Pembroke violates girl after girl in an abuse of his power and place in society. His son's plotline with Ella was essentially a socially-acceptable version of that abuse of power, in a supposedly "romantic" way. Again, I realize that this novel didn't set out to do anything with these historically accurate concepts, but at the same time this was a fantasy with a female demon and a girl who bargained for 7 wishes to literally escape that kind of predation and then...the plot went in different ways for a majority of the time.
I don't know, folks, this was clearly not for me. On to the next!
Beautifully written, evocative and emotionally turbulent... the realities of generational trauma, sense of self, and womanhood collide in this insightful and literary novel.
Sometimes, you read a book and you realize that you're just not...there yet. For me, I think Carry the Dog was conveying messages that I was frankly too young to fully appreciate—I'm a mid-20-something woman, not someone looking back on her life in terms of decades. I'm not there yet, where Bea Seger is at in this novel. But I might be someday, and for that reason I found this novel extremely compelling.
In the 1960s, when Bea was a young child, she and her siblings were photographed in a series of provocative and explosive nude photographs taken by their own mother. They were controversial at the time, and they've remained so up until the present day. But now, museums want to showcase them—and they're talking to Bea about it.
Bea has spent a long time not analyzing those images, or her experiences with them. But should she? And even if she's not willing to self-analyze, would it be worth it for the money?
With those questions circling around her, Bea is also dealing with other elements in her life. Like her complicated relationship with her divorced husband, which is filled with toxicity, subtle and overt betrayals, and issues. Bea's not exactly handled that well internally, either.
But the light is starting to shine on Bea's life, and whether she likes it or not, it's time to look at the pieces around her and locate that inner steel at the core of her womanhood.
Complex? Yes. Beautifully rendered? Also yes. An uplifting and joyful read? Not particularly.
Like I mentioned earlier in this review, I think this book provides more poignancy and support to women and individuals with more life experiences under their belt—I'm not calling anyone "old," y'all, but I am calling myself too young to fully appreciate this novel's bittersweet and lingering resilience.
However, I didn't have to fully understand Bea's struggles and emotional palate to appreciate the raw storytelling skills at play here. The author did a fantastic job at rendering Bea and her journey, and I couldn't help but appreciate that.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Spooktacular, graphic, and ominous, this Japanese-inspired dark novella was a thrill from start to finish. (I just wish it had been longer.)
Sense of unease: ★★★★★
First off, if you love horror at all, then I think this title speaks for itself. What horror fan would pass up the chance to—at a minimum—try out this novel? Nothing But Blackened Teeth screams to be read. Literally.
So I came for the title. Then, once I read the blurb, I was ALL IN for this concept. A group of young people meet up for an impromptu wedding in a Heian ruin that's known to be the origin of a traumatizing and sinister undead bride?? Say no more. Add in the fact that every single person in this toxic friend group has issues with one another and are a powder keg of drama waiting to happen?? Really, say no more, I'm already reading it.
This novella comes in hot at just barely over 100 pages, and at times it felt like a fully fleshed out novel and at times it felt like it was only a few pages. I would have gladly read an entire novel on these characters and this setting, so my one main gripe about this short version of the tale is that it felt like it was only a teaser to the real thing.
Don't get me wrong—it has an official beginning, exciting middle, and final end. It's the full monty. Butttttttttt. I felt like we snipped out a lot of juicy options in order to keep this uber-slim final product.
Come for the concept. Stay for the beautifully rendered friend group on the brink of implosion. Leave with the unformed sense of lingering loss and unease.
A great read for this year's spooky season!
Thank you to TOR for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Calling all fans of Mexican Gothic....This is not a book for the meek, it's a book for those of us who loved that story and are looking for a more intense, Gothic-a la Victorian version of it with more magic and more medical gore.
Horror elements: ★★★★★
Engagement: ★★★ 1/2
Jane Shorefield lives her life by the numbers. A rare female accountant in a a world that feels like Victorian England, she's done the math and decided that she needs a husband--and after careful consideration of the bachelors in her small town, she decides on Doctor Augustine Lawrence.
Augustine is single, attractive, and respectable, with well-paying job as the town's only doctor. He's a great match. It is weird that Augustine is still single and seemingly not interested in marriage... but Jane decides to give it a try. She proposes a business transaction: they'll get married to save Jane from spinsterhood and to provide Augustine with a live-in woman to help him with his practice's accounts.
Now Mrs. Jane Lawrence, she discovers several things in quick succession.
First, Augustine's practice is filled with death and the dying--for a woman who only thought about the numbers involved, it's a rough awakening to be thrown into a hectic and gory surgery on her first day in the practice.
Second, her husband refuses to let her spend the night in his family estate outside of town. His vicious vehemence takes her aback. Jane agrees, but like all good stories we know that doesn't last.
Third, there's something Augustine isn't telling her. Jane can't expect anything more, as she knows they did this for convenience and not for love, but there's something under the surface that Jane can feel at the edges of their relationship. What is it?
When a simple miscommunication leads to Jane arriving at the estate, everything begins to change. Jane quickly realizes that her world is not what it seems.... and at the heart of the wrongness is Augustine.
Gross, gory, and enrapturing, The Death of Jane Lawrence was a doozy of a novel.
The sense of menace in the writing was top tier. From the beginning, you can feel the trap closing around Jane despite her point of view trying to make logical sense of her surroundings. I was waiting with baited breath for the shoe(s) to drop. (Boy, do they ever.)
Once Jane gets to the estate and things start to happen, the pacing and plot develops into its final form of intricately paced and plotted horror. I both loved the pacing and absolutely hated it. It was too slow for me, but I couldn't stop? That duality carries throughout the entirety of this novel. You're attracted and yet repelled, boring and yet enraptured, disgusted and yet understanding.
Intense. I liked it a lot for what it was, but count this one in the category of "I can't believe I liked this, it was so dark and twisted" fiction such as Mexican Gothic, Follow Me to Ground, and others.
Spoilers for the graphic elements: (view spoiler)
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
There's no other way to put this review, so I'm starting off right with the one-two punch: The Last Graduate was 50% a slow-burn sophomore setup, and 50% an active, amazing plot with the cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers.
Character relationships: ★★★★★
World building #2: ★★★★
Where to start?? I guess I'm going to attempt to be completely spoiler free this time around... a concept. Because of that, here's a vague synopsis of the first book, A Deadly Education.
El, a powerful "evil" wizard who is prophesized to bring the doom of the wizarding world, attends the deadliest school you could ever conceptualize: The Scholomance. It's a never-ending haunted house—with deadly stakes—and El's lack of connections and rage-filled chip on her shoulder left her in a pickle. That and the fact that the Scholomance, which is sentient and supposed to provide each student with schoolwork tailored to their unique abilities, keeps trying to give El supervolcano spells of mass destruction whenever she asks for help cleaning her dirty dorm room.
We should probably mention that El was raised by the kindest hippie witch trope in the world, so El's trying her best to NOT be the next Evil One to End All Things.
But anyway... Some things happen. As El is the Evil One, she also interacts with her class's version of the Chosen One with...interesting results that I (totally and utterly) went completely fangirl over. She makes some alliances, some things happen... the vague synopsis peters out here.
In this book, The Last Graduate, El and her classmates are now seniors. With the graduation ceremony historically being a bloodbath of epic proportions—they have to fight their way out of a monster pit at the base of the school, full-on gladiator/Hunger Games style—they've got a lot of training and preparation to do.
But things this year are different. And their plans are about to be radically changed... and not from the source that they're expecting.
That's all. I'm not going to ruin it!
So, in short, I will fully admit to being very bored for the first half of this novel. In fact, this book had me questioning my love of the first one! Because it was so much slower, not overly much happened right away, and Noviks' already extremely meandering and overly descriptive writing took center stage and tried to bore me from my beloved characters.
But I loved El, and I loved her situation and her friends, so I kept going. And that paid off BIG TIME. The last half of the novel recovered from its slump and ended in a truly dramatic and over-the-top way that made me just lose my mind. I'm upset we've got to wait until September 2022 for our next one!
(But will gladly wait, with popcorn, for the finale. It's going to be epic.)
A tea shop that's really a way station for the recently dead, a ferryman like the Greek myths who's actually a cinnamon roll, and one absolutely horrible man who comes to find his humanity in this sweet and emotional novel.
Handling of heavy topics: Every reader will have their own reactions, handle with care
I couldn't get through The House on the Cerulean Sea (I know, I know, don't come for me. I am also upset that it was a DNF.) so I'm pleased to see that this second "quaint fantasy" novel by T.J. Klune really worked for me.
Under the Whispering Door looks cute, and on one level it IS cute. It's a quaint novel about a tea shop and soft gay characters and acceptance and love and goodness prevailing.
DISCLAIMER: But this novel is also extremely heavy and deals with all manners of death—including suicides and murdered victims. Because of this second element, the author himself writes a "handle with care" note in front of the book. I think that note could be more strongly worded, myself, as someone struggling with mental health my have a harder time seeing the weeds for the trees. Please note this if you usually avoid these topics.
Wallace Price is a horrible man. We meet him in the very first scene as he fires a very good employee for a very inconsequential reason, and he feels no remorse. He abruptly dies from a heart attack.
When Wallace "comes to" again, he's shocked to find himself at his own funeral. Only 5 people attend, and no one is sad. This feels very much like Scrooge's experience in A Christmas Carol. One of the attendees is Mei, and Wallace discovers that, to his horror, Mei is his Reaper. He is Dead with capital D, and it's time to meet his Ferryman and accept his death.
Mei takes Wallace to Hugo. Hugo, who runs the quaint tea shop in the woods named Charon's Crossing, is not at all who Wallace expects. But they're tied to each other—literally—and things are about to get interesting.
Throw in a ghost dog and a ghost grandpa, some truly hilarious shenanigans, and a thread of grief and its various stages and you've got this novel. A complicated cup of tea.
Like I said at the beginning, I couldn't get through Klune's previous quaint fantasy. So what was different about this one? For one thing, I think the pacing was much more palatable for me. The plot might be limited to basically one setting, but it moves!
Wallace Price was an interesting main character to follow. His journey was cliched, for sure, but still there was a lot there and I appreciated how the author brought nuance to a pretty standard "unlikeable to likeable" character arc. I also absolutely LOVED Mei and Nelson (hugo's ghostly grandpa).
Now that all the glowing praise is out of the way... on to the less-than-great stuff. I do think that the author chose a very tall order to cover in this book. And because of that, I think this novel struggled to find its balance between "quaint cozy" and a dark focus on healing, grief, and dying. The two concepts aren't impossible to work together, but I did find it a combination of heavy-handed and derivative at the same time, because the grief elements seemed rushed and slightly overshadowed by the quaint love story, and the love story seemed almost interrupted by some side plots that focused purely on the situation of the way station tea shop. We needed more space, maybe? I'm not sure. This was like holding two polar magnets together by its opposite ends—they are both magnets, so they SHOULD work together, but they were flipped around and you could feel the constant struggle the book was undergoing to keep these two levels of plotline held together.
Thank you to TOR for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A very different historical romance... One with lots of caves and a Romeo and Juliet-style feud.
A Reckless Match comes out on September 28!
Maddie Montgomery's family has been in a feud with the neighboring Davies family for generations. By order of the Royal family, each year a representative of the Montgomery family and a representative of the Davies family must meet on the borderlands of their estates and shake hands to seal their yearly agreement—if either party fails to show up, the strip of borderland is taken from the no-show family.
Maddie thinks her family might just win this year... until Gryff Davies shows up on his horse, freshly returned from the war and looking Fine with a capital F.
Gryff's childhood crush on Maddie Montgomery was something of his past, Gryff thought. But when he sees Maddie on the border, he realizes he was just lying to himself. She's the only person who makes him feel something, and he's not sure he can bear to see her getting married off...
Will these two lifelong "enemies" meet their match?
I thought this series debut was entertaining enough, but to be honest I think this was a case of "it's not the book, it's just me and my reading tastes again" because I had a really hard time getting through A Reckless Match. And objectively, this was a wonderfully fresh historical romance. For one thing, there's a lot of adventure and cave exploring. How many historical romances set in England can say that?
This novel does include the "virgin female" trope, which is a personal dislike of mine. It also moved quite slowly and seemed to conveniently wrap up every plot point. Again, neither of those qualms are necessarily bad, but given my personal romance preferences they served to keep me from fully engaging in the story.
If you like historical English romances, feuding families, or caves, I do recommend this one!
Thank you to St Martin's Press for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Lyrical and lulling, this novel was an entrancing story of one woman's love of dance in 1960-1970s Bombay.
Narrative style: ★★ (did not work for me)
Main character: ★★★★
I absolutely adored Shruti Swamy's A House is a Body short story collection. It was out-of-this-world mesmerizing and filled with stories that seared your soul. Because of that collection, I was thrilled to pick up a copy of her newest novel.
Vidya is a girl growing up in 1960s Bombay. Raised within the traditional values of her culture and the world's views on womanhood, Vidya does not know how to fit in as a girl. She's hyperaware of her physical self and soul in her surroundings. But then everything changes when she begins to dance.
As she falls further into the dancing world of Kathak, a style of dance known for its precision, Vidya begins to make order of her life. Dance becomes her means of ordering herself and her place within time and space. The years flow. The dance remains.
This book calls itself "deeply sensual," and I strongly agree. Everything emotional and sensory is deeply feel through the pages, and there is a startling intimacy in the reader's connection to Vidya as she grows into womanhood and reckons with her life and the limitations of her gender.
The Archer is memorable and lyrical, but I do have to admit that I loved it slightly less than Swamy's short story collection. I had a heck of a time getting into the narrative style of this one. The character's narration of her own thoughts and life's journey was intentionally distanced and meant to highlight her internal journey toward herself, yes, but it did make for a very difficult reading experience.
Recommended for fans of the author's previous collection and for those who enjoy non-traditional narration.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A vampire novel that plays with your expectations and brings new light into the niche? Nice.
In an alternate version of Mexico City, vampires exist. Well, they're outlawed from Mexico City itself, but they're a known species in Mexico and throughout the world. With several different subspecies of vampire originating from all across the globe, things come to a head in Certain Dark Things when the Mexican native group of vampires, the original Aztec blood drinkers, encounter a turf war with the European immigrant variant of vampire and the fallout impacts different people in Mexico City.
Atl, the lone surviving member of her vampire clan, is on the run from the European vampire clan that massacred her family. She picked Mexico City as a dangerous hideout spot in order to avoid the vampires in a city that outlaws their existence. While it makes it hard for the bad guys to track her down, it also makes it hard for her to get around—and she's not exactly hiding well with her huge genetically enhanced Doberman at her heels. Atl desperately needs to escape Mexico if she wants to survive.
Domingo is a trash collector in Mexico City. He's eeking a meager life for himself on the fringes of society, and he's still young enough to believe in adventure. So when a mysterious and beautiful woman with a hulking Doberman dog asks for his help, he agrees with a shocking lack of hesitation.
Atl thinks he's just a convenient meal for now. Domingo thinks he's having his shot at a grand vampire adventure. They're both in for a huge surprise.
I loved this neo-noir take on vampires in Mexico City. Like all of Silvia Moreno-Garcia's works, I thought this one was fantastic. I love her writing and her way of engaging storytelling. Her characters feel real and yet distant, easy to predict and yet surprising. Certain Dark Things was no exception, even though it did have a few more bumps in the plot and pacing than a usual Moreno-Garcia work (Gods of Jade and Shadow and Mexican Gothic were written later than this one, and you can tell. However, it's a testament to her writing ability that the difference in quality is not that large.)
Highlights for me: The characters, the worldbuilding, and unpredictable nature of the story.
Lowpoints for me: I did think the pacing suffered in the middle, but that's because I love drama.
Overall, I really enjoyed this one and am thrilled to see it republished in this form with this stunning cover edition. Its brief original release and subsequent abandonment due to publisher issues was not the fault of the work, and now we can all enjoy this tale in its updated form!
Thank you to Macmillan/TOR for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
4.5 bloody stars
The true horror of this novel has nothing to do with the gore or the slashers. This was deceptively stunning.
Pacing: ★★ 1/2
Plot layers: ★★★★★
Overall impact: ★★★★★
Oof. How do I review this one. On the one hand, I want to start with the hard spoilers and work my way backward because I haven't see many reviews addressing the elements that I want to talk about. But on the other hand, half of this novel's brilliance comes from the reveals and final steps.
I guess we'll see how this goes.
My Heart is a Chainsaw was stunning. I had to read it roughly 1.5 times to get to this 5 star rating—let me explain. For the first third, I was NOT feeling the story. As someone who hated Catcher in the Rye for Holden's annoying internal monologues and meandering prose, the main character of Chainsaw, Jade, fit that bill too closely for my tastes. I wanted to reach into the pages and "make her stay on track, dang it!" Lots of pop culture slasher references, meandering thoughts, unlikeable character traits, the whole nine yards and then some.
But then some reveals hit us around 1/3-1/2 mark, and I was floored. Absolutely floored.
So now, at the halfway point of the novel for the first read, I went back to the beginning. I needed to see what I'd missed and see how the author had gotten us here—because clearly Jade had done what she'd intended to do... which was hide the truth from us and herself.
So let's just say that if you're not feeling Jade or the pacing of the novel on your first read, you're not alone. But it is disturbingly worth it.
This is a novel filled with guts and gore and slashers and horror. Not a single review disputes that. But it's also about Jade. It's about what she's not saying and not addressing—and yet putting in these pages like Morse code. It's about the true horror behind the curtain and the mind's way of (not) coping with reality. It's about our fantasies, our dreams deferred turned dark and deep, our use of pop culture to explain our present and idealize our future.
To touch on the surface plot for a bit, I found the slasher elements of this novel to be interesting. As someone who loves new horror trends and never quite got into the old-school slashers that Jade loves to reference, I didn't find it hard to follow. Maybe a bit heavy-handed, but isn't that the mode of the slasher in the first place?
I'm giving this five stars for Stephen Graham Jones' stunning interplay between surface plot and subplot, and his way of taking the familiar "outside" horror that we see in the movies and using it as a mask for the darker, intimate horrors that cut deeper.
A strong novel with a bleak outlook on truth and life and personhood, this is one that will linger with me for a long time.
Thank you to Gallery Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.