This is the last kind of story that I would have pegged as hopeful. And joyful. And yet it was.
This isn't the kind of love story that would make it into the romance section, but it's a love story all the same. It's about what it means to be you—a person in the world, existing as a separate unit from others—and what it means to discover how you can love the unit that is you.
Stella and Simon have been together for over 20 years. Their marriage has followed the track of Simon's desire to be famous, to be a rock star. Now they're in the forties, and Simon is still the same free-wheeling, "no responsibilities" guy and Stella is trying to make him look toward the future, their future.
And then, Stella falls into a coma.
Simon, now forced for the first time to be the adult in their relationship, has to have a reckoning within himself. He becomes more responsible. He starts thinking of Stella, and not just as someone who exists to support him. He starts thinking of his life, and if it is rolling in the direction it needs to go.
And then, Stella wakes up from the coma. But like many coma patients, Stella comes out different than she went in before.
Stella now has an aptitude for painting and drawing, and she's not like she used to be. Simon feels wrong, she feels wrong, and her best friend Libby treats her more like a patient than a friend. Finally looking at her life from an outsider's eyes, Stella realizes that...maybe she doesn't fit in this life anymore.
Libby is Stella's best friend, and she used to hate Simon. Simon was the man-child that never grew up, never paid Stella the attention and love that she was due. But when Stella goes into the coma, Simon changes. Libby can't help but notice that change, and they fall toward each other in their pain.
Stella, Simon, and Libby all have some growing to do—and they might not make it out to the other side as the same people that went in. But sometimes painful growth is good, and self-acceptance is no small element of happiness.
I absolutely adored this novel. To be honest with you, I didn't think I would. I've always struggled to pick up books that scream sadness, and With or Without You definitely gives off that vibe. And I'll be honest, there are some sad parts. That's no joke. But what I didn't expect—and maybe that's on me, for not trusting the author—was the shining hope and self-love. This is a novel that demands a internal reckoning, and it demands that its characters realize that other people cannot complete them. It's a lesson that resonates with its readers too. I know it resonated with me.
A beautiful story, and sharply real. These characters will stay with you when you leave them, and the writing lingers. Fantastic book.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Reflections on memory, the layers of self that make up who we are, and the sense of mortality at the heart of what it means to be human. This was a heavy and contemplative read.
Pacing: ★★★ (a little slow for me)
Hieroglyphics has a title that makes you think of history. And not just any history, but ancient history. This was clearly intentional, and also relied on the other aspect of a hieroglyphic: the fact that they're pictures displaying stories, the written word, and that their interpretation varies.
My standard review format seems off in this case. It's not a standard novel.
Imagine if you could walk through the mind of your grandmother, your grandfather. What would you see? A haze of distant memories, maybe. Or a winding path cluttered on either side with the small details of millions of moments. Or, just maybe, the space is crystal clear: everything in its place, everything lovingly polished with the element of remembering.
This novel follows the story of an elderly couple, Lil and Frank, and their continuous musings on what it means to remember, what is important about what they're remembering, and how they want to be remembered. If that sounds like a twisting, continuous loop—you'd be right. By the end of this novel I felt like I WAS Lil and Frank. I'd lived their memories and breathed their thoughts and felt the core of their beings from page to page. McCorkle's writing is phenomenal in this, even when she's scraping apart her characters skin layer by skin layer to expose them to the elements of time.
Another element of this novel was Shelley, a woman younger than Lil and Frank, but no less focused on her own memories, pasts, and looping concepts of life. She's the current owner of Frank's childhood home, and when Frank stops by to ask her to let him wander about—to remember, obviously—she doesn't let him in because of her own reasons. This relationship develops through long vignettes of Shelley's experience, her son Harvey's experience and his feelings about ghosts, and through Frank and Lil themselves.
An interesting, thought provoking read that's meant to make us hyper aware of not only our mortality, but also of that old phrase: When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
I don't think I'll be forgetting this book any time soon. "Haunting," is one word for it. "Piercing" is another.
Cultural relevancy: ★★★★★
The Night Swim is a novel that feels sharply of its time—and that's not a good thing for our modern world. In my opinion, this book shouldn't have to exist. But I'm glad that Megan Goldin decided to tell it, because it's poignant, important, and aches with past and present bruises.
Rachel Krall is now a household name. After starting her extremely successful cold-case crime podcast, Rachel has become something of an amateur detective, jury, and public figure all in one. Now in her third season of her podcast, Rachel decides to go into uncharted territory: covering a current, ongoing court case.
A small town is in the midst of a rape trial.
Immediately, your expectations can supply some of the details as—and I hope you can feel the angry in my words through the screen--this is not a unique injustice in our society.
A golden boy, a pillar of the Neapolis community, destined for a shot at the Olympic swim team when he graduates, perfect in every way according to the world and his parents and society--he's been charged with rape and assault. How could such a nice boy have done this? The town cries for this boy who's been "wronged."
The girl, of course, is living in a different kind of hell and hasn't been looked on as fondly by the town. Her family is hounded by the press, her name becomes synonymous with "asking for it," and her trial has been hijacked in the court of public opinion by her predator.
Rachel Krall is here to find out the truth behind this current rape trial. But what Rachel doesn't expect to find is a series of letters addressed to her, begging her to look into the "accidental" death of a teenage girl 25 years ago in the same small town. The town slut, the town's shining example of a girl gone wrong. That girl's fate was also determined by the court of public opinion, and her death was pushed under the rug.
With pulse-pounding suspense, lingering coastal atmosphere, and a social commentary as sharp as glass, The Night Swim is a great mystery/thriller. I hope its place in the canon does its subject matter justice, and I hope it sparks more conversations. As a woman, it made me rage and ache and want to not have daughters. As a reader, it made me appreciate Goldin's talent for the written word, and her bravery for tackling a topic that, as her own protagonist states, is somehow not a black and white issue.
If we can all agree that murder is wrong, indefinitely, irrefutably—why is rape somehow different? Like Rachel Krall's podcast concludes with, it's time for you, the audience, to decide for yourself who is right, and who is wrong.
Thank you to St Martin's Press via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Four men discover that things they buried in the past don't stay buried in this multi-layered cultural horror novel by master writer Stephen Graham Jones.
Potential to linger in your mind forever: ★★★★★
Execution of plot: ★★★★★
This was stellar. That seems to be an odd opinion as I don't see too many 5 stars rolling around, but this horrific tale of past sins, cultural obligations turning into traps, cyclical identity horror, and more was amazing.
The Only Good Indians is a different kind of horror novel. Oh, it goes there with its horror—extreme trigger warnings for horror inflicted on animals being a main example. But it's also a layered look at what it means to be Indian/Native American/Indigenous in today's America—and the cultural identity, cyclical injustices, and lingering wounds of the past that refuse to heal both within the community and in the country at large.
Ten years ago, four friends decide to break the laws of the land and hunt for elk in the elders' only zone. While there, they find a herd of elk and take them down in a glorified slaughter. One of their kills is a young female. And she was pregnant. (Killing young/pregnant targets is taboo for hunters.)
Now ten years later, those four men all live different versions of a modern Native experience. Two are still on the reservation, struggling with their own pasts and present within the constant social chains of familial obligation and tribal identity. One man fled the reservation after the OD of his brother and escaped to North Dakota to work on a oil rig. One man fell in love with a white woman and pretends he's made his own choices to be away from the reservation as opposed to hiding from the sins of his past.
But the past draws long shadows, and the Elk Head Woman is coming to avenge the slaughter of the land. Who will be the first man to fall?
Presented in sections dedicated to the different men and their encounters with the horror stalking them, this novel kept me on the edge of my seat from the first page to the last. Jones' talent for ominous atmosphere delivered through distanced writing was fantastic. It speaks to the talent of the writing that something with relatively little jump scares and/or action was able to keep my muscles so tense for so long, ready for the next jump. This book was terrifying, its progression toward its only conclusion ceaseless and inevitable.
I don't think this kind of horror novel will be for everyone, and as my friends' ratings suggest, that is clearly the case. If you come to this novel with an expectation, expect it to be ignored. The Only Good Indians stands alone in its pacing, its plot, and its ability to have each action and reaction exist not only as concrete points of the surface horror novel but also reflections of horror in myriad forms of the Indian/Native American/Indigenous experience.
Thank you to the publisher and Libro.fm for my audiobook copy in exchange for an honest review.
I was bored silly for 75% of this book, but the very very end did surprise me more than I expected it to, so I bumped the rating up a star.
Because my feelings for this one are so meh, this review is going to be short and sweet.
I think that fans of Alice Feeney may enjoy this one, but as this was my first Feeney novel I can't say that for certain. I CAN say that this novel didn't have the same polarizing negative representation that I Know Who You Are seemed to have. (I heard about the ending to that book - yikes.)
This was just... a seriously standard dual POV thriller. There's a dead body, and a male perspective and a female perspective. The man and woman are obviously linked together, and a third, "murderer" POV thrown in that could be anyone. There's enough shocks, red herrings, and twisted secrets for 10 lifetimes.
As you can probably tell from my lackluster phrasing—I'm so sorry to this book, it's not really its fault—I just didn't enjoy reading it. The writing seemed like it kept trying to reel me in, but the endless vague sentences, dual-meaning scenes, and flashbacks conveyed to be as sinister-yet-vague as possible all kept me from feeling like this was a real story with real stakes. It felt very fourth wall, very staged. And, despite its pulse-pounding premise, I was also extremely bored. I could have handled one or two of the above issues and still enjoyed the ride, but all of them? No dice.
Oh well. On to the next!
Thank you to Flatiron via NetGalley for my giveaway ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
What do you have when you add Salem Witch Trials, plagues, cursed witches, polygamy, oppression of women, fantasy settings, racial commentaries, and religious allegories together? This book.
Enjoyment: ★★★ 1/2
In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. A biracial girl in a town of only white people, her very existence brings shame to her family as it reminds the settlement of her dead mother's sins—and witchcraft.
The Prophet is a man (I bet you guessed) and the town of Bethel exists as a small, settlement-type town in the middle of Nowhere, Nowhere. Their town is surrounded by the Darkwood, and the Prophet's religious teachings warn of the wood's dangers and temptations. Lilith and her coven of witches live in the Darkwood and they live in sin, and if you let them tempt you you'll be lost forever.
Or at least, that's what the man says.
Like so many tales of oppressive male-dominated religious regimes, The Year of the Witching is highlighting issues of gender, power, and control—and how many of those bindings go hand in hand with some extreme conservative religions. The Prophet may be in charge and he may call himself holy, but his many many underage sister wives tell a different story by the bruises on their skin.
Combining issues of female agency and power, race and poverty, and a heavy dose of critical notes on religion, this tale was extremely representative and often sacrificed world building and plot for the sake of allegory. I'm not saying that it wasn't done well, but I definitely want to highlight that fact for other readers.
At the end of the day, I thought this was a solid debut. As someone who likes fantasy/horror speculative novels that go there and push the reader, I thought this fell short. The messaging was fantastic, but the plot itself stopped its own progress by keeping it from going to that extra level. Things felt predictable—with the heart of the novel focused on the lofty concepts it was harder for the characters to authentically reach their goals.
Without spoiling this particular novel, a good example of this would be like a book to movie adaptation. It's hard to be surprised when you go the theater to view an adapted movie from a book that you've read. You know the main plot points, you've read the book, so it's really a matter of relying on the adaptation to still surprise you with something new within the framework of something that you already know.
The Year of the Witching didn't have that extra oomph for me, but I think it did for other readers.
Thank you to Ace - Berkley via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
A quiet tale focused on the rebuilding aspect of a post-apocalyptic reality, this novel was a memorable addition to the genre.
Plot: ★★★ 1/2
First off, I'm not usually a reader of post-apocalyptic fiction. I don't like novels focused on the end of times, death, destruction, and the lack of hope—I tend to like more escape in my fiction, and to me the plot tends to not outweigh the personal stress I feel while reading it!
The Lightest Object in the Universe isn't about destruction though. It's about hope, and new growth.
Carson is a former school principal and history teacher on the East Coast, witnessing the breakdown of normal as the electrical grid shuts down, the world collapses, and his neighborhood, students, and city fall into the grim reality of "after." The only thing he can think of is his lover, Beatrix, who lives in California. Is she safe? Is she alive? Carson decides to go to her, and that decision sparks a cross-country trek the old-fashioned way: on foot.
Beatrix is dealing with her own end of the world life in California, and she wonders about Carson—is he safe? Is he alive? Does her remember the promise he made to her that he would cross the country to be with her? Learning how to live with her neighbors and friends in the new version of the world, Beatrix discovers what it means to carry on.
This is a quiet tale. I have to admit, at times I wished it was a little faster in its pacing...but at the same time, that was kind of the point. In our current world of technology, immediacy, electricity, and the grid, time spent on the quiet moments is seen as something extremely slow and often unnecessary. But for Carson and Beatrix, time flows differently because there is no option to do it faster. It is what it is. Over the course of the novel, I found myself slowing down to match their speed, and once I did that I was able to enjoy the novel more.
Recommended for those who like the quiet, and are willing to spend some lingering time with this radically different post-apocalyptic tale.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A haunted house, a family with too many secrets, a girl-turned-woman caught in the crossfire. Many years later, it's time for the woman to come home and deal with the remnants of her past.
Final, final ending: ★★★★
This DELIVERED. I was gripped for the entire read. I was surprised at points and not at others. I had a heck of a good time reading it in one sitting. But but but...?
Maggie Holt grew up in the shadow of The Book. The Book: a haunted "nonfiction" account of one family's few weeks of horrors in a haunted Victorian mansion. The Book was written by her journalist father when she was very small, and captured the weeks that their family lived in Baneberry Hall and experienced the most terrifying time of their lives.
Or so the world believes.
Maggie, now a grown woman, believes The Book was a clever piece of fiction that her father wrote for money. The fact that she remembers nothing of her time in Baneberry Hall—good or bad—speaks to that fact. (Well, except for her lingering night terrors, which hang with her to this day...)
So when her father dies and shocks Maggie with the deed to Baneberry Hall, Maggie knows that now, finally, it's her turn. It's her turn to find out the truth about her past and reclaim her childhood in the eyes of the public. And time to lay old ghosts to rest, permanently.
But Baneberry Hall isn't ready to give Maggie up yet, and something is determined to go bump in the night...
What if The Book wasn't a lie after all?
What I loved:
I say this every time I read a Riley Sager book: I loved the writing. There's something to be said for a story that doesn't skimp on facts and yet doesn't overuse its details. This was another Sager novel that I read in one sitting late one stormy night (if you can control your weather, I highly recommend that experience). It's moody, it's dark, it's spooky. It's also a story within a story, with spliced sections of Maggie's POV in the present and spliced chapters of The Book itself recounting the past. I loved that element too—talk about a tried and true method of creating suspense. And also, the elephant in the room, I'm a sucker for haunted houses so I was, at a minimum, going to enjoy this novel for that element alone. Which I did.
What I didn't love:
The only thing I didn't love is a small spoiler from the very end. It wasn't enough to tip me from 5 stars to 4, but it was just enough that I went, aw, really? Really? Because this novel would have been perfection if it had done one more thing. I don't want to include it here because some folks will read it and then the story won't work for them the same way, but for those who have read it I'll send you to my Goodreads review so you can read the spoiler: (view spoiler)
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
"For the girls they were, for the girl I was, for girls everywhere who are just like we used to be. For the black and brown girls. For the girls on the merry-go-round making the world spin. For the wild girls and the party girls, the loudmouths and troublemakers. For the girls who are angry and lost. For the girls who never saw themselves in books. For the girls who love other girls, sometimes in secret. For the girls who believe in monsters. For the girls on the edge who are ready to fly. For the ordinary girls. For all the girls who broke my heart. And their mothers. And their daughters. And if I could reach back through time and space to that girl I was, to all my girls, I would tell you to take care, to love each other, fight less, dance dance dance until you're breathless. And goddamn, girl. Love."
This is a searing memoir. I wasn't sure what to expect from the blurb or the critically acclaimed reviews. I knew it would be fantastically written, but I wasn't sure what kind of story it would be. Regardless, I was utterly, completely, heartstoppingly captivated by Jaquira Diaz' words.
Diaz writes about her life, and the multiple lifetimes it feels like she has lived as, in her words, an ordinary girl. Her experience is singular yet representative, poignantly alone and yet surrounded by other similar echoes of other girls' experiences. While the main story is Diaz's, the vibrating truth speaks for all the women intersecting with Diaz's voice and identity.
As a half-Black Puerto Rico child born to a Black father, poet and womanizer, and a white mother, hounded by schizophrenia and addiction, Diaz's life emerges into uncertainty and follows the fracture lines as her tale unfolds, spanning the family's early life in Puerto Rico and their move to Miami Beach, her parents' separation and Diaz's own struggles to cope with the constant cycle of change. And it's not just her tale that unfolds, but those of the girls and women who are facets of her life: her Abuela, her grandmother, her mother, her younger sister, her neighbors, her friends, her enemies, strangers on the street.
Through Diaz's words, all these women and herself and her community are connecting, spiraling, fracturing, unending. There are so many words I could use to describe the flow of the narrative but let's settle for hypnotic. That feels the most true.
What an important and showstopping debut. I look forward to whatever Diaz decides to write next—you best believe I'll have that on preorder.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Stellar. I went in with no expectations and was blown away with its brief perfection.
Now HERE'S what I'm talking about - this is why I read Tor.com novellas.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is, simply put, the perfect speculative/fantasy novella. This review will be extremely short and sweet, as to be honest I'd rather you read the novella than read my poor retelling of it here. Go read it!
This story is really two layered stories in one. On the surface layer is a traveling cleric named Chih, whose job it is to remember their nation's histories and to observe their present surroundings for the purpose of recording it for the histories. Clerics in this world are essentially history keepers, and they are aided in their quest by magical bird companions with observation and memory skills.
Chih and their magical bird companion, Almost Brilliant, come across an elderly woman in a dwelling on their way to a different location. The elder's name is Rabbit, and she has a story to tell.
The story within the story is Rabbit's tale, which includes the story of an empress and her secrets.
As history keepers, Chih and Almost Brilliant are immediately drawn to this woman and her tale. But all is not what it seems, and some histories are buried for a reason...
Keeping it brief: perfection.
A note on the best way to read: This novella is best read, not listened to, as the narrative transitions are made more explicit with the breaking of paragraphs on the page and are not noted within the text itself at all.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.