This was DENSE. And a bit overdone on the dialogue, if I’m honest. But was it something that kept me propelled, interested and aware of its unique potential? Yes. I am very intrigued to see where this series could go in future books.
Balance of action vs. dialogue: ★★
World building: ★★★★★
A fallen Fury, an alchemist, some Fae, a reaper, a few gods, and some other beings walk into a bar...
Like the setup for a Dungeons & Dragons plot joke, A Dark and Hollow Star is one dense boy that feels almost comedic in its self-aware density. They thicc, in other words. If you, like me, appreciate a good mashup of concepts that weave together established fantastical elements into something new—keep reading.
(This is a reaction review.)
I'm not quite sure what I initially expected when I bought A Dark and Hollow Star in the bookstore. It's been a few years and the memory is hazy. I remember the word "Fae" piqued my interest—an eternal buzzword for me—and then the element of a murder mystery in the blurb kept my focus.
It's not often you get the words "Fae" and "murder mystery" in the same setup for a YA book.
So I bought it, and then it sat on my shelf being intimidatingly large for a YA debut (this thing is 500 pages-ish).
And I wondered why I didn't see people talking about this book.
Well, having traveled to the other side, I now REALLY understand why this book has existed on the edges of the YA scene. It's... a lot. And frankly, I kind of wish this had aged up its characters and been produced as an adult paranormal series—because I believe that adult audience would have understood more of this novel's quirks, whereas the action-based YA market might not have been the best.
With its accessible paranormal fantasy-style snarky dialogue, modern-day setting, and immediately likeable characters, this book started out strong for me. I was intrigued and captivated by the clever mashup of paranormal fae + Greek mythology Furies + other semi-spoilery elements. The opening third of this novel was a slam-dunk, one-sit read.
But then, I felt this novel buckle under the weight of its own structure and collapse a bit in the middle. Snarky dialogue and random, mundane character moments can only get you so far when the stakes are as high as they are in this book. And combining so many fantasy elements + character POVs... you've got to eventually let this story's action propel us into something bigger. And I felt like that was A Dark and Hollow Star's weakness.
"Weakness" might be a bit harsh, however, because unlike many, MANY other fantasies in the saturated YA market these days, this novel brought some titans to the table in terms of its character development, unique world building set-up, and promise of future plot development. Even when I disliked the pacing and lack of momentum, I couldn't put this book down. (I've DNF'd dozens of books for much less, so my staying power to complete this book is, in itself, some of my highest praise.)
I look forward to seeing where this story leads in future books. And I'm crossing my fingers that the jumping-off point at the end of book one leads to some adjusted pacing and development in the later books!
A girl who can't die and falls slowly in love with Death? I love it. Add in some gothic manor nonsense and an interesting murder ghost story and this had the makings of something very cool...
Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Signa's early life has been a rotating door of tragedies and dead guardians. Like the Baudelaire children in A Series of Unfortunate Events, it seems like every single person charged with caring for Signa ends up...dead. Unlike the Baudelaire children, however, Signa's deaths aren't the result of a bad guy. They're a result of... Signa herself. By accident, and by Fate.
And by Death, too. Death seems to have taken a very keen interest in Signa due to the fact that she can't seem to die.
Broken neck, poisonous berry feasts, unfortunate accidents—nothing phases Signa for long, and nothing keeps her down. Death finds himself interested in her development, and Signa finds herself prickly toward Death, this being who keeps ruining her life.
Signa's life takes another turn as we come to meet her. She's 17, her terrible caretaker has died (again) and now it seems she's going to be taken to her late mother's brother, who owns a crumbling estate. The Hawthorn Estate—the perfect gothic mansion setup, complete with uneasy atmosphere, a dying cousin, and a ghost that seems to be causing trouble.
What better person to have on the scene of an in-progress murder than the girl who can't be killed?
It's up to Signa to solve the case of her cousin's murder before it kills her, and to unwrap the secrets behind her late Aunt's untimely demise. It's a dark puzzle with a lot of twists, and Signa's determined to get to the bottom of it. She refuses to let another guardian die on her watch—Death be damned.
Death just might BE damned, actually, because as he finds himself enraptured by Signa and drawn closer into her allure, things start to heat up for his cold, cold heart...
Belladonna is the kind of young adult fantasy read with the perfect dose of lush romanticism and gothic atmosphere. It's a decadent treat for the readers who like manor houses, somewhat creepy ghosts, and drama with a capital D. It's also for those of us who love when Death is a character. Especially when Death is a character and emotional invested in the main character. (Too niche? It's me to a T, so I'm guessing there are others out there who agree with me.)
I don’t know why I didn’t love this as much as I expected to, but I just… could not get invested. It might have been a case of young adult vs. adult reader and me (the adult) expecting more, unfairly, as young adult books are for young adults. It could also have been the case of "I've read too many stories with X,Y, and Z" and therefore it couldn't hold too much of my attention. Whatever the case was for this particular blend of reader vs. read, I think it's safe to say it was a "me" problem as others seem to adore this story.
I will agree with the popular opinions when it came to the deliciously angsty and interesting arc between Signa and Death. That was the strongest part of the novel for me and clearly the emotional heart of the story. I wish we'd spent more time with that storyline and less with the murder mystery/manor characters. It was clear that they were the situational arc that was supposed to be the backdrop for Signa and Death's actual storyline. However, again, small potatoes for those who like those kinds of setups and enjoying long-form descriptions and immersed gothic atmospheres.
Gripes aside, I found that the very last chapter peaked my interest... More complex magic is afoot in future installments. I would be curious to see what the author does with the second book.
An interesting YA spin on the historic true story of the New Orleans Axe Man murders, with some 1918 flu pandemic elements thrown in.
New Orleans, 1918. Giana is a teenage Italian American living in the city, plagued by nightmares of her parents' brutal axe murder several years earlier. Her recurring nightmare of that fateful night never changes... until it does. "I'm coming," the dream spells out in blood.
As Giana tries her best to ignore her terrifying dream, people are starting to die from influenza. And to make matters worse, the New Orleans newspapers are talking of a deranged killer on the loose. With an axe.
Giana's nightmare might be more than a childhood fear after all...
With her friend, Enzo, Giana decides enough is enough—it's time for her to confront her past demons by catching this new killer on the loose. Retribution and revenge, all in one. But what exactly is waiting for Giana at the end of this deadly puzzle?
Whew, what a doozy of a plot setup, y'all. Don't Go to Sleep was a novel that I was quite excited to read. I'd enjoyed this author's previous book on the horrors of H.H. Holmes and his murder hotel in Chicago, The Perfect Place to Die, so when I heard that they were tackling the Axe Man I signed right the frick up to review this one. I loved the modern take in the American Horror Story TV show (season three is my favorite, where it's New Orleans and Axe Man and witches) and thought this would deliver on more of those vibes.
This was a lot of fun.
I will admit, I think a portion of this story did not work for me due to its age range and writing style—despite Giana being 17 years old in this story, the writing and emotional palate made it seem like it was made for a younger YA audience. So I struggled to relate to a lot of the dialogue and emotions. As a late 20-something reader, this was a me issue and not the fault of the book meant for actual teens, but it did affect my ability to connect with the characters and larger emotional storyline.
I think there's a market for readers who enjoy the macabre history of our American true crime past and are craving more adventure stories like Stalking Jack the Ripper, etc. Don't Go to Sleep is the perfect read for Maniscalco fans—especially the younger ones.
Definitely pick this up for yourself or the young historic crime reader in your life!
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A notoriously haunted L.A. hotel. A group of teenage ghost hunters. A dead girl and her secrets. And something lurking in the dark...
Sense of pacing: ★★★★
Personal enjoyment: ★★
Chrissy, Chase, Kiki, and Emma are quickly becoming famous for their YouTube channel, Ghost Gang. In a setup that feels pretty similar to Buzzfeed Unsolved and other real-life online channels, this group of teens goes to haunted locations and films their explorations and reactions to creepy locations. And Chrissy is their ace in the hole: she actually CAN see spirits.
The Ghost Gang needs their next big hit. Chase, the group's organizer, decides to set their sights on the big one: the most haunted hotel in Los Angeles, California.
In this hotel from hell, a young girl died brutally within its walls and her erratic behavior before her untimely death was caught online for the world to watch. Something happened to this girl, and someone—or something—killed her. No one has found out the truth.
Chrissy and the rest of the group aren't exactly wild about visiting this location, but they let their better senses get the best of them and agree to go. (What's a horror setup without a few dumb decisions?)
They have no idea what they're in for...
So first off, a small disclaimer: I think this book is quite good for the right audience, and in that audience I could see Horror Hotel being a new favorite YA thriller/horror. It has all of the right hooks, shocks, and drama.
Unfortunately, I was not the right audience for this story because I'm a frequent horror movie and true crime documentary buff and knew the source material inside and out before starting this story.
If you've watched the Netflix documentary Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel and heard the very true story of the tragic death of Elisa Lam at that real L.A. hotel, then this fictionalized account with different names and slightly different tweaks might not work for you. The authors of Horror Hotel pay tribute to Elisa Lam in their dedication, which makes sense as this story was inspired by hers, but to me this novel was almost an exact replica of that particular Netflix documentary.
Now I'm not getting into whether replicating stories is good or bad, retellings are a very popular thing and I've enjoyed a few of them, but regardless of my opinion on that element I found Horror Hotel to be pretty low stakes and low interest for me, personally, because I knew where it was going all of the time. Without the feeling of "where is this story going," I quickly found my interest waning.
Again, this issue only happened because I was so familiar with that Netflix documentary. For those who haven't seen it and are just casually aware of the Elisa Lam story and the Hotel Cecil, this might be a very different reading experience.
Recommended for new fans to the genre and for those who have not watched the referenced Netflix movie.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Generational secrets, the darkness within, and small town murders collide in this atmospheric and unputdownable debut.
Sense of unease: ★★★★★
Watch out for the dark.
Wow, this was such an engaging young adult mystery. As an adult reader who can't seem to stay away from the young adult genre, sometimes there are stories that don't translate out of their age-appropriate market and I feel like I'm the one old person at the young people's party. The Dead and the Dark was not one of those books—I think this one will have more of an all-ages appeal.
In Snakebite, a small town with generations of secrets and shame, things don't change. Visitors never stay, residents don't leave, and those that are different are not welcomed.
Years ago, Logan's two dads left Snakebite under upsetting circumstances, several of which revolving around their status as the only gay couple in town. They've been a traveling duo ever since, with their paranormal TV series dragging them across the country along with their adopted daughter, Logan.
But when one of Logan's dads returns to Snakebite and his supposedly short trip turns into months and months, they family decides to return to Snakebite and see what's going on.
Someone's keeping secrets. And a boy is already missing.
I think The Dead and the Dark works best if you don't know too much about it going into the story, so I'm not going to share any more of the plot. In short: I thought this story took a while to get off of the ground (roughly 75 pages) but then once things started to unravel for Logan and the other characters I could not stop reading this one.
It's a bit ghost-y. A bit queer identity struggle. A bit of small town bigotry. A bit of a romance on the side. A bit of a cold-blooded killer.
This one sits at some interesting cross-sections, so I can see why some readers feel unsatisfied after finishing it. If you're here for just one thing, then the other bits feel like unwanted excess. But I, personally, was here for the entire experience and, outside of some occasionally clunky writing, I thought this story was extremely well done.
Looking forward to seeing Courtney Gould's growth in her next book.
Thank you to Wednesday Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
This was a BLAST. Knives Out mixed with The Westing Game mixed with Truly Devious mixed with #prepschool vibes?? Y'all.
Sheer enjoyment: ★★★★★
Characters and their drama: ★★★★
Mystery(s)/Reveal(s): ★★★★ 1/2
There was nothing I did not love about this book! It was fun! It had drama! It had mysteries! It had reveals you could guess and reveals you couldn't! It had a love triangle that toed the line between fun and catchy! There are dead people!
(Ok, so that last one is for my fellow morbid mystery fans, but still. It's a selling point.)
Clearly I've had a lot of caffeine going into this review, but bear with me. This book *feels* like a caffeinated speed ride anyway. So it's totally appropriate.
Avery Kylie Grambs is chipping away a meager life on the edge of poverty with her older half-sister, Libby, when everything changes.
A mysterious guy arrives at her school saying something about the reading of a will, and that they can't read the will until Avery herself is present. The will is for Tobias Hawthorne, Texas oil tycoon and $47 billion-dollar billionaire.
To say Avery is confused by this is a colossal understatement. But this guy doesn't give her a choice - she's placed on a plane to Texas.
...where she discovers that this billionaire, who she has NEVER met in her life, has left her with almost the entirety of his fortune. On one condition: she must live in Hawthorne House, the family's estate, for one full year with the (now penniless) remaining Hawthorne family members. If she leaves, the money is forfeit.
She can't kick out the Hawthornes, they can't contest the will, and all that's left from old man Tobias Hawthorne is 5 letters: 1 for each of his 4 grandsons, and 1 for Avery.
Avery's letter is just two words: "I'm sorry."
AHHHH! I refuse to share more of this plot because of spoilers, and really half of the fun is just letting the story unfold. This has the makings of a perennial classic in the realm of YA mysteries. And I am so here for that. To me, this was more fun than One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, and more mysterious than other mansion-setting mysteries. It had it all, and while some of it could definitely be housed under clichés in the genre, I thought they were extremely well done.
Eagerly awaiting the next book.
Drama, drama, DRAMA! This insider's look into the world of teen influencers was a wild ride from start to finish—and I couldn't stop reading it.
Plot: ★★★ 1/2
Binge-level enjoyment: ★★★★
Delilah Rollins is catapulting to stardom in a major way on Instagram. From her Minnesota roots to her recent move to LA, she's scrambling to find her bearings in a world where hundreds of thousands of people know her name, her face, and her life. Is Delilah really ready for her autonomy to be controlled by the opinion of the masses?
Jasmine Walters-Diaz is used to the fame of being an influencer. From her roots as a wholesome child TV star to her teenage years as a brand's dream endorsement, Jasmine should be used to her life being filtered through the lens of perfection and frozen time... but as her need to be herself and love who she loves grows and chafes against her public image, Jasmine finds herself bending and breaking to get out.
Fiona Jacobs is the perfect casual and funny influencer. She's effortless... right? As she listens to her inner monologue critique her every move, every breath, every calorie, and every step, Fiona tries to desperately maintain the facade of put-together perfection while her OCD and fear of past secrets threaten to tear her apart from the inside. Will she survive her own attacks on herself?
Delilah, Jasmine, and Fiona all have one thing in common: they're living their teenage years through the crystalized lens of public opinion, filters, and judgement.
And then there's Scarlett Leigh. Another teenage influencer but with more sex appeal, more ruthlessness, and more drive to win, Scarlett seems to be the three girls' worst nightmare and competition all rolled into one. But you can never trust what's on the surface...and the girls should really know better.
They'll find out just what exactly the truth means when one of them ends up dead. It's time to show off your best angle, ladies, as the part you're going to play now is one of suspect...
My immediate response to this book was WOW, what a crazy premise and an even crazier plot. This reaction was further cemented when I realized that the co-author to this book, Lilia Buckingham, is an actual bona fide teen influencer herself. That definitely lent a more realistic quality to some of the details used in the novel (besides the murder, of course!).
My interest in this book came from the other author, Sara Shepard, who is best known for her drama-laden series Pretty Little Liars. Fans of Pretty Little Liars should be all over this—the amount of drama, gasps, and trainwreck sitcom moments are at the same level here in Influence. Like a reality tv show, I couldn't look away.
Definitely one to pick up if you like drama, glitz, and murder...
Thank you to Delacorte Press via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
What a pleasant surprise? I really enjoyed this. A large part of that enjoyment came from treating it like a contemporary novel, though, and not a mystery.
Concept: ★★★★ 1/2
Mystery/Surprises: ★★ 1/2
So, real quick, let me just say this: if you're coming to this book for intense action, devious mysteries, or any kind of edge-of-your-seat thriller vibes, this is NOT the read for you.
The Cousins is Karen M. McManus' fourth YA novel, and it has a really nice set up. Three cousins from estranged siblings receive a mysterious letter from their reclusive wealthy grandmother, Mildred Story. Their parents were kicked off of the Story family's island in their teens and completely cut out of the will and the family legacy, so to hear from the matriarch at all is strange, to say the least. Mildred asks the three cousins—Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah—to come to Gulf Cove island to work on the family's resort for the summer. "To get to know you," the letter says.
What makes things even stranger is that Mildred didn't know they were coming.
And things aren't exactly what they seem on Gulf Cove island. What exactly happened all those years ago, and why did their grandmother cut all ties from the family?
It's time for Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah to find out.
Like I said at the beginning of this review, this is not the read for hardcore mystery/thriller fans. In a way, I wish this had been billed as more of a family drama contemporary than a mystery. Don't get me wrong, there are quite a few mysteries in the plot. And they're pretty satisfying and not overly easy to guess—I found the final reveal to actually be a surprise.
But I have to say, I treated the plot like a dramatic contemporary novel. And by doing so, I liked it a lot. If you don't try to focus on the mystery it's a great story. If you do focus on the mystery, I'd imagine elements of this story could be quite frustrating. For example, this 300-ish page novel takes place over multiple weeks of the summer and the mystery itself isn't the main (or even side) focus of each chapter. There's a lot of personal relationship drama, coming-of-age realizations, and family-themed bonding content. It's all really, really well done... but not focused on the mystery?
Because of that, when we do focus on the mystery it's in a WHAM BAM rush of events. Not exactly out of place, but definitely not balanced.
Overall, a great and enjoyable YA read filled with atmosphere, drama, and more... but not exactly as advertised.
The second installment in the Clue Movie-inspired mystery series—another dead body, another mystery to solve, and (unfortunately) a bit too much time spent looking back at the first story.
Character development: ★★ 1/2
Pacing: ★★ 1/2
So I really, really enjoyed the first novel in this series, In the Hall with the Knife. I HIGHLY recommend you check that book out if you haven't yet already—it's the perfect nod to the Tim Curry movie and will make you remember the board game fondly.
This book, In the Study with the Wrench, is the second novel in the trilogy. In this one, we're following the aftermath of the first novel as our motley crew of characters at Blackbrook Academy—Mustard, Scarlett, Peacock, Green, Plum, and the "new girl" to the canon Orchid—try to cope and move on from the tragic murder and events following the death of headmaster Boddy.
The group is referred to by the other students as the "Murder Crew" now. And while the group is trying to shuck off that label and ignore their recent past... fate has other plans. They discover another dead body. Again.
What's a group to do but solve another murder?
So.... this is super painful for me to admit this about one of my most anticipated releases, but I just couldn't love this installment in the same way as the first one. We spend wayyy too much time rehashing the events of the first book. Now, I understand that there needs to be a "recap" grace period at the start of a sequel—it helps us to remember where the story left us if we haven't recently read the first one. But this novel spent 50% of its storyline on rehashing, regrouping, and focusing on the first book.
Because of that, this novel had a hard time standing on its own. I wish it had spent much more time on developing the current murder plotline, and more time on helping the characters grow/adapt. With its stale focus on previous plot, everything felt like one endless waiting room... waiting to wrap up the last story in order to get to the new.
I'm still very excited to read the third book in the series. Hoping this one was just a one-off problem and a victim of sequel syndrome. We'll see! Definitely still check this one out if you enjoyed the first novel—spending more time with the characters was fun.
Thank you to the publisher via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Hot demon princes, tattoo magic, underworlds, witches in Italy, and a high stakes murder mystery. Need I say more?
Characters: Besides the main character being more dumb than fully believable? ★★★★
Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Kingdom of the Wicked comes out on October 27, 2020!
Emilia di Carlo grew up with her twin, Vittoria, on tales of witches and demons. Their grandmother raised them to learn about their witch bloodline and magical abilities and taught them to fear the devil and his seven Wicked princes—because there's nothing more dangerous to a witch and her kind than a demon. And there are no demons more powerful and deadly than the Wicked.
Emilia takes—what she thinks as metaphorical—cautions to heart, and she thinks her twin does too.
But then Vittoria is found brutally murdered. Turns out there have been a string of young female witch killings throughout Italy, and Vittoria is the latest victim. As Emilia reels from the loss of her other half, she starts to realize that maybe Vittoria didn't take their grandmother's warnings as seriously as she did—and maybe those "stories" of the Wicked demon princes have more than a grain of truth in them.
With vengeance and blind need for justice in her heart, Emilia decides to follow in the steps of her sister and deal with the devil in order to find out the truth.
But Emilia has never summoned a demon before. To put it bluntly, her summoning doesn't go exactly as planned. Instead of a random, everyday demon from Hell...Emilia finds herself face to face with her nightmares: it's one of the Wicked demons himself, Wrath. In all his gold-and-smoke tattooed glory.
And she may or may not have bound them together more permanently than she intended. Wrath is, to say the least, pissed.
Now bound together, Emilia and Wrath are about to discover the truth behind Vittoria's murder and get WAY more than either of them bargained for.
It's time to wreak havoc on the Kingdom of the Wicked.
So, first off, WOW. As someone who's read and enjoyed this author's first (completely unrelated) series, I thought this book showed a massive leap in writing maturity and plot complexity. Don't get me wrong, I loved the Stalking Jack the Ripper series for its drama, medical stuff, and fun—but Kingdom of the Wicked is something else. It's clear that Maniscalco is honing her craft and exploring new storytelling in this, and I LIKE it.
The strengths: worldbuilding, concepts, push-pull relationship between Wrath and Emilia, unique magic system and take on the "underworld" trope, and the larger plot hinted at for future books to come.
The weaknesses: There's really only one major flaw from my perspective, and that's Emilia herself. This book fell into the trap of making the main character too dumb to be believed for the first half of the book in order to allow for the plot unfold in a very particular series of events—and it's too on the nose. Emilia makes extremely illogical, dumb, and borderline childish decisions for the sake of plot development, and that stung a bit to me as a reader. With such a beautiful concept, world, and plot, why did we need Emilia to stumble about like a bull in a china shop? She does get much better in the second half—so that makes me think this issue will be fixed in the second book—but still.
Overall, amazing book and one of my all-time favorites of the year. Definitely check this one out!
Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.