Sometimes the creepiest tales are the ones meant for children… this is one of those, but with a soft enough edge to keep things light and cozy. Save this one for the fall season!
Spooky vibes: ★★★★
Ollie's life is something she is deciding Not Thinking About. Things have happened. Ollie's of the opinion that if she doesn't look too closely at the details, things will be manageable. Or at least, more manageable.
Then a weird woman by Ollie' favorite spot by the lake tries to throw away a book—one of Ollie's most favorite and precious types of items—and Ollie can't let her do it. She steals the book from the crying, upset woman and runs away with it. The fact that the woman's rambling about darkness and evil... Eh. Ollie's not looking too closely at the details.
But maybe Ollie should have looked at the details.
As she finds herself diving into the book's story about Beth, two brothers, and an unnatural series of events, Ollie's starting to see some odd parallels between the book's setting and her hometown.
And the next day, Ollie's class takes a field trip to a local farm. Where things get terrifying. Fast.
Now it's up to Ollie and a few friends to save the day and escape before it's too late...
Small Spaces is a book that I have had on my radar for a longgggg time. Definitely since its debut in 2018. It's spooky? Check. It's about the fall time and involves scary scarecrows? Check. It's written by Katherine Arden? CHECK.
Don't ask me why I waited so long to pick this one up. I have no answers, and now it's one of those books that I wish I'd read earlier. But hey, we're here now! And it was just as a good as I'd hoped it would be.
This falls into that wonderful category of middle grade reads that feels like its meant for all ages. Both suitable for its age group (8-12 years old, I believe) and the rest of us older people, Small Spaces has that quality of atmosphere and timelessness that will likely make it a perennial classic in the realm of Halloween reading. I know I will be recommending it broadly!
Make sure to leave room on your autumnal TBR pile for this one... and watch out for the smiling man :)
A girl, a boy, and realms beyond death. Doors to other places and whispering demons in the corner of your eye. This was a very interesting read.
Delaney is a girl with one foot in the world of the living and one foot in the world of the dead. Having gone Deaf when she was a young child experiencing a deadly illness and a near/actual-death experience, Lane's life has gone through some unexpected paths.
Her latest unexpected path involves her mysterious enrollment in Godbole University. Lane's been inducted into a secretive program with unknown foundations and a distinctly macabre flair. What do the students learn? What exactly qualifies them for this invite-only degree?
And what the heck is up with her hot and mysterious teaching assistant, Colton Price?
(Yes, this is essentially a young adult romance told with a distinctly dark academia/speculative flair. You've been warned!)
With a creeping sense that something is afoot, Lane finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into a web of lies, alternate realms, and a worrying number of missing and dead students. Has Lane unexpectedly dropped herself in the middle of a dangerous game?
I don't want to do this novel any disservice by talking about the magical elements within this book. Part of the enjoyment comes from allowing the book to reveal its steps in due course to Lane (and the reader) as they unfold.
The Whispering Dark had a very cool premise. Lane's Deafness leading to a unique magical relationship with—you might have guessed—a whispering entity in the darkness was very unique and I enjoyed seeing that development unfold. This novel's unique blend of horror, portal fantasy, Romeo + Juliet vibes, and deathly gothic saturation was a heady combination to read.
And yet... Agh, I am conflicted.
Sometimes, there's a book that is overly mysterious and the ratio between the unknown and the revealed skews itself between "the reader has no clue what the F is going on" and "the reader knows too much about what is going on" in a satisfying way. And then other times... that ratio veers to far in one direction and loses its edge. I fear The Whispering Dark veered too far for me.
This is a novel with a lot of mystery: What is going on with this academic program? Why are students disappearing and turning up dead? What is Colton Price's backstory, and why is is mysterious childhood experience with death linked so intrinsically with Lane? How does this magic system of disappearing into portals/realms work?
And so on. There are a TON of questions, and The Whispering Dark prefers to leave you in the dark (pun intended) for a frustratingly long time instead of answering them.
I wanted to have more of a concrete sense of understanding around this magic system and its mechanics: I didn't get it. I wanted to know more about the lore and the background for these other realms and/or why this entity cared about our realm and our characters so much: I didn't get that, either.
And it's not just the magical elements of this novel that frustrated me... It was the characters and their antics too. We had some side characters who seemed under-utilized and under-described, and yet annoying present despite their two-dimensional aspects. We also had a very, VERY heady relationship between Lane and Colton that felt almost Twilight-esque in its gothic attraction/insta-love elements, and yet for 90% of the book I spent my time frustratedly waiting for the "reveal" to happen for Lane as we, the reader, know why their pairing is so significant and yet Lane is keep in the metaphorical dark to the point of ruining the emotional payoff of the reveal. (I know I sound heated about this last one, and I am. This was so frustrating to slog through and I don't think this book would have lost its edge if we'd allowed for their pairing to be more honest from the start.)
However, despite my issues with this novel's lack of explanations, frustrating lack of coherency, and over-the-top gothic romance vibes, I did still enjoy this read. I think I might be in the minority for the elements I mention above, so if you're interested in The Whispering Dark's premise I do recommend it.
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.
Excellent atmosphere, loved the fresh take on a very different—and minimally inspired—Jane Eyre retelling. Loved the magic component, the haunted house, the Ethiopian-meets-gothic vibes… ahhh so good.
First disclaimer: I have not read Jane Eyre.
Second disclaimer: I did not go into this book wanting, or requiring, a faithful interpretation of Jane Eyre.
Andromeda, or "Andi," is a debtera—an exorcist hired to cleanse households of the Evil Eye. With a rough upbringing behind her, current poverty around her, and a very uncertain future ahead, Andi is out of options and in need of steady employment.
So when an offer for a house cleansing comes her way riddled with warnings, she's too desperate to refuse.
Andi arrives at Thorne Manor in the middle of the African desert with desperation and everything to gain. She needs to eradicate this manifestation at whatever the cost—she has nothing left to lose.
But Thorn Manor, with its English colonialist design and history forced into the African landscape, is nothing like Andi's expectations. It's dark and freezing cold in the middle of the desert. It's filled with weird, misplaced furniture and false illusions. There's a sense of foreboding that Andi has never experienced despite all of her prior cleansings. And, to top it all off, the host of the manor is not at all like her expectations.
Andi has a job to do. And as the servants keep disappearing (or worse) and the house creeps closer toward Andi with every breath, the stakes are too high to leave.
Now add in a romance, a ghost story, and a claustrophobic atmosphere on par with Mexican Gothic, and you have a STORY.
Don't let your guard down...
Again, with my disclaimers at the beginning of this review aside, I thought this was a fantastic story. I read it over the course of one evening—and basically one sitting, if you don't count tea breaks!
Within These Wicked Walls had truly fantastic writing. Most times for young adult fiction/fantasy, I am attached to the characters, plot, or world building more than I'm attached to the actual words and their structure themselves. But for this one, the writing itself stood out to me. I loved the sense of place conveyed through the sentence descriptions, Andi's presence on the page, and the great sense of dialogue and scene transitions. This sounds like I'm reviewing an academic paper or something (boring, I know) but I really wanted to call it out here. GREAT writing.
I also thought that entire plot (romance, relationships, pacing, and all) was just.... chef's kiss. Really nice. I have no complaints besides a few spots that felt slowly paced.
Why is it so hard to talk intelligently in reviews when you love something??? Sigh. Please take my badly-constructed word on this: this story is fantastic, it's atmospheric, and it's a fresh take on a very old concept with some much needed non-Western influences.
I could see myself rereading this one every autumn. Pick this one up, gothic/ghost fans!
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Not everyone's cup of tea, but for fans of Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children series, gritty urban fantasy, lyrical portal fantasy, and murder mysteries.... this was tailor-made for us.
WARNING! There are SPOILERS for the first book in this duology, The Hazel Wood, in this review. In order to talk about the setup for this book I have to SPOIL how the first book ends. Consider this your spoiler alert!
A recap of The Hazel Wood:
In The Hazel Wood, Alice discovered that she was a Story, a girl made from the twisted magical imaginings of the Spinner in the fairy tale landscape of the Hazel Wood. The Hazel Wood was the kind of setting that would make even the Grimms brothers hesitate. It was brutal, bloody, and cyclical in its relentless drive to make its Stories (other Made characters, like Alice) act out their dark fables with no escape.
When Alice and her friend, Ellery Finch, discover a way into the fairy tale they soon fall into the clutches of the Spinner—Alice gets sucked into her Story and can't get out, and Ellery has to battle the realm itself to free her. The end of The Hazel Wood shows Ellery shattering Alice's Story in the Hazel Wood and freeing Alice...at the cost of the fabric of the realm itself.
Alice escapes to New York City, and Ellery stays in the Hazel Wood to explore the doors of realms he's only dreamed about.
Now's it's time for The Night Country.
Alice is trying to be a human. She's desperately trying to forget the events of The Hazel Wood. Her years spent trapped in the role of Alice-Three-Times have marked her soul.
But Alice can't escape her Story roots—the other Stories won't let her. When Ellery shattered the realm, he caused its decay. The center would not hold. With holes in the Hinterland, other Stories have found their way into the city, and to Alice. They are like refugees in a strange land, Other and off.
But then, Stories start turning up dead. And certain body parts are missing from each dead Story.
~Meanwhile, Ellery Finch is in a bind. He's trapped in the remnants of the Hazel Wood, desperate to get out and yet unwilling to return to our world. When a beautiful young woman with the ability to create Doors offers him a bargain, he jumps at the chance to travel with her. But where is she going to lead him?~
It turns out that Alice's life of Alice-Three-Times isn't something she can shake off. And maybe the lie wasn't that Alice was a Story at heart—maybe it was that Alice never had a shot at playing human.
With ice in her veins, dead bodies lining up, and a mysterious red-headed stranger stirring up the Stories to vengeance, it's time for Alice to get to the bottom of what's happening to the other Stories and the Hazel Wood—before it's too late.
Alice and Ellery aren't done with their adventures just yet. And the other realms aren't done with them either.
I cannot describe how much I LOVED this installment. The Night Country was everything I'd hoped it would be, and more. It's darker, bloodier, and richer in detail and scope. While The Hazel Wood was almost trapped in its confines as a fairy tale landscape, The Night Country had the floor wide open for plot and character arcs. I loved where we took Alice and Ellery in their journeys. The murder mystery element was a surprise—but it was fantastically done. More fantasies should have murder mysteries, maybe?
Overall, a fantastic book that I devoured in one sitting. Cannot wait for more from Melissa Albert.
"What big teeth you have, Grandma..." All the better to eat you with, my dear. This debut is filled with teeth, ominous undertones, and horror-set vibes. A very interesting debut, even if it didn't jive for me personally.
Writing style/how plot points were unveiled via the writing: ★★
Use of speculative elements: ★★★ 1/2
Overall Enjoyment: ★★★ 1/2
Eleanor Zarrin has been away at boarding school for many, many years. But it's time to come home—she has no choice. What greets her at home is her family...shapeshifters, eldritch horrors mixed with human features, the family friend who eats nothing and gleams in the moonlight, and her fortune-telling grandmother holding it all together.
But when Eleanor's grandmother dies violently over the tarot card deck while reading Eleanor's fortune, things start to turn sour in the Zarrin household.
With no where to turn to and feeling trapped by her family's suspicions and distanced aloofness, Eleanor finds a letter from her other grandmother locked in a chest. She decides to invite her to come to the Zarrin house. It would be nice to meet her other grandmother...
But no one in the Zarrin household—whether they have teeth, sea-skin, or blackened maws—is ready for the Other Grandmother. Least of all Eleanor.
"You take after your other grandmother, Eleanor," they said. They never meant it as a compliment.
So for those who know my reading tastes, this seems like the perfect read. Right? That makes it extra painful to share that I really... didn't mesh with this story at all. It might the case of it's me, not the book. Definitely take all of the below with a grain of salt.
In particular, I found it extremely hard to get into the groove with the way the story was told. Basic plot facts were purposefully dangled and never explained, and yet we spent a lot of time on physical descriptions and internal thought processes, so the lack of plot depth became frustrating as opposed to interesting. It left me with a very uneven sense of what was even happening—and NOT in a good way like a typical mysterious horror set-up. If we'd been vague in all things, it would have made sense as a style choice, but with way too much time spent with Eleanor's thoughts on mundane teenage romance feelings and descriptions of the settings the lack of plot knowledge felt like a lack of building.
I also thought that the pacing seemed off, but that could be tied to my frustrations with the way the story unfolded. The first half felt like we were in a holding pattern, and while the vague, horror "What's happening??" atmosphere worked for the first 100 pages... I got bored waiting for the shoe to drop and the plot to begin. And when it did begin, then I was frustrated that we veered away from that and decided to focus on a romantic subplot that didn't seem to make sense in the story. Without spoilers I can't say much, but if you'd just snipped out the romance it would have been a lot stronger. It was a distraction, for me, and an added frustration when combined with the rest of this (vagueness, lack of plot action, etc).
But I did find the ending worked out well. It was worth the wait, and even though it became easy to predict the further you read, that lack of surprise did not take away from the satisfaction of the moment.
Overall, definitely check this one out if the cover appeals to you and you're a fan of horror and speculative fiction.
Thank you to the publisher via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
This was SO GOOD. Witches, retellings, space thieves, the weighing of hearts, Schwab returns to the world of A Darker Shade of Magic, and Libba Bray returns to the world of Gemma Doyle... What. A. Showstopper.
A Universe of Wishes comes out on January 5, 2021!
As this is an anthology, I've reviewed each story individually and given a one sentence sales pitch of sorts below. Quick take, my favorites were: The Weight by Dhonielle Clayton, A Royal Affair by V.E. Schwab, Unmoor by Mark Oshiro, Liberia by Kwame Mbalia, and The Scarlet Woman by Libba Bray.
Tara Sim - A Universe of Wishes (3.5 stars)
Thorn harvests wishes from the dead and gets caught red-handed by the morgue boy—what now?
Natalie C. Parker - The Silk Blade (4 stars)
Lushly described, beautifully colored—a bisexual female warrior competes to win the heart of the Bloom prince and may or may not fall for her beautiful rival instead.
Libba Bray - The Scarlet Woman(5 stars)
Gemma Doyle has been in New York for a while now, but the world's magical community isn't done with her yet and someone's determined to reel her back in with grisly gifts.
Anna-Marie Mclemore - Cristal y Cerisa (3.5 stars)
A transgender prince, a Mexican girl attends a ball with a pair of fated glass slippers and a desperate plea for her people.
Kwame Mbalia - Liberia (4.5 stars)
Kweke is the primary research officer on the spacecraft Liberia growing plants with ancestral ties to the crew's abandoned homeland, deep roots.
V.E. Schwab - A Royal Affair (5 stars)
Sure to be a fan-favorite for series readers, this behind-the-scenes take on Alucard's origin romance with Prince Rhy was such a treat.
Rebecca Roanhorse - The Takeback Tango (4 stars)
An intergalactic thief is on a mission to steal back her people's treasures from the republic... and she might not be the only one with a conquered people to avenge.
Nic Stone - Dream and Dare (2.5 stars)
Dream escapes her family's expectations to help a monster in the woods. (This story did not resonate with me, so apologies for the bland description.)
Jenni Balch - Wish (3 stars)
A "granter" in a LAMP device is summoned to a set of very bizarre circumstances: a spaceship, a girl, and a dream for space travel.
Dhonielle Clayton - The Weight (5 stars)
A deep cut, damn. Marcus and Grace know they love each other, and they're going to get their hearts weighed to prove it... that's good, right?
Mark Oshiro - Unmoor (5 stars)
Urban fantasy, Felix wants to "unmoor" his painful memories of his lost love, Arturo—no matter the cost.
Samira Ahmed - The Coldest Spot in the Universe (unrated)
No sentence pitch for this one... I'll be honest, I could NOT get into this one and therefore did not complete it. Told in diary entries, some sort of apocalyptic natural disaster mixed with the dead? Confused.
Tessa Gratton - The Beginning of Monsters (3 stars)
High fantasy in miniature—Crystal-taloned Elir designs a new body for King Insarra, who is tired of their female one. Add in one snarky heir and some political intrigue and you get...
Zoraida Cordova - Longer Than the Threads of Time (4 stars)
A truly sensational Rapunzel retelling. There's a Tower in Central Park and every magic user knows those inside are deserving of their prison sentence—too bad one young brujo is curious enough to get close enough to find out the truth.
Onyebuchi - Habibi (3.5 stars)
Told in diary entries, an American Black prisoner and a Middle Eastern protestor behind bars strike up a magical and unworldly pen pal situation with heart-wrenching and emotional results.
Thank you to Random House Children's for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
This is kind of an odd review... apologies in advance. (Another case of it's not you, it's me.)
Mayhem had all the ingredients to be a book that I'd enjoy: speculative magic, ocean vibes, female protagonist, witchy vibes, 1980s aesthetic. But it didn't mesh with me, and I'm still not exactly sure why.
Described as a YA feminist mash-up of The Lost Boys and The Craft, this book follows its main character, literally named Mayhem, and her mother, Roxy, as they deal with secrets, hidden magic, and the ties that bind in families.
It's witchy, it's 1987, and it's Santa Monica.
Mayhem and her mother are on the run from her abusive stepfather, Lyle, and its gotten so bad that Roxy decides to bite the bullet and take them home to the Braeburn house. Roxy used to be a Braeburn, but she's spent all of Mayhem's life trying to forget her roots.
Mayhem doesn't understand her mom's reluctance to go home, because her aunt and cousins are awesome. Being a Braeburn means belonging, accepting, and a home of her own. It's a dream come true.
Being a Braeburn also means that Mayhem has a legacy, and one that her mother literally tried to squash out of her—the Braeburn women are magical.
When Mayhem, her cousins, and the Braeburn legacy all intertwine for the first time....things are about to get intense in a major way. And there's also the disappearing girls. That too.
As I said at the beginning, I think this novel wasn't for me. It was written well, the characters leapt off the page, and the plot seemed to mesh well with a lot of other readers, so I'm clearly not the core audience for this one—take my thoughts with that grain of salt.
It was just a case of the novel not fitting with my tastes of YA. I think I'll leave it with that to keep things spoiler-free.
If the description appeals to you, check this out!
Thank you the Wednesday Books for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.