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.
If the title makes you shiver, this is the book for you. Fires, secrets, mothers and daughters and daughters and mothers, the ties that bind and the ties that break, and sinister overtones come out to play in Rory Power's tour de force sophomore novel.
Burn Our Bodies Down comes out on July 7, 2020!
Margot and her mother could be sisters, they look so much alike. Margot doesn't see this as a compliment. Her relationship with her mother, Jo, is anything but sister-like—it is one of flight, hiding, fights, and fear. Margot's mother has been running from something all of Margot's life.
Margot is done with it. Now 17, she's decided it's time to find the family that her mother abandoned, with the hope that anyone—anyone—will accept and love her better than her own manipulative mother. When Margot finds the phone number in her mother's things, she doesn't hesitate. She gives it a ring.
Phalene is the type of Nebraskan small town in the middle of its decline. Once a booming farming community, there's almost nothing left. Margot's family, the Nielsens, used to be the source of the town's success. Now it's just Gram, and her weird golden corn that looks dead yet grows, and the secrets that the Nielsen farm keeps to itself.
Margot doesn't mind. Her mother has made her used to so many weird things. In her desperation for acceptance, Margot accepts everything about her Gram and slots herself into the Nielsen farm.
But Gram's not exactly normal, and Margot found a dead body of a girl who looks just like her on her first day in town. The town thinks Gram's hiding something, and Margot agrees.
Did she jump from the frying pan into the fire? There might be a reason her mother was so afraid after all...
This is a novel that will attract a certain type of reader, but keep only a few as it's not exactly what it appears to be. I think Rory Power might just be that type of author—which works for me, because I'm now 2/2 with her books. I've loved them both.
The story delivers on its advertising: this novel is SPOOKY, and the atmosphere was so taut throughout that I got a kink in my neck from holding myself so tense. If you like creeping suspense and lingering horror, this is the novel for you. There are no jump scares, no dramatic whodunits, but the lingering horror...is intense.
However, the main core of this story is not its plot, its genre, or even its character composition. It's in the character relationships. I make that nuance here because Margot, Jo, and Gram are not the most fleshed out characters. But their relationships with each other ARE, and that's where this novel sings. Mothers and daughters. Manipulation, secrets, and the ties that bind and break. This multi-generational character study of one family's method of parenting is singular in its focus and honestly fascinating in its rot. I would never want these relationships in my life—talk about unhealthy—but in their black and white reality it was easy to see the bones of fights I've had with my own mother, and vice versa. The growing pains of teenage girls versus their mothers is something most women can relate to, and in a way this is a horror novel about that experience amplified by a ton of speculative elements. Extremely cool, and extremely well done.
Thank you to Delacorte Press via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
5 unlimited stars
Riveting, heartbreaking, soul-mending, and ultimately a beacon of hope.
Black Girl Unlimited should be required reading. I wish I'd read it in school. I would have been a different person earlier, sooner. This was one of the most poignant reads I have ever read, and Echo Brown deserves every standing ovation, every "oh my gosh you have to read this book" friendly push, and every accolade. This was, simply, a showstopper debut.
Part coming-of-age novel, part fabulism, part reflection on the state of being black in America, and part story of female resilience in the heart of abuse and oppression—it's impossible to distill this novel down to a review that means something. I feel almost like a fool for trying, but I want you to read this so bear with me.
Echo lives on the East Side of Cleveland in the 1990s. It's world away from the West Side, at the rich white people school that she's allowed to attend. Her situation is a parable for many other young black women in the city, but at the same time a stunningly personal journey through her own life in and separate from those around her.
You see, Echo is a wizard.
She's not the kind of wizard with the wand and the hat. Her magic doesn't appear as a spell or incantation. This kind of wizardry is special—and allegorical. Echo, her mother, her female friends, and a memorable female mentor are all wizards. Black women are wizards. For being able to survive the pain, the circumstance, and the reality and still maintain the inner light that is their voice? That's wizardry.
Black Girl Unlimited is a story about a girl, named Echo, who's learning the steps to be a wizard. The steps are steep, she'll often fall back on herself. But she'll get there, and you'll cheer her on at every step and cry at every hurdle.
"Hard-hitting contemporary" fits in this context, but don't let that stop you. This is the story of a wizard who learns how to channel her own light in a world of darkness. It's beautiful.
Trigger Warnings: Parental drug use, overdose, violence, car accident, sexual abuse, triggering language around sexual abuse, rape, discussions of suicide.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.