Well, I finally broke out of my reading slump — and I did so in a rather big way. As in: I read 18 books this month. Yeah, I’m not quite sure how I did that, either. Helps that I basically have no life, I guess!
I tried to mostly pick ~spooky~ books for the Halloween season, which meant reading a decent amount of horror, which isn’t a genre I’ve ever really explored. There was graphic horror (“Manhunt”), horror-lite (“Our Wives Under the Sea”), and Gothic horror (“Parallel Hells” and “The Hacienda”), and I enjoyed all those books and their differing takes on the terrifying. The rest of the month was full of all sorts of frightening-ish books (witches, vampires, demons, murderers — oh, my!), and the somewhat more goofy subject matter was a fun way to get a dose of the creepy crawlies in a more palatable form. (Some of my reads did make me desperately want to be a witch — looking at you, “The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches,” — but thus far, none of the spells I’ve cast have worked. I shall persist.) My one outlier this month was “Booth,” which I read because it was a Booker Prize long-listed book and because I’m a huge Civil War history nerd; although, thinking about it, an assassination that set our country way back in Reconstruction is a pretty terrifying thing, so I’m going to say it counts for Spooktober, too.
I’m not sure I’m ever going to top reading 18 books in a month, but there’s no harm in trying!
Anywho, here are my full thoughts on this month’s books, all of which were first posted on my Goodreads. I posted a TikTok with more concise thoughts, too (although trying to summarize 18 books in less than three minutes was… challenging!).
- The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches (5)
- Our Wives Under the Sea (5)
- Malice (5)
- That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Demon (5)
- A Dowry of Blood (4.5)
- The Monsters We Defy (4)
- Fangs (4)
- Manhunt (4)
- Carmilla (4)
- Booth (3.75)
- If You Could See the Sun (3.75)
- Her Majesty’s Royal Coven (3.5)
- The Hacienda (3.5)
- From Bad to Cursed (3.5)
- Sign Here (3.5)
- Parallel Hells (3)
- The Old Woman With the Knife (3)
- Hallowe’en Party (2)
“The Hacienda” by Isabel Cañas — 3.5/5
Most horror novels seem to focus on a singular monster. Here, Isabel Cañas focuses on a whole bunch: the casta system, race, patriarchal society, socioeconomics, colonialism, political upheaval, vengeance — and of course, a ghost in a haunted house who is trying to kill people.
Cañas does a tremendous job of stoking the fires of fear, pulling you in with haunting details that build and build to an epic conclusion. There’s dashes of Mexican history. There’s romance. And there’s a fascinating look at folklore remedies/beliefs in the looming specter of the Mexican Inquisition and how that intersects with religion. (Yes, the book has a hot priest. But it doesn’t have a fox.) Cañas’ writing is lush and sultry and creates a perfectly wonderful Gothic atmosphere among the crumbling hacienda, the barren garden, the whispering villagers. The house is maybe the most interesting character in the book, with its rage, its peals of laughter, its haunting voices, its previous playfulness, its ability to strike and hurt. The book has twists, and the story itself is an absorbing one.
Yet I could never shake the feeling that I was reading about what was happening, not experiencing it. Scary things happened, to be sure, but I never felt any fear or any urgency to escape. It’s a slow build of a story, and I wasn’t ever truly engrossed. I kept turning pages, but I seemed to be doing so more for the sake of doing so than anything else. The atmosphere was almost built up at the expense of the plot. Which means the villain and their motives were never made clear enough and weren’t explored in enough detail, so the end felt a little cheap. The evil haunted house and the atmosphere it creates becomes Cañas’ clear focus to the point where, later in the book, she seems to forget about the very real human horrors present in her novel.
I read an interview Cañas gave where she said she was inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” to write a book where the main character pushes back against the situation she finds herself in. And I guess she sort of does that? But her character seems more like a feminist stand-in than much of anything else. Beatriz refuses to let the house scare her away and seeks answers about cleansing it. She’s a survivor who plays with her dictated role in society. She’s the daughter of a general who decides she’s going to fight the evil entity. But she’s still passive — for example, she can’t sleep in the house without [insert either her husband’s name or Padre Andres’ here] alongside her. As a whole, she comes across as a bit of a foil for the more interesting male narrator, Padre Andres. He’s the one who gets the first and the last word of the book. He’s the one who comes to save her. He’s the one who fights the demons in the house. He’s the one with a (rather unexplained) “dark box” of magic?/evil?/power?/something in his chest that makes him a force to be reckoned with. In comparison, Beatriz is just kind of there.
In the end, I just felt like I was kind of there, too.
“Booth” by Karen Joy Fowler — 3.75/5
I’m a bona fide Civil War history nerd. A 640-page book about the Battle of Gettysburg? I’ve read it. (And Stephen W. Sears’ others on Antietam, Chancellorsville, and the Peninsula Campaign, too.) I audited my sister’s lectures at Yale with Pulitzer Prize–winning Professor David Blight. My dad, sister, and I took a road trip through the different battle sites to help her pick her thesis topic. I’ve been to Ford’s Theater, to the house where President Lincoln drew his last breath. I’ve read numerous books on John Wilkes Booth.
But for all that, I knew next to nothing about the Booth family.
Karen Joy Fowler’s approach to this novel is an interesting (if not inspired) one: to tell the story of John Wilkes Booth by not telling the story of John Wilkes Booth. Instead, the novel is told by three of the 10 Booth siblings — Rosalie, the eldest daughter and hunchbacked spinster who knows all about the family’s ghosts; Edwin, the Shakespearean actor and Unionist whose theatrical success dwarfs his younger brother’s; and Asia, a sister close to both Edwin and John and caught in the middle who eventually pens their stories. The Lincoln assassination lingers over the novel — you’re aware of how this story is going to end — in a way that quietly builds suspense. You know the who, the what, the when, the where, and the how, and you have some idea of the why, but Fowler contextualizes all the little moments that led up to John firing that famous bullet. But Fowler runs into a bit of an issue when it seems she can’t decide whether to write around John Wilkes Booth or about him — leaving me a little satisfied in both directions. Fowler attempts to make it clear that this book isn’t John Wilkes Booth’s story… except it still is. His actions are the reason this book is even being written, why anyone today (with the exception of theater nerds) would care about this family. The included tie-ins to Lincoln’s story are nice and add historical context, but they only work if the book is about his assassin to show their divulging paths. And it means that, despite what Fowler intends, all the Booths’ stories are still wrapped up in Lincoln’s timeline.
But what does work is the way Fowler writes the rest of the family. Rosalie and Edwin’s chapters shine and give fascinating background to the small family dramas and to the theater world at the time. Rosalie, much of whom Fowler invented, tells the story of the family on their Maryland farm, of the ghosts of the Booth siblings who died young, of the relationship between the Booth parents and among her siblings, particularly Asia, Edwin, and John. Edwin steals the show (and the book) when he steps on stage, and it’s fascinating to see what happens to his younger brother as Edwin gets pushed to the forefront of society and draws more acclaim — all why dealing with demons and loss and feelings of inadequacy of his own. I felt less attachment to feisty Asia and her story, but she provided necessary substance to this tale; she’s grown up extremely close to both Edwin and John and wants to stay neutral to keep her beloved family together as more and more cracks in the familial structure start to show.
Some of the writing comes across as a little amateurish (which is surprising coming from an author of Fowler’s ability) and clunky, but she tells this story with a quiet strength to the narrative. She’s picked out the most intimate stories of the Booth family and uses them to convey emotion and the heartbreak every character suffers. She provides nuance to the characters’ beliefs and shows what led everyone down the path they eventually took; every family member seems to be haunted by one thing or another. The story soars when it’s about universal experiences: familial resentments and rivalries, families torn apart because of differing political beliefs, the family members caught in the middle, the ghosts that haunt us all. And the way Fowler writes this story makes it clear that what happened to the Booths is still happening today with far-right family members and election deniers and with the overabundance of racism in a country that fought this very war almost 160 years ago to correct.
As Shakespeare would write — and as any of the Booths might say — “what’s past is prologue.”
“A Dowry of Blood” by S.T. Gibson — 4.5/5
I read all the “Twilight” books (let’s be honest, who didn’t? — and if you say “not me,” you’re lying) but never really bought into the whole omg-vampires-are-so-sexy phenomenon. After this book? I get it. I’m down a Pinterest rabbit hole of how to make a bloody-looking pearl necklace. I want to try the TikTok vampire glitter skin trend. I finally understand the vampire appeal in a way that Stephanie Meyer’s Mormon-heavy, abuse-glorifying books never accomplished.
S.T. Gibson has written this book as a letter to an abusive lover… after she’s murdered him. And you know who this abusive lover is — a famous Transylvanian vampire whose name starts with a “D” and ends with a “racula” — but he remains unnamed throughout this pages, because names are power, and our narrator, Constanta, refuses to cede any of hers after the trauma he’s put her through. (The epistolary novel format ringing any bells?) He manipulates and obscures and abuses, but this is a story of how Constanta (and the other two vampires in this little family of theirs) persevere. Gibson’s writing is quite aesthetic — both beautiful and languid. I felt some of these lines in the very depths of my soul and savored every word. The relationships among the characters are wonderfully explored, and their love blooms into something darkly romantic and wholly lovely.
“A Dowry of Blood” is seductive and lush, and my soul is aching now that I’ve finished it. This is a story of love turned violent, of possession, of soul-searing adoration and devotion. It’s raw and personal and immersive. It’s a story about monsters — but not in the way you might think.
Plus, unlike in “Twilight,” with its Team Edward or Team Jacob nonsense, in this book Gibson says: Why can’t you have both? And I think that’s a beautiful thing.
“Her Majesty’s Royal Coven” by Juno Dawson — 3.5/5
What happens to this royal witching service now that Queen Elizabeth has passed away? Is this now “His Majesty’s Royal Coven”? Because that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it — and let’s be honest, any witches out there are probably cursing King Charles Spaniel, not aiding his reign.
I find urban fantasy to be very hit or miss, and this was definitely a hit. Juno Dawson has created a developed, interesting world in this book that is as much about the current social and political climate as it is about the witchy, fantastical aspects, and she explores both in depth with a fun and conversational tone. In the book, Her Majesty’s Royal Coven (HRMC) is very backward and rigid, and it demonizes non-white witchy practices and practitioners. When a trans witch wants to be part of the coven, all hell — literally — breaks loose as TERFs and accepting witches fight to define who is a witch and what qualifies as witchcraft.
Dawson focuses on a group of four friends (there were five, but something happened to the fifth in the mostly off-page witch war a decade prior) — one of whom is the head of the HMRC (Helena), one of whom has split off to found her own, more welcoming coven (Leonie), one who wants to just be a mom and wife (Elle), and one who just wants to live a low-key life as a magical vet (Niamh). Dawson does a nice job of exploring their friendship as it has shifted over time while still acknowledging the bonds they share. Some of the bonds don’t quite make sense, because we didn’t see much of the four(/five)some in the past, but you still do get the sense that there’s a lot of love and life shared among them.
I wish Dawson had done a bit more to differentiate the characters, because Elle, Niamh, and Leonie seemed rather similar at their core. And I do wonder if Leonie, the one Black and LGBTQ character in this foursome, was a little stereotypical and had a lot thrust upon her characterization. Helena, as the High Priestess of the HMRC, stands apart from the other three, but her characterization takes a wild turn about halfway through the book that didn’t seem built up enough by Dawson to take the reader there. I have no problem believing Helena could think and do some of the things she does in this book (I’m frequently on Twitter, after all), but it felt like we were going from 0 to 100 in less than a second. Meanwhile, the younger side characters shine, which isn’t surprising given the books Dawson has previously written; Theo is my baby now.
The book started quite slowly, but once it picked up, oh, boy, did it pick up. The emotional intensity finally clicks, and Dawson adds enough bonkers twists and turns to keep the reader constantly guessing. And that ending? Wow. I need the next book now — if only for an exploration of how everything in the coven went bonkers once a man (gross) took the throne.
“The Old Woman With the Knife” by Gu Byeong-mo — 3/5
My retirement plan includes: reading on beaches, baking an excessive number of loaves of bread, and tending to a rose garden where I can happily sit and drink my tea.
My retirement plan doesn’t include: getting stabbed in the gut, pondering my lonely existence, and fighting against my breaking-down body.
But that second retirement plan is what our protagonist, Hornclaw, is facing as she’s reaching the end of her long career as an assassin. At 65, her body is betraying her, her only companion is a stray dog she took in, and she’s not sure what her life will look like outside of her dwindling career. She’s getting fewer and fewer jobs from her agency, maybe in an attempt to signal she should hang up her knives. She has to be careful handling her weapons because of recent tremors, her eyesight isn’t what it used to be, and she struggles to remember simple things from earlier that day. Hornclaw is a fascinating character to follow, and Gu Byeong-mo uses her to ruminate on the treatment of the elderly in Korea and other modern societal issues, including poverty, economic downturn, and the lingering effects of war. The social critique is well handled and is maybe the strongest part of the story — which is wild given the book’s murder-minded subject matter.
This book is slower, more psychological, and more of a character study than I thought it was going to be, which isn’t bad, it’s just different. Because Hornclaw is so clinical and emotionless, her book is, too. So Gu’s writing style (translated by Chi-Young Kim) is direct and mechanical. The book’s plot is kicked off when Hornclaw makes a mistake that leads to her connection with the doctor mentioned in the book blurb, but I never quite understood why Hornclaw acted the way she did and took the path she did, because the book can seem a little cold and the connections are never really explored. As a result, I couldn’t get myself that invested in this book for the most part. I did think Gu handled the third-act action quite well, and I enjoyed the ending quite a bit.
My dad recently turned 65, and while he’s not forgetting anything just yet, I’ll make sure he knows I’ll take of him in his oldER age — no turning to contract killing required.
“If You Could See the Sun” by Ann Liang — 3.75/5
It’s usually fun when you recognize a version of yourself in a character. It’s not so fun when that character is a teenage student who is so focused on schoolwork and her future that it comes at the detriment of her social life and general happiness. Oops?
This book tackles a topic that will be relatable for many: feeling like you’re invisible in certain situations. Except things are taken a bit further for our main character, Alice, who actually starts turning invisible. As the lone scholarship student at a ritzy boarding school whose fees are going up, Alice decides to take advantage of this quirk and leverage it, charging other students hefty sums for completing specific tasks on their behalf. But, of course, she can’t take this on alone and enlists help in the form of Henry, her academic rival. Both Alice and Henry were tremendous characters; she’s ambitious and kind and can be singularly focused, he’s confident and steady but maybe a little shy. Their chemistry is aces, and the way their relationship progresses as both characters start to clear up misunderstandings and rely on each other was my favorite part of the book. (This is worth reading just for Henry’s adorable traits, such as how his ears turn pink when he’s embarrassed and how he has a photo of Alice on his desk before they team up.) The way they complement each other is precious, and I kept squealing and kicking my feet up whenever they interacted.
As a poor student among the über-wealthy, Alice presents a unique worldview and allows author Ann Liang to make a poignant critique on socioeconomic status among Southeast Asians as well as take a look at the difference between those who are Asian by ethnicity and those who live in Asia. Alice is relatable for people who have ever felt less than in social situations and who feel the need to be better at everything as a way of proving to others — and to themselves — that they belong. She’s not always the easiest character to root for, because sometimes her one-track brain (I must get the best grades, I must do something significant with my life) leads her do morally gray things. But Liang makes it clear where Alice is coming from, and it’s easy for the reader to empathize with her as she tries to find her place in a world almost designed to devalue her.
There’s one plot point that really took me out of the story, because the stakes get raised in a way that didn’t quite make sense. Alice takes on an extreme task — like potential jail-time extreme — in a way that felt aggressive even for her. And then Henry — pragmatic, realistic Henry — never questions what she’s doing or pushes back. The rest of the tasks had been so tame that this one felt like it was coming out of left field, and I didn’t love how anything related to this part of the book played out. Maybe if the rest of the stakes had been higher (as the summary sort of suggests), I wouldn’t have noticed how glaringly off this one felt.
I also wanted more of a resolution to the whole turning-invisible storyline. It’s the crux of the story, but it’s never really explored in a satisfactory way. We never find out why Alice turns invisible, how her invisibility is triggered, and whether it persists. Alice’s invisibility is pretty much abandoned 80 percent of the way through, and it left me with lingering questions.
Still, with wonderful writing, world-building, pacing and character development — plus an adorable rivals-to-lovers subplot, of course — this was an enjoyable book I read extremely quickly.
If I could tell Alice one thing, it’d be: College is better, I promise.
Special thanks to NetGalley and Inkyard Press for providing me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Demon” by Kimberly Lemming — 5/5
Ages ago (or what feels like it, anyway), I was obsessed with a TV show called “Galavant.” It was campy and slightly absurd, but the silliness and colorful characters and high-octane energy had me hooked. (The musical numbers written by Alan Menken certainly didn’t hurt.) But it got canceled after two seasons — damn you, ABC — and nothing had quite given me those same vibes.
But this book perfectly fills that Galavant-sized hole in my heart. Kimberly Lemming has written a rollickingly fun fantasy book with just the right amount of whimsy. It’s fluffy and kooky. It’s silly and heart-warming. The characters are splendid. The writing is witty and is ACTUALLY funny! The spice feels like part of the story, not like it got added in later with no connection to the plot. There’s great banter, there’s found family, there’s a strong, take-no-prisoners protagonist obsessed with cheese, there’s a dominant demon with a heart of gold, there’s a quest, there are side characters you’ll fall in love with.
Oh, and did I mention all that happens within 183 pages? I’ve read 800-page fantasy books where less happens. (Yes, some of the world-building is then a little flimsy, but I honestly didn’t care.) Reading this book felt like a breeze — partially because of the quick pace and partially because it was so freaking fun. I finished this book smiling and wanting to jump on my bed because it was so adorable.
Yeah, I’ve found myself a new obsession.
“Our Wives Under the Sea” by Julia Armfield — 5/5
We know more about planets and solar systems millions of light-years away than we do about what lies at the bottom of the oceans right in our backyard. And, honestly, having seen some of what divers have found in the deep sea, I’m okay with that. But that unexplored subterranean region lends itself to a wonderful premise: Your wife goes on an exploration into unknown parts of the ocean and resurfaces… only for you to wonder who — or what — it is that actually came back.
This is the kind of book that appeals to my very soul: it’s melancholic and haunting and lyrical. Yes, this story has elements of horror, but it’s really an interrogation of loss and grief. Leah has come back changed from her traumatic experience in the sea, and her wife, Miri, is at her wit’s end trying to figure out how to take care of her beloved, who is slowly drifting away from her. The book is told from both points of view (with Miri telling the story of what’s been happening since Leah returned and with Leah recounting what happened on that cursed submarine expedition), and you’re able to see how a love so beautiful can have become what it has. Their love is achingly tender and warm, and it’s deep. The fact that they love each other so much makes everything that happens here that much harder. Miri’s grief over the wife who has come back to her — a wife who sits in the bathtub and sheds skin, doesn’t eat, only drinks salt water, and only speaks to tell facts about the ocean — is poignant.
There’s a claustrophobic atmosphere to the whole thing, because while Leah is trapped in the submarine, Miri is trapped in their apartment as a caregiver. Miri experiences a terrifying knocking sound way down deep, while Leah can’t escape the loudly running television of the couple who lives in the apartment above. This atmosphere created by Julia Armfield adds a weight to every page. There’s tension and terror, but the story is such an intimate one. And she strikes a wonderful balance between the monotony of the everyday and the magical aspects of Leah’s voyage, of their delicate love and the brutal horror experienced, of holding on and knowing you need to let go. Armfield’s writing is truly stunning; it’s languid and immersive. The little details she notes and the characterizations of both characters felt unique (for example, Miri likes to flip though old books at charity shops to read the inscriptions and notations) and drew me into the story. The long paragraphs might not be for everyone, but she’s packed so much magic into each and every sentence. And that last chapter, told in Miri’s perspective, left me dazed and unable to close the book.
This book is a deep dive into heart-wrenching loss and grief and love told inside a horror story’s framework. I sunk into the story, and I know it’s a book that will haunt me for a while.
Maybe we don’t want to know more about the ocean floor, after all.
“The Monsters We Defy” by Leslye Penelope — 4/5
I love the 1920s I’ve seen on the screen — the silk gloves, the fringe, the feathers, the short hair, the (illegal) champagne coupes, the jazz music, the devil-may-care attitudes. Except almost every mainstream portrayal I’ve seen of this era has been very, very, very white. It’s almost like it can be easy to glamorize the 1920s when you’re not thinking about the races and social classes that were still being oppressed.
Enter this book: a magical heist novel set In Washington, D.C., during the 1920s that’s centered on the Black experience. Boy, oh, boy is it a fun read.
Leslye Penelope has combined folk magic, religion, and history into a compelling tale that has elements of fantasy, action, and romance. There are drag balls and gun-toting gangsters, and the jazz music of the age (which almost serves as a kind of background to the book) combines wonderfully with the musicality of Penelope’s writing. It’s a textured story that grows more compelling with each page. Where the book strikes the perfect chord is with the telling of the Black experience. Yes, there are mentions of the poverty-stricken, but Penelope almost defiantly focuses primarily on the glamour of certain sects of Black culture — the literary soirées and balls — as compared with prevalent media representation. But that doesn’t mean she neglects the struggles of the time; she writes about police violence and persecution, colorism, discrimination (from whites and Blacks), and threats from the KKK to remind people what really laid underneath the supposed razzle dazzle of the Roaring ‘20s.
In the book, large swaths of D.C.’s poorer Black population are going missing, and our heroine, Clara Johnson, teams up with other magic-inflicted individuals to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Clara is a caul baby who can commune with spirits (called “Enigmas”) on the other side and is often saddled with using her ability to help others commune with these spirits, too. The Engimas are often keen to help (bestowing a “charm” on individuals who come to them), but their gifts come with a cost: a cleverly worded “trick” that can make the person’s life miserable.
When a war among the Enigmas begins and a ring on the finger of an opera star seems to be at the crux, Clara is told she will have her trick removed if she can get that ring back. Hence, a heist. Most of Clara’s team are others who have made deals with the Enigmas and want to have their tricks removed: Israel Lee, a jazz musician, Aristotle Bishop, a former vaudeville star, and Jesse Lee, a porter who recently served in the military. There’s Zelda Coleman, too, an albino Black woman whose family sold her to the circus and who has neither trick nor charm. It’s clear Penelope loves her characters, and they’re all well-rounded and provide interesting points of view. My only problem was that I thought Clara was maybe the least interesting in the way she was written. She’s lived a hard life, so she’s standoffish and untrusting as a result, but that prevents her chemistry with the other characters from really developing.
As the heist progresses, Clara and her crew take a hard look at the class disparities and realities of their time and have to work to fight those levels of discrimination as they simultaneously fight the Enigmas and work to outtrick the tricksters. It’s not the most action-packed book (although it ends with a flurry of high-octane happenings), and the book is often more of a slow burn on all fronts than something that’s going to grab you by the lapels and shake you. But it’s a wonderful dose of the mystical, and the story is a compelling and well-developed one.
Now, give me THIS as a movie adaptation. It’s exactly the kind of 1920s media I think deserves to become mainstream.
“Fangs” by Sarah Andersen — 4/5
This is a rather simple but quite adorable slice-of-life graphic novel about a vampire and werewolf falling in love. There isn’t much of a narrative thread, but the drawings are delightful (in both content and style), and the whole thing is a perfect cozy, fun, fall read.
“Manhunt” by Gretchen Felker-Martin — 4/5
I have watched exactly one horror movie in my lifetime, and it was “Get Out,” which only sort of counts. I’m not a big fan of gore, of jump scares, of slasher villains. So I can only ask myself what I was thinking when I picked up this book — with its list of trigger warnings that could probably take up three pages, single spaced — that has been described as fitting into the grindhouse horror and splatterpunk subgenres.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
Gretchen Felker-Martin writes the grotesque, to be sure, but she’s crafted colorful characters with such big hearts that I found the focus on their emotional turmoil and their trials made the horror more palatable. An apocalyptic plague might be running riot around them, but their capacity for seeking joy and pleasure and love in the middle of everything is wonderful to read. Felker-Martin’s plague affects people with higher testosterone levels — so: men, trans women, trans men, women with PCOS, etc. — which is a lovely middle finger to the recent trend in book releases along the lines of “what would the world be like without this gender” that fails to consider anything other than the author’s inherent cisness. Those affected individuals with levels over a “certain arbitrary level” become “slavering animal(s) driven only to rape and eat raw meat.” Thus, our primarily transfem cast hunts feral men for their testes and uses them to synthesize estrogen to avoid becoming part of the horde.
But while the men would logically seem to be the focus, the true villains are the militant TERFs of the Maryland Womyn’s Legion who have used the absence of their patriarchal overlords to enforce the sanctity of biological womanhood. Through them and what they represent, the typical horrors trans people face today — which are already horrifying enough — are amplified. The horror the TERFs represent is almost a warning for where we’re heading, and Felker-Martin enforces that point with lines such as, “That was what scared her. The women who stayed silent,” “What we’re doing to them… It’s just the same shit men did to us before,” and “The world is over, and the only way I can know myself if by hating other women.” Shocking: Enforcing gender is going to kill people.
Felker-Martin’s writing is searing, and there are lines that feel like you’re being electrocuted. There are harrowing and graphic depictions of rape and bodily harm that squeamish me could barely stomach and that I found agonizing to read. (I tried reading while eating — yeah, I definitely don’t recommend.) The book is titillating and focuses a lot on raw sexuality. But there are also lines that will break your heart. The two main characters at the start, Fran and Beth, who are both trans women, are battle-worn and are tired of fighting for their right to exist. Beth notes: “I’m a girl until a real one decides I’m not.” They represent different aspects of the trans experience — for example, one can easily pass as a woman, one can’t — and broke my heart at times. The two are joined later in the narrative by Robbie, a transmasc sharpshooter who has been on his own for a long time, Ramona, a part of the TERF patrol who has reasons to question her participation in its torturous regime, and Indi, the fat, cis doctor who helps harvest estrogen. Through these characters, Felker-Martin uses what is often considered terrifying — being trans, being queer, being fat — and makes it clear that the real horror is in complicity and policing others’ existence.
The constant bouncing around of perspective and the amount of side character names to keep track of in every narrative lessened some of the emotional impact of the storylines when I was so busy trying to remember who was who. And the slackening action in the middle gave me a bit of a whiplash given the way it comes from and then returns to a “go, go, go” mentality. But the ending of the book is spectacularly handled, and the familial dynamics and the way the characters bound together to fight for their right to exist hit me right in the feels.
Because as much as this book is a horror story, it’s also a poignant reminder of the work we can do to make this a more livable planet for all. As Robbie says, “I know the world’s dead, but that means we get more of a say in what happens to the people left in it, not less.”
“Parallel Hells” by Leon Craig — 3/5
I loved some of the stories in this collection, I liked others, and I’m pretty sure I’m not smart enough to understand a few.
As a whole, this collection — which is full of sensuous, Gothic-inspired stories — takes familiar concepts in the horror genre (the vampire, the Golem, the haunted house, the cursed books, the demons, the possessions, the satanic rituals, the faeries) and breathes new life into them. Through those concepts, Leon Craig explores identity and queerness as she modernizes the familiar tropes — the satanic ritual is suggested by a character in response to trauma; a father who sacrificed to have a child can’t accept that his son is actually his daughter; the shame-sucking demon is trying to figure out whether or not to be honest about their true self with friends; a haunted book is used to help a student get ahead in their über-competitive doctoral program at Oxford.
The horror in this collection is less overt than you might be expecting; these aren’t stories that will make you squeamish, they’re stories that will wake you up in the middle of the night. Craig is clever about subverting expectations — I went back a couple of times and read the story again after finishing it just to see how the tale ended up where it did.
I found the best stories were the ones that were a little longer, because they gave Craig a chance to flex her impressive writing muscles and created more space for her examination of the human condition through these surreal vibes. I loved the two stories that really experimented with form: “raw pork and opium,” which features two narratives side-by-side across several pages; and “No Dominion,” which is told in an elliptical form. Other standouts for me were “Hags,” “Lipless Grin,” and “Suckers.” There was a lot to like in all these stories (as I mentioned, Craig’s writing is a standout), but some of the stories’ meaning struck me as obtuse and made it hard for me to connect with them, and Craig never really gives a satisfying, full-stop ending to any tale (even the ones I liked), which, yes, adds to this hazy vibe but also left me a little frustrated when it kept happening.
While Craig has filled this book with recognizable horror elements, she seems to be telling us that the most spine-chilling thing is the everyday human experience. And, yeah, that idea really scares the living daylights out of me.
“Carmilla” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu — 4/5
I think the fastest way to kill Edward from the “Twilight” series would be to give him this novella. The puritanical, glittering, forever-teenager would almost certainly combust after reading this sexy Gothic tale about the queer relationship between a beautiful vampire and her young, female lovers (her prey).
It’s this book’s lingering glances, tender touches, and vows of affection — contrasted by the stiffly Victorian atmosphere (the book was written in 1872) — that make it such an engaging read. The titular vampire, Carmilla, presents herself as a rather innocent, ailing youth, and it’s easy to get sucked in (sorry, couldn’t resist) by her tale of woe and the lies she spins to conceal her true existence. She’s almost the original gaslighting girl boss and love-bomber. J. Sheridan Le Fanu packs a ton of descriptive imagery into these pages, but it contributes to this interesting gray, weather-beaten atmosphere that serves as a lovely backdrop to the slow action and the haunting tale that takes place. (Seriously: You could probably cut the book by about a third if you didn’t have to note exactly what tapestries are hanging, exactly how the forest is laid out, etc.) Metaphors abound here — and actual analytical English majors can explain them better than I can — and Le Fanu uses them to present an interesting take on class, culture, religion, gender, and sexuality.
(Quick note: My library didn’t have a copy of the novella with Carmen Maria Machado’s notes, which I think would have put this read over the top for me; from what I’ve gleaned from reviews, she does a great job of addressing the problematic aspects and contextualizing them. So I might look for that version, if you’re able to get your hands on it!)
Overall, this is a beguiling, hypnotic tale that’s a wonderful read if you’re a fan of this genre and of vampiric lore. I might have to keep a copy on me at all times just to make sure I can repel any Mormon-author-inspired bloodsuckers.
“Sign Here” by Claudia Lux — 3.5/5
My sister is a lawyer, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from her experience, it’s this: Contracts are hell.
In this book, that’s literally the case.
The idea that hell is a series of grating, mundane things isn’t new, but Claudia Lux writes that particularly well here. In her version of hell, the only alcohol available is shots of Jäger, you can only use beepers for communication, granola bars are the only food that doesn’t get stuck in the vending machine, the only music that plays is the exact kind you hate, etc. These little details created a compelling environment. Lux has taken a done-before concept and made it feel fresh. Lux captures the dark humor in the situation — a demon is trying to get a “perfect set” of five family members across generations to sell their souls to him — and her writing is playful and makes the book fun to read.
The book follows two real storylines: the Harrison family and Peyote Trip, the demon trying to complete his “set” of Harrison family members. The Harrison part of the book is all about family dynamics and dysfunction, teenage woes, and a mysterious past, and I’d have read a book just about them. I’d have read just a book about Peyote’s storyline, too: a work drama with coworkers who are demons (literally), the torturous, humdrum existence in Hell, and a look at what humanity really is and where the choices we make take us. On their own, I loved the two storylines, but they didn’t gel, and I thought they could have been tied together more cleanly. I wish that the story had been more about Peyote’s interactions with the Harrison family and that it didn’t instead read like two separate stories. But my real issue with the book came with the addition of a third storyline: Cal’s. Cal is an interesting character, don’t get me wrong, but this wasn’t supposed to be her book. Too much time was devoted to her, and all of it was confusing.
I was surprised at how much depth there was in this book, given the sort of absurdist back-cover summary and the playful cover art. And I found the emotional climax to be compelling. I do think the book — at 416 pages — is at least 100 pages too long; it drags in places and would have been a better read if it had been tightened. And some of the foreshadowing was too heavy-handed. But as a debut novel, Lux did a nice job of finding a quirky and engaging story to tell and writing it in a captivating way.
Contracts may be hell, but the real message of the book might just be that you should always read the terms and conditions, especially when there are actual demons involved.
“Malice” by Keigo Higashino — 5/5
Move over, whodunits. Make way for the WHYdunits.
“Malice” never makes you guess who the culprit is. You know that almost up front. But Keigo Higashino will have you on your toes the entire time trying to figure out why the crime was committed, as the story shifts and expands and gets you all turned around. But nothing about the way the tale turns on its head feels cheap. This is a psychological game of cat and mouse with two intelligent individuals, and the dual perspectives — of Osamu Nonoguchi, the suspect, and Detective Kaga — is beyond compelling. Nonoguchi’s chapters, in particular, are fascinating, because what you’re seeing is the story he wants to tell, and it’s up to the reader to find the truth amid an avalanche of lies and misdirection.
I finished this book in one night, and I’m not ashamed to admit Higashino got me good — it’s hard to fool me, but he pulled it off in a masterclass. What seems straightforward actually has more layers than an onion. The book keeps the tension on the knife’s edge, and there are no gimmicks to be found within these pages. Higashino surprises and manipulates and stuns as he builds to a climax that left me baffled at the solution.
“From Bad to Cursed” by Lana Harper — 3.5/5
I’m weak for witchy books with punny titles, aka Lana Harper’s entire “The Witches of Thistle Grove” series. (From “Bad to Cursed” is the second in the series; the first was “Payback’s a Witch.”)
After loving the first book in the series, I had high hopes for “From Bad to Cursed,” especially once I realized I was going to get an enemies-to-lovers, forced proximity, witchy romance. But this book tried to be too much, too fast, and I found it forgettable. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of things I thought were good. I liked Issa and Rowan a lot, but the dialogue between them seemed a little try-hard (he calls her “the sass mouth” once). The whole crux of why they were “enemies” in the first place was based in immaturity, and they moved way too quickly to “oh, well, maybe you aren’t so bad.” I liked that the romance had an actual plot — Issa and Rowan have to team up to find out who is hexing (and maybe trying to kill) Rowan’s family members, while Issa’s family are the prime suspects — but the book focused too much on its mysterious aspects, and I wouldn’t say mystery is where author Lana Harper shines. I missed some of the characters from the first book and wished they had been included to round out this story some because it sometimes seemed too insular. Oh, and I didn’t need 17 zodiac references every chapter.
However, Harper manages to immerse you in details without making you feel like you’re being hit over the head with them — the sights, sounds, and smells, in particular, had me in a very autumnal mood feeling quite witchy. (Although no spells I tried to cast seem to have worked, sadly.) And the two main characters were both interesting and varied in their personalities, wants, and interests. (Even if Issa did occasionally give off white feminist energy.) No cookie cutter characters here! The magical system here is better explained than in the first book; I enjoyed the dichotomy of Issa’s kinda creepy necromantic magic and Rowan’s green, healing abilities. And the tension — both romantic and curse-related — never really lagged.
Regardless, I’ll be picking up the third book in the series when it comes out because of, once again, the title: “Back in a Spell.”
“Hallowe’en Party” by Agatha Christie — 2/5
If you’d have told me a day ago that I would dislike an Hercule Poirot novel, I’d have called you a liar. If you told me a day ago that I would figure out the solution to the book before he did, I’d have told you to get your head checked out.
Alas, here we are.
The whole book felt chaotic because of its long-winded dialogue dumps that had me wondering if any of these characters ever took a breath while speaking. Christie leaned heavily into some societal aspects in the 60s when trying to figure out who would kill a child and why (mental illness and sex crimes being the popular theories), but those theories are put forth by every. single. character. The drama never had me on the edge of my seat, and the whole crime seemed telegraphed in a way I’d never expect to see from Christie. Yes, there were details Poirot and his little gray cells picked up on that I totally missed (par for the course), but because I’d already figured out the solution to the crime, Poirot’s denouement was a relief, not anything fun.
Christie seemed bored writing this book, Hercule Poirot seemed bored solving it, and I was bored reading it.
“The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches” by Sangu Mandanna — 5/5
This book is perfect, no notes.
OK, fine, I’ll be more specific. The only thing currently running through my brain after finishing this book is essentially: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! — mixed with squeals and heart eyes, of course.
Maybe not specific enough? OK. This book is warm and inviting. The descriptions seem effortless. The little details are spectacular. The witchiness is exactly perfect. The diversity is wonderful. The three little budding witch children are priceless. The found family aspects were so sweet I legitimately had tears in my eyes at times. The chemistry on all fronts is *chef’s kiss*. The characters are all distinct and lovable.
Mika, a witch besieged by solitude comes (with her koi and golden retriever — all named after witches, of course) to Nowhere House, where she finds: a grumpy librarian, a retired actor and his gardener husband, a housekeeper, and three adorable orphans (Rosetta, Terracotta, and Altamira). The connections they formed made my heart sing, and I sat and stared at this book when I finished it wondering if I should just start it again then and there.
I’d die for author Sangu Mandanna.
The book is twee. It’s quirky. It has heart. It’s cozy.
Or, like I said: It’s perfect!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!