Monday, March 20, 2023

The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel

I treated myself to a copy of THE FAMILIAR DARK after reading and loving ROANOKE GIRLS by this author. She just has such talent when it comes to creating a true Southern Gothic, where secrets are buried as deep as bones, and the children bear the sins of their forefathers. It's so rare to find an author who can create that sort of depth of atmosphere and characterization, and I knew when I finished ROANOKE GIRLS that this was an author I wanted to watch.

THE FAMILIAR DARK is a little bit different than ROANOKE. ROANOKE was a coming of age story, but FAMILIAR DARK is more of a traditional gritty murder story. When Eve finds out her twelve-year-old daughter has been murdered, it takes her to the sort of feral mindset that she's tried to distance herself from since escaping from her mother's abusive home. She swore she would be the person her daughter deserved rather than the person she feared she might be because of her mother, and ironically, it's her mother who might end up becoming her solace when all other ends yield stone walls.

I saw other reviews saying the twist was predictable. Maybe I'm a dummy, then, because I didn't see it coming. I'm not sure I liked it but at least I could sort of understand it. Part of the fun reading this book is Eve, who is allowed to be desperate, flawed, and raw. I liked how her grief manifested as anger, and she didn't bother mourning the "correct" way. I liked how there were feminist themes in this book, and how the author showed-- with subtlety-- how hard it is to implement change in places that don't want to be changed, and how a woman's strength might manifest differently, and maybe even in a warped way, when she isn't allowed to be powerful on her own terms. It felt like a very powerful message.

This is a sad book and the ending is, at best, just bittersweet (and maybe not even that). But I can't really give it less than five stars because of how much it made me feel, and how fascinated I was with the characters and the setting. Thank GOD Amy Engel has a new book coming out soon (I've been waiting!) because I've been putting off reading her YA duology just so I can have something else of hers to look forward to. Ms. Engel truly is a talent and I recommend her to anyone looking to scratch that Gillian Flynn itch.

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker


Have you ever read a book and thought to yourself, "That was good, but let's never do this again?" That was me with THE HELLBOUND HEART. When I bought the book, I actually had no idea that it was the inspiration for Hellraiser, or, indeed, that Clive Barker had been involved with the production. I knew Barker from his more whimsical offerings: ABARAT and THE THIEF OF ALWAYS. Still horrifying, yes, but in the far more palatable mode of Tim Burton or Neil Gaiman.

Oh my God, this was so not that.

THE HELLBOUND HEART is beautifully written, just like Barker's fantasy, and it has the same cruel streak of dry, ironic humor, but the similarities end there. This is a gruesome, grisly book populated by twisted, unlikable characters. Frank, our first main character, is a morally bankrupt man who has grown weary of what life has to offer him. He has heard that there are imaginable pleasures to be found if one unlocks the puzzles of Lemarchand's box and uses it to summon the interdimensional hedonists: the cenobites. So he unlocks the box and the cenobites come... and Frank has, shall we say, regrets.

While Frank is having his... regrets... we cut to the second main character, Julia. Julia is married to Frank's brother, Rory, and she also has regrets. Namely that she could never get over the impassioned affair she had with Frank before her wedding (they did it on her veil, ffs). They have just moved to the house that the brother's used to share before Frank went missing and Rory thinks it's going to be a new step in their relationship and Julia does too, but she's thinking backwards and Rory is thinking rocking chairs on the porch. Watching this go down is main character number three, Kirsty, Julia and Rory's sort-of friend. She is attracted to Rory and resentful of Julia, and when things start going down, she begins to suspect that Julia is having an affair. Ha, she wishes it was just an affair, because Kirsty is about to have some regrets, too. No character in this book shall go without suffering. I mean, pleasure. Because-- as irony would have it-- the cenobites think the two affairs are virtually one and the same.

Now, I am not a horror fan, but after 30+ years of reading and 10+ years of book-blogging, I know a master craftsman when I see one. This is a good story. I mean, obviously. Imagine writing a short story and then having ti become a booming horror franchise right up there with Nightmare on Elm St. and Friday the 13th. My man is living the dream. The writing is both spare and evocative, and rather than falling into the trap that plagues so many horror writers (especially the splatterpunk ones), Barker never overdescribes. He knows when to leave things to the readers' imaginations-- which is both better and worse for the reader. Now, did I like it? That's a tough question, and while thinking on the rating scale, I'd have to say that it was good, but just a little too awful for me to say that I truly enjoyed it. All the characters are not very nice people, and the story is carried out with this casual sense of inevitability and apathy that just makes what's happening, paradoxically, that much more immediate and horrific.

So yes, HELLBOUND HEART was a compelling, propelling read that had me finishing it-- on a worknight-- in just a couple hours. But now I can't sleep and I'm creeped out and I really don't think I'll ever be revisiting this nightmare of a book again (or watching the movie, because yikes, pins).

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Love Invents Us by Amy Bloom


Sometimes I love to post constant updates about my thoughts on a book while I'm reading, but sometimes I like to keep my thoughts close to my heart until I finish the book. LOVE INVENTS US was the latter for me because it is such an intense and personal read. I found it on a list of books for people who wanted similar stories to MY DARK VANESSA and LOVE INVENTS US, with its anxious Jewish heroine who struggles with her weight and kleptomania, definitely screams damaged girl lit. 

The first and third parts of the book are narrated in first person and the middle is narrated in omniscient third person. The first part of the book makes up about half of the book and is the best part, tricking me into thinking that this was going to be a four-star read for the longest time. I felt really bad for Elizabeth, and how her cold and distant parents made her vulnerable to older men who predated on her vulnerability and took advantage of her. Even when she finally gets involved with a guy her own age, it goes tail-up, because she doesn't know what she's doing. The only positive role model in her life is a half-blind Black woman named Mrs. Hill, and when Mrs. Hill tells her creepy English teacher to stay away from her if he knows what's good for him, I wanted to cheer. Not that he listens.

The second part of the book is about Elizabeth as an adult, still not happy, still in messy relationships. Max, her teacher, has never gotten over what he considers the real love in his life (so much for his wife lol), and Huddie, Elizabeth's Black boyfriend who was sent away after their relationship became known, is married but also pining after Elizabeth. It's a messy tragedy where no one wins and reminded me a lot of Emily Maguire's TAMING THE BEAST, although not quite as miserable-- thank God. After reading part two and the concluding act in part three, I found myself wondering what the point was. In a coming of age story-- even a miserable one-- the point is showing the character growing up and finding themselves and even if bad stuff happens, the story usually ends on a note of hope. But when the author fills in those blanks for you and is like, nope, they grew up miserable and alone, WHAT is the POINT?

Amy Bloom is a very talented writer and was not afraid to portray her characters as gross and foolish human beings, no matter how unflattering the portrait, so kudos to her for that. But this is not a story I think I would like to revisit because I'm still not sure why Elizabeth got the sort of ending that she did. I would read more from this author, though. Edgy messy litfic is basically the only kind that I like, and it's hard to find people willing to go there. Even if it isn't the destination I had in mind.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Black Ambrosia by Elizabeth Engstrom


DNF @ 12%

I LOVE that all of these vintage horror novels are getting the reprints they deserve. Seriously. As someone in the vintage romance community, I really empathize with the horror aficionados trying to track down prized copies of cult classics. I despair of ever getting my hands on a copy of THE SILVER DEVIL, so I feel you. That's why I was so excited when I found out that Grady Hendrix's PAPERBACKS FROM HELL led to a publisher acquiring the rights to and then republishing some of the best of the best of previously out-of-print classics. Under a Paperbacks from Hell series via Valencourt! GENIUS. Someone please do this for romance.

At first I was kind of into BLACK AMBROSIA. It's narrated in first person, which I love, and the heroine is kind of a weird creepy Wednesday Addams type of girl, with a lot of unpleasantness in her life. But the pacing is very slow and kind of plodding. I think it's more character-driven than I typically like my horror novels to be and the take on vampirism is very unusual and strange and I wasn't sure I liked it. The author also does a mixed media style of format, through oral history, where the end of every chapter has an interview with one of the side characters about how they met the heroine. It's unusual and different, and I liked that, but after a while, it also wore thin.

I'd actually recommend this book to people who really enjoyed A DOWRY OF BLOOD, because I feel like they have similar styles. I wouldn't be surprised if the author of ADoB actually came across a copy of this book long ago and was inspired by it, because I feel like this book walked so other female-fronted vampire books could fly. It's well written but just not particularly interesting to me. I got bored.

2 out of 5 stars

A Furry Faux Paw by Jessica Kara


I was so happy when Jessica Kara reached out and offered me a copy of her book to review because the plot of A FURRY FAUX PAW intrigued me so much. I don't think I've ever seen a book about furries before, and especially not one geared towards YA. I was so curious how this subject would be handled because-- and I'm sorry to say this-- furries are often treated as the laughing stocks of fandom culture and most people think of fursuits as a freaky sexual kink. I was curious how that could be made YA-friendly.

After reading this book, I had to kind of just set it aside and take a breath because it was totally unlike what I expected-- in a good way. The heroine, Maeve, lives with her mother, who is an extreme hoarder (the kind that gets the fire marshal called to your house). She's also an artist and an introvert who envisions herself as a sprightly pink cat. Maeve's "fursona" isn't sexual at all (in fact, she seems to be aro or ace); instead, it almost seems, for her, to be that sort of drag queen persona, where it allows her to access parts of herself that she doesn't feel comfortable expressing under her own name. As a pink cat, she can be bubbly and cute and happy, which she can't do as Maeve. One of her dreams is to be seen as an artist and validated as a cat. Her parents both know but neither of them really get, and her mother is the worse of the two at acceptance.

There isn't really a lot of plot to this story. It's mostly just Maeve dealing with her mom and going to Furlympia (a furry con in Olympia) for the first time, thanks to her dad. While at the con, she tries to deal with her guilt over her mom and her anxiety over being in an unfamiliar environment. I went to an anime con for the first time a couple years ago and I remember feeling the same blend of overwhelmed and wondrous. When you've grown up relating to a subculture that isn't mainstream, it can honestly feel so freeing to see so many people who share your interests, and to see what is possible when people are allowed to be their creative selves to the fullest. The author also brings up how to be safe at mixed events with both teens and adults, the importance of boundaries when interacting with people in costumes, and the overwhelming sense of impostor syndrome that artists and creators can have.

What really won me over, though, was the anxiety rep and the portrayal of what it's like to live with a hoarder. First, I thought that Maeve's panic attacks were really well done (I've had them; it really is like fainting). Everything can become SO overwhelming when your mental bandwidth is draining away by the second. Second, I have lived with a hoarder (and have some hoarding tendencies myself) and it's honestly so hard, especially when you're younger; you can't have people over and you don't want to tell them why, so you just lie, which is damaging to relationships and to your social life. It also captures the pleading, begging, and anger that happens when you try to tell the hoarder to stop hoarding or to please clean up, and how frustrating it is when the hoarding begins to intrude into your own spaces, so you feel almost suffocated by the presence of all that stuff. It was so well done here and it honestly made me feel seen.

Not sure what else to say about this book except that it took a concept I wasn't sure I'd be able to relate to and made it very relatable and accessible, with some surprising emotional twists and turns. The con is also very diverse and it was fun to see Maeve meet her online friends in person for the first time (I've gotten to do that and it's such a joyous experience). Even the role-play bits, which I normally find quite off-putting, were really well done and not cringe at all. (Maybe I've spent too much time on r/creepyasterisks). So if you, like me, were wondering if this was going to be a sex thing, it really isn't. It's actually super wholesome and very important and I'm shocked that it doesn't have more reviews.

I'd definitely read more from this author.

Thanks to the author for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!

4 out of 5 stars

Belladonna by Adalyn Grace


ALL THE STARS AND TEETH was overly written and felt like the work of an author who was trying to prove herself. BELLADONNA, on the other hand, feels like the work of an author who knows that she doesn't have to. That she is, in fact, it. I can't think of many authors where I gave one of their books a one star review only to come back and give one of their later ones a five, but Adalyn Grace is that rare case and she pried all five of those stars from my stingy little fingers with BELLADONNA.

This is everything I never knew I wanted in YA fantasy and I honestly don't think the reviews do it justice. I mean, with YA fantasy being a dime a dozen these days, and everyone off to the races to write The Next Big Thing, what makes this one stand out? What is it like? Well, BELLADONNA is beautifully written and features an awkward, sort of Tim Burton-y heroine, like a female counterpart to Victor Van Dort from Corpse Bride. The writing is beautiful and ornate without being overdone and it has a wonderfully Gothic pseudo-Victorian setting replete with ghosts, poison, and murder. There's a very cinematic feel to both the writing and the story-telling and it's darkly whimsical and utterly addicting, because even though it doesn't really do anything different, the characters and the setting are all so vivid that they seem to come alive.

Signa has changed hands multiple times every since her mother was Red Wedding'd at a baby shower. Signa was the only survivor but Death left his mark on her and now she can consume poison without succumbing to it and people around her have the disconcerting habit of dropping dead. When her aunt dies, Signa taken in by her uncle as ward, where she will live with her cousins, Blythe and Percy. Just one problem, their mother was recently Red Wedding'd herself and Blythe, with her mysterious illness, appears close to death herself. And instead of living out the days to her inheritance peacefully in the countryside, Signa ends up involved in a dastardly murder plot where she, and everyone she holds dear, may be in danger. Also, the family is in-fighting over petty and non-petty dramas, and the uncle, mad with grief (or guilt?) is hosting elaborate parties like he thinks he's Jay Gatsby, or something.

So let's talk about why this book was great. The writing was good. The setting was wonderful-- creepy and atmospheric, with body horror and real stakes. Honestly, there were some moments in this book that made me glad I wasn't reading it at night. The heroine was delightfully awkward and it wasn't portrayed as too quirky or twee. I could sense her inability to fit in and her loneliness, and the author showed us instead of telling us. Part of the book is watching Signa grow and blossom, like a dark orchid, in a hothouse full of society people who don't quite know how to deal with her. 

There's also a love triangle, of sorts, and some genuinely sensual scenes. Sometimes sex in YA can be yuck, but the heroine is older (19) and the author did such a good job making things romantic and vague, rather than explicit. I think the last YA book I read that managed this balance so well was Holly Black's CRUEL PRINCE. I just love me a really good romance, okay? Especially if it makes me swoon and the hero is just the tiny bit dangerous. Which is maybe why this just kind of feels like a love ode to goth girl media. There's elements of Labyrinth, Tim Burton, Secret Garden, classic fairytales... basically everything I loved as a kid but grown up and wearing a fancy dress and falling in love for the first time.

Someone needs to make this a movie. And also give me the sequel. Not necessarily in that order.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Reviving the Hawthorn Sisters by Emily Carpenter


Emily Carpenter is one of the go-to authors for Heather and I to buddy-read, so I was really excited when she suggested we do a read of REVIVING THE HAWTHORN SISTERS, which I believe is her newest book. Told in dual timeline, it's the story of two women: one a faith healer, Ruth, who was born a bastard orphan in an insane asylum; the other, her granddaughter, Eve, who ends up tangled up in some of the dark secrets of Ruth's past come to light.

Carpenter has been a little hit or miss with me so far. Two of her books are my all-time faves and one I didn't like at all. This one kind of falls into the middle. There were some gloriously WTF-y scenes in this book (most of them having to do with a certain antagonist named Singley) and I liked Ruth's sordid past and how she overcame all of the adversity in her life. Actually, I liked the past chapters more than I liked the present chapters, which is a fun surprise because usually it's the opposite. But Eve just wasn't a very compelling protagonist compared to some of the morally ambiguous heroines Carpenter has churned out in the past... and let's face it, Ruth/Dove stole the show.

I will say that the ending was good and super intense, I thought the villain was the perfect amount of cringe, and I also liked that there's a lil' teasey bit of smut and romance in this book because I think we can all agree that thrillers are better with a little bit of smut and romance thrown in. It's what makes a FULT a FULT (aka, Fucked Up Lady Thriller, which is what Heather and I call these books). If the present chapters had been more interesting, I would have liked this more, but I ended up skimming a LOT. This wasn't a bad book but it also wasn't my fave by this author.

2.5 out of 5 stars