Spooky Season! My October reading.

I thought I might post individual reviews throughout the month, get back into the swing of things, but after I hate-reviewed Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Stories at the beginning of the month, I was too busy reading nine other things to stop and write about them.

So, here it is. I finally sat down and forced my (often very emotional) thoughts into coherence. Here’s my reviews of my spooky season reading:

Greywaren by Maggie Stiefvater

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I laughed out loud, I cried a little, I cheered, I loved it. I was not prepared for this series to be over, and this book is both wonderful and not nearly enough. (I will never get over Matthew asking Bryde if he’d ever read about clinical depression; Declan trying so hard to hold it together and making the worst, most reactionary choices because he’s just at the end of his rope; Adam confessing to Ronan that he felt like he’d killed so many other versions of himself to become the version who went to Harvard and then found it all lacking; Ronan remaining fundamentally the same while fundamentally changing as he discovers his truest self and comes to terms with it.) What deeply drawn, deeply felt, deeply satisfyingly, gloriously messy and messed up and tragic and hopeful people these characters are. I will miss them and enjoy visiting them again and again.

Fearie Tales: Stories of the Grimm and Gruesome by Stephen Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Picked this up for authors I already knew I liked (Tanith Lee, Angela Slatter, Garth Nix). Didn’t really find any new-to-me writers that had me adding things to my to-read list. Enjoyed the interstitial Grimm originals and several of the adaptations and interpretations, but only found it somewhat memorable on the whole. Am already forgetting most of the stories and will certainly have lost most of this anthology within another month. Rated 4 stars because the stories I did like, I really liked.

The Dark Magazine, Issue 71: April 2021 by Sean Wallace

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Only read “Forward, Victoria” because I’m a big fan of Carlie St. George’s short fiction. Gym listen. Brought to mind Seanan McGuire’s Ghost Roads books with the exploration of how legends change over time and ghosts are bound by rules. Was drawn in by the relentlessness of Victoria’s attention to revenge, for petty slights or serious sins.

Grave Reservations by Cherie Priest

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great fun from Cherie Priest, introducing a not-very-impressive psychic and a non-skeptical detective. Good balance between the murder case and the characters’ personal lives and concerns. I would go to a bar to watch Leda sing Klairvoyant Karaoke, and I am looking forward to seeing more of Grady and his daughter in future books.

The Sandman: Act II by Dirk Maggs

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

More little stand-alone stories, less meta-plot than Act One, but still 100% delightful, even when it’s awful and disturbing and you remember this is a horror story. The quality of this as an audio drama is stellar.

Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ll admit, I didn’t fall in love with Jade in book one. I liked her, I felt for her, I rooted for her, but I don’t remember loving her. I only remember loving that last image, that last moment.

This book made me love her. The first thing Jade does when she returns to Proofrock, a town full of people who turned their backs on her, is embrace a traumatized young woman. The identity explorations, switcheroos, mother-daughter parallels, and connections between unlikely people had me cheering and guessing and crying and wanting. I was as desperate as Jade for things to work out in her favor, for the people she cared for to survive and care for her back. I wanted to cry when Jade made a sacrifice play at the end, again, but I’m glad she’ll be back. The slasher references came thick and fast, and I haven’t watched enough of the genre to follow it very well, but ultimately it didn’t matter. Stephen Graham Jones redefines “compulsively readable” prose for me. This is a banger of a novel.

Thanks to Gallery/Saga Press and Netgalley for the ARC!

Slow Burn by Laura Blackwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Picked this up because I enjoyed a shorter piece by Blackwell in Nightmare Magazine. Loved the quiet horror, the weird and creeping dread and sense of wrongness, loved the unlikeable-ness of Anne, but didn’t love the whole of the story. I wish there’d been less of an explanation at the end. Rather than leave me with a sense of future dread or larger horror, it deflated the story for me. Oh well. Might be someone else’s perfect read.

Revenge by Yōko Ogawa

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not at all what I was expecting from the cover and title, but I loved it. Sparse, elegant prose. Not a word out of place or overwritten. Hit all the quiet horror and gothic buttons, and linked all the stories together. I was in heaven.

Everything is slightly off. Circumstances have characters questioning their own perception of reality. People behave strangely in ways that can be dismissed until they can’t. Ogawa moves us so slowly from the mundane to the bizarre to the murderous we don’t feel the transition until we’re in the middle of something deeply and overtly disturbing. Brings to mind Daphne du Maurier.

Great Ghost Stories by John Grafton

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Utter whiplash to read this on the heels of Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge. Too many over-written stories by men, only one by a woman. Almost noped out when Bram Stoker named his character Malcolm Malcolmson in “The Judge’s House.” (Not gonna lie, I skipped that one.) Things improved a little bit with Ambrose Bierce and the other early-20th century writers, but only to the point that it was a tolerable read. I just lost all patience for 18th and 19th century prose, it seems, and I was so worn out by it by the time I got to the 20th century, it soured the whole book for me. No great loss: I picked it up at the beginning of the month at a used book sale and left it in a little free library earlier today for someone else to enjoy.

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Emotionally-Complex Romance Summer

I completed my vaccination at the end of June and looked forward to a summer of COVID dwindling down. Sadly, my hopes were dashed. While other people were trying their best to make Hot-Girl Summer and No-Mask Summer and whatever else the world wanted from their summer happen regardless of the Delta variant, I mostly stayed at home and did a lot of comfort reading. Meaning I reached for many books with romance at the core, because I wanted happy endings resulting from people making good choices for themselves. But as with everything I read, I have high standards. I demand great prose, great characters with interesting and complicated motivations and emotional landscapes, solid plotting, and interesting themes. It’s hard to find books that do it all and deliver the happy ending.

I did find several books that met my criteria and were romance-centered or romance-adjacent. I didn’t keep up with posting reviews for the past several months, so please enjoy this round-up of my Emotionally-Complex Romance Summer reading:

I finally started The Sharing Knife series by Lois McMaster Bujold. I love Bujold, and these were really solid books. I haven’t felt the urge to pick up the rest of the series yet, but when I need more fantasy romance comfort reading, I’ll return to Fawn and Dag’s adventures.

Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Loved the Western flavor, the subtle magic, the adventure-turned-domestic-drama. This is a true fantasy romance, emphasis on the romance. Looking forward to reading more, and following the characters from the mundane world where they’ve solved Fawn’s difficulties into Dag’s magical world, where more drama and more magic awaits.

Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Serious Tamora Pierce vibes. Difficult to read about Dag’s family turning on him and being racist toward Fawn. Satisfying to read about people solving problems and making decisions to break with old habits that don’t serve anymore and set out on an adventure. I like romance stories that intersect with a character realizing they need to make a significant personal change, because their family, professional, or personal life doesn’t serve anymore. The Sharing Knife series is turning out to be a coming-of-all-ages story where Dag and Fawn, who are at very different points in their lives, make choices about how the rest of their lives are going to be, by choosing each other and embracing the consequences of that choice.

As promised in my review of “St. Valentine , St. Abigail, St. Brigid,” I went on a C.L. Polk binge and read all four of her novels in three weeks. I was riveted and delighted from start to finish!

The Kingston Cycle

Witchmark by C.L. Polk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Snappy and inventive use of the Edwardian period for a secondary-world gaslamp fantasy. World-building and themes went hand-in-hand, as we explored the impact of modern warfare on soldiers, emergent technology and the adjacent social ills it creates or brings to light, how poorly society treats veterans, slavery, systemic social injustice and inequity, the right to self-determination, and how difficult it is to separate from a toxic family. Utterly refreshing to read an emotional male character who gets a romantic happy ending, instead of the big-bad-magical-powers/chosen one narrative.

Stormsong by C.L. Polk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
More political intrigue! More magic! More romance! A true pleasure to get more of this world and these characters. Love how hard Grace works to fix her own perspective and the world around her, using her power and privilege for good. The thing I love most about her character is also the most frustrating: her unapologetic intelligence is balanced by a destructive naivety. It makes the character very real, but gets her in trouble again and again.

Soulstar by C.L. Polk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book packs a punch. Polk finally takes us from the powerful upper echelons of society down to the working class clans and families struggling within the systemic abuses of power our more privileged protagonists from Witchmark and Stormsong have been trying to escape and dismantle. Robin’s political, social, and personal journeys to repair what’s broken in her country, her community, and her long-paused marriage was extremely satisfying to read. She worked for it; it was hard; nevertheless, Robin persisted.

And Polk’s standalone latest novel:

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Bridgerton, with magical scandal instead of sex scandal. Blatantly and unapologetically feminist (no subtext here!). Thank you to C.L. Polk for including different takes on feminist thinking, including multiple women from different levels of societal privilege and representation, and a man in the process of becoming a feminist. Compulsively readable and delightful, with moments of dreadful tension leading to a very satisfying happy ending. Escapist fantasy on many levels.

I don’t usually go for contemporary romance, but I was enjoying pushing my romance comfort button so much, I picked this up on a recommendation from a friend. Really glad I did. Turned out to be one of the best reads of my summer:

Beach Read by Emily Henry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Made me laugh out loud (the book club purse wine!) and then gave me all the feels (emotionally devastated characters crossing paths as they sort out the wreckage of their lives!). I will have all of this, please. Henry effectively blends the rom-com and serious-drama modes, all while blatantly critiquing the publishing industry’s treatment of not just romance but most fiction written by women. I am happy to say I do not regret lifting my ban on reading stories about writers for this book.

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Lingering SAD-ness and Stress, or Where I’ve Been for the Past Six Weeks

You’ll notice I haven’t posted any book reviews since mid-May. It’s not because I haven’t been reading, but I haven’t felt like writing reviews for anything I’ve finished. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and I had a bad year. On top of the usual loss-of-interest depression I experience every winter, I overextended myself at work and burned out. My writing ground to a halt (like it does every winter), and my volunteer position on a fan-run convention committee became so stressful I nearly quit. I only saw my commitment through because I don’t like dropping the ball and there was no one to hand the work over to.

In April, I started writing again on a mini-retreat with some members of my amazing writing group, and just as I was starting to pick back up – the days got longer and sunnier, if not warmer (thanks, New England), and I was feeling good and fantasizing about an easy summer – I got surprise slammed with a large, months-long, highly stressful project at work that derailed me completely for the past six weeks. I’ve been in a stress shutdown almost as bad as the middle of winter.

The project is opening some career development doors for me, and I’m whipping it into shape, but I just couldn’t muster up the energy to write reviews for any of the books I’ve read since mid-May. However, it’s summer now. I’m up with the sun every day and this is the time of year I feel my best and most energetic. If you are one of the few people that follow this blog, you are about to get bombarded with reviews! I’m writing them up today and scheduling them to post this week and next.

I will always say fall is my favorite season because of the colors and the crispness and leaves and apples and snuggly sweaters and hand warmers, but fall also heralds the dark season. November is the cruelest month. Summer is when I feel good. Here’s what I’ve done for myself in the past six weeks:

  • Read a shit ton of fan fiction
  • Cut off my shoulder-length hair into an asymmetrical pixie
  • Drank milkshakes and ate ice cream
  • Took an impromptu long weekend to visit my husband’s family in sunny Florida
  • Bought books (even though I already have an entire to-read bookcase) and actually read them right away!
  • Built a LEGO Parisian Restaurant
  • Started a short story AND a novel

Self-care and self-kindness are important, and I’m always learning new ways of taking care of, motivating, and forgiving myself. I wish I was confident that I can maintain my energy through the next winter, but I can’t hope too hard for that only to be disappointed. I will enjoy the now, the sunshine, the long days, the heat and the energy. My creative juices are flowing. I’m writing again. I’ve already well exceeded my goal for today. I’ll ride this train ‘till I run out of fuel.