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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The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood

The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tense and strange, grounded in solid and specific details, but ultimately left me less than satisfied. I never felt like I fully knew or cared about the characters, or the house. I didn’t feel like anything was at stake other than the usual “oh no, get out honey” at every person who walked through the door, oblivious or aware of how dangerous the house is. Didn’t reach true levels of disquieting for me.

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Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The more I think about this book, the more I love it. Came for the ghosts, gods, and family drama, was very excited for the surprise GANGSTERS. All the elements (characters, plot, surprises) are very well balanced. The story moves at a good clip that feels urgent without tossing all the character and family development aside to be a straight thriller.

I enjoyed this so much, I struggled to write a review because I couldn’t identify any single thing that made this book stand out. All of it was so good, and all of it worked so well together.

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Wendy, Darling by A.C. Wise

Wendy, Darling by A.C. Wise

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and Titan Books for the free e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

A.C. Wise does not flinch in this brutal and feminist take on Neverland and what happened after for Wendy Darling. She explores the consequences of capturing Peter Pan’s attention and the disenfranchisement of women who stepped out of line or failed to meet male expectations in the early 20th century.

I’ve been reading A.C. Wise’s short fiction here and there for a few years, and was really excited to sink my teeth into a whole novel, especially a female-centric take on the Peter Pan mythos. I recently re-watched Hook, and as much as I love the twists that film takes, as much as I appreciate a fathers-and-sons story, there are ladies in this sandbox, too, and they are often marginalized and underutilized when writers decide to play with Pan.

This was not an easy book to read. It was an adventure, and it was satisfying, but it was not fun. It was a pleasure to arrive at Wendy’s self-actualization and triumph, but difficult to follow her through her valley of despair along the way. While Wise doesn’t flinch, she still handles with care. She makes interesting rather than easy choices, and goes for nuance over cliché. Native and queer characters and experiences are given places of prominence, and the darkness at the heart of Peter Pan is at the center rather than the edges, interrogated rather than left to the subtext.

I don’t want to give spoilers, so I’ll give a warning instead: read this book only if you’re prepared for some darkness and to be challenged. The rewards are worth the risk.

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The Lights of Prague by Nicole Jarvis

The Lights of Prague by Nicole Jarvis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Thank you to NetGalley and Titan Books for a free e-arc of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

I’m sorry to say this book did nothing for me.

Jarvis’s plot and ideas sounded thrilling and exciting and intriguing, but the things Jarvis finds interesting about these ideas, the things she focuses on in her writing, are not what I find interesting, or are not delivered in a savvy and interesting way. Her attention to those things is overbearing, with full repetition of ideas and thoughts, as though I would have forgotten what the characters motivations and desires or the themes and point of the story are as I read along. Ideas like “slavery is bad and this creature doesn’t deserve to be enslaved” were fully stated the moment they were dropped into the story, and they didn’t evolve from there, just repeated until the plot resolved them. Her prose style also did not appeal to my sensibilities, frequently falling into metered sentences of similar length that did not draw me in or create a compelling reading experience.

Domek’s desire to use his intelligence instead of his muscle, and his interest in mechanics, feel like window dressing rather than deep character building or driving motivations, because they’re not deeply explored or manifested. He largely solves the problems of the plot through muscle not wit, and his attempts to be smart create blockers instead of solutions in the plot. He also seems to have never pursued his mechanical or intellectual passions outside of his work as a lamplighter. It’s stated he also works part time for his relative’s watchmaking business, but it’s hardly there in the landscape of his life or the story. When he is called naïve, I think we are meant to take that as someone misunderstanding or underestimating him, but his choices and actions as he attempts to do the smart and right thing are truly naïve, his intellect underdeveloped.

I didn’t care about the lore built around the pijavica, or the physical descriptions. The White Lady was far more interesting to me, but had much less presence in the story. I do prefer ghosts and spirits to vampires, so choosing the read a vampire-centric story is my own fault, on this count.

As for intrigue and thrill, it just wasn’t there. The intrigue between the pijavica families fell flat because we had no embedded point of view characters to experience real back and forth. Ora’s agenda was her own, and she only engaged with the intrigue shallowly, and to her own ends and the ends of her human friends. The families’ agendas were kept hidden from the reader so they could be revealed to Ora and Domek as part of the mystery plot, or as surprises, but like so much else in this book, by the time we got the reveal, I didn’t care, or it drowned in discussions. Jarvis has a habit of halting dramatic tension in scene after scene with lengthy conversations. This was not the terse walk-and-talk of The West Wing or the banter-while-fighting of the Princess Bride. Movement in the scenes frequently ground to a halt while the characters had moral and philosophical debates to decide their course of action. It sucked the drama, urgency, and thrill from the story. With a string edit, this book could have been 100 pages shorter and 100% snappier.

I’m sure there’s an audience for this book, more ideal readers who will find a great deal of pleasure in these pages. Alas, I am not one of them.

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