The Qwillery | category: Deb


The Qwillery

A blog about books and other things speculative

SPFBO Finalist Review: Out of Nowhere by Patrick LeClerc

Out of Nowhere
Immortal Vagabond Healer 1
Ink and Bourbon Publishing, July 2016
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 294 pages

SPFBO Finalist Review: Out of Nowhere by Patrick LeClerc
An urban fantasy, pacy, funny and compelling to the last page…

Healer Sean Danet is immortal—a fact he has cloaked for centuries, behind enemy lines and now a paramedic’s uniform. Having forgotten most of his distant past, he has finally found peace—and love.

But there are some things you cannot escape, however much distance you put behind you.

When Sean heals the wrong man, he uncovers a lethal enemy who holds all the cards. And this time he can’t run. It’s time to stand and fight, for himself, for his friends, for the woman he loves. It’s time, finally, for Sean to face his past—and choose a future.

A story of love, of battle—and of facing your true self when there’s nowhere left to hide.

Deb's Review

Out of Nowhere by Patrick LeClerc lies somewhere in the borderlands of contemporary fantasy and urban fantasy. It may also appeal to those who enjoy military history and medical procedurals. The story is, in almost every sense, a mixed bag.

Sean Danet is an immortal with extraordinary healing powers. Working as a paramedic, he quietly uses his gifts to lessen the severity of his patients’ injuries before they arrive at the hospital. A long life stretches out behind him, but his memories are murky. He doesn’t know his origins, has no family, and lives the life of a common man, populated only by his ambulance crew friends and the “world’s oldest cat.” What Danet does remember about his past is that he’s lived his life as a soldier, under siege, and constantly running from the truth. Knowing that people fear what they can’t understand, he keeps his powers a secret. Everything changes when one patient reacts oddly to Danet’s subtle assistance. After this chance meeting, Danet must figure out who this stranger is, and then decide whether to run again, or stay and fight for the life he’s built.

LeClerc engages the reader with colorful tales of a city riddled with drugs and crime, all told in an authoritative voice. He spares little detail of the physical and emotional suffering surrounding rescue medicine, and the magical elements of the story benefit greatly from LeClerc’s expertise. Danet is believable as a healer.

This is a quick read with characters always in motion. That said, the first half of the book, while filled with interesting vignettes that set the scene and round out our hero, does little to advance the plot. The second half is packed with action and twists, but there are weaknesses in how the main conflict is delivered, and this sometimes slows the story’s pacing. The fight scenes are intricately choreographed and told in rapid-fire fashion to great effect.

While there’s a lot of good in Out of Nowhere, there were problems with the characters that undercut its strengths. While the majority of the dialogue is natural and carries the story, the banter between the paramedic crew members is cringeworthy and feels like it’s straining for laughs. The main characters present as racist, sexist, homophobic, and often disdainful of other first responders and the people they all serve. I’d expect dark and biting humor from people who work in this field, but the casually intolerant language makes it hard to relate to most of the characters.

Additionally, Danet’s repeated objectification of female co-workers makes the rapidly developed love interest feel more like a plot device than a romantic epiphany. I would expect a man who has the capacity to feel love — one who has has lived for centuries bathed in blood and battle — to have developed a more empathetic and mature worldview. With his schoolboy attitudes, anything more substantial than a fling would’ve been more believable as a slow burn.

Out of Nowhere is the first book in LeClerc’s Immortal Vagabond Healer series, which feels like a fresh and exciting concept, but this first installment suffers too much from underdeveloped characters and a reliance on cheap, offensive laughs. LeClerc clearly has the skill, the background, and the imagination to tell compelling stories, so perhaps the characters will evolve across the series in a more positive direction. Sexual situations and graphic depictions of violence make this an adult read.

5 out of 10

Review: The Garden of Blue Roses by Michael Barsa

The Garden of Blue Roses
Author:  Michael Barsa
Publisher:  Underland Press, April 17, 2018
Format:  Trade Paperback and eBook, 248 pages
List Price:  US$16.99 (print and eBook)
ISBN:  9781630230616 (print)

Review: The Garden of Blue Roses by Michael Barsa
A car lies at the bottom of an icy ravine. Slumped over the steering wheel, dead, is the most critically acclaimed horror writer of his time. Was it an accident? His son Milo doesn't care. For the first time in his life, he's free. No more nightmarish readings, spooky animal rites, or moonlit visions of his father in the woods with a notebook and vampire make-up.

Or so he thinks.

Milo settles into a quiet routine―constructing model Greek warships and at last building a relationship with his sister Klara, who's home after a failed marriage and brief career as an English teacher. Then Klara hires a gardener to breathe new life into their overgrown estate. There's something odd about him―something eerily reminiscent of their father's most violent villain. Or is Milo imagining things? He's not sure. That all changes the day the gardener discovers something startling in the woods. Suddenly Milo is fighting for his life, forced to confront the power of fictional identity as he uncovers the shocking truth about his own dysfunctional family―and the supposed accident that claimed his parents' lives.

Deb's Review

The Garden of Blue Roses, a stylish Gothic debut by Michael Barsa, has a pitch-perfect uneasy atmosphere and is peopled with complex characters whose motivations slowly unfold, like grainy time lapse photography. As one character says over the course of events, the secret to creating fear is planting belief. Seeds of belief are sown in The Garden of Blue Roses, but they are scattered amongst plentiful seeds of doubt. The result is an enigmatic tale, reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In the Castle, but with its own strong and unique voice.

Klara and Milo Crane, the adult children of celebrated horror author, John Crane, live on an isolated estate in rural Vermont. As the story opens, their father’s car skids off the road in a suspicious, fatal accident that also claims the life of their alcoholic, mostly-absentee mother. Klara, the older sibling, is left as caretaker of hearth and home, under Milo’s attentive gaze.

The tenuous peace in the house begins to unravel when Klara hires landscape artist Henri Blanc to transform the grounds into an elaborate memorial garden in honor of their parents. Milo doesn’t trust Henri and his vague credentials. He finds the gardener to be slick and manipulative, and thinks Klara, who has long-struggled with relationships, may be willfully overlooking signs that Henri is after more than her flowerbeds.

From the beginning, we share headspace with Milo, a classic but still fresh-feeling unreliable narrator. Milo spends his days constructing painstakingly accurate historical models of military vessels. His encyclopedic knowledge of his father’s most popular character, the monstrous serial killer Keith Sentelle, paints Milo with a dark brush. Everything we experience is run through the filter of Milo’s very precise, somewhat paranoid outlook. Is he protecting his sister, his father’s legacy, and the family home, or is he simply imagining a menace that isn’t there?

All the while, John Crane’s presence hangs over the house, his deep-rooted influence over his children slowly revealing its dark nature. As Henri insinuates himself between Klara and Milo, the story becomes a frantic pas de trois between the siblings and the man who may be just a humble gardener or something far more sinister.

This is a strong debut. Barsa’s skill with metaphor makes the story a very visual one. Klara and Milo come across as authentic, though warped by their very non-traditional upbringing. They both present as decisive and vulnerable, bright and naive. There are unexpected sparks of humor, passages of brilliant and curious introspection, all delivered by an author who clearly loves wordplay. The start was a little slow for me, but this was probably because it isn’t easy to cozy up to Milo at first. Once hooked by the narrative, though, I remained hooked.

I’d recommend The Garden of Blue Roses to fans of unreliable narrator stories, intricately plotted Gothics, and quirky character studies. While the story isn’t a splatter-fest, you should expect some well-telegraphed gore. Enjoyed the story, loved the characters, and felt the conclusion was a very satisfying end to a well-told tale. I occasionally re-read books to appreciate how they’re constructed, and this one has been added to my “to be re-read” list. I’ll definitely be watching for Barsa’s next work.

Review: Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

Sometimes I Lie
Author:  Alice Feeney
Publisher:  Flatiron Books, March 13, 2018
Format:  Hardcover and eBook, 272 pages
List Price:  US$26.99 (print); US$12.99 (eBook)
ISBN:  9781250144843 (print); 9781250144836 (eBook)

Review: Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney
"Boldly plotted, tightly knotted—a provocative true-or-false thriller that deepens and darkens to its ink-black finale. Marvelous.” —AJ Finn, author of The Woman in the Window

My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:
1. I’m in a coma.
2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.
3. Sometimes I lie.

Amber wakes up in a hospital. She can’t move. She can’t speak. She can’t open her eyes. She can hear everyone around her, but they have no idea. Amber doesn’t remember what happened, but she has a suspicion her husband had something to do with it. Alternating between her paralyzed present, the week before her accident, and a series of childhood diaries from twenty years ago, this brilliant psychological thriller asks: Is something really a lie if you believe it's the truth?

Deb's Review

Sometimes I Lie is the aptly titled psychological thriller debut by Alice Feeney. Told from a first person point of view, protagonist Amber Reynolds admits from the first page that she’s an unreliable narrator:
My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me: 
1. I’m in a coma. 
2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore. 
3. Sometimes I lie.
This story is a dark-house ride where every blind turn sends the reader in dizzying circles where the tableaux are often breathtakingly unexpected and confusing. This review will be short because this is a tale best consumed in the dark.

We get to know Amber through her gauzy consciousness while in a coma after an unremembered accident; through tense flashbacks with her husband, sister, and co-workers prior to the accident; and through stories told in decades old journals from the perspective of a ten year old girl living in perpetual distress. Each new piece of Amber’s puzzle comes together to form an unsettling portrait of a woman in deepening crisis.

Feeney does a fantastic job of manipulating emotions, clues, and alternate meanings. Books built on plot twists can often leave a reader feeling abused by writers who jerk around facts to manufacture surprises, but Feeney relies on skilled misdirection, not cheap trickery, to stun and amaze.

As a protagonist, Amber is both fascinating and infuriating. In fact, it’s difficult to build up a lot of empathy for anyone in this cast of characters. This might be a death knell for some books, but in Sometimes I Lie, it’s just part of the delicious inability to know if anyone is being portrayed honestly through the filter of Amber’s coma and wracked memories.

I would definitely recommend Sometimes I Lie to folks who enjoy psychological thrillers and unreliable narrator stories. There isn’t a lot of gore, but it’s intense storytelling and you should certainly expect some unpleasantness.

There are three things you should know about this review:

1. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
2. I was upended by the plot twists.
3. I can’t stand liars . . . unless they’re fictional characters with a very cool story to tell.

Review: Strange Weather by Joe Hill

Strange Weather: Four Short Novels
Author:  Joe Hill
Publisher:  William Morrow, October 24, 2017
Format:  Hardcover and eBook, 448 pages
List Price:  US$27.99 (print); 9780062663139 (eBook)
ISBN:  9780062663115 (print); US$14.99 (eBook)

Review: Strange Weather by Joe Hill
A collection of four chilling novels, ingeniously wrought gems of terror from the brilliantly imaginative, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Fireman, Joe Hill.

"One of America’s finest horror writers" (Time magazine), Joe Hill has been hailed among legendary talents such as Peter Straub, Neil Gaiman, and Jonathan Lethem. In Strange Weather, this "compelling chronicler of human nature’s continual war between good and evil," (Providence Journal-Bulletin) who "pushes genre conventions to new extremes" (New York Times Book Review) deftly expose the darkness that lies just beneath the surface of everyday life.

"Snapshot" is the disturbing story of a Silicon Valley adolescent who finds himself threatened by "The Phoenician," a tattooed thug who possesses a Polaroid Instant Camera that erases memories, snap by snap.

A young man takes to the skies to experience his first parachute jump. . . and winds up a castaway on an impossibly solid cloud, a Prospero’s island of roiling vapor that seems animated by a mind of its own in "Aloft."

On a seemingly ordinary day in Boulder, Colorado, the clouds open up in a downpour of nails—splinters of bright crystal that shred the skin of anyone not safely under cover. "Rain" explores this escalating apocalyptic event, as the deluge of nails spreads out across the country and around the world.

In "Loaded," a mall security guard in a coastal Florida town courageously stops a mass shooting and becomes a hero to the modern gun rights movement. But under the glare of the spotlights, his story begins to unravel, taking his sanity with it. When an out-of-control summer blaze approaches the town, he will reach for the gun again and embark on one last day of reckoning.

Masterfully exploring classic literary themes through the prism of the supernatural, Strange Weather is a stellar collection from an artist who is "quite simply the best horror writer of our generation" (Michael Koryta).

Deb's Review

I'm a little ashamed to admit that Strange Weather is my first Joe Hill book. I’m not sure what took me so long, but the four novellas in this collection have convinced me that I've been missing out on something very good.

The stories are thematically bound by weather events, but they are also commentary on topics that touch a raw nerve in modern times.

The first story, ‘Snapshot,’ was not at all what I expected; not from my initial impressions of what kind of writer Hill might be, and not even from what I found in the opening paragraphs.

Mike Figlione is thirteen and the type of kid who develops a lively sense of creativity because his awkwardness leaves him short on friends. Tinkering on an invention in his garage, he is interrupted by his neighbor and former babysitter, Shelly Beukes, who shows up in his driveway, lost and confused.

After escorting Shelly home, Mike stops by a convenience store and manages to make an enemy out of The Phoenician, a mysterious stranger with an instant camera that robs its subjects of their memories, one snapshot at a time. That night, in the middle of a terrifying storm, Mike is left to watch over Shelly to keep her from wandering away again. Wrestling with the onset of maturity, he realizes that Shelly is more to him than just an old babysitter. Though he’s poorly equipped to defend anyone, Mike understands that he must do his best to protect Shelly from The Phoenician.

The story is a bittersweet celebration of Shelly’s and Mike’s memories and how they overlap to create a poignant, shared backstory that begins to fade as Shelly’s memories die. ‘Snapshot’ boasts a very complete protagonist arc, packed full of emotional resonance.

‘Loaded’ starts off with what appears to be an unrelated string of events that share one common element: guns. The narrative follows three characters: Aisha Lanternglass, a girl who sees a young man she considers to be a brother killed by the police; Becki Kolbert, a young woman whose married employer is teaching her all sorts of things at firing ranges and in motel rooms; and Rand Kellaway, a mall security guard whose ex-wife has hit him with a protection order that requires him to surrender his firearms to the local sheriff’s office.

As you might guess, this story contains intensely differing viewpoints. The conclusion should provoke a reaction — for better or worse — from everyone.

In ‘Aloft,’ Aubrey Griffin is not the kind of guy you’d expect to see jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, even with a group of buddies in tribute to a departed friend. Scared and at the point of backing out, something goes wrong with the plane and everyone must jump. Aubrey and the jump master he’s attached to quickly collide with a cloudy alien landscape, but when they disengage harnesses, the jump master is whisked away by his partially deployed parachute.

Aubrey is left marooned on a floating island that seems to understand his wants and tries to provide those desires in return for Aubrey’s presence. He has plenty of time to contemplate what’s broken in his life, and to decide if it’s worth bothering to work on a virtually impossible plan for escape.

‘Aloft’ is a curious portrait of a man at a crossroads in his life against a very unique backdrop. But Aubrey’s shift in self-awareness is much lighter fare than the other three stories that go straight for the throat. It’s beautifully written, but feels a bit like a palate cleanser.

I don’t want to say much about the final story, ‘Rain.’ There were a few surprising moments, and I’d prefer not to upend them. It’s a story about deadly rainfall with potentially apocalyptic consequences, has a very strong and compelling protagonist, and a diverse array of supporting characters. It touches on terrorism, human interference in the natural world, and says a whole lot about how people treat each other. It’s a thought-provoking coda to the book.

Should you read Strange Weather? Do you like horror and sci-fi? Do you enjoy novellas with their ability to give you full-blown characterizations with a shorter time commitment? Can you handle stories that actually make you feel something, even if it’s anger or empathetic sorrow? Are you OK with having your beliefs challenged a bit? You answered “yes” to at least one of those questions, right? Then, yes, I think you should read this book.

Hill is a skilled writer with all of the confidence and insight required to push a reader’s buttons. The book made me cry, made me angry more than once, and made me examine my own views. That’s a lot to ask from an unassuming bundle of stories, but Strange Weather delivers way more than what’s on the tin. Highly recommended.

Review - I Found You by Lisa Jewell

I Found You
Author:  Lisa Jewell
Publisher:  Atria Books, April 25, 2017
Format:   Hardcover and eBook, 352 pages
List Price:  US$26.00 (print); US$12.99 (eBook)
ISBN:  9781501154591 (print); 9781501154614 (eBook)

Review - I Found You by Lisa Jewell
"Jewell is a wonderful storyteller. Her characters are believable, her writing is strong and poetic, and her narrative is infused with just enough intrigue to keep the pages turning. Readers of Liane Moriarty, Paula Hawkins, and Ruth Ware will love." —Library Journal (starred review)

In a windswept British seaside town, single mom Alice Lake finds a man sitting on the beach outside her house. He has no name, no jacket, and no idea how he got there. Against her better judgment, she invites him inside.

Meanwhile, in a suburb of London, twenty-one-year-old Lily Monrose has only been married for three weeks. When her new husband fails to come home from work one night she is left stranded in a new country where she knows no one. Then the police tell her that her husband never existed.

Deb's Review

Alice Lake is an open book. A self-described badger-haired housewife with a bit of a spare tire, Alice is a single woman living a chaotic life with three children and three dogs in a cottage by the sea in the fictional Ridinghouse Bay on the East Yorkshire coast of England. Gazing out over the water from her bedroom window on a rainy day, she sees a lone man sitting on her beach. Hours later he's still there, so she offers him a coat and he tells her that he doesn't know where he is or who he is. As an extrovert who leads with her heart, she is deeply touched by how alone he seems. Alice would be the first to tell you that her decision making skills are poor and, not knowing if he's truly a lost soul or a murderer on holiday, she recklessly decides to take him in.

I Found You by Lisa Jewell falls within the very active women’s fiction/suspense genre. The story of Alice and her amnesiac houseguest, whom she begins to call Frank, is interleaved with stories from two other points of view. Just outside of London, Lily Monrose, a young transplant from Kiev, reports her husband missing when he doesn't come home from work one day after three weeks of wedded bliss. Lily is stunned to learn that the man she married was using a fake passport and that “Carl Monrose” does not exist. A third perspective set in Ridinghouse Bay in 1993 follows the summer holiday of the Ross family, including eighteen year old POV character Gray, his fifteen year old sister Kirsty, and the wealthy, handsome nineteen year old neighbor Mark Tate, who takes a very quick and troubling shine to Kirsty.

From the varying third person points of view, we follow Alice, Lily and Gray to the place where all stories converge. I Found You is primarily Alice’s story, and it was the desire to know her fate that reeled me in. The pace is slow but not laborious, with plenty of opportunity to collect clue fragments from the independent stories and try to assemble them into one cohesive tableau. Some of the puzzle pieces may not seem a perfect fit, and the resulting picture may require some suspension of disbelief once the ending becomes clear. There were some twists to the story, and even though there are only a few sensible outcomes, Jewell did a fine job playing out the stories across dueling timelines to keep the reader guessing for as long as possible.

Alice is a compelling protagonist with lovely shadings of human weakness and fallibility. She’s a caring mother who suffers withering looks from faculty at her young daughter’s school based on appearances and half-truths. Her impulsive, free-spirited style mixed with a tender and nurturing disposition does make her risky decision to shelter “Frank” feel plausible. All we can do is hope that it won't be the last bad decision she makes for herself and her children.

Jewell has crafted Lily with a much lighter touch, which suits the character and her situation. Lily is only twenty-one, living in a country that she doesn't know, and can’t understand how she could have been so wrong about the man she loves. She's defensive and scared and has no local support system. The two women are at much different places in their lives and the contrast in their coping skills is distinct. I enjoyed this night and day aspect of their separate stories as they slowly unspooled in tandem.

The segments told from Gray’s point of view are important to the overall story, but sometimes lacked in immediacy, perhaps because of Gray’s age and the fact that his story happens in the past.

I Found You is an engaging read with a solid central mystery, well-defined characters, and an ending that ties off all lingering questions about the final fates assigned to Alice, Lily, and Gray. I'd recommend the book to those who enjoy clever suspense and true-to-life characters. Well worth your time.

Review: Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia

Everything You Want Me to Be
Author:  Mindy Mejia
Publisher:  Atria/Emily Bestler Books, January 3, 2017
Format:  Hardcover and eBook, 352 pages
List Price:  US$26.00 (print); US$13.99 (eBook)
ISBN:  9781501123429 (print); 9781501123443 (eBook)

Review: Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia
People’s Best New Books Pick

“Readers drawn to this compelling psychological thriller because of its shared elements with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012) will be pleasantly surprised to discover that Mejia’s confident storytelling pulls those themes into an altogether different exploration of manipulation and identity.” —Booklist (starred review)

12 Books Gone Girl Fans Should Have on Their Wish List —BookBub

Full of twists and turns, Everything You Want Me to Be reconstructs a year in the life of a dangerously mesmerizing young woman, during which a small town’s darkest secrets come to the forefront...and she inches closer and closer to her death.

High school senior Hattie Hoffman has spent her whole life playing many parts: the good student, the good daughter, the good citizen. When she’s found brutally stabbed to death on the opening night of her high school play, the tragedy rips through the fabric of her small town community. Local sheriff Del Goodman, a family friend of the Hoffmans, vows to find her killer, but trying to solve her murder yields more questions than answers. It seems that Hattie’s acting talents ran far beyond the stage. Told from three points of view—Del, Hattie, and the new English teacher whose marriage is crumbling—Everything You Want Me to Be weaves the story of Hattie’s last school year and the events that drew her ever closer to her death.

Evocative and razor-sharp, Everything You Want Me to Be challenges you to test the lines between innocence and culpability, identity and deception. Does love lead to self-discovery—or destruction?

Deb's Review

As Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia hits its mark, we see eighteen year old Hattie Hoffman’s escape from rural Pine Valley to New York, or Boston, or anywhere, fail miserably. But the failure comes with a revelation for Hattie. Considering all of the pain that has brought her to this moment, she finds the will to shed the false faces she presents to the world, and begin living her truth. It's a bold decision from a character with a strongly written voice. Unfortunately, in the next chapter, Sheriff Del Goodman is tasked with finding out who brutally killed Hattie in a community so small that everyone knows your history, has discussed and analyzed your faults, and might be willing to help justice along if law enforcement doesn't move fast enough to suit.

Everything You Want Me to Be is told in the first person through the eyes of Hattie, Del, and Peter Lund, Hattie’s English teacher who is a newcomer to Pine Valley’s closed ranks. Along the way, we get to know Hattie’s best friend, Portia, her boyfriend Tommy, and a number of other townspeople who all seem to share one common trait: they're trapped. By memories. By bad marriages. By obligation. There is an underlying lack of joy in this town full of suspects that makes just about everyone a possibility, although some far more likely than others.

Mejia spends ample time bringing the setting into the foreground and it's the perfect backdrop to showcase teenage restlessness and the struggle with the fundamental human need for something more. Some of the characters are interesting and three dimensional, full of flaws and humor and realistic viewpoints for their backgrounds. Mejia is stellar at weaving detail, clues, and red herrings into the fabric of the story. The solution to the puzzle of who killed Hattie Hoffman was not obvious to me. I changed my mind several times as I looked over Sheriff Goodman’s shoulder while he worked, and watched Pine Valley interact with Hattie and Peter.

The underpinnings of the story – the character archetypes and relationships – sometimes felt a little too familiar. The character of Hattie seemed new and inventive, but much of the time she was surrounded by unfulfilled creatives, dutiful daughters, bloodless farmers’ wives, and dopey jocks. The final chapters, however, were well-plotted. There are no true happy endings here, but the wrap-up is satisfying and a fitting coda for Hattie, the girl denied the one thing she wanted more than anything else, to truly live.

Everything You Want Me to Be is a thoughtfully constructed mystery; an easy to read story that's both fresh and just a bit stale at times. I would recommend the book to mystery and suspense fans for Mejia’s deft plotting and heartfelt portrayal of youth at the very border of adulthood.

Review: Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

Vassa in the Night
Author:  Sarah Porter
Publisher:  Tor Teen, September 20, 2016
Format:  Hardcover and eBook, 304 pages
List Price:  US$19.99 (print); US$9.99 (eBook)
ISBN:  9780765380548 (print); 9780765386229 (eBook)

Review: Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter
Vassa in the Night is a powerful and haunting modern retelling of the Russian folktale “Vassilissa the Beautiful” for teen fans of urban fantasy, fairy tales, magic, and horror who enjoy books by Leigh Bardugo, Kendare Blake, Catherynne Valente, and V. E. Schwab.

In the enchanted kingdom of Brooklyn, the fashionable people put on cute shoes, go to parties in warehouses, drink on rooftops at sunset, and tell themselves they’ve arrived. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now—but not Vassa’s working-class neighborhood.

In Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters, one might stumble onto magic, but stumbling out again could become an issue. Babs Yagg, the owner of the local convenience store, has a policy of beheading shoplifters—and sometimes innocent shoppers as well. So when Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs in the middle of night, she knows it could easily become a suicide mission.

But Vassa has a bit of luck hidden in her pocket, a gift from her dead mother. Erg is a tough-talking wooden doll with sticky fingers, a bottomless stomach, and a ferocious cunning. With Erg’s help, Vassa just might be able to break the witch’s curse and free her Brooklyn neighborhood. But Babs won’t be playing fair....

Deb's Review

Vassa In the Night by Sarah Porter, set in a mostly sunless Brooklyn, New York, toes the line between Magical Realism and Urban Fantasy. A retelling of the Russian folktale “Vasilissa the Beautiful,” this is a dark, offbeat, and enchantingly sophisticated Young Adult novel. It is also a showcase for Porter’s considerable talent for wrapping fantastical setting and realistic emotion with intimately plaited threads of lovely, empathetic description.

Vassa is sixteen and living in a familiar-sounding fairytale existence with a stepmother and two stepsisters. Her mother and father are absent from her life for different reasons, and although her situation isn't as abusive as some classic fairytales, Vassa presents as adrift and alone. Her only real confidante is a chatty, magical, wooden doll named Erg who is full of mischief, prone to swiping things, and a lover of junk food. Carrying Erg in her pocket, Vassa keeps her a secret from her family and the world, always taking the blame for Erg’s sticky fingers.

Lately night has been falling hard over Brooklyn, keeping the city in darkness longer and longer and leaving the population dependent on BY’s, the one convenience store that's open on the overnight. BY’s is no ordinary mini-mart. Run by tough, old broad, Babs Yagg, the store is lifted high off the ground on dancing chicken feet, rotating at a good clip until you sing the store’s TV commercial jingle and the building lowers to the ground to let you in. The parking lot is patrolled by a silent watchman in black leather on a motorcycle, and is ringed by tall stakes bearing the heads of shoplifters past. Babs takes loss prevention personally, to the extreme.

One night, Vassa and Erg make a trip to BY’s for light bulbs, and the story begins in earnest. Wrongly accused of shoplifting, Vassa’s life is spared by Babs but she's sentenced to three days of employment where she's assigned nearly impossible tasks, knowing that beheading is the ultimate price for her failure. Before the three days are up, Vassa must puzzle out what Babs is up to with her chain of BY’s stores, discover her own true nature, and perhaps most difficult of all, keep her head off the last empty pike in the parking lot.

Vassa and Erg are both vivid, relatable characters. Vassa comes across as bright and reservedly caring, but closed off from the world as a result of her painful childhood. Her self-doubts are hard-earned, but she's not one to waste much time on self-pity. Erg is one of those characters that I’ll – if you’ll forgive the pun – carry with me for a long time. Deliciously sarcastic and cryptic, Erg tells it like it is if you’re patient enough to really listen. For a pocket sized doll, she has a supernatural knack for getting Vassa and herself both into and out of trouble. But even a magic doll has her limits.

Other characters, both human and enchanted, are mostly well rounded, but Porter is particularly deft with her array of charming and loathsome non-humans.

Although classified as Young Adult, Vassa in the Night is not a lighthearted romp. This is not an easy hero’s journey with obvious solutions, and there is a fair amount of peril and gore. Think Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with a more sinister tone and a heroine only slightly more world-weary than Carroll’s young Alice. That said, in spite of the dark subject matter, the tale is beautifully told. After a few chapters, I started marking favorite passages with sticky flags, and my copy of the book has an impressive frill of color all along the text block.

Even if you don't normally read Young Adult, don't pass up this wonderfully complex and pleasantly weird tale. I would recommend this book to those with a fondness for strong heroines, dark whimsy, and challenging themes. I don't give out five stars (out of 5) lightly, but I loved Vassa in the Night, and I am so excited to see what Sarah Porter will do next.

Review: Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase

Black Rabbit Hall
Author:  Eve Chase
Publisher:  G.P. Putnam's Sons, February 9, 2016
Format:  Hardcover and eBook, 384 pages
List Price:  US$27.00 (print); US$13.99 (eBook)
ISBN:  9780399174124 (print); 9780698191457 (eBook)

Review: Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase
For fans of Kate Morton and Daphne du Maurier, here’s a magnetic debut novel of wrenching family secrets, forbidden love, and heartbreaking loss housed within the grand gothic manor of Black Rabbit Hall.

Amber Alton knows that the hours pass differently at Black Rabbit Hall, her London family’s country estate, where no two clocks read the same. Summers there are perfect, timeless. Not much ever happens. Until, of course, it does.

More than three decades later, Lorna is determined to be married within the grand, ivy-covered walls of Penraw Hall, known as Black Rabbit Hall among the locals. But as she’s drawn deeper into the overgrown grounds, half-buried memories of her mother begin to surface and Lorna soon finds herself ensnared within the manor’s labyrinthine history, overcome with an insatiable need for answers about her own past and that of the once-happy family whose memory still haunts the estate.

Stunning and atmospheric, this debut novel is a thrilling spiral into the hearts of two women separated by decades but inescapably linked by the dark and tangled secrets of Black Rabbit Hall.

Deb's Review

Black Rabbit Hall, a not-quite-so-grand estate situated on a windswept cliff along the Cornish coast, is the true star of this Gothic by Eve Chase. Blurbs for Black Rabbit Hall enthusiastically invoke the name Daphne du Maurier, which is mighty praise and quite a lot to ask of a debut novel. It may not be Rebecca, but Black Rabbit Hall stands on its own merits, elevated by Chase’s strong voice and deft storytelling ability.

The book tells two tales. Amber Alton’s story begins in the late 1960s as her parents, her twin brother Toby, and much younger siblings Barney and Kitty, spend their lazy summers at Black Rabbit Hall, swimming, riding, and sunning. On the surface, they are an average family, and Amber is preoccupied with school and friends and boys like most fourteen year old girls. A sudden tragedy upends their lives and reveals the troubled side of several members of the family. Profoundly affected by loss, young Amber fights to protect her loved ones from a terrible chain of events that is not within her power to control.

Lorna Dunaway’s story is dated more than 30 years later. While planning her wedding with her fiancé Jon, she comes across an advertisement for Black Rabbit Hall and is drawn to the property for reasons she doesn't understand. Her recently deceased mother had taken her on childhood holidays to an estate in Cornwall, but she isn't certain this is the same place. An overnight stay at the estate does not go exactly as she plans, but she manages to unearth the property’s dark history and comes to understand why it haunts her.

The book had a slow start for me, with the chapters weaving back and forth between Amber and Lorna. Both stories feature plot twists and their endings were not entirely predictable. Of the two stories, I was far more invested in Amber’s tale. It felt more lovingly told and imbued with bittersweet true-to-life emotion. Lorna’s story was a bit more convoluted, but was still an interesting companion tale with a tied-off ending.

Chase makes masterful use of the descriptive language of the Gothic, evoking emotions through threatening weather, creaking floorboards in inky black hallways, and the sensory rush of a wardrobe full of familiar clothes carrying the faint scent of a beloved relative gone too soon. The characters, many in number for the two complete stories, were impressively well-rounded and ranged from delightful to “I hope you catch your toe on a rock while walking the cliff.”

I think it says a great deal about Chase’s talent that I was actually shouting “no!” at each point-of-view transition, reluctant to leave the action behind and move on with the other storyline. In spite of the subdued beginning, Black Rabbit Hall blossomed into a page turner, worthy of the accolades it's received. This is one of those books that deserves a second read-through to appreciate the craftsmanship in character, language, and construction. Eve Chase has earned a solid spot on my to-watch list.

Highly recommended for fans of the Gothic, or anyone who loves a good damp and drafty manor with out of sync clocks and skeletons both inside and outside the closets.

Review: The Children's Home by Charles Lambert

The Children's Home
Author:  Charles Lambert
Publisher:  Scribner, January 5, 2016
Format:  Hardcover and eBook, 224 pages
List Price:  US$24.00 (print); US$11.99 (eBook)
ISBN:  9781501117398 (print); 9781501117411 (eBook)

Review: The Children's Home by Charles Lambert
For fans of Shirley Jackson, Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl, and Edward Gorey, a beguiling and disarming debut novel from an award-winning British author about a mysterious group of children who appear to a disfigured recluse and his country doctor—and the startling revelations their behavior evokes.

In a sprawling estate, willfully secluded, lives Morgan Fletcher, the disfigured heir to a fortune of mysterious origins. Morgan spends his days in quiet study, avoiding his reflection in mirrors and the lake at the end of his garden. One day, two children, Moira and David, appear. Morgan takes them in, giving them free reign of the mansion he shares with his housekeeper Engel. Then more children begin to show up.

Dr. Crane, the town physician and Morgan’s lone tether to the outside world, is as taken with the children as Morgan, and begins to spend more time in Morgan’s library. But the children behave strangely. They show a prescient understanding of Morgan’s past, and their bizarre discoveries in the mansion attics grow increasingly disturbing. Every day the children seem to disappear into the hidden rooms of the estate, and perhaps, into the hidden corners of Morgan’s mind.

The Children’s Home is a genre-defying, utterly bewitching masterwork, an inversion of modern fairy tales like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Golden Compass, in which children visit faraway lands to accomplish elusive tasks. Lambert writes from the perspective of the visited, weaving elements of psychological suspense, Jamesian stream of consciousness, and neo-gothic horror, to reveal the inescapable effects of abandonment, isolation, and the grotesque—as well as the glimmers of goodness—buried deep within the soul.

Deb's Review

Dark fairy tale, neo-gothic horror, allegory, magical realism, psychological tale. The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert does not want to be neatly shoe-horned into any single genre. My eyebrow lifted at the comparisons to some of my favorite authors: Shirley Jackson, Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey. Surely not, I thought. Really?

Morgan Fletcher is a man of considerable wealth. Raised in seclusion by an absentee father and an eccentric mother, he is facially disfigured in an incident as a young adult. Morgan doesn't know what to make of the world outside his garden wall, and is afraid it wouldn't have him anyway. After his parents pass on, he exists alone in a grand mansion with his barely seen servants until the arrival of Engel, a maid who is a gift from his sister Rebecca who runs the family business and hasn't seen her brother in years.

After Engel’s appearance, children begin to show up on their doorstep. First, an infant girl in a basket whom they name Moira, and then a five year old boy with a hand lettered tag around his wrist announcing him as David. Moira and David are the first of many children they take into the home and care for as their own. Their number and age range are never quite clear, but it seems there are more than a dozen, from infant to toddler to child. David is referred to as the eldest at one point, but these are not your average children. They are unusually smart, poised and well-behaved. Endearing them all to Morgan, not one of them is troubled by his ruined face.

A sudden round of illnesses among the children brings the local Dr. Crane for a few house calls. Engel convinces shy Morgan to show his face in front of the doctor, and the men become fast friends over backgammon and Morgan's vast library. Morgan, Engel, Crane and the children fall into an almost family-like rhythm for a short while until two agents from the Ministry of Welfare show up, accusing the household of harboring “stray” children. They deny the existence of any boarder orphans and are able to convince the agents to leave. If children appearing out of nowhere isn't odd enough, events begin to truly take a turn for the bizarre at this point.

The children come and go from the labyrinth of rooms, like ghosts disappearing into the woodwork. When they are not present at meals or in the library, it's almost as if they cease to exist. When they are present, they find some truly strange artifacts in the attic, insist that they be taught to read and write, and seem to be feverishly looking for something in the mountains of books in the library. The adults finally begin to wonder who these children are and what they want.

Overall, the story was entrancing. The layers of uncertainty are skillfully stacked, and the inability to guess much beyond the current paragraph made it hard to close the book at the end of the day. We are given clues about setting and time frame but little confirmation of anything, which adds to the off-balance feeling as the narrative unwinds. The children seem to have a specific purpose, but whatever it is, it is maddeningly unclear.

Written mostly from Morgan’s unworldly, almost childlike point of view, there are moments when you question if everything or anything you see is real. His multi-layered relationships with Engel, Crane and the children bring depth to a character that could have easily been just pitiable.

The comparisons to some of my favorite authors actually do ring true, especially with the Gorey-ish morbid child vibe. Lambert does a fine job with a dreamlike setting that teeters just on the edge of peril. Opinion on whether the ending delivers on the clever build-up will probably vary widely from person to person. It's a grim, thought-provoking tale, and a tidy ending wrapped up with a neat little organza bow would not have been fitting. Although I did not love the ending, I did adore the book as a whole and I'll be watching for more works from Lambert.

At 224 pages, The Children's Home is a compact read with a unique plot and interesting, well-drawn characters that will stay with me for some time. There's a smattering of descriptive gore, but it's not rampant. I would definitely recommend for fans of gothics and dark fairy tales, and any reader who can appreciate that whimsy is not always brightly colored; sometimes it manifests in dismal shades of gray.

Review: House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy

House of Echoes
Author:  Brendan Duffy
Publisher:  Ballantine Books, April 14, 2015
Format:  Hardcover and eBook, 400 pages
List Price:  US$26.00 (print) $13.99 (eBook)
ISBN:  9780804178112 (print); 9780804178129 (eBook)
Review Copy:  Provided by the Publisher

Review: House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy
In this enthralling and atmospheric thriller, one young family’s dream of a better life is about to become a nightmare.

Ben and Caroline Tierney and their two young boys are hoping to start over. Ben has hit a dead end with his new novel, Caroline has lost her banking job, and eight-year-old Charlie is being bullied at his Manhattan school.

When Ben inherits land in the village of Swannhaven, in a remote corner of upstate New York, the Tierneys believe it’s just the break they need, and they leave behind all they know to restore a sprawling estate. But as Ben uncovers Swannhaven’s chilling secrets and Charlie ventures deeper into the surrounding forest, strange things begin to happen. The Tierneys realize that their new home isn’t the fresh start they needed . . . and that the village’s haunting saga is far from over.

House of Echoes is a novel that shows how sometimes the ties that bind us are the only things that can keep us whole.

Deb's Review

In Brendan Duffy’s gothic-style mystery novel, House of Echoes, The Drop is a plateau set between two mountains near the Adirondacks in upstate New York. It is a unique setting for the storied home, The Crofts. Dating back to the early 1700s, The Crofts is an imposing four story estate whose blank windows have seen much suffering in the fields and forests in her sight.

The village of Swannhaven is a close-knit community run by families who have lived in the shadow of the mountains back to the Revolutionary War. Times have been tough for this remote village. They've experienced recurring cattle death, great fires, punishing weather, starvation, poisoned water, and farming families hit hard by the economy. But the long surviving “Winter Families” take care of their own. Newcomers Ben and Caroline Tierney are determined to turn The Crofts into a fabulous inn and perhaps spark a reversal of fortune for all. Ben’s lineage goes back to one of Swannhaven’s founding families, so he and Caroline and their young sons Charlie and Bub are welcomed into the fold, enthusiastically by some and, in proper Yankee tradition, more grudgingly by others.

Told in multiple points of view, we see the Tierney’s troubled marriage, the process of renovations on The Crofts, and the cast of villagers through the eyes of Ben, Caroline and eight year old Charlie. It is Ben’s thoughts that we are most often privy to, but Charlie’s curious and secret adventures underscore that something is most assuredly not right in their isolated woodland.

A layer of history is added by way of letters written by a former resident mostly in 1777, relating a grim and despairing companion tale in tandem with the primary story. The scattered clues slowly reveal a picture of looming crisis – “can you see it?” The experiences and impressions that the main characters don't share with each other create a level of tension for the all-knowing reader as the story does a slow burn toward a fevered but somewhat predictable end.

Novels about foreboding, ancient homes are plentiful, and it's always interesting to see what role the house itself will play. The Crofts is a character in the story, without a doubt, but in a different way from the most common house-as-antagonist tales.

The main characters are mostly interesting and likable, and the shifting points of view are used strategically throughout the story. There are a few forays into lesser characters’ heads that were jarring to me, even though those choices were made with valid reason. There are also minimal jumps from the third person to the first person and then to the second person in the final chapters. I see the value of these switches, but they did disturb my immersion in the story’s conclusion.

Duffy’s sleight of hand kept most of the truth out of sight until the end, so there were some surprises. There was one entirely out of character decision that brought to mind the horror trope “Too Dumb to Live.” Since these bad decisions typically serve up extended conflict I can give it a pass, especially in this genre.

House of Echoes, Duffy’s debut novel, is fast-paced and quirky enough to make it a quick read. There is a fair amount of gore, so if you're sensitive to that, be warned. If you enjoy gothic horror, mysteries, and thrillers, House of Echoes is worth your time. I'd recommend a night or two at the historical Crofts, but don't overstay. History has a way of consuming the unprepared.

SPFBO Finalist Review: Out of Nowhere by Patrick LeClercReview: The Garden of Blue Roses by Michael BarsaReview: Sometimes I Lie by Alice FeeneyReview: Strange Weather by Joe HillReview - I Found You by Lisa JewellReview: Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy MejiaReview: Vassa in the Night by Sarah PorterReview: Black Rabbit Hall by Eve ChaseReview: The Children's Home by Charles LambertReview: House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy

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