#WyrdandWonder Book Review: Tear Down the Throne by Jennifer Estep

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Tear Down the Throne by Jennifer Estep

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 2 of Gargoyle Queen

Publisher: Harper Voyager (May 3, 2022)

Length: 464 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I’m so glad I discovered Jennifer Estep through her Crown of Shards series. For accessible epic fantasy with a strong dose of magic and just dash of romance, and books that are just plain fun to read, you really can’t ask for more. And with her new series Gargoyle Queen which is set in the same world, Estep continues to bring more of that same goodness.

In Tear Down the Throne, which is the second volume, we once again join protagonist Gemma Ripley of Andvari on her quest to save her kingdom and discover the mystery behind why their rivals are collecting large amounts of tearstone, a material that can be used to make powerful weapons. While Gemma maybe the crown princess, there is also more to her than meets the eye. Being a mind magier, she is able to sense magic and read people’s thoughts, making her the perfect spy. However, all her plans are about to be derailed when Queen Maeven of Morta suddenly declares a challenge during the Summit, when all the leaders of the world are gathered.

Enter the Gauntlet, an old and obscure tradition which would require a contender to overcome a series of difficult and sometimes deadly tasks to win the grand prize. The only problem? Gemma’s hand in marriage is the grand prize. And Queen Maeven has arranged for her own son and Gemma’s sworn nemesis Prince Leonidas to compete in the Gauntlet, no doubt as part of her grand scheme to one day to take Andvari for herself. Furious at this turn of events, Gemma knows she must not let Maeven’s plan come to fruition, yet at the same time, she’s dealing with some very conflicted emotions where the diabolical queen’s youngest son is concerned. The worst part is, Leo seems truly sincere when he vows that he will conquer the Gauntlet and win Gemma’s heart, and in spite of herself, our protagonist can’t deny her growing feelings for him either.

I mean, how do resist such a tantalizing premise? If you’re a fantasy reader who enjoys some romance in your stories but aren’t really a fan of the romance genre itself, the Gargoyle Queen series would be perfect. The hate-turns-to-love romance between Gemma and Leo is a good example of one that strikes a good balance, giving prominent focus to their relationship development yet being careful not to overdo the cloying or cheesy elements. It was also paced exactly right, and the novel was a compelling and addictive read all around, thanks to a solid plotline which acted as a foundation for everything else to be built upon it.

In fact, I feel Tear Down the Throne was a huge improvement over its predecessor, Capture the Crown. Being the second book has its advantages, of course, since the groundwork has already been laid and we’re able to jump right into things without preamble. Capture the Crown was also heavy on the court intrigue, whereas this one had a lot more action, though many highlights from the first book returned as well, including the magical aspects and Grimley the gargoyle. World-building remains a strong point for this series and it’s further developed in this sequel, revealing more details behind the inner workings of Gemma’s abilities.

Speaking of which, Gemma as a protagonist really came into her own in Tear Down the Throne. I felt she didn’t really have much of a personality when we first met her in Capture the Crown, yet here she has a lot more agency and we’re starting to see what she’s capable of. Her voice has also abandoned that younger, “YA tone” which was such a distraction in the first book, as she’s no longer trying to cultivate the “pampered, inexperienced princess” reputation. This gave the book an overall more mature vibe. As a result, I was also able to take her romance with Leonidas a lot more seriously, and so the change is definitely a win any way you look at it.

My takeaway? No middle book syndrome here. For all the reasons discussed above, Tear Down the Throne improved upon the weaknesses from Capture the Crown while taking everything that worked and made them even better. The ending also wrapped up the novel’s main story arc nicely while leaving plenty of look forward to in the next book, which I shall now await with great enthusiasm and impatience!

Waiting on Wednesday 05/04/2022

Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme that first originated at Breaking the Spine but has since linked up with “Can’t Wait Wednesday” at Wishful Endings now that the original creator is unable to host it anymore. Either way, this fun feature is a chance to showcase the upcoming releases that we can’t wait to get our hands on!

Mogsy’s Pick

How to Sell A Haunted House by Grady Hendrix (January 17, 2023 by Berkley)

Sometimes the fantastical can come in the form of paranormal thrills, and as a fan of Horrorstör I am so pleased Grady Hendrix will be back with another “haunted” story!

“Your past and your family can haunt you like nothing else… A hilarious and terrifying new novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Final Girl Support Group.

Every childhood home is haunted, and each of us are possessed by our parents.

When their parents die at the tail end of the coronavirus pandemic, Louise and Mark Joyner are devastated but nothing can prepare them for how bad things are about to get. The two siblings are almost totally estranged, and couldn’t be more different. Now, however, they don’t have a choice but to get along. The virus has passed, and both of them are facing bank accounts ravaged by the economic meltdown. Their one asset? Their childhood home. They need to get it on the market as soon as possible because they need the money. Yet before her parents died they taped newspaper over the mirrors and nailed shut the attic door.

Sometimes we feel like puppets, controlled by our upbringing and our genes. Sometimes we feel like our parents treat us like toys, or playthings, or even dolls. The past can ground us, teach us, and keep us safe. It can also trap us, and bind us, and suffocate the life out of us. As disturbing events stack up in the house, Louise and Mark have to learn that sometimes the only way to break away from the past, sometimes the only way to sell a haunted house, is to burn it all down.”

#WyrdandWonder Book Review: Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher

Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Tor Books (April 26, 2022)

Length: 256 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

If T. Kingfisher (AKA Ursula Vernon) wasn’t already becoming one of my favorite authors, Nettle & Bone just sealed the deal. Every time I pick up her books, I look forward to being whisked away to another one of her exquisitely imagined fantasy worlds and meeting the charming characters. Needless to say, this one did not disappoint.

In Nettle & Bone, we follow protagonist Marra who is the youngest daughter of the Queen of Harbor Kingdom. Her older sister Kania was married off to Prince Vorling of the Northern Kingdom in a political alliance, and by all accounts it is not going well. Marra knows that the prince is abusing her sister, and that Kania is treated as little more than a brood mare to give him the male heir he needs. Every time she miscarries or gives birth to a daughter, he becomes even more violently cruel and unstable. Horrified, Marra can only take steps to avoid the same fate, agreeing to join a convent so she will be safe from Vorling in case his eyes turn towards her, and also so she can bide her time.

For you see, Marra is carefully hatching a plan to rescue Kania, but that path will not be easy. First, Marra will need to gather some resources and allies, and she’ll also require further training in the magical arts. As soon as she is able to, Marra makes the journey to seek out the aid of a dust=wife, someone who can instruct her on how to acquire rare enchanted materials and to craft powerful items. Still, even that is only the beginning. In order to save Kania, Marra must also figure out a way to get Vorling out the picture—for good.

The author has so many talents, it’s hard to know where to begin with this review! But since her protagonists are always a highlight, I suppose it only makes sense to start with Marra. When Nettle & Bone begins, we are already in the middle of her quest, but through the brilliant and creative use of flashbacks, readers are quickly caught up with her backstory. So much about her personality, from her precociousness to her immense courage, could be gleaned from her experiences in the past, and I do so love character development like this that feels natural and authentic. Marra’s aversion to anything to do with marriage and childbirth is also understandable, given her early exposure to Kania’s abuse at the hands of her husband and the deep-rooted fear that all relationships inevitably lead to this, but getting glimpses of our protagonist as a young girl also helped solidify what we know of her as a caring person with a heart of gold who is also fiercely loyal to her family.

That said, this kind-hearted young woman also has a ruthless, vengeful side. She’s patient, calculating, and will go to great lengths to do what’s right, especially where her older sister is concerned. This duality is also reflected in the tone of the story, which at once possesses the darkness of a more mature epic fantasy (featuring abuse, murder, etc.) juxtaposed with the whimsy of a fairy tale, with dialogue and themes that occasionally skew more towards Young Adult. The effect was not unpleasant, and made Nettle & Bone a quick read—not too heavy, not too light.

Or course, the fast-moving, entertaining plot had a lot to do with this, and Kingfisher also flexes her creativity, wowing me with some of the best, most imaginative ideas I’ve ever seen from any of her novels. Particularly memorable to me was Bonedog, who was delightful and endearing despite his lack of flesh. The last scene of the book had me practically in tears, which is really saying something—only the most emotionally well-written and multilayered stories have ever managed that, and there was no doubt I cared deeply about Marra, the outcome of her quest, as well as what happened to those around her. In the end, there was even a sweet slow-burn romance to soften our protagonist’s long-held views on relationships, and though she may not have been looking for a lover, the chemistry between Marra and Fenris was undeniably there, and you can bet I was rooting for them all the way.

Bottom line, Nettle & Bone was most certainly a book that made me feel invested in it with all my heart. I loved everything about it, from the magical, riveting plot to the astoundingly imaginative world that practically leapt off the page. And most of all, I adored Marra, who was genuine, multi-dimensional, and inspiring—a T. Kingfisher protagonist through and through. As the author continues to make waves in the SFF world and gain recognition for her incredible work, I can only cheer because all the praise is well-deserved.

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May is Wyrd & Wonder: A Fantastical Month Of Fantasy

May is here, so you know what that means! It’s time for Wyrd & Wonder, and to celebrate its fifth year running we also have five hosts: big thanks to ImyrilLisaJorieAriana and Annemieke for bringing this event to us in 2022!

So, what is Wyrd & Wonder? As the post title says, it’s a month-long event emphasizing all things fantasy. Naturally, as a fan of SFF, it’s right up my alley. This is the BiblioSanctum’s third year participating, though rest assured we won’t stop covering other genres and the usual book reviews, weekly memes, spotlights and features will stick around as always. However, you’ll definitely be noticing an emphasis on fantasy-themed posts which will be marked with Wyrd & Wonder tags or the banner you see above.

As for what I’ll be covering, I’ll be honest, I’m much less organized this year so I’ll probably be winging it (that is, even more so than usual!) Luckily, Wyrd & Wonder is super casual and easy to join up if you feel like jumping on board. Just fill out the form here here! I just love how stress-free and low-commitment it is, and there’s not even an obligation to stick to books. Everything from movies to TV shows, to comics and video games are fair game as long as it’s fantasy-related. There are also prompts provided at the main W&W page and even though they are entirely optional, I’ll most likely be using some of them for ideas this month!

So yep, here’s to winging it! But of course, no introductory post would be complete without putting together a reading list, which is my favorite part of any event. As always, my TBR can change on a whim depending on my mood, but the following is what I hope to read this month for Wyrd & Wonder, a mix of new books and some catch-up.

If I can I would also like to get a jump on some June releases, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves 😉

So, are you planning to participate in Wyrd & Wonder this year? If so, what’s on your reading list? Make sure to grab the banner if you haven’t done so yet, and let’s dive right in!

Bookshelf Roundup: 04/30/22: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads

Bookshelf Roundup is a feature I do every weekend which fills the role of several blog memes, like Stacking the Shelves where I talk about the new books I’ve added to my library or received for review, as well as It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? where I summarize what I’ve finished reading in the last week and what I’m planning to read soon. Mostly it also serves as a recap post, so sometimes I’ll throw in stuff like reading challenge progress reports, book lists, and other random bookish thoughts or announcements.

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A quick update this week! My reading has picked up, but I still need to work on getting those reviews out, and I know I’ve also fallen behind on replying to comments as well as checking out my fellow reviewers’ blogs. Thank you for your continued patience while I get caught up on all the time I lost earlier in the month. As soon as I can, I’ll be up and commenting again!

Received for Review

My thanks to the publishers and authors for the following review copies received, and be sure to click the links to their Goodreads pages for more details and full descriptions!

With thanks to the kind folks at Simon & Schuster who have been introducing me to a lot of new and interesting Middle Grade and Young Adult titles as of late, earlier this week I received a finished copy of The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson with Sarah Durand which is a young readers adaption of the author’s bestselling book about American biochemist Jennifer Doudna.

Thank you also to Orbit Books for sending me a finished copy of One Foot in the Fade by Luke Arnold. I love that title! This is the third book of the Fetch Phillips Archives series of books featuring our eponymous protagonist who is a human P.I. for hire in a fantasy world where magic is fading. I am so looking forward to accompanying him again on his investigations.

And courtesy of the amazing team at Subterranean Press, I received an ARC of To Blackfyre Keep by Anthony Ryan, book four of The Seven Swords. One of these days I’ll need to catch up with all these novellas, and I really should do it soon if more keep coming out at this pace!

In the digital haul, a big thanks to Simon & Schuster Audio for a listening copy of Speaking Bones by Ken Liu which comes hot on the heels of The Veiled Throne, the final two installments of The Dandelion Dynasty series.

Thanks also to Penguin Random House Audio for the following: All the Seas of the World by Guy Gavriel Kay is one I’m very excited for, because any new book by GGK is a cause to rejoice; The Murder of Mr. Wickham by Claudia Gray is a book I immediately requested as soon as I saw who the author was, and I’m doubly intrigued because it is a historical mystery; Heroic Hearts by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. Hughes is a collection featuring stories from some of my favorite urban fantasy authors and their series; Hide by Kiersten White sounds very different from her usual stuff, but this is one of my most highly anticipated releases for the year; and finally, When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill is a book I’ve been seeing everywhere lately, and the things people are saying about it definitely made me curious.

Reviews

In a Garden Burning Gold by Rory Power (4 of 5 stars)
City on Fire by Don Winslow (4 of 5 stars)

What I’ve Been Reading

Have you heard of or read any of the books featured this week? What caught your eye? Any new discoveries? I hope you found something interesting for a future read!

Book Review: In a Garden Burning Gold by Rory Power

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

In a Garden Burning Gold by Rory Power

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 1 of Argyrosi

Publisher: Del Rey (April 5, 2022)

Length: 432 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

I found Rory Power’s YA to be a bit on the weird side, but this was definitely more my speed. Her adult debut In a Garden Burning Gold is a fantasy novel that hews more strongly to the traditions of the epic fantasy genre, which is probably why it may receive more mixed responses from longtime fans but worked so well for me.

At the center of this Greek-inspired tale are twins Lexos and Rhea. Together with their younger siblings Nitsos and Chrysanthi, they live under the watchful eye of their ruthless father who is the all-powerful ruler of their small island nation. Members of their family are also endowed with magical abilities which make them near immortals, and the twins in particular are gifted with control over certain natural phenomena, even if these powers come with a steep price. For example, Rhea’s ability to influence the changing of the seasons means regularly having to choose a suitor from the many neighboring territories, and after the wedding, the killing of her husband would be the catalyst required to usher in a new season. Despite this bloody business, there have been no shortage of candidates over the centuries willing to offer themselves up as sacrifice, since in doing so, their nations would gain favor from Rhea’s family—and especially from her father, who controls death.

Lately, however, the old man’s behavior has been growing increasingly erratic, to the consternation of his children. Lexos, ever loyal to his father, has been helping him consolidate his rule by using his powers to control the stars and the tides, but now dangerous rumors have been spreading and the northern territories are on the brink of rebellion. Not knowing when or even if their father will get better, the twins realize they must act quickly on his behalf to keep everything from falling apart. But what would happen if Lexos and Rhea, who have always been in tune with each other, suddenly decide they want different things? Lexos only has the best interests of his family’s sovereignty at heart and believes his sister will go along with any plan he devises, but Rhea has become weary of being responsible for so much death. For once she may have a chance to save someone and gain some happiness, but her twin may be too blinded by his own goals to understand.

I highly enjoyed the major elements of this novel, specifically the world-building, and magic, and the focus on family dynamics. The story is mainly told through the duo perspectives of Lexos and Rhea, who are together at the beginning of the book but then spent the rest of it mostly apart, with the former remaining with their father on the island while the latter travels to the land of her new suitor to fulfill her role in their plans. In this way, readers get a fuller picture of the world and a better idea of the stakes at play. Their separation also heightened the suspense of not knowing how deep the trust between the two siblings truly goes.

I also find the author’s writing style very appealing. She has a way with words and a talent for bringing even the most abstract concepts to life. While the world-building itself isn’t as well-defined as it could be in this book, Power’s prose is solid and so some of the vagueness behind the magic systems can be forgiven because she makes up for it with the sheer originality and mystique behind her ideas. I loved the idea of this desperate family doing everything they can to hold on to the power they have enjoyed for centuries, fearful now that they know it can all just slip away. The bond between Lexos and Rhea is also complex and nuanced, and ditto goes for their relationship with their crazy, awful father. Like I said, the family dynamic is a main highlight for me, almost to the detriment of the other character relationships in the novel because hardly anyone else really stood out. That said, later on I did start to develop an emotional attachment to Rhea’s minor romantic subplot, if only because it started to change and reveal so much about her core personality.

Story wise, In a Garden Burning Gold is solid, and the pacing is what I would describe as more of a slow burn. For avid readers of epic fantasy though, it’s more or less what you would expect, with a gradual buildup to a strong finish, leaving lots to look forward to in the next installment.

Bottom line, Rory Power’s adult debut is quite different from her YA, but she’s got the epic fantasy conventions down pat, creating a world and characters that will make genre fans feel right at home, while enhancing the experience with her own imaginative flourishes. I can’t wait for the next book.

Review: City on Fire by Don Winslow

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

City on Fire by Don Winslow

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Thriller, Mystery

Series: Book 1/Stand Alone

Publisher: William Morrow & Company | HarperAudio (April 26, 2022)

Length: 384 pages | 8 hrs and 54 mins

Author Information: Website | Twitter

A beautiful woman who comes between two rival empires and ignites a brutal, bloody war. Sound familiar? City on Fire is crime thriller novelist Don Winslow’s modern take on the classic tale of Helen of Troy from the Illiad, using the gangs of 1980s New England as a backdrop.

In Providence, Rhode Island, the Italian and Irish crime syndicates co-existed in relative peace, until one summer, an incident at an annual beach gathering between friends gives way to bitter conflict.  Pam, the girlfriend of Paulie Morretti, accuses Liam Murphy of groping her inappropriately. Morretti’s crew, not about to let this disrespect slide, decide to teach Liam a lesson by breaking his head and putting him in the hospital. Of course, things would have ended there had Pam not gone to visit Liam during his convalescence. Before long, they were together, and the insult becomes too much for Paulie to bear, thus setting off the war between their two gangs.

In the middle of this is Danny Ryan, our protagonist. His father used to be the head of the Irish mob, before alcoholism got to him and the Murphy family took over. Now Danny is the husband of Terri Murphy, the beloved daughter of his new boss. He’s also best friends with Pat Murphy, his brother-in-law, putting Danny in a unique spot despite not being a main player. As the youngest Murphy boy, Liam is used to being doted upon, but now his antics will require Danny taking on a bigger role in the family business, as the war with the Morretti rages on. At first, having more responsibility was what Danny thought he wanted, but now he’s not so sure. With a baby on the way, and the violence getting increasingly bloody with the body count on both sides rising, it’s all Danny can do to survive and keep his loved ones safe.

To tell the truth, I know next to nothing about mob fiction. So, take it with a grain of salt when I say that, at least to me, City on Fire felt very much like your stereotypical gangster story complete with the standard tropes. We’re talking lots of violence, gunplay, double crosses, and a host of other brutal activities related to the underworld of organized crime. The characters are pretty archetypal too, from the chest-beating crime lord and the hard stubborn men who surround him, to the femmes fatales who only seem to wield their beauty and sexuality in order to further their own gains. There’s even the “weak link” younger brother who causes all the problems. Keep in mind that this book also takes place in the 80s, and coupled with the mob culture, expect a lot of both casual and blatant racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. which comes with the territory when it comes to the genre.

The main premise behind the novel was certainly interesting though, as was its execution. The inspiration of the Iliad was subtle but undoubtedly there, with allusions to the classic poem cleverly inserted at varying points of the story. Historically, I didn’t even know New England gangs were a thing, but apparently Rhode Island in particular was a hotbed for mafia activity. This being my first time reading Winslow, I was also unused to his writing style, which was very matter-of-fact and not particularly refined. That said, the tone was a perfect match for this type of story. As with any epic saga, everyone who plays a role—no matter how big or how small—also has a backstory. While the timing of these weren’t the best, as they tended to disrupt the flow, I still loved getting to know the characters and having a better idea of what makes them click. And with so many characters to keep track of, having a solid background established for each person really helped.

The overall story was also breath-takingly good and utterly compulsive. Despite a lack of any major surprises (like I said, it’s very tropey), I was nevertheless completely hooked. Even with the frequent detours to explore yet another character backstory, the momentum of the plot never ceased driving forward. City on Fire was seriously hard to put down.

All in all, despite this being something an “outside the box” read for me, I still enjoyed myself immensely, even with some minor speedbumps along the way. Plus, speaking as someone who only has a casual knowledge of this genre, I also loved how perfectly accessible this was, especially once I got the hang of all the characters. My first Don Winslow book and I’m definitely not disappointed.

Waiting on Wednesday 04/27/22

Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme that first originated at Breaking the Spine but has since linked up with “Can’t Wait Wednesday” at Wishful Endings now that the original creator is unable to host it anymore. Either way, this fun feature is a chance to showcase the upcoming releases that we can’t wait to get our hands on!

Mogsy’s Pick

All the Blood We Share by Camilla Bruce (November 22, 2022 by Berkley)

Okay, I’m obsessed with Camilla Bruce, and this one definitely feels like it shares similar vibes with her book In the Garden of Spite, which I LOVED. I already had this one on my list, and I was very excited when the author posted about the cover reveal last week.

“A sinister novel based on the real Bloody Benders, a family of serial killers in the old West bound by butchery and obscured by the shadows of American history.

The winds shift nervously on the Kansas plain whispering of travelers lost and buried, whispering of witches. Something dark and twisted has taken root at the Bender Inn.

At first the townspeople of Cherryvale welcome the rising medium Kate Bender and her family. Kate’s messages from the Beyond give their tedious dreams hope and her mother’s potions cure their little ills—for a price. No one knows about their other business, the shortcut to a better life. And why shouldn’t their family prosper? They’re careful. It’s only from those who are marked, those who travel alone and can easily disappear, that the Benders demand their pound of flesh.

But even a gifted seer like Kate can make a misstep. Now as the secrets festering beneath the soil of the family orchard threaten to bring them all to ruin, the Benders must sharpen their craft—or vanish themselves.”

Bookshelf Roundup: 04/24/22: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads

Bookshelf Roundup is a feature I do every weekend which fills the role of several blog memes, like Stacking the Shelves where I talk about the new books I’ve added to my library or received for review, as well as It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? where I summarize what I’ve finished reading in the last week and what I’m planning to read soon. Mostly it also serves as a recap post, so sometimes I’ll throw in stuff like reading challenge progress reports, book lists, and other random bookish thoughts or announcements.

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Yes, I’m a day behind with this update, but that seems to be the story of my life lately! I always say this, but hopefully this week will be better. Visiting family members have all gone home, so it’s just a matter of easing back into the regular schedule.

Received for Review

My thanks to the publishers and authors for the following review copies received, and be sure to click the links to their Goodreads pages for more details and full descriptions!

Cheers to the kind folks at William Morrow for a finished copy of City on Fire by Don Winslow. This mystery crime thriller is going to be a huge deal this spring, after the initial release date was pushed back six months. I’m going to be picking this one up next and I’m so excited!

With thanks also to Tor Books for sending me an ARC of Daughter of Redwinter by Ed McDonald. From the author of the Raven’s Mark trilogy comes this first book of a new dark fantasy series that I just can’t to sink my teeth into.

I also want to thank the Tordotcom team for the following review copies: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin is described as a horror debut that seamlessly blends “Fake News” with zombies, and Drunk on All Your Strange New Words by Eddie Robson which is a locked room mystery with aliens. Both of these sound awesome.

In the new digital arrivals, with thanks to Penguin Random House Audio for listening copies of a trio of historical thrillers! The Fervor by Alma Katsu is a supernatural psychological horror taking place in a WWII Japanese American internment camp; The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas is described as a gothic haunted-house tale of suspense set in the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence; and finally, The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian grabbed my attention with its premise of a historical thriller about a 1960s group of Hollywood friends embarking on a safari to the Serengeti…and then everything goes wrong. I’ve always wanted to read the author, and not gonna lie, but the blurb name-dropping Agatha Christie was a huge part of it too.

And finally, my thanks to Simon & Schuster Audio for an ALC of Deep Water by Emma Bamford, a thriller following a couple on a remote island getaway described in the vein of Into the Jungle and The Ruins. I requested this because there’s nothing more alluring than terror in paradise.

Reviews

Or Else by Joe Hart (3.5 of 5 stars)
The City of Dusk by Tara Sim (2 of 5 stars)

What I’ve Been Reading

Have you heard of or read any of the books featured this week? What caught your eye? Any new discoveries? I hope you found something interesting for a future read!

Audiobook Review: Or Else by Joe Hart

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Or Else by Joe Hart

Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Brilliance Audio (April 1, 2022)

Length: 7 hrs and 22 mins

Author Information: WebsiteTwitter

Having enjoyed Joe Hart’s books in the past (Obscura and The Last Girl), I had some high expectations for Or Else, his new twisty thriller. But unlike his sci-fi or dystopian work I’ve read before, this one’s pure psychological mystery and suspense.

We begin with an introduction to protagonist Andy Drake, a novelist returning to his hometown to care for his father, who is suffering from dementia. There, Andy reconnects with his childhood friend Rachel, who is now living a picture-perfect life as a married mother of two. However, that happiness is only a façade. In truth, Rachel suffers quietly every day from an abusive husband, and Andy, having recently lost his mother and is now dealing with the stress of caring for his father, is also in a vulnerable position emotionally. Eventually, their rekindled friendship crosses the line to become a full-blown affair as both Andy and Rachel use each other as a form of escape.

Then one day, Andy receives an anonymous message warning him to end things with Rachel, or else. Unnerved by the idea that someone knows about the affair, Andy realizes he might not have been as careful as he thought. And then a few weeks later, Rachel’s husband is murdered. His wife and their two kids go missing, vanished without a trace. All of a sudden, things have gone from bad to worse for Andy, who now looks suspicious as hell.

To be completely honest, I’ve read better thrillers, though that is not to say I didn’t enjoy Or Else. Hart’s matter-of-fact style simply seems more suited for science fiction rather than drama and emotion, making Andy and Rachel’s relationship come across as somewhat stilted and unnatural. There was a lack of illicitness and danger, and considering the affair was at the center of the conflict, I felt this put the start of book on a weaker footing.

Fortunately, the author’s strength is his mystery and suspense writing, which is the element which most certainly came through, especially once the plot hits its stride. Obviously, I won’t be giving away any major details, but I will say the family dynamics between Andy, his father, and his siblings were handled very well. There were tensions building on multiple fronts, including Andy’s situation at home as well as the mess involving Rachel. And when things moved, they definitely moved fast. I think savvy mystery/thriller reads who are familiar with the genre will know to expect some of the reveals, but there were still twists and turns aplenty (and even a deception or two) to keep you guessing.

If you are looking to dip your toes into the genre, or if you’ve enjoyed the author’s work in the past and want to read more, Or Else would be a great book to try. Even seasoned fans of mysteries and thrillers would probably appreciate this one for its quick pacing and ability to keep you hooked.

Finally, I want to say a few words about the audiobook, which was the format I reviewed. Graham Halstead is a new-to-me narrator, but he left an excellent first impression. I thought his voice was a good match for Andy Drake, who I pictured as an “everyman” type of character despite his successful career as a novelist. Like all of us, he’s only human and sometimes makes mistakes and horrible decisions without thinking them through. Halstead’s voice has a down-to-earth quality to it that really brought out Andy’s vulnerabilities, which made this one quite a convincing and immersive listen. So, if you’re an audiophile who has Or Else on your radar, the audiobook is definitely worth checking out.