I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Slender Man by Anonymous
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Young Adult
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Harper Voyager (October 23, 2018)
Length: 336 pages
Author Information: N/A
The origin of Slender Man as a creepypasta internet meme that gained traction on an online forum before becoming viral and exploding into a worldwide phenomenon has always fascinated me. It’s perhaps one of the best modern examples of how a legend or myth might come to life, its genesis and spread happening in real time for all to observe, especially following a series of violent related incidents widely covered by the media. The surreal nature of this now iconic horror figure is what immediately drew me to this book, simply titled Slender Man by an author whom, in a very meta touch, has been kept anonymous, which should clue you in as to the style and mood of story you’re in for…
In basic terms, Slender Man is an epistolary novel comprised of journal entries, emails, text messages, voice transcripts, and other forms of documentation surrounding the life of high school student Matt Barker, who is on a mission to discover the truth of what happened to his friend and classmate Lauren Bailey. The popular teen girl from Riley, an elite New York City high school, went out one night and never returned. Within hours, rumors were flying all over Riley speculating on her whereabouts, though secretly, Matt knows Lauren well enough to know the majority of them have no basis in fact. While the two teens never ran in the same circles at school, they have maintained a close friendship that neither of them advertised publicly, keeping most their correspondence through texts. Lauren had an obsession with dark subjects that, as far as Matt knew, he was the only one she ever shared with, sending with him gruesome stories and pictures that she found online that she thought were funny or interesting.
After days go by with no headway on the police investigation into the disappearance, Matt decides to take matters into his own hands, uncovering a series of strange photoshopped images on Lauren’s cloud drive, proving irrefutably that she was drawn to the legend of Slender Man. Given how the stories go—that any attention given to Slender Man is in fact a foolhardy way to summon the creature or draw its notice—Matt believes his friend is in serious danger, and the terrifying dreams he has almost nightly seem to confirm his bad feelings.
Due to its format, I suspect Slender Man will not be a book for everybody, and if you have struggled with epistolary novels in the past, it’s possible you may run into similar issues with this one. The style itself is limiting in certain situations, especially when the story calls for descriptive action. Often you end up with awkward moments where the character resorts to oral dictation and info-dumping, ludicrously stating out everything he/she is doing, and we have a few instances of this here where the forced narrative pulled me out of the immersion. One other thing to note is that the book is very Young Adult-oriented—which may end up being a disappointment to those who were hoping for a good scare out of this. Slender Man is at times deeply atmospheric and plays with your mind a bit, but for a horror novel, I did not find it scary or even that creepy. The characters’ personalities also fit in with the overall YA tone of the story, so expect a certain level of teen angst and other genre clichés like disdainful attitudes towards healthcare workers and law enforcement (or just adults in general).
Despite these caveats, I did have a good time reading the book. While the epistolary style does not always lend itself well to character development, I thought the author did a good job painting Matt Barker as a convincing and sympathetic figure, due to the fact his journal entries make up the bulk of the novel. Matt’s emotional state is strongly felt in these entries; we get a good depiction of his confusion, the genuine concern for Lauren, as well as the crushing sense of helplessness and fear as he realizes what he must do to save her. I also enjoyed the creative use of documentation to tell the story, not to mention the sheer variety of sources ranging from newspaper clippings to the Riley school letters sent out to faculty and parents, and even snippets from Whatsapp group chats and Reddit discussion forums. I thought they were a nice touch to give the situation a more “authentic” feel, and the eclectic mix also made this a super quick and addictive read.
All too soon, the book was over, and honestly, if I have one complaint about the ending, it’s that it felt rushed and the conclusion was left a little too open. But for a story of this nature about Slender Man, perhaps there was no other way around this issue. The character became a horror phenomenon precisely because of the mystery and ambiguity surrounding its motives, and the novel’s ending seems to reflect this limitless potential for speculation and the role of reader imagination. If you don’t mind the vagueness, then you’ll probably enjoy the enigma, and certainly the unknowns added greatly to the general atmosphere of the story, which was top-notch and was a counterpoint to some of the book’s minor weaknesses. Overall a fast and fun read if you’re looking for a bit of mood reading for the spooky season!
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Penguin Audio (October 2, 2018)
Length: 16 hrs and 25 mins
If the darkly atmospheric and intricately woven tale of Dracul feels personal, that’s because it is. Described as the prequel to the classic 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula, the novel is penned by the great-grand-nephew of Bram Stoker himself along with one of horror’s brightest voices tapped specifically by the family for this endeavor. Blending his famous ancestor’s true history with elements from his literary creation, Dacre Stoker and his co-author J.D. Barker have formulated and delivered on a concept that fans of the genre should find fascinating.
Our story begins in Ireland, where Bram Stoker was born and spent much of his sickly childhood. Many of his early years were spent ensconced and bedridden at home, cared for and doted on by Nanna Ellen, a young woman who is more than she appears. Intrigued by Ellen’s strange behavior, Bram and his sister Matilda decide to go sticking their noses into their nursemaid’s quarters, but instead of answers, they find even more questions. Soon afterwards, Ellen disappears, but the literal mark she has left on Bram’s life will always be with him. The scabs on his wrist might never heal, but whatever Ellen did to him, Bram has been as healthy as a horse ever since, his sickly days behind him forever.
Years later though, the Stoker siblings, now grown, are drawn into the mystery once again when Matilda returns from her studies in France to tell Bram that she has seen Ellen—and most bizarrely, their former nanny has not aged one bit, looking as young as they remembered her as children. After recruiting the help of their older brother Thornley, our characters embark on a supernatural journey that will cause them to question everything they knew about the old stories of Irish legends and monsters.
To understand this prequel, one must to an extent also understand the original. Spotting their parallels was a big part of my enjoyment, watching how the lines were blurred between reality and fiction. Emulating the Gothic atmosphere and suspense of the classic novel, Dracul is told in a mostly epistolary format, playing on the idea that before its publication, Dracula was divested of about a hundred pages which is said no living soul has ever seen. Using his great-grand-uncle’s notes from journals and other writings, Dacre Stoker sought to interpret these missing pages and piece together a picture of young Bram as a key figure placed in the context of his own literary work, and needless to say, this approach lent an authenticity to the narrative and the results were decidedly effective.
But the story also follows a second timeline of an older Bram, covered predominantly in the latter parts of the novel. The eerie and mysterious tone turns even darker and more disturbing as events shift gears to focus on Bram, Matilda, and Thornley as adults, alternating between their viewpoints. These multiple perspectives make for a compelling fast-paced read with an atmosphere which is in keeping with the original classic, yet at the same time, the story is also written in a cinematic style which would appeal to readers of modern-day horror and thrillers, proving you won’t have to be a mega-Dracula fan to enjoy this one.
For extra immersion, I would also highly recommend the audiobook for Dracul as read by a full cast consisting of Pete Bradbury as the narrator, Vikas Adam as Bram Stoker, Saskia Maarleveld as Matilda, Rachael Corkill as Thornley, Alana Kerr Collins as Ellen, and Allan Corduner as Arminius Vambéry. Of the narrators, I am most familiar with Vikas Adam, who did a phenomenal job giving voice to Bram, though the rest of the cast also delivered marvelous performances, making this moody tale come to life.
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 1 of Shadow of the Fox
Publisher: Harlequin Audio (October 2, 2018)
Length: 14 hrs and 45 mins
Narrators: Joy Osmanski, Brian Nishii, Emily Woo Zeller
Julia Kagawa has come a ways in the few short years since Talon, a book I enjoyed but failed to give me much motivation to continue the series. Shadow of the Fox, on the other hand, started out on a strong note and never let up until it was over.
Taking place in a fantasy world inspired by history and culture of feudal Japan, the story is told through the eyes of three characters from very different walks of life. First we have Yumeko, a half-kitsune girl who was raised by monks at the Silent Winds temple. Her whole life, she has been taught she must hide her true nature or else she would be hunted down for her part yokai heritage. However, one day her home comes under attack by demons trying to steal a powerful scroll hidden in the temple. Yumeko, the only survivor of the massacre, manages to escape with the precious artifact, vowing to do all she can to transport it somewhere safe.
Almost right away, she encounters a lone samurai working on behalf of the mysterious Shadow Clan, who has also been tasked to retrieve the scroll for his masters. Kage Tatsumi is a demon hunter, who’s only following his orders. When he meets the girl named Yumeko who claims to have fled from the ruined temple and knows where the scroll has been taken for safekeeping, he has no choice but to follow her and keep her safe while she leads him to his goal (not knowing, of course, that what he seeks has been on her the entire time). Along the way, the two of them pick up another lone traveler, a ronin who offers them help navigating the treacherous road to the city, but ends up offering a lot more in the form of friendship and comic relief.
And finally, we have our third perspective, the ghost of a lowly palace maid who had the misfortune of working for her cruel and merciless mistress. Poor little Suki. Her role was mainly to show us the machinations behind the scenes, but I think many who read this book will also find her to be one of story’s most sympathetic characters.
Have I also mentioned how much I enjoy stories about kitsune? Lately, ever since M.L. Brennan’s Generation V series, my reading has been sorely lacking in fox shifters. Of course, Yumeko’s character was decidedly very un-foxlike, though her upbringing might provide some context for that. She’s cunning and witty, but far from the sly trickster I expected her to be. Ultimately though, I think her innocence and naivete helped to make her feel more genuine and believable, for this was someone who has spent her whole life literally cloistered in a temple raised by monks. Her personality was also a great counterpoint to Tatsumi’s damaged psyche, shaped by years of his harsh training and exposure to the ugly truths of the world. If anything is to melt that stern exterior, it would be Yumeko’s unconcealed goodness. The two of them may have been thrown together under some pretty thin circumstances, but I did like their chemistry and appreciated the fact that Kagawa didn’t foist a romance on them right away. In fact, only at the end do we get a real sense that both may be open to more, the way the best kinds of forbidden love stories tend to go.
The plot also took a lot of detours along the way, but rather than finding this distracting, I personally enjoyed how things took a turn towards a quest narrative. Like a roleplaying game campaign where a party of heroes must combine their knowledge and skills to solve a problem, these encounters allowed our characters to bond and cement their alliances. The stopover in the village with the graveyard full of hungry ghosts was a prime example, and while in retrospect, it might have been a totally cheesy and hackneyed way of doing it, I’m still glad we got to go on some of these “side quests” despite seeing why some would say they were completely unnecessary.
It kept the overall momentum of the story going, in any case. Peppered with plenty of mythological elements, this book would be a fascination for anyone with an interest in Far Eastern folklore or Japanese-inspired world-building. For a novel that takes us in so many directions, the plot was also surprisingly well-paced and a delight to follow. I won’t lie and say there weren’t a lot of the usual YA tropes in this, but at the same time I wasn’t too bothered by them and they were written well. In the end, Shadow of the Fox was an entertaining and rather straightforward tale of questing and friendship without putting on too many airs, which is more than I can say for a lot of my recent YA reads. It’s been a fun ride and I’m looking forward to more, especially given what happens in the shocking final scene of the epilogue. This time, I’m definitely motivated to pick up the next book.
Audiobook Comments: The three character POVs were read by three separate narrators, Joy Osmanski, Brian Nishii, and Emily Woo Zeller. I’ve always said audio is the best way to “read” YA and Shadow of the Fox is a good example of why, being an immersive experience for listeners who enjoy being completely transported to unique and evocative magical worlds.
Bookshelf Roundup is a feature I do every other 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 round up what I’ve read since the last update 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.
Received for Review
In an effort to be more organized, I’m still in the process of cataloging all my new arrivals but I’m slowly but surely catching up. Here’s a batch of review copies that arrived in the first half of the month! Big thanks to the publishers and authors for the following books received, and be sure to click the links to their Goodreads pages for more details and full descriptions!
First off, my thanks to Ace Books for sending me an ARC of The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast but from the perspective of the Beast himself. Off the top of my head I can’t remember if I’ve ever read a similar concept, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it has been done many times before. Still, I can never resist a B&tB retelling and this book has been on my watch list for a while.
Thanks also to the amazing team at Simon Pulse for The Devil’s Thief by Lisa Maxwell. I was immediately gobsmacked by the gorgeous cover, but was a little disappointed to discover later that this one is actually a sequel. Why? Well, because I haven’t read the first book yet! Still, glad to have the second book on hand if I ever get a chance to start her Last Magician series.
With thanks to Orbit, I also received Cold Iron by Miles Cameron. I totally missed out on the author’s Traitor’s Son Cycle, and that’s not a mistake I’m going to repeat. I hope to start this first book of his new Masters and Mages series later this month, and I can’t wait.
Also a big thank you to the kind folks at Wunderkind and Tor for sending me Game of the Gods by Jay Schiffman, described as a sci-fi thriller of political intrigue. It appears to be an adult novel but the blurb is full of comparisons to all the big dystopian YA franchises, so it’s hard to pin down knowing so little about it at this point. Due to some shipping issues, this one took a while to get to me, but hopefully I’ll have a chance to get to it this fall. From Tor also came this finished copy of The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi. I have already read it, and while I didn’t think it was as good as the first one, I still had fun. My review went up earlier in the week and I go into more specifics there, so be sure to have a look if you you’re curious about my full thoughts.
And my thanks also to Titan Books for Mycroft and Sherlock by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse, the second book in the Holmes brothers series created by the former NBA All-Star. I’ve been super curious about these books ever since I heard about them, and apparently this adventure can be read as a standalone, so this one’s going straight onto my reading list for later this fall.
And a heartfelt thanks to the generous Nightshade Books/Talos team for this next big haul of surprise arrivals! A Rival from the Grave by Seabury Quinn is the fourth volume in The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin, a series of stories featuring the titular occult detective made famous by the pulp magazine Weird Tales. Next up, a finished copy of Trial by Treason by Dave Duncan, book two in the Enchanter General historical fantasy series featuring Saxon sorcerers and demons. I still haven’t gotten the chance to check out the first book, so this might have to wait a bit. This next one though, looks totally awesome: Pinnacle City by Matt Carter and Fiona J.R. Titchenell is described as “a superhero noir”, featuring an all-star powered team called the Pinnacle City Guardians. This feels very much like a throwback to the superhero comics of yesteryear, and I’ve had past experience with Matt Carter’s work to know this has a lot of potential. Hopefully I can fit it into my reading schedule before the end of the year.
I’m also intrigued by this ARC of Darksoul by Anna Stephens, the sequel to last year’s Godblind, an unbelievably violent and brutal grimdark debut. My feelings were a bit mixed on the first book, but I also admit I’m curious to see where the author will take the series, so I’ll likely give this one a read if I have time. Gotta love these covers, though! And for anthology lovers, Tomorrow Factory: Collected Fiction by Rich Larson is a collection of twenty-three stories of sci-fi mystery and adventure, featuring everything from cyberpunk to future-noir. Last but not least, The Silver Scar by Betsy Dornbusch is a new book from the author taking place in a rough post-apocalyptic future world where populations of different faiths are driven to feud against each other out of desperation and hopelessness. I had wondered what the author’s next project would be after her Books of the Seven Eyes trilogy and I guess I have my answer!
And finally, a quick shout out to the awesome folks at Simon Teen who surprised me big time earlier this week with a mystery package containing all kinds of wonderful goodies. As part of their #ShelfQueens hashtag celebrating tales of literary ladies who rule, I received a couple of cool buttons and the following ARCs: Girls with Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young, The Cold is in Her Bones by Peternelle van Arsdale, Slayer by Kiersten White, Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto, and Sky Without Stars by Jessica Brody. A bunch of these books were already on my wishlist with a couple that I’m feeling beyond excited for, and so you better believe I’ll be reading all of them come the new year which is when they’re due out.
It’s been a relatively quiet week in the digital pile, and all audiobooks. My thanks to Macmillan Audio for a listening copy of I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist, which is now officially released in the US. Thanks also to Serial Box for a review copy of the complete Season One of Dead Air by Gwenda Bond, Rachel Caine, and Carrie Ryan, the publisher’s first mystery-thriller serial presented with the intrigue of a true crime drama TV show. I mean, if that’s not enough to entice you, just look at that all-star creative team. And finally, with thanks to Hachette Audio, I downloaded an early listening copy of Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, an Asian-inspired YA fantasy which I’ve been meaning to check out.
A list of reviews I posted since the last update:
The Winters by Lisa Gabriele (4 of 5 stars)
Exit Strategy by Martha Wells (4 of 5 stars)
Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep (4 of 5 stars)
Vengeful by V.E. Schwab (4 of 5 stars)
Lies by T.M. Logan (3.5 of 5 stars)
The Stars Now Unclaimed by Drew Williams (3.5 of 5 stars)
Mystic Dragon by Jason Denzel (3.5 of 5 stars)
Dare You To Lie by Amber Lynn Natusch (3 of 5 stars)
The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi (3 of 5 stars)
What I’ve Read Since the Last Update
Here’s what I’ve managed to “unstack” from the TBR since the last update. More reviews coming soon.
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! Let me know what you plan on checking out. Until next time, see you next Roundup!
Welcome to The Friday Face-Off, a weekly meme created by Books by Proxy! Each Friday, we will pit cover against cover while also taking the opportunity to showcase gorgeous artwork and feature some of our favorite book covers. If you want to join the fun, simply choose a book each Friday that fits that week’s predetermined theme, post and compare two or more different covers available for that book, then name your favorite. A list of future weeks’ themes are available at Lynn’s Book Blog.
This week’s theme is:
“Trick or treat!”
~ a cover inspired by HALLOWEEN
This book and I did not get along at all, but as I recall, Halloween plays a big part at the end of the story and that’s good enough for me to use it for this week’s topic. Admittedly, I had a hard time coming up with anything else that was more representative of Halloween, and anyway, there’s nothing like a witchy book to get you in the mood for this holiday.
There are a lot of covers for this novel, here’s a bunch of them:
From left to right:
Viking (2011) – Headline (2011) – Headline eBook (2011)
French Edition (2011) – Portuguese Edition (2011) – Chinese Edition (2011) – Croatian Edition (2011)
Greek Edition (2012) – Norwegian Edition (2011) – German Edition (2011)
Hebrew Edition (2012) – Latvian Edition (2014) – Slovak Edition (2011) – Romanian Edition (2011)
Serbian Edition (2011) – Italian Edition (2011) – Bulgarian Edition (2011)
And normally I would not include the covers for editions that are divided for publications, but these Vietnamese language Alphabooks editions are just too pretty not to show:
1A and 1B
You’ve probably guessed already, but I had to do it. I just love this one!
But what do you think? Which one is your favorite?
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 2 of The Interdependency
Publisher: Tor Book (October 16, 2018)
Length: 336 pages
In my review of The Collapsing Empire, I wrote that while it marked a strong return for John Scalzi to the realm of space opera, ultimately it is the next book that will determine whether The Interdependency series will sink or swim. So now that I’ve read the sequel, what did I think? Well, I’ll be honest—I was hot and cold on it. There were moments where I felt the novel floundered, but others where things really soared to new heights. I’m going to say that, for the time being, we seem to be in a holding pattern.
The Consuming Fire picks up where the previous book left off, with the future of humanity cast in doubt as it is revealed that the extra-dimensional conduit known as the Flow—our species’ primary mode of travel between the stars, and the only system linking human colonies across the galaxy—is on the verge of collapse. Once it goes down, billions will be cut off and left to die, leading to the complete destruction of the Interdependency, the network of human hubs making up the interstellar empire.
The Emperox Grayland II, formerly Cardenia Wu-Patrick, is trying her best to prepare for the coming disaster, but unfortunately, distractions caused by bitter infighting with the other noble houses aren’t helping. House Nohamapetan, longtime rivals of the Wus, is up to its old tricks, conspiring with the Emperox’s enemies in the government to try and seize the throne. But Grayland, determined to convey the dire news of what’s happening to the Flow, has some tricks of her own. As head of the Church of the Interdependency, she reveals she has been having religious visions, styling herself after the first Emperox who was famously known to have been something of a prophet.
I feel so conflicted about this book. On the one hand, the world-building is compelling, and the majority of the characters are interesting to follow, but there were also times where I found myself almost dying of boredom, which is not something I thought I would ever say about a Scalzi novel. I love his work. I always have. But a knot of dread had been forming in my belly ever since I read in an interview that his Interdependency series would be paralleling the climate change debate, and I worry that my fears have come to pass. As a general rule, I could care less what an author’s political and social leanings are, as long as they can write and tell a good story, and above all keep the blatant preachiness about real-world issues out of their books. Speaking as someone who reads SFF for the escapism, it’s always disheartening to watch a novel all but become a thinly veiled opportunity for an author to stand on their soapbox. While I’m no stranger to message fiction, things tend to get dicey whenever ideas are elevated above story elements, such as plot and characters.
Some of which I suspect was happening here, because things certainly felt a little…off. Characters, which are normally Scalzi’s forte, unexpectedly came across as flat and uninspired. A couple of them have been transformed into instruments of polemic, where their dialogue feels forced and scripted, almost in a grandiose and melodramatic “now, how do I turn this into a mic drop moment?” kind of way. Kudos to Scalzi for also trying his hand at something more cerebral, but his mistake might have been to force his usual snark onto this series, which reveals he has only one mode of humor. Nothing wrong with that on the surface—heck, some of the books that have made me laugh the hardest have been Scalzi’s. But again, it didn’t seem to work as well here. It felt like every time the moment called for some comic relief, inevitably it would involve Kiva Lagos walking in dropping a few F-bombs, because haha, that’s one sure fire way to get a laugh, right? Apart from Cardenia/Grayland, who has become almost as unmemorable as Marce, Kiva’s character was perhaps the biggest letdown in this sequel.
Still, credit where credit’s due, when the story gets good, it gets amazing. It’s probably no surprise that my favorite sections were all related to the parts about government conspiracies, assassination attempts, jailbreaks, and old Countess Nohamapetan being up to her usual wicked self. There was also plenty of intrigue as our characters are faced with significant questions following a meeting with an isolated remnant of a previously cut-off population, and I think this thread can lead to some consequential developments.
All told, The Consuming Fire suffers from an obvious agenda and a little of second-book syndrome, but I love John Scalzi too much to be writing The Interdependency off just yet. Everything now rests on the shoulders of the next book, which I hope will step up the storytelling and the character development, because in the end, those elements will be the key to this series’ success.
More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of The Collapsing Empire (Book 1)
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!
After the amazing debut that was The Poppy War, this sequel has shot up to the top of my list of most anticipated releases of 2019. I can’t wait to continue Rin’s saga.
“In the aftermath of the Third Poppy War, shaman and warrior Rin is on the run: haunted by the atrocity she committed to end the war, addicted to opium, and hiding from the murderous commands of her vengeful god, the fiery Phoenix. Her only reason for living is to get revenge on the traitorous Empress who sold out Nikan to their enemies.
With no other options, Rin joins forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who has a plan to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new Republic. Rin throws herself into his war. After all, making war is all she knows how to do.
But the Empress is a more powerful foe than she appears, and the Dragon Warlord’s motivations are not as democratic as they seem. The more Rin learns, the more she fears her love for Nikan will drive her away from every ally and lead her to rely more and more on the Phoenix’s deadly power. Because there is nothing she won’t sacrifice for her country and her vengeance.
The sequel to R.F. Kuang’s acclaimed debut THE POPPY WAR, THE DRAGON REPUBLIC combines the history of 20th-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating effect.”
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Viking (October 16, 2018)
Length: 320 pages
The Winters has been described as an updated, modern retelling of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Not having read the original novel, I can’t speak to how successful Lisa Gabriele was at nailing down the tone or atmosphere of the classic Gothic novel, but knowing the overall gist of the story, as far as I can tell, many of the plot, setting, and character elements have remained the same but are given a new twist.
Like its 1938 inspiration, The Winters stars an unnamed narrator, but many of the similarities to the original character end there. Our protagonist is a 20-something-year-old American woman from the Cayman Islands, where she works at a boat charter company that caters to clients from many of the elite local clubs. That is how she meets Max Winter, a charming and wealthy state senator from New York, who has come to the Caribbean for work and holiday. He is also a widower, his wife having died in fiery car crash about two years ago. In spite of this recent loss, Max and our protagonist fall into a whirlwind romance, and within a month of their meeting, he asks her to marry him.
Before she knows it, our narrator is whisked away to the Hamptons, where Max’s family owns a lavish seaside estate called Asherley. Needless to say, life in New York takes some adjusting to for our protagonist, who often finds herself alone at the mansion while her fiancé travels for his work in politics. It also doesn’t help that the house is filled with reminders of Max’s first wife Rebekah, the rich and beautiful socialite whose commanding presence can be felt strongly, even in death. Further complicating the issue is the couple’s glamorous teenage daughter, the wild and undisciplined Dani Winter, who was fiercely attached to her mother and is now clearly unhappy with her father’s decision to remarry. As determined as our protagonist is to get through to the girl, it seems Dani is hell bent on making her life at Asherley difficult, driving a constant wedge between her and Max. But when Dani reveals some disturbing details about the night her mother died, a seed of doubt is planted in our narrator’s mind. Was there a darker side to Max and Rebekah’s marriage, or is this just another attempt by their daughter to drive her away?
Like all retellings, The Winters takes a particular slant on a familiar story, and therein lies plenty of opportunities for fun fresh spins but also the possibility for some difficulties. Even though I really enjoyed this book, I’m going to start with a small list of negatives I encountered, with pacing issues being the chief among them. Between the narrator and Max’s courtship in the Cayman Islands and the point where we finally get some inkling of the dark secrets in Asherley’s past, there was a major lull in the first half of the book which I think hurt the overall momentum of the story. Not having read Rebecca, I’m also sure that I was missing a lot of the subtext and failed to appreciate many of the nuances Gabriele included in the novel. While I have no idea how this book would be received by those familiar with the original classic, I suspect we’ll see the general pattern of responses when it comes to retellings.
Still, from what I can gather, there are some major differences in the plot, particularly towards the end, allowing The Winters to stand proudly on its own. The characters are also very well drawn, especially our protagonist, whom despite being infuriatingly naïve is also exactly the kind of personality you would expect from someone who has lived the life she has, only to have her world turned upside down. I also loved Dani, as vicious and conniving as she was. Her flighty nature and mood swings made it incredibly difficult to pin her down, which added to the many compelling questions that piled up over the course of the story. Is Dani the antagonist orchestrating our narrator’s downfall? Or is she just as much of a victim, caught in a web of secrets and obfuscation? I found myself bounced back and forth between theories, guessing character motives at every turn. After the halfway point, it was like a rollercoaster ride of thrills and twists to the finish.
In the end, I can only speak for my own experience, but I really enjoyed The Winters. Fans of Rebecca will probably want to read this, with the added caveat that while it pays homage to the Daphne du Maurier novel by drawing heavily from some of its plot elements and themes, Lisa Gabriele’s retelling also brings a lot of her own voice and originality to the table. More generally, fans of psychological thrillers and suspenseful family dramas may also want to check it out. It’s tough to say much more about the story without risking spoilers, but suffice it to say, the delicious tension of not knowing what will happen made the slow build-up of the first half worth it.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 4 of The Murderbot Diaries
Publisher: Tor.com (October 2, 2018)
Length: 176 pages
Exit Strategy closes out the Murderbot Diaries quartet of novellas, and while it’s a bit on the tame side compared to all that came before, I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to tie everything together. For those who have been on this crazy ride since the beginning, you will also be delighted to know this book takes us back to the beginning, to the event and people who started it all.
At the end of the last book, Murderbot had just made a significant breakthrough in its investigation of the shadowy corporation GrayCris and has decided the time has finally come to seek out Dr. Mensah, the lead researcher we first met in All Systems Red. But there’s only one problem: it appears Mensah has been kidnapped in a preemptive move by GrayCris to prevent a lawsuit from being brought against them. Murderbot now has no choice but to take it upon itself to rescue Mensah, but first it must take care of another predicament. Word is out that a rogue SecUnit is on the loose, and the authorities are out in force looking for Murderbot, threatening to end its mission before it even begins.
After making its way to the space station where Dr. Mensah is believed to be held, it’s a heartfelt reunion as Murderbot is reconnected with the other scientists from the original exploration team. But none of it is going to compare to the moment when our protagonist finally comes face to face again with the person who had always known Murderbot’s true nature, treating it as an individual and a friend. Needless to say, the idea is a bombshell for an A.I. who has always had difficulty coming to grips with its emotions. In one of the most compassionate and revealing moments of this entire series, the famously snarky and misanthropic Murderbot must consider how these feelings will affect its perceptions of humans, as well as what this might mean for the future.
Like all the Murderbot Diaries novellas that have come before, this final one really packed a punch. But while action and intrigue have thus far been major elements in the previous volumes, perhaps it is no surprise where Exit Strategy hit the hardest was in the emotional department. I felt it was an appropriate and natural next step following the intensity and energy of Rogue Protocol, and the more reflective tone of this book allowed for the attention to shine on everything going on in Murderbot’s mind. We’ve seen how each installment has built upon the previous one, forming a larger narrative while always increasing the stakes. Having recognized this trend, I expected a lot from Exit Strategy and in the end I was not disappointed. We have now witnessed the nearly complete transformation of Murderbot. It has gone to great lengths to augment itself to look and act human, and the final step was learning how to feel human.
For those of a mind that a person alone with no community, friends, or family can ever truly grasp the full human experience, you will probably appreciate the themes in this series. Murderbot began as an artificial intelligence freed from its programming. Hilariously though, before Dr. Mensah’s team came along, it was content to simply use its newfound freedom to enjoy the limitless offerings of TV shows available from the human entertainment networks. From the beginning, that part of Murderbot’s personality set the stage for the type of humor and charm you would find throughout this series, but it goes deeper than that. I’d really like to think that the soaps was what set our protagonist on its path to empathize with and relate to humans, ultimately discovering the importance of meaningful relationships and value of friends and other people who will have your back—no matter what.
All told, the Murderbot Diaries series has been an absolute delight. All four novellas have been quick and easy reads, but nevertheless, they’ll be hard to forget. I’m very excited for the upcoming full-length novel, because like many others, I have not had enough of Murderbot yet, not even close. I’ll be looking forward to see where Martha Wells will take the character next.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Young Adult
Series: Book 1 of Hometown Antihero
Publisher: Tor Teen (September 4, 2018)
Length: 351 pages
Dare You to Lie is the story of Kylene Danners, a teenager with a lot on her plate. Two years after her departure from Jasperville, Ohio, she is forced to move back into the hostile and bitter environment of her hometown that she thought she had escaped. However, Ky is not going to take these new changes lying down. Living with her grandfather because her dad is in prison and her mom has run off with a new lover to California, Ky is here to settle two scores. The first is to prove that her father, a former FBI agent, did not in fact commit the crime for which he was convicted. The second is an even more personal matter, involving a drunken party during freshman year in which Kylene was photographed topless without her knowledge, and the pictures were leaked online. The suspects were all guys on the football team, and one was her boyfriend at the time. In the end, all of them got off scot-free, protected by powerful parties keen on defending the school’s football record, and Kylene’s reputation was destroyed.
That event was what drove her from Jasperville. But now Kylene is back, and she’s on a mission. With the help of her best friend Garrett and the new girl in school named Tabby, Ky is determined to dig into both cases and find out the truth, no matter what the townspeople may think about her and her disgraced dad. What she didn’t count on, however, was the depth of corruption she would encounter, sending her and her friends down a nightmarish path littered with violence and threats against their lives. Someone is going to great lengths to stop her investigations, but instead of making her back off, the pushback only confirms she is getting close to finding the answers, and she is not going to be intimidated.
I confess, this book probably deserves a higher rating, had not been a few major issues that really grated on my nerves. Annoying thing #1 was probably Kylene’s character herself. This girl comes charging in, full of piss and vinegar, ready to tear the world a new asshole. Normally, I would say, “You go, Kylene!” and God knows with the hand life dealt her, she has every right to have a chip on her shoulder. My problem, however, was the condescending way she immediately casts judgment on everyone, from the moment she steps foot back in her hometown and in her old school. She’s also aggressive and has no self-control, deliberately goading fellow students and even some teachers into altercation, not to mention she has an irritating tendency to get up on her soapbox to pontificate on some social issue or another, usually unnecessarily and at the most inappropriate times. Worse, it felt as if the author inserted many of the school-related conflicts to indulge her protagonist’s savior complex. I really wanted to like and sympathize with Kylene, especially given what happened to her, but she made that hard by coming across as my least favorite kind of character—the ones who are hypocritical and lacking in self-awareness, clearly being propped up by forced scenarios to seem more noble than they really are.
I also enjoyed the mystery, though I did feel the plot was spread a bit thin at times, tackling two cases at once so that it was impossible for the story to give enough time or attention to either one. While there’s a light hint that the two threads could be related, in the end one gets resolved while the other doesn’t, so be prepared for an incomplete ending that includes some groundwork that will set the stage for the next book in the series. Given the circumstances, I think the author did the best she could to balance all the different parts of her story, but it didn’t change the fact that the focus was scattered in multiple directions and pacing was often interrupted by too many distractions.
Speaking of which, it didn’t help that the issue was exacerbated by “guy drama”, between the best friend who has carried a secret torch for Kylene after all these years, and the ex-boyfriend who’s still in love with her who may or may not have been involved in her naked photo scandal. And as if that wasn’t enough, also throw in the rookie FBI agent who is a total hottie but also a major douche canoe (Kylene can’t seem to decide which detail is more important) which gave me all sorts of weird vibes. Because seriously, what kind of mid-20-something would bet to invite himself to an 11th grader’s homecoming dance as her date?
Still, to the book’s credit, the mystery went far deeper than I had expected, even though I was able to guess the person behind all of it before we got anywhere close to the end. It didn’t make following the story’s events any less interesting. A part of me still wants to know the outcome of the larger series arc and to see how our characters’ investigations will pan out, but I think I’ll be keeping a close and wary eye on reviews of the next book before making my decision on whether to continue. If we see growth in Kylene’s character, I just might be persuaded.