Books Read in 2021: Three-Star Fantasy and Horror

My allergies are horrendously bad this week. I don't know why, it's minus a million out (-37 with the windchill yesterday), am I allergic to ice? Eve is doing online school between dentist appointments (she got a cleaning on Monday and had to go back today for a small filling). Today I brought her a breakfast sandwich with apple slices and some animal crackers and she said gleefully "omg, it looks like a second-grader's lunch, I love it", and FaceTimed her friends to make them jealous. 

Our premier in his infinite wisdom is opening schools again starting Monday. I'm completely confused about the new rules, except that it sounds like they're not notifying people who are close contacts of positive cases anymore, which sounds super stupid, and they're sending home rapid tests for symptomatic people to use. We used rapid tests a couple of times over the holidays before seeing people, and everything turned out fine, but from what I've heard about the reliability of the results, it doesn't seem like a really safe way to keep spread down in the schools. 

I keep seeing people say "everyone's going to get it anyway, so why not just get it over with", and if that makes me feel my temples bulge with rage and frustration I can't imagine what the poor health care workers are thinking. Yeah, maybe most people will get it, but if most people - or just a lot of people - get it ALL AT ONCE, hospitals will be overwhelmed, and then good luck if you have a heart attack or get into a car accident or happen to have a non-mild case of Covid. It doesn't seem like rocket science, and yet.

Two more three-star posts, I think, and then on to the fours.

Three-Star Mystery

Nine Elms (Kate Marshall #1) by Robert Bryndza: synopsis from Goodreads: Kate Marshall was a promising young police detective when she caught the notorious Nine Elms serial killer. But her greatest victory suddenly turned into a nightmare. Traumatized, betrayed, and publicly vilified for the shocking circumstances surrounding the cannibal murder case, Kate could only watch as her career ended in scandal. Fifteen years after those catastrophic events, Kate is still haunted by the unquiet ghosts of her troubled past. Now a lecturer at a small coastal English university, she finally has a chance to face them. A copycat killer has taken up the Nine Elms mantle, continuing the ghastly work of his idol. Enlisting her brilliant research assistant, Tristan Harper, Kate draws on her prodigious and long-neglected skills as an investigator to catch a new monster. Success promises redemption, but there’s much more on the line: Kate was the original killer’s intended fifth victim…and his successor means to finish the job.

I mean, all the elements of a successful mystery were there, but only just. The plot is well-drawn but the characters are not terribly nuanced, so it's hard to feel deeply for them. I generally love a good mystery that stretches years into the past, but this failed to transcend the genre at all. It was diverting for the night, but I won't be reading the next in the series.

Three-Star Fantasy

Crosshairs by Catherine Hernandez: synopsis from Goodreads: USA TODAY’s 5 Books Not to Miss Vanity Fair ’s Books To Get You Through the Winter Marie Claire’s 2020 Books to Add To Your Reading List PopSugar’s 20 Books Everyone Will Be Talking About Cosmopolitan’s 20 Books to Read this Winter The author of the acclaimed novel Scarborough weaves an unforgettable and timely dystopian tale about a near-future, where a queer Black performer and his allies join forces to rise up when an oppressive regime gathers those deemed “Other” into concentration camps. Set in a terrifyingly familiar near-future, with massive floods leading to rampant homelessness and devastation, a government-sanctioned regime called The Boots seizes on the opportunity to round up communities of color, the disabled, and the LGBTQ+ into labor camps.

In the shadows, a new hero emerges. After he loses his livelihood as a drag queen and the love of his life, Kay joins the resistance alongside Bahadur, a transmasculine refugee, and Firuzeh, a headstrong social worker. Guiding them in the use of weapons and close-quarters combat is Beck, a rogue army officer, who helps them plan an uprising at a major televised international event.

With her signature “raw yet beautiful, disturbing yet hopeful” (Booklist) prose, Catherine Hernandez creates a vision of the future that is all the more frightening because it is very possible. A cautionary tale filled with fierce and vibrant characters, Crosshairs explores the universal desire to thrive, love, and be loved for being your true self.

Well shit. I fully expected to be blown away by this and I feel kind of guilty that I wasn't. I could bump up the rating, but I would be being dishonest. This is certainly a frighteningly timely book and has some great representation. I really loved the before parts - Kay finding a community and learning drag, meeting Evan. I'm certainly not arguing that the Renovation isn't something that could happen, if some trends that are present now were taken to their extreme logical conclusion. The parts about people not realizing how bad it's getting even as it's getting very bad ring all too true. It's some of the writing about the Resistance that needed a bit more editing for subtlety and flow for me - there was too much telling and not showing, too many terms like allies, code-switching, performative, fetishizing, that were used without enough explanation and felt like they belonged more in a gender studies lecture, which is what I felt like I was getting a few times. Those parts weren't fully transformed into fiction, which pulled me out of the story. There was some beautiful writing about community and sacrifice in the name of a common goal, and much of it was very readable. I just couldn't quite get lost in it.

The Last Magician (The Last Magician #1) by Lisa Maxwell: synopsis from Goodreads: Stop the Magician. Steal the book. Save the future. In modern-day New York, magic is all but extinct. The remaining few who have an affinity for magic—the Mageus—live in the shadows, hiding who they are. Any Mageus who enters Manhattan becomes trapped by the Brink, a dark energy barrier that confines them to the island. Crossing it means losing their power—and often their lives. Esta is a talented thief, and she’s been raised to steal magical artifacts from the sinister Order that created the Brink. With her innate ability to manipulate time, Esta can pilfer from the past, collecting these artifacts before the Order even realizes she’s there. And all of Esta’s training has been for one final job: traveling back to 1902 to steal an ancient book containing the secrets of the Order—and the Brink—before the Magician can destroy it and doom the Mageus to a hopeless future. But Old New York is a dangerous world ruled by ruthless gangs and secret societies, a world where the very air crackles with magic. Nothing is as it seems, including the Magician himself. And for Esta to save her future, she may have to betray everyone in the past.

I got this as a library ebook, started reading it and found it intriguing - the first scene was heartbreaking -- then ran out of time and didn't get back it for weeks (and kept thinking I had been reading Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo instead and had to search around a bit to find this again). I got back to it and liked it until more than halfway through - great setting, good writing, good characters. I just felt like the author ran out of steam or got a bit lost towards the end. Not sure if I'll read the rest of the series.

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison: synopsis from Goodreads: This is not the story you think it is. These are not the characters you think they are. This is not the book you are expecting. In an alternate 1880s London, angels inhabit every public building, and vampires and werewolves walk the streets with human beings under a well-regulated truce. A fantastic utopia, except for a few things: Angels can Fall, and that Fall is like a nuclear bomb in both the physical and metaphysical worlds. And human beings remain human, with all their kindness and greed and passions and murderous intent. Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of this London too. But this London has an Angel. The Angel of the Crows.

I was right on board for a good two thirds - really cool world-making, really fun seeing how this universe mirrored the actual Sherlock Holmes world. Crow was a fantastic Sherlock-adjacent character. Then it became a bit of a slog, lurching episodically from one Holmes case with this world's spin on it to the next, and I lost the over-arching plot and started feeling frustrated. The relationship between Doyle and Crow was lovely to see develop. There was a lot of good here, but the structure needed tightening.

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox: synopsis from Goodreads: Taryn Cornick believes that the past--her sister's violent death, and her own ill-conceived revenge--is behind her, and she can get on with her life. She has written a successful book about the things that threaten libraries: insects, damp, light, fire, carelessness and uncaring . . . but not all of the attention it brings her is good. A policeman, Jacob Berger, questions her about a cold case. Then there are questions about a fire in the library at her grandparents' house and an ancient scroll box known as the Firestarter, as well as threatening phone calls and a mysterious illness. Finally a shadowy young man named Shift appears, forcing Taryn and Jacob toward a reckoning felt in more than one world. The Absolute Book is epic, action-packed fantasy in which hidden treasures are recovered, wicked things resurface, birds can talk, and dead sisters are a living force. It is a book of journeys and returns, from contemporary England to Auckland, New Zealand; from a magical fairyland to Purgatory. Above all, it is a declaration of love for stories and the ways in which they shape our worlds and create gods out of morals.

I was all in for this, you guys. Portal fantasy. Some kind of infernal book. Shadowy young men and reckonings. "Epic" is right, but action-packed might be stretching it. I tried to just settle in for the messy, meandering sprawl of it, and was almost successful. I enjoyed a good deal of the journey. Shift and Taryn and Jacob are well-drawn characters and I enjoyed the way they all had to introduce their worlds and cultures to each other and try to adapt. But the ending was one of the most non-ending endings ever, and for the life of me I still don't know what the absolute book was. 

Three-Star Horror

The Lost Village by Camilla Sten: synopsis from Goodreads: The Blair Witch Project meets Midsommar in this brilliantly disturbing thriller from Camilla Sten, an electrifying new voice in suspense. Documentary filmmaker Alice Lindstedt has been obsessed with the vanishing residents of the old mining town, dubbed “The Lost Village,” since she was a little girl. In 1959, her grandmother’s entire family disappeared in this mysterious tragedy, and ever since, the unanswered questions surrounding the only two people who were left—a woman stoned to death in the town center and an abandoned newborn—have plagued her. She’s gathered a small crew of friends in the remote village to make a film about what really happened. But there will be no turning back. Not long after they’ve set up camp, mysterious things begin to happen. Equipment is destroyed. People go missing. As doubt breeds fear and their very minds begin to crack, one thing becomes startlingly clear to Alice: They are not alone. They’re looking for the truth… But what if it finds them first?

The three stars is mostly for the setting. Cinematic, bleak, Nordic, cold. The comparison to the Blair Witch Project is stretching it and Midsommar? This is entirely more pedestrian. I think I enjoyed the segments from the past more. I saw what the author was going for with the dynamic between the crew, but it was a bit too clumsy. And the reveal at the end is not convincing. 

The Grip of It by Jac Jemc: synopsis from Goodreads: A chilling literary horror novel about a young couple who purchase and live in a haunted house. Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It tells the eerie story of a young couple haunted by their new home. Julie and James settle into a house in a small town outside the city where they met. The move—prompted by James’s penchant for gambling, his inability to keep his impulses in check—is quick and seamless; both Julie and James are happy to leave behind their usual haunts and start afresh. But this house, which sits between ocean and forest, has plans for the unsuspecting couple. As Julie and James try to settle into their home and their relationship, the house and its surrounding terrain become the locus of increasingly strange happenings. The architecture—claustrophobic, riddled with hidden rooms within rooms—becomes unrecognizable, decaying before their eyes. Stains are animated on the wall—contracting, expanding—and map themselves onto Julie’s body in the form of bruises; mold spores taint the water that James pours from the sink. Together the couple embark on a panicked search for the source of their mutual torment, a journey that mires them in the history of their peculiar neighbors and the mysterious residents who lived in the house before Julia and James. Written in creepy, potent prose, The Grip of It is an enthralling, psychologically intense novel that deals in questions of home: how we make it and how it in turn makes us, mapping itself onto bodies and the relationships we cherish.

The structure of this - the attempt to map the disintegrating marriage onto a haunted house - is cool. I'm not sure it entirely works in the execution. There are genuinely creepy, convincing moments, but it all goes on too long and rather peters out instead of culminating in anything satisfying.

Kill Creek by Scott Thomas: synopsis from Goodreads: At the end of a dark prairie road, nearly forgotten in the Kansas countryside, is the Finch House. For years it has remained empty, overgrown, abandoned. Soon the door will be opened for the first time in decades. But something is waiting, lurking in the shadows, anxious to meet its new guests… When best-selling horror author Sam McGarver is invited to spend Halloween night in one of the country’s most infamous haunted houses, he reluctantly agrees. At least he won’t be alone; joining him are three other masters of the macabre, writers who have helped shape modern horror. But what begins as a simple publicity stunt will become a fight for survival. The entity they have awakened will follow them, torment them, threatening to make them a part of the bloody legacy of Kill Creek.

A little bitter that I fell for the reviews and paid a price for a Kindle book that I rarely pay. I just wanted a really good haunted house story. This started out well enough, and then there was a time jump that seemed promising. Then the climax was just sort of messy and nonsensical. At one point it was mentioned that one of the house-owners did something "for unfathomable reasons" and all I could think was "well you're the writer, freaking fathom them!" The structure of the haunting eventually fell flat. And the way the women were written was...not the best. Not terrible, but not different or well-written or memorable enough for the price.

The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig: synopsis from Goodreads: A family returns to their hometown—and to the dark past that haunts them still—in this masterpiece of literary horror by the New York Times bestselling author of Wanderers Long ago, Nathan lived in a house in the country with his abusive father—and has never told his family what happened there. Long ago, Maddie was a little girl making dolls in her bedroom when she saw something she shouldn’t have—and is trying to remember that lost trauma by making haunting sculptures. Long ago, something sinister, something hungry, walked in the tunnels and the mountains and the coal mines of their hometown in rural Pennsylvania. Now, Nate and Maddie Graves are married, and they have moved back to their hometown with their son, Oliver. And now what happened long ago is happening again . . . and it is happening to Oliver. He meets a strange boy who becomes his best friend, a boy with secrets of his own and a taste for dark magic. This dark magic puts them at the heart of a battle of good versus evil and a fight for the soul of the family—and perhaps for all of the world. But the Graves family has a secret weapon in this battle: their love for one another.

This sounded right up my alley and I do seem to be in the minority not loving it. At first I thought this was a sequel to Wendig's Wanderers, which I really liked. I would compare this to Stephen King at his wobbliest, with a few drops of A Wrinkle in Time. Some great characters, although Jed's folksiness was overdone. In some sections I didn't know who was being referenced or what was going on, and I am not an inattentive reader. I hesitate to say this, but there were sections where the wokeness was a little heavy - I wish I had taken notes, because I can't remember what it was specifically, but I felt like it was preaching instead of just showing. Definite seeds of greatness, but needed a bit more of a solid foundation and a more ruthless editor, in my opinion.

The Return by Rachel Harrison: synopsis from Goodreads: An edgy and haunting debut novel about a group of friends who reunite after one of them has returned from a mysterious two-year disappearance. Julie is missing, and the missing don't often return. But Elise knows Julie better than anyone, and she feels in her bones that her best friend is out there, and that one day she'll come back. She's right. Two years to the day that Julie went missing, she reappears with no memory of where she's been or what happened to her. 

I saw this book and was interested, and put it on hold until I saw a convincing negative review, so I took it off hold. Then someone I knew said they liked it, saw it was available and borrowed it. It was a quick read, and neither as negative or as positive as the reviews I had seen. The picture of the four-way female friendship was pretty accurate - the inevitable misunderstandings, insecurities, shifting alliances, perfect moments of hilarity and affection. The description of the hotel seemed to go on forever, and I wasn't sure what the point was. The 'big reveal' was more inventive than I had anticipated. 

The Shuddering by Ania Ahlborn: synopsis from Goodreads: They only come when it snows, and nobody ever gets away. A group of close friends gathers at a secluded cabin in the wintry mountains of Colorado for a final holiday hurrah. Instead, it may be their last stand. First a massive blizzard leaves them marooned. Then the more chilling realization: something is lurking in the woods, watching them, waiting... Now a weekend of family, friends, and fun has turned into a test of love and loyalty in the face of inhuman horrors. The only hope for those huddled inside is to fight—tooth and nail, bullet and blade—for their lives. Otherwise, they'll end up like the monsters' other victims: bright pools of blood on glittering snow, screams lost in the vast mountains.

I had  been rating books pretty generously this year, so I remembering feeling a bit miserly only giving this three stars, because it wasn't bad by any means. It had all the elements and the writing wasn't terrible, it just didn't have anything extra, and I've read some really next-level horror lately, so I wanted something extra. It suffered a bit from the fact that the older couple in the kind of prologue, meant to set the scene and reveal the Big Bad, was wonderfully depicted and I loved them and I was bitter that they were just cannon fodder and the kind of douchey young people got all the air time. 


Angel of the Crows sounds like a cool premise. I’m a huge Holmes fan. The horror books all sound way too scary for me. Last night Kellan and I watched an old episode of Star Trek Next Generation - all episodes which I’ve seen a million times over without incident - but last night (Season 4, Episode 17) gave me nightmares where I was Troi in her little unitard floating through space hearing an alien continuously repeat “One moon circles” which will likely now scare the pants off you. Lol. I do know this isn’t scary and has never scared me in the twenty or so times I’ve seen it before but I feel a little off lately so will likely have nightmares from reading Pete the Cat to the grade 1s tonight. Anyway. This is to say that I’m a big chicken and can’t read a horror book for a good long while yet.
Nicole said…
As you know I'm not a fantasy or horror fan, so I'll comment on Eve's lunch: so cute! Animal crackers!
StephLove said…
I've had the urge to make comfort food for Noah, too, as he's leaving in a couple days. When he was little I used to make fried tofu cubes for him a lot (it was one of like three lunches he liked) so I built a meal around those, though I did add a splash of tamari to the pan so there would be some seasoning. And there were apples cut into matchsticks and celery with it, but again, with some seasoning, a lime juice and ginger dressing, so it was a little more grown up.
Ernie said…
I chortled at 'allergic to ice'. Good grief that sounds awful, or a great excuse to move to Florida?

I, too, am not a big fan of horror or fantasy, but I do love to read your reviews. Editors should run some of these books past you before they think of printing. I'm sad that the old couple didn't get more air time too. All of the synopsis sound so enticing except I would hate a time warp or a time travel or a haunted anything . . . but for people who DO like those stories, the people writing the synopsis would've sucked me in.

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