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Shadowed Summer

3/5. Fourteen-year-old girl in a tiny Louisiana town accidentally calls up the spirit of a young man who went missing years ago, and she and her friends set out to find out what happened to him.

Slim and quick young adult, notable for a beautiful sense of place. Not just tiny town, not just Louisiana, but also summer as a place. And fourteen as a place; on the brink of sexuality and not particularly thrilled about it. There's a not really love triangle that's zero fun for anybody – our uninterested narrator and her boy crazy best friend and the boy who may like the wrong one of them – and the book is about how hard all of that is, and how to stay friends through it.

Also notable for actually startling/frightening me. The blurb made it sound like a gentle ghost story, but this ghost is not gentle. This ghost is angry.
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Cuckoo Song

4/5. 1922. The thirteen-year-old daughter of wealthy parents wakes up after a near-drowning. With gaps in her memory; and a bottomless, terrifying hunger; and hair that turns into leaves overnight; and dolls that try to flee her; and a sister who calls her a "thing" and hates her guts.

I talk about what I'm reading a lot with my nearest and dearest. Seriously, my poor wife gets the disorganized and incoherent thought soup that I yank these reviews out of. You know, my sparklingly coherent and organized reviews. You know.

But anyway, I keep saying "Frances Hardinge" to people, and they keep saying "Who?" And that. I do not understand that.

So hear ye, hear ye.

Frances Hardinge. Frances motherfucking Hardinge.

She writes young adult…ish. Fantasy….ish. Her brain is a magical tree that bears strange fruit, and I want to eat every single one, even when I know there are teeth on the inside. And people do not know who she is, which is incomprehensible to me, because she's written more than a half dozen books by now, and they only get better.

As a first Hardinge, I recommend Fly By Night, which beings with our young lady protagonist starting a fire and gets more madcap and wonderful from there, or Gullstruck Island which is the best young adult about colonialism I have ever read. Both of those books will give you a sense for Hardinge's powers, the way she yanks stories off their tracks and drops them into new ones, and where she puts the bite (spoiler: everywhere), and how no one can stop her writing amazing young women relating complexly to each other.

This one is kinda advanced level Hardinge. The first quarter is a slow motion, claustrophobic interpersonal car accident, and it kind of fucked me up. And then the accident happens, and the book leaps right off the road, and we have sisters, and jazz, and spells to trap the dead, and magic by architecture, and a motorcycle with a sidecar, and a woman chased by perpetual winter, and other kinds of sisters. It's a wonderfully prickly, complicated book that made me brace, on every page, for pain. And then surprised me, at the end, with a drop of mercy. Not her most accomplished, on a technical level, but there is something . . . unrestrained about the horror at the center of this book that really got to me.

Frances Hardinge, you guys.
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Widdershins (Whyborne & Griffin, #1)Widdershins by Jordan L. Hawk

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

M/M "historical" horror mystery where the introverted museum philologist teams up with the ex-Pinkerton (why is it always an ex-Pinkerton?) to investigate a paint-by-numbers plot involving mummies and chimeras in basements and blah blah. This is a cut above the usual commercial M/M standard, which isn't saying much, because . . . well, but it's still worth noting. And yet, this roundly bored me. Many other people are way into it, though, so don't let that stop you. But do take the quotes around "historical" advisedly – I swear to God when I wasn't paying attention my brain was fooled into thinking this is set in the 1990's or so, only to be surprised when the main characters take carriages instead of cabs and occasionally call each other "old fellow." Some day when I have a little more time you guys are getting a full-fledged essay on queerness and historicity in romance fiction and how our stories which portray queerness as an entirely modern invention transplanted into the hostile soil of the past are really messed up, and then you'll be sorry, but today is not that day.

I am, however, deducting a star as a penalty for one of the stupider pet names in recent memory. Ival? For Percival? Really? That just hurts my soul.

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A Stir of Bones (Red Heart of Memories, # 0.5)A Stir of Bones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thirteen-year-old Susan slips out from under the thumb of her abusive father through friends and communing with a haunted house. Slight, strange, more horror than fantasy. By which I mean that the supernatural elements feel as though they are . . . extensions? Reflections? Of-a-piece? . . . nearly inextricable from the story of internal psychological strife – the fear and depression and self-destruction. Rather than being moving elements for their own sake. Quibble with my definition, whatever, I'll just change it again in a few months anyway.

Put it this way -- a central character is the ghost of a boy who suicided many years ago, and they find his skeleton in a closet. It's that kind of book.

Two anti-climactic to really get me. I'm confused about why this, out of all of her catalog, is the only title I can find in audio. I'm not intrigued enough to put myself to the extra brain effort of text-to-speeching a novel of hers. (When you must absorb tens of thousands of words in artificial voices every day in professional settings, the desire to do it for leisure basically vanishes. Which is a shame given only a tiny fraction of a percent of the books in the world are in audio, but part of the problem is I'm usually too tired to care.)

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Bleeding Violet Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had to wait a while to review this, because otherwise I would have snarled my way through a glowing review powered on my sheer fucking outrage over the crap people say about this book. Did you guys know that sixteen-year-old girls who are confident and sexually active are sluts? Oh, and people with mental illness should not be the protagonists of young adult fiction because it’s “upsetting”? That’s right, being exposed to people with disabilities is really unpleasant, and it shouldn’t happen to unsuspecting normals, particularly those delicate young impressionable ones!

…Hang on, where have I heard this before? It’s on the tip of my tongue… Oh! Right! I remember now!


So, um, the actual book. Okay. Some of you who consider yourselves outsiders looking into the fantasy genre will really dig this one. It’s this twisty, hallucinatory fantasy-horror about a teenaged girl with Bipolar Disorder moving to a town full of doors, and all the things that come through those doors. It’s about how her bendy, elastic mind clicks right into this place, and how all the splashy horror set pieces have that psychologically dense feeling you get from good horror, where the creepy floaty tentacle monster is an outgrowth of the emotional arc as much as the plot arc. Hmm. I think I could compress all of that into the word “visceral,” and mean the same thing. This book felt like an ocean surface to me, with that intense awareness of sharks moving invisibly underneath.

Anyway, it’s cool, and weird, and disturbing, and hypnotic. And it’s about a sexually active bi-racial teenaged girl with a mental illness and it’s not stupid about any of that. But I think my mind is too orderly, my desire for internal fantasy rules too strong, because I didn’t love it. So I’m not raving about it, even though I was tempted to as a generalized fuck you to a few people out there.

But some of you guys? You will totally dig this.

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Dexter By Design (Dexter, #4) Dexter By Design by Jeff Lindsay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
All right, that's more like it. Our favorite vigilante serial killer goes on his honeymoon to Paris, then comes home to a killer with an artistic bent. And we can all basically pretend that book 3 never happened.

Hilarious, as usual, but also disturbing in places, which is all for the best. And we see Dexter responding to some extremely unexpected circumstances in his own Dexterian way, and reflecting a bit on the Harry code and its implications as he trains his stepkids to be good little sociopaths. And there's just a teensy bit of philosophizing by Lindsay on the nature of the stories he's telling as pieces of violent art. At least to the extent possible with Dexter's peculiarly limiting narration. And then a bombshell at the end, which, well. Heh.

All in all exactly what I wanted – forward-moving, absurdly funny, keeping hold of what makes it good while changing things up in interesting ways. And most of all, not stupid.

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Dexter in the Dark (Dexter, #3) Dexter in the Dark by Jeff Lindsay

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
Adventures of a sociopathic serial killer who generally only cuts up people who hurt children.

Okay, awesome. Lindsay has clearly done his research – the way Dexter completely fails to get sex, his inflated perceptions of his own intelligence, his completely oblivious sexism, his utter lack of the empathic reflex, it's all perfect. People who know me were shocked I hadn't read these books before. Mostly it was that I knew what they were about, and I thought it would be stupid because I didn't believe a sociopath with that kind of organized offender behavior would ever follow a set of rules on who he could and couldn't kill. But actually that's part of Dexter's fetish – the stalking, the perfect planning, being neat and clean and sure. And who knew these books would be so flipping funny?

Unfortunately, the third book wanders straight off into lala land. I mean, seriously, the hell was that? Lindsay pretty much ruined all the interesting work he'd done on the damage and disfunctions that lead to sociopathy by going for . . . what, demons? It would have been fine as a slide into psychopathic delusion, or even as Dexter's personal metaphor to explain what he is and why. But no. Demons! *helpless hand gestures*

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A collection from the author of Heart-Shaped Box. Some horror, as you would expect, but also just a lot of fiction with a touch of the supernatural.

Damn but that's a good book. I knew for sure during the opening story, "Best New Horror," in which our narrator is an anthology editor who gives us a one-page synopsis of a novella manuscript he receives, and the compressed summary made me forget where I was. Right on through the weird and metafictional "Pop Art" (bad! Pun! Alert!) and the amazing little vignette "Dead-Wood" and the totally inexplicable but fascinating "My Father's Mask." The closing novella, "Voluntary Committal," about a boy with childhood onset Schizophrenia (or possibly not) who can build things that he shouldn't, gathers up everything good about this book. It's tense, rich storytelling, the sort that makes you feel like you have to figure out how to breathe again when you put it down.

It's not all great. This is a book about fathers and sons, if you know what I mean, and there aren't many well-drawn female characters who aren't also victims. Interestingly, though, what this book does have is a fair share of disabled people – Asperger's, Schizophrenia, learning disabilities. And, wonder of wonders, the disability isn't an outer manifestation of evil.

But yeah. Damn.
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Eden starts seeing ghosts when she’s barely old enough to talk. When she’s ten her cousin tries to kill her. Then things start getting weird – twisty family trees, ancient wizards, gross resurrection rituals, etc.

This book nicely engaged me for the first third (great atmosphere, southern racial politics, vivid writing) and then lost me almost entirely in the last two-thirds (clichés, predictability, decline in the writing quality). I think partly the book is just a predictable little ghost story, and partly this isn’t really my cuppa so I’m not particularly forgiving of the clichés. Truth is, I was pretty bored.

Stick to Heart-Shaped Box, is my recommendation.
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Judas Coyne (born Justin Cowzynski) is an aging rock star with a lot of bad memories, a girlfriend thirty years younger than him, and a collection of macabre and disturbing memorabilia. And then he buys a dead man’s suit off an auction site, and the dead man’s ghost with it. And this ghost ain’t nobody’s Casper – he’s a scary mother-fucker with a background in psychological torture, hypnotism, and razor blades.

I don’t generally go rooting around in the horror genre, preferring to stick to recommendations. I mean, if I really want a dose of repulsive people doing horrifying things to each other, I read the newspaper. But I do keep taking recommendations, because when horror is done right, oh yeah will I take that ride. Being horrified and repulsed by a book is not something I enjoy; being horrified and repulsed because it is deeply compelling is the sort of psychological rollercoaster that you just can’t get any other way.

This book does it right. Oh does it ever. It comes down hard as a ton of bricks but with the precision of an expert marksman on some viscerally frightening buttons, and I say this as someone who’s pretty jaded on that front. More importantly for me, though, Jude is a selfish, sometimes violent man, still alive after a lot of hell and honestly miserable that it can make him happy. He’s one of those guys who knows exactly how bad he treats people, and cares a bit, and doesn’t stop. In the hands of a lesser writer he would have been just a cog in the horror machine, and I never would have finished this book. Instead, he is wonderfully complicated, sad, complicit in terrible things, utterly fascinating, ultimately sympathetic. It’s damn impressive character work.

Mostly, it’s that the stellar characters and fast, to-the-face swipes of the plot are backed up with a subtle thematic argument about identity and responsibility and complicity. The book spends three hundred pages telling us that you can’t change it, you can only bear witness, that we’re all just walking ghosts of the happier people we were once, before the world or just our parents got to us. And then it turns around and says, ‘oh yeah? Bearing witness is doing something, and even ghosts can save themselves.’

It’s a fantastic debut novel. Hill does let his stitches show a bit too much for my taste – he cast two threads in the very beginning which I instantly and correctly marked as the central knot of the end game, and I saw a few too many turns coming. But I mostly didn’t care. I want to read Hill’s next book, but more than that, I really want to read his fifth book, his eighth. Because those are going to be something else.

The sharp-eyed will be noting the thing I didn’t talk about here. I‘m really not someone who takes an author’s wishes about how he is to be perceived and reviewed as gospel, but in this case I respect Hill’s expressed wish, in both senses of the word. And contrary to every newspaper in the western world, I find it is not just possible to talk about this book without talking about the thing, but also preferable.
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Note: This review was written from an ARC. The book will be out on the shelves at the end of February. Bits of this review may also appear on the Eos website or blog.

We open as Joanna Archer goes on a blind date with a man who turns out to be a monster, the real kind. This book, which plants a foot each in urban fantasy and horror, starts off sprinting there and doesn’t slow down for over a hundred pages as Joanna is drawn into the battle between good and evil going on behind Las Vegas’s glittering façade. It’s a universe with an unmistakable flavor of the comic book about it, from the superhero touches like power glyphs that glow on the chest to the bold, surprising leaps of the plot.

This book surprised me more than once, and for that alone I could like it. The plot moves at break-neck pace, and Pettersson is utterly unafraid of violence or death or real, painful consequences. And there’s a wide sampling of narrative styles here, with touches of romance, urban fantasy, dark horror, and most unexpectedly, comics. The supernatural struggle which sweeps up Joanna is retold in comics within the book, one series of manuals for each side. And that seems somehow exactly appropriate for this universe where death comes fast and unexpected, where powers are vast but carefully ordered, where science and the supernatural become inextricable. I enjoyed the unusual flavor of this book, though I think an actual comics fan will have a much easier time with the occasional dearth of real explanations – I still don’t know, after 400 pages, exactly what Joanna’s powers are and how they are limited. The dialogue will probably also fall much better on an ear other than mine; it sounded far too scripted and unnatural to me on a number of occasions.

And, stepping onto the soapbox for a moment, I do have to register my extreme personal irritation with – well, let me demonstrate. No wonder even a blind woman had felt compelled to speak to me of choices and control.” Two things which blind people have no authority to speak on, apparently. Casual dismissiveness of a secondary blind character like that pops up a handful of times in the book, and it had this particular blind reader grinding her teeth for pages.

Still, this book is fast, unexpected, gritty, and bold. It’s an impressive debut novel, and I’m excited to see what Pettersson does as she develops her skills. I’m not the perfect target reader for this book – it's much better suited to the many Heroes watchers out there than to my personal taste. But that’s just it; Scent of Shadows drew me in and kept me interested anyway, through a style which is definitely not my favorite. But as one character says, “The truth multiplied by the collective consciousness equals fact stranger than fiction,” and I’m always happy to read fiction as strange and imaginative as this.


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