Spooky Reads #1: Unbury Carol

Alright, so for all of October, because I’m crazy obsessed with Halloween and all that jazz, I’m doing a review per week focusing on scary stories only (yay!)

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author: Josh Malerman

genre: horror, western

I grabbed this beat-up ARC at work (Indigo Books, one of the many book-related perks of the job) and have been waiting for the most opportune moment to start. As you can see, the release date was April 10th so I’ve been holding onto this bad boy for a while. I am really glad I waited just because not only is this an amazing novel in its own right, I feel like its power is amplified during the autumn season…even though this book isn’t about autumn.

This story is about Carol Evers, who suffers from a rare condition that manifests as periodic death-like comas. To the outside world, Carol looks dead but inside her body, she is trapped in Howltown where she is unable to move but can hear everything going on around her in the world. Her husband, Dwight, sick of his strong-willed wife, decides to take advantage of her condition in order to inherit a sizable fortune. The only other living person who knows about Carol’s condition is the outlaw of the Trail, James Moxie and upon hearing word of Carol’s supposed death, decides to race back to Harrow to stop Dwight from burying Carol alive, all the while being a target of a death plot himself.

Judging from the synopsis on the back (a wee different from the ones I always write for my reviews), I was initially worried that the story would drag because it would be told completely from the perspective of Carol in the coma. I’ve read books before told from a similar perspective and while there is the interesting stream of consciousness or memory content in the plot, the location is pretty bound and not much actual “action” happens. This is totally not the case with Unbury Carol, however. Each chapter features a different limited omniscient perspective, jumping from Carol to Dwight to James Moxie, and even some minor characters. This keeps things interesting and fresh, while also exploring character motivations.

There are also a couple of great stylistic elements throughout this book that I thought really added to the story. I’m just going to quickly mention them here so I don’t let this post get out of control. Let’s start with motifs:

Magic is a constant theme, insofar as crafty characters are able to outwit their foes. Most notably, known for performing a life-and-death trick in Abbestown, James Moxie has been made a legend because no one can figure out how he escaped. Some think the magic is real and others are more skeptical, but Moxie has never shared his secret. Can his abilities help him once again, this time against enemies who wield actual magic?  Malerman teases us with little bits of information about some of these tricks, but enough to keep you invested the whole way through.

Rot in any ordinary novel would usually be a theme or maybe a recurring action but only in Unbury Carol would rot also appear as a character. There is symbolic and literal rot throughout, folks, don’t you worry, but it also seems that rot plays a hand in guiding fate and organizing death-related issues. I am definitely not explaining this well, but if you are at all interested, just give this book a try.

The Trail is what I would call a limited setting, only describing a few nearby towns and the dark road that links them together. I thought that it was really effective to provide such limited physical information since that would historically be the only information worth sharing for those living in the western expansion. Even if characters had known more about the geography of the region, travel and business would be Trail-centric so it makes sense that this novel is Trail-centric too.

Usually in my reviews, even the five-star ones, I like to include one CON because I believe that no book is truly perfect but I had a reaallllyyyy tough time with this one because there was nothing that I didn’t like. I have never read Josh Malerman before and now I know why he is a Bram Stoker award-winning author. This type of horror is literary and beautiful and mysterious. I can’t wait to read something else from him in the future!

Read if you like: Vermillion, the Premature Burial, The Prestige

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***specially themed rating system! 5/5 bats 😀

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September Wrap-up, Hellllooooo October!

Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to reading for fun a lot this month. I moved to a new city to start courses for my funeral director’s qualifications and found I was way busier than I thought I would be. I’m in six courses and there are so many things to get together for lab clearance… But enough with the excuses! Here’s what I actually accomplished:

Reviews

ARC REVIEW: From the Shadow of the Owl Queen’s Court

Kings of Paradise

Update posts

Why I canceled my Nocturnal Reader’s Box subscription

Book acquisitions

The 8 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

The Last Dance by Lynne Ann DeSpelder (a textbook for school focusing on grief)

Embalming History, Theory & Practice, 5th edition. (another textbook…)

Movie acquisitions

Sleepy Hollow, Season One

Outings

Toronto Reference Library

Necropolis Cemetery

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In other great news, I am so ready for October and hopefully, I can stay on top of those reading goals!

One thing I’m really excited for is a series this upcoming month focusing on chilling material. Last year, I posted a “Spooky Reads” recommendation each week on my YouTube channel. It was a really short-lived and embarrassing project so I’m 100% not going to link it here. If you look hard enough, though, you might find a Widow Watson YouTube page buried somewhere…

My picks last year were:

Penpal by Dathan Auerbach

Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray (of The Diviners series)

Confessions of a Funeral Director by Caleb Wilde

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

This year, I’m hoping to do a review each week in a similar fashion and I’m really excited about it!

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– The Widow

Why I canceled my Nocturnal Reader’s Box subscription

This comes with a heavy heart, but this past week I canceled my Nocturnal Reader’s Box subscription. If you don’t follow horror or sci-fi closely, you might not have heard about this subscription service so allow me to briefly explain.

Each month the service providers will pick a theme and then design a box to fit it. Past themes have included “Vanity”, “Infected & Infested”, “Monster Mayhem”, etc. Subscribers pay for 2-3 books (one guaranteed new release), at least one wearable item, one original art print inspired by a horror story, a bookmark, and 2-3 other items like candles, teas, pins, and that sort of thing. Typically you pay for the box you want a month prior, and you receive your package at the end of your desired month. E.g. if you want the June month, you pay in early May and receive the package around the third week of June. I really loved these boxes when I was a subscriber and I encourage you to watch some of the great unboxing videos out there.

 

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(here is a promotional picture from the Nocturnal Reader’s Box on Cratejoy)

 

Earlier this year around May, boxes for shipping were delayed as the founder dealt with a medical emergency. I understood that delivery would be postponed for roughly six weeks and I was totally okay with that (I still am entirely sympathetic when suppliers need to deal with important personal issues). I was not okay, however, with the fact that the company did not respond to correspondence from any of their subscribers and it was very hard to find any information on updates. I waited until late August for the June box before I tried to check Instagram for updates only to find that Nocturnal Reader’s had deleted their social media accounts. I assume that this was due to the volume of customer inquiries. I decided to cancel my order mid-September when I noticed that some other book bloggers had received their June package and I still hadn’t received an update (I also live in Canada which probably complicates things).

My dad recently showed me an email from Nocturnal Reader’s Box, essentially blaming customers for trying to inquire about their packages and being angry further when clients canceled their orders. In terms of customer service, I really don’t appreciate such rude and angry comments after I have been waiting patiently for four months without any update and I do not think it is the customer’s fault if they wish to cancel after not receiving something they have paid for.

I have also learned that the company released unauthorized and unlicensed material without the consent of some of the authors featured which really sucks because I am a huge proponent of supporting authors, and specifically indie or self-published ones at that. Here is a link to a post written by Brian Keene regarding his experience with the service:

http://www.briankeene.com/2018/09/11/statement-on-nocturnal-readers-box-subscription-service/

In the meantime, I will be supporting my fav authors and I’m now currently looking for a new subscription service I can count on. If you have any good recs, please feel free to comment or message me 🙂

– The Widow

ARC REVIEW: From the Shadow of the Owl Queen’s Court

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by: Benedict Patrick

genre: fantasy

Jumping into the middle of a pre-existing series is something I usually avoid doing since I‘m always worried about missing some important context or inter-character dynamic. From the Shadow of the Owl Queen’s Court, however, is a rare exception and is well self-contained. Even though characters from the other Yarnsworld books are mentioned, I still felt that I had enough information to develop fully fledged thoughts and feelings (and those feelings are largely positive).

As the fourth installment in the series, FSOQC tells the story of a serving girl, Nascha, as she escapes the wrath of the new Owl Queen. Nascha’s white hair is a traditional sign of nobility and marks her as a threat to the newly established monarchy. Nascha escapes to the Magpie King’s forest, a dangerous place, especially for white-haired maidens…

Meanwhile, Bradan serves the people of the forest alongside his father, the Magpie King, the protagonist from the first Yarnsworld book. Bradan dreams of becoming a hero and protecting the people but has not been gifted with any special knack or skill. When Bradan and Nascha collide, they double-down on the forces threatening to kill them both and the result is bittersweet and heartbreaking.

I mentioned earlier that my feelings for this novel are mostly positive and one thing that caught my attention right away is that Nascha is a sexually-active female protagonist. I know this might not seem like a big deal, but it is very difficult to find YA fiction that features: (a) young women who like sex and (b) are represented positively. Not only does Nascha have sex, but the writing does not linger too much on the details. Her activity moves the plot along but it doesn’t reduce her to object nor is it gratuitous and this is something I really appreciate.

I also really enjoyed the structure of the novel, as the chapters are intermixed with legends and folktales. This provides me, a first-time reader, with enough background context on the different superstitions and biases used without giving it to me through exposition, a really engaging way to create a living history. This structure also helps to maintain interest in the narrative generally speaking and I was always very excited to reach the next folktale and think about how that story would foreshadow the plot.

I wasn’t wowed by everything, but fortunately, my qualms are pretty small. One thing I found was that there is quite a lot of action between the main forces vying for power in the forest. One of which is the Magpie Spirit, but there also emerges an old power known as The Lady, the Gentlemen Fox seeking revenge, and the White Guard looking to assassinate Nasha. There are several showdowns in the last half of the novel, only for one of the forces to be bested or for the protagonists to escape. This will not bother those who enjoy lengthy action sequences, and the finale is well worth sticking around for, but this is just something I noticed and don’t personally enjoy.

All-in-all, though, I really enjoyed reading From the Shadow of the Owl Queen’s Court and would love to revisit some of the first books in the series. While this is my first time reading a Yarnsworld novel, it won’t be my last.

4/5 stars

Read if you like: A Court of Thorns and Roses, Stardust

Pre-order is now available, for release on September 26th. A big thank you to the author for providing me a copy of his book in return for an honest review.

REVIEW: Kings of Paradise

Author: Richard Nell

Genre: low-fantasy, grimdark

I’ll be honest, I was not initially hooked by Kings of Paradise. Just to be clear, that isn’t because this is not a good or important story to tell, but just because I don’t enjoy reading about characters who have to overcome the shittiest of burdens, which to me, is trying to survive in the woods where things/people are trying to kill you. In the early chapters, we join a boy named Ruka who is doing just that – trying to survive in a wild and lawless land. It’s the same reason why I didn’t enjoy the Road but was glad that I read it anyways. While beautiful, Ruka’s story is just too heartbreaking for me, a testament to the writer’s ability to make us care about the character’s plight. Don’t be fooled, however, for there is so much more to this novel than just a few chapters of stealthy forest endurance.

Kings of Paradise weaves the stories of three main characters as they navigate Nell’s fantasy realm. The world takes global inspiration for its different regions, offering up rich religious traditions and linguistic structures that make for fantastic world-building. Having a facial deformity since birth, Ruka only has his strong mother to protect him in the cold and barbaric region of the South. Dala is a young and ambitious girl, also touched with an unwanted facial feature, trying to survive after her father has left her to die. The Sisters of The Galdric Order rule the south, assigning mates for each woman (as it is women who hold positions of authority here) and influencing chiefs who have the brute strength. Kale is a prince trying to find his way in a prominent and high-performing royal family in Pyu, an island nation where a strong a navy is everything. Here it is common for priests and monks to offer advice. Kingdoms trust the priesthoods but are also wary of the power they could potentially wield to overthrow monarchies. Religion provides a strong motivation for several of the characters and it is significant that a lot of detail went into explaining why religion has a featured position in Nell’s world.

For a lot of reviewers and I, another big draw to this book is that character arcs cross and intersect in ways not initially anticipated. One (tiny) criticism I have relating to this is that while Dala and Ruka cross paths a few times, Kale’s storyline has been self-contained for the most part. I won’t spoil anything, but the epilogue does set up the next book in the series and I think I will be excited about the upcoming storylines. Dala’s narrative also stops about ¾ of the way through and I really wanted to know what she gets up to. Of course, I know this is a series and I will likely see the interactions I want but I’m impatient and want it now!

This one hangup, however, is nothing compared to how impressed I was with character motivation in this book, especially with regards to death and grief. It is a testament to strength and survival, fate and personal development. These motivations make for well-rounded and understandable characters that I can relate to and I can never really condemn no matter how bad some of their actions are. There is no true hero or villain, only people who are trying to act in their best interests.

Since this book is the first in an upcoming series, I am curious to see where the characters end up and who will become a king of paradise.

4.5/5 stars

Read if you like: Game of ThronesThe Emporer’s Blades

A big thank you to the author for providing me a free copy of this novel in return for an honest review.

REVIEW: The Crystal Key

by: Robert William Gronewald

genre: fantasy

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         I’m not normally one to be convinced to read a book by its cover alone, but the Crystal Key’s artwork really got to me. Upon reading the synopsis, I learned that the story features a young, female protagonist who wields combat magic, and I am all about that. The Crystal Key tells the story of a seemingly regular girl, Felicity, living in a magical world when she is contacted on her birthday and recruited to an order aimed at protecting the portals of their world from beasts that live in The Dark. A little into her training, Felicity finds herself stranded alone in Dark Territory and it becomes her mission to find her way back home.

If you’ve skipped to the bottom and seen the four-star rating, you will have probably guessed (correctly) that there were a lot of things I like about this book. I really did enjoy this book overall and I would probably read the sequels but there are some things that I found problematic.

For one, I felt like I spent the first 40 or so pages trying to figure out what the heck a ‘wellspring’ was, how ‘mirrorways’ related to it, and that ‘constructs’ are animal-mechanical modes of transportation. These are all really interesting elements of the world-building featured in The Crystal Key but new concepts like these should be explained as they are being introduced. Obviously, it makes sense for the reader to be a little discombobulated when you are initiated into a magical world with so many new ideas, but a little exposition goes a long way. I’m still not entirely sure what a wellspring looks like other than something that casts eternal light but I guess to enjoy the rest of the story, that’s all you really need.

I am also not a super big fan of this type of world-building and I thought it was a little bit cut-and-paste; a snip of steampunk with the magic keys and vehicular beasts, a little bit of urban fantasy with the magical world politics and portalling. Mutated creatures in the Dark are also reminiscent of an apocalyptic Toy Story and while there is nothing wrong with making a hybrid of fantasy styles in one series, it’s not really my thing. The villains in The Dark sort of botched the climax for me and I waited patiently for the characters to resolve their issue.

What I really enjoy about this story is that all of the characters are well-developed and there are bits and pieces of dialogue that intimate thought-out backstories which I hope are revealed in the later books. There are also no characters that I feel like I can’t relate to on some level, no one too evil or far-gone that I’m glad when they are no longer in the narrative. The protagonist, while also The Everygirl, still manages to have a personality and be an active decision-maker in her story (compared to some female heroines that simply have things happen to them).

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and was glad to see that this is part of an upcoming trilogy. I will be waiting patiently for the next instalments. Thank you to the publisher for letting me read this book in exchange for an honest review.

4/5 stars

Read if you like: Kiki’s Delivery Service

LIBRARY LIFT: The Girl is Trouble

by Kathryn Miller Haines

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genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Drama

Synopsis:  Iris Anderson and her father have finally come to an understanding. Iris is allowed to help out at her Pop’s detective agency as long as she follows his rules and learns from his technique. But when Iris uncovers details about her mother’s supposed suicide, suddenly Iris is thrown headfirst into her most intense and personal case yet.

Review: Set in 1940′s New York, Haines’ YA detective novel is a quick read that offers sophisticated detective noir with a side of high school hijinx. This story completely helps me relive what it feels like to be a teenager. No, my mother was not murdered nor was my father a wounded vet turned detective. TGIT shares even the most mundane moments of teenage life with us, including school assemblies and clique politics. Like your typical double-edged sword, these moments of “the average kid at school” do not make for the most exciting reading. Score points for relatability, lose points for inconsistent pacing.

I feel like certain parts of the story need to *terrible cockney accent* turn it up to eleven (props to anyone who gets this Spina Tap reference). There are scenes that are supposed to be romantic and while we are offered a nibble, I want a full course meal. I don’t need any crazy sex romping, but I do need emotional tension. Emotional tension is also lacking in some of the dramatic investigative work, and while Iris’ mother’s case is full of intriguing details, I am at a loss for while I feel so unsatiated.

One quality I did appreciate, however, is the representation given to poor and abused teens, especially seeing that this is a historical YA novel. Iris’ love interest lives with younger siblings and an alcoholic father. Through Iris, we see him struggle to keep his family afloat and I really appreciate that he is not assigned the blame for making bad choices when all of his options are essentially shit.

Before I sign off for the night, I will clarify that this book is actually a sequel and I have not read the first book, The Girl is Murder. I had no problem following the narrative but I wonder if some of my issues might have been cleared up if I had more context. That being said, as a standalone I did enjoy this book but I wouldn’t say I loved it. I liked it just enough to keep going.

Read if you like: The Diviners, the Sally Lockhart series, Nancy Drew

3.5/5 stars