A Trio of Small Book Reviews

Over the holiday season, I didn’t stop reading, but I did stop reviewing most of what I read. I did, however, write three small reviews for three books. Enjoy these extremely short, paragraph-long reviews!

Lore Olympus Volume 1 by Rachel Smythe

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I would have liked this way more if the coloring wasn’t so dark and muddied. I’m not sure if this is an issue of the coloring not translating well from computer screen to on-page; maybe it looks fine online. But here, it was almost impossible to see things like expressions on the characters in the first few episodes. It was frustrating; the art style is interesting! Let me, you know, actually see it!

It did get better in later episodes, somewhat. And Smythe has a good sense of comedic timing and comedy in her drawings. I’ll still look into the next volume, but I may have to bring a flashlight.

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I’m not sure how, exactly, Daryl Gregory is able to make Lovecraftian horror actually interesting to me, but he manages somehow. This is the first book where I really got how terrifying Lovecraft mythology can be.

Time to tear through the rest of his backlog.

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (reread)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

So glad I decided to ignore my library stack and reread this one. I first read it in 2012, a year after it released. Ten years later, I approached it a very different person than I was then, and Deathless rang with new meaning for me. I could understand it better than I did ten years ago, feel it more deeply. I haven’t gone through anything as traumatic as Marya and the cast have gone through, no, but the last few years have done a number on me, and it was interesting to look at a favorite book from a newer, slightly more tarnished lens.

Book Review: Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Horror
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: August 24th, 2021
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Katrell doesn’t mind talking to the dead; she just wishes it made more money. Clients pay her to talk to their deceased loved ones, but it isn’t enough to support her unemployed mother and Mom’s deadbeat boyfriend-of-the-week. Things get worse, when a ghost warns her to stop the summonings or she’ll “burn everything down.” Katrell is willing to call them on their bluff, though. She has no choice. What do ghosts know about eating peanut butter for dinner?

However, when her next summoning accidentally raises someone from the dead, Katrell realizes that a live body is worth a lot more than a dead apparition. And, warning or not, she has no intention of letting this lucrative new business go.

But magic doesn’t come for free, and soon dark forces are closing in on Katrell. The further she goes, the more she risks the lives of not only herself, but those she loves. Katrell faces a choice: resign herself to poverty, or confront the darkness before it’s too late.

Content warnings: Murder of a dog on-page about 9% of the way in, physical abuse of a child, emotional abuse/manipulation of a child, food insecurity, some gore.

This took me by surprise, but in a good way. From the summary I expected more of a young adult urban fantasy/paranormal read, but Bad Witch Burning ended up being more of a contemporary novel with heavy horror elements. Readers expecting a fast paced novel will be disappointed as there’s more of a character driven focus for the plot. Which is fine because Katrell and the supporting cast are well written and I didn’t mind spending time with them (save for her abusers).

Katrell herself is a worthy main character, although near the end she did end up having to hand part of the reins over to her best friend, Will. However, I didn’t mind this, as Katrell’s whole story was about having to always fend for herself and believing no one was there for her. The fact that she has to learn to depend on her friend and allow Will to help save her was a satisfying conclusion to her arc. This may not be some readers’ preference, however, as it might come across as Katrell becoming a little passive.

The paranormal aspects are likely what will disappoint some readers; we’re never given any kind of explanation as to why Katrell’s powers suddenly change, or whether she was always able to bring a person back to life and just didn’t know until she was desperate enough to try. Personally I would have preferred a bit more explanation in this, but it may not bother others.

The only criticisms I have concern the pacing for the first part of the novel, which seems to meander just slightly, and the fact that Katrell is warned about her powers by Will’s deceased grandmother in one of the first chapters. At this point Katrell can only bring a shade back for about ten minutes. Will’s grandmother waits until the very end of these ten minutes to tell Katrell not to do any more summoning, and won’t explain why. Lewis does poke fun at this a bit in the end by having Will say her grandmother could have given a better warning, but it was a bit late, so the scene mostly came across as a contrived way to build suspense.

Bad Witch Burning isn’t perfect, but I enjoyed it and it even made me cry at the end. I look forward to what comes next from Jessica Lewis.

Book Review: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Horror
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Publication Date: October 6th, 2020
Pages: 352, trade paperback
Source: NetGalley

A young woman discovers a strange portal in her uncle’s house, leading to madness and terror in this gripping new novel. 

Pray they are hungry.

Kara finds these words in the mysterious bunker that she’s discovered behind a hole in the wall of her uncle’s house. Freshly divorced and living back at home, Kara now becomes obsessed with these cryptic words and starts exploring the peculiar bunker—only to discover that it holds portals to countless alternate realities. But these places are haunted by creatures that seem to hear thoughts…and the more you fear them, the stronger they become. 

This will be a hard one to review, because I think some of my dislike of The Hollow Places will come down to personal preference. I’ve not read the original story The Hollow Places builds on, but much like The Willows, I think The Hollow Places would have worked better as a short story. Simply put, there’s not a whole lot here. It feels a little too flimsy to keep the story going for 300+ pages. There’s a lot of repetition in the set up of scenes and how they progress, and for a few chapters in the middle it feels like Kingfisher is trying to find a way to pad the story. 

The characters also conveniently don’t put together things they’ve seen or heard to figure out what’s going on, when it’s incredibly obvious. I can understand that maybe Kingfisher was going for a “they were so scared they couldn’t think straight” type of deal. But after a while, it became more like, “I’m making them not put these pieces together because it serves the story better.” Also, how did the bunkers get built? And why did the people not build, like, underground tunnels to connect the bunkers? If the creatures can’t get into the bunkers or underground, why not just build underground tunnels? I feel like I may have missed something on that front, because it’s such an obvious solution that I can’t believe it isn’t brought up in the novel.

Also, why did no one think “If we can get through this hole to this other world, then something from that other world could also pass into ours?” at any point? There’s only a fear of the human protagonists going back through the hole and not that anything could come through from the other side.

As for what comes down to personal preference, well, I’ve found that I just don’t find cosmic horror that scary. To me, it’s only logical and rational that there are beings out in the universe that are beyond human comprehension, and that some of them are actively hostile to humans or don’t care about us at all. This doesn’t bother me in the least. 

I also apparently don’t find trees that scary, even if they somehow move around by themselves. The atmosphere didn’t really get to me. It even has a scene of one of my personal nightmares–being in water and not being able to see what’s around you, underneath said water, and when it could be coming for your ankles–and I could only shrug. 

And then there’s Simon. He’s Kara’s friend in her new home, and very, very gay. Kingfisher reminds us of his gayness every chance she gets. Not only that, Kara brings up his gayness every chance she gets, and how he’s “totally not her type” and how “nothing will ever happen between them because, again, GAY.” 

[Simon:] “First we’re going to fix the drywall patch. Then we’re going to tie you to the bed.”
“… Kinky.”
“Yes, but you’re not my type, hon.”

The overly sexualized, sassy, well dressed gay friend is a stereotype for a reason. Kingfisher says she based Simon off real gay people she’s known, so I’m trying not to be too harsh about it because there are gay people who act like this, but in nearly every single scene Simon is in, he makes some kind of gay sex joke or reference. This may come down to me being asexual and not really liking those types of jokes, though. There’s also the argument to be made that it’s one thing for a real person to be comfortable acting like this, but it’s another for a writer to make their character act like a stereotype. There’s just not much depth to Simon, and he doesn’t really seem to add much of anything to the story except to patch up the hole in Kara’s wall.

Kara also makes sarcastic jokes whenever something scary happens, and after a while, it kills the horror of the situation. I understand that Kingfisher was going for “using humor to defuse the terror of the situation” but it was overused to the point that I was like, “Well, if the characters aren’t taking it that seriously, why should I?” This is also where the repetition of scenes comes in: Something scary happens, Kara or Simon would make a joke about it to defuse the situation, and go about their business. 

The reason I rated this two stars is for the ending. I won’t spoil it, but I really, really liked what Kingfisher did with the museum and its inhabitants in the end. Outside of the unseen creatures, there were a few truly horrifying moments. But otherwise, The Hollow Places was a miss for me.

Book Review: The Repeater Book of the Occult: Ten Tales from the Darkside edited by Tariq Goddard

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Horror Anthology
Publisher: Repeater
Publication Date: February 9th, 2021
Pages: 350, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

A selection of Repeater authors choose their favourite forgotten horror stories for this new anthology, with each also writing a critical introduction for the story of their choice.

Edited by novelist and Repeater publisher Tariq Goddard and “horror philosopher” Eugene Thacker, The Repeater Book of the Dead is a new anthology of horror stories, selected and introduced by Repeater authors.

Includes selections from Repeater authors like Graham Harman, Leila Taylor, Carl Neville, Adrian Nathan West and Rhian E Jones, with forgotten horror classics from authors such as W.W. Jacobs, Mark Twain and Sheridan Le Fanu.

Anthologies where authors select the stories are usually more varied than those where one editor chooses all the stories, and such is the case in The Repeater Book of the Occult, with stories chosen by the authors of the Repeater Books publishing house.

There are a number of well-known stories, such Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” and two LeFanu stories. Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf were a pleasant surprise, and I had not previously heard of Francis Stevens.

Dotard’s “Par Avion” was a miss for me. It didn’t feel like it belonged with the others, even as loose as the theme of the anthology was.

The authors provide introductions to each story, some of which were longer than a couple of the stories, and more likely essays. While there was a lot of good information in some of them, they detracted from the stories themselves.

I would encourage the authors to choose lesser-known works that haven’t had the readership of some of the selections in this book, but the choices were good, and this is recommended.

Book Review: What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Young adult Gothic horror
Publisher: FSG
Publication Date: February 2nd, 2021
Pages: 400, hardcover
Source: Edelweiss

Rose Szabo’s thrilling debut is a dark and thrilling novel about a teen girl who returns home to her strange, wild family after years of estrangement, perfect for fans of Wilder Girls.

Eleanor Zarrin has been estranged from her wild family for years. When she flees boarding school after a horrifying incident, she goes to the only place she thinks is safe: the home she left behind. But when she gets there, she struggles to fit in with her monstrous relatives, who prowl the woods around the family estate and read fortunes in the guts of birds.

Eleanor finds herself desperately trying to hold the family together — in order to save them all, Eleanor must learn to embrace her family of monsters and tame the darkness inside her.

Exquisitely terrifying, beautiful, and strange, this fierce gothic fantasy will sink its teeth into you and never let go.

NOTE: There are spoilers for this book in the review!

I almost gave up on What Big Teeth about 30% of the way in. The beginning was confusing, as it made me think I had missed a detail or an explanation of something that needed an explanation, when I hadn’t. Half of Eleanor’s mother’s body is covered in polyps, and she spends all her time in water. This is actually never explained and it’s never said why her mother is obviously part-fish. Eleanor seems to have gotten some traits from the fish part of her mother, such as webbed skin between her thumbs and enjoying being in the water, but it’s never followed through. More to the point, Eleanor keeps wondering why she’s so different from the rest of her family and why she never became a wolf, and it’s like… girl, you obviously took after your mother. What is there not to get? 

I suppose Szabo wanted to give her readers some credit and assume they were smart enough to put the pieces together themselves, but this doesn’t really work. Honestly, the character of the mother could have been cut out entirely and the novel wouldn’t have lost anything; her characterization is thin and she has no effect on the plot.

That was a big theme in What Big Teeth, actually: Eleanor never puts the pieces together until well after the reader has. The book is slowly paced and I’ve read that it’s more suited to older readers who have the patience to wait for answers, but I think that Eleanor’s inability to put the obvious together would cause older readers to get frustrated quickly. It’s very obvious what’s going on, but Eleanor doesn’t catch on right away, and when she does, she intentionally ignores it so the plot can continue.

Another big theme was introducing things and then just not following through on them. Eleanor’s maternal grandmother can force people to do things through verbal commands, such as “Go to your room and stay there”. This works on everyone, even Eleanor, but not her older sister Luma. Just like their mother’s half-fish background, this is never explained. I suppose some readers will be fine with this, but I personally wasn’t.

There’s also a reveal at the end that Eleanor is a reincarnation of her paternal grandparent’s first child who died young, but that was in no way foreshadowed at all through the novel. There was more support for her being a reincarnation of her maternal grandmother’s children than there was for that. 

The ending was pretty strong, to the point where I wondered if it was written as a short story first and then Szabo just built a novel around it. I will say it was a relatively fast read because the writing wasn’t overly purple-y; it was actually a little sparse, for a Gothic horror. 

I might come back for another novel by Szabo, as maybe the weak points here were just because she’s a debut author. I’m sad to say What Big Teeth was a miss for me, though.