Harrison Squared, by Daryl Gregory

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 24, 2015

Summary: Harrison Harrison—H2 to his mom—is a lonely teenager who’s been terrified of the water ever since he was a toddler in California, when a huge sea creature capsized their boat, and his father vanished. One of the “sensitives” who are attuned to the supernatural world, Harrison and his mother have just moved to the worst possible place for a boy like him: Dunnsmouth, a Lovecraftian town perched on rocks above the Atlantic, where strange things go on by night, monsters lurk under the waves, and creepy teachers run the local high school.

On Harrison’s first day at school, his mother, a marine biologist, disappears at sea. Harrison must attempt to solve the mystery of her accident, which puts him in conflict with a strange church, a knife­wielding killer, and the Deep Ones, fish­-human hybrids that live in the bay. It will take all his resources—and an unusual host of allies—to defeat the danger and find his mother.

Thoughts: The somewhat meta-prequel to We Are All Completely Fine, Harrison Squared tells the story that Jameson hinted at in WAACF, the story of his childhood experiences in Dunnsmouth, where he discovered that there’s more to the world than the mundane. I say meta-prequel because in We Are All Completely Fine, Jameson admits to having written about his experiences in the form of fiction, changing his name from Jameson Jameson to Harrison Harrison. Fiction disguised as fact disguised as fiction, and this approach from Daryl Gregory doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. This could be considered a prequel, or an in-universe novel, or both.

This is what you get when you read Gregory’s novels. Something to make you think, something that isn’t quite what you expect and that challenges expectations. It’s one of the reasons why I love reading his work.

This book is pretty short, a nice quick read, and between this and the protagonist being a teenager in high school, it could easily be classed as YA. I’m not entirely sure it isn’t, but it doesn’t really feel like it, at least to me. Maybe it’s because it’s the prequel to a much darker novel, maybe it’s because the publisher has its own YA imprint and this book wasn’t published through them, I don’t know. Either way, there’s enough crossover here that fans of both YA and adult fantasy can find something to like here, especially when their interest falls to Lovecraftian fiction.

It’s an interesting mystery that Gregory crafts here, at first seeming like Harrison’s problem will lie in figuring out why everyone at his new school are so weird (and that goes beyond the typical teenager definition of weird; most teenagers don’t have coded finger-tapping communication, attend classes on how to reanimate frogs using a car battery, or spent morning assemblies chanting in a strange incomprehensible moaning language), progressing to solving the mystery behind his mother’s disappearance. Those who have read We Are All Completely Fine will see bits and pieces of everything Jameson talked about, from Dwellers to the Scrimshander. This was a double-edged sword, since while it was interesting to see how the character encountered all these concepts and people, in the end it felt almost as though the author was trying to shoehorn as many of them in as possible. They did all play a part in the plot, at least, but it still started to feel a bit cramped with references by the end.

Still, it’s a fascinating and complex story that Gregory builds, layers upon layers of little points of interest that could have been done away with — such as fingercant — without changing the story much at all. But its their presence that adds realism to the dark fantasy, which I always love to see. People are always more complex and varied than the stories they take part in; Gregory has been excellent at expressing this in prior works, and this is no exception. The bad guys are not always people who the protagonist dislikes, and the good guys are not always the ones who instantly flock to the golden boy. They’re not always intensely dedicated to one goal and one alone. And you don’t always seen everything of them during the course of the story. There were characters with stories that I very much wanted to see elaborated, particularly within the group of teens who weren’t so keen on the cult-like activities of Dunnsmouth’s adults. There’s another host of novels (or at least a large collection of short stories) in those characters, and I’d love to read them. Gregory really has the knack of making people on pages feel real and expansive.

I can definitely recommend Harrison Squared to those who read and enjoyed We Are All Completely Fine. That much I’m sure of, and those who read the sequel first will probably appreciate the references and tie-ins. Those who haven’t read it, though, I think will probably think that this is definitely a decent book but probably won’t appreciate it as much as those who have stepped into the mythos beforehand. Some of the fun was in seeing what connected things to We Are All Completely Fine, and though it functions perfectly well as a standalone novel, I do recommend reading the two books together. They make a much more comprehensive picture together, complementing each other well, and the experience is better for it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Iron Night, by M L Brennan

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Publication date – January 7, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Underachieving film theory graduate and vampire Fortitude Scott may be waiting tables at a snooty restaurant run by a tyrannical chef who hates him, but the other parts of his life finally seem to be stabilizing. He’s learning how to rule the Scott family territory, hanging out more with his shapeshifting friend Suzume Hollis, and has actually found a decent roommate for once.

Until he finds his roommate’s dead body.

The Scott family cover-up machine swings into gear, but Fort is the only person trying to figure out who (or what) actually killed his friend. His hunt for a murderer leads to a creature that scares even his sociopathic family, and puts them all in deadly peril.

Keeping secrets, killing monsters, and still having to make it to work on time? Sometimes being a vampire really sucks.

Thoughts: I have an unpleasant track record with this series. I waited for ages to read the first book. Then I loved it. Then I waited for ages to read the second book. And I loved it too! I’m going to try to break my habit and not wait far too long to read the third book, because this series is so incredibly entertaining, well-paced and filled with characters that you want to spend time with. It’s not worth it to wait.

Fort is coming more to grips with his vampire nature, and even though he’s not entirely happy about it, he does use his abilities more to his advantage instead of constantly denying them, as he did in Generation V. Rather than going from angst to superpowered celebration, this causes some interesting tension in Fort’s character, where years of habit and uncertainty still cause him to view his vampirism in an unpleasant and sometimes frightening light but he not only needs the strength it gives him but also begins to crave both power and blood. Occasionally at inopportune times. In addition to this, Fort is taking on more responsibility within the Scott family, from making sure the bridge trolls get their shipment of goats to eat, to tracking down and bringing to justice a vicious murderer that has made its way into Scott territory.

Fort’s geekiness is brought more to light here, and not just film geekery, either. It’s offset, as before, by Suzume’s sarcasm, wit, and unending ability to pull pranks on Fort in ways that are more annoying than outright malicious, which was good to see. Pranking, in books as in real life, is one of those things that can quickly cross the line to cruelty, and I’m glad to see that things were kept on the comfortable side of the line. Suzume is one of those characters I could read about from now until the end of time. She’s funny, she’s intelligent, self-assured, and, as I said in my review of the previous novel in the series, incredibly competent.

The murder mystery in Iron Night starts with Fort coming home to find his roommate murdered, mutilated, and dumped through the apartment window. As the investigation deepens, it’s revealed that local elves are at the core of it all, and involved in a sinister plot involving blood sacrifice and breeding projects. It’s quite twisted, which is what makes Brennan’s plots so much fun to read. Things are rarely as they appear on the surface, new information is constantly coming to light, and the whole thing works quite seamlessly. I love the way Brennan plays with mythology, tweaks lore in ways that give everything a fresh new feel while still staying familiar to readers who grew up on classical fantasy and supernatural stories.

And yes, I’ll admit it, I was rooting for Suzume and Fort to get together by the end. Previously I gave the series praise for not falling prey to the old “lead male and lead female must hook up” dynamic, and in many ways, I still stand by that. While it was clear that there was a growing attraction between then as the story went on, it didn’t interfere with the story. It added to it, complemented it, but didn’t detract from it the way I find many romances do. I could really feel for the characters, and the romance didn’t feel shoehorned in out of some misunderstanding that characters need romance to be complete. Fort and Suzume are complete, whole and realized. And it’s partly because of this that they make such a good team, both professionally and romantically. This is what stands them apart from many other urban fantasy pairings I’ve come across. Not all, but many. And I like it!

When all is said and done, I want more. I spent the entire time reading this book kicking myself for not reading it sooner, much as I’d done for Generation V, and everything I liked about the previous book is still here in spades. The lore, the characters, the brilliant writing and Brennan’s flair for realism in observation and dialogue. It’s a well-crafted urban fantasy than stands head and shoulders above the competition, and if you haven’t given yourself over to the series yet, you ought to think about changing that, pronto!

(Received for review from the author.)

Ring, by Suzuki Koji

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Author’s Wikipedia entry | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 1, 2003

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) A mysterious videotape warns that the viewer will die in one week unless a certain, unspecified act is performed. Exactly one week after watching the tape, four teenagers die one after another of heart failure.

Asakawa, a hardworking journalist, is intrigued by his niece’s inexplicable death. His investigation leads him from a metropolitan Tokyo teeming with modern society’s fears to a rural Japan–a mountain resort, a volcanic island, and a countryside clinic–haunted by the past. His attempt to solve the tape’s mystery before it’s too late–for everyone–assumes an increasingly deadly urgency. Ring is a chillingly told horror story, a masterfully suspenseful mystery, and post-modern trip.

The success of Koji Suzuki’s novel the Ring has lead to manga, television and film adaptations in Japan, Korea, and the U.S.

Thoughts: Suzuki Koji’s Ring is pretty well known in North America, even by people who haven’t read the book, due to the North American remake of the Japanese movie adaptation of the story. (Still following the links in that chain?) The horror story about a dead girl who come back from her watery grave to take brutal vengeance upon those who watch her cursed video tape. If you enjoyed the movie, either the original or any of the remakes, then taking a look at the source material might interest you.

Unlike just about every version of the movie that I’ve seen (and I think I’ve seen every one that currently exists, to be truthful), the protagonist of the book is a man, Asakawa, a journalist whose niece recently died under mysterious circumstances. A chance encounter leads him to believe there was more to her death, and the death of 3 other teens, than meets the eye, and he begins a personal investigation that uncovers a darker and more complex truth than he could have ever thought possible. If you haven’t seen the movie before, then you’re in for an evocative and detailed ghost story with plenty of speculation. If you have seen the movie, you can expect elaborations on issues that the adaptations didn’t have time to cover.

I won’t lie, this book is far from perfect. It largely stands the test of time, if you ignore the use of outdated technologies such as video cassette tapes and mentions of shows that haven’t been on TV for a while, or the twists of pseudoscience that blend with the supernatural to create the whole plot in the first place. But I would say that the biggest mark against it is the sexism, the commentary about the place of women, casual mentions of violence and degradation, things that may have flown by without notice when and where it was first written, but that come across considerably more negatively here and now. Some of the discussions certain characters had about rape were downright uncomfortable to read, even if they weren’t graphic, due to the bragging tone of the conversation. So even aside from horror elements that might make one edgy, there are definitely potentially triggering things within Ring.

It also does a lot of hand-holding where the plot is concerned, rehashing current events and theories during character discussion as they try to figure out what’s happening and what to do next. You get a lot of stuff drilled into your head over and over, which is fine enough if this is your first exposure to the series, but if you’ve seen or read any of this before, it gets dull pretty quickly, reading about people talking it all over and speculating on the whys and wherefores without actually doing anything.

The story is a real head-trip, looking like a creative but fairly bog-standard ghost story for most of the novel but getting twisted toward the end, with dual themes of dark self-sacrifice and viral behavior. Even those who haven’t been exposed to the book or the movies know, on some level, the story behind the cursed video tape, the way you’ll die within 7 days unless you make a copy and show it to someone else. Let that sink in for a moment. You’ve got a ghost who kills by fear and sheer mortality, stopping your heart, and the only way to make sure that you survive after seeing that video is to, through honesty or trickery, convince someone else to copy the video and put themselves at risk. Repeat ad infinitum. Saying that the video would go viral is also quite literal, and there are multiple comparisons drawn to the way we gain immunity against a virus. Get infected, survive, and move on, infecting others as we go so that the virus survives too. Not the most novel concept these days, given the number of biohorror stories that are floating around, but back in the 90s when this novel was originally published in Japan, that plot device hadn’t been done quite so often, and even now you’re hard-pressed to find this in a ghost story instead of a vampire or zombie story. It thus still retains a good amount of its originality.

This isn’t a book to read when you’re all alone. It will get you thinking. It will get you contemplating chains of coincidence, of action and reaction, and the effects of the spread of information. It’s a credit to both the author and the translator that the imagery is so creepily clear, the characters not entirely sympathetic but still real (much to my regret, in the case of Ryuji), and the attempted combination of science and the supernatural may not pass muster to those who dabble in hard science, but on the surface the theory is sound enough to keep the novel going without requiring too much suspension of disbelief. It’s become a J-horror classic for a reason, and it’s a must-read for fans of the genre, or even just fans of the movies.

Black Dog, by Rachel Neumeier

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 4, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Natividad is Pure, one of the rare girls born able to wield magic. Pure magic can protect humans against the supernatural evils they only half-acknowledge – the blood kin or the black dogs. In rare cases – like for Natividad’s father and older brother – Pure magic can help black dogs find the strength to control their dark powers.

But before Natividad’s mother can finish teaching her magic their enemies find them. Their entire village in the remote hills of Mexico is slaughtered by black dogs. Their parents die protecting them. Natividad and her brothers must flee across a strange country to the only possible shelter: the infamous black dogs of Dimilioc, who have sworn to protect the Pure.

In the snowy forests of Vermont they are discovered by Ezekiel Korte, despite his youth the strongest black dog at Dimilioc and the appointed pack executioner. Intrigued by Natividad he takes them to Dimilioc instead of killing them.

Now they must pass the tests of the Dimilioc Master. Alejandro must prove he can learn loyalty and control even without his sister’s Pure magic. Natividad’s twin Miguel must prove that an ordinary human can be more than a burden to be protected. And even at Dimilioc a Pure girl like Natividad cannot remain unclaimed to cause fighting and distraction. If she is to stay she must choose a black dog mate.

But, first, they must all survive the looming battle.

Thoughts: It struck me as interesting pretty early on that this wasn’t just another book about werewolves. Black Dogs, conrtrary to their initial presentation, have more in common with the stories of spectral dogs that roam churchyards than they have with typical werewolves, which was one way in which the story caught me off guard. Black dogs typically look like humans until they transform into large hellhound creatures when their shadow takes over them, and their shadow is something that comes from Hell. A person can be born a black dog or else be turned into one through an infectious bite, at which point they become known as a moon-bound shifter, less in control of their shadows and their abilities than true black dogs, and in this way Neumeier combines two legends as one and creates a fascinating take on both aspects of folklore.

In addition to that, Neumeier shows talent at knowing what to write and what not to write in a novel when it comes to setting up the world. Many times it’s mentioned through character thoughts of dialogue that vampires had been mind-controlling humans for centuries into ignoring all signs of them, and that recently there had been a war between vampires and black dogs (with vampires on the losing side of that war), and the entirety of Black Dog takes place after this war. No flashbacks, no long info-dumps about a history that is relevent but not an immediate concern, the way history is to most of us. The characters were aware of that war and the history behind it but had more pressing concerns to deal with. The story, after all, wasn’t about the war or vampires or all, but something that took place in the aftermath. Neumeier gave us hints of an interesting hidden history but left it as the tantalizing hints they ought to be, and it added a good amount of realism to the story.

For a YA novel, it was surprisingly mature, showing the amount that the intended audience can actually handle reading about. If you don’t want teenagers to be exposed to graphic violence, anger management issues, swearing, or the idea that someone can sacrifice themselves for a greater good, then Black Dog probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, the fact that nothing in this book comes across as sanitized is a real mark in its favour. In many YA genre novels involving people being in a very bad situation, fighting, end-of-the-world type stuff, there’s still a sense that everything will turn out alright because that’s just how the story goes. It’s a sanitized crapsack world. Not so here. The tone here is dark, desperate, three teenagers putting themselves in uncertain hands for protection after the murder of their parents, and all of them trying to muddle through and survive as best they can.

I loved the running attempts to strike a balance between many things in Black Dog. Natividad trying to figure out how to balance the magic of light and dark at the same time, and what it means when the two are combined. Alejandro trying to balance his black dog shadow with his own nature, holding his own against violence and anger. And I was thrilled with a minor plot twist near the end where Alejandro’s black dog is completely removed from him, and he no longer feels the anger that plagued his life and made things so difficult for him, but at the same time he feels incomplete and bereft at the sudden absence of something that he’d lived with for so long. This was fantastic to read because so often people in genre novels are given the chance to remove something negative about themselves, and the general expectation is that they will be happy at its absence because now they’re no longer held back. Idealistic and false, because there’s almost never an adjustment period, no destabilization of the self when an entire part of a person, be it physical or emotional or spiritual, is cut away. Neumeier gets much love from me for showing that even the removal of a difficult thing can throw a person off and make them feel loss and grief.

If there’s anywhere that this book fell down for me it was that the narration at times felt flat and distanced from the characters, a hovering overhead camera instead of being right there in the thick of things. Except for fast-paced and brutal battles, that is; then we were thrown right into the middle of the action, which made it seem even more tense by comparison. I got more emotion and connection from Alejandro’s viewpoint than I did from Natividad’s. This makes sense, since Alejandro’s thoughts were often centred on how to overcome his black dog’s inherent brutality and anger, and Natividad’s thoughts were on how to hold everyone together and stay calm, but with most of the novel taking place from Natividad’s viewpoint, it made some of the calmer moments downright dull.

I can see a few things that are potentially problematic for other readers. On one hand, it was great to have the main character be people of colour, who are still largely underrepresented in fiction. On the other hand, our lead female, while not exactly one to just sit back and let the action take place around her while she waits to be rescued, is definitely the more passive type of heroine, and it could be said that her greatest contribution to the future is being willing to join herself to one of the Dimilioc black dogs and bear his kids. Not exactly a stunning role model for feminine independence. The fact that female black dogs were unable to produce children that didn’t die within a few years and that the entire species, if you will, rested in the hands of powerful and temper-prone men didn’t exactly do anyone any favours either.

Still, the creativity in mixing elements of folklore and mythology make up for the problems I had with the narrative style, and I found myself really enjoying the story and the hints at the greater historical story in the background. If you want to take a step into the darker side of YA urban fantasy novels, then this is a book you should definitely consider. Tread carefully in some areas, but I think that this could still be an enjoyable book for many.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Delia’s Shadow, by Jaime Lee Moyer

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Author’s website / Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 17, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) It is the dawn of a new century in San Francisco and Delia Martin is a wealthy young woman whose life appears ideal. But a dark secret colors her life, for Delia’s most loyal companions are ghosts, as she has been gifted (or some would say cursed) with an ability to peer across to the other side.

Since the great quake rocked her city in 1906, Delia has been haunted by an avalanche of the dead clamoring for her help. Delia flees to the other side of the continent, hoping to gain some peace. After several years in New York, Delia believes she is free…until one determined specter appears and she realizes that she must return to the City by the Bay in order to put this tortured soul to rest.

It will not be easy, as the ghost is only one of the many victims of a serial killer who was never caught. A killer who after thirty years is killing again.

And who is now aware of Delia’s existence.

Thoughts: I’m a bit of a sucker for fiction set in this time period, and throwing in a supernatural element just piqued my interest even further. Delia’s Shadow tells the story of Delia, a young woman who can see ghosts, and in particular one of them has been following her around for some time now, urging her back to her home in San Francisco. She calls this ghost Shadow, and knows little about her until the nightmares kick in. And then there’s the serial killer on the loose, following the same pattern as a serial killer 30 years earlier. Shadow, and thus Delia, and the serial killer are tied together somehow, and with the help of local law enforcement and a psychic medium, they must figure out how and bring the killer to justice.

You can spot the tropes coming a mile away.

The fact that this book is largely reliant on tropes, the tried-tested-and-true doesn’t make it a bad book. It makes it predictable, but that does work well for making a light comfort read, something to simply enjoy without expecting too much depth. That isn’t to say the book is mindless and doesn’t require any thought, since there’s some interesting commentary on the nature of spirits and social views of the supernatural, but that’s also fairly par for the course and wasn’t a ground-breaking revelation. It fit well within the confines of the story. There’s also the fun, as with many mysteries, of trying to guess who the killer is as the clues are slowly revealed. (I came to the correct conclusion only shortly before the characters did; my money was on somebody else through most of the novel.)

The book does have its drawbacks, however. The story lacked a great deal of depth, and many of the characters were largely trope-based. The high-society kind-hearted gossip awaiting her wedding day. The ahead-of-her-time psychic medium who doesn’t listen to male authority just because it’s male authority and actually views herself as equal to her lover. And oddly enough, I felt that the two main male characters were written so similarly that at times I couldn’t tell them apart. Which was pretty much the only reason I was incorrectly betting on a certain character as being the murdered through most of the book; it was so easy to forget who was related to who and what their history was. There wasn’t a huge amount to distinguish them.

The romantic aspect of the novel (because there nearly always is one) was okay. Nothing special. I didn’t feel much for the couples, but I didn’t feel that there was nothing to them, either, so it could definitely have been worse. Sadie and Jack were amusing enough, though Delia and Gabe were kind of a take-them-or-leave-them couple. It wasn’t insta-love, but it did move quickly, and without there being much time for the two to get to know each other.

Then again, that could be seen as points in favour of historical accuracy, so your mileage may vary on that one.

While I don’t think this is a book I would read again, I did still enjoy reading it. It was light and undemanding, with an easy style of writing that flowed well with even pacing. It was far from perfect, but I didn’t go in with those expectations and so didn’t come out disappointed. If you’re hungry for a quick read and you enjoy historical fantasy or historical romance, or a blend of the two, then Delia’s Shadow might well sate your appetite.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

The Nightmare Affair, by Mindee Arnett

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Author’s website
Publication date – Mar 5, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Sixteen-year-old Dusty Everhart breaks into houses late at night, but not because she’s a criminal. No, she’s a Nightmare.

Literally.

Being the only Nightmare at Arkwell Academy, a boarding school for magickind, and living in the shadow of her mother’s infamy, is hard enough. But when Dusty sneaks into Eli Booker’s house, things get a whole lot more complicated. He’s hot, which means sitting on his chest and invading his dreams couldn’t get much more embarrassing. But it does. Eli is dreaming of a murder.

Then Eli’s dream comes true.

Now Dusty has to follow the clues—both within Eli’s dreams and out of them—to stop the killer before more people turn up dead. And before the killer learns what she’s up to and marks her as the next target.

Thoughts: The first book is Mindee Arnett’s Arkwell Academy series, The Nightmare Affair tells the story of Dusty, a literal Nightmare who sneaks into houses and invades the minds of the sleeping in order to feed on the substance of dreams themselves. Dusty attends Arkwell Academy, a school for magic and supernatural creatures; hence the name of the series.

True to YA convention, Dusty ends up feeding on the dreams of the very attractive Eli, and through his dreams she witnesses a murder. Forced together by circumstance and made to repeat the procedure in order to uncover more about the murder, Eli enters the world of the dark and unseen, and Dusty enters the frustrating world of attraction and annoyance with Eli while trying to maintain professional distance.

The idea of a school for the supernatural is far from original, but Arnett manages to pull it off fairly well. There are a good number of clichés littering the novel, though; it’s far from perfect. The adult staff of the school seem, more often than not, caricatures rather than well-developed characters, people who were a quirk instead of just having quirks. While this allowed for some good comedic scenes, it felt very much as though some characters only existed for said comedic scenes, and that was a serious weakness.

Love polygons existed here too. Not content with just a couple, or a love triangle, there are in fact two love triangles going on within the book’s pages. I couldn’t really connect with either of them, to be perfectly honest, but I know that’s more of a personal thing than a reflection on the relationships themselves.

Most of the novel moves relatively slowly, albeit heavy with suspense and the gradual revelation of bits and pieces of the murder mystery, with only brief sections of action. The last quarter of the book has a much quicker pace, is full of swift-moving action and tension. Thus I can say that the pacing was uneven, but not to a greatly detrimental effect. If you’re reading this novel in a few sittings, it probably won’t make that much difference. If, however, you spread the reading out over time, you’re likely to feel that the early sections are somewhat ponderous.

Ultimately, The Nightmare Affair was a decent piece of fluff, creative and interesting but without much beneath the surface. It doesn’t stand out too much from the majority of YA supernatural mysteries, either positively or negatively, though I will say that it wins points for not having insta-love and actually having Dusty and Eli be really awkward toward each other due to the positions they find themselves in. Nothing particularly ground-breaking, but good for light reading.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

The Weight of Souls, by Bryony Pearce

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Author’s website
Publication date – August 6, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Sixteen year old Taylor Oh is cursed: if she is touched by the ghost of a murder victim then they pass a mark beneath her skin. She has three weeks to find their murderer and pass the mark to them – letting justice take place and sending them into the Darkness. And if she doesn’t make it in time? The Darkness will come for her…

She spends her life trying to avoid ghosts, make it through school where she’s bullied by popular Justin and his cronies, keep her one remaining friend, and persuade her father that this is real and that she’s not going crazy.

But then Justin is murdered and everything gets a whole lot worse. Justin doesn’t know who killed him, so there’s no obvious person for Taylor to go after. The clues she has lead her to the V Club, a vicious secret society at her school where no one is allowed to leave… and where Justin was dared to do the stunt which led to his death.

Can she find out who was responsible for his murder before the Darkness comes for her? Can she put aside her hatred for her former bully to truly help him?

And what happens if she starts to fall for him?

Thoughts: Bryony Pearce takes a concept that has done many times before and takes it in some interesting directions. Taylor Oh is cursed to avenge the dead, inflicting death and darkness upon those who cause the demise of others.  A heavy destiny for a 16 year old. Especially when your mother, who also could see the dead and was charged to avenge them, is dead and your father believes that you’re suffering from hallucinations and is desperate to cure you.

Unlike many novels involving teens with special powers, I was pleased to see that Taylor suffers greatly when it comes to social interactions. Some books attempt to show some conflict in this area but often it’s a token attempt and either friends accept everything instantly and pledge to help, or else there’s a single argument and then characters make up. But Taylor is unpopular and picked up, and her one and only friends gets awfully tired of constantly being dumped with no explanation, to the point where the friendship does break off completely for a time. It was quite realistic, and the first-person viewpoint makes it easy for the reader to empathize with Taylor’s pain and anxiety over the situation.

Also realistic was the expressed racism that peppered the book. Most of the racist comments and epithets were not extremely offensive on their own, but instead were the stupid comments of teenagers who think they’re being witty in their insults. That doesn’t mean they weren’t insulting or offensive, but they were the kind of comments that are just at the right level that they can sting, but most adults will just tell a teenager to brush off and won’t actually step in to combat. It was an impressive balance to strike, and did a lot to make the characters real instead of just players in a morality tale.

While Pearce’s take on mythology and the history behind the Oh family curse was interesting, there were an awful lot of infodumps, through Taylor’s reading of The Tale of Oh-Fa, the memoir of her ancestor who first received the Anubis’s curse. Especially because it didn’t feel like those infodumps actually added much to the novel. They were interspersed through the story fairly evenly, little steps back from the action of the moment when Taylor had some downtime, but aside from explaining how the curse first occurred (which had already been explained, though not in as much detail), it mostly just ate up words and took the reader away from the immediacy of the story. It was interesting to a small degree, but mostly unnecessary.

The science that Taylor’s father was clinging to was sketchy at best, and I’m not sure if that was the desperate hope of a father or just poor fact-checking. His obsession with proving that the curse was curable led him to transfer Taylor’s mitochondrial DNA into a sample of his own cells, and that part makes sense in that both mitochondrial DNA and the Oh family curse were passed through the female side of the family. But his insistence that his blood being infected meant that it was a disease that could be cured was seriously less based in science, given all the incurable genetic conditions that exist. And as I said, that could just be the hope of a desperate parent, but it wasn’t presented as such, so I’m hesitant to just pass it off as that. It could go either way.

And as always, something does have to be said about the romantic aspects of the novel. I’m happy to say that romance, for the most part, was not actually a big thing throughout the story, which long-time readers of my reviews will know is my preferred method of expressing romance in fiction. Don’t beat me over the head with it, don’t make it obsessive, and I’ll probably like it. And it certainly was interesting to see a developping relationship involving a ghost, since that isn’t too often done unless the plot involves time travel and a relationship with a person before they became a ghost in the first place. But there still wasn’t much chemistry between Taylor and Justin, even after they had grown to understand each other more, and it seemed that a lot of it was handwaved as part of Anubis’s promise. “Oh, Aubis promised the cursed ones a great love in their life, and I kinda like this guy, and he likes me, so wow, maybe he’s that great love!” I didn’t feel it. I can see wondering, but I don’t feel much of a connection between Taylor and Justin that goes beyond a teenage crush, so I’m very much hoping that he either isn’t Taylor’s great love, or else they actually spend some time growing closer in a non-emergency situation later on. Which, given my opinions on romance in fiction, will have to be something pretty spectacular to make me not feel like it’s too much.

Ultimately, what we’ve got here is a strong novel with an interesting concept and a twisty-turny supernatural murder mystery. The ending was a little cheesy and had an obvious hook in its cliffhanger, and there are still the other issues I had with plot and characters that I mentioned earlier, but I can forgive the novel that much because the rest was so much fun to read. The pacing was very good, except for those backstory interludes. As far as YA genre novels go, this is one of the better ones that I’ve read this year, and I’m curious as to what else Pearce will do in the future.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Indigo Springs, by A M Dellamonica

Indigo Springs, by A M Dellamonica  Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com

Author’s website
Publication date – October 27, 2009

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Indigo Springs is a sleepy town where things seem pretty normal . . . until Astrid’s father dies and she moves into his house. She discovers that for many years her father had been accessing the magic that flowed, literally, in a blue stream beneath the earth, leaking into his house. When she starts to use the liquid “vitagua” to enchant everyday items, the results seem innocent enough: a “‘chanted” watch becomes a charm that means you’re always in the right place at the right time; a “‘chanted” pendant enables the wearer to convince anyone of anything . . .

But as events in Indigo Springs unfold and the true potential of vitagua is revealed, Astrid and her friends unwittingly embark on a journey fraught with power, change, and a future too devastating to contemplate. Friends become enemies and enemies become friends as Astrid discovers secrets from her shrouded childhood that will lead her to a destiny stranger than she could have imagined…

Thoughts: Indigo Springs takes the concept of magical realism to the next step, not just making the magic realistic in its function but to a degree, actually somewhat scientific, too. Add to that a cast of characters that is wonderfully diverse and surprisingly not heteronormative, and you’ve got the makings of a novel that can take the genre world by storm.

It certainly blew me away!

The story itself is told in two interlinking parts. The first is told from the perspective of Will, assigned by the military to get information out of Astrid Lethewood. The second is told from the perspectiveof Astrid herself, as though she’s revealing the story piece by piece to Will as he asks for detail and explanation. As both parts are told, the reader begins to get a more complete picture of the situation at hand. Astrid was the guardian of magic and the maker of magical objects, though somewhat new and unsure about the whole thing, and through happenstance her two friends become exposed to the liquid magic known as vitagua and its effects on the world. What sounds innocent enough turns dark and menacing quickly as it becomes clear that Astrid’s long-time friend and crush, Sahara, went mad with power over the magic and eventually formed a cult around herself, one which is wreaking havoc across America. Magic’s secrets have been exposed, the country is in chaos over it, and that brings us back around to why Will is questioning Astrid in the first place. It’s a complex story that’s surprisingly hard to sum up in a short description, and I know I’m not doing it justice by trying. It really is best experienced firsthand, so that the reader can pick up on all the little subtleties and nuances and details that unfortunately have to be left out here.

For me, while the book was a thrilling and fascinating read, it was also somewhat of an uncomfortable one. I could see some of myself in Astrid, but more importantly, I could see an old friend of mine in Sahara. From How Astrid felt about Sahara to how Sahara grasped desperately at power — especially power over other people — and wouldn’t let go, it was like a fictional and ramped-up retelling of parts of my life. This certainly made for a relatable read, if an uncomfortable one at times.

Dellamonica’s writing style was a real treat to experience. The pacing was fast and smooth, and you never had a chance to get bored even when there was a lack of action on the pages. especially interesting was seeing Astrid when she was holding too much of the vitagua in her body, and watching her get confused about where on the timeline she was standing. Not sure why that in particular fascinated me, but it did. Dellamonica also has a clear talent for not only writing interesting and diverse people, but also writing them realistically. It’s hard for me to think of another book I’ve read lately where a character’s ethnicity or their sexuality featured but wasn’t a driving force behind the character and their development. Dellamonica wrote these people as people, with their flaws and foibles and concerns, and didn’t try to make them into less or more than they were.

As far as books about magical realism go, this has to rank pretty high on the list, if it’s not holding the top spot entirely. There wasn’t much I could find to dislike about Indigo Springs, and it was one of those books that I fell into and didn’t want it to let me go. From start to finish it was a wonderful book, and my only regret is that I took so long to get around to reading it. I highly recommend taking a chance on Indigo Springs. Even if magical realism isn’t normally your thing, the characters and the situations they find themselves in will captivate you enough to likely change your mind. Definitely worth it!

Two and Twenty Dark Tales, by various authors

  Buy from Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, or IndieBound

Publication date – October 16, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In this anthology, 20 authors explore the dark and hidden meanings behind some of the most beloved Mother Goose nursery rhymes through short story retellings. The dark twists on classic tales range from exploring whether Jack truly fell or if Jill pushed him instead to why Humpty Dumpty, fragile and alone, sat atop so high of a wall. The authors include Nina Berry, Sarwat Chadda, Leigh Fallon, Gretchen McNeil, and Suzanne Young.

Thoughts: It isn’t hard to find collections of stories that apply a dark twist to fairy tales. It’s a bit harder to find something that applies a dark twist to nursery rhymes, those little snippets of poetry and song that most of us grew up with and know like we know the backs of our hands. But th stories in this collection are ones that are familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, the telling of the darker side of those rhymes that we don’t put much thought into. Little Miss Muffet and Humpty Dumpty have new and creepy life breathed into them by this collection of YA authors.

Some stories worked better than others. “Blue,” for example, which was based on Little Boy Blue, didn’t actually stick much to the original rhyme (I don’t recall any sheep in the meadow nor cows in the corn), and reminded me of nothing so much as bad fanfiction for Fatal Frame 3. “Life in a Shoe,” based on the old woman who lived in a shoe, was depressing and difficult to read as it tells the story of a family with far too many children to be fed and cared for properly because the man of the house is a borderline rapist. Dark, yes, and in both cases, but the stories seemed like they got into this collection only due to a stated connection to the nursery rhymes, though in reality the connection was thin and tenuous at best.

On the other hand, this book contained some true gems, making me wish more than once that they were longer than they were so that I could keep reading them. “Sing a Song of Sixpence” was one of my absolute favourites, incorporating all elements of the nursery rhyme into one dark fantasy story that was truly inspired. “Wee Willie Winkie” was very creepy and deft in its handling of the truth behind small-town legends. And “I Come Bearing Souls” was an amazing twist on “Hey Diddle Diddle,” of all rhymes, featuring reincarnation and literal interpretations of Egyptian mythology and the concept of the self and relation to duty and fate. “Tick Tock” was a creapy story about a group of children committing murder for reasons which were left obscure, adding a rather disturbing supernatural element to the tale. Some things are better off when they still have some mystery to them, after all.

My biggest regret, though, is that the ARC copy I received was missing the second part of a really good story. “The Lion and the Unicor,” dealing with historical witchcraft in England and King James’s connection to the devil, was broken into two parts. The first part appeared early on, and about a page into the tale I was hooked, really excited to keep reading and to find out what happened. Unfortunately for me, the ARC copy doesn’t actually have the second part in it, which was very disappointing. I won’t hold that against the book, since I know the risk with ARCs is that one gets them unfinished and often changes will occur between the ARC and the final product, so the book isn’t losing marks with me because of that unfinished story, but I will say that I was disappointed to not find out how such a wonderful story was going to end.

Over all, there were more hits than misses in this compilation, and I would say that fans of dark YA fiction would do well to take a look at this one. Though I admit I hadn’t heard of most of the authors, I was introduced to a few whose work I now want to take a close look at. Definitely a book worth keeping on the shelves.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Wild Seed, by Octavia E Butler

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Author’s website
Publication date – June 1, 1980

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Doro is an entity who changes bodies like clothes, killing his hosts by reflex or design. He fears no one until he meets Anyanwu. Anyanwu is a shapeshifter who can absorb bullets and heal with a kiss and savage anyone who threatens her. She fears no one until she meets Doro. Together they weave a pattern of destiny unimaginable to mortals.

Thoughts: First of all, I would like to say that many moments in this book made me profoundly uncomfortable. This book is not the kind of book one tends to read when they want a comfort read. This is the kind of book one picks up when they want their mind challenged, their limits tested, and their perspectives shattered and put back together again. It made uncomfortable. It was supposed to.

Butler writes many themes into this book, but the chief ones are race relations, gender politics, and obedience. There’s also a strong touch of “the ends justify the means” running through the tale, too, especially in Doro’s millennia-long breeding experiment. What he’s seeking from this breeding experiment remains elusive during the story, and the closest we ever really come to his goals are finding out that he wants to breed people with supernatural abilities, “witch powers” who will be as long-lived as he will. But more often than not, Doro comes across as somebody who has been doing something for so long that he’s forgotten his purpose, and only keeps doing it because that’s what he’s always done. He cares little for people beyond their use in his breeding experiment, a means to his somewhat nebulous goal. Breeding brother with sister? Well, that’s just essential to get the right qualities in a person, isn’t it?

Then there’s Anyanwu, healer and shape-changer from Africa, who agrees to go along with Doro in the beginning partly out of interest and partly out of fear. The story is really Anyanwu’s, but Doro plays such a strong role in her life that it’s equally his. Anyanwu travels with Doro to America, where he sets her up as a wife to his son, but not before getting her coerced agreement that when he brings men to her, she will breed with them. And she will turn her head when he takes her husband away to breed him with other women.

See what I mean about this book not being a comfort read?

Anyanwu is what Doro calls “wild seed”, meaning that she has powers of her own, but she isn’t from any of his breeding programs or villages. Taming her is heavily on his mind, and many times he says that she’s so troublesome that he would kill her if she wasn’t so useful as breeding stock. He demands utter obedience from her, as he does from all his people. And as much as Anyanwu does obey him, as time goes on she does so less out of interest and fascination with him and more out of fear, fear that he will harm her many children.

Being set mostly within the past 400 years, it’s easy to see how race relations play into the novel, especially when Doro decides he’ll be taking Anyanwu to America. Within Doro’s own villages and groups, most people accept Anyanwu, albeit a bit grudgingly at first, because Doro has been breeding them with others of every skin tone imaginable. But there’s still the omnipresent worry that in public, in “decent society”, blacks breeding with whites, or even interacting with them on an equal level, will bring about unwanted attention and wrath. Ditto the gender politics, as women of the times were expected to be submissive and obedient.

And Anyanwu is anything but.

I admit, as much as I felt like I couldn’t put this book down, some things really did annoy me, and not just on a moral level. Doro’s demands for obedience, for one thing, felt very repetitive. And I know that was kind of the point, that he was pushing Anyanwu harder and harder to submit to him. But there are only so many times you can read variations of, “Obey me,” before it starts to wear on the nerves a bit.

Also, the ending was bothersome. Anyanwu and Doro come to accept that they need each other, that in their lives they are the only things that will not fade and die, and Doro really only realizes this after Anyanwu is on the very edge of suicide. But the final scenes felt very rushed, as though they were put there because an ending was needed for the book to not run on for centuries more, not because there really was an ending. It felt like Doro especially wasn’t the Doro I had spent an entire book reading about. The guy who had spend over 3000 years acting much the same way suddenly had a heel-face-turn and admitted that he needed Anyanwu on a close personal level. It wasn’t unexpected as an event, but it seemed to come on too quickly, an attempt to end the book because it needed ending. Little more.

I feel like anything I really say on this book would be inadequate. I could talk at length about this book, the themes, how they made me feel, how they reflect history, how they reflect the present attitude, but ultimately, writing a book about a book won’t properly convey what it is to actually read the book, to really experience the scope of it. You can’t read this book and not come away from it changed in some way. You get an eye-opener, a disturbing look into an uncomfortable history that’s horribly accurate even when you take into account the fact that you’re reading about generations of people with psychic abilities. If you want a fantasy that will make you think, that will test your viewpoints and your courage, then read Wild Seed.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)