Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth has (of course) been sitting on my shelf forever. The virtual one, at least. Let‘s call it an e-reader-lurker. I started it when heading out for a vacation, because for me that‘s always a good opportunity to tackle some books that have been on my radar for a longer time. And in this case I think my vacation mood made me overlook a lot of things that would have had me bailing otherwise. This is a big “I liked it, and yet…“
The book is told in two alternating timelines. One is set in 1902, when two students of the Brookhants boarding school for girls share not only a passion for the memoirs of young writer Mary MacLane, but also for each other. Named after a quote from Mary‘s book, they form the “Plain Bad Heroine Society“. They are found dead in the orchard of the school, killed by a swarm of yellow jackets. More deaths will follow them.
The other timeline is set in the present day. Author Merritt Emmons has written a book about the events of 1902, and a horror movie adaptation is in the works. After a rather bumpy start, she forms a bond with actresses Harper Harper and Audrey Wells. But during production, talk about the curse of Brookhants gets louder and louder, and in the end it gets hard for them to distinguish truth from rumor and show effects.
Let‘s start with the positive things. The writing style was quirky and engaging, and I liked the omniscient narrator a lot. The use of footnotes made everything feel quite plausible. When starting it, I had the giddy feeling that I’d probably like it a lot. Introducing the different timelines had a lot of potential, and yet…
And yet I don‘t think the book delivered on that potential. I didn‘t notice it on my e-reader at first, but in print this book has over 600 pages. It is really long, yet the end felt rushed and didn‘t tie everything together in a satisfying way. The plot(s) moved along very slow, so it was hard to get a sense of building tension. Also, what little there was, just fizzled out at the end.
While it is classified as horror, it didn‘t really feel like it. Again, probably because it didn‘t grab me that much with its slow speed. There are a few gross scenes, and if you are already a bit nervous around wasps you may be more so after it.
Frankly, I never thought it was impossible to give vampire stories a new spin, but I was reasonably sure it was unlikely to happen. Until I read Sunyi Dean’s The Book Eaters, published 02 August 2022.
Our protagonist, Devon, is a mother. She’s hiding to protect her son, Cai, whom she kidnapped and ran away with two years ago. Her son has special needs. He’s always hungry. He cannot eat regular food. He has a skin condition that needs treatment. Devon, a fierce lioness protecting her cub, knows what helps her five-year-old, she has to get him humans to feed on.
Devon is a Book Eater. She is not human, but looks human. She escaped with her son from the strange customs of the Book Eater society hiding from humans in the northern parts of Great Britain. She can read, but Book Eaters cannot write. She doesn’t have a bank account, nor an ID. She and her son live on the edges of human society, always fearing they’ll be found out by the human authorities or by the Book Eaters’ knights who are hunting them.
Devon wants to take Cai away from Britain, but in order to do that she needs help, because of the limitations her origins put on her. Also, she needs a certain drug to quench Cai’s hunger that she can only get from one of the Book Eater families.
What’s Devon supposed to do? What price is she willing to pay to protect her son?
Lately I’ve read a few books that were supposed to send shivers down my back, or a tingle up my spine, or at least give me a mild case of goosebumps, but all they did was make me wonder whether my sense of thrill is broken.
Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes, published 08 February 2022.
It was hailed as Titanic meets Event Horizon and that is more or less what you get. A luxury space liner adrift for two decades. An emergency signal picked up by a small crew. As soon as the crew enters the space liner they know something is wrong. The whole ship is frozen. The passengers are dead, but something moved. They all saw something move out of the corner of their eyes.
It wasn't that big of a surprise to me, what was behind the horror. Still, the book was interesting and entertaining enough for me to stick it out till the end.
3/5 Harpy Eagles
The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake, first published January 2020.
Take a secret society that is the heir to the Great Library of Alexandria, six young magicians, who are the best of the best, and a building that is very English and that is to be the home of the young magicians until the initiation, when one of them has to be murdered by the others.
Dark academia YA fantasy, unlikable characters that hardly ever interact with each other, lots of telling instead of showing, stilted dialogue, a big twist that just isn't. And this is the revised edition?! I do not want to know what the first - unrevised - edition looked like.
This book will have its following. It's been hyped on TikTok and has a wonderful cover. It just wasn't for me.
1/5 Harpy Eagles
Sundial by Catriona Ward, published 10 March 2022 (UK).
"... [A] twisty horror novel..." Erm, no.
Lots of animal cruelty and child torture? Yes.
Did I enjoy the prose style? No.
Did I guess the twist(s) beforehand? Yes.
Would I recommend the book to anyone? No.
Well, this was a page turner, although or despite not being as bone chilling as I had expected.
Mattie lives in the woods, with her husband William. When checking the rabbit snares she finds strange bear-like tracks. There's a beast hiding on the mountain.
William is much older than Mattie, very brutal and the reader soon understands that something is not right here.
Mattie remembers impossible bits from her past. Three college students are in the woods tracking the creature. William bought bear traps and grenades to kill the beast.
Any idea how this will end?
The sinister part reminded me of Neville's The Ritual. I was rooting for Mattie, but there were moments when I despised her for being such a wuss, nevertheless I kept turning the pages because I wanted to know whether my prediction of the outcome was right.
3/5 Harpy Eagles
Pandora by Susan Stokes-Chapman
Review based on an ARC provided by the publishers.
Pandora "Dora" Blake's parents were killed in an accident twelve years ago. Her uncle took charge of Dora and of the antiquarian shop Dora's parents built and has nearly run it to the ground. Dora knows her uncle is hiding something and eventually finds Greek antiquities in the cellar. She enlists the help of Edward Lawrence, a book binder and antiquarian scholar, to find out whether the items are genuine. Soon they discover that the large vase Dora found has more in store than helping Edward to achieve an academic future and Dora to restore her parents' shop to its former glory.
Pandora is a historical novel set in Georgian time. It's a mystery novel as much as a historical novel. The writing is good. The descriptions of London and the characters are vivid. The three POV give each of the three characters their own voice.
At times, though, the use of anachronistic words took me out of the story, but that might have been rectified before publishing.
3,5/5 Harpy Eagles
Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge, translated by Jeremy Tiang
In Yo'ang humans and "strange beasts", human-like mythical creatures, live together. Each of the nine interconnecting chapters of the book is dedicated to a different species of "strange beasts". The nameless narrator tells us about the origins, appearances and habits of the different beasts. It was interesting, but the repetitive nature of the stories soon got boring.
It's surrealism, or magical realism.
3/5 Harpy Eagles
Fortune Favours the Dead by Stephen Spotswood
It's the late 1940s. Willowjean Parker ran away with the circus years ago. In New York she comes across the famous detective Lilian Pentecost, who hires her as an assistant.
Fast forward to three years later, Mrs P and Parker are hired to solve a locked room mystery. The widow of a rich industrial magnate was killed after a seance at the family's Halloween party.
The murder could be anyone from the husband's business partner, to the children, the medium present at the seance, to the ghosts of the past.
I liked how Pentecost and Parker faced the usual trials and prejudices of women in that time. It was done well, I never had the impression that the women behaved anachronistically. Pentecost further has to deal with a chronic illness that makes her job very hard at times; from personal experience, I can say that the author depicted Mrs P's problems very accurately.
Books are perfect to travel to different places and different times; I don’t need to tell you this, I know. My recent reading took me to Edinburgh in the 19th century. Both books not only had the setting in common, both books also dealt with the study of the human body and the supernatural. Now that I think of it, both even offered a spot of romance.
The first novel was Anatomy by Dana Schwartz. The cover hooked me, the blurb got me:
Hazel Sinnett is a lady who wants to be a surgeon more than she wants to marry.
Jack Currer is a resurrection man who’s just trying to survive in a city where it’s too easy to die.
When the two of them have a chance encounter outside the Edinburgh Anatomist’s Society, Hazel thinks nothing of it at first. But after she gets kicked out of renowned surgeon Dr. Beecham’s lectures for being the wrong gender, she realizes that her new acquaintance might be more helpful than she first thought. Because Hazel has made a deal with Dr. Beecham: if she can pass the medical examination on her own, the university will allow her to enroll. Without official lessons, though, Hazel will need more than just her books – she’ll need bodies to study, corpses to dissect.
Lucky that she’s made the acquaintance of someone who digs them up for a living, then.
But Jack has his own problems: strange men have been seen skulking around cemeteries, his friends are disappearing off the streets. Hazel and Jack work together to uncover the secrets buried not just in unmarked graves, but in the very heart of Edinburgh society.
Well, this should have been my jam – apart from it being a YA novel: Gothic tale, a mystery, a romance. It wasn’t. But it sure has a great cover.
It’s the autumn of 1817, our teenage heroine, Hazel, is a smart red-head who lives in a castle. She’s read every medical book in her father’s library and knows how to distinguish the humerus from the femur, but doesn’t know that becoming a female physician – that is a woman who’s a medical professional – is not in her future. And no, before you think something along the lines of, but this girl will use her strong will to show the patriarchy what’s what, forget it. She’s the kind of girl who’s flabbergasted when she find out that her future husband will determine whether she might practice medicine, given that she first has to be allowed to study and pass the exam. Basically, we have a 21st century girl in a 19th century setting.
Jack is a dull character. He snatches bodies out of graves and sells them to anatomists. He has a crush on an actress. He snatches bodies out of graves… Oh, I said that already. Well, you get the picture.
The pacing of the novel is off. The blurb is a summary of the first 40% of the book. The mystery was a no show until about 75%. Then we get the story going, wrapped up, and a potential sequel hinted at in the remaining quarter.
While I was waiting for the (not really baffling) mystery, I realised a lot of inconsistencies with the time and place of the story: Word of mouth goes round about a teenager performing medical procedures alone in her house – but no authority cares. A pregnant woman in labour is walking for hours to get to Hazel instead of finding a midwife near her. A policeman treating Hazel like he has no care in the world about her socially higher standing. Anachronistic language and no distinction in speech between the different social classes. I could continue. There was so much more. Just thinking Edinburgh, late September, sunrise and sunset times, and my hackles rise again. Dear author, how much research did you really put into this book?
One more thing about the romance: Hazel and Jack hiding in the grave of a mutilated body and kissing and falling asleep with said body only feet away – so romantic.
1/5 Harpy Eagles
The second novel that brought me to Edinburgh was set at the other end of the century. It’s Craig Russell’s Hyde, a retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson story.
Edward Hyde has a strange gift-or a curse-he keeps secret from all but his physician. He experiences two realities, one real, the other a dreamworld state brought on by a neurological condition.
When murders in Victorian Edinburgh echo the ancient Celtic threefold death ritual, Captain Edward Hyde hunts for those responsible. In the process he becomes entangled in a web of Celticist occultism and dark scheming by powerful figures. The answers are there to be found, not just in the real world but in the sinister symbolism of Edward Hyde’s otherworld.
He must find the killer, or lose his mind.
A dark tale. One that inspires Hyde’s friend . . . Robert Louis Stevenson.
It is always a problem for me to write a long review about a book that I enjoyed.
Hyde is a dark-ish character. He’s not the monster Stevenson painted, but works for the Edinburgh police force. He’s been hiding his episodes since his childhood, recently they have become more severe. So severe, that Hyde fears he might be the brutal killer himself. Coming out of his “spells,” he finds himself close to the murder victims too often for it to be coincidence.
The occult dark part was a tiny bit predictable for me. I have read similar stories and knew who the puppet master pulling the strings was early on. This did not diminish my enjoyment of the story, though.
Russell played with the original duality of Stevenson’s story, but gave it a different twist. Setting, characters and plot development made sense. Add a few cameos and they made me overlook the few inconsistencies.
Without further ado, here are short reviews of books I’ve read this month.
How to Mars by David Ebenbach: A group of six scientists, three women, three men, won seats on a one way trip to Mars. They’ll be the heroes of a new reality TV show. And it is just as boring as it sounds. Even after two of them broke the cardinal rule of not having sex and managed to get pregnant. The book tried to be funny, but it wasn’t. The story was mainly about pregnancy and childbirth on Mars. 2/5 Harpy Eagles
Dustborn by Erin Bowman: Delta, the MC of this YA novel, will bring change. That’s clear from her name alone. An interesting mix of Mad Max Fury Road and Waterworld. Delta, needing to protect her pack/herd (why not tribe? are they animals?), has to go looking for the promised land; that land where there’s water and lots of plants and no one goes thirsty or hungry. Luckily she has a map on her skin. 1/5 Harpy Eagles
The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: They say third time is the charm. Not when it comes to certain things, though. This was my third book by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and I still don’t really gel with her writing style. I couldn’t connect to the female MC, she was too naive for me. And I still can’t believe she never tried her telekinesis when she was a child. Who wouldn’t do that? 2/5 Harpy Eagles
The Final Girl Support Club by Grady Hendrix: Another book that was not for me. Not because I don’t like slasher films, but because I just couldn’t connect to the MC. Furthermore, the book soon felt like a Thelma&Louise kind of road trip to me, and that’s definitely not my jam. 2/5 Harpy Eagles
The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox, publishing day 22 July 2021.
Joe Lazarus is on a stake-out. It’s raining. He’s hunkered down in a ditch, his expensive coat splattered with mud. Can it get any worse? Sure! He’s only minutes away from stumbling over his own corpse. Supernatural detective story where the dead DI has to find his own murderer? Sign me up!
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as that. The detective story is intertwined with a story-line about politics in purgatory, and both are overshadowed by a dark entity that waits for your dead soul, which is in purgatory already, to cross a certain line of interference just to drag you off into the deepest pits of hell.
The detective part of the story and the interactions between Lazarus and his ‘dead soul’s guide to the afterlife’ Daisy-May kept me turning the pages until I reached about 50% -although it was pretty bog-standard and obvious to me who-dunnit. Obviously the mystery behind Lazarus’s death is just part of a bigger picture. But, because the underworld/afterlife part of the world-building wasn’t fully realised, it bogged down the whole story and left me with many questions that weren’t answered.
You may have read about my struggle with Stephen King’s The Stand but today is the day I can finally finally finally announce that I did it. I finished it. It took me roughly seven months (and two weeks to eventually write this review, but that’s somehow very fitting).
The Stand is no doubt a masterpiece, albeit a very long one. But still, why did it take months for me to finish it? That was probably a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”. I had a hard time picking it up time and time again, probably because the page count is so daunting. Once I picked it up, I immersed myself easily. But after reading for quite a while, you still seem to barely make a dent in this huge doorstopper. Let us just say it was the wrong pick for this weird year, not because of the content, but probably because of the format.
Talking of content, I would maybe recommend reading it in 2022, or later. An apocalyptic horror novel about a virus gone wild is probably something that will sit better by then.
As always, nobody writes characters like Mr. King. This book has such a huge cast, and still he manages to make all of them memorable, interesting and fully fleshed out. Even with weeks passing between single reading sessions (cough cough), you step right back among them.
There is a certain ingenuity with which he lets the reader look at ordinary things and recognize the disaster that might lurk just beneath the surface. So, what happens if society has the chance to start over? If we can reshape the way humans are interacting in a social context, rebuild the way we are organized based on the knowledge and experiences we have right now? Well, in King’s opinion we get either a peaceful, benevolent community….or bloody mayhem. I think he has a point.
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton, publishing date 01 October 2020.
Here’s what I wrote after reading the sampler:
The excerpt of Turton’s book makes we want to read the full story. No, that’s not true. The foreword by Stuart Turton alone made me want to read this. Fortunately, I’ll only have to wait about 6 weeks until publishing day.
Bonus, one of the male characters shares a name, and some features even, of a family member of mine.
The Right honourable Harpy Eagle on NetGalley
I might have squealed, or done a little happy dance when I received an e-ARC of this book. Having enjoyed Turton’s debut novel The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I was really looking forward to his new book.
The book is set in the early 17th century. A ship loaded with spices and other valuable cargo is setting off from Batavia (Jakarta in Indonesia) on an eight month journey to Amsterdam. On board of the ship are several nobles, lots of musketeers and sailors, the best detective in the world and his assistant, and ‘Old Tom’, the devil.
Turton writes very vivid main and secondary characters. His descriptions of the life on ship and the ship itself are detailed but never boring. The story’s pace is good throughout and keeps you turning the pages, because you need to know who’s behind all this.
Why am I not giving this book 5 stars? I kept wondering throughout the book how some of the characters managed to obtain their information; character A finds out something, which two chapters later is used by character D, who shares it with character F. But there’s no mention of A talking to D at all.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix, published 7 April 2020.
It was hailed as “Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias meets Dracula,” a fitting description, I think. It’s a story about middle-class ladies from the US South, endlessly polite and tirelessly slaving away at home to make life easier for their husbands and children.
Did I say polite ladies? I did. Well, polite until you start messing with children, especially their children. Then the book club ladies forget all about their nice Southern manners and realise that their new neighbour is more than just very charming.
If you like your books bloody, with pop culture and some satire mixed with your horror, then read this book. Better yet, get the audiobook. It might take you a moment to get used to the Southern Drawl, but it adds to the atmosphere.