The first half of June was a big case of quality over quantity. I read very few books (for me) but I adored all of them. Sadly, the second half of June ended up being the opposite. My reading really picked up and I’m finally out of my slump, but I read a lot of bad books. I did read some that I really loved, but the overall rating was so low. And I even ended the month with four 2-star books in a row! I really am glad to put June behind me because it felt like the month I just couldn’t win.
Age of Myth, by Michael J. Sullivan*. Finished June 20th. I am always saying that I am not a fan of epic fantasy. Fantasy as a genre? Sure. But more traditional, sword-and-sorcery, men-and-elves type fantasy is not usually my jam. Though so far this year my reading might be changing my opinion on that: first the Farseer books and now this! Perhaps I don’t dislike epic fantasy as much as I think I do?
This is very much the first book in a series: a large chunk of it is spent setting up the world, the magic, the races, the history. Given that it’s the first of five that is to be expected. However, we don’t get a ton of large info-dumps that are immersion breaking. Information is doled out in casual conversation so it never feels like a textbook. And even though I feel like I understand the basics of the world there are still a lot of questions left unanswered and obviously so much more to learn in the coming books.
I think, for the first half or so, I was plodding along and enjoying the story kind of passively. I didn’t feel very invested in the plot or characters (even though I immediately appreciated Persephone, who is a 37-year-old woman whose storyline DOESN’T revolve around her being a wife or mother). But the last half of this book, especially the ending ~100 pages or so, had me so involved! There are a lot of small clues and things mentioned in passing that are integral to the ending. So many things come together neatly and cohesively in ways that I definitely wasn’t expecting. I never guessed any twists until they actually came to light, which was refreshing (I think when you read a lot it’s easy to guess twists/see patterns evolve but it definitely wasn’t an issue for me here).
While the world and magic system(s?) are interesting, it’s really the characters and their relationships that drew me in. I loved so many of them: sassy Malcolm (I’m such a sucker for smartasses), willful Persephone, strangely clever Suri, Minna (a wolf, enough said), and my favorites: Gifford and Roan, who I ship so hard. I have a real soft spot for disabled characters who are portrayed as fully fleshed out humans and aren’t fully defined by their disability, and I found Gifford to be so immediately endearing and sweet. My brother is disabled so it’s a real personal issue for me, and I’m always so thankful to see characters like Gifford.
While there are obviously a lot of things that I enjoyed about Age of Myth, I was especially impressed by how it set up an overarching plot that I assume will run through all 5 books while also giving us a solid 1-book arc that neatly wrapped up. There’s no cliffhanger, and while there are many unresolved threads I felt that the conclusion was very satisfying. The final conflict also managed to show us a lot about the characters without telling–we get to see Persephone being badass and strong rather than having other characters/the narrator simply state it as an aspect of her personality.
The mood of this book is really hard to pin down. You think at the beginning that it’s a happy, lighter fantasy: sure, bad things happen, but in kind of an abstract way. And then there’s a scene that had my stomach absolutely churning–there’s not a lot of description of what happens, but it was so unexpected and brutal that it really just took me by surprise and made me feel like no one was safe. Is this LOTR-style fantasy where everyone gets a happy ending? Are all my favorites going to die horrible deaths? I just don’t know what to expect from the next few books, which has me even more excited to read them.
The Devourers, by Indra Das*. Finished June 21st. Sometimes books get under your skin and make you shiver in ways you can’t explain. I cannot adequately describe what I loved about The Devourers. I can tell you that the language is lush, evocative, and brilliant. I can tell you that it is a beautiful and brutal story. It’s gory and mesmerizing. I can tell you about the amazing characters, the meaningful discussions of gender and society. The rich shifter mythology (this is not a book about werewolves: it’s about shapeshifters in general, and covers tons of different myths from Norse to Indian). I can mention how everything is important: even the names of our three “werewolves” are packed full of meaning.
But none of that scratches the surface of my feelings about The Devourers. I was absolutely hypnotized by this novel. Sure, all the individual elements are perfect, and combined together it’s great. But there is something else here. Something magic. In the story, shifters have the ability to mesmerize humans while telling a story and literally transport them into whatever world they are talking about. In a sense, the book achieves that (how meta!). I just… I felt like I was living every second. I felt hurt and scared and excited and brave as our characters did. I felt shocked and elated at revelations. I felt drawn into the web of mythology as it was slowly unraveled. For a short while, it was a life I lived.
This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I can’t recommend it enough if you like fantasy, mythology, weird fiction, werewolves/shifters, India, gender politics… basically if you like books maybe read this and be amazed.
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, by Paul Tremblay. Finished June 23rd. I’m having a lot of trouble rating this one. I absolutely loved A Head Full of Ghosts so of course I was over the moon to read Paul Tremblay’s next book. I actually dropped something I was in the middle of reading the day this came out. There are very few authors I will do that for but AHFoG just made that much of an impression on me (and I should probably up my rating of it to 5 stars).
This is… different. I think I was tricked (by my own head mostly) into thinking Disappearance at Devil’s Rock was going the same way as AHFoG. There’s a similar kind of mood: something strange has happened, and it might be supernatural or it might be just the horrors of real life. Tons of pop-culture references, both overt and sneaky. Creepy things going on with kids. The involvement of the media. A mystery.
But Devil’s Rock is a very different book. Sure, it lulls you into a false sense of security. I thought I knew where this was going, or at least where I wanted it to go. And I was really, really wrong. And to be honest, disappointed. I LOVED the first half: so spooky, so clever, so ambiguous. But by the time we got to the first of the reveals in Tommy’s notebook? I had a sneaking suspicion this was going to go in a direction I just… didn’t care about?
I’m not saying it’s bad: I think it has a great twisty plot and a lot of people will love it. It was just so much lighter on the horror than what I expected. It just didn’t give me the shivery feelings I was expecting (or the humor–AHFoG was pretty hilarious at parts). Also the damn notebook pages are SO hard to read on the Kindle version, like goddamn, that’s some tiny-ass writing. But I really don’t think this is a book that will stick with me: I read it, I enjoyed it, but it’s not memorable in any way. And given how I feel about Tremblay’s previous novel and short stories I was super disappointed. More New Weird less twisty mysteries, please!
The Butterfly Garden, by Dot Hutchison*. Finished June 23rd. This is one of the worst books I’ve ever read in my life. The premise seems right up my alley: the ominous Gardener kidnaps girls, tattoos butterfly wings on their backs, and keeps them locked up in his secret garden. Like The Collector on steroids, right? No. No to everything. I have no words for how much I hated this (but I did write a quiz so you can see just how unlike humans the characters all act).
Everyone in this book, including the Gardener and his family (and the cops) are so incredibly stupid. They lack the logic to realize super simple solutions to their problems. The girls in particular are so problematic: they act dumb, catty, vain, selfish… basically all the negative traits associated with women amped to eleven. And this book was written by a woman! Which in itself is a disturbing fact.
This book tries to shock with ~gore factor~ and ~disturbing content~ but it’s so laughably implausible and strange that none of it effected me (and I am particularly sensitive to girl-being-captured horror elements). And the “twists” make no sense, add nothing to the story, and just further convolute an already muddy plot. Plus, nothing happens! How can you make a horror novel so dull? Truly, a mystery for the ages.
Penpal, by Dathan Auerbach. Finished June 24th. So the other night I was up late reading /r/nosleep. It was time to go to bed & read but I wanted to stay up and read those damn addictive stories. This book, which originally appeared as a story series on nosleep, was my compromise.
I think this really works better as a set of posts than it does as a book. The atmosphere is just as spooky as what I remember when I originally read these, but the flaws just seem so much more obvious. For example, the main character acts WAY older than his stated age of 6 and it’s kind of distracting. I’d also managed to block out how disappointing the ending was. This has the potential for greatness but it really needs a lot of editing.
Lamb, by Bonnie Nadzam. Finished June 24th. I’ve read a lot of amazing literary fiction on this exact topic (Lolita, The End of Alice, Tampa). It’s a subject I’m fascinated and disgusted by, and I can’t help picking up anything with good reviews in the genre. And this is definitely a book that hurts to read: it’s far less explicit than any of the other ones I mentioned, but just as emotionally devastating. It focuses on a man who is grooming a child, and justifying it to himself in a million unsettling ways. Whether or not he actually abuses her at the end is left extremely open-ended, and it’s pretty much on the reader to decide (and is a good way to gauge if you’re an optimist or a pessimist). I still wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who is even slightly triggered by child molestation/abuse/sexualization: it’s a very disturbing book.
The writing here is amazing. Just the descriptions of the wilderness alone were enough to sell me on this, but all of David/Gary’s strange dreamlike monologues? There is a hallucinatory quality to the prose: it wraps you up and you feel trapped and horrified but unable to look away. Something as simple as buying an 11-year-old girl a coat becomes a moment of extreme terror for the reader. Is he going to hurt her? Why would he do this? Does he even know what he’s doing and why he’s doing it? Just questions running constantly through your head.
I really wanted this to be a 5-star read, and it was so close. But. But. The Linnie (his girlfriend) sub-plot. I really wish it had been totally dropped. It did lead to one scene that will be forever burned into my memory but I feel like there was an easier way to do that than the very extended scenes of her. I just didn’t care about their relationship. I get that it framed him as having adult relationships, and no previous attraction to children, but I was 100% over it by the second Linnie scene. It almost ruined the book for me, to be honest, since she comes back in so close to the conclusion and it’s very unrealistic the way it plays out. Still an amazing book, just a flawed one.
We Could Be Beautiful, by Swan Huntley* . Finished June 25th. This is the kind of book I almost feel guilty for liking and giving such a high rating. It’s just such a breezy and light read about a total unrepentant bitch. I think this is what a lot of “hot new thing” type books want to be: the main reason I dnf’d Before the Fall was that it was about annoying rich people. The main reason I liked this book was because it was about annoying rich people. The difference here is that Catherine West, our main girl, is a pseudo-villain that you adore to hate. I loved being in her vapid, bitchy head. I loved watching her fuck up. But by the end, I was almost rooting for her. She’s the anti-hero every psychological thriller with a “bad girl” wants to be.
However, this is not a psychological thriller. There’s certainly a mystery element, and there’s that “strange guy who may not be who he says he is” and ~family secrets~ but this is definitely not a thriller of any sort. If anything, it’s a character study of a truly flawed human. And while I usually don’t like these types of books (for example, I was neutral about Eileen even though it does something very similar) but I don’t know… I just devoured this.
I do think the charm and intensity tapers of a bit towards the end. Once the mystery element is unveiled it felt almost… anticlimactic? Like I wasn’t even reading to “find out what happened” so I basically found it distracting from the main plot I was interested in aka the character development of Catherine. But when I ended the book I still felt really satisfied. I actually held off on rating it because my initial reaction was “I so want to give this 4 stars. Does it deserve 4 stars? Is it really THAT much better than 3 star books I’ve read?” And I think for a lot of people, this doesn’t have the qualities of a “good” book. The writing is hilarious but not particularly beautiful. The characters are amazing but they’re all 100% hateable. The plot is minimal. Almost nothing happens. There’s name/brand dropping out the ass. But it was just SO fun, the definition of a guilty pleasure read.
Cam Girl, by Leah Raeder/Elliot Wake. Finished June 25th. I absolutely adore Leah Raeder/Elliot Wake’s books. He just does dark, destructive, passionate, twisted relationships like no one else. You can feel in your bones how toxic Ellis and Vada are together but you want them to be happy so bad. Add in a really decent mystery plotline and psychological thriller elements and you’ve got gold.
I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as Black Iris (which might be because I just identified with that book really strongly) but as expected I found myself so drawn into Wake’s amazingly evocative, twisty language. It’s just so raw and passionate. The scene-like descriptions of Vada’s paintings? Magic. Makes me want to read Unteachable immediately.
The Ballroom, by Anna Hope*. Finished June 26th. This book has two main storylines, and I only really cared about one of them. I found the love story of Ella and John to be downright boring. I’m just not a romance kind of girl: there are exceptions, of course, but generally it’s something I can do without. I prefer books sans-romance, though I do have a few literary couples I am SO attached to. It’s not that I hate romance, I just don’t like storylines that revolve around it. And the main story of The Ballroom is 100% a romance. Sure, it’s historical fiction in an insane asylum, but it’s two people falling in love. Meh. I also found some things confusing about their relationship.
All of the sub-plots, though… yeah, loved ‘em. There’s a third POV character, Charles, who is a doctor at the asylum and a proponent of eugenics. I found this book frighteningly enlightening (Churchill was pro-eugenics???) and I adored Charles’ chapters. His character was just intense and creepy but almost sympathetic. I felt bad for him but also wanted to punch him in the face by the end.
I also loved many of the side-characters, like Clem. I really enjoyed that (aside from Ella, our ~super special girl~) the people here actually have mental problems. So often authors fall into the trope of “none of these poor people are crazy!” which frames actual mental illness as being something negative and horrible. Which it’s not. Here, our love interest John suffered from severe depression. His best friend is a little manic. Ella’s best friend is a self-harmer with an eating disorder. Even Ella, who is the “not crazy one” has a few extreme outbursts. It was just nice to see mental illness so humanized (which, sadly, is rare in an asylum book).
I also appreciated how this wrapped up. The prologue made it seem like things would resolve quite neatly and I was annoyed it was included until I actually got to the end. Very satisfying but not in a ~storybook romance everything is perfect~ kind of way. So 2.5 stars for the main plot, 3.5 stars for everything else.
Valley of the Moon, by Melanie Gideon*. Finished June 27th. I enjoyed the first half of this and hated the second half. Literally had to force myself to finish it. So what went wrong?
At the beginning, this is an interesting tale of time-travel with a kind of unique twist. A group of farmers in California from 1906 get stuck out of time. A fog descends on their village, and they are unable to get through it, cutting them off from everything. In 1975, a woman discovers that she alone can travel through the fog on the full moon (well, some full moons–the nature of the fog is pretty all over the place in regards to its “rules”). It’s one of those books that uses science fiction elements to discuss a modern issue: feeling like you don’t belong in your own time, wistfulness for the past, nostalgia. I think these types of books can be very successful if they’re sufficiently literary (Never Let Me Go, The Time Traveler’s Wife) and Valley of the Moon starts out seeming like it’ll be one of those types (if not nearly as well-written).
Lux, our protagonist, hates her life. She feels unmoored and like she’s ruined her future. So Greengage, the farmer’s valley, is like paradise to her. She feels accepted there, and like she has a place. But she has a son in the present, so she can’t up and leave her life behind. She struggles the entire book with feeling pulled between two very different worlds: one she loves and belongs to, and the “real” world.
I really liked a lot of how the plot played out…. until right about the halfway mark. There’s a big event (that I thought was actually a cool choice), but it led to this book being turned into a romance. First off, the author fridges a really great female character just so two others can get together which had me fuming. Did this book need romance? Absolutely not. It had an interesting concept and a clever discussion about society, gender, and acceptance going on. Suddenly it heads into sappy, trite, chick-lit territory. Why???
After that, it’s basically a ripoff of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Similar issues are presented, but it’s very been-there-done-that. There’s none of the emotional tug I want from a story like this. I was just frustrated and annoyed. Every new event/twist made me angrier. I was so disappointed to go from really enjoying a book to hating it. Part of me was like, “where’s the end of the book I started? This is a different book. This is all wrong.”
Brother, by Ania Ahlborn. Finished June 28th. I have such a rocky relationship with Ania Ahlborn. She wrote one of my all-time favorite horror novels (The Bird Eater) and another that I really enjoyed (Seed) along with a just-okay “fun but no substance” book (The Neighbors). Then there were two I wasn’t crazy about (Within These Walls, The Shuddering). Which, let’s be honest, is kind of putting it lightly–The Shuddering was hilariously stupid and Within These Walls delivered on none of its promises. And then her last novella, The Pretty Ones, I hated. One of the worst pieces of horror I’ve ever read. So I honestly get kind of nervous whenever I pick up a new book by her–were The Bird Eater/Seed just flukes? Survey says… quite possibly, because I did NOT like this. At all.
You know what I don’t want in my horror? Insta-love and romance. You know what I do want in horror about a crazy backwoods family? Gore and disturbing content. Guess which one I got and which one I didn’t. Yeah, there is a luuuuv story here (though admittedly a kind of twisted one). Our main protagonist, Michael, is a whiny little emo teen who talks about how HARD HIS LIFE IS and oh woe is him when he literally helps kill people?? Like Michael, there are bigger issues at hand than whether or not the girl at the record store likes you. Like your psychotic murderous family and your sister who is trying to bone you. But nope, his ~so hard life~ is what the majority of this book is about. That and all of his ~feels~.
This book promises shocking horror and gore and all that good stuff, but if you’re well-versed in the genre it’s super tame. Not scary, not disturbing. I think Momma had the potential to be a terrifying character but we see SO little of her. And not in a “the less you see of the monster the better” kind of way. We never find out what she does to the girls really, or get a satisfying explanation for why. Or, you know, how/why the dad is involved. I think there are some moments of really strong horror (like the bunny scene, shivers) but they’re so buried that they lose their effectiveness. There is no tension, no building horror. The final “reveal” is really obvious at 48% of the way in so there’s not even a shock factor for that. I think this miiiight work better as a movie, but fell crazy flat for me as a book.
The Natural Way of Things, by Charlotte Wood. Finished June 29th. This is a book I wanted to love. It sounds like something right up my alley: a group of women are kidnapped and put in a forced labor camp. It turns out that all of them were involved in very public sex scandals and somehow are being punished for this. I mean, it sounds like a premise that would really delve into feminist ideas about womanhood and slut-shaming and consent (because several of the girls had ‘sex’ scandals about being raped/molested), about how femaleness is pinned as the source of so many wrongs in society. Also, you know, creepy prison shit in a really cool environment (the Outback).
But… it was none of these things. In fact, I think this book is ridiculously sexist. Like offensively sexist. The women here are paper-thin tropes. There is NO connection between any of them, and they turn on each other on a dime. They are judgmental and vain and whine about expensive boots while being forced to work themselves to death. They even slut-shame each other and our two POV girls both think they are both “special” and “different” aka not deserving of the treatment that these other woman obviously deserve for their “actions.” Like… what? Sure, women are not some monolith ~rah rah women power~ super sweet lovely nurturing construct. But surely, out of TEN WOMEN, you’d have one who acted like a decent human. Instead it’s like some right-wing dude’s idea of how women would act together. But the author is female! And this book is supposed to be feminist! How did this happen? I’m so confused.
The plot is all over the place. We never find out why they’re in the camp, who had the money to execute this plan, or even how it happened. The entire book is just “oh here we are in this camp” and then 300 pages of them working and whining and bitching at each other and slowly going crazy. Okay, the going crazy part was interesting, but there is NO PLOT. No character development (aside from some very forced stuff at the end). No action. Basically two big things happen in the entire book. It was so dreadfully dull. If you’re going to do a plot-less book (a style I usually enjoy) you need either strong characters or a strong theme/idea to discuss. This book has, like, none of the things you want in a book.
Except for the language. I think this was beautifully written, especially the descriptions of the environment and the animals. That’s what is saving this from a one-star read. I was just really, really frustrated with every aspect of it other than the writing. Bad characters, no plot, zero discussion of any of the myriad of issues this type of situation would bring up. Bleh. But the cover sure is nice!
A Man Came Out of A Door in The Mountain, by Adrianne Harun. Finished June 30th. I was so desperate to like this book. I’d just read a ton of stinkers, and this had been floating around on my tbr for quite some time. Spooky woods, devil in a small town, missing girls. Sounds great! But the book gods have been oh so cruel to me this month and another “I can’t wait to read it!” book ended up being a total flop.
I feel like the book I read was totally different than the description. Yes, there is a small town in Canada with a half-white/half-native population that are constantly at odds. Yes, it touches on the very real problem of missing native girls. Yes, there’s a devil character. Yes, it’s pretty much Canadian grit-lit. Buuuuut it reads like YA for many of the chapters. At the core of the story is a group of 5 friends who are teenagers. So an inordinately large part of the book focuses on their very teen problems. Several chapters are dedicated to Leo’s problems with his physics homework. It just felt jarring. Also, one of them kind of vanishes 10% of the way in and, like, two people are all “hey where’s character x” but that’s it???
It’s a inconsistent, messy book. Very uncohesive. There are SO many plots in a very slim novel, but none of them (besides “oh god I have to do my physics homework!”) gets enough focus. The story jumps all over the place and I kept having to re-orient myself. It was very muddy going, and I often found myself feeling kind of lost (which is not something that happens to me when reading!). Characters acted bizarrely, there was no consistent characterization, new plot points bloomed out of nowhere 50% of the way into a chapter, old ones were dumped unceremoniously… it was just bad.
I did really enjoy two characters (Hana Swann and Keven Seven) but we barely see any of them. The one saving grace was those two and the little vignettes between chapters: there are bits of folklore and myth scattered through that read very evocatively. I wish the whole book was like that.
Reading Challenge Goals
18/35 Series Books
51/50 TBR Books
20/15 Different Countries
[books marked with a * were provided by netgalley in exchange for an honest review, all opinions are my own]