Adult Fiction Reviews from 2020

12.29.2020

Blood Heir (Aurelia Ryder #1)
by Ilona Andrews

out January 12, 2021
ISBN: 9781641971584
★★★★★

It is unthinkable that a fan of the Kate Daniel series by the same author would even consider passing this one up.

Eight years have passed since the events of Magic Triumphs, when Julie left Atlanta and headed out west with Erra -- both of whom, presumably, wanted some distance from the rest of the family.

Julie has been practicing and absorbing powerful magic under Erra's tutelage, magic so powerful that it has remade her face, body, and voice, rendering her unrecognizable. Upon receiving a disturbing prophecy that Kate is in danger, she must return to Atlanta to protect her. However, the prophecy also states that if Kate sees Julie, she is in even more danger.

Armed with her newfound powers and a new, beautiful, and anonymous face, Julie returns to Atlanta under the name of Aurelia Ryder. There is an interesting dynamic here where Julie encounters people she knows, but without being recognized. (She is basically secret-shopping Atlanta.) While it would be a lot easier to just announce "HEY IT'S ME JULIE HELP ME OUT!." she has to re-earn the trust and respect of people who actually already trust and respect her, all on a time crunch, while her adoptive mother is in danger.

Plus, DEREK IS IN TOWN, TOO!

Fans of the series will be happy to return to post-shift Atlanta and revisit these well-known characters in a new series. (I say series with a heart full of hope that this sells well and we get like nine more of them.)

arc received from the author for review

[Link to this review]

11.19.2020

The Ballad of Black Tom
by Victor LaValle
published in February 2016
ISBN: 9780765387868
★★★★★

I somehow missed this book when it came out in 2016 and recently saw it come up as a suggestion on Goodreads. It's a short read, coming in at just 149 pages, and packs a lot of story into a slim paperback.

Tommy is a hustler in Jazz Age Harlem, doing what needs to be done to help provide for himself and his ill father in a world that is at times hostile to their very existence as Black men. That includes doing some odd jobs like finding a forbidden tome for a mysterious old crone, or playing music for an eccentric old white man who seems to have one foot in our world and one in another. Tommy isn't a wizard or anything like that, but he has a wary appreciation for the existence of the unexplainable.

When a routine job goes bad, Tommy finds himself pursued by abusive cops and dark magic and must decide just how far he will go down the rabbit hole of forbidden knowledge.

LaValle does a masterful job of creating atmospheric tension and creepiness that is almost Spartan in its brevity, cuts like a sharp knife, and will make you look around the room uneasily if you're alone.

This is a riff on Lovecraftian themes and is loosely based on The Horror at Red Hook. (You can read it here if you're interested, but it's not that great and it's not necessary for appreciating LaValle's story. In fact, you really need no prior Lovecraft exposure to appreciate The Ballad of Black Tom.)

I'm keeping this recommendation in my back pocket for patrons who are looking for a quick horror read.

[Link to this review]

11.17.2020

The Dark Archive (Invisible Library #7)
by Genevieve Cogman

out December 1, 2020
ISBN: 9781984804785
★★★★★

This book is dedicated to librarians and I FEEL IT. <3

***

Irene continues to be my literary role model with her quick thinking, intense bravery, and stoic wit. She is remarkably unruffleable for someone who is frequently an assassination target.

The book begins with violent shenanigans that erupt while Irene and Vale are out on a shouldn't-be-especially-dangerous adventure. In her escape, Irene discovers an unexpected and magical door, which opens to reveal someone dangerous who should already be dead.

Much more violent shenanigans ensue. Spectacular escapes. Verbal sparring and fisticuffs. If Vale is fulfilling a Sherlock archetype, his Moriarty is emerging.

And of course, Irene, Kai, and Vale now have Lord Silver's niece Catherine tagging along as an apprentice. New characters into established series can be a gamble, but I'm looking forward to Catherine's contributions.

Overall, this adventure was another engrossing read with new and old characters and villains, and a big reveal at the end that helps propel the plot forward.

If you're not reading this series, you're missing out.

arc received from the publisher to review

[Link to this review]

11.17.2020

The Haunting of Beatrix Greene
by Rachel Hawkins, Ash Parsons, and Vicky Alvear Shecter

a story from Realm.fm
ISBN: 9781682108130
★★★★★

A delightfully spooky and short gothic haunted house adventure.

Beatrix Greene is a fake medium who uses her perception and acting talents to develop an impressive reputation as a leading spiritualist in London by convincing people she is communicating with their deceased loved ones. Dr. James Walker, a wealthy skeptic and researcher, hires her to accompany him and a few others to a reportedly haunted house to definitively determine if it is indeed haunted.

Upon arriving, Beatrix sets up her usual farcical séance and prepares to put on a show. However, something does, in fact, answer her, and it is angry and violent and will not let them leave until it is finished.

The plot moves along at a good clip and it is engrossing. Speaking of gross, there is one particularly gross and gruesome scene that will make horror fans darkly chuckle and turn up their nose. My only complaint is the instant romance that occurs, which felt rather unlikely and out of place. (To illustrate, when my husband and I were newlyweds we lived in a tiny and disgusting apartment with mice, and knowing there mice in the room with you at night is a bit of a mood-killer... so I imagine having a ghost/demon in the house would similarly douse the romance.)

Overall, I enjoyed it and would read a sequel.

This is being realized by Realm.fm (formerly SerialBox) as a weekly serial, but I read it all at once. I believe it would be easy to read weekly, however, because the chapters are clearly delineated and the plot is not overly complicated.

It's a real bummer that it's not available in print or outside of Realm, but I guess if that's how the authors want to get paid, that's their deal.

arc received from the publisher to review

[Link to this review]

10.28.2020

She Would Be King
by Wayétu Moore

released September 2018
ISBN: 9781555978174
★★★★★

For the last couple of years I've been trying to read more books that feature people and places abroad, and I picked this book out blindly to represent Liberia.

I am glad I stumbled upon it because is one of the best books I've ever read.

The prose is lovely and artistic but still makes for a smooth read, and is full of the kind of deep insights into our shared humanity that makes you feel a little more human having read them.

If you're going to read this book, allow yourself time to get into it. Don't try and speedread skim over it like it's a quick paperback you picked up at the airport. Let yourself really fall into the stories of Gbessa, June Dey, Norman, and the mysteriously omnipresent narrator, and savor them. You'll be glad you did.

[Link to this review]

09.15.2020

Battle Ground (Dresden Files #17)
by Jim Butcher

released September 29, 2020
ISBN: 9780593199305
★★★★

If the Harry Dresden books were a video game, Battle Ground is when Harry gets to the big boss fight. *THE* fight.

The vast majority of the book takes place within a couple of hours, tops, and is really one huge fight scene. Sure, it's exciting. But if you're a speed reader who gets bogged down by details, this will take a while to read. Every punch. Every spell. Every tumble. I got a little tired of reading after a while, which is not how I usually feel with Harry Dresden.

There are a few unexpected treats, though. Some characters really get their time to shine, and during the worst of circumstances, you really see what people are made of -- the good and the ugly.

Any book called "Battle Ground" is going to have at least one or two people die who you wish would have survived, so don't be surprised.

So, while this is my least favorite Dresden book, I still enjoyed it. I still want to talk about it with people. And that's the mark of a really great series -- even when I don't love it, I still like it.

It may feel a little bit like the end of the series, at times, but there are plenty of loose ends pointing the way to at least a few more books.

arc received from the publisher for review

[Link to this review]

09.03.2020

Sea of the Dead (Magicians of Venice #2)
by Amy Kuivalainen

released September 17, 2020
ISBN: 9781643971339
★★★★★

Another delightful story from Amy Kuivalainen. For the life of me, I don't understand why this series isn't trending like wildfire among the urban fantasy / paranormal romance / historical fiction crowd.

Penelope is settling into her new life as the Archivist for the magicians of Venice, learning about her new abilities and getting to know the collection that she stewards (and her new handsome beau, Alexis). Unexpectedly, she receives a strange piece of mail from Tim, a close friend and fellow archaeologist, that suggests that not only has he stumbled into a strange magical artifact, but that he is now being chased by the same evil cultists that have been troubling the magicians.

Penelope and her new family must find Tim before his pursuers, solve the mystery behind his great find, and reckon with a new and disturbing prophecy that ties them all together.

An exciting read, and I eagerly await book three.

arc received from the publisher for review

[Link to this review]

08.11.2020

Emerald Blaze (Hidden Legacy #5, Catalina #2)
by Ilona Andrews
released August 25, 2020
ISBN: 9780062878366
★★★★★

When an author you like starts a new series, it can be a weird shift. Emerald Blaze is the second book in a new series that is based off of another new-ish series. It can feel like a jump.

But it's so, so worth it.

Catalina, the protagonist (and little sister of Nevada, the main character in the Hidden Legacy trilogy) is crazy tough, incredibly brave, and solid as a rock. She's the head of a family of magic-using private investigators who finds themselves in the crosshairs due to the nature of their work. She is unflappable in her handling of the case and in protecting her family, even as her boss hires her handsome and dangerous sort-of-ex to assist her.

This is equal parts urban fantasy adventure and romance. I say that because you could take out the adventure and it would stand alone as a good romance, and you could take out the romance and it would stand alone as a good adventure story. So, if you're here for the adventure, but not the romance (or vice-versa), just hang around. You'll like it. You'll be cheering for Catalina as she whomps the bad guys, and rooting that true love will work out in the end.

arc received from the publisher for review

[Link to this review]

08.04.2020

Ink & Sigil
by Kevin Hearne
released August 25, 2020
ISBN: 9781984821256
★★★★★

Recommended for: Fans of urban fantasy, fans of fiction with older protagonists, fans of crude Scottish insults, fans of adventure comedy

Ink and Sigil takes place in the same universe as Mr. Hearne's Iron Druid series, but the Iron Druid series is not a prerequisite to enjoying this; and, while the finale of the Iron Druid series is alluded to, it won't spoil that series if you choose to dive into it next.

By day, Al runs a printing business in Glasgow. When he's not on the clock, he is a sigil agent for Brighid, first of the Fae, writing and enforcing magical contracts that hold gods and fae in check on the mortal planes. He works with a crew of delightful oddities and kicks a surprising amount of behind for a sixty-something year-old man with a fancy mustache.

When Al stumbles onto a fae-trafficking ring right in his backyard, he is compelled to find those responsible and punish them for their crimes. He enlists the help of other sigil agent around the globe, a rude little pink hobgoblin man, and an accountant who is uncharacteristically vicious.

Quick paced, hilarious, and heartwarming. You'll be stalking Kevin Hearne's website for news on book two.

arc received from the publisher for review

[Link to this review]

07.07.2020

Peace Talks (Dresden Files #16)
by Jim Butcher
released July 14, 2020
ISBN: 9780451464415
★★★

This book was not as joyously exciting as any of the other books, but it's not a dealbreaker for me.

There were a few times in the plot where the story seemed to hop a bit -- maybe the formatting was wonky on my ARC? Like one second they're here, then they're there, then this person is with them, then this person is gone -- I got pretty turned around.

THE GOOD: It felt good to see Harry and the crew again, and we begin to get a little bit of an explanation for why Harry is such a magical heavyweight. Plus, we learn a bit more about some characters we've known a while.

THE LESS GOOD: Nothing in this book gets resolved. You can tell that this story went long, and rather than put out an enormous book, it got cut in two. It's a good thing the next one comes out in the fall, because if I had to wait another year or few to get some resolution, I would be an unhappy camper. A main character is left in a bad way cliffhanger.

THE VERDICT: For Dresden fans, it's a must-read. How could you not? It's not as great as the others, but we're in this for the long haul, right?

For folks who haven't read Dresden, what are you even doing with your life? Go get Storm Front already and start catching up.

arc received from the publisher for review

[Link to this review]

06.23.2020

Mexican Gothic
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
released June 30, 2020
ISBN: 9780525620785
★★★★★

First off... everything Silvia Moreno-Garcia writes is pure gold, and any year that she writes a book, it will automatically be my favorite book of the year. If she writes two, it will be a tie. That's just how it is.

***

Socialite Noemi receives a letter from her newlywed cousin Catalina that is so bizarre and disturbing that she immediately travels to see her. She arrives at the damp, rotting mansion where Catalina lives with her husband and his family, whose fortune has declined but whose self-image of upper-class grandeur has yet to keep up.

Noemi blithely bats aside their strange behavior and rules (no loud noises, no hot baths, no smoking, no coffee, etc.) and their well-mannered hostility so she can see to the well-being of Catalina, who is feverishly warning of ghosts and voices in the walls. Her resolve wanes, however, when she begins having nightmares, too.

If you are a fan of Ms. Moreno-Garcia's work, you know she occasionally dips into the supernatural, but not always. So when I was reading this, I was unsure what we would find -- vampires? ghosts? or simply evil people?

It's delightfully creepy and unsettling, with a unique ending.

It reminded me of Stephen King's The Shining. (Not to say this work is in anyway derivative -- only that it invoked the same sense of dread around every corner.)

Pure gold, I tell you.

arc received from the publisher for review

[Link to this review]

05.25.2020

Those Who Hunger
by Owen Banner
released June 13, 2020
On Kindle
★★★★★

Overall, an engaging and fresh take on vampire fiction recommended for fans of monster horror.

With a book like this that doesn't rely on familiar tropes, it is difficult to describe the plot in a way that doesn't detract from the experience of discovering things via reading. In sum: vampirism, in this case, is a recessive disease in which the vampire has a "hunger" for blood and violence and is stronger, faster, and more long-lived than a typical person. And they are still persons -- husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters -- who must struggle against this nature to live a good life. To control their baser instincts, they cloister away in different insular people groups -- including the Amish.

The protagonist, Haddie, is a respectable young Amish woman in her late teens who lives in one such community, where a small handful of citizens harbor dark urges they keep at bay through a regimented lifestyle of hard work, religious rites, and avoiding temptation. When a young adult is baptized into the community, they learn about this reality and which of their neighbors struggle with this other nature, but their neighbors treat them the same as everyone else. However, when a series of brutal vampire-style murders begins, that peace frays.

What I know about the Amish could fit on a single fortune cookie paper, so I can't attest to whether or not the author fairly portrays what an Amish community would look like when faced with a series of gruesome vampire attacks, or how an Amish community would behave when it knows that many of its upright citizens struggle with an urge to kill and chase their dinner with a shot of deer blood. But I did identify well with Haddie, the main character, and her parents and siblings, and especially found the dynamic between her parents interesting.

The mystery was intriguing, and I found myself wanting to know more about the world that was built inside this story, and wanting to know more about the side characters. I read it in a single day in two sittings.

There were a few issues I had with the plot, but I'm not sure they could have been tied up without making the book even longer. (It's already pretty long -- I'm a speed reader and it took me about six hours.) For one, a few fascinating characters are introduced, then sort of disappear after a while. Also, the resolution to the murders sort of pops up suddenly and is quickly sorted out.

However, the lore of this world is well explained, and the characters are well-rounded and developed, especially for a novel with so many of them.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this, and would happily read another.

arc received from the publisher for review

[Link to this review]

04.15.2020

Titan's Day (Carter Archives #2)
by Dan Stout
released April 7, 2020
ISBN: 9781646114337
★★★★★

Political intrigue! Sci-fi-ish-fantasy-ish-noir-ish! Insect people, fish people, people people! Sorcerers!

For a story that takes place in an alternate world, the setting sure feels like somewhere I've been before and somewhere I could easily go back to in future stories.

The portrayal of political clout and/or corruption almost makes you think Dan Stout could be the pen name of a Chicago alderman.

The events of book 1 have changed the power dynamics within the city and make cops Carter and Jax local celebrities, complicating their detective work. What appears to be a low-profile case of a dead prostitute in an alley spirals into something much more sinister involving organized crime and corrupt politicians. And to make things worse, Carter is feeling strange phantom pains and sensations (that may or may not be the side effects of exposure to magicky stuff in book 1) and drawing a bit too much attention from a new, enigmatic doctor at the police station.

An action-packed, fun, and violent ride.

I'll keep preordering these, for sure.

arc received from the publisher for review

[Link to this review]

04.14.2020

If I Had Your Face
by Frances Cha
released April 7, 2020
ISBN: 978-0593129463
★★★★★

This novel is an immersive dive into the fierce anxieties and hopes of young women in an unforgiving world where beauty is currency and success depends on your facial symmetry and who you know.

The novel takes place in South Korea, mostly in trendy neighborhoods of Seoul, but also into the small backwoods town where a few of the girls grew up. At issue is a suffocating patriarchy that simultaneously punishes women for becoming mothers, but also bemoans the dropping birthrate.

Kyuri (my favorite of the girls) has a coveted and high profile job working in a room salon, offering party companionship to wealthy men in the evenings. It was unclear to me if all the women in room salons were prostitutes or not; Kyuri certainly is. Extraordinarily beautiful due to the multiple plastic surgeries that have put her in significant debt, she is living the good life, but is very aware that she has a shelf life.

Ara, her neighbor, is mute as a result of a brutal attack suffered when she was young. Being not as pretty as the other girls, she finds work as a hair dresser. Her thoughts are consumed with Taein, a k-pop star.

Miho, Kyuri's roommate, is a naturally beautiful artist whose thoughts are generally somewhere else. Although she began life as a penniless orphan, her artistic talents have found her swept into the world of the wealthiest Korean young people, such as her extravagantly wealthy boyfriend, whose devotion puzzles the other girls.

Wonna, a chronically unhappy married woman who also lives in the building, is an interesting study in contrasts. Pregnant and consumed with anxiety, she longs for belonging and love, but a childhood of abuse has taught her only to lash out.

I felt a sisterly kinship to these young women as they struggled in their relationships and careers, cheering with them in their successes and experiencing their righteous indignation when wronged. It tells a tale of sisterhood that transcends culture and will resonate with women the world over, and is recommended for anyone looking for a good, dark study of humanity.

arc received from the publisher for review

[Link to this review]

02.11.2020

Untamed Shore
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
released February 11, 2020
ISBN: 9781951709280
★★★★★

Even though I always pre-order Ms. Moreno-Garcia's new releases, I still eagerly grab up the ARCs so I can get to them a little earlier.

***

The setting of this story is a character of its own. The oppressive heat of Baja California, the stench of shark carcass on the beach, the too-modern design of the huge house where much of the action takes place. Yet the story is timeless, classic; the drama that unfolds during these weeks of Viridiana's life could have happened here or there, in 1820, 1920, or 2020. These kinds of villains have existed everywhere in every time.

Viridiana is not naive, necessarily -- she is eighteen and inexperienced, and wise enough to know it. After taking a routine translator job in her small town working for some wealthy and mysterious Americans, she finds herself drawn deeper into a plot of deception. As her world becomes darker and more violent, will she become the predator or the prey?

Much like the author's other works, the ending has stuck with me. I'm looking forward to someone else reading this so we can discuss what we think happened.

arc received from the publisher for review

[Link to this review]

01.21.2020

Highfire
by Eoin Colfer
released January 28, 2020
ISBN: 9780062938558
★★★★★

Surprisingly and explosively hilarious.

On the surface, a Cajun dragon buddy comedy didn't seem like my cup of tea, but I read this book out of a sense of librarian curiosity. IT IS A RIOT, and apparently "dragon buddy comedy" is something I'm really into. I'm absolutely preordering the audio of this and forcing my husband to enjoy it, too.

Vern (short for wyvern) has long accepted that he's the last living dragon, and has settled into a quiet and sedentary life of retirement in a little shack in the bayou. He has one friend, an enigmatic fellow named Waxman, and is content with cable TV and imported liquor.

Squib is a goodhearted boy with the requisite amount of teenaged naughtiness who, in the same night, not only witnesses an organized crime murder, but unwittingly sees Vern, too. Growing softer in his old age, Vern finds himself disinclined to incinerate Squib, who has enough trouble with a crooked constable who is entirely too interested in Squib's beautiful mama. What unfolds is a funny (and at times heartwarming) tale of adventure, friendship, and coming out of your shell.

Despite its length, it reads quickly and is difficult to put down. Highly recommended for fans of comedy.

arc received from the publisher for review

[Link to this review]

01.07.2020

Followers
by Megan Angelo
released January 14, 2020
ISBN: 9781525836268
★★★★★

It is hard to pin this book down with a review. Based on the pink and cursive cover and a brief skim of the synopsis, I was expecting a lighthearted satire on Kardashian culture. What I got was a thrilling, occasionally satirical, critique of what we value as a society. (Or, more specifically, what we think OTHERS THINK we should value in society.)

The main characters are awful people, but the brief glimpses of vulnerability and honesty that the reader sees allows us to forgive them, just a bit. Even an unrepentant narcissist does something brave and selfless eventually. The timeline bounces back and forth before and after "the Spill," a psychological terrorist attack using mined online data, and American society is wildly changed as a result. But one thing is still the same -- family is complicated.

Highly recommended.

arc received from the publisher for review

[Link to this review]