Knight in Paper Armor

Rating: 4 out of 5.

***Thank you to the author, Nicholas Conley, for providing me a copy of his novel in exchange for an honest review.***

Holy reading slump, Batman! March was a rough month for me. I’m finishing up a graduate certificate program, trying to learn some more marketable skills to change careers, and ultimately getting rejection after rejection from companies I have applied to. I’ve been busy, yes, but when I do have time to sit down and read, I don’t really want to because I do so much reading all day at work, which has made me even more sad. I can always tell when my depression is spiking because I tend to not read at all. But! That certainly wasn’t this book’s fault. In fact, I would say that this book started to pull me out of my reading slump because I was very motivated to keep turning the page once I got into it.


This book takes place in a dystopian future of the 2030’s in which the U.S. has split into 179 different states. Propaganda and conspiracy theories have made for a very unstable political climate, and one company, Thorne Century Inc., runs many aspects of the country, making everything from cars to pharmaceuticals. Billy Jakobek and his family have struggled with his strange psychic powers and visions since he was a baby. Billy can sense others’ feelings by being near them, and when he touches other people, even stranger things happen. When a representative from Thorne Century Inc. knocks on his family’s door one day, Billy’s life takes a drastic turn. After being taken into custody, Billy is moved to the industrial city of Heaven’s Hole so that he can experience a “normal” teenage life while still being under the company’s thumb. While Billy begins to make friends, and even experiences a budding romance, he also finds out that the company’s plans for him and his powers extend far beyond what he or anyone else could imagine.

Billy Jakobek is Jewish, and since the author is also Jewish, this can be considered an “own voices” novel. And I have to say, I am so glad to see a novel, especially a speculative novel, from a Jewish author with a Jewish main character. I’ve only read one other novel from an author with a Jewish family history that wasn’t a historical fiction dealing with the Holocaust (which was The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin). I’m definitely not knocking Holocaust novels, but it is just so nice to see something different being published. That isn’t to say that the Holocaust isn’t mentioned in Knight in Paper Armor, because it is still a major part of Billy’s family history, but there are so many other issues and dimensions to both the story’s plot and Billy’s characterization. The novel as a whole approaches a plethora of tough topics and current events, like the rise of Nazism in the U.S., immigration and discrimination against immigrants, predatory capitalism, workers’ rights, media manipulation, and it even mentions effects of climate change, to name a few. Despite the characters being older teens, there are a lot of other tough topics and possibly triggering scenes. There’s violence, anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, death and serious injury, abuse/explorations of immigrant workers and children, planned terrorism, and probably other things I’m forgetting!


First up, the characters. I liked our two main characters, Billy and Natalia, quite a bit. Billy struggled a lot with his inner emotions and guilt, but it was easy to tell that he had a very good heart. Natalia Gonzales was a very headstrong Latina, and although I didn’t always agree with her actions, I thought that they fit her impulsive and passionate nature. I also thought that both Billy and Natalia’s cultures were well incorporated into the novel. The author mentions in the acknowledgements that he had cultural sensitivity beta readers critique his representation of Natalia and her family, so that has probably helped the novel be more faithful in how Natalia’s undocumented family issues and Mexican roots are presented. At times the teenaged dialogue felt a little off, but it’s often hard to get that right as an adult writer.

There were also several very diverse side characters, which made sense because Heaven’s Hole was said to be a town with many immigrants who worked at the factory. The villain was very evil, and though there was a backstory about this character, I think why they were so very evil could have been fleshed out a bit more. My favorite side characters were Billy and Natalia’s grandmothers, because I love some strong-willed, outspoken grannies! One aspect of the main characters that I didn’t like was how quickly Billy and Natalia’s romance happened. On one hand, it makes sense that Billy felt an attraction so quickly because of his psychic powers, but Natalia seemed more attracted to Billy than he was to her at the start. Something happens shortly after they meet that brings them very close together, but I just prefer more of a slow burn. One thing I will say is that the author had no mercy for his characters. No one had plot armor, and no one came out completely unscathed, which was actually quite refreshing, if heartbreaking, to see.


Regarding the plot, I enjoyed it overall. The story surprised me a few times too. The experimentation and kids with powers reminded me a bit of Stephen King’s The Institute or even Firestarter as well as a bit of Stranger Things the TV show, which was what made me want to review this novel in the first place. There was definitely a similar vibe, but I don’t think I’d classify the story as horror– dark sci-fi might fit. Parts of the narrative take place in an “other world” that has some very surreal imagery. Some of it appears to be inspired by the dybbuk of Jewish folklore as well as imagery based on Nazi concentration camps. I wish that Billy’s powers and some of the surreal scenes were described in more detail. I had a little trouble picturing some scenes, but I also just really enjoy lengthy, flowery descriptions. (I know that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.) I also think that there is some suspension of realism needed for how Billy’s powers were going to be used since that wasn’t explained in detail, but hey, it is a speculative novel. It just depends on how much of a realistic explanation you need for this kind of thing.

My main issue with the plot was the pacing. There was a lot of action, and sometimes it felt like the characters didn’t have enough time to process the losses or emotional strain that they experienced. They had to bounce back fairly quickly because there was always something else going wrong that they had to respond to. This is addressed to some extent because the chapters are written in limited third-person perspective, with individual chapters from the view of one character, but there could have been more exploration of the characters in regard to what they experienced because, as I said, there’s a lot of stuff that just goes horribly for everyone. I quite liked the book’s ending though. There is a good payoff at the end and some light at the end of the dark tunnel the characters went through.


I would give Knight in Paper Armor 3.75 stars if I’m being very specific. However, I’m rounding up to 4 on many platforms because I think that the book does a lot of things right. I definitely think it deserves more attention than it has been getting, and I look forward to seeing what else this author comes up with in the future because this was certainly a unique reading experience from a cultural perspective you don’t see much of in sci-fi/fantasy.

Series Review: The Daevabad Trilogy

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I reviewed the first book in this series, The City of Brass, in 2019. I was pleasantly surprised by the mix of fantasy, mythology, history, and the Islamic faith in the first book, and my interest carried over the second and third books. For the first time in a while, I was very excited to read the final book in a series. Though I wouldn’t say the series is perfect, and it isn’t one of my favorite fantasy series of all time, I had a really good time reading the trilogy. It helped me get out of a reading slump and escape into another world.

The trilogy takes place in Egypt as well as parts of the Middle East, and there is a mix between the real world and the world of djinn, magical humanoids who live alongside humans but are invisible to them. Nahri is an orphan from Cairo who makes her living by stealing, telling fortunes, and using her strange healing affinity. One night she is ambushed by creatures she thought were only in myths. She is saved and whisked away to a mythical city by another being she thought was only a fairytale, a powerful djinn named Darayavahoush (Dara for short). Dara introduces Nahri to the city of Daevabad where she finds out more about herself and her family, but she also gets entangled in political struggles and centuries-long feuds between the djinn. In books two and three she meets many more mythical beings and finds out secrets about herself and her new friends. Ultimately, Nahri must choose between a future in Cairo and a future in Daevabad.

That description really simplifies what happens in the trilogy, and it doesn’t really do the series justice. The worldbuilding is probably my favorite aspect of these books. The books combine Middle Eastern history and myth as well as the Islamic faith to create a vast, rich world. For example, the real-world political struggles in Egypt in the 18th century are also included in the story. Though it isn’t a main plot point, I found that it grounded my view of the magical world and was a good parallel to some of the problems in Daevabad. Daevabad itself has a long history, and I love when a there are elements of a fantasy world’s history that have been skewed or covered up past leaders and when there are long-held secrets under the surface. There are also different tribes of djinn with unique histories and cultures too. I would actually like to see more books set in this world, perhaps centering on the other djinn tribes. You can read about the world on the author’s website to get a feel of it before reading. I don’t think there are any major spoilers, but read at your own risk!

I enjoyed many of the characters in the novels. Nahri is headstrong (sometimes to the point of annoyance), but she sticks to her morals and is loyal to her friends. Alizayd al Qahtani, the youngest price of Daevabad, is devout to his Muslim faith and must deal with his family’s tumultuous past. I enjoyed the moments with Alizayd and his siblings, and I wish that we had had even more time exploring his siblings’ personalities, especially in the third book. And though it may be an unpopular opinion, Dara was my favorite character, though he wasn’t always respectful or kind to Nahri. Dara battled with his own terrible past and had a very complex emotional relationship with those close to him. Ultimately, I wished that some of the side characters got more time on the page just because I liked them, but many characters were well developed. I was not a big fan of the romance in the book, and there is a bit of a love triangle. It was obvious to me from book one where the love story was going, so I was disappointed that this aspect was largely predictable.

However, I did not find the plot predictable. There are several good twists, turns, and reveals throughout the trilogy. I wouldn’t say that the books are heavy with tropes, and the world building breathes fresh air into what some might consider a traditional fantasy storyline with chosen ones, alliances with enemies, or epic battles. The plot is filled with political maneuvering, action, and challenges to morality. The pacing of the novels was okay for me, but some might find book one slow as there is a lot of traveling. I also found the final book to be a little longer than necessary. At around 800 pages, I felt that at least 100 could have been edited down. Still, I really enjoyed all of the time I spent with the novels.

If you’re looking for a solid fantasy story that tries to do something a little different by incorporating history, myth, and cultures that aren’t often written about in this genre, I would recommend The Daevabad Trilogy. I rated the entire series four out of five stars.

Strange Planet & Stranger Planet

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Lately I’ve needed light-hearted, wholesome books to read. Maybe it’s the continued pandemic, maybe it’s just seasonal depression, or maybe it’s just… everything. So, I reached for Nathan W. Pyle’s two books, Strange Planet and Stranger Planet. You may recognize these little aliens as they have been making the rounds on social media for a few years now. But if you have no idea what I am talking about, you can see many of his comics on his Instagram to get a feel for the style and humor in these collections.

Strange Planet and the sequel, Stranger Planet, do not follow a linear narrative. You also don’t even need to read the collections in order. (I actually read the second book first because that was the order they were available through my library.) Though some comics are related in content, for the most part each comic is four panels in length and makes some observation about human culture or just life itself. The aliens live in a world very much like ours, but they often point out how strange our customs are or discuss the emotional rigors of everyday situations very bluntly. I love how the aliens’ perspectives can make me view something I find normal about humanity in a different light. For example, they have very literal names for everyday objects. Tea is “hot leaf liquid,” an umbrella is a “sky shield,” and (my favorite) a cat is called “the vibrating creature.” The comics cover subjects like holiday traditions, growing up and raising kids, pets and pet antics, and just how strange life can be.

I wouldn’t say that many comics made me laugh out loud, but the collections made a smile and often warmed my heart. At around 150 pages each these are quick reads that cleansed my reading palate in between more strenuous novels. I gave both collections four out of five stars.

Burial Rites

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Burial Rites has been on my bookshelf for a little while. I kept saving it for the winter because I felt that it would fit the season, but then I also thought that it would be a sad book, so I kept putting it off because I wasn’t in the mood.

This novel is set in Iceland in the 1820’s. Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Fridrik Sigurdsson, and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir have been accused of murdering an herbalist and another man and setting the herbalist’s home on fire in an attempt to hide the crime. Agnus awaits her execution in the care of nearby family, who are less than thrilled to host a murderess in their home, but Agnus grows closer to her hosts as she comes to terms with her fate. The novel is based on a true story.

I wouldn’t read this book if you are not in a good mental headspace because it is emotionally intense. The setting is also very harsh and bleak, and the writing and story reflect the setting. Agnus’s fate is decided, so she spends her days thinking about her past and awaiting her death. I came to sympathize with her and her story. Her hosts are understandably uncomfortable with her presence in their home, especially because they have two impressionable daughters, but I enjoyed seeing the supporting cast grow to care about and respect Agnus as I did. The book’s chapters are rather long, but they are broken into sections. The perspective that you read from changes throughout the chapter, which took some time for me to get used to. Some sections are in Agnus’s first-person perspective. Other times the perspective is in third person with a focus on either the host family or the reverend that is tasked with soothing Agnus’s soul.

The author did a great job of fleshing out the village and its people, the valley’s gossip and rumors, and the truth behind the murder. The plot is not action packed. Most of the story involves Agnus sitting down with other characters and her telling her backstory to them. Only a small portion of the action is set in the present. I really enjoyed the novel, but I found it a bit too predictable. Since it is based on the true story of the last execution in Iceland, the ending is not a surprise. But I also guessed a few of the major plot events as well as the truth behind the murder. The writing is beautiful and very introspective, and as I said it fits the setting very well. There is a lot of symbolism and themes/discussion on feminism, the patriarchy, justice, etc., but for some reasons I wasn’t overly impressed by what I read.

I gave Burial Rites four out of five stars, which is an excellent rating, but it just wasn’t a favorite. However, I enjoyed the atmospheric writing and the emotional depth of the novel very much and would recommend it to fans of historical fiction.

Fingersmith

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fingersmith is a historical fiction novel set in Victorian England and filled with twists, devious plots and people, betrayal, and a female/female romance. Sue Trinder was raised on the harsh side of London by a house of thieves. Her mother figure buys and sells orphans, her father figure is a fence for stolen goods, and her friends are all swindlers of some sort. One night a family friend called Gentleman enters Sue’s home and offers her a partnership. He plans to seduce a rich heiress with Sue’s help. Sue is to become the heiress’s maid and help convince her to marry Gentleman, then he will claim that the heiress is insane, put her into an asylum, and split the girl’s money with Sue. The plot gets complicated when Sue finds herself falling for the heiress and when some long held lies start coming to the surface.

I’ve read a couple other novels by Sarah Waters, so I am definitely a fan of her work. Each novel I have read is unique, character driven, and even if the plot is rather “quiet,” I still find her books difficult to put down. Fingersmith was no different. Many readers may find the book slow. A lot of time is spent with Sue and the heiress, Maud. The girls slowly become friends, and maybe something more, but you can tell that both girls are also hiding parts of themselves. This is one reason that I could not put the book down. I really wanted to know what was going on between the characters and their pasts. Both Maud and Sue are heavily developed throughout the novel and many secrets are revealed in time. Side characters are also given a lot of care, and it is the side characters that are integral to many of the plot’s twists. I won’t say too much about this, but no one is who they appear to be.

Plot-wise, again, the novel could be a bit slow for some readers. There isn’t a lot of action in the first half or so, and the main setting is in Maud’s uncle’s manor with a very structured daily routine. The novel begins with Sue’s perspective. We see Gentleman’s plot through her eyes up until the plan is complete. Sue’s perspective ends on a huge cliffhanger, but the next section is in Maud’s perspective, leaving the resolution of the cliffhanger up in the air for quite some time. Much of Maud’s past is talked about, but what I found most interesting about Maud’s section of the book is that we see many of the same events from Sue’s section through Maud’s eyes. This allows the reader to see inside both of their hearts and minds. For example, Sue’s perspective may make it sound like she has kept a cool head during an event, but when reading from Maud’s view, Maud actually noticed that Sue was not as calm as she appeared. I really love when authors show two sides of the same event like this. The latter half of the book has more action, intrigue, and satisfying reveals. And I adored the ending.

I would highly recommend this book if you are looking for a slow burn female/female romance that has a twisting and complex plot that is just as important, if not more important, than the romance itself. I gave the book a perfect score because even though I don’t tend to like romance, I like when romance is done like this.

Brown Girl Dreaming

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Brown Girl Dreaming is an autobiographical book by Jacqueline Woodson written in verse. Woodson takes the reader into her past as she grows up between South Carolina and New York with her grandparents and mother. The book spans the 60’s and 70’s during the Civil Rights Era in America. Her dynamic writing style paints a picture of what it was like being an African American Jehovah’s Witness in the south and the north during this time period.

Woodson’s writing is exquisite. She is able to effectively convey what it was like to be a child during this turbulent time in America. As a child, she was of course aware of the larger issues of race and class during this time, but those concerns are nested between other things that dominate any child’s mind, like her experiences living with her grandparents, how she discovered her love of writing, and how she felt out of place when she was no longer the baby of the family, when she followed her overachieving big sister through school, and when her religion set her apart from her peers. Woodson’s writing puts the reader in her shoes by covering topics that are easy to relate to while also helping others understand the hardships and challenges she faced through her unique upbringing during this part of American history.

As I said, the book is written in verse, but it feels as engaging and as smooth as any novel I’ve ever read. Woodson is able to convey an astonishing amount of emotion and exposition in the shortest of lines. When I read I can “see” books play out like a movie in my head. I read this as an audiobook, which sometimes makes it difficult for me to picture scenes compared to physical books. However, I had no trouble with this audiobook. Woodson’s writing is just so clear and immersive.

The book hits hard with difficult topics like discrimination, grief, and the trials of growing up in general, let alone growing up as an African American girl during this time period, but the book also has a lot of heart, soul, and moments that made me smile. I would not let the fact that it is written in verse scare you away either. Woodson uses language that is easy to understand but is still beautiful. In fact, I often see this book shelved as middle grade or young adult. Based upon everything I have said and my reading experience, I could not help but give Brown Girl Dreaming five stars.

Solutions and Other Problems

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I’m not usually one to follow a book’s publication closely, but I read Allie Brosh’s blog Hyperbole and a Half during a rough time in my young life. Her blog made me feel understood, made me laugh, and contributed in a small way to me having my own blog later on. I still think of her post about the “Alot” whenever I see someone online misspell the word. I bought her first book right when it was released, and I eagerly awaited her second when I saw that it was coming. But, if you have also followed her, you probably know that the second book’s release date got pushed back again and again. Just when I thought that it might never be published, Solutions and Other Problems was finally released in September of 2020.

Both of Brosh’s books include comically illustrated stories about her personal life and struggles in a darkly humorous tone. Her first book was a little more lighthearted, but it still dealt with topics like anxiety and depression. Her second book is darker still, but it still made me laugh out loud a few times. In Solution and Other Problems she shares about her divorce, a medical scare, and the loss of her younger sister. It is easy to understand why her second book took so long to be published when she went through so much in the last few years. Her humor isn’t for everyone though, so I would encourage you to view her blog a little before reading either of her books.

Each chapter is about a different story in her life. Some are from her childhood, while others are from more recent years. No matter the topic, her artwork fits perfectly with the text. I think she has even improved in the way she tells her stories and illustrates them. Her art style may look simplistic, but the comedic timing and expressions on her characters’ faces always cracks me up. Even her more series stories’ illustrations excel at being emotive in just the right way. Though some of her drawings are more abstract and easily overlooked for their artistic value, some of the backgrounds and more realistic scenes show that she truly does have artistic talent.

As for the content of the stories, as I said several are on darker subjects. The ones about her sister were more heartfelt than funny, but the way she spoke about grief and regret was completely relatable. I found the story about her ex-husband fighting over a ski trip and a grocery store trip funny but also sad. It reminded me of the decline of my own past relationships, and I appreciated how she could find humor in such a sad moment. The melancholic feeling that that story gave me has stuck with me even weeks after reading it. Of course there are also some very funny stories, like how her family’s home had mysterious piles of poop appearing in it day after day and how she was overly curious about a neighbor as a child. Whatever the subject, Brosh is able to bring the reader into her memories through her conversational writing and bright illustrations.

If you liked her first book and her blog, you’ll like this one too. It definitely has a heavier tone, and at times I felt like she was trying too hard to make a sad moment funnier, but I really enjoyed both the funny and heartfelt stories. I am definitely a person who shares her sense of humor and her ability to find humor in the darkest moments of life. I appreciate how open and honest Brosh was with her feelings and her struggles. As always, she made me laugh, cry, and by the end I wanted to give her a big hug. This was a great book to start off 2021.

2020 in Review, Looking Forward to 2021

Goodbye 2020, and hello to 2021! I’m positive that I’m not the only person looking forward to a new year. Even if the calendar changing doesn’t reset the world, it somehow feels like a fresh start. So, I started this end of the year series in 2017, and I did it in 2018, but I must have missed 2019 (at least I can’t find my own post about it). I used a spreadsheet made by Portal in the Pages on YouTube to track my reading this year.

In 2020 I had some broad goals: read more new releases, read more from POC authors, use my library more/buy less books, and reduce my physical TBR or “to be read” pile of unread books on my shelves. I succeeded in some areas and failed a bit in others.

2020 Statistics

At the start of 2020, I had 59 unread books on my shelves. Throughout the year I borrowed 13 books from my library and bought or was gifted 28 books. By the end of the year I had 49 unread books. So, I reduced my unread pile by 10 despite bringing in 41 new books. I read all of the books I borrowed, and I read most of the new books I bought or was gifted. In 2021 I’d like to reduce my TBR pile even more.

As shown in the first table, I read a total of 50 books this year, just barely making my yearly reading goal. Though I did not finish 3 of the 50, I still counted them toward the total since I read the majority of the books before giving up. I read about 16,951 pages (again, this total counts the DNF’d books) with an average 339 pages per book. I know I read shorter books this year than pervious years. Out of 50 books, my average rating out of 5 stars was 3.6.

As you can see from the table to the right, I read the most books in May when I was off work and feeling kind of good about having to stay home due to the pandemic. Of course, my totals took a steep drop during the rest of the year as work ramped up and my depression reared its ugly head.

The blog definitely reflected these next stats. Almost half of everything I read was fantasy because I love fantasy and needed the escapism. Surprisingly, graphic novels came in second, mainly because I borrowed several from my library at the end of the year to make my reading goal. The number of sci-fi and non-fiction is surprising as I didn’t realize I read that many. Historical fiction and thrillers, usually genres I gravitate toward often, had lower than normal numbers for this year. I didn’t push myself to read anything that I didn’t want to, and I’m already a mood reader, so I unfortunately really stayed in my comfort zone this year.

Lastly, I wanted to read from more diverse authors in 2020. I would say that I used to read from more male authors than female, but in the past few years it has been close to 50/50. You’ll notice that my author gender category has only 48 books counted. This is because two books had more than one author, and I didn’t update the spreadsheet to count books by multiple authors. Only one third of what I read was from POC writers, and I’d like to get this closer to 50/50 next year just to expose myself to different peoples, perspectives, and cultures.

2021 PLANS AND GOALS

So, what are my reading plans for 2021? Well, I’d like to read more books in general. I used to read about 100 books per year, but I’m not in college any more and have less free time, so I’m not sure how realistic 100 books is. However, since another of my goals is to use my library even more, I can borrow more audio and eBooks, which I think will help me reach a higher amount of books read. I actually saved about $150 this year just by borrowing books from the library instead of buying books. Use your library if you can! And if I do buy books, I want to avoid using Amazon and instead buy exclusively from independent bookstores. I started this in 2020, and I plan to continue in 2021 and beyond. As I said earlier in this post, I want to read from more diverse authors again in 2021 as well as continue to read more newer releases. Lastly, I want to read books that have been sitting on my shelves for years and get my physical TBR down to around 20-25 books.

How was your reading in 2020? What are some of your reading goals for 2021?

The Turn of the Key

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It has been a quite while since I read a thriller, but I usually get in the mood for them around this time of year. A couple of years ago I read Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10. I certainly didn’t hate that novel, but I thought it had some imperfections that bothered me. Since then I have heard many people rave about Ware’s other books, so I thought I would take a second look at the author’s work by reading one of her newer books that appealed to me.

The Elincourts purchased Heatherbrae House, an old home in the Scottish countryside with a violent and mysterious history. They have used their architectural and technological knowledge to make it into a “smart home.” All they need now is a reliable nanny to take care of their four children while they are busy with their demanding careers. They have actually had several nannies, but each one has made a hasty exit after experiencing odd, possibly supernatural, experiences within the home. With the high salary and a chance at a new life, Rowan Caine decides to apply to be their newest nanny. What could possibly go wrong?

The novel opens with Rowan writing to a lawyer who might be able to get her out of prison. She is in prison because she has been accused of killing one of the Elincourt’s children, but she claims she is innocent. Throughout the novel she narrates her tenure as the family’s nanny. If you do not enjoy an epistolary format, don’t worry. It is very easy to forget that Rowan is writing the story for someone else. She only addresses the lawyer by name a few times in the beginning and a handful of times throughout the rest of book.

I love a good haunted house story, and not only does Heatherbrae House have a mysterious history but it being a smart house makes for even more unsettling situations. The rooms being filled with security cameras, everything being controlled by a phone app, and being able to talk to people in different rooms via the speaker system all lead to many crazy and creepy happenings. In my opinion, the best parts of this novel were the atmospheric and suspenseful scenes. The author is talented at drawing you in and making you question everything, including the narrator herself.

However, as with The Woman in Cabin 10, I sometimes got annoyed at the main character’s decision making. Admittedly, Rowan isn’t nearly as frustratingly stupid as The Woman in Cabin 10‘s lead, but there were still a couple of instances that made me angry at Rowan. I also noticed that both main characters in Ware’s novels turned to alcohol or made mistakes because of alcohol, which sometimes felt like a lazy plot device in my opinion. Maybe just don’t drink on the job?

Anyway, one other thing I disliked was the way the novel wrapped up. I’m a big fan of thrillers where it is unclear if a supernatural force is really there or not, and I actually love when the novel doesn’t answer whether it is there or not at the end. This novel makes a clear distinction about the cause of the strange occurrences, which is fine, but the twist is somewhat easy to guess and wasn’t a twist I particularly liked. I didn’t quite understand Rowan’s motivation for taking the nanny position by the end, and I felt that the conclusion wasn’t as interesting as the journey. I know that is rather vague and subjective, so I definitely encourage you to pick up the novel and form your own opinions.

Despite my gripes, this was a fun, atmospheric, and fast-paced book that I ultimately enjoyed reading. Three and a half stars out of five for The Turn of the Key.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

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What a wild ride. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix was my kind of crazy though. If you visit this book’s page on Goodreads you will see two very different top reviews. The top review (written by a white man) claims that this book is harmful, racist, and not at all a feminist book. The second top review (by a white female) is completely the opposite. I side much more with the female reviewer, but in my review I will reference some of the points made by the male reviewer just in case you read that review and are put off by the accusations. I will speak in vague terms, but there may be slight spoilers about scenes or some of the horror elements.

But first let’s take a step back and explain the basic plot. The book takes place in the American south during the 90’s. Several women in a very white, suburban community have decided to host a book club where they read thrillers, true crime, and horror, much to the annoyance of their husbands. A rich stranger moves into their community, and one of the book club members, Patricia Campbell, finds some strange coincidences and occurrences tied to this man. Her fellow book club members doubt her and hold onto their perfect lives, while the husbands view Patricia as an unstable influence on their wives. But what if Patricia is actually on the right track? What if this man really is a too goo to be true presence in their town?

I loved the plot and characters so, so much. Patricia and her book club members are innocent of a lot about the real world because they are just housewives. Even Patricia, who was once a nurse, has her days filled with vacuuming the curtains, polishing the good China, and making lunch for her children. Despite that, you can see some fire in their personalities even early on. Patricia certainly has a hunger for something more in her life. Overall, I felt that the women were realistically portrayed and varied in personality, which made them all unique.

As for the plot, it takes place over several years, so you see the characters and community change over time, which I really liked. However, I found it to be a fairly fast read. It was hard to put down with several twists and turns. Some of the main characters’ plans get thwarted, so they have to pick up the pieces and decide where to go from there. I liked that things weren’t easy for them, and many external forces complicated their decision making. The plot progressed realistically for the time period, though the fantastical elements required some suspension of disbelief. The horror elements included gore, bugs, and things that were emotionally horrific, which I will explain in more detail below. One thing I didn’t understand was the fact that Nazism was brought into the plot. I didn’t think it made sense, and there was already so much going on in the plot and themes that it could have been dropped. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the strange happenings in novel began mainly happening to non-white characters? Or that the evil in the novel that build up over time was parallel to the evils of the rise of Nazism?

The next few paragraphs will touch on some of the critism the novel is getting about sexism and racism, so there may be slight spoilers below. Skip to the last paragraph for my final thoughts.

First, is the novel sexist? Their husbands are mostly stereotypical for the time and place. They are domineering, abusive, and honestly think little of their wives and their interests. They don’t take the wives concerns about the new stranger seriously at all. All of this certainly makes the men sexists, and even the way the women treat each other at times stems from this internalized misogyny. However, I think that the book makes it pretty clear that this is wrong. I was legitimately angry and frustrated at how Patricia and the other women were treated and how they treated each other. Their husbands gas lighted and belittled them constantly, but if there is one thing I learned from horror authors like Stephen King, sometimes the most disturbing and chilling horror comes from everyday injustices. That doesn’t make the author or the book sexist; it just shows how awful humans can be to each other, which makes great horror in my opinion. The book ends on a hopeful note, and shows the women taking charge to improve their lives, so I can’t see how the book or author reads as sexist when the characters grow and shed the toxicity they experienced from others and from themselves.

I’ll also touch on the racism accusations in the view I mentioned, but being white myself, I wouldn’t take my opinion as infallible. So, there is one main character who is black, and she is hired as a maid and caretaker by a few of the white women in the community. There are scenes where the white women visit the black woman at her home. The black woman’s home and community are poor, and when the white women visit they are confronted by some young black men who threaten them. The black community was being hit the hardest by the strange happenings in the area, so it makes sense that the young black men were wary of the strangers in their community. (They also experienced some displacement by white building developments, and there was a rumor in their community that a white man had been creeping around their children.)The young men were easily dispersed when the black woman told them she knew the white women. So, I think that the young men being intimidating was not a racist portrayal. They had good reasons to act that way toward white strangers, and the white women (though startled) were unharmed. Some white characters had misgivings about visiting the black community, but that was realistic for the time and setting, and the characters who felt this way were not portrayed positively by the narrative.

There are accusations that the “white savior” trope was part of the novel because Patricia and her friends sought to help the black community when the strange things began happening. I disagree with this as well. Though Patricia tried, she largely failed to do much, and the black characters tell her exactly that. The white women do not really get involved in solving what is going on until their own homes and families are threatened. The black characters call them out for that, and Patricia is able to convey this sentiment to her friends and finally call them to action. And during the climax of the novel, though there are more white characters taking part than black, it is the black character who does more to resolve the situation than several of the white characters.

So, with all of that being said, I would not be put off by some of the reviews you might see floating around (says the book reviewers herself). Try the book (perhaps through your library like I did) and form an opinion for yourself. If you liked Out by Natsuo Karino but want something with vampires and some American southern flair, try this. It was creative with multiple kinds of horror and with a dash of humor. Four and half out of five stars.