Book Reviews, Bookworm Blogging

Luster [review]

Luster by Raven Leilani
To be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux on August 4, 2020
my rating: ★★★★.5 (4.5 stars)
Goodreads avg: 
4.18 (as of 2020-07-17)
disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own. Quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and are subject to change upon publication.

Edie is stumbling her way through her twentiessharing a subpar apartment in Bushwick, clocking in and out of her admin job, making a series of inappropriate sexual choices. She’s also, secretly, haltingly figuring her way into life as an artist. And then she meets Eric, a digital archivist with a family in New Jersey, including an autopsist wife who has agreed to an open marriagewith rules. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscapes of contemporary sexual manners and racial politics weren’t hard enough, Edie finds herself unemployed and falling into Eric’s family life, his home. She becomes hesitant friend to his wife and a de facto role model to his adopted daughter. Edie is the only black woman young Akila may know.

Razor sharp, darkly comic, sexually charged, socially disruptive, Luster is a portrait of a young woman trying to make her sense of her life in a tumultuous era. It is also a haunting, aching description of how hard it is to believe in your own talent and the unexpected influences that bring us into ourselves along the way.

Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author’s Website


I think of all the gods I have made out of feeble men.

This is an absolutely stunning debut from Leilani. From the first page, I was hooked by the writing style; the flat tone elevated my reading experience, emphasizing just how much Edie has given up on life and boosting my emotional connection to her. While at first the novel appears to focus on her relationship with Eric, a mediocre white man in an open marriage, it shifts (thank god) and focuses more strongly on Edie’s relationship with Eric’s wife, Rebecca, and his Black daughter, Akila. Their friendship is tenuous and charged and impossible to look away from.

Not everyone is going to get along with this; I’d shelve it into the same category as Supper Club and The Pisces. Luster is about a messy woman who is just barely keeping it together. She makes terrible decisions, and knows that she makes terrible decisions. It’s heartening to see this kind of novel featuring an ownvoices Black woman: as Edie herself comments in the novel, society has lower expectations of Black women and they have to be twice as good to be recognized as such. To allow a Black woman to be messy and difficult is all the more important in this context.

I’m honestly stunned that this is a debut and will be keeping a sharp eye out for Leilani’s future works. I’ll go as far as to say that she may have cemented herself as an auto-buy author for me and I am not complaining. Definitely recommend this if it sounds like it would be your kind of thing, and am hopeful that we’ll see this longlisted for the Women’s Prize.

I am a white woman and my review is written through that lens. If you are an ownvoices reviewer who would like your review linked here, please let me know!


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Survivor Song [review]

Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay
Published by William Morrow on July 7, 2020
my rating: ★★★★★ (5 stars)
Goodreads avg:
3.86 (as of 2020-07-24)
Spoiler-free review

Goodreads IndieBound | Author’s Website

In a matter of weeks, Massachusetts has been overrun by an insidious rabies-like virus that is spread by saliva. But unlike rabies, the disease has a terrifyingly short incubation period of an hour or less. Those infected quickly lose their minds and are driven to bite and infect as many others as they can before they inevitably succumb. Hospitals are inundated with the sick and dying, and hysteria has taken hold. To try to limit its spread, the commonwealth is under quarantine and curfew. But society is breaking down and the government’s emergency protocols are faltering.

Dr. Ramola “Rams” Sherman, a soft-spoken pediatrician in her mid-thirties, receives a frantic phone call from Natalie, a friend who is eight months pregnant. Natalie’s husband has been killed—viciously attacked by an infected neighbor—and in a failed attempt to save him, Natalie, too, was bitten. Natalie’s only chance of survival is to get to a hospital as quickly as possible to receive a rabies vaccine. The clock is ticking for her and for her unborn child.

Natalie’s fight for life becomes a desperate odyssey as she and Rams make their way through a hostile landscape filled with dangers beyond their worst nightmares—terrifying, strange, and sometimes deadly challenges that push them to the brink. 


There are elephants at the Southwick Zoo maybe thirty miles west, and Natalie hopes those fuckers are on lockdown.

My introduction to Paul Tremblay was A Head Full of Ghosts, which I absolutely adored. I’ve since read two more of his horror novels, and his newest short story collection; my experiences with the 3 varied slightly but I’m still a fan of Tremblay’s. I was particularly looking forward to this novel because I have a rabies phobia and could not imagine many things more terrifying than a super rabies epidemic. To read this during a worldwide pandemic was even more compelling.

Tremblay really hit it out of the park with this one. I picked my copy up as soon as I got home from the bookstore and literally didn’t put it down until I hit the last page. The entire story takes place in the span of just a few hours and there is such an urgency to it that I couldn’t imagine going to bed without finishing it.

This is really a twist on the traditional zombie story; those who are bitten by a carrier of the super rabies experience symptoms within an hour, compared to the traditional weeks one has with rabies as we know it. This means the virus in this story is spread remarkably quickly, leading those infected to become extremely violent and uncontainable. While the story itself is certainly action-packed, I found the ‘zombie’ story itself secondary to the characters. This is far more a story about the friendship between two women, and the lengths one will go to in order to save a loved one than it is a story about zombies.

And god, some of the pieces of this were prophetic as hell. At one point we meet a group of right wingers who insist that the virus is biowarfare unleashed by foreign countries — or by our own government, as a means of pushing vaccines. I’m sure some people will see these as caricatures but I honestly felt like I was seeing some of my relatives portrayed on the page. Even more: the panic and anger and fear of healthcare workers given insufficient training and even more insufficient PPE had me grimacing in sympathy, knowing that this was the case in my own country just a couple months ago.

Like I said above, the characters are really what made this for me. Rams, one of the POV characters, is a British biracial self-identified asexual woman (who I also read as aromantic). Natalie is a pregnant spitfire of a woman. I loved their relationship and felt like Tremblay did an incredible job of portraying what felt like a very real friendship. I was also delighted and surprised by the appearance of two characters from Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. While the two are not at all plot-dependent, I think one would struggle to connect with these characters and would find a specific interlude to be much less emotionally impactful if one had not read Disappearance. The discussions in this book also spoil some of the events in Disappearance, so I would highly recommend reading that first if it’s on your TBR!

Anyway, yeah, I just loved this book. I’m so impressed with Tremblay and am really looking forward to seeing whatever he puts out next!

content warnings: violence against animals and humans; animal [and human] death; gore; racism and xenophobia (challenged on page); death of a loved one.


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Middlegame [review]

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
Published by Tor.com on May 7, 2019
my rating: ★★★★.5
Goodreads avg:
4.07 (as of 2020-06-17)
Spoiler-free review

Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.

Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.

Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.

Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.

Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

Goodreads IndieBound | Author’s Website


This is going to be one of those books you’re SO lost reading when it comes to plot, but it’s okay because Seanan will take your hand and guide you to an ending that will make about as much sense as it can be expected to. I had been intending to read something by Seanan McGuire (or Mira Grant, another pen name of hers) for a while now and while Middlegame wasn’t what I expected my first book of hers to be, I’m so glad I picked it up!

While it’s impossible to get into the plot while still remaining sensical and avoiding spoilers, let’s just say this book will reel you in. It struck the perfect balance of maintaining a complexity that required me to follow things closely while also giving me enough information to keep me completely interested. At no point did I feel like things were lagging or forced; this book was perfectly set-up and perfectly paced and I’m so impressed by it.

In order to balance out a largely confusing plot, the characters and their relationship were so, so endearing. We start off during Roger and Dodger’s childhood and I was impressed to find that Seanan was able to write them in a way that felt realistic without feeling immature or irritating, which I often find to be the case with younger POVs. They both felt like such truly real people and it was wonderful watching their growth.

Overall, I just found this to be such a satisfying read and wouldn’t be surprised if my 4.5 tips over to a 5, depending on how well it sticks to me. I’d definitely recommend this to lovers of sf/f.

content warnings: attempted suicide, graphic descriptions of blood/gore/death


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Kept Animals [review]

Kept Animals by Kate Milliken
Published by Scribner on April 21, 2020
my rating: ★★★★★ (5)
Goodreads avg: 
4.07 (as of 2020-05-10)
disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own. Quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and are subject to change upon publication.

Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author’s Website


The thing about trauma is that even after it is over, it is still happening. It is a memory in motion, forever present.

This absolutely devastated me. Kate Milliken has been without a doubt added to my must-read list of authors. Kept Animals is a novel about so many things: grief, toxic relationships, trauma, sexuality. I feel like it’s impossible to pin my thoughts on this down. I found it compelling from the start, but the deeper into the story I got, the more impossible it was to stop reading. I felt such an incredible depth of emotion reading this, and even cried at the end. It was quiet, but there was an underlying tension throughout reminiscent of a thriller — we are, after all, trying to find out what happened on one fateful day in 1993. All I can really say is: I highly recommend this if you’re interested in a dark, depressing, queer literary novel.

content warnings: drunk driving; child death; both casual and violent homophobia; sexual assault; racism and xenophobia; parental neglect; substance abuse.


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My Dark Vanessa [review]

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Published by William Morrow on March 10, 2020
my rating: ★★★★★
Goodreads avg:
4.15 (as of 2020-04-20)
Spoiler-free review

Goodreads IndieBound | Author Website

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of RoomMy Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.


Wow. So, I read this almost entirely in one sitting and was absolutely blown away by it. Yet another book that tackles the intricacies of abuse and how things aren’t always black & white. While as a reader it is easy to condemn Strane and even to see where Vanessa went “wrong,” the novel also delves into the impact of grooming and how it can impact one’s thought processes for life. It faces head-on the idea of agency in young women and why some people may opt to see themselves as something other than a victim. This is unbelievably compelling and unbelievably important and in lieu of a full review (that would just be me gushing), I’ll leave you with some of the lines that struck me most while reading this.

It’s important that you never feel coerced. That’s the only way I’ll be able to live with myself.

“Haven’t you always felt like an outsider, a misfit?” he asks. “I’ll bet for as long as you can remember, you were called mature for your age. Weren’t you?” I think back to third grade, how it felt to bring home a report card with a teacher’s note scribbled on the bottom: Vanessa is very advanced, seems like she’s eight years old going on thirty. I’m not sure I was ever really a kid at all.

Slowly guided into the fire–why is everyone so scared to admit how good that can feel? To be groomed is to be loved and handled like a precious, delicate thing.

Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?


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The Marsh King’s Daughter [review]

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne
Published by GP Putnam’s Sons in December 2019 (originally 2017)
my rating: ★★★★.5
Goodreads avg:
3.85 (as of 2020-01-30)
Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads IndieBound | Author Website

Helena Pelletier has a loving husband, two beautiful daughters, and a business that fills her days. But she also has a secret: she is the product of an abduction. Her mother was kidnapped as a teenager by her father and kept in a remote cabin in the marshlands of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Helena, born two years after the abduction, loved her home in nature, and despite her father’s sometimes brutal behavior, she loved him, too…until she learned precisely how savage he could be.

More than twenty years later, she has buried her past so soundly that even her husband doesn’t know the truth. But now her father has killed two guards, escaped from prison, and disappeared into the marsh. The police begin a manhunt, but Helena knows they don’t stand a chance. Knows that only one person has the skills to find the survivalist the world calls the Marsh King–because only one person was ever trained by him: his daughter.


This is certainly one of the best thrillers I’ve read. There are a lot of interesting aspects of it, including a more creative take on the abduction story as well as survivalist elements. I’m a sucker for wilderness survival stories; it’s so interesting to me to see how people live(d) without modern technology and resources. It also really helps me to appreciate my own life!

I really loved Helena as a character; she really makes you want to root for her while also acknowledging the bad decisions she’s made. She really felt fully-formed to me and this honestly felt more like a memoir than a work of fiction. The formatting also works quite well, we follow Helena through the present day as she searches for her father with relevant flashbacks that fill in the context of her earlier life.

This is also one of those books that you just don’t want to put down. The pacing is incredibly well-done. You’re led right to the edge of a precipice and then the story pivots, jumping into the past for just long enough before finally giving you the information you’re gunning for. I probably could have read this in one long sitting had I had the opportunity, and I think that would have been a breathlessly wonderful way to get through it.

I highly recommend you pick this up if the plot sounds up your alley, I’m glad I finally got around to it!


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The Body Lies [review]

The Body Lies by Jo Baker
Published by Knopf on June 18, 2019
my rating: ★★★★★
Goodreads avg:
3.49 (as of 2020-01-10)
Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads IndieBound | Author Website

When a young writer accepts a job at a university in the remote English countryside, it’s meant to be a fresh start, away from the bustle of London and the scene of a violent assault she is desperate to forget. But despite the distractions of her new life and the demands of single motherhood, her nerves continue to jangle. To make matters worse, a vicious debate about violence against women inflames the tensions and mounting rivalries in her creative-writing class. When a troubled student starts turning in chapters that blur the lines between fiction and reality, the professor recognizes herself as the main character in his book–and he has written her a horrific fate. Will she be able to stop life imitating art before it’s too late? At once a breathless cat-and-mouse game and a layered interrogation of the fetishization of the female body, The Body Lies gives us an essential story for our time that will have you checking the locks on your doors.


I was first drawn to The Body Lies after reading Rachel’s incredible review of it. I’m glad to have gotten her perspective, because I can see how going into this expecting a thriller would be disappointing. This is not a fast-paced crime novel; this is a quietly terrifying piece of literary fiction. Baker presents an examination of trauma as well as the objectification of women’s bodies that I will not be forgetting anytime soon.

The atmosphere is key here. An undercurrent of tension runs throughout this novel. As a reader I nearly always was on the edge of my seat waiting for things to go south even though, strictly speaking, not much was happening. Baker is masterful at making you truly feel the main character’s anxieties without even telling you what they are. I was incredulous at how certain events impacted me; events that objectively I wouldn’t have felt anything for become absolutely heart-wrenching when placed into context.

This is in part a tongue-in-cheek commentary about how women’s bodies are typically used in thrillers. Baker turns these tropes on their head, criticizing them while also demonstrating how to utilize them effectively. The setting really works here: a creative writing class allows us to see examples firsthand in an organic manner. The excerpts of her students’ writing don’t feel forced, and they add a great deal to the story.

What I found most impactful in this book was its portrayal (and analysis) of trauma. At the outset of the book, the narrator is attacked by a man on the street. The ways this impacts her life are both large and small, and I felt Baker did an incredible job of demonstrating that. Additionally, it quickly becomes clear that those outside a traumatic incident are not necessarily able to understand, or even notice, these impacts. My heart ached reading this; I felt like Baker was able to reach deep down inside me.

I honestly cannot recommend this book highly enough. As I said before, it will do you no good to go into this expecting a true thriller with a twisty plot. But if you’re looking for something dark and quiet that explores the way we treat women, you’re in for quite the treat. I’m certain I’ll be coming back to this again and recommending it left and right. Already my favorite book of the year (although I’ll revisit this in December), The Body Lies is honestly a masterpiece.


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Mini-Review Compilation #19

Ella Enchanted
Spoilers!

I haven’t read this in I don’t know how many years, but it holds up! I’ve been in a mini-slump recently but was able to slam through this old favorite. There were parts where I actually found myself laughing out loud. Ella’s humor is so great. Really my only complaint is that Ella is canonically unable to save herself but can save… a dude she’s in love with. Not my favorite trope, and not my favorite message to send (that a man is more important than you, even though I’m sure it wasn’t intended to come across that way).

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (reread)

Far From You
Minor spoilers!

Me during the first 95% of this book: Yeah this is good I guess
Me during the last 5%: [sobbing, but make it queer]

Anyway, this was pretty much your typical YA thriller. The writing was a little hit-or-miss at times but it was a mostly entertaining read. It went a little hard on the internalized homophobia and I kind of hated the deceased best friend because of how she treated the main character. Their relationship was way more toxic than it was cute. She was redeemed somewhat toward the end, but that didn’t really undo all the time she spent treating people poorly? Feel free to pick this up if you’re interested, but I’d keep expectations low.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

The Grownup

Not perfect, but definitely a pretty great short story! It was just lengthy enough to get me invested, and the twist did take me by surprise. This is probably my favorite piece by Gillian Flynn so far. My only complaint is that the ending seemed a bit silly and abrupt, but I have no regrets reading this.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


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Trail of Lightning [review]

Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse
Published by Saga Press on June 26, 2018
my rating: ★★★★★
Goodreads avg:
4.00 (as of 2019-11-18)
Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author Website

While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.

Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last—and best—hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much larger and more terrifying than anything she could imagine.

Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel to the rez to unravel clues from ancient legends, trade favors with tricksters, and battle dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.

As Maggie discovers the truth behind the disappearances, she will have to confront her past—if she wants to survive.

Welcome to the Sixth World.


I’m familiar with Rebecca Roanhorse because she was a panelist at the sci-fi/fantasy convention I went to last year. While there, I heard a lot of praise for Trail of Lightning and added it to my TBR (along with 100 more books). After seeing some great reviews and seeing that the Dragons and Tea Book Club had chosen it for their November read, I checked it out from the library and absolutely blew through it.

The world-building here is just fantastic. This is a near(?) future version of the US, where the oceans have risen and the world is in minor chaos. Maggie Hoskie lives in what was formerly a Navajo reservation and is now one of the only places safe from the Big Water. In this new world, the gods and monsters of old have arisen again, and Maggie has made a career out of hunting them. Along with gods and monsters, we have a great deal of magic floating around. It’s all based on Navajo legend, which is really cool. Some of the characters have “clan magic” and I loved seeing all the varieties that existed.

I had conflicted feelings about Maggie as a character, honestly. I found her quite irritating at times, but a lot of her flaws came from her struggles with PTSD and were kind of realistic in that way — and it’s great seeing her work through her trauma in order to get to a place where she can start healing. She was a fun character to follow, but I also just wanted to shake her and help her make better decisions. The romance was also quite obvious from the start, but I thought it was really well-done regardless and enjoyed seeing her and Kai interact.

The plot itself was somewhat intriguing but felt secondary to the characters. I got a little lost in it towards the end and felt some of the twists required a bit too much suspension of disbelief, but I was still absolutely glued to the pages. This is one of those books where the flaws are far outweighed by the things I loved.

I was confused when I went to shelve this as “adult” and saw that it had been shelved mostly as “young adult.” I couldn’t recall an age being mentioned, but definitely got adult vibes, although I was waffling on whether this could be considered “new adult.” I happened to come across an interview with Roanhorse where she admits she intentionally left Maggie’s age vague but that she’s “more like 20” and is definitely not a teen. So I guess just a heads up that the author would not classify her book as YA and respectfully asks that others not do so.

Anyway, I really loved this book and am excited to pick up the sequel! I have minimal experience with urban fantasy, but after this I’m thinking I may have to explore the genre a bit more.


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Bird Box [review]

Bird Box by Josh Malerman
Published by Ecco on May 13, 2014
my rating: ★★★★★
Goodreads avg:
4.02 (as of 2019-11-12)
Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author Website

Something is out there…

Something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from.

Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remain, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, she has dreamed of fleeing to a place where they might be safe. Now, that the boy and girl are four, it is time to go. But the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat—blindfolded—with nothing to rely on but her wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. And something is following them. But is it man, animal, or monster?

Engulfed in darkness, surrounded by sounds both familiar and frightening, Malorie embarks on a harrowing odyssey—a trip that takes her into an unseen world and back into the past, to the companions who once saved her. Under the guidance of the stalwart Tom, a motley group of strangers banded together against the unseen terror, creating order from the chaos.

But when supplies ran low, they were forced to venture outside—and confront the ultimate question: in a world gone mad, who can really be trusted?


How do I begin to review Bird Box? First published five years ago and probably one of the most hyped horror novels in recent memory, I had sky high expectations going in. And somehow Josh Malerman managed to exceed every single one. I think we all know how difficult it can be to write five-star reviews that are not just “I adored it” ad nauseam, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

This is truly one of the most creative, original pieces of horror media I have ever consumed. I’m sure many are familiar with the concept at this point: a post-apocalyptic world in which creatures roam the Earth who will end your life if you set eyes upon them. The Netflix adaptation led to criticisms that the plot was too similar to A Quiet Place for comfort, but obviously this novel debuted long before the aforementioned film. 

You are saving their lives for a life not worth living.

Malerman is able to use this kind of environment to his advantage, building up a level of tension I’m not sure I’ve experienced in a novel before. I was literally on the edge of my seat and there was a moment or two where I actually jerked in surprise. Aside from the atmosphere, it was incredibly interesting to see what the characters would come up with in order to navigate this new world.

The characters themselves were honestly forgettable, but that didn’t matter much to me. All of the novel’s other merits more than made up for it. When I think back on this, I don’t expect to remember how much I loved the characters, but how much I loved the atmosphere and the writing itself. That being said, I did think the exploration of Malorie’s motherhood was interesting. She is often asking herself whether she is a good mother, and it’s a difficult question to answer. In trying to protect her children, she must also do things she probably never imagined she would.

How can she expect her children to dream as big as the stars if they can’t lift their heads to gaze upon them? Malorie doesn’t know the answer.

TL;DR: This was a tense, legitimately scary novel that I’ll be recommending to all horror fans.


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