The Woods Are Always Watching by Stephanie Perkins

Perkins’ second horror offering strikes a much more menacing tone with grimly realistic depictions of predators – both human and animal – in a wilderness that has no mercy for the inexperience of new adulthood.

In The Woods are Always Watching, we meet Neena and Josie, high school best friends who are about to be separated when Neena goes away to college. As a last hurrah, Neena has insisted they go backpacking for three days in the Blue Ridge Mountains, just the two of them. But after they enter the forest and are cut off from all creature comforts and technology, their relationship quickly starts to unravel as they realize how ill-equipped they are for camping – and maybe, life in general – on their own. But as their mistakes, annoyances, and discomforts pile up, one slip-up plunges them into a gruesome cat-and-mouse game that they’ll be lucky to survive at all.

Full disclosure: I did not enjoy this book as much as its predecessor, There’s Someone Inside Your House, which had a more exciting, teen slasher movie vibe. This, on the other hand, reads like a 21st century Grimm’s fairy tale – a pastiche of Little Red Riding Hood, full of hard lessons and gore and the end of innocence. Where There’s Someone Inside Your House showed relationships growing and strengthening in the face of terror, The Woods Are Always Watching shows a friendship cracking under pressure, to never truly be the same again. Frankly, I came away a little depressed, reminded of the 2019 film Black Christmas which has a similarly bleak outlook for college-age women.

But while it may be less fun to read, the book rings with a frightening truth: that life and adulthood are hard, unpleasant slogs with real danger lurking around corners, and no matter how well prepared you think you are, you’re probably not ready for it — and you’re definitely too dependent on your phone. Which is not to say that Neena and Josie lack any intelligence or power over their fates; although terrified they learn, improvise, fight back, and face the truths they’ve been trying to avoid.

A survival story, a coming-of-adulthood story, an examination of friendship in transition, and a feminist parable, The Woods Are Always Watching is recommended for strong-stomached readers looking for an unflinching look at the realities of growing into a woman in today’s world.  Those who enjoy Perkins’ romances will want to look elsewhere, for there’s no sweetness here.

Out of Character by Annabeth Albert

Conventionally Yours captured hearts with its story of card gamers falling from hate to love, and now Annabeth Albert is back with its sequel, Out of Character, the story of a devoted card gamer and the former jock who once lost his trust – and who now might steal his heart.

Jasper Quigley is usually the ‘funny friend’, the third wheel or the comic relief. And frankly, it’s getting old. But he’s not so desperate as to be happy when his ex-best-friend comes begging for his help. Milo wasn’t there for him when he needed it most, and that’s not something Jasper ever wants to forgive. But Milo’s been conned out of his brother’s rare, expensive Odyssey game cards and only Jasper can help him replace them. Since Jasper also needs someone to help with his cosplay group’s visit to the children’s hospital, he figures they can make a deal which helps them both – but also keeps Milo at arm’s length. But the more time they spend together, the more he sees Milo’s regret over the past, and his desire to make things right.  And if their friendship can get a second chance, who’s to say love isn’t on the cards?

There was so much to love in this book. The characters were so distinct, with unique perspectives, that it was easy to tell everyone apart and get invested. As in its predecessor, this book touched on the full spectrum of abilities, from the chronically ill to learning disabilities, which was a refreshing and grounded take. I liked that this book focused on a very different angle than Conventionally Yours, so the reader gets introduced to a different side of fan culture, including its mainstream reception: Milo is embarrassed to be in costume in public, until he sees what a difference it makes to the kids at the children’s hospital to play with their favorite characters. I also thought Albert did a good job showing the many different anxieties and coming-out experiences that people have, depending on their family life and circumstances. It’s an excellent story of mutual respect and meeting each other halfway to make a real relationship work.

If you like card games, cosplay, a quest for redemption, or a romance with just enough drama and lots of heart, this might well be the book for you.

The King of Infinite Space by Lyndsay Faye

An amazing retelling of Hamlet that makes the original more comprehensible to a modern audience, The King of Infinite Space is the ultimate read for those who loved reading Shakespeare in high school, those who (like me) are suckers for a good retelling, and those who just live for drama, love triangles, family intrigue, yearning, sinister dreams, and yes, murder.

Here’s the gist: the Hamlet character in this case is Benjamin Dane, son of oil tycoon and theater magnate Jackson Dane, recently deceased. Benjamin is spiraling because his manipulative mother, Trudy Dane, has suddenly married his annoying uncle, Claude Dane, AND his ex-fiancée, Lia, has recently started appearing in his dreams, an unwilling participant in some kind of psychic link revisiting the fire that traumatized their shared childhood. In order to have any kind of support, Benjamin summons back to New York his estranged best friend Horatio, who fled home to London after his longtime crush on Benjamin culminated in a one-night-stand that neither of them knew how to deal with.

That’s already a lot, right? And that’s just the setup – the whole book spirals, like water around a drain, toward a gala event that Trudy and Claude Dane are hosting to celebrate their marriage / honor Jackson Dane’s contributions to his theater company. Benjamin is trying to find out whether his mother, uncle, or anyone else contributed to his father’s fatal overdose, while Horatio desperately tries to keep him alive and sane. Lia, on the other hand, has become caught up in the machinations of three enigmatic sisters and their (for lack of a better word) frenemy as they all seek to influence the outcome of the doomed gala. There are secrets and deceptions and half-truths GALORE that need to be unearthed before the book comes to its inevitable (but still surprising) conclusion.

Personally I thought that Faye knew exactly where to be faithful to the spirit of the original and where to deviate. For example, Lia’s role is a a great interpretation of the role of Ophelia, with certain improvements including rounding out her personality more and giving her more power over the narrative. For another, Horatio and Ben’s complicated platonic/romantic relationship seems to just make explicit what Shakespeare strongly implies in the original (depending on how you read it). In another important point, Faye also uses typeface and writing style to great effect in Ben’s chapters, moving the text around on the page in various ways to reflect his neurodivergence and unique experience of the world. If you’re into murder mysteries, modernized classic lit, and lush magical realism, you’ll probably love this book.

Death at the Crystal Palace by Jennifer Ashley

British cook and amateur sleuth Kat Holloway returns in the latest mystery by Jennifer Ashley,  taking place in and around London during the early 1900s.  Death at the Crystal Palace is the fifth book in the Below Stairs Mystery  series which focuses on the “downstairs” staff headed by cook Holloway and the rest of the staff,  whose lives intertwine with the “upstairs” aristocratic class and estate owners.  Kat and the rest of the below stairs staff keep the manor house running smoothly.  Kat spends her days preparing complex delicacies for the aristocratic family for whom she works.  Her position within the household makes for long hours in the kitchen, sometimes cooking for dozens of  household members and their numerous guests.  With all her obligations, she still finds the time to help solve a mystery or two.

Death at the Crystal Palace opens with Kat accompanying one member of the household, Lady Cynthia, to an academic lecture at the Crystal Palace in London.  At the conclusion of the lecture, Lady Covington, the widow of a railway owner, approaches Kat and declares that someone in her household is trying to poison her.  She is adamant that she needs Kat’s sleuthing skills to help find the culprit.  Kat is immediately suspicious of the claim.  Is Lady Covington being targeted by someone in household or is it all in her head?  Kat makes arrangements with Lady Covington to make a secretive visit to her household under the guise of recipe sharing with the Covington family cook, in order to find out more about the possible plot.

After learning more about the Covington family and their possible motivations for wanting to bring harm to the matriarch of the family, Kat finds herself yet again, at the Crystal Palace for an academic event.  With all the Covington family in attendance and able to be observed, Kat discovers another member of the family near death as the result of an attempted poisoning .

While tending to the crisis at hand, Kat’s close confidant, Daniel McAdam, is up to his neck  in his own case and recruits Kat to assist him in much larger matters of national security.  Toggling between the matter of Lady Covington’s potential poisoning and assisting Daniel with his undercover endeavor, Kat is at risk of having her true identity discovered which could potentially have catastrophic consequences for the future!

This series keeps getting better and better with each book.  Author Jennifer Ashley not only gives the reader a complex and intricate mystery to solve, the series is also a great example of historical fiction, detailing the lives and customs of the British at the turn of the last century.  Although this book is able to be read as a stand alone mystery, I highly recommend starting with the first book in the series Death Below Stairs.

 

Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen McManus

Another exciting YA mystery from the author of One of Us is Lying, 2019’s Two Can Keep a Secret is the story of cold cases, twins, secret family histories, and haunted houses which I read in exactly one day. It’s got echoes of Pretty Little Liars and There’s Someone in Your House, though more grounded in realism than either, and is most like A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder.

Ellery and Ezra are twins, just like their mother Sadie and her sister Sara were twins. When Sadie and Sara were high school seniors in Echo Ridge, Sara went missing and was never seen again. Sadie left town as fast as she could, settling in California. Now, Sadie’s in rehab, forcing high school seniors Ellery and Ezra to come to Echo Ridge for the first time to live with their Nana, Sadie’s mother. As soon as they arrive in town, they learn that Sara wasn’t the only one – five years ago homecoming queen Lacey disappeared, and her body was found in the local fright theme park. Her boyfriend Declan was suspected, but nothing was ever proven. As Ellery and Ezra settle in, making friends with Declan’s younger brother Malcolm, history chillingly starts to repeat itself as anonymous threats against Homecoming start to appear around town – and then one of the Homecoming Court goes missing. True crime buff Ellery and an implicated Malcolm scramble to uncover the culprit before it’s too late.

To be honest, this is very, very similar to A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder in premise: the smart quirky girl and the younger brother of the unjustly accused unite to solve a mysterious disappearance of the town golden girl. HOWEVER, McManus puts her own twists on it which makes this book stand apart. For one, Malcolm’s brother Declan is no saint, with a hot temper, secrets of his own, and a shaky history with Malcolm – this means that Declan’s innocence is nowhere near certain for most of the book. Secondly, Ellery and Ezra’s relationship with each other and their flawed mother adds dimension to the book; Sadie’s struggle with opioid addiction feels timely. Third, and maybe most importantly, the police play a much larger role in the investigation than Ellery and Malcolm. I really appreciated the realism of teens getting it wrong, repeatedly, while ‘the professionals’ (who amateur detectives love to dismiss) actually do their jobs and get it right.

Overall a solid, plausible, and compelling mystery with twists and revelations to keep you reading; LGBTQ representation in side characters and awareness of ethnic diversity (particularly the difficulty of being one of the only non-white families in town) are plusses. My only request would’ve been to flesh out the side characters more – Ezra and Malcolm’s friend Mia fade into the background where I would’ve liked them to stand alongside Ellery and Malcolm as equals. If you liked any of the YA mysteries listed above, or McManus’ other works, definitely try Two Can Keep a Secret.

Sebastian and Waite: Historical LGBTQ Romances

When we were teenagers, my sister and I loved reading Avon romances. Now that I’m older and want to read more diverse books, I’ve been delighted to find a few authors that provide steamy period pieces for an LGBTQ audience. Here are two entries published in 2021, both involving career criminals transformed by true love.

In The Queer Principles of Kit Webb, a nobleman needs a highwayman’s help retrieve something precious, but the thief is retired and will only help by teaching the man what he knows about stealing. As the lessons go on, though, they each want more than just a business arrangement… Cat Sebastian is a writer with a number of series under her belt, including Seducing the Sedgwicks (featuring Two Rogues Make a Right) and the Turner series (featuring The Soldier’s Scoundrel and The Ruin of a Rake).

The Hellion’s Waltz focuses on a Robin-Hood-style swindler and the swindler-hating woman she must seduce to bring off her heist. But though funding a weaver’s union is a good cause, morality and unexpected love may lead them astray. Olivia Waite has also written The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics and the Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows in this same universe of historical sapphic feminists.

Though perhaps not going to win any literary awards, everything I’ve read by these authors is funny, heartwarming, poignant, addictively readable, and just generally good romantic escapism. If Downton Abbey, Bridgerton, and other swooning period pieces have captured your heart, you may want to try the work of Cat Sebastian and Olivia Waite. (And if you’re just looking for unconventional bodice-rippers, I can also recommend the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger, starting with Soulless).

Doctor Who in Books

I can’t be the only one who got into Doctor Who after the 2005 series reboot and is now completely overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to get into the original series. I know some of the basics of course, but where (and how) to start watching the original stories?? Well, there are some DVDs available, BUT I found another loophole / fun avenue to explore: Doctor Who novelizations. Here’s two I’ve read recently to get started with:

The Dinosaur Invasion, published 1976, stars the Third Doctor (think gentleman scientist) and superstar companion Sarah Jane Smith (journalist, legend, icon) attempting to unravel a mysterious plot to bring live dinosaurs across time into modern-day London, assisted of course by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT. I adore Sarah Jane (pro tip for parents: The Sarah Jane Adventures is a fun and kid-friendly introduction into the Doctor Who universe) and I love that this book showed her off in all her determination and resourcefulness. I also enjoyed the informative, no-nonsense writing style because it felt like a good immersion into 1970s sci-fi / spy culture.

Shada, by comparison, is much more tongue-in-cheek because it was developed from a script written by Douglas Adams (definite sci-fi icon, humorist extraordinaire  and one of my all-time favorite authors). Here, the Fourth Doctor (Mr. Being Eccentric is my Job and I’m Good At It) and Romana (Paragon of Dignity) travel with K-9 (Surprisingly Sassy Robot Dog) to Cambridge to meet up with an old friend, Professor Chronotis. Once there, they get entangled with a mysterious Gallifreyan relic, a megalomaniac with a mind-stealing orb, and a pair of hapless almost-romantically-involved scientists. The humorous tone is absolutely perfect, the stakes are high, the action is well-paced, and most importantly the characters are sympathetic and well-made. This one was published later, so it captures the spirit of the character while fleshing out some underdeveloped elements.

If you like Doctor Who, 60s and 70s sci-fi, Douglas Adams, or novelizations of famous TV series, you may enjoy one or the other of these books.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

You might or might not remember, but I adore Karen McManus’ work, especially One of Us is Lying. I became interested in A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson partly because it sounded similar in theme and character. If you like teen investigators or liked One of Us is Lying, you might like Jackson’s work too.

Here’s the story: Pippa has spent the last 5 years hearing about Andie Bell’s murder, and every time it’s the same story: her boyfriend Sal met her at night, killed her, hid her body, and within a few days was so overcome with guilt that he took his own life. But Pippa knew Sal, and she’s never quite believed it. When she gets a chance to do a senior capstone project on a topic of her choice, she jumps at the opportunity to investigate the case for herself, hoping to cast doubt on the official version. With help from Sal’s younger brother Ravi she digs into everything she can find, requesting records, interviewing Andie’s friends, and just generally turning over rocks that her suspects would rather she not look under. Slowly they put together a much darker picture of who Andie Bell was and why she died, and as anonymous threats arrive Pippa has to wonder if she’s taken on more risk than she can handle.

I liked this book a lot, for the skilled writing and the well-drawn characters; I rooted for Pippa, Ravi, and their friends and I mourned their losses along with them. I especially liked that Pippa had devoted friends, despite being the hardworking bookworm, and that she was compassionate as well as determined as she investigated such a sensitive topic. Jackson adds in realities of life, such racial prejudice, sexuality, blended families, and death. And, with no spoilers, the resolution was as unexpected as you’d want it to be after all that buildup. All in all, very effective, but at the same time it didn’t really compete with One of Us is Lying for my favorite YA mystery – mostly because Jackson stuck solely to one character’s perspective instead of alternating voices like McManus; as a writing style I prefer the breadth of viewpoints you get from an ensemble cast.

If you’re a mystery reader, a reader of young adult books, or a McManus fan like me, don’t miss out on A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, or its sequels Good Girl, Bad Blood and As Good as Dead, expected this fall.

Popular Manga Explained: My Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi

Have you ever wondered what the heck people are talking about when they rave about a series of manga (Japanese comics read from right-to-left) or anime (Japanese animation)? So have I – and luckily for you I have made it my mission to educate myself about things I never seem to stop hearing about. My latest escapade was into the wildly popular My Hero Academia manga series, which is also a smash hit anime available on DVD. Here’s my breakdown of what it’s all about, my reading experience and why all lovers of superhero stories and high school dramas should give it a try.

My Hero Academia is like The Karate Kid meets The X-Men. It imagines a world where 80% of people are born with a unique superpower, or Quirk, that sets them up for a life of superhero stardom or villainy (depending on their preference). In a world where amazing superheroes are commonplace, a boy named Midoriya (also called Deku) is their biggest fan and a dedicated memorizer of superhero trivia. He wants nothing more than to be a hero himself one day, but unfortunately for his dreams he was born without a Quirk – a fact his bully Bakugo (also called Kacchan) never lets him forget. Then one day, a chance encounter with All Might, the most legendary superhero of all, changes his fate and plunges him into the cutthroat world of the city’s best superhero training academy. Deku finds himself making new friends and enemies, meeting unusual classroom demands, AND struggling to master his new abilities without revealing how he got them. Action, hilarity, and inspiring determination ensue.

Personally, my main struggle with manga is getting into the right headspace – as translated works they have an entirely different culture built in which takes some getting used to when you start reading. Most obviously, you start at the opposite end of the book from where Western books begin, and you read from the right side of the page to the left. If you can make that switch, there’s Japanese names to master and a very dramatic art style. However, once I get my brain in the right gear, I love manga’s big-scale action and even bigger-scale emotions, not to mention the wildly creative character design. My Hero Academia in particular is the ultimate underdog story, filled with a wildly diverse set of characters, each with a very unique superpower to set them apart. I quickly got hooked and wanted more of Deku’s unending perseverance. Bonus: if you’re not into the different reading style, you can watch the anime to get the same story in color.

If you like teen dramas, superheroes, mutants, and/or underdogs, this may be a story for you. And the library has all the manga volumes AND anime seasons, so it’s never too late to jump in and experience the phenomenon.

Better Than People by Roan Parrish

I’ve reviewed one of Roan Parrish’s earlier works before and while I loved it, it had some issues. I’m happy to report that in her more recent Garnet Run series many of my complaints have been fixed! The first in a duology, Better Than People is a sweet romance for animal lovers and mental health advocates alike.

Jack is a prickly artist who has surrounded himself with a menagerie of animals, finding their company more enjoyable and trustworthy after a recent betrayal. Unfortunately, he can’t find his usual joy in taking care of them after breaking his leg in an accident. He’s going to need help – his least favorite situation to be in. Enter Simon, a man burdened with crippling shyness soothed only by the company of animals and his recently-widowed grandmother. But that’s his problem: his grandmother is terribly allergic to animals, keeping him from having a pet of his own. Having Simon walk Jack’s dogs (and cat) solves both their immediate problems AND their underlying loneliness, as a business arrangement blooms into love. But there’s a reason they both prefer animals to people; can their love triumph?

Being a shy animal lover myself, I really sympathized with the characters in this case, and I appreciated that Parrish’s take on anxiety and shyness is NOT “they need to get out more”, but rather a compassionate observation that some people are just built differently and have different social needs. To have Jack respond empathetically to Simon and listen to what he needs was exactly what I, as an anxious mess myself, needed to read.

If you take comfort and company from animal friends, if you find other people difficult to navigate sometimes, and if you like stories of supportive, affirming love (with spicy scenes mixed in), this may be the book for you.