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The Yellow Oak by Victor Vahl

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If you're looking for something weird and dreamy with a fair amount of body and psychological horror sprinkled in, The Yellow Oak might be the book for you.

Victor Vahl crafted an intriguing story about two men who get lost in a forest run by living, cannibalistic trees. Though the premise is decent, and much of the visuals are fantastic, I was hoping for more atmosphere. I would have appreciated a slower pace to build up the tension and flesh out the characters. My favorite thing about psychological horror, and what really makes House of Leaves phenomenal, is the slow build toward the climax. Not everything is thrown at you at once, meaning there's a ton of detail and hints at the full picture before the terror is revealed. In The Yellow Oak, things happen to Rye and Spencer too early. Due to the near-immediate dive into the horror, I didn't care about what happened to the characters. Backstory came too late; I already felt detached from the main cast when the story reached its peak.

From the editorial side of things (and how could I not touch on it given my background in copy editing), the diction was occasionally problematic. There were plenty of words that took me out of the narrative. It felt like the author had a thesaurus handy and ended up choosing words that were technically synonymous with the obvious word but that didn't fit within the text. This is where I'd have to side with Stephen King's advice; the first word you choose/write is likely the one you should use. Don't worry so much about how sophisticated your prose sounds. The point is to tell a great story and you hinder your reader's enjoyment if they have to weed through odd words and/or phrases. When in doubt, keep it simple.

Overall, the book was interesting and I had no idea where it was going the majority of the time. Though not everything worked for me, I'm sure it will appease much of the horror/thriller fan base.


Misfits by Michaela Coel

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I love Michaela Coel. After watching Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You, she became one of my favorite writers/directors. Her storytelling, particularly in I May Destroy You, was so brilliant that I had a difficult time not rewatching the limited series as soon as I was finished. Coel has a knack for character development that I admire and aspire toward.

When I heard about Misfits, I immediately placed it on my TBR. Though not as gripping as her TV dramas, I found Coel's message inspiring and thought-provoking. I'm sure her words will find the "misfits" and provide wisdom and light to those needing encouragement.


The Fallen in Soura Heights by Amanda Jaeger

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*I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.*

The Fallen in Soura Heights is a phenomenal thriller debut. Fey is a great protagonist and Soura Heights is the perfect backdrop for a murder mystery. From the first page, I was hooked. It didn't hurt that the characters were compelling and the descriptions of the landscape and town were easy to visualize. Though the "twist" was an easy call, I appreciated the way everything played out. Amanda Jaeger is a writer to watch out for.

I recommend picking up this quick read if you enjoy a good thriller/mystery.


Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

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Binti: The Night Masquerade is the final book in the Binti trilogy. Though I had my issues with the first two books, I was happy to see more world-building and better pacing in the final installment.

Without giving anything away, the book can be summarized as Binti coming to terms with who she's become. I've always enjoyed her as a character and am happy Okorafor didn't disappoint. If anything, I felt more connected to Binti by the end.

I also enjoyed the backstory that came with her newly acquired sight. Her awakening provided a great deal of missing information, filling in the gaps of this futuristic world.

Though there were a few slow sections throughout the trilogy, and I would have liked to see more of Oomza Uni overall, I closed this book feeling satisfied and intend to pick up other books by Nnedi Okorafor. She is a fantastic writer that needs more recognition in the science fiction community.


Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

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Binti: Home is a decent sequel. The main character, Binti, is an intriguing and inspiring character that I look forward to seeing more of in the final installment of the trilogy.

Though this book is about Binti returning home to cleanse herself of the impurities she believes she accumulated since beginning her studies at Oomza Uni, I felt like there wasn't enough time dedicated to her time at the university. I feel it would have had a stronger impact on the overarching plot if more emphasis was spent somewhere other than Earth.

My main criticism is that not much seemed to happen in 162 pages. Okorafor could have said the same amount in 30 pages, keeping the story concise and effective.

Despite the poor pacing, I look forward to seeing how the trilogy ends and recommend this series to fans of Afrofuturism and science fiction.


The Alkonost's Egg by K. Panikian

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*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*

The Alkonost's Egg is the final book in a trilogy but works just as well as a standalone novel. If you're looking for a quick fantasy with a dose of romance, I recommend giving this a go. The characters were interesting and fleshed out, the world-building was great and easy to digest, and the plot didn't drag. I appreciated the detailed fight scenes; instead of getting caught up in the placement of limbs and weapons, thoughtful descriptions were used. My only criticism is I felt the romance between Callie and Bard didn't receive the attention it so needed; I never invested in their future and felt their connection was never as strong as it could have been. There needed to be more intimate scenes between the two of them to make it 100% believable.

Though I did not read the first two novels in this series, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and will definitely be giving the preceding titles a look.


The Mad Girl by Andrew Colvin

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*I received a copy in exchange for an honest review. *

The Mad Girl, at its core, is about trauma. Cee Stark finds herself under the influence of a cultish priest who instills in her shaky beliefs and questionable coping mechanisms. Because she believes so strongly in slaying the evil in the world and rewriting her story, Cee lashes out at a man who attacks her in the neighborhood park. Once the police take on the case, it soon becomes clear that nothing is quite what it seems.

What Worked

  1. Suspense and tension were sprinkled throughout, offering a fist-clenching read. It was difficult to determine who was telling the truth, and that's exactly what readers are looking for.
  2. Each character had an arc. Everyone had baggage or trauma they were attempting to cope with, offering more intricate storylines.
  3. I appreciated how unreliable Cee's scenes were. I could never tell whether her recollection of an event was true.
  4. A great deal of time was spent on the case. Oftentimes, writers don't put a lot of time into police matters unless it is an explicit detective novel.

What Didn't

  1. Instead of using typical descriptions, there were many mixed or otherwise confusing metaphors. It wasn't uncommon to have to reread a sentence to understand its meaning.
  2. Much of the dialogue was wonky. Either the conversations were too robotic or too concise. The sentence "Understand." was used multiple times in place of "I understand" or "understood". It was jarring and often took me out of the scene.
  3. The teen interactions were not accurate or realistic. As the story is set in late 2012, and I graduated high school in 2011, I feel I can say the following with confidence.
  4. On a similar note, girls would have generally avoided Chris Holman after how he treated other girls. Not everyone wants to be popular, especially when the only way to reach popularity is to sleep with the biggest asshole on campus.


Overall, I enjoyed the read. There were aspects of the plot I found lacking or didn't fully appreciate but I was gripped by the story and wanted to know how it ended.


Burning for the Beast by Nara Jade

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*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*

Burning for the Beast is Nara Jade's debut novel. Though PNR (paranormal romance) isn't my go-to genre, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The characters, Evaline and Ulric, were fleshed out and believable. I appreciated the tension highlighted in the first half of the novel; it's easy for the "will they, won't they" plot to become cloying but I felt it worked for this particular story. Due to Evaline's health condition and Ulric's immortality, they are consistently faced with obstacles that many couples would never dream of overcoming. Add in a dying life source and a demon king's thirst for power and it makes it that much harder.

The descriptions and worldbuilding were also on point. Despite the book being PNR and not fantasy, Jade took care to offer details where they were needed. Personally, I liked how some of the battles were brushed over; there's only so much action I want in a romance novel.

Speaking of romance, there are quite a few spicy scenes. If you're looking for well-written, explicit sex scenes, you've come to the right place.

I enjoyed the novel and look forward to reading what Nara Jade writes next.


Awakening by Kevin Miller

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*I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.*

Awakening: Book One of the Berserker Chronicles centers around Leif, a Berserker who must go on a quest to save the nine realms of Yggorasil. After reading the blurb, I was intrigued. I don't read many books about Norse mythology, so I was excited to dive into something I didn't know much about.


What Worked

  1. Miller's world-building is great. I could visualize the scenery and other realms without much effort, and I enjoyed how the descriptions weren't overwhelming.
  2. Backstory and myth are offered through dialogue, research, and dreams. Instead of falling prey to the dreaded info dump, Miller offers the reader vital information in an organic manner.
  3. The character/monster descriptions are written well.


What Didn't

  1. The fight scenes were too long. I would have preferred if they were either shorter or happened less frequently.
  2. The use of pronouns is minimal. The protagonist's name (Leif) is used multiple times per paragraph, hindering the flow of the passage.
  3. Many of the scenes could have been condensed. Though the structure of each scene was strong, some of the fat needed to be trimmed.

Overall, I believe Miller did a decent job with this novel. Sure, there were areas that needed revision or could have used trimming, but a good story lies beneath those fixable things. Leif was a fun character to follow, and the world-building was on point; I just hoped for something more polished.


I May Destroy You and its Multi-Faceted Finale

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*Warning: This review contains spoilers.*

I May Destroy You tackles rape in a compelling and unique way by emphasizing how personal and layered the recovery process often is. Where Kwame eventually moves past his assault and finds peace and a bright future in someone who enjoys him more for who he is than what he happens to offer between the sheets, Arabella struggles writing the novel that’s already late to the publisher because she’s too busy helping other victims with their trauma.

After recruiting Zain’s help, she soon comes to realize that the story she needs to tell is the one she hasn’t accepted. This metamorphosing of plot is what we find in the finale.

The last episode offers three endings that center around confrontations with her rapist. In the first, she pretends to be drugged to trap her assaulter (in this version named Patrick) into falling for the bait and getting spiked himself. In this scenario, Arabella beats him to death on the street. She ends up stuffing the body under her bed, where she’s hidden every other horrible or triggering item throughout the series. This version releases all the anger she had previously repressed.

The second scenario was more interesting. Instead of getting back at David (the name she offered her rapist this time round), she pities him and takes him to her place after he implies he was sexually abused as a child and grew up to become a serial rapist. Arabella grapples with the why here. She moves from her feelings and attempts to find a possible reason why her assaulter did what he did.

The third scene, and certainly the most important in her journey, was that of acceptance and letting go. In this version, Arabella seduces Patrick (note how the name changes back to the original name she assigned — hinting again at the art of revision) and takes him back to hers, but in this scenario everything is reversed. She takes him from behind, ensuring she has the power. At the end, she tells him to leave and he walks out the door, right before his dead body slides out from underneath her bed and makes its departure. This symbolizes her recovery. By working through these endings, she is finally able to move past the assault.

I know many critics have noted how I May Destroy You shines a unique light on assault and trauma, but I must restate how authentic and raw Michaela Coel’s writing for the series is. As she wrote the script after she experienced a similar assault, the series comes across as genuine and personal. Everyone’s journey to recovery and acceptance is different, and I believe the series does a wonderful job of showing how there’s no right way of moving past something as traumatic as rape.

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