Mini-Reviews (ARC Edition): The Last Cuentista + Nothing But Blackened Teeth

Today I have a couple of mini-reviews for ARCs I recently finished. It feels kind of odd to pair these two together as they could not be more different. One is a middle-grade sci-fi and the other is an adult horror novella. But both were amazing reads and if either of these are your genre, I highly recommend them.

Title: The Last Cuentista Author: Donna Barba Higuera Series: N/A Pages: 336 Publisher: Levine Querido Release Date: October 12th 2021

TW: death of a parent, eugenics

**Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review.**

"Había una vez . . . There lived a girl named Petra Peña, who wanted nothing more than to be a storyteller, like her abuelita. But Petra's world is ending. Earth has been destroyed by a comet, and only a few hundred scientists and their children – among them Petra and her family – have been chosen to journey to a new planet. They are the ones who must carry on the human race. Hundreds of years later, Petra wakes to this new planet – and the discovery that she is the only person who remembers Earth. A sinister Collective has taken over the ship during its journey, bent on erasing the sins of humanity's past. They have systematically purged the memories of all aboard – or purged them altogether. Petra alone now carries the stories of our past, and with them, any hope for our future. Can she make them live again? Pura Belpré Honor-winning author Donna Barba Higuera presents us with a brilliant journey through the stars, to the very heart of what makes us human."

Donna Barba Higuera’s second middle grade novel, The Last Cuentista, is as heartbreaking as it is inspiring. Petra Peña and her family are part of the few who have been selected to board a space ship bound for the distant planet of Sagan. With Halley’s Comet on a collision course with Earth, humanity’s only hope is to find a new home. While Petra and those like are incubated for the 380-year journey, the Monitors are tasked with watching over them. When Petra eventually wakes, she quickly discovers that something has gone terribly awry. The Collective, descendants of the Monitors, is now in control and are bent on eradicating conflict by any means necessary. In their quest to save humanity, they have become inhumane. Differences in appearance or opinion have been eliminated. Every person must serve the Collective. Petra is a strong girl with strong opinions. Molded by her grandmother’s stories, all she’s ever wanted is to be a great storyteller. It is these stories that provide her comfort as she faces off against a foe far more powerful than herself. And it is ultimately the tales she shapes herself that help lead her and others toward a better future. The Last Cuentista is a unique sci-fi, spellbinding and unforgettable. A must read for any middle grade fan.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)


Title: Nothing But Blackened Teeth Author: Cassandra Khaw Series: N/A Pages: 128 Publisher: Nightfire Release Date: October 19th 2021

TW: gore, panic attacks **Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review.**

"Cassandra Khaw's Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a gorgeously creepy haunted house tale, steeped in Japanese folklore and full of devastating twists. A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company. It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends. But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart. And she gets lonely down there in the dirt."

Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth simmers with tension on multiple levels beginning with its cast of characters. Cat and her friends have known each other since they were teens and have made a game out of chasing ghosts. As years have passed, however, and relationships have evolved, there is both spoken and unspoken tension between them. The ghost of relationships past is always there, along with resentment and hate, boiling just below the surface. When things begin to go awry, all bets are off and polite facades disappear, giving way to anger and chaos. The mansion the characters find themselves in is steeped in horrid tales of women buried alive year after year. Their bones have become a different kind of foundation for this mansion. The residence sits empty, waiting and wanting. As trepidation builds, the mansion feels almost sentient. It relishes the animosity building between these friends. Khaw’s writing is lyrical and descriptive, raw and haunting. Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a deliciously unnerving novella infused with Japanese folklore, in which its characters and house slowly begin to unravel, revealing the enmity underneath.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(5/5)

Mini-Reviews: Hide and Seeker + The Midnight Bargain

This is my first post trying to use the new block editor for my reviews and I hate it so much. It was so much easier to copy and paste html code from previous posts, but now when I try to do so, the html is just a mess to navigate. Why have you done this to us, WordPress? I need my classic editor back. I can’t even do something as simple as put a border around the synopsis because every time I do, I get an error message. This is the worst, ugh! I am beyond frustrated, but today I am bringing you two mini-reviews of recent reads. Overall, I enjoyed both, but I definitely preferred one over the other.

Title: Hide and Seeker
Author: Daka Hermon
Series: N/A
Pages: 320
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: September 15th 2020

TW: death of a parent

“One of our most iconic childhood games receives a creepy twist as it becomes the gateway to a nightmare world.

I went up the hill, the hill was muddy, stomped my toe and made it bloody, should I wash it?

Justin knows that something is wrong with his best friend. Zee went missing for a year. And when he came back, he was . . . different. Nobody knows what happened to him. At Zee’s welcome home party, Justin and the neighborhood crew play Hide and Seek. But it goes wrong. Very wrong.

One by one, everyone who plays the game disappears, pulled into a world of nightmares come to life. Justin and his friends realize this horrible place is where Zee had been trapped. All they can do now is hide from the Seeker.”

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My tongue skims across my dry lips as my numb fingers release the dead bolts. Click. Click. Click. With a slight push, the door glides open with a loud whine. Cold air whooshes from the room and chills my skin.”

Daka Hermon delivers a gut-punching horror novel with her middle grade debut, Hide and Seeker. Justin knows his life will never be the same after his mother’s passing. With bills piling up and his sister struggling to support them, Justin knows that they are barely getting by. One of his best friends just returned after going missing and what should be a celebratory birthday party for him, ends up being the beginning of another nightmare. After a game of Hide and Seek, Justin’s friends begin disappearing. Justin and those who still remain must piece together what is happening before they too are taken. The antagonist of Hide and Seeker taps into children’s fears, holding them captive by bringing their nightmares to life in a place called Nowhere. Middle grade horror always hits a little differently than YA or adult horror. Maybe it’s because the characters are so young or maybe it’s because their fear feels so much more palatable, but reading the horror these kids go through was intense. Justin makes a great lead character and I enjoyed seeing his arc come full circle. In the beginning of the novel, Justin knows he’s never going to be the same person he was before his mother died. His friends have always relied on him to keep them together, but he is unsure if he can be that person anymore. Justin’s fears are tied to his mother. He is forced to deal with this loss while also trying to survive in this world of fear and keep his friends from losing hope. Daka Hermon’s Hide and Seeker is sure to provide enough thrills and chills to make you reconsider ever playing Hide and Seek again.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)


themidnightbargainTitle: The Midnight Bargain
Author: C.L. Polk
Series: N/A
Pages: 384
Publisher: Erewhon
Release Date: October 13th 2020

“Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?”

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She breathed in magic, shaped it with her need, and charged the circle closed. She was between. Her body felt bigger than it was. Her awareness had expanded to to the skin of her aetheric form, the body that spirits and magicians could see, glowing softly within the circle spun of her mortal life.

C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain had all the elements needed to be a sweeping, romantic fantasy but faltered with its protagonist constantly being outshined by a minor character. Beatrice Clayborn is entering her first bargaining season in which she is declared eligible for marriage. But marriage is the furthest thing from her mind. She wants to pursue magic, to become a mage and help her family financially. But in this world women with magical abilities are only prized for their ability to produce male children with magic. When Beatrice meets someone who makes her think marriage may not be the worst fate, she’s torn between two impossibilities. Give up her dream or her only chance at finding someone who understands and respects her for who she is and wants to be. Beatrice is up against a patriarchal society that devalues womanhood. They’ve adopted harmful methods to keep pregnant women safe from evil spirits by collaring married women, cutting them off from their own magical abilities. Only widows and spinsters are allowed to study magic further. Beatrice has very strong opinions that run counter to these ideas and though this should have endeared her to me immediately, I grew frustrated with how passive she was. Though she wanted something different for herself beside marriage, she didn’t seem willing to give up her relationships with the men in her life who were essentially holding her back. This was never more apparent than when Ysbeta entered the picture. Ysbeta, like Beatrice, wishes to expand her knowledge of magic and does not wish to marry. She enlists Beatrice’s help in teaching her magic that has been beyond her reach and is prepared to do anything to take control of her own life. I could not help but wish the novel had cast Ysbeta as its lead on multiple occasions. Ysbeta did not wait for the approval of those around her, but dove head first into her ambitions. I did enjoy the development of Beatrice’s relationship with her younger sister Harriet. The latter does not understand why her older sister is so interested in magic and all its dangers. They have very opposing views but both their fears are valid and no fault of their own but of the misogynist society they have been raised in. The Midnight Bargain provided an interesting exploration of female autonomy in a world where marriage is a type of prison, but failed to hook me with its lead character.

★ ★ ★
(3/5)

Mini Reviews: The Only Good Indians (ARC Review) & Wilder Girls

Hello, friends, I am returning to blogging only on a very tentative basis. This week I have a set of two horror novel reviews to share. After picking up Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, I really wanted more horror in my life. I tend to watch horror movies/shows, but haven’t really explored the literary genre in a significant way. As a result, these two horror novels will not be the only ones you see me review this year.

Title: The Only Good Indians
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Series: N/A
Pages: 320
Publisher: Gallery/Saga Press
Release Date: July 14th 2020

**I received an ARC of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review**

      “The creeping horror of Paul Tremblay meets Tommy Orange’s There There in a dark novel of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition in this latest novel from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, Stephen Graham Jones.
      Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.”

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Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians is a harrowing horror novel about retribution and the consequences of running from your past. Ricky, Gabe, Cass, and Lewis grew up together on the Blackfeet reservation. After a hunting incident that gets them banned from taking part ever again, the friend group slowly drifts apart. But no matter how much time has passed from that fateful night, none of them can outrun what happened and what their actions gave birth to. Jones takes each of his characters and pushes them to the brink, where they begin to question reality and then slowly pulls the loose thread, unraveling their sanity. Though The Only Good Indians has a slow start, once it reaches its climax, Jones slams on the gas and takes readers on one of the most unrelenting, brutal endings I’ve ever read. Just when you think the story could not get any wilder, Jones guts you and leaves you in a state of shock. The Only Good Indians takes no prisoners and is a must read for horror fans everywhere.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)


Title: Wilder Girls
Author: Rory Power
Series: N/A
Pages: 357
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Release Date: July 9th 2019

      “It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. Since the Tox hit and pulled Hetty’s life out from under her.
    It started slow. First the teachers died one by one. Then it began to infect the students, turning their bodies strange and foreign. Now, cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for themselves on their island home, the girls don’t dare wander outside the school’s fence, where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure they were promised as the Tox seeps into everything.
      But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. And when she does, Hetty learns that there’s more to their story, to their life at Raxter, than she could have ever thought true.”

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      “I expected it to be different. I watch the trees attack the fence, the dark between them thick and reaching. I know what the Tox does. But I thought something of my old life would still be here. I thought something of us would have survived.”

Rory Power’s Wilder Girls had such an interesting premise revolving around an all-girls boarding school being overrun by a mysterious illness; however, this one failed to hold my attention even with the shock of body horror woven throughout. Wilder Girls revolves around three friends, Hetty, Byatt, and Reese, who, along with their classmates, have been kept in quarantine for the last year and a half at their school. The Tox, which first killed off most of the students and teachers, has ravaged the bodies of those at Raxter School for Girls. My first issue with this one was the set up, I found it hard to believe that these privileged girls’ families would somehow stand by while they were kept in quarantine for so long. Even with more explanation later on, I just could not wrap my brain around the fact that no one from the outside had ever tried to make contact with them outside of the CDC and Navy. I enjoyed how complicated the relationships in the novel were (there are friendships and also an f/f romance), but also how these relationships were always strain because of their environment. However, I never felt a real connection to any of the girls. I also am puzzled over the fact that we got chapters in Hetty and Byatt’s POV, but never for Reese. Reese, who had a strong connection to someone outside the boarding school, would have given the novel a wider scope. The action is very limited to this island the school is located on and instead of making me as a reader feel the claustrophobia of their situation, it left me wanting more context to their world. The ending was also really unsatisfying, not because I expected everything to be tied up neatly, but because it felt like the story just sort of drops off and we are left with more questions and very little concrete answers.

★ ★
(2/5)

ARC Review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: Mexican Gothic
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Series: N/A
Pages: 352
Publisher: Del Rey
Release Date: June 30th 2020
**Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher, which does not influence my review**

      “From the author of Gods of Jade and Shadow comes a reimagining of the classic gothic suspense novel, a story about an isolated mansion in 1950s Mexico — and the brave socialite drawn to its treacherous secrets.
      He is trying to poison me. You must come for me, Noemí. You have to save me.
      After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find — her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.
      Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough, smart, and has an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.
      Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.
      And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.”

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Silvia Moreno-Garcia continues to be unparalleled in storytelling ability with her first horror novel Mexican Gothic. Socialite Noemí Taboado would rather attend a party than be weighed down by family responsibilities. Despite being called flighty and unfocused, accurate descriptions if she’s being honest, Noemí is determined to attend University to further her education, even if this isn’t the norm for someone of her social standing. When a letter arrives from her recently married cousin, Catalina, claiming she is being poisoned and alluding to the existence of ghosts in her new home, Noemí is sent to assess whether her cousin is any real danger or in need of psychological intervention. When she arrives at High Place, Catalina’s husband’s family estate, tucked far into the Mexican countryside, the only thing gloomier than the dilapidated house are its inhabitants. With each day that passes Noemí becomes more convinced that her cousin’s erratic ramblings are a sign of something worse than what the family physician claims is just a case of tuberculosis. She is convinced she must find a way to take Catalina way from from High Place and her cold husband. But soon Noemí begins to experience the oddest dreams, begins to hear strange noises and see even stranger visions. Could Catalina’s incoherent ramblings be rooted in truth? As Noemi begins to doubt what is real and what isn’t in the dark halls of High Place, it becomes clear that it isn’t just her cousin who may be in danger.

Mexican Gothic is the embodiment of a compelling atmospheric read. The moment Noemí arrives in El Triunfo, the novel takes on an eerie tone. The small town is shrouded by a thick fog and moves ever so slowly. As Noemí travels by car on the uneven roads, the presence of civilization dwindles even more. Noemí is used to the city where there is a constant flow of activity. High Place, the Doyle house, is a shadow of its splendor. It has suffered from years of neglect and yet, it still stands. The electric system is unreliable, forcing inhabitants to rely on candles and oil lamps. The walls are lined with portraits of the Doyle clan, watching over the house. Remnants of the past cling to every nook and cranny. The Doyles once ran a successful mine that employed many of the townsfolk, but a series of unfortunate events forced its closure decades before. High Place is far from town, too far away for any regular visitors, not that the Doyles would ever welcome them. Descended from an English family, they have done their best to recreate their homeland in Mexico. Servants have been brought from England and even the very soil was exported as a way to replicate prized foliage. Most of the family speak only English and demand only English to be spoken within the walls of High Place. Their perceived superiority is present in every corner of their estate. The cemetery is a prime example, housing the English workers who died during an epidemic, honored with tombstones, while Mexican workers are left with unmarked graves, no thought given to honor them. The Doyles are invaders but lack the kind of self-awareness to call themselves such, or maybe they lack the empathy. They are selfish and self-serving; every major event in Mexican history is only understood in the context of how it affected the Doyle family.

The Doyles are stuck in the past. Catalina’s husband Virgil is cold and detached, alluring but in an unsettling way. His father, Howard, the Doyle patriarch, is aged and in constant need of care. He is confident in his race’s superiority over Mexican people and openly spouts views rooted in eugenics, volumes of which line High Place’s library. The first chill down the spine Mexican Gothic elicits is not from a ghostly apparition, but the way in which this man appraises Noemí, assessing her mestizo heritage and determining whether or not she is worthy to sit at his table. Florence, Howard’s niece is even more unwelcoming. She insists that Noemí follow the house rules no matter how arbitrary or infantile. Her son Francis is the only kind face in a very frigid family, but lacks the kind of worldliness Noemí is used to. Her presence disrupts the household, but even more so, this house disrupts Noemí, altering her forever. Used to putting on airs, Noemí’s time at High Place tears away at every mask she wears, strips her down to her most base desires and tempts her to give in to the darkness.

With Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia offers a different take on the genre, where colonialism is the horror story and how this manifests in ways that become more frightening with each page turned. The exploited are never quite free of the actions of the colonizers. This history seeps into the very soil, altering the land. Its consequences are never innocuous and sometimes they are plain insidious. Mexican Gothic tiptoes to a foreboding climax and will follow readers long after they finish the final page.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

(5/5)