The Bookmistress’s Best of 2019

Another year down, and it was a fantastic year of reading! I met my goal of 50 books, and actually exceeded it by four. Part of this is because I’ve begun listening to books in my car on the way to work. This is now primarily how I read my YA! And thanks to finding the wonder of bookstagram, I have done a much better job of keeping track of my books and reviewing them. I slipped on keeping up this blog, but my instagram page was always kept up. I can’t believe how much I love the community I found there, and the friends I have made, and the amazing books I have found and shared. It’s honestly one of the best things in my life, and I am thankful for it every day.

But, #becauseofbookstagram, I found that this year I read WAY more horror than usual! I kind of went overboard with my favorite niche, and next year I would like to find my way back to a more well-rounded reading list. Oh- don’t worry- it will still be chock-full of horror! Because, like my nightworms friends know: “Horror is my happy place!”

I also found myself reading fewer new releases; this is mostly because I have been reading less on my Kindle & more physical books. So my Top 10 list this year has a bunch of older stuff on it. There are a bunch of books on all the standard “best of the year” lists that I need to get to!

So in no particular order, here they are:

BUNNY– Mona Awad

This is the best book I read this year, maybe even this decade! I can’t even tell you how much I loved it. Its slang has become shorthand with my real life friends. Get out there & read this!

I don’t want to tell you too much about it, because it’s best to go in without knowing too much. 

But here are the basics: Samantha is a scholarship student at a schmancy New England school, in the creative writing department. The other students in her writing group are rich, beautiful girls who call each other Bunny, who smell and look like cupcakes, and who don’t like Samantha’s writing at all. Until one day the Bunnies invite Samantha to one of their Smut Salons, where they make her exotic drinks and recite weirdly erotic poetry. And then they ask her to bring them a bunny. A real one. 

This book is everything- it is a little bit horror and a whole lot weird, it’s about friendship and loneliness, it’s about the pain of creation and the agency of womanhood, it’s about madness, and it is also so very funny. 

Sawkill Girls- Claire LeGrand

This was my first read of the year, and it was a great one! This is a YA murder mystery that is at its core a coming of age story about really powerful girls. The girls of Sawkill are full of fire and electricity and they are using it to fight real monsters. One thing I really loved about this story is how beautifully it treats the girls’ various queernesses- there is no big deal if they sleep together or decide that they don’t want to sleep with anyone. I would just love to see more books about kick-ass ladies like these!

All the Birds In the Sky– Charlie Jane Anders

This one is the most amazing blend of sci-fi and fantasy!  The story opens up on two children, Patricia and Laurence, both outcasts who feel alone in the world. Patricia once speaks to birds, and a tree told her she is a witch. Laurence has built a time machine, but it only goes forward 2 seconds. They find each other and become fast friends, learning the other’s deepest secrets and making promises. 

Then they are separated when they both go off to special schools, the schools of their dreams, and their paths diverge. They are connected, though, and they orbit around each other throughout their lives, sometimes converging, sometimes flying apart, but always tethered. In the meantime, the world is coming down around them.

Will their crazy orbit tear the entire world apart? Anders skillfully warps all the standard concepts of science-fiction by integrating it easily with the world of fantasy and magic. Can magic save the world that technology is tearing apart? Or is it some act of magic that has destroyed the world, and only the brightest scientists can save it?

Are the birds the only ones who know the answer?

Is a tree red?

Hell Hound– Ken Greenhall

I didn’t expect to like this novella- I guess I was expecting some sort of story about a ravenous Cujo-dog. I was not expecting this. This book is so smart and so very disturbing. This book is primarily told from the point of view of the dog, Baxter. Baxter struggles to understand human emotions, and if he were a human he would almost certainly be diagnosed as psychopathic. But he’s a dog, so he works through them himself- when he deems something (or someone) a problem, he just rids himself of it.

The best part of this book is the relationship between Baxter and his owner, who is a Nazi-sympathizer and budding psychopath himself. The two slowly begin to understand each other, and then truly awful things begin to happen

I read this stunning little novella in one sitting, but I thought about it for days afterwards.

Experimental Film- Gemma Files

I have no idea how I missed this one when it came out a few years ago. This absolutely goes on my favorites of all time list.

In this novel, we follow film critic Lois Cairns as she digs into the history of Canada’s first female filmmaker- Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb. The subjects of Mrs. Whitcomb’s very experimental films are always the same: the noon witch of slavic mythology, Lady Midday. She appears at the very moment of noon to tired field workers, asking them questions; if they answer wrong, they lose their head to her scythe! She also causes physical distress- she is the personification of heatstroke.

The Noontime Witch takes over everything in Lois’s life and she becomes obsessed. Her goal is to make a film about it, of course. An old colleague is also following the story, putting obstacles in her way. Lois becomes increasingly physically ill until she reaches a breaking point.

How many people will she drag into the light with her?

Because this book is about film, Files has to make the reader SEE the story. She does a brilliant job of this; I could feel the brightness, my eyes tearing up at the glare off the screen. All the characters are intricately drawn, and the story moves at a quick pace even with all the detail. And most of all, it was scary! Not like gore & killers scary, but real disturbing deep down in your stomach scary. Like the next time I had a migraine, I thought about Lady Midday kind of scary. And that, my friends, is real scary!!!

In the Valley of the Sun- Andy Davidson

It’s been a very long time since I have read a “vampire” book that touched me like this one did. Davidson’s prose is gorgeous and lush, in stark contrast to the arid desert setting of his story. Listen: “His name. Spoken with the same luscious sound as the first bite into a red, raw apple, a delicious wet sound…”

This is a slow story, no rushing, and so at first I put it in my DNF pile. But then, tired of shorts, I picked it up again and just couldn’t put it down. When I finally did put it down, I found tears in my eyes.

This is the story of the slow ending of Travis Stilwell, who was unfortunate enough to encounter a woman-creature named Rue in a Texas honky-tonk. The story is laid out through inter-woven chapters focusing on Travis and a young mother and son he meets, the creature Rue, and the federal agents tasked with finding the serial killer working through Texas. And his story is heart-breaking, from neglectful parents to his time as a rogue soldier in Vietnam. This is one of those stories where you find yourself sympathetic to the monster.

As Travis is changing, he pulls into the Sundowner Inn, where he meets a young mother, Annabelle, and her son Sandy. Travis sets to helping Annabelle with small tasks around the Inn, and begins to find in their small family things that he believed to be lost. But can those things be found by the thing he is becoming?

Saturday Night Ghost Club- Craig Davidson

This was a quiet ghost story that really moved me. It is a coming-of-age about a bullied young boy and his new friends who have the summer of their lives learning about their town’s ghosts from his odd uncle. It is both spooky and sweet. Davidson gives us hints of first love and plumbs the depths of human emotion.

One of my favorite things about this book is how it tells the stories of the town’s ghosts. All the twisted and oft-told legends that schoolchildren hear from their parents and friends over the years.

The things that scared you “as you get older, the texture of your fear changes. You’re no longer afraid of the things you had absolute faith in as a child…the magic gets kicked out of you, churched out, shamed out- or worse, you steal it from yourself… By degrees, you kill your own magic.”

So this book brings all this magic back, if even just for a moment, and it was lovely.

Shadow & Bone Trilogy- Leigh Bardugo

I listened to this whole trilogy this year- I’ve taken to listening to books whenever I’m driving, and I really loved these. They are really everything I love in a YA fantasy series. It’s got intricate world-building, engaging characters, action, and a splash of romance. Bardugo sketches characters that feel real, which is the most important part of making a fantasy work. The story is familiar; a young girl, an orphan, grows up to discover that she is special and that she alone can save the world. But the world building and the fantastic setting- I love that it is Russian & not another British type series- make up for the familiar story.

I can’t wait to read more by Bardugo

The Book of Dust- Phillip Pullman

I can’t say very much about this book without getting spoiler-y. But what I can do is tell you to do yourself a favor and listen to the audio. Michael Sheen’s reading is just amazing, and it made a kind of slow middle part go much better.

If you thought that these were going to continue to be kid’s books, they are not. Pullman makes sure that we know that by using the f-word loud & proud. Lyra is not a child any more. She is a grown woman, and she has changed. Not necessarily for the good.

This book broke my heart, and left me hanging, and I am just hoping that the next one will be there to pick up the pieces.

Once Upon a River- Diane Setterfield

“Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place.” At its heart, Once Upon a River is a story about stories. How they begin, how they are told, and how they evolve in the telling. This story begins at an ancient inn in France, right along the Thames, in about 1887. The Swan at Radcot has a history of storytelling; it is a place where 

people gather to get drunk and hear and tell stories as they travel along the river. 

On the longest day of the year, the Swan is packed with drinkers and stories, when the door bursts open and a man comes in carrying a young girl who is declared dead by the local nurse/doctor, Rita. But before the night is out, that girl draws breath again, as if by magic. Multiple people come to make a claim on the girl, who does not speak.

This story, like the Thames itself, winds and twists; we meet a large cast of characters all connected by their association with the girl found at the Swan. Setterfield has written a masterful story with elements of both historical fiction and magical realism. This period of time is rife with superstition and fortune-telling as well as great advances in science and medicine. All of these elements are used together to weave a story that dances on the very edge of fantasy.

This story is definitely a “slow-burn,” and it took me quite a while to get through it. I even put it down briefly to read something else and returned to it. However, once I got about halfway through, it really picked up. There was even a really fun play- like in Hamlet- to try and out the kidnapper at one point. And I won’t give any spoilers, but the end had me gasping in surprise! It was really fantastic & twisty. I always love it when I don’t guess the ending. 

Once Upon a River is a beautiful story that flows like the river it is set on; slow at points, madly rushing at others, but steady and constant always.

The Starless Sea- Erin Morganstern

“Not all stories speak to all listeners, but all listeners can find a story that does, somewhere, sometime. In one form or another.”  Just a few days ago, Erin Morganstern tweeted that she was becoming a bit irritated by readers telling her that they didn’t like The Starless Sea because it was confusing and not at all like The Night Circus. This is exactly what it comes down to.

This book is not at all like the Night Circus, except that it is full to brimming with magic and beauty.

Morganstern is to me a magician of sorts, a magical wordsmith, and every turn of phrase leaves me breathless. I didn’t quite finish this book by the end of the year, not because I couldn’t, but because I didn’t want to. I wanted it to go slower; I didn’t want it to end. And right now, as I have just finished the last few pages, I have a strange urge to pick it up again…”having a physical response to a lack of book is not unusual…” right???

I’m not sure I can describe the story, except to say that it is a story about stories. I know, that’s a lame description. But if you love books like I do, that might be enough to get you. It’s a story about stories and a secret society created to protect the stories. And bees and keys and swords. Read it!

Books That Almost Made the List

Coyote Songs- Gabino Iglesias

The Rust Maidens- Gwendolyn Kiste

Recursion- Blake Crouch

Middlegame- Seanan McGuire

Books of Special Note

Awesome Non-Fiction

Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror & Speculative Fiction- Lisa Kroger & Melanie R Anderson

This is fantastic both as an introduction to the ladies of horror and a very thorough bibliography. Even I found lots of things to read, and I consider myself an expert in the field! This was a really fun read, and it was also a beautiful book- a must-have for any horror afficianado.

Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose in Translation When We Read the Bible: Stant Litore

I wish I could gift this book to every person who claims to be a Christian and then attempts to use the Bible as an excuse to hate- to hate women or gay people or immigrants… the list goes on. This book gave me chills. And hope.

I am not a Christian, but I am fascinated with religion, and this is one of the best books about translation I have ever read. Litore reminds readers that “in the Koine Greek of the New Testament, truth is an activity, not a blunt object.” And in this work, he asks readers to join him in the activity of truth-uncovering. He reminds us that all translation involves more than just historical context- there’s our own prejudices & cultural context as well. Litore breaks down several controversial bits of the Bible- passages about the place of women, immigrants, LGBTQ people, even corporal punishment. 

Litore’s writing is accessible for anyone, you don’t need a background in Biblical studies to enjoy the adventure he invites us on. 

Favorite New Author

Matthew Brockmeyer- Kind Nepenthe & Under Rotting Sky: Brockmeyer’s work is gritty and dark and just amazing. I loved every bit of it. Besides that, he’s a really nice guy, and he loves talking literature & engages with other readers on instagram, and that’s pretty cool. You can find him at @humboldtlycanthrope .

Favorite Outside of My Usual Comfort Zone

Black Leopard Red Wolf- Marlon James

This is an EPIC African fantasy novel, and by epic, I mean long! I had to push a bit to finish it, but I did because I thought it was both beautiful and important.

I Wish I Could Have My Time Back/ Books I Disliked

Exquisite Corpse- Poppy Z Brite

Like terrible necrophilia porn with no redeemable qualities. I literally didn’t care about anyone in the book, so it didn’t really matter to me if they died. I have really enjoyed many of Brite’s short stories, so I was disappointed in this!

Tribesmen- Adam Cesare

I wanted to like this, but I didn’t. It felt scattered.

Last Days of Jack Sparks- Jason Arnopp

This just truly drove me crazy. And I guessed the ending almost immediately. I hate that. Also, maybe I really didn’t like the audio narrator and that totally colored my opinion. And nobody says the word “mate” that often. Ugh.


So thank you all for joining me on this little reading journey! Here’s to a stellar 2020 in both books and life!

Hollow Kingdom- Kira Jane Buxton

Totally a cover purchase!

First of all, a couple of things : if you’re not a fan of excessive cursing, this book is not for you. If you’re note a fan of excessive anthropomorphizing, this book is also not for you! 

If you can get by those things, then this novel is over-the-top funny, and still tender at times.

This is a story about the end of the world, the human world at least, and our narrator is primarily a domesticated crow named Shit Turd (ST for short.) His owner Big Jim starts acting strangely, and ST tries to help him until the day that Jim’s eye just pops out. And he doesn’t seem to care. Then ST decides to venture out in the world to find out what is happening to the people- or MoFo’s as he has been taught to call them. What he finds is that all the MoFo’s are zombie-like creatures now, and he makes it his duty, along with his reliable hound dog friend Dennis, to rescue all the domestic animals trapped in houses.

Shit Turd would love this!

So ST has a potty mouth, and he is really funny, but underneath the brash crow chatterings, this story is really about connections, and Buxton does a beautiful job of describing the way the natural world communicates. Once the noise of the MoFos is gone, you can finally hear the rustlings of the trees, the calls of the birds, and even the whispers of the worms beneath the earth.

There are also short chapters narrated by other living beings- a cat named Ghengis who truly believes he is king, a coddled poodle who speaks in the 3rd person, and even a polar bear, a camel, an elephant.  I love how different each of their voices are.

Even though much of the narration is cussing, there are also moments of extreme beauty, and I nearly cried several times. Once was this amazing passage, where thousands of birds are gathered, anxious, wondering how to proceed, and a young grosbeak breaks the tension by singing:

“The song was his father’s father’s father’s song, unrepeatable by any other living being. It was a song about kindness, a unique and casual caroling. It was soothing and leisurely and all his to share with the hundreds of beings around him, Nearby, a female grosbeak cocked her head in rapt attention and I wondered if this was the beginning of a new chapter for them, whether on another page further along in the book, an egg would hatch with this very song in the lining of its shell.”

Crows gathering over their dead.

My favorite thing about this story is the way the world goes on after the people & their world recedes, and we watch the natural world take over. Buxton imagines an amazing communication system between all living beings, known as Aura in the air, Echo in the water, and Web in the earth. She makes a point to emphasize how the humans were perhaps too loud to ever hear what was going on all around them. I wonder if a MoFo could be still enough to listen for a tree’s whisper. We also learn quite a bit about crows through this story- did you know that crows gather together when one of their own dies- a kind of crow “funeral?”

This book is a delight to read- but I did feel it dragging a bit in the middle. I listened to it, but I know that if I had been reading, I would have skimmed quite a bit. ST has an identity crisis- trying to determine if he is a crow or a MoFo, and it goes on for a bit too long. It is also difficult to hang on during ST’s interminable lists- lists of types of birds, lists of types of foods, just too many lists!

Here’s the book with my own stuffed corvid friend, whose name translates roughly as GARY!

In the end, though, the story leaves some hope, and I was impressed with this fresh take on the old standard zombie apocalypse. I give it almost 4 stars- maybe 3.75!

The Toll- Cherie Priest

Taken in my parent’s backyard- pecan trees galore!

I read this atmospheric Southern Gothic while I was visiting my hometown in Oklahoma, sitting on the back porch, listening to the cicadas music with something like longing in my heart, driving fast down long back roads by the lake in my daddy’s old corvette. It was the perfect setting for a book like this. The Toll is all about the atmosphere- it is set in Georgia’s Okefenokee swampland, in a town that doesn’t even show up on maps.

As it starts out, a couple is driving along State Road 177 towards the Okefenokee to some cabins they have reserved for their honeymoon. Titus & Melanie are fighting about this, as a couple might if they decided a swamp would be a good place for a honeymoon. Then they come upon a bridge. 

This is how I imagine the bridge- except you can’t see to the other side.

This bridge is unlike the others they had passed over, and it made Titus uncomfortable. Next thing he knew, he woke up on the ground. Melanie was gone… and so was the bridge.

The search for Melanie takes us to the little town of Staywater, where there is little more than a bar, a bed & breakfast, and one pizza joint. Here we learn that people have been disappearing in that same place about every 13 years for as long as anyone can remember. And the two people who remember best are the Spratford Cousins, Daisy & Claire, who live in a sprawling southern estate called Hazelhurst. Daisy & Claire are both over 80, and are guardians of a 16 year old named Cameron. But they aren’t quite ready to share.

So Titus & the local police squad (like 3 people) go through the motions of an investigation, as everyone in town looks on. Titus begins to realize that something is off when the town crazy, Netta, tries to tell him about how her own son disappeared about 13 years ago. About what lies in the swamp around them. And how the Spratford ladies once tried to stop it.

Now, I enjoy it as much as anyone else when a book leaves you with some questions. But I really felt like this one left me with far more questions than answers. And, in some ways I felt like the focus was on the wrong people- people I really didn’t care about. I honestly couldn’t bring myself to care very much about Titus & his bitchy wife, or about the bartender & his bitchy girlfriend. I wanted MORE about the Spratford witches. Because that’s what they are, really. But we don’t even get to hear about their history in any detail. Where did Cameron come from? What’s up with that house full of creepy dolls?

Nightmare fuel!

Why is the blind dog in the tree?

OK, I know there aren’t coconuts in Georgia, but look how cute this freaking doggo is!!!

And most of all…I wanted to know more about the town history. Not just a couple of quickly read news articles.

It was also missing another key element of most Southern Gothics- religion. I think that if we had learned more about the Spratford ladies & their witchery we might have gotten into that, but alas. Regardless, this was a really fun read, and I zipped through it. What the ladies do to try to defeat the “thing that pushes” again is truly shocking, and I never saw it coming. I give it a solid 4 stars!

Bunny- Mona Awad

Bunny was a brilliant beach read!



Performance based.


SO intertextual.

Basically: a hybrid.

A hybrid: That most obscure of academic beasts. What you call something when you just don’t know what you’re doing anymore.”

Mona Awad’s Bunny is so this! I am not sure if I should call it horror, or comedy, or dark comedy, or just plain weird literary insanity…

Set at an elite New England grad school, Bunny zeroes in on the Lit department, where the poets are losers, and the very richest and most beautiful of creative writers are a part of a clique known as the Bunnies. The Bunnies call each other Bunny, and are each beautiful and sickeningly sweet as cupcakes- as a matter of fact, they mostly look and smell like cupcakes, too. You might see a bit of Heathers or Plastics in these ladies.

I love you, Bunny!

But one of the members of their writing group is emphatically NOT a Bunny- Samantha Heather Mackey, or Smackie, as her friend Ava calls her. Ava “would never eat a lavender cupcake that tasted like perfume or wear a perfume that made her smell like a cupcake. She would never wear lip balm for cosmetic purposes. She would never wear it unless her lips were seriously, seriously chapped.” Samantha is a scholarship student, and she and Ava find the Bunnies group hugs and fake voices detestable. 

Down the rabbit hole…

That is, until the day they invite her to one of their Smut Salons. Where they make her special drinks and recite weirdly erotic passages. And then ask her to bring them a bunny. A real one. All of a sudden, Samantha is seeing rabbits everywhere. Are they talking to her?

The Bunnies invite Samantha to one of their own private “Workshops,” which Samantha thinks will be about writing. They do end up creating, but it is definitely not literature. They are creating their own hybrids, their own darlings. And you know….sometimes you have to kill your darlings.

The deeper Samantha gets into the world of the Bunnies, the more the edges of reality begin to blur- is she drugged? Are these things even happening? 

This book is simply genius! Even if you have never taken part in a creative writing class, Awad drowns you in the process- exposing the very depths of creation and the gut-wrenching birthing process that writers go through to bring forth a finished work. I was more than amused to discover that she and I went to the same private grad school in Denver! While we didn’t exactly have a cave to work in, I know how close-knit English departments can be. And how lonely school can be in a new place where you don’t know anyone. This book is about all of that: friendships, loneliness, creation, the agency of womanhood, and most of all: cute lil bunnies!

There aren’t enough stars to give to this, so of course I’m giving it all 5! It was dark & delicious, and oh so funny- I was literally laughing out loud so often my friends were questioning my sanity. But then again, so was I.

Black Leopard Red Wolf- Marlon James

“What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.”

This is the essence of the epic African fantasy Black Leopard Red Wolf- storytelling. We are thrust into a story already in progress. Our main character & narrator, Tracker, is being questioned. We’re not sure why, but he appears to be in some sort of prison situation, with an inquisitor. Thus, the story begins.

Tracker has a nose. This is known. His nose takes him across many lands, and he meets at least 4 pages worth of people (all listed in the front so you can keep track!) I did mention that this is epic, right? After running from his homeland and his own very dysfunctional family, Tracker finds himself in a new land with a new kind of family. Here he meets Leopard, a shape-shifter who becomes both his best friend and deepest annoyance.

“The Leopard says too many things that slip off him like water does oil, but sticks to me like a stain. Truth, there are times I feel like I should wash him out. I am always happy to see him, but never sad when he is gone.”

They are both approached with a quest to find a boy. They are accompanied by a group of equally strange characters- a witch, a giant, a slaver, a mercenary, and others over the miles.

The quest takes Tracker to the very depths of himself- it breaks him down to nothing. This story is as much about self-discovery as anything else. The way Tracker’s people think about sexuality lies in the physical- a man becomes a man when they cut out the female through circumcision, and a woman becomes a woman when they cut out the man through clitorectomy. However, Tracker was never circumcised, so he remains both. It makes me think of the Native American’s Two Spirits. As his story begins, Tracker feels strong and manly, but he is brought down by events, he is made to empathize with the female in himself. He is forced to face his own nature, in a sense.  

“I who thought he had his hatchets and his cunning, will one day be grabbed and tossed and thrown in with shit, and beaten and destroyed. I am the one who will need saving, and it’s not that someone will come and save me, or that nobody will, but that I will need saving, and walking forth in the world in the shape and step of a man meant nothing.”

This is BRUTAL, and it is how he becomes the “Red Wolf” of the title. 

When Tracker is able to overcome this, to come out the other end, and eventually love another man, we see the truth of his growth. That is the true quest here.

Mind you, while he is making his way towards this, SO MUCH HAPPENS! There are lightning people, mermaids, sad giants (don’t call him giant!), the smell of many butt cracks, witches, 19 doors, and lots of magic. I can’t even describe it, so I won’t try. 

I will say that I know that many people put so many trigger warnings on this book, or were unwilling to read it due to rape scenes. I believe those scenes to be vital to the story; we are talking about a violent and wild land full of wild men and animals. Women are usually the victims of this violence, and James explores the fact that they are not the only victims. 

Also, this book is long, and while I enjoyed it, I also felt that I really had to push myself through the end. There were just so many characters to keep track of and so much going on, I wanted to give up several times. The reason I didn’t was the devotion to beautiful language I found throughout. I may have been juggling too many characters, or sometimes dragging my feet a bit, but it was truly gorgeous. So I give it 4 solid stars!

“Word is divine wish, they say. Word is invisible to all but the gods. So when woman or man write words, they dare to look at the divine. Oh, what power.”

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein- Kiersten White

Deliciously dark retelling!

“Words and stories were tools to elicit the desired reactions in others, and I was an expert craftswoman.”

Such is how we meet Elizabeth Lavenza, young friend and “caretaker” of Victor Frankenstein. Kiersten White has written a fascinating retelling of the classic story, from the point of view of Victor’s young wife. In Frankenstein, Elizabeth was little more than set dressing, a beautiful angel, and nothing more. White dedicates her version of the story to “everyone made to feel like a side character in their own story.”

In Shelley’s version, things don’t turn out so well for Elizabeth…

In this version, Elizabeth is indeed a beautiful angel, but she is of her own making. She is an orphan, and she comes to the Frankenstein family as a child, someone to help temper Victor’s unusual tempers. Her “caretaker” was terrible to her, and she had lived her early life poor, hungry, and beaten down, so she saw opportunity in the Frankenstein home. She was quick to make herself into whatever she needed to be to be a part of this wealthy home. She became Victor’s Elizabeth, letting her own self recede into the background. Victor’s needs are many, and he needs help controlling his violent emotions, as he often falls int “fevers.” His morbid curiosity is also something his Elizabeth must help him keep under wraps. Even as a child, he had a habit of wanting to see what lies beneath the surface, of wanting to learn what death means & if it can be conquered.

Oh, this is so deliciously gothic! The women of the gothic have been doing this for all time- it even has a critical name; professional feminism. Women who, knowing the constraints of the time, use their assets (beauty, softness, femininity) to get what they want. (I will soon be doing an entire blog post on this- it’s one of my favorite things about the gothic novel!) Anyways, Elizabeth does this so very perfectly. She becomes exactly what Victor desires. She wears only white for him, she protects him from the outside world, and she calms him when his rages bubble to the surface. But what about what Elizabeth wants?

As the story unfurls, Victor has gone away to school in Ingolstadt and Elizabeth is worried that her place in the Frankenstein home is in jeopardy without him to take care of. The younger children already have a nanny- her best friend Justine. So when Victor’s father goes away for a while, Elizabeth convinces Justine to go with her to look for Victor. They haven’t heard anything from Victor in more than a year. On the search, Elizabeth begins to learn more about Victor’s disturbing studies, and eventually she finds his laboratory. And his creation.

Yeah, not this monster- I’ll never understand why they made him look like this! The one in Penny Dreadful is my fave!

What follows is the story we know- but with some twists! The wedding night doesn’t go exactly as it does in Frankenstein. White takes Elizabeth on a journey towards self-realization, as she learns how to become her own Elizabeth and not Victor’s Elizabeth. I really enjoyed this story- it was perfectly dark and tinged with madness. It’s a character study in obsession, both Victor’s and Elizabeth’s. The first half does drag a bit, but I listened to it, and the fantastic narration got me through it easily. The action in the second half easily makes up for it.

Easily 4 Stars! I look forward to more work from White.

Coyote Songs- Gabino Iglesias

This was both a cover & bookstagram inspired purchase!

“Resolve was a fickle beast. Vengeance was a capricious lover. Anger was a planet covered in water that simultaneously obeyed the pull of too many whimsical moons. Pain was an unstable variable in a secret equation written in a language that never existed. Confidence was a fragile thing dangling over a sea of crushing teeth by a thread of shadow tied to a beam of hope.”

I am not sure what I can add to all the amazing reviews out there of this exquisitely original book, but I will try to put my thoughts into words. After I finished, I took a few days to think about it before writing this, mostly to think about what I had read.

This is a truly beautiful and mournful book. Above you get just a taste of the amazing lyricism of Iglesias’s writing, but if you are looking for a beam of hope, my friends, you should probably look elsewhere. Because here is the realm of Santa Muerte. La frontera- the frontier- the border. And it is just as horrifying as you think it is.

Death reigns at the border…

Iglesias writes in what many others are calling a “mosaic” style, by writing individual stories and weaving them together into one big picture. Some of the people in these stories don’t even have names; we have no names for the coyote or the mother or la bruja (the witch.) Even though the other three have names- Pedrito, Jamie, & Alma- I’m not sure that it matters, because they could be anyone in this godforsaken land.

Each piece of this mosiac gives the reader a glimpse into the horrors that lie in wait around the border: a young boy whose father was killed by militia, a coyote who strives to bring children over, the ghost of a woman who died while trying to cross over, a young mixed race performance artist who wants to make a statement. Every story is filled with blood & fear. The opening story made me gasp aloud.I felt some kind of connection with every single character in the book, but most of all with La Bruja, the witch. I felt like her chapters float through the book, intertwining the others. And her language is the most lyrical of all; the quote above is from her.

I applaud Iglesias for writing a story so current, so raw. He weaves together not only the individual stories, but also multiple genres. He calls it a “barrio noir,” but I felt as if I was reading a mix of horror and magical realism, with the grit of the noir as well. And all of this expertly done.

I can only give one small criticism, and it is primarily a criticism of myself. I wish I knew more Spanish. I live in Colorado and it would be WAY more useful than the freaking French I took so many years of. Anyways, this book switches from Spanish to English frequently and very smoothly. Often, I either understood, or just got enough from context and my limited Spanish to just keep reading. But there were many times I had to stop and translate, and that made what should have been a very quick read significantly longer. But I am not saying at all that it would be better if the Spanish wasn’t there, because I don’t think it would be. It just hindered my own personal experience. Due to this, I give it 4 Stars, because even with that distraction, it was just amazing!

Experimental Film-Gemma Files

“Given everything that’d happened…wouldn’t anybody have stopped short and said to themselves: holy shit, it’s like I’m in some kind of horror movie, here?

“In its purest form, done right, watching an experimental film is the closest you can come to dreaming another person’s dreams. Which is why to watch one is, essentially, to invite another person into your head, hoping you emerge haunted.”

What I loved most about this novel is the visual descriptions. Because this is a book about film, Files has to make the reader see the story. She does an absolutely brilliant job at this; I could feel the brightness, my eyes tearing up, the glare off the screen.

It’s been compared often to House of Leaves and Night Film, and I think those comparisons, in some ways, are apt. They are all “found footage” books, describing uncovered films. The act of describing a movie puts the reader at a certain distance that the author must bridge with language. Like we are at another remove from the subject of the book by our very inability to actually see it. The author must be our eyes.

In order to do that, the author must be a stellar storyteller, and Files is certainly that, “we’re storytelling creatures. Give us a bunch of seemingly random images and we will try to organize them into a linear progression.” That’s what this book is about- trying to find the story behind some random images found in an experimental film.

We follow film critic Lois Cairns as she digs into the history of a woman who is possibly Canada’s first female filmmaker- Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb. The subjects of Mrs. Whitcomb’s very experimental films are always the same, the noon witch of Slavic mythology Lady Midday. The myth of Lady Midday itself is one I’ve never heard before, and it’s always a joy for me to learn a new mythology, especially one that can inspire such horror. See, Lady Midday appears at the very moment of noon, “between the minute and the hour,” to tired field workers, asking them questions or distracting them. If they answer wrong….they lose their head to her scythe! She also causes physical distress; she is essentially the personification of heatstroke.

“She who Gives All, who walks behind every row.”

As Cairns begins to learn more about Mrs. Whitcomb, the readers learn more about both of their lives. I read some reviews that were critical of the portions of the book devoted to Cairns’ personal life and relationship with her family, but I found them extremely important, both as character study and as a way to link her to Mrs. Whitcomb. Their lives parallel each other in more and more obvious ways as the novel progresses. They both had sons on the spectrum (of course, Whitcomb wouldn’t have known such a term that long ago), husbands that seem almost ineffectual, and most of all, they both spent time in the presence of Lady Midday.

And that is where it all goes wrong. The Noontime Witch takes over everything in Lois’s life and she becomes obsessed. Her goal is to make a film about it, of course, and she gets some funding for it. An old colleague is also following Lois’s story, putting obstacles in her way at every turn. Lois becomes increasingly more physically ill until she reaches a breaking point.

How many people will she drag into the light with her?


This book is amazing! The characters are all intricately drawn, even the ones from a century ago, and the story moves at a quick pace even with all the detail. And, most of all, it was scary! Not like gore & killers scary, but real disturbing down in your stomach scary. Like the next time I had a migraine, I immediately thought about Lady Midday kind of scary.

That, my friends, is five stars scary!

The Goth Guys: Birth of the Gothic

OK, as soon as I said goth guys, I know you were immediately thinking about this…

Hey girl, it’s Friday, I’m in love…

But really, the men I’ll be talking about today were more like this…


Yeah, I’m talking about the guys in tights and powdered wigs mostly, because these are the men who first wrote the type of novel we now know as the gothic. The beginning of the 18th Century in England was steeped in the Age of Enlightenment, and so the modern novel was born as a morality tale, or a philosophical type of story meant to (yep) enlighten the reader on the pitfalls of evildoing. As the century closed, though, Romanticism was on the rise, and the gothic fit both of these perfectly.

Horace Walpole published the Castle of Otranto in 1764, and he was “fond of mediaval romance and mystery as a dilettante’s diversion” (HP Lovecraft). That was really how most people thought of novels at that time- as a non-academic pursuit. One that is probably better suited for the weak of mind (re: women). Anyways, Castle of Otranto is considered by most to be the first Gothic Novel. It is the story of Prince Manfred and his family- on his son’s wedding day, part of a giant suit of armor falls from the sky and crushes the groom. The remaining family returns to the dreary castle & then Manfred plots to divorce his wife and marry the girl his son was going to marry. Much intrigue and some death follows. Most importantly, it is spooky and there are some clearly supernatural elements.

A few years later, the most popular author writing in this new genre was Ann Radcliffe, who began publishing in 1789. Radcliffe marks the genesis of what some think is a different subgenre of the gothic altogether- the female gothic. It can be useful to note the differences between the masculine & feminine gothic, and it has helped me understand the genre more completely. Of course, I will be covering the ladies in a different post!

So to really understand the difference, I’ll actually use one of Radcliffe’s own definitions. We have to look at the difference between terror and horror. She says that terror is the feeling of dread at the possibility of something frightening. Horror is the feeling of revulsion & disgust at actually seeing that horrible thing.

These are human emotions, apparently! Horror to the left & terror to the right. Not sure I’ve ever made those faces, but…

Terror is the type of feeling that Radcliffe, and generally the female gothic after her, looked to evoke. Never quite showing what was behind the curtain, but building that tension so that we’re afraid to look behind it.

Now, Radcliffe would say that horror contracts the soul, by absolutely annihilating our ability to respond to the displays of atrocity. That once the curtain is pulled aside, we are essentially frozen, unable to feel. The male gothic doesn’t think that way, and that is how we get to the horror of today! You know how every modern horror movie shows us every damn thing? Usually with overdoses of CGI. That is horror.

One of the things that these “masculine” gothic novels do differently is they are more likely to have unexplained supernatural events. Like a giant suit of armor falling from the sky, or like you’ll see later- bloodsucking vampires and crazed monsters. Those stories came primarily from men(but not always-I would say that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is in this category). The ladies tended to explain away the supernatural- like, oh, those noises? That’s just my crazy first wife up in the attic!

So those are the bad boys of the gothic novel! Here is a great list of books to read should you want to sink your teeth into some of these hotties:

Look at those beautiful books!

Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole

Vathek, William Beckford

Vampyre, John Polidori

Caleb Williams, William Godwin (Mary Shelley’s dad)

Carmilla, Sheridan le Fanu (birth of the lesbian vampire?)

Dracula, Bram Stoker

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

The Monk, Matthew Lewis (I love this one! It is slow at times, but worth it!)

Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, Marquis de Sade (yes, he had a great deal of influence on the genre)

Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

Turn of the Screw, Henry James

I hope you enjoy these, and keep an eye out for the gothic ladies coming up next.

The Bone Weaver’s Orchard – Sarah Read 3.75 Stars!

Welcome to Old Cross School for Boys!

“. . . It’s like the dust here is made of memory. You could wander in the past for years.”

Sarah Read’s debut novel The Bone Weaver’s Orchard is a fantastically atmospheric horror story. Think gothic with a splash of gore! We meet Charley in 1926 as he travels from his father’s side in Cairo to a new boarding school in England. He knows he is an unusual boy, as he has traveled across continents with jars full of bugs as his only friends. And of course, he finds trouble as soon as he arrives at Old Cross Boarding School. The other boys make fun of his bugs, and he ends up in a fight and getting a caning within the first day.

Charley tries to fit in, and makes one friend, Bowles, and they go about their days. Charley also befriends the school gardener Sam, who works only at the very edges of the school, never going inside. But then the bullies throw a rock at Bowles, injuring him badly, and Charley meets Matron Grace, the nurse. Grace is so sweet & caring, Charley could almost think of her as motherly.

Then, when he should have been in the infirmary, Bowles disappears. The headmaster says he must have run away, but Charley doesn’t think so. He turns his attention to the locked up East Wing, where many of the boys say there are ghosts. Charley begins a search that leads him into the most creepy of hidden chambers and tunnels, and he must question who his friends really are and who he can trust

The twists and turns of this novel are excellent; I didn’t guess them at all, and had a completely different theory midway. And most of all, the setting is just amazing- everything is covered in choking dust and cobwebs, the secret tunnels are in total darkness, there are chambers that are untouched for a generation. It is an ideal gothic haunted house.

I really want to give this 4 stars, but I just can’t. I am giving it 3.75 stars for the following reasons.

It’s a rule, Charley!

First, I am still pretty unsure of Charley’s motivations. Like I said before, this book has many of the trappings of a gothic novel, and one of those is a search for parentage, or a lost inheritance. But usually, that is the main character. Here, we have Sam the gardener who is looking to find out who exactly his mother was, with Charley’s help. So why does Charley care so much to crawl into those little tunnels & face these truly horrifying places? The book speaks a lot about family: the headmaster says, “we are your family now. This institution prides itself on forming the bonds that unite the future of Britain.” And of course, Charley, as a lonely boy so far from his father, should accept this new family. But he literally just met them. I have trouble believing that a 13 year old boy would risk his ass (he got caned SO many times) and eventually his life for virtual strangers.

I googled Bone Weaver spider, & here’s what I got!

Second, what the heck does the title have to do with the book? If you know, seriously tell me. I thought a bone weaver might be a type of spider, because of Charley’s obsession with bugs and all the comparisons to spider webs throughout the book. It’s not. Now Sam works the apple orchard, but that doesn’t seem to be a primary plot point. Anyways, it really distracted me!

Besides these minor distractions, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard was a well-paced, spooky, and fun read. I enjoyed it, and will certainly look for more books by Read.