The Hay Bale by Priscilla Bettis #bookreview #ghosts #shortread #TuesdayBookBlog

Contemporary Southern Gothic meets weird horror in this new novelette from Priscilla Bettis.

Professor Claire Davenport yearns to be a mother. After suffering four miscarriages, the university microbiologist tries and fails to qualify as an adoptive mother. Then Claire’s husband leaves.

Alone and emotionally wounded, Claire takes a summer sabbatical from her microbiology classes and escapes to rural Virginia to heal. There, she meets local farmers with strange agricultural practices.

Claire moves into the historic manor house she rented for the summer, and an abandoned child greets her. Is the child real, an answer to her prayers? Or is he a figment of her tormented emotions? Perhaps the tight-knit locals are playing a trick on the science lady from the city.

Whatever the boy’s origin, Claire is determined to find the truth, but the truth may be bloody.

I’ve been anxiously anticipating this novelette after reading the description on the author’s blog. Southern Gothic, weird horror, and a historic manor house? Everything about that calls out to the horror fan in me.

What’s so scary about a hay bale you ask? Plenty. To microbiologist Claire, it can be a breeding ground for fungus and disease. It may also hide something else. Reeling after suffering four miscarriages, failing to qualify as an adoptive mother, and separating from her husband, Claire takes a step back from her life and rents a house in a small town for the summer where she can begin to heal. That small town is filled with odd people, and she soon learns disturbing information about her new home. And that’s on top of the fact that it also seems to be inhabited by the ghost of a young boy.

Atmospheric, unsettling, and full of creepy imagery (I felt some Midsommar vibes), this horror novelette can be easily read in an hour and will stick with you long after finishing. I’m anxious to see what this author does next.

Reading and Justified

I’m behind on my reading. That’s nothing new, and I doubt I’m wrong when I say most of you are struggling to tame your TBRs. With me, it’s NetGalley ARCs. I’ve gotten the number down from what it was, but back in November it was at an all time high. Because of the deadline for those ARCs, I’m behind on reading friends’ books and others I’ve bought (I’m talking sequels of novels that gutted me with their cliffhangers). Since I turned in the sequel to Subject A36 I’ve had more reading time, and I listen to what I can on Alexa and finally seem to be making some headway. If I can make my March deadlines for ARCs, I’ll be in a much better place. I decided maybe I can fit in a chapter per day with some of those sequels waiting for me – at least it’s something. All things considered, there are worse addictions to have, right?

The TV show Justified starring Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins is one of my all time favs. The writing is a cut above anything else you’ll find and the acting superb (even Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 97% and they never seem to like anything). The series wrapped in 2015, but hubby and I have the DVDs and have watched it through at least a couple more times. Last week we were ecstatic to learn it’s returning! It’s a different town and situation, but Olyphant will be back as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. No confirmation yet on any of the other cast returning, but we’re hoping some will pop up.

That’s it for me – have a great week!

At the End of Everything by Marieke Nijkamp #bookreview #YA #thriller #suspense

The Hope Juvenile Treatment Center is ironically named. No one has hope for the delinquent teenagers who have been exiled there; the world barely acknowledges that they exist.

Then the guards at Hope start acting strange. And one day…they don’t show up. But when the teens band together to make a break from the facility, they encounter soldiers outside the gates. There’s a rapidly spreading infectious disease outside, and no one can leave their houses or travel without a permit. Which means that they’re stuck at Hope. And this time, no one is watching out for them at all.

As supplies quickly dwindle and a deadly plague tears through their ranks, the group has to decide whom among them they can trust and figure out how they can survive in a world that has never wanted them in the first place. 

This is the third book I’ve read by this author, and she certainly doesn’t shy away from tough subjects. A deadly infectious disease is unleashed on the world in this novel – sound familiar?

When the teens at Hope Juvenile Treatment Center learn the guards are gone and the doors are unlocked, they’re unsure of what’s going on. After a group of them venture into town, they run into a road block and are informed by soldiers about the spread of a plague. People are sheltering in place, and even after explaining their situation to the soldiers, they’re told to return to the center. They’ve been forgotten about. Discarded. With pleas for outside help ignored, the teens have no one to rely on but themselves.

If you’re thinking this sounds like a difficult, dark read, you’re right. Parts are this novel are incredibly hard to get through. Some of these kids have been rejected and abandoned by their families and friends and have no one. A group of them embark on their own to take their chances in the outside world. Others choose to stay and take care of each other. Not everyone lives. The sections with phone call transcripts between parents and friends and lists of food inventory give more insight to what these teens are dealing with.

The story is told in three POVs – Grace, who is thrust into a leadership role, Logan, who is mute and uses a form a sign language only she and her infected twin understand, and Emerson, a nonbinary newcomer to the facility. Each character is very well-crafted and has tremendous character arcs, especially Grace. Those who choose to stay at the center take on jobs and responsibilities and become a family of sorts. It was heartwarming to see some characters’ self perceptions alter during the course of the story. You’re not trapped in the box others put you in – stars can be changed.

Although bleak and certainly sobering taking the last two years into account, this is also a story full of hope and demonstrates what people can do when they come together to help each other.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Edelweiss.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

We Were Kings by Court Stevens #bookreview #YA #mystery #thriller #TuesdayBookBlog

Twenty years ago, eighteen-year-old Francis Quick was convicted of murdering her best friend Cora King and sentenced to death. Now the highly debated Accelerated Death Penalty Act passes and gives Frankie thirty final days to live. From the Kings’ own family rises up the one who will challenge the woefully inadequate evidence and potential innocence of Francis Quick.

The at-first reluctant and soon-fiery Nyla and her sidekick (and handsome country island boy), Sam Stack, bring Frankie’s case to the international stage through her YouTube channel Death Daze. They step into fame and a hometown battle that someone’s still willing to kill over. The senator? The philanthropist? The pawn shop owner? Nyla’s own mother?

Best advice: Don’t go to family dinner with the Kings. More people will leave the dining room in body bags than on their own two feet. And as for Francis Quick, she’s a gem . . . even if she’s guilty. 

I’ve wanted to read this author’s books for quite a while (she also has several published under Courtney C. Stevens), but just hadn’t been able to fit them it. When I saw her newest release pop up on NetGalley, I immediately requested it and was so excited to be approved.

I couldn’t pry the Kindle from my fingers with this novel. In fact, I was so caught up in the last 20% I was late meeting a friend for dinner – I needed to know how it would end. No way could I wait until later that evening to find out.

Nyla’s been raised my her mother (no father is in the picture), and they’ve lived with a family friend for the past several years. After her mother’s best friend receives the death penalty for a murder whe allegedly committed twenty years ago, secrets upon secrets are spilled about Nyla’s mother’s past and what happened all those years ago. Nyla and her new friend Sam (whose dad was a childhood friend of Nyla’s mother) soon dive deep into the mystery of who really killed Cora King. Once Nyla meets the King family, they all come under suspicion at some point during the story. They’re one dysfunctional bunch with plenty of skeletons stuffed in the closet.

The buildup to the big reveal had me suspecting almost everyone, and the twists are whiplash-worthy. And the reveal scene itself – shocking and so vivid I could see it playing out in my mind as if I was watching it on screen.

We Were Kings is a fast-paced mystery full of secrets, surprises, and maladjusted family dynamics. I’m just sorry it took me this long to read a book by this author.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Bond the Mighty Hunter and #AmWatching

To all the Pittsburgh fans out there, hubby suffered along with you last night. With all the yelling hurled in its direction, our TV may never be the same. Possibly my ears, also.

Our cat, Bond, stays mostly indoors, but when we’re outside on our covered patio he’s leash (a very long one) trained and likes to hang out with us. Unfortunately, he’s caught birds a couple times and even tried to bring one of them inside. Both times hubby had to get them away from Bond (I couldn’t bear to see the bird struggling in his mouth). For Christmas I bought son #1’s cat a stuffed bird toy that chirps – and Bond immediately stole it and began to growl at anyone who got close. I honestly believe he thought it was real. Once he figured out it wasn’t edible, it immediately became his favorite toy. Bond, the mighty hunter.

I’ve previously mentioned I seem to be the curse to TV shows and lamented the fact that so many of my favorites get canceled. La Brea is a new show that debuted on NBC last fall, i t called to me- a sinkhole opens up and the folks who fall through it wind up in another time. I vowed not to watch it, knowing if I got hooked it would meet the same fate. But It seemed like every time I turned around, La Brea was in my face. When I noticed the Sci-Fi channel was showing a marathon, I caved in and recorded the whole season. And I’m hooked. Once I finished all ten episodes, I checked to see if it had been renewed, dreading the results. It’s getting a second season, but I’m wondering if it will make it past that given my history. Keep your fingers crossed.

Have a great week!

Such A Pretty Smile by Kristi Demeester #bookreview #thriller #psychological suspense

A biting novel from an electrifying new voice, Such a Pretty Smile is a heart-stopping tour-de-force about powerful women, angry men, and all the ways in which girls fight against the forces that try to silence them.

There’s something out there that’s killing. Known only as The Cur, he leaves no traces, save for the torn bodies of girls, on the verge of becoming women, who are known as trouble-makers; those who refuse to conform, to know their place. Girls who don’t know when to shut up.

2019: Thirteen-year-old Lila Sawyer has secrets she can’t share with anyone. Not the school psychologist she’s seeing. Not her father, who has a new wife, and a new baby. And not her mother—the infamous Caroline Sawyer, a unique artist whose eerie sculptures, made from bent twigs and crimped leaves, have made her a local celebrity. But soon Lila feels haunted from within, terrorized by a delicious evil that shows her how to find her voice—until she is punished for using it.

2004: Caroline Sawyer hears dogs everywhere. Snarling, barking, teeth snapping that no one else seems to notice. At first, she blames the phantom sounds on her insomnia and her acute stress in caring for her ailing father. But then the delusions begin to take shape—both in her waking hours, and in the violent, visceral sculptures she creates while in a trance-like state. Her fiancé is convinced she needs help. Her new psychiatrist waves her “problem” away with pills. But Caroline’s past is a dark cellar, filled with repressed memories and a lurking horror that the men around her can’t understand.

As past demons become a present threat, both Caroline and Lila must chase the source of this unrelenting, oppressive power to its malignant core. Brilliantly paced, unsettling to the bone, and unapologetically fierce, Such a Pretty Smile is a powerful allegory for what it can mean to be a woman, and an untamed rallying cry for anyone ever told to sit down, shut up, and smile pretty. 

The publisher sent me the NetGalley widget for this novel, and I was on the fence about downloading it, but took the plunge. I’m still not quite sure how I feel after reading it.

I like the theme of female empowerment and stopping men who try to silence women or dismiss them as hysterical when they try to express their feelings. But this is a very bizarre, sometimes confusing, and occasionally disturbing story. At times I honestly didn’t know what was happening – but I plowed through this book in a couple days.

Fifteen years apart, young teen girls are brutally killed in similar ways. It happened when Caroline was in her twenties and has started again. She’s understandably worried about her thirteen-year-old daughter, Lila. When Lila begins acting strangely, memories Caroline hoped to keep buried are resurrected, and her backstory and their similar experiences are revealed in alternating POV and timeline chapters. From her dying father, Caroline learns that as a very young girl she went missing for several days, but has no memory of what happened to her during that time. By the end of the novel, I still didn’t have a firm grasp of what she experienced during that disappearance either.

This is a bloody, gory tale, and those scenes are well-written and sure to delight horror fans, but for me personally, too many elements are left undefined, and I needed more of a concrete explanation for what happens to Caroline and Lila. Were their experiences real? Just delusions? I’m not certain. Reviews are split, so if you’re a reader who enjoys ambiguous storylines this may be for you.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

WWW Wednesday: What Am I Reading? #AmReading

WWW Wednesday is a meme from Sam at Taking On A World Of Words

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

I’m more than halfway through The Iron Sword, and tension is high. Even though this is a spinoff of another series that I haven’t read, I’m not lost at all. The author does a good job at connecting the dots for the reader.

As Evenfall nears, the stakes grow ever higher for those in Faery…

Banished from the Winter Court for daring to fall in love, Prince Ash achieved the impossible and journeyed to the End of the World to earn a soul and keep his vow to always stand beside Queen Meghan of the Iron Fey.

Now he faces even more incomprehensible odds. Their son, King Keirran of the Forgotten, is missing. Something more ancient than the courts of Faery and more evil than anything Ash has faced in a millennium is rising as Evenfall approaches. And if Ash and his allies cannot stop it, the chaos that has begun to divide the world will shatter it for eternity.

The Hay Bale just released on Monday, and after reading the author’s description on her blog recently, I was really anxious to read it. With it being a novelette, it took less than an hour to read. Trust me when I say it’s full of creepy weirdness and truly goosebump-inspiring.

Contemporary Southern Gothic meets weird horror in this new novelette from Priscilla Bettis.

Professor Claire Davenport yearns to be a mother. After suffering four miscarriages, the university microbiologist tries and fails to qualify as an adoptive mother. Then Claire’s husband leaves.

Alone and emotionally wounded, Claire takes a summer sabbatical from her microbiology classes and escapes to rural Virginia to heal. There, she meets local farmers with strange agricultural practices.

Claire moves into the historic manor house she rented for the summer, and an abandoned child greets her. Is the child real, an answer to her prayers? Or is he a figment of her tormented emotions? Perhaps the tight-knit locals are playing a trick on the science lady from the city.

Whatever the boy’s origin, Claire is determined to find the truth, but the truth may be bloody.

When the publisher sent me a NetGalley widget for The Violence, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to download it but I figured I’d give it a shot. Reviews are good, so I maybe I made a good decision. We’ll see.

A mysterious plague that causes random bouts of violence is sweeping the nation. Now three generations of women must navigate their chilling new reality in this moving exploration of identity, cycles of abuse, and hope.

Chelsea Martin appears to be the perfect housewife: married to her high school sweetheart, the mother of two daughters, keeper of an immaculate home.

But Chelsea’s husband has turned their house into a prison; he has been abusing her for years, cutting off her independence, autonomy, and support. She has nowhere to turn, not even to her narcissistic mother, Patricia, who is more concerned with maintaining the appearance of an ideal family than she is with her daughter’s actual well-being. And Chelsea is worried that her daughters will be trapped just as she is–then a mysterious illness sweeps the nation.

Known as The Violence, this illness causes the infected to experience sudden, explosive bouts of animalistic rage and attack anyone in their path. But for Chelsea, the chaos and confusion the virus causes is an opportunity–and inspires a plan to liberate herself from her abuser. 

These Deadly Games by Diana Urban #bookreview #YA #thriller #TuesdayBookBlog

Let’s play a game.

You have 24 hours to win. If you break my rules, she dies. If you call the police, she dies. If you tell your parents or anyone else, she dies.

Are you ready?

When Crystal Donavan gets a message on a mysterious app with a video of her little sister gagged and bound, she agrees to play the kidnapper’s game. At first, they make her complete bizarre tasks: steal a test and stuff it in a locker, bake brownies, make a prank call.

But then Crystal realizes each task is meant to hurt—and kill—her friends, one by one. But if she refuses to play, the kidnapper will kill her sister. Is someone trying to take her team out of the running for a gaming tournament? Or have they uncovered a secret from their past, and wants them to pay for what they did…

As Crystal makes the impossible choices between her friends and her sister, she must uncover the truth and find a way to outplay the kidnapper… before it’s too late.

Author of All Your Twisted Secrets, Diana Urban’s explosive sophomore novel, These Deadly Games, will keep you riveted until the final twist is revealed.

If you’re looking for a twisty psychological thriller offering unexpected surprises, These Deadly Games certainly checks those boxes.

Crystal is an easy character to root for. Her parents went through a messy divorce after her father became a physically abusive alcoholic, she’s trying to win prize money in a computer game tournament to help pay the overdue mortgage on their house, and she’s fiercely protective of her younger sister. Then her world is turned upside down when her sister is kidnapped, and Crystal is required to play a deadly game to save her. If she seeks help, tells anyone, or calls the police, her sister dies. She’s thrust into an impossible situation. The first couple assignments from the kidnapper seem bizarre, but it quickly becomes obvious he’s trying to hurt or even kill Crystal’s friends. And it all may be related to the secret she and her friends are keeping from five years ago.

Although I didn’t understand all of it, I really enjoyed the gaming angle in this story. These teens are well-versed in computer technology, and it’s something that figures prominently into the plot. I guessed part of who was behind the kidnapping, but was then thrown for a loop with the final reveal. Plenty of red herrings are offered, and at one point I even wondered if Crystal was an unreliable narrator. I’m pretty sure this is a standalone, but I didn’t get the resolution I’d hoped for at the end. There’s definitely potential for a sequel.

If you can suspend your disbelief just a tad, this a compelling YA thriller that will have you glued to the pages and keep you guessing.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Final Edits (woohoo!) and #AmWatching

The sequel to Subject A36 is now in production. I sent in the final round of edits Friday, and now it’s out of my hands. What a relief! It was a long time coming, and I surely didn’t plan for the release to be a little more than two years after Subject A36. Anyhoo, now I can start planning a cover and title reveal. Before I started writing this sequel, I already had a name for the second book. The characters had other ideas. The character the original title referred to didn’t really step up to lead this story. Someone else took their place, a surprise to me, but it seemed right this story belonged to that character. Has this happened to you other writers out there?

Let’s talk superheroes. Both sons had recommended for months that I watch Invincible on Amazon Prime. It’s created by Robert Kirkman, co-creator of The Walking Dead, and several actors from that series voice some of these characters. Over Christmas, I finally got around to watching it. And promptly binged the whole first season. Don’t assume this animated series is for kids – it’s not. Some of the gory, gritty scenes left me with my mouth hanging open – it’s dark, but also comes with some humor. I’ll be there waiting when season 2 drops. Here’s a description: Seventeen-year-old Mark Grayson is just like every guy his age, except that his father is Omni-Man, the most powerful superhero on the planet. As Mark develops powers of his own, he discovers his father’s legacy may not be as heroic as it seems.

I also watched both seasons of The Boys on Prime. These superheroes are the worst – most of them, anyway. They’re corrupt, they abuse their powers – just horrible people. The Boys are a group of vigilantes who set out to take them down. This is also a dark, brutal show but comes with some comedic scenes. I’m excited for season 3 when Jensen Ackles from Supernatural will be joining the cast.

Have a great week!

The Monarchs (Ravens #2) by Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige #bookreview #YA #urbanfantasy #witches

In this thrilling conclusion to New York Times best-selling authors Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige’s The Ravens, the sorority witches are tested when a rival threatens to usurp their place on campus and the forces of hell come knocking on their door.

The sorority girls at Kappa Rho Nu—the Ravens—are determined to restore balance to the world. After destroying an ancient talisman and barely saving their sorority in the process, they’ll go to any lengths to keep their secret as Westerly’s most powerful coven of witches.

Scarlett Winter, a legacy Raven, has finally gotten what she’s always wanted: the Kappa Rho Nu presidency. After the disaster that killed the sorority’s last president, Scarlett is determined that no sister will fall under the sway of wicked magic ever again. But the powers of the presidency have their own pitfalls—and Scarlett has big shoes to fill.

Vivi Devereaux, a freshman, finally knows what it feels like to belong. For the first time ever, she’s got it all: her Kappa Rho Nu sisters and a sweet (and hot) boyfriend. When Scarlett assigns Vivi the coveted role of social chair, Vivi is determined to live up to her Big’s expectations—even if that means dabbling in a new form of magic.

Unbeknownst to the Ravens, new rivals and ancient evils lurk on Westerly’s campus. With Kappa Rho Nu’s future on their shoulders and their pasts still haunting them, will Scarlett and Vivi be able to save their sisterhood once again? 

The sisterhood of the first book was what convinced me to read the sequel to The Ravens, and I was interested to see where the story would go from there.

After the tragic loss of a few of their sisters last semester and everything they went through, the Kappas are still grieving and recovering, but also trying to make a fresh start with new president Scarlett. The semester starts off smoothly at first, but they’re soon faced with threats from another sorority on campus, and something is wrong with the Kappas’ magic. When Vivi discovers a new type of magic, all goes well initially, but she soon learns that young, inexperienced witches shouldn’t tamper with magic they don’t understand.

I have to say I prefer the first book to this one. From the beginning, this has a whole mean girls vibe on nearly every page that overshadows the underlying mystery. The girl hate theme grew a little tiresome. I did enjoy the Kappa alumni, the Monarchs, having a little more page time in this sequel, although I thought it would have been more given the book title. They’re not main characters or even prominent supporting characters by any means, but their influence is felt and it has an effect on the characters.

The ending felt a little rushed to me, but I think most readers will be satisfied with the conclusion, as well as Vivi’s and Scarlettt’s romantic relationships.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.