Currently Reading: Witchmark, by C. L. Polk
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In my life, Spooky Season isn’t just October… it’s a year-round celebration. I love spooky reads. This week, I’m going to offer up three reviews for books that all drop this month: Out of Salem, by Hal Schrieve, which hit shelves on March 5th, Other Words for Smoke, by Sarah Maria Griffin, which came out just last week, and The Devouring Gray, by Christine Lynn Herman, which is set to release on April 2nd. In this post, I’m bringing you previews of the QT zombies, witches, superpowers, monsters, haunted houses, and talking cats of your dreams. But first! A little trans lit news…
I’m so pleased that this time around, I just have two quick, positive things to share. One, in a trans-affirming move, some libraries will no longer be collecting gender data on library card applications, since it became clear that the data collected was both not useful and also a barrier to access for some.
Also, for anyone who read my post on trans-affirming middle grade books, or who’ve picked up The Moon Within since it dropped recently, listen to author Aida Salazar on the Scholastic Reads podcast! If you haven’t read the book yet, make sure to grab a copy, because it’s great.
Out of Salem
Before I write anything about this title, I need to offer a little background. First, I only really discovered Urban Fantasy as a genre in its own right back at the end of 2018, when a friend asked me for some book recommendations (to be revealed in a future post!). Before I could deliver, I had a lot to learn. Since having my interest piqued, I decided to try to delve into the genre in my own reading – inspired partly by my return to PhD studies after a leave of absence, since it was really by chewing through urban fantasy YA like the Twilight series that got me through my undergrad studies.
Based on that information, my friend recommended that I try Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown for a taste of what’s going on in that genre almost a decade later. I listened to it on audio through the Libby app on a drive from Denver to Toronto, all in one sitting, and it delivered. Tropey, but complex enough to draw me in, with fantastic original worldbuilding, the spooky story kept me company all the way home.
As such, I was excited when a copy of Shrieve’s Out of Salem landed in my lap. I was hesitant, because zombies have never been my thing… but I had hesitated about Dread Nation before caving to curiosity in 2018, and I had loved that book. Since then, I’ve been educated about some of its more problematic elements, unfortunately, and in addition the author has said some pretty horrible and transphobic things on Twitter. Tread carefully. But – Out of Salem has an enby author and an enby MC… what could go wrong?
Well. I am a firm believer that there is a perfect book for every reader, and a dream reader for every book, and this one just wasn’t for me. I’ll read 100 pages of anything – that’s my rule – but after 160 or so of this one, I finally had to let it go.
I really enjoyed the first few chapters, which kept me laughing and interested, especially because of the diversity of the cast and the richness of the contemporary fantasy universe that Shrieve has built. The book tackles complex and important social issues through monstrous allegory. Impressive, considering that Shrieve is a twenty-one-year-old debut author.
Eventually, though, the zombie aspect began to wear on me. I’m neurodiverse and working on sorting out some family stuff… so maybe it was just a touch too dark for this moment in my life, but my anxiety was building hard about the MC, who seems destined to just painfully waste away over the course of book. I couldn’t handle the graphic imagery on the page of the decaying enby who I was growing to care for.
Additionally, perhaps due to my own experiences as a fat enby who has suffered at the hands of bullies, this book was just a little too edgy for me. The imagery around oppression and the violence that some of the characters experience in this gritty universe just felt harsh. The use of slurs felt gratuitous, and hit a little close to home. Considering whether I’d feel triggered and anxious carrying on to the end of this 450 page book, I finally had to put it aside.
That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t recommend this book. It feels resonant to me, and I’m still curious what happens to the cast of characters – especially the elder lesbian bookseller witch who takes our fair MC under her wing – so if you can stomach a little more than I can? Order this book while it’s still hot off the presses, and fill me in on the ending. It dropped on March 5.
Other Words for Smoke
I received an ARC of Other Words for Smoke by from Edelweiss+. This YA haunted house story is Irish author Sarah Maria Griffin’s third book, following another YA title, Spare and Found Parts, and her memoir, Not Lost.
The blurb for this book basically gives the punch line. It’s a story primarily about six characters, a set of twins, a witch and her ward, a cat called Bobby, and and owl called James. The book takes place in the small town where Rita resides, and I have to admit, even as a Newfoundlander, the names of characters and settings in this book made a lot more sense when I looked up the author and found that she was Irish.
My favourite part of this book is how Rita’s house itself becomes sort of a seventh central character. Aspects of the house and the way it behaves really tugged at the heartstrings of mine that loved the moving staircases at Hogwarts. None of the characters in this book are as simple as they appear on the surface. The story and the development of the characters are both full of spellbinding surprises. Nothing is quite as it seems.
We know the end of the story before we know how it begins: their house burns down, and the witch and her ward are never seen again. What we get through this book is the suspenseful, labyrinthian ride through two summers preceding this dramatic event. I was drawn through this book, even with its somewhat slow pacing, because I was dying to know what happened next, and I didn’t want to pull myself out of the lush imagery of the fantastical, haunted world that Griffin creates.
Unfortunately, all of the characters in this book appear to be cisgendered, but there is great queer representation. Other Words for Smoke came out on March 12th, so you can enjoy it right away.
The Devouring Gray
I was excited to receive Chrstine Lynn Herman’s the Devouring Gray as an ARC back in December 2018, just in time for my first holiday celebrations in years. It seemed fitting, since my partner and I were attempting to spookify our slightly modified Christmas-esque traditions. It is an atmospheric page-turner, and it completely drew me in as I read it over the few days of my holiday celebrations.
Herman’s debut is the first of at least two books in this universe; its sequel will drop in 2020. Its publicity copy describes it as a young adult contemporary fantasy, and compares it to the CW/Netflix show Riverdale. As a fan of the show, I was pleased to find that the comp is accurate, but based on the suspense and pacing, I would describe the genre as speculative horror (content warnings for the book can be found here). Queerbabes: this book is worth the hype. It made me feel everything. Pre-order it if you can! It comes out on April 2nd.
There is skilful, plot-relevant queer representation in this book, despite a lack of trans or enby inclusion, and on this front, the book is #OwnVoices. I checked. Herman does a particularly noteworthy job of writing a character with a physical disability: a feminine MC who lost part of her arm, and is a practised sword fighter. Although there are romantic relationships between some of the characters, they are not the focal point of this story, which includes a rich cast of nuanced, morally ambiguous main characters. Each of the characters had their own complicated appeal for me, and they relate to one another as friends, foes, and family members.
The most unexpected and charming aspect of this book for me was that it is written with book lovers in mind. Both library and archives are settings in this book, and characters include a corrupt rebel librarian and bibliophile MC. Gift this one to the broody Ravenclaw in your life – you won’t regret it. The Devouring Gray is available for pre-order now.
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