Supernatural adventures for girls and women.

[reading] Review of TIGER IN THE HOT ZONE by Lauren Esker

Book: TIGER IN THE HOT ZONE by Lauren Esker (Amazon link)
Genre: paranormal romantic suspense
Series: Shifter Agents #4
USA Release Date: available now
Source: ARC from author
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Recommended?: Yes, yes, a billion times yes. You’ll get more out of the world building if you’ve read the others, but it absolutely stands alone, and is a fine place to start the series. It is absolutely the best book of the series, and I’ve loved each one a little more than the one before, so it’s a high bar to reach.

Summary: When danger threatens the entire shifter world, two rivals are about to discover they have worse enemies than each other …

Punk-haired reporter Peri Moreland, of the popular conspiracy blog Tell Me More!, has been a thorn in the side of the Shifter Crimes Bureau for years. In particular, Peri and her tell-all blog are a headache for tiger shifter Noah Easton, who runs the SCB’s public affairs office … otherwise known as their cover-up department. It’s Noah’s job to make sure normal humans don’t find out about shifters—especially humans such as Peri Moreland, his beautiful and oh-so-sneaky nemesis.

But this time, Peri has stumbled upon a story even the SCB doesn’t know about. Half-shifted bodies, dead of a mysterious illness, have been turning up around town. Peri connects the clues and before you can say “conspiracy theory,” she’s on the radar of a bunch of very bad people … and the SCB.

Noah hasn’t done field work in years; ever since a disastrous assignment years ago, he refuses to go out in the field or even carry a gun. But now he’s got Peri to protect and a secret anti-shifter organization on his tail. They’re out to kill anyone who gets in their way before their custom-engineered shifter plague can do its work. As the SCB’s agents fall sick one by one, can two pariahs team up to save them all?

Review:

(Let’s just get the shallow out of the way first: holy hell, that cover model is smoking hot.)

This is much more of a thriller than a romance, though there is plenty of romance, too; for me, the balance is perfect. Peri and Noah have been subtly flirting for awhile as they keep running into each other at scenes where Noah is having to cover up the truth from Peri; we’re told this more than shown it, and my only complaint about the romance is that we didn’t get to see more of this previous slow build before they’re giving into their attraction, first for sex and then for a serious relationship. (This complaint is limited to the build of the romance itself; starting the book any earlier would have slowed down the thriller plot, and that would have been a bigger shame than missing out on some of the romantic development.)

I love both Peri and Noah as characters, together and apart, especially when they end up spending a little time with Peri’s past. I don’t know if the reveal about where she grew up was supposed to be a surprise or not; I figured it out very early on, but I grew up in a slightly similar background, so it is possible that I am extra sensitive to plots that have it coming. And the way Peri uses her prosthetic running leg in her adventures is fantastic. Watching her learn to rely on other people, to trust them despite the huge lies they’ve been telling her (understandably to protect their world) was fantastic, and I thought she changed in a very believable way.

Noah is a particularly compelling character, and probably my new favorite out of the entire series. He’s a black man who became a Shifter Agent because his parents started the entire organization, and he thinks it’s what they want for him, but he’s not particularly happy. In part because unlike the field agents who get to save lives, all he does is tell lies and destroy them to discredit humans who have seen too much. That would be a much worse position. His background was wonderful, too, the reasons he took himself out of the field, and how he struggles now that he’s been forced to return. He, too, grows throughout the story, and when we finally get to see his parents, their relationship with each other and with their son is warm and wonderful and exactly what I was hoping to see.

I don’t want to give away the plot, because it is a rolicking adventure, but it is generally very well paced, face and interesting. Things do slow down a little during the middle, when Peri and Noah end up alone together and then dealing with some of Peri’s past, but though I normally would have been put off by that de-escalation, this time it mostly felt like a nice little breather before the excitement of the plague story picked up again.

I loved this book, and how it expanded the world of this series, and I can’t wait for more. The ending itself is cheesy as hell, which is probably the lowest point in the story for me, but the rest of the story is so great I can’t really bring myself to care much about that ending. I love the world building and the characters, love the plot and the new shifters, love how much is answered by the end and how much is left open (though that means the wait for more is going to be excruciating), and I highly recommend you read this book and this series.

(Final bit of shallow: Noah is so hot, y’all, and so RIDICULOUS. He is a tiger shifter, and he wears a leather jacket with fucking tiger stripes. HOW HAVE YOU EVER KEPT A SECRET IN YOUR LIFE, NOAH? HOW? I love him so much.)

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[reading] Review of Dust Bath Revival by Marianne Kirby

Book: Dust Bath Revival by Marianne Kirby (Amazon link)
Genre: YA horror/supernatural adventure
Series: Feral Seasons, Book One
USA Release Date: November 21, 2016
Source: Advanced ebook copy from the publisher. No compensation received for this review, and it is my honest opinion.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended?: Yes, absolutely. It is a gorgeous, haunting southern fairytale about hunger and danger and how little we see even when we try to look at the world.
Content note: Non-explicit violence to animals.

Summary: 16-year-old Henrietta Goodness – Hank to all that know her – has heard all the stories about how the Dust made the dead rise. She’s heard about how life changed.

But that was a long time ago, and Hank is ready for another normal dry and dusty Florida summer. She knows the thunder doesn’t really promise rain. Instead, Hank and her brother will do their chores, run into town as much as they can get away with, and lock up tight and safe in their Aunt Marty’s house once the sun goes down. That’s the plan, at least, until an itinerant tent revival rolls onto their land, with a Reborn – one of the risen dead – traveling caged with them.

The arrival of an unknown cousin connected to the revival starts Hank on the road to solving a mystery that even the government might not want unraveled. There’s nowhere to go when the night isn’t safe and there’s no one to trust when everyone might be part of a conspiracy to keep the Reborn walking.

Review:

Dust Bath Revival is a gorgeous, haunting southern fairytale. The story is a slow burn build, and the world opens up for the reader in a slow, sensuous way that meanders and loops, and even the things we see, the things Hank sees as she is shoved out into the world, aren’t what we want them to be, or fear them to be, both and neither at the same time. This is Hank’s story, her creation story, and it is lovely.

Kirby’s writing is gorgeous, and she captures a dark, twisty southern gothic feel. The slow pace of the book feels like a story being told around the campfire, late into the night; there’s an otherworldly quality to the descriptions that holds the reader at a distance and weaves a compelling, complicated world around them.

There was no real sense of fear for me as a reader; the story unspools in a way that feels inevitable and comfortably familiar, a beloved tale that I’ve returned to a hundred times before, though this is my first reading. (It will not be my last.) The ending is less a satisfactory conclusion and more a pause; Dust Bath Revival is clearly the introduction to a much larger world, and though I am eager for the next book, I do wish the end had felt more like a resolution. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t resolve; the story that it sets out to tell is finished, but it so well sets up the next part of the story in such few words at the end that I was left wanting more.

That in itself is a delightful bit of writing. I am left hungry and wanting and frustrated by it, as is Hank. And it is in that hunger, that wanting, that Hank must find her answers, and in her search, exactly what I want more of, too.

Dust Bath Revival is the story of family and need, betrayal and hunger, and it will stick with you long after you finish. It will leave you, always, wanting more.

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[reading] Review of BEAST OF BARCROFT by Bill Schweigart

Book: BEAST OF BARCROFT by Bill Schweigart (Amazon)
Genre: Adult paranormal horror
USA Release Date: currently available
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 2.5/5 stars
Summary: Ben McKelvie believes he’s moving up in the world when he and his fiancée buy a house in the cushy Washington, D.C., suburb of Barcroft. Instead, he’s moving down—way down—thanks to Madeleine Roux, the crazy neighbor whose vermin-infested property is a permanent eyesore and looming hazard to public health.

First, Ben’s fiancée leaves him; then, his dog dies, apparently killed by a predator drawn into Barcroft by Madeleine’s noxious menagerie. But the worst is yet to come for Ben, for he’s not dealing with any ordinary wild animal. This killer is something much, much worse. Something that couldn’t possibly exist—in this world.

Now, as a devilish creature stalks the locals, Ben resolves to take action. With some grudging assistance from a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and the crackpot theories of a self-styled cryptozoologist, he discovers the sinister truth behind the attacks, but knowing the Beast of Barcroft and stopping it are two different animals.

Recommended?: No. I wish I could recommend it, because at times it is a super entertaining story, with a main male character who was a billion times less irritating than when I read and reviewed NORTHWOODS (which is actually the sequel). For a lot of this story, it is creepy and wonderful, and I absolutely adore the main female character, Lindsay Clark, who is an awesome lesbian zoologist.

And then the part of the book came that I was braced for: the introduction of the rich white cryptozoologist and his sidekick Indian. I knew this was coming, because Alex Standingcloud, who is during this book estranged from his Ojibwe family, plays a huge role in the second book, which is set, in part, on his reservation. I really like him in the second book, and the little we get to see of him here in the first, he’s just as great, but his whole purpose in the story is to show up as the Magical Indian: he’s there to bring information about Native American beliefs and lore, get hurt helping the white dude hero, and disappear off screen when his work is done. And that is such a tired old trope. So is the use of Native American beliefs to drive the horror.

JK Rowling was recently deeply criticized for her cultural appropriation of Native American beliefs, and a lot of what was said about that is applicable here, too. Dr. Adrienne Keene talks about this extensively at Native Appropriations: Magic in America Part 1: Ugh and Magic in North America: The Harry Potter Franchise Veers Too Close to Home.

So, this is where I’m going to perform what Audra Simpson calls an “ethnographic refusal,” “a calculus ethnography of what you need to know and what I refuse to write in.” In her work with her own community, she asks herself the questions: “what am I revealing here and why? Where will this get us? Who benefits from this and why?”

I had a long phone call with one of my friends/mentors today, who is Navajo, asking her about the concepts Rowling is drawing upon here, and discussing how to best talk about this in a culturally appropriate way that can help you (the reader, and maybe Rowling) understand the depths to the harm this causes, while not crossing boundaries and taboos of culture. What did I decide? That you don’t need to know. It’s not for you to know. I am performing a refusal.

What you do need to know is that the belief of these things (beings?) has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that. My own community also has shape-shifters, but I’m not delving into that either.

What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions (take a look at my twitter mentions if you don’t believe me)–but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems “unfair,” but that’s how our cultures survive.

The other piece here is that Rowling is completely re-writing these traditions. Traditions that come from a particular context, place, understanding, and truth. These things are not “misunderstood wizards”. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

This is applicable beyond just Rowling’s work, and beyond skinwalkers. This is applicable here, to BEAST OF BARCROFT, and that Schweigart chose to take this path ruins an otherwise really fun and interesting book.

Things I loved: Lindsay Clark, bad ass curator at the National Zoo, lesbian, and all-around hero. Officer Stacy Cushing, bad ass officer and all-around hero. Great, tense scenes and a fast, interesting story. Good, engaging storytelling (except for that big giant problem).

Things I loathed: First character we meet is Manny Benavides, who is, I believe, a Hispanic man, an animal control office, kind and good at his job and well loved by his family — and who is immediately killed off so the white characters can take center stage. Obviously, the use of the Native American beliefs is a problem. Lots of low key sexism that is both pushed back against and supported by the text at the same time. And a huge amount of bullshit over the mental health crap and ableism throughout, particularly his belief, fully supported and encouraged by the text, that he needs to come off his depression meds in order to be really present in life and to be the hero. Which is seriously fucked up.

(Also, the damn dog dies in the first chapter. I hate when that happens.)

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