For our April reading roundup, we’re going dark, with a selection of fantasies and mysteries that take a close look at the often ugly underbelly of the human experience. These books take on dysfunctional relationships, grief, addiction, murder, and even human sacrifice as their subjects. But while the novels in this roundup might have gritty, even frightening, exteriors, at their core they also force us to consider what it means to love and be loved—and how hardship gives us space to reconsider what we value.
GENRE: erotica/horror | titan 2022 | REVIEWED BY anna frances
LaRocca’s novella, “Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes,” is told through transcripts of emails and messages, depicting the romantic relationship between Agnes and Chloe. LaRocca’s horrifyingly beautiful prose escalates beyond what the reader could ever imagine.
LaRocca captivates the reader’s attention in their fictional author’s note, prefacing that specific details shared are omitted as they are under investigation by the police. Given this haunting opening, the first few pages of Chloe and Agnes’ interactions seem sweet at first glance, but are steeped in uneasiness. From the onset, the reader is aware that the relationship between these two young women has had catastrophic results.
The narrative is unpredictable, interspersed in lengthy exchanges by email to short ones through messages; it leaves time for the characters to not reply and leaves space for them to share their impulsive thoughts and desires. This format makes the reader feel like this is happening in real-time, heightening the tension. It gives us a sense of both characters’ declining mental health and shows how far they will go to protect their dysfunctional and grotesque relationship..
Graphic imagery of sacrifices and rebirth emerge from the transcripts. While it may seem excessive, it serves a purpose to display the rawness that Chloe and Agnes can express online, however obscene or intimate. When they have nothing but the words exchanged over a keyboard, it begs the question of how different their online selves are from their true nature.
We never get a clear image of either woman, only their most disturbing thoughts and desires, alongside their willingness to abandon their respective senses of self to make way for their relationship. This novella escalates beyond anything I’ve read before. LaRocca’s perfectly crafted prose and unconventional storytelling will leave a sour but satisfying taste in your mouth as you wonder over these words for days.
Why We Love It: LaRocca’s deeply unsettling sapphic horror is sure to keep you up at night.
OPium and absinthe by LYDIA KANG
GENRE: historical mystery | lake union publishing 2020 | REVIEWED BY angela gualtieri
Lydia Kang’s novel, Opium and Absinthe, follows a young woman, Tillie Pembroke, on a search for the truth of what happened the night her sister died. The year is 1899, and with the recent publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, imaginations are prone to run wild—especially since her sister’s body was found drained of blood and with two puncture wounds on her neck. Could vampires really exist, and could one be lurking in New York City? Tillie is determined to find out. As the body count increases and more secrets are revealed, Tillie’s ability to discern fact from fiction and friend from foe wavers and not even her research can guide her.
Kang’s writing exudes the historical atmosphere of 1899 New York, from her vivid imagery to the social hierarchy we witness through Tillie’s eyes. However, perhaps the strongest element of the story is her ability to weave grief and addiction into this narrative, relying on the nuances and realism of the time period: “It was amazing how grief could be so greedy as to take away everything, even tears” (102). Tillie’s journey through the grieving process might be unique, but the roller coaster of emotions she experiences at each stage is racked with a melancholy familiar to those of us who have lost something or someone we love.
At its heart, Opium and Absinthe is a book about the journey through the ups and downs of life. Even with the vampiric undertones, it’s something we all can all relate to.
Why We Love It: This historical mystery is gritty, emotional, and real—even with its fantastical elements.
the girl who fell beneath the sea by axie oh
GENRE: fantasy | feiwel and friends 2022 | REVIEWED BY megan foster
“I wonder if it happens in a day, for your fate to change. Or if it takes longer for your life to be stolen from you” (4). Mina must continually question her fate in Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, a standalone YA fantasy novel about gods at war in a spirit world similar to our own, but full of dragons and demons galore. For generations now, Mina’s people have sacrificed a maiden to the sea in hopes that one day the “true bride” will appease the Sea God and end generations of traumatizing storms. After Mina throws herself into the water in place of her brother’s beloved, she emerges in the Spirit Realm to find the Sea God in a deep slumber. Now Mina must break his curse and end the storms for good before her time in the Spirit Realm runs out.
Inspired by Korean legend, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is an exquisite read. For such a short fantasy novel (at least by the typical standards of the genre), Oh masterfully tackles an array of themes, including the nature of sacrifice and the mysteries of love—both familial and romantic. Like all the best folklore, Oh’s book goes back to the basics of the human experience but still feels fresh. The ethereal, almost dream-like writing made me feel like I myself had fallen into another realm. Some have compared The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea to the classic film Spirited Away. While the novel and the film differ greatly, I can attest that any diehard Miyazaki fan will come away plenty satisfied after delving into Oh’s magical tale.
Why We Love It: This fantasy with a strong female protagonist takes a classic Korean folktale and gives it a feminist spin, while offering some much-needed mystical escapism.
the maid by nita prose
GENRE: cozy mystery | ballantine books 2022 | REVIEWED BY rebecca valley
“It’s easier than you’d ever think—existing in plain sight while remaining largely invisible. That’s what I’ve learned from being a maid. You can be so important, so crucial to the fabric of things and yet be entirely overlooked. It’s a truth that applies to maids, and to others as well, so it seems. It’s a truth that cuts close to the bone.”
In her debut novel, The Maid, Nita Prose asks us to consider what, and who, we render invisible as we move through the world—and how the ways we experience life differently can help and hinder us. In this cozy mystery, protagonist Molly Gray is working as a maid in a boutique hotel when she happens upon the dead body of a prestigious and well-known customer in his bed. This incident puts Molly in the spotlight and forces her on a path of retribution and justice as she unravels a tangled knot of lies and manipulation.
Though the plot of this book is lively and fun, Prose’s true achievement is the way she builds suspense by showing us the world through Molly’s eyes. Though she isn’t explicitly identified as neurodivergent, Molly experiences the world differently than other people. She struggles with social cues and loves the order and certainty of the hotel’s code of conduct. As readers walk with Molly through this story, they’ll find themselves gritting their teeth as Molly trusts people she shouldn’t, and accidentally ensnares herself in unseemly situations. Ultimately, however, it’s Molly’s particular way of being in the world that solves this mystery, and saves the hotel she holds so dear.
Why We Love It: This book features a well-developed neurodivergent character, and explores the complex ties between labor, class, friendship, and trust.
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