Tag Archives: paranormal

Short Tuesday #8: “Circus Girl, The Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by JY Yang

Again this week I returned to Tor.com to peruse their short fiction, and boy am I glad I did. No need to mince words here—this story was fantastic from start to finish, and eeeee, this author has an entire trilogy out as well as more short fiction, and wow wow wow wow wow, did I love this. (Also, can we take a second to appreciate the excellent artwork that accompanies each Tor story? Maybe there’s something to be said about a lack of a book cover being one reason why many readers overlook short fiction.) You can read the short story here…

So everything about this story is great—I have literally zero complaints. (Hell must be freezing over, huh?) The language was perfect: appropriately poetic when it needed to be, sometimes experimental, sometimes matter-of-fact. Plot-wise, we’re thrown into a near-futuristic world much like our own but with witches and spirits, etc. (Sidenote that all these ghouls and ghosties seem to have only existed for twenty years, and I want to know moooooooore in the best way possible. Can we get some longer fiction set in this world? Pretty please?) Yang’s voice keeps us feeling grounded without relying on an info-dump slog, and the main character right away feels like someone we can root for. And our MC has a problem—she’s woken up and every mirrored surface shows not her reflection, but instead a dude she’s aptly named Mirror Boy. She used to see Mirror Boy back in the day as well, but then he went away as her life became more stable. Now he’s back, with some pretty bad news: a serial killer is on the hunt for the MC, ready to make her his latest victim.

Also there’s some very cool ocean-based mythology woven throughout.

Does this seem like a lot for a short story? Don’t worry, I promise that everything wraps up at the end beautifully. Please, read this, then join me in feeling that achey, oh no it’s over feeling. Misery loves company.

The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

Okay, what do I even say about Maureen Johnson at this point? She’s awesome? I love her characters, her voice, her plotting? Does that about cover it?

Listen, Maureen Johnson has a certain style that you’ll either like or you won’t, and her books are all different versions of the same wonderful thing. Quirky and intelligent MC, no parents for miles, a way of inserting detail and humor into the text that keeps you just reading one page, no, two pages, no, twenty pages more… If this is the sort of thing you enjoy, then go read the first in the Shades of London series, or Truly Devious, or 13 Little Blue Envelopes. (And presumably anything else by Johnson, all of which I’m sure I’ll read eventually.) If you’re trying to decide between her series, here’s a cheat sheet:

  • Shades of London series for ghosts (this book, The Madness Underneath, is book two)
  • Truly Devious series for true crime and historical elements
  • 13 Little Blue Envelopes series for quirky road trips

It’s been a while since I read the first Shades of London book, so I got to rediscover the MC, Rory, in this second in the series. A Louisiana native transplanted to a London boarding school, Rory behaves in a way that feels authentic. There are more than a few points in the book where I was mentally screaming at her to do something, anything other than what she was doing, but even when Rory’s making bad choices, you can see why she’s making them. She’s flawed but relatable, and you can’t help but be on her side, even when she’s royally fucking up.

So what else do I have to say about this book? It had that classic “recovering from the first book” feel, especially given the emphasis on therapy. I can understand if a lot of readers feel this book lags in the first half, but again, I don’t care; something about Johnson’s writing just calls to me, and the rip-roaring ending made up for any slowness. Plus it’s totally allowable to slow things down temporarily after the frenetic ending of the previous book. Our MC is in high school and just went through some truly traumatic events—it would be unrealistic to push ahead with the story any faster.

As the book moves toward the finish line, there’s a plot twist that I’ll admit I saw coming, but the execution and details of the surprise were still exciting and unexpected. As can be expected from Johnson’s other books, there isn’t so much a resolution at the end of this book as a pause and shift in the action, compelling us to reach for the next in the series. Cliffhangers are just something you have to deal with if you’re a Maureen Johnson fan.

I did also feel that the plot held together more cohesively than the first in the series. Leaving aside the aforementioned cliffhangers, the ends of both books struck me as a little bit off, like the reader is being expected to take a too much of a leap of faith, all at a breakneck pace. You can definitely leave both of these books with a dazed, what even just happened feeling. Yet the second book is an improvement on the first—not quite so manic, not quite so out-of-the-blue.

So overall The Madness Underneath was a crazy fun read (I mean, it’s not Truly Devious, but whatever…) and I’m looking forward to picking up the third book in the series.

ARC: The Hungry Ghost by Dalena Storm

Thank you to NetGalley and Black Spot Books for sending me a free advanced reader copy of this book for an honest review. The Hungry Ghost debuts June 11th.

This debut novel from Dalena Storm had my immediate attention with its title. Hungry ghosts are paranormal entities in the Buddhist tradition that emerge only in specific circumstances, such as when someone is violently killed—something I’m sure Storm knows, having graduated from Williams College with a BA in Asian Studies. In the picture below, you can see the hungry ghosts’ bulging, distended bellies—the better to eat you with, my dear. 🙂

Anyway, even though there are only a couple mentions of Buddhism in this fast-paced book, nevertheless the reader is presented with a hungry ghost, who drifts upward to the human world from a lower, hellish void and inhabits the body of an American woman in a coma. Spoiler alert that you can probably spot from a mile away: once she inevitably wakes up, the eating commences.

I appreciate the swift pace of the story; at two hundred pages, this is a book on the short side, but there’s nothing wrong with that—in fact, I think there’s a conversation to be had in modern publishing about books being too lengthy for the story they’re seeking to tell. I found it to be a nice palate cleanser—something quick to tear through in a couple hours.

The prose could use some editing, admittedly. There’s a top-down feel to the writing, where we’re told moment to moment what the characters are feeling and thinking, rather than being fed sensory details and internal thoughts via close third POV. I like a straightforward writing style to an extent, but here it grew to be too much for my tastes, to the point where some sentences felt almost utilitarian.

There were also a few leaps of faith in terms of the plot that had me raising my eyebrows, but these were counterbalanced by some genuinely surprising and horror-filled moments where I was fully on board. A couple scenes in particular will probably stick with me a good long while. If you’re looking for a page-turner and are interested in the Buddhist take on ghosts, then maybe give this a shot.


Just a real quick reminder to everyone that Chapter Three of The Gold in the Dark will be posting this Sunday at 11 AM EST! All right, that’s all, folks. ❤

ARC: Dead School by Laura Gia West

Thank you to NetGalley and Black Rose Writing for sending me a free advanced reader copy of this book for an honest review.

I requested this book on NetGalley in large part due to the beautiful cover and the title. Dead School? How cool of a concept is that?

Unfortunately, I didn’t even make it to Dead School. This book reads like a rough first draft; I’m a bit confused about how this is considered to be a manuscript in finished form. There are punctuation and verb agreement errors aplenty, as well as some exceedingly strange word usage. Characters “waver” papers in the MC’s face and “clog” down the stairs. (And I don’t believe this is referring to clog dance, but in this book, anything is possible, I suppose.)

All this can be forgiven if the story is good. For example, I have been extremely forgiving in the past of translated works. Metro 2033, which is shoddily translated but utterly fantastic, is one example that springs to mind.

Yet there is nothing to redeem the story in terms of substance. The MC is unlikable and acts nonsensically, as do all the characters flitting around her. We start the opening chapter with the MC in the car with her parents on Valentine’s Day. They are heading to Red Lobster to eat dinner, toting along their cat. With a bit of handwavium, we’re led to believe that the local Red Lobster manager is super cool with animals and will allow such nonsense at the table.

Okay. Fine. Second page of the book, my fingers are already starting to desperately tighten around my suspension of disbelief, which has grown oddly slippery… But let’s press on.

Wait, stop! Fuck Valentine’s Day and turn the car around, Dad—we have to go back to school! The MC suddenly has a blinding desire to beat her stage fright and perform in the school talent show, which is taking place LITERALLY RIGHT NOW. The MC’s parents oblige her, because… you know… the author wants them to.

And then our MC nails her performance, even though she hasn’t gone to any of the rehearsals. (Not joking.) The students in the audience, all of whom the MC despises, are moved to tears—she’s just that amazing. All is looking up—soon the MC will be the school’s new Queen Bee. Because she attends a prestigious performing arts school, our intrepid MC knows that there are talent scouts in the audience, pens at the ready to sign her for a record deal. Too bad a stage decoration then falls on her and kills her.

All this ridiculousness happens in the first chapter. I read a bit of it aloud to my husband, and his assessment is that the book has an uncanny valley feel. The characters just all act so bizarrely, as if a thousand YA novels got mixed together in a blender and an algorithm spit out the common elements it thought define human behavior. Needless to say, I only made it a few chapters in before I had to call it quits.

Let me be clear: I normally try to find the positive in things—sandwich method, etc.—but I cannot be charitable with this book. There is nothing to be charitable about. Even the famous quotes from historic figures attached to each chapter heading are cringey; what does Shakespeare have to do with any of this? I’m reminded a bit of how the infamous indie game Crying Is Not Enough (epic Let’s Play right here) stuck famous quotes on its interminable loading screens… But that game was bad yet had heart, and this book is just terrible.

Nice cover, though.