#Review: Heartbreak Bay, by Rachel Caine

Under ordinary circumstances, I’d not have let Heartbreak Bay sit on my unread shelf for as long as it did. Unfortunately, as it turns out, this is Rachel Caine’s last book; she passed away from cancer last November, and this is her final new release. She does have one series that I haven’t touched yet, her fifteen-book (!!!) Morganville Vampires series, but … vampires. I am not a fan of vampires.

(I will likely get to them eventually, honestly, but not soon.)

One of Caine’s biggest strengths as an author is her ability to jump genre; the first series I encountered her through was urban fiction, and a lot of her books are tinged with the supernatural in some way, but her work has ranged from alternate history to rewriting Shakespeare to genies to zombies, and this series, which started with the absolutely superb Stillhouse Lake back in 2017, is pure contemporary adult thriller. And the series is scary as hell— the first one fucked me up something fierce, and while this one doesn’t push my Daddy Buttons as effectively as Lake did, it’s still probably the scariest thing I’ve read this year.

(And, uh, while it’s true that this book doesn’t push my buttons quite the same way as Stillhouse Lake, it does begin with an infanticide, and the story is about chasing down a serial killer, so, maybe a trigger warning is appropriate here? Probably, right?)

The story, before I forget: the series’ main character is Gwen Proctor, a mother of two who found out in the worst way imaginable that she was married to a serial killer. By the time the fifth book rolls around, her ex-husband Melvin is dead and her kids are both in high school, and she’s … well, not quite remarried, but certainly in a new stable relationship. She’s working as a PI and still occasionally fending off Internet trolls and stalkers who are either actual fans of her ex-husband or believe that she was involved in his killings and got away with them. Watching Gwen’s paranoia and sharp edges slowly get sanded off over the course of the series has really been interesting, and the character development here is excellent. The book bounces back and forth between her perspective, her partner Sam’s, and her best friend, a police officer named Kezia, as the infanticide that starts off the book turns out to have inexplicable connections to Gwen’s past, and assisting Kezia in solving the murders coincides with another spike in stalking and harassment. The whole book is effectively tense and creepy, and as is usual for one of Caine’s books I read it in a couple of big gulps. There’s not necessarily a Big Twist At the End, but there are a couple of moves the plot makes that I didn’t expect, and the ultimate villain of the story is … let’s say memorable and leave it at that. It’s good stuff, not that I didn’t know it would be before picking it up.

One thing I say a lot about reading is that I am never, ever going to get to a point where I run out of books to read. I don’t ever criticize anyone for not wanting to read anything, because we all have limited time, and while there’s not literally an unlimited number of books, as far as my human lifespan and my human amount of free time and processing ability go, there might as well be. But it’s super bittersweet to think that I’ve read a book or two a year by her since 2003 and that unless I get into this series that I suspect I’m not going to be into, there won’t be any more of them after this one. It made me put off reading it for a while, because I didn’t want to be done with Rachel Caine books and now I am. If you haven’t read Stillhouse Lake, I wouldn’t read Heartbreak Bay without working through the series, but the whole thing is worth a read, and if this has to be the last of Caine’s books I ever read, at least she went out on a high note.

#REVIEW: First, Become Ashes by K.M. Szpara

I have to start this piece the same way I began my review of K.M. Szpara’s Docile, which is with a content warning for All of the Things. If you have ever seen a content warning on anything and thought “Yeah, I don’t need this,” it’s fair to say that K.M. Szpara’s work is not going to be for you, and given that both of his books so far have been standalone and required the same content warnings, it’s probably safe to decide that things like rape, sexual assault and torture are probably going to be themes that his entire body of work is going to be dealing with and walk away. And that’s fine. Nobody has time to read everything even if we wanted to, and you never have to justify choosing not to spend your money and your time on something.

For what it’s worth, First, Become Ashes is, for me at least, a less traumatizing read than Docile was. This book is the story of Meadowlark, a 24-year-old who was raised in a cult that lives in a converted zoo in the middle of Baltimore (Baltimore? I think it was Baltimore. Some city, it doesn’t really matter) called the Fellowship of the Anointed. Lark is raised to believe that he has magical abilities, that the outside world– which is more or less indistinguishable from our modern world– is full of monsters and evil beings, and that on his 25th birthday he will venture forth from the Fellowship’s headquarters to go on a quest and slay a monster. His partner Kane, a month older than him, leaves on his quest, and two weeks later the FBI raids the compound and takes everyone into custody.

(One common theme of the criticism of this book is that the book utterly ignores the other members of the cult– suggested to be dozens of people, at least– while just following the handful of main characters, and that’s fair. Don’t expect to find out what happened to anyone other than the two-and-a-half or so POV characters who were inside the walls.)

That’s just the setup, of course. Lark escapes FBI … I’m gonna say custody, because while he’s not being charged with anything it’s always pretty clear that they don’t want him to leave— and tries to go on his quest anyway, and it turns out that Kane was instrumental in bringing the FBI down on the Fellowship, and Lark gets hooked up with some cosplayers, of all people, who help him out on his quest, and this is the part where the book is a little more palatable than Docile, because there’s at least some consensual sex in this thing(*). And of course the FBI is trying to bring him back in, and it turns out that one of the cosplayers he hooks up with has a very large online following, so there’s this whole influencer layer on top of that as these two enlist their online communities to help Lark out.

The book plays very coy throughout most of its length with whether the Fellowship actually has magical abilities or not, which is what tilts this book from trauma fiction into the fantasy genre. Lark is forever trying to cast spells to protect himself, to ward or unlock or lock doors, and to communicate with other Fellowship members who are far away, and … sometimes they seem to work? And sometimes they don’t, but he usually has reasons why they don’t? And sometimes other people are like “Oh, this is what must have happened,” and maybe that was it but maybe Lark actually can do magic? And because this is a K.M. Szpara book it turns out that the way your magical abilities are unlocked and restored is through pain, because we can’t not have some sadomasochism in the mix. The question is, I think, finally actually resolved at the end of the book, but I won’t spoil how.

As I said, this is in some ways an easier book to read than Docile was, and partially because of that it’s more straightforwardly enjoyable than Docile was, although I’m not convinced it’s a better book, because I think Docile was a little more intellectually interesting than First, Become Ashes ended up being. If you read and enjoyed Docile, I’d definitely suggest checking this book out as well, but if you passed on the first it’s probably safe to pass on this as well. I don’t know that this will end up on my best-of list at the end of the year, but I read it in a day and barely put it down, so that’s got to count for something.

(*) I had this half-assed theory while I was reading Docile that the sex in the book, which was one hundred percent nonconsensual, was meant to be alienating to the reader, and it still kind of weirds me out to see people describe that book as erotica. This book is more unambiguously erotica than Docile, because at least two of Lark’s partners are consensual. There are still some moments in the book that are unquestionably rape and/or assault, though, so don’t let that drag you into a feeling of safety; this book still earns its content warnings.

Monthly Reads: June 2021

Book of the Month is going to be The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune.

Unread Shelf: June 30, 2021

There are only three books on this shelf that were there at the beginning of the month, which tells you two things: 1) I got a lot of reading done in June, and 2) I ordered way too many damn books in June. The weird thing is I’m super excited about all three of the books.

#Readaroundtheworld: June update

Looks a little different from last time, doesn’t it?

The Project is continuing apace, and since I doubt I’m going to finish reading the book I’m working on right now by the end of the month, I may as well go ahead and do this update now. The numbers are always kept up-to-date on the spreadsheet to the right there– because nothing good can exist without a spreadsheet, but let’s take a halfway-through-2021 (no, seriously, we are) snapshot of the numbers:

  • Twenty-nine separate countries, counting Antarctica as a country (I read a book by Ernest Shackleton; it counts because I say so)
  • Twenty-eight different US states, which includes Washington DC, again because I say so
  • Which accounts for 33,628,900 square miles, or 58.47% of the Earth’s land surface.

This means that technically I’m on pace– slightly ahead, in fact– to complete all 50 states by the end of the year, but it’s definitely getting more difficult across the board. I was at 17 countries and 15 states at the end of March, so you’ll notice neither of those numbers have doubled; I’ve pretty well plucked all the low-hanging fruit by now, and while there’s a few new countries represented on my Unread Shelf right now I don’t think there are any new states. More authors than I would have guessed live in Texas, and while there’s at least a couple of easy states left (I can always read a Stephen King book to get Maine, and, well, I live in Indiana) most of what’s left are going to have to be states that I specifically Google “authors from XXX” to find something to read.

I’m also starting to run low on countries where it’s easy to find authors whose work has been translated into English. This, in turn, leads to me ordering books that it’s less likely that I’m going to enjoy, simply because a lot of the time I’m just grabbing what I can find, and while there have definitely been some exceptions, I’m not finding that I’m discovering a huge number of hidden gems with this particular project the way I might have wanted to. I’m also backlogging books that “don’t count,” and probably 3/4 of my Unread Shelf right now is books that are repeat states or repeat countries. I got a lot of new places done in June, but July is going to have to be a month with not a lot of progress.

That said, filling in the map is still super fun. Ultimately I am going to finish this, because I’m that guy, it just remains to be seen how much of a slog those last few states create. I’m hoping for 40 countries right now, which actually ought to be manageable since I’ll be at 32 or so just with the books I’m due to read right now. And I’ve still got a solid six weeks of summer left, when my reading rate shoots way up. We’ll update again in September, but you can always check the links to the right if you’re curious.