The Quiet Stillness of Empty Houses by L.V Russell

Theodora can feel the black spectres waiting for the inhabitants of her home, Woodrow House. With her grandmother being her only living relative, she can’t fathom leaving her behind.

But when the position of governess opens up, Theodora is driven further from safety and into the suspense-ridden halls of Broken Oak Manor.

Read if you like: gothic mystery novels, a protagonist who works as a governess, old secret-filled mansions,

Why did I not see that coming? WHY?

I am usually very perceptive when reading mystery or suspense novels because, after 10+ years of being a reader, there’s very little in the way of plot twists that catches me off-guard.

But L.V. Russell pulled it off!

The moment I read the synopsis of The Quiet Stillness of Empty Houses, I knew I HAD to pick it up. It is a gothic fiction centred around age-old mansions that perhaps “stand tall out of spite” (in her own words).

The author’s writing style is ambient and charged with sensory detail.

Copyright © 2023 Meera Nair

It reminded me of Daphne du Maurier and Diana Setterfield’s writing styles – eloquent, character-focused, and hauntingly beautiful.

Written from a third-person omniscient point of view, the story opens with an introduction to the protagonist in the context of her immediate surroundings.

Contrary to the time she lives in, Theodora is a bold woman, as quick to lash out at others as she is to proffer a smile. She lives with a heart full of grief and unresolved feelings.

I didn’t particularly care for the romance between Theodora and Cassias. It was probably necessary, but I would’ve enjoyed the book without it too!

In my experience, characters written as governesses are usually made to be timid, subservient, and rarely argumentative. So, I really enjoyed reading about someone like Theodora, who treats her ward and the lord of the house in the same straightforward manner, not paying any attention to propriety or social hierarchy.

There is an instance of assault that is implied indirectly, so you don’t have to worry about reading the details.

“I have an affinity for things that refuse to know their place.”

This novel has a slow-medium pace. The writing does wander a bit in the middle, and not a lot happens in the way of action.

I was unsure if I liked that about the book – the lack of several conflicts and plot points. But the last few chapters (and the setting and the author’s writing style!) made the whole reading experience worth it.

I don’t think I’ll forget the ending of this book. Especially considering how confident I was about the revelation, and it turned out to be something else altogether!

Looking for an atmospheric gothic novel that is brimming with suspense? Pick up The Quiet Stillness of Empty Houses. I highly recommend it!

Note – I received an ebook copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Bad Moon Rising by Luisa Colón

Two lives entangled by years of resentment and chaos, Bad Moon Rising explores the stories of Elodia and Gabriel as they seek answers to their troubled past.

A student living with her father, Elodia is withdrawn and can’t pinpoint what happened in her childhood that has left a mark on her. Gabriel, on the other hand, is adamant about finding his birth parents and learning why he was abandoned.

Read if you like: YA mystery novels, dark themes, narrative with two parallel storylines, fantasy elements

This book wasn’t for me.

No matter how much I tried I couldn’t bring myself to be invested in Elodia and Gabriel’s storylines. Perhaps because what we see of them in the first few chapters wasn’t compelling enough for me.

The moment you begin reading the book, you get the sense that it’s not going to be a cheery tale.

The writing has a dark and desolate tone just like the events that transpire in the main characters’ lives, plunging them into an abyss of loneliness.

I liked the fact that the author incorporates themes of toxic home environment and trauma well through these storylines. But it would have had a better impact if Elodia and Gabriel’s characters had more depth to them.

With two stories running parallel to each other, you begin to wonder what the connection is. I couldn’t digest that revelation – it’s disturbing and honestly, highly unnecessary.

I also wasn’t convinced by the ending. But maybe some other readers thought it made sense?

On the whole, I was intrigued by the premise of Bad Moon Rising but the execution of the story missed the mark, in my opinion.

Note – I received an e-book copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

A House With Good Bones by T. Kingfisher

After a phone call with her brother, Sam chalks up his concerns for their mom as just that – a son’s habitual worry for his aged mother.

But the moment she steps through the doorway of her childhood home, everything feels wrong. The house no longer looks like it once did, her mom is acting strange, and Sam wakes up to whispers that are vaguely familiar.

Read if you like: paranormal fiction, a protagonist with a science-field job, creepy and weird stories, fantasy with humour

I don’t know what it is about this author’s books that I keep coming back for more. Wait, I do know. It is the sheer mind-boggling sequence of events that carry her stories forward.

Even if my previous read was a 2-star, I know that I’ll continue reading her works because I love the way she thinks!

Of the three T. Kingfisher books I have read, A House With Good Bones ranks second after What Moves the Dead.

Throughout, I kept wondering what is the meaning behind the title of this paranormal mystery book (you’ll figure it out at the end!).

This is more of a slow-burn horror as the reality of what Sam & her mom are up against dawns on you with every progressing chapter.

Copyright © 2023 Meera Nair

The protagonist is an archaeoentomologist (basically an archaeologist who studies bugs). This lends to the tone of the writing in a way – a lot of the analogies, descriptions, and just passages, in general, are about bugs, birds, etc. Which I suppose is very typical for a T. Kingfisher book. There are always themes of animals and nature.

But none of this is done in a way as to confound the reader. At least, I felt that. Sam’s character voice is laidback, funny, and just very direct. So what she says doesn’t come across as “boring”.

The humour in this book is what took me by surprise. I don’t remember any of the author’s other works being this humorous.

I absolutely despised Sam’s grandmother’s character. She is shown to be racist and fatphobic. As someone who grew up in a patriarchal society, her grandmother has become this toxic person, constantly admonishing Sam and her mother.

In such a scenario, depicting the protagonist as someone who is brave and doesn’t let the opinions of others weigh her down was a great move!

I found Gail’s character to be intriguing and would have loved to read a couple more scenes that spotlight her and her backstory.

This book has a 2-part revelation. The first was a bit predictable. The second gave me the heebie-jeebies not just because of what happened but how the scenes have been captured.

The writing in this novel is vivid so much so that several scenes get etched onto your mind.

If you are looking for an unusual story to read, I’d recommend A House With Good Bones.

Take the Lead by Alexis Daria

The stakes are high this season of The Dance Off for Gina Morales. If she doesn’t make it to the finals on the reality show, she’ll be out of a job.

When the celebrity assigned to her, Stone Nielson threatens to crumble all the walls she has built around herself, Gina is compelled to choose between her career and a shot at happiness with Stone.

Read if you like: romance contemporary novels, forbidden love trope, themes of media & dance reality television, books with Latina protagonists, smut

I needed a light, fun read for a change, and Take The Lead was exactly that!

For starters, it’s about a Latina woman who is confident, ambitious, and wears her heart on her sleeve. I am glad that Gina’s character is made to be different from the stereotype of a typical LA woman.

What’s more is that the author goes one step further to make Gina’s story resonate with readers who are public figures themselves.

Her inner turmoil of not being taken seriously, being sexualised as a performer, and not having privacy are all valid concerns that people can relate to in this age of digital stardom.

I used to watch a lot of dance reality shows when I was younger, and this book reminded me of why I enjoyed them.

The reality TV aspect of the story doesn’t overshadow the entire plot; in fact, in several scenes, it’s almost rushed. You actually get to see Stone and Gina’s backstory, their daily struggles, and the connections they have formed with others.

I found a couple of parallels between this novel and You Had Me at Hola, which is also by Alexis Daria.

Women who are in the public eye and colleagues falling for each other seem to be 2 patterns that are common in her works.

While there’s a lot that’s refreshing about Take The Lead, it is built on several romance clichés – miscommunication, forbidden love, hidden feelings, and so on.

Sometimes, it would get so frustrating that they wouldn’t just openly talk about how they feel for each other. But I guess, it’s just human nature?

If you don’t mind that and are looking for a smut book to read, you might want to check this one out.

I like how Gina and Stone’s dance performances mirrored their relationship – with some of the earlier dances being sparkling, resembling how they were getting to know each other, and the later dances being more slow & melodic as they come to terms with their feelings.

The audiobook on Storytel made my reading experience much better! 10/10 recommend it.

Overall, it’s definitely enjoyable! But I wouldn’t say that I loved reading it. I know the author has loads of potential, and I’m waiting to read more of her books.

Dead of Winter by Darcy Coates

Christa is stuck in a nightmare that doesn’t end. She and her boyfriend were on their way to a vacation lodge in the mountains when everything goes wrong. Christa wakes up in a cabin full of her tour companions who say that Kiernan never made it back through the snowstorm.

Her plans to find him are foiled when one by one, the people in the cabin wind up brutally murdered, and Christa is now forced to watch her back every step she takes in the dark, unforgiving landscape.

Read if you like: thriller novels set in the middle of nowhere, a wintery-snowy setting, the isolation and stuck together tropes, serial killer books that are gory, a protagonist with a secret, mystery novels where everyone seems suspicious

Darcy Coates’ words have a way of creeping into your mind and channelling your imagination.

From the first page itself, her descriptions are so vivid that you can clearly visualise the scene. I loved reading about the setting regardless of how extreme the weather conditions were.

Once the murders begin, the writing becomes jarringly gory. If you are easily put off by such details, I wouldn’t recommend this book to you.

Even though I didn’t connect with Christa’s character, I could feel her angst, fear, and frustration. I chalked it up to the narrative being so well-framed that you can’t escape its impact.

One aspect of this book that worked superbly to heighten my apprehension is how the author uses human intuition in the storytelling.

Christa often has these powerful gut instincts that guide her. And the moment you read her thoughts, you know that something horrible is going to happen. Somehow this technique of foreshadowing was more thrilling than, say, if there had been paranormal elements in the plot.

Copyright © 2023 Meera Nair

There are so many plot points that work in tandem to tap into your survival mindset and elicit a reaction, such as:

  • everyone is trapped in an uncomfortably small cabin
  • the outdoors being unsafe
  • but then the indoors aren’t safe either because there’s a serial killer among them
  • they’re completely isolated from civilization, and there’s no help coming

The book is written from a third-person omniscient point of view. And you’re essentially following 10 characters as they struggle to deal with the circumstances.

This might seem a bit too much for some of you, but I felt that the author eased into the story without making the presence of all these characters too overwhelming.

Plus, there are certain aspects of their characterisation that distinguished all of them.

To make the narrative more layered, the author keeps hinting at some incident in Christa’s past that weighs on her conscience.

Unlike the wonderful ambience of the book itself, the build-up about her mysterious past wasn’t as atmospheric as I would’ve liked. Probably because of how much is revealed to us through short glimpses; the sense of mystery is lost.

One other thing that prevented this book from being a 5-star read for me is that I guessed who the killer is WAY TOO EARLY. That part of the puzzle stood out like a sore thumb throughout the novel.

All in all, Dead of Winter was certainly an engaging read. Moreover, I really like Darcy Coates’ writing style, so I have discovered a new author whose works I plan to binge-read.

Note – I received a review copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.