Monstrous Beauty combines horror, romance and fantasy in an affecting and creepy tale. In 1872, a mermaid named Syrenka falls in love with the naturalist who has been sketching her. Trading her tail for life on land is not as easy as she'd hoped, and the consequences of her decision pay forward for more than a century. In the present day, Hester, all of 17 and certain she's doomed to a life alone due to a family curse, meets a beautiful stranger who seems to be the answer to her prayers. Funny how wrong first impressions can turn out to be.

Author Elizabeth Fama (Overboard) gives Monstrous Beauty style and punch. For a book aimed at readers 12 and up, the violence (including a graphic sexual assault) comes as a shock, but it raises the stakes for all the humans, mermaids and other creatures involved in the unfolding story. After two episodes that would put most of us out of commission for a week, the hits just keep on coming: “Before she could react, [Hester] was tackled to the ground and being clawed and punched by a raving madwoman.” But when Hester sees that her future isn't etched in stone after all, her insecurities give way to a plucky willingness to try anything.

Modern day crashes into late-19th-century morals when the story looks back at the town's church, which condemns things they can't understand (kind of forgivable in the case of mermaids, but still). The Puritan attitudes fire up the tension between good versus evil, giving the book's finale more oomph. Not that it needs it! Monstrous Beauty packs a serious, sexy wallop.

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