Friday, June 03, 2022

May 2022 Reading Round Up

This is getting to be a regular thing, it seems – I read some books, I post about them. Sure, I’ve been doing that at SFFWorld for years, but with far less frequency here.

I’ll briefly mention the reviews I posted to SFFWorld during the month of May before doing an overview of the goodies I read not for review for SFFWorld, i.e. books I bought or were gifted, but not sent for review from the publisher. Over the last month at SFFWorld, you’ll find my review of The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas, which I posted last week. This was a haunting, excellent horror debut novel. Last month, I hinted at a book I read in April whose review would be going live May 3, that was Holly Black’s Book of Night. A review of a book I read back in March went live in May, too. An outstanding Horror Anthology edited by John F.D. Taff, Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Terror. There’s one book officially publishing in June which I’ll post to SFFWorld on the book’s publication date. I started it late last week, but will hopefully finish it in the next week or so. Here’s the rundown of what I read outside of the review books I received for SFFWorld. 

May started out strong with the audiobook of Take Your Turn, Teddy, by Hayley Newlin. This is a book I’ve seen good things about on the various horror blogs and instagrammers I follow. This book starts out as a sad tale of a young boy named Teddy whose father is extremely abusive to his mother and becomes a horror novel mixed with a serial killer police procedural. Some creepy scenes, nice character development with the cast of characters, and nods to the Stephen King. It works extremely well and the narration by Thomas Gloom helped to enhance the story. Haley also reviews for Cemetery Dance magazine online. 

Clown in a Cornfield is a book whose title alone would strike a chord of creepiness in most reader’s imagination. Adam Cesare tells the story of a middle American town, but it can be seen as a microcosm of some of the issues in everyday America. Our main character, Quinn Maybrook, moves to Kettle Springs, a town whose divide between the adults and teens traces back to the recent shutting down of the syrup factory, which was a great source of the town’s economy and livelihood. Added to the chaos is “Frendo the Clown,” the mascot of the syrup factory, who begins killing people. Quinn is caught up in the mess as a new kid torn between the popular crew and the not so popular crew. 

Cesare did a fantastic job of immersing me in the story, building empathy for his characters, and keeping the tension and scares a very appreciable level. I read the book in only a couple of days because it was both relatively short and very difficult to set aside. As this post goes live, the sequel, Clown in a Cornfield 2: Frendo Lives is on the horizon. 

A break in the horror with Sarah Chorn’s second novel in her Songs of Sefate series, Glass Rhapsody. I was a big fan of the first book (Of Honey and Wildfires reviewed @SFFWorld) and was eager to see where she took this fantastical frontier world. Her prose remains top notch and beautiful. Building on the momentous events at the conclusion of the first book, Sarah manages to maintain the same emotional pull that drove Of Honey and Wildfires while also examining new ways for her characters to deal with grief and tribulation. Sarah self-publishes her novels, but her storytelling ability is stronger than many traditionally published writers whose work I’ve sampled.

Back to Horror with The Troop by Nick Cutter. This book, as well as Cutter’s other books, seem to make every recommendation list I see for “recent horror” novels. After finally diving into the book, I now understand why. A scout troop goes to a local uninhabited island, Falstaff Island, to experience the wilderness as part of their annual trip. This island is essentially cut off from civilization, which is the point of the trip, especially in a world that is uber-connected. The boys and Scoutmaster arrive and are shortly joined by an unexpected visitor. That unexpected visitor brings some unexpected visitors of his own. The hype is pretty genuine with this book, it is horrific and creepy, at turns reminding me of the films Alien and The Thing, and of course the easy novel comparison, The Lord of the Flies. Some gruesome scenes, but not really gory for gore’s sake. Any of the squelchy scenes serve the story as a whole and a couple of characters are equally monstrous. Cutter openly admits the use of “real” updates like blogs, court records, and psychological transcripts interspersed in the text was inspired by Stephen King’s Carrie. It is an extremely effective method for building tension in the story. I’m looking forward to reading more of Nick Cutter’s novels in the future.

I took a break from my audiobook re-read of The Wheel of Time to finish out Lindsay Buroker’s Star Kingdom space opera series over the past month with book 7 Home Front and I started, book 8 Layers of Force at the end of the month, and will finish early June. This is a fun, character driven space epic set thousands of years in the future and unlikely hero Casmir Dabrowski who finds himself at the center of events of galactic conflict. The series features genetically modified humans, robots with AI, royalty, romance, space pirates, ancient technology and is enormously fun. In many ways, protagonist Casmir Dabrowski and his hopeful outlook in the face of tyranny reminds me of Julius from Rachel Aaron’s equally fun Fantasy/Apocalypse hybrid, Hearstrikers. I reviewed the first two books of that series for SFFWorld: Nice Dragons Finish Last and One Good Dragon Deserves Another.

On to another month of books!

Sunday, May 01, 2022

April 2022 Reading Round Up

Books, I read books. I read lots of books. 

I read a few books in April, one of which is a May release. I’ll be posting my review to SFFWorld on May 3, the day of publication. I also posted a couple of book reviews in April, books I read in March: The Hunger of the Gods by John Gwynne, the spectacular second entry in his Norse-inspired Bloodsworn saga. Bottom line: this is shaping up to be a stellar fantasy saga. The other book review was T. Kingfisher’s Nettle & Bone a modern take on the tried and true fairy tale about the princess who wants to marry the prince. In the case of this delightful novel, a princess wants to kill the prince. I highly recommend this one, too. 

On the audiobook front, the entire month was consumed joyfully with book four of The Wheel of Time, The Fires of Heaven wonderfully narrated by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading. I continued with my descent into the Horror genre with two gems from small presses. 

John F.D. Taff’s The Fearing, which was originally published in serialized format as short novels/novellas, much like Stephen King’s The Green Mile. Grey Matter Press released a “Definitive Edition”/omnibus slightly re-worked by Taff to be more of a novel. Boy-howdy did I enjoy this book. In it, all the fears of the world have been unleashed and it is up to a handful of characters to figure out how to navigate this world in the midst of transforming. Seemingly at the head of this release of fears is a man named Adam. Taff follows Adam’s journey across America and his affect on the people he encounters along with a few groups of characters who manage to survive the catastrophies and monsters unleashed in the world. 

Have I said I loved this book? Well, Robert R. McCammon’s Swan Song, Stephen King’s The Stand, and Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers now have another book joining them on my proverbial top shelf of Epic, Apocalyptic Horror. Love the cover on this one, too. 

Gwendolyn Kiste’s  The Rust Maidens received the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel and it has been appearing on several lists when I'm looking for a good creepy read. 

Set in 1980, Kiste paints a very bleak picture of a Cleveland manufacturing town in the process of dying. The factory which employs the majority of men in town may be closing or cutting back. Phoebe is our protagonist who is returning to town when her mother is about to move from the family home and the area is even more rundown in 2008 than it was in the 1980. Phoebe is powerfully devoted to her friends, even when they exhibit strange maladies like leaking water, glass fingernails, and showing metal bones. Kiste does a fantastic job with character and place in this novel. I could have used a little bit more of an explanation of why these girls were transformed, but sometimes in life, things happen without explanation. I’ll be reading more from Gwendolyn Kiste in the future. 

Unfortunately, one book did not work for me and it is from an author whose work I typically adore. Seanan McGuire’s Season Fears is the “companion” novel to her masterpiece, Middlegame. I found the book to be an overwrought world-building exercise, with one of the main characters taking far too long to actually believe what was happening. The plot momentum was extremely sluggish and everything was bogged down with dense, complicated, and confusing world building.

...and that's a wrap for my April Readings

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Book Review: The Return (Audio Book) by Rachel Harrison / Women in Horror Month

: The Return
Publisher: Audible/Berkeley
Page Count: 304 Pages / 9 Hours, 34 Minutes
Publication Date/Year: 2020
Narrator: Sara Scott
Genre: Horror

Rachel Harrison’s debut novel, The Return, has been on my radar, probably since it published a couple of years ago. Three friends are surprised when their friend, Julie, disappears. Julie went hiking and never returned. Many people think she’s dead, but not Elise. Elise assumes Julie will return. She goes through the motions of attending the funeral (which happens a year after Julie disappears), but she also loses touch with Mae and Molly. Until Julie does return exactly two years after she vanished, Julie’s friends, Elise, Molly, and Mae, organize a weekend getaway at the Red Honey Inn, an exclusive, new, themed hotel in upstate New York. Julie is the last to arrive and this weekend is her friends to see her. Julie is much thinner, she looks sickly, a pale imitation of her former self. Julie is also acting strangely, for example, she now eats meat. Before she disappeared, she was a vegetarian. There are only occasional flashes of Julie’s former self.

Harrison frames her story through the voice of Elise, who as I suggested above, was the least concerned of her three “living” friends about Julie’s fate largely because she was closer to Julie than her other friends. Elise is a loner, somewhat self-imposed, compared to Mae and Molly. It was pretty easy to identify with Elise for me, Harrison did a nice job of making her situation grounded. For example, I thought it was a very nice touch that Elise expressed concern over the weekend getaway. First she thought it might be too much too soon, but second, and what gave the story that much more of a genuine feel is that Elise was concerned with the cost of going away to a fancy hotel. A seemingly small detail like that goes a long way to allowing the reader to “buy in” to what is happening in the story. Of course, with Elise as the narrator of the story, we only get her opinions on her friends and the situation.

Elise’s trepidation is a hint of the unsettling nature of the story that will unfold. A sense of dread slowly creeps into the story. The hotel is eerie, for starters. While it isn’t as haunted as say, the Overlook, it does give off a vibe of not quite being normal. The mountain setting doesn’t help, either. The limited number of staff, as Elise relays to us, come across as almost too perky. Each of the four characters is in their own themed room, each room feels like it could be in a Tim Burton movie.

As I said, the three friends realize Julie is very different. There’s an odor about her, Julie’s teeth are falling out, and she only seems to have an appetite for raw meat and alcohol. Elise soon thinks she’s seeing shadows moving, adding to her unease and an overall sense of being haunted. Julie’s presence continues to unnerve the three friends, with Mae and Molly urging Elise confront Julie about her memories and her appearance.

I don’t want to go too much further with plot details, but suffice it to say, Harrison does a fantastic job with an unsettling narrative. The creep factor increases as the novel heads to its inevitable conclusion, with some of the elements being explained, others not so much.

At times, Elise explained things that didn’t require explaining. But in the little moments, the intricacies of the friendship of these four women, Harrison excels. As I said, sometimes the smaller “devil in the detail” elements can pay it forward for the larger narrative. Overall, Harrison manages to infuse her narrative with a very strong pull that was difficult to deny.

An impressive horror debut. I’ve seen this novel labeled as a feminist horror and I suppose with the majority of characters being women (Tristan, Julie’s husband is the lone significant male character) I suppose that could be true. What The Return wound up being for me was a gripping, horror novel that was told with well-measured reveals. I guess I’d say folks who enjoyed the film The Descent would likely find a lot to like in this novel.

Highly Recommended

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Book Review: The Bird Eater by Ania Ahlborn / Women in Horror Month

Author: Ania Ahlborn
Publisher: 47 North
Page Count: 267 Pages
Publication Date/Year: 2014
Genre: Horror

Over the past few years, I’ve come to be a fan of Ania Ahlborn’s horror novels. Some are flat out horror stories featuring ghosts and demonic children, others feature serial killer families. The latest novel I’ve read by Ania Ahlborn, The Bird Eater, is a novel about a haunting; a haunted place and a haunted person. It also features something that could be classified as an evil presence.

Aaron has had what some may call a challenging life; he didn’t know his mother and the aunt who raised him (and who he thought of as a mother) died when he was young. The opening chapter is from the point of view of Aaron’s aunt/mother figure. She provides minimal details about his mother except that she was unstable and killed herself (which she doesn’t tell Aaron) shortly after Aaron was born. Despite that, Ahlborn paints a fairly nice picture of Aaron’s life growing up in this unique family. That is until his Aunt is killed at the end of that first chapter. Fast forward twenty years, Aaron is fighting addiction and separated from his wife after their son Ryder died in an automobile accident. In other, Aaron is a haunted individual. His therapist suggests he return to the home in Arkansas where his aunt raised him and renovate the house, Holbrook House, which has laid abandoned since he left when he was a teenage twenty years ago.

Aaron re-connects with some of his old high school friends, including his old high school sweetheart Cheri. His departure was rather sudden when he was a teenager, a couple of the friends (Cheri included) thought he was dead. In those twenty years, Holbrook House has become a local legend, thought to be haunted. His old friends have a tough time understanding why Aaron would want to stay there given the house’s history and his history with it.

Aaron isn’t prone to believing in the supernatural. So when a young boy seems to be stalking him, Aaron thinks it is just an annoying teenager. When dead birds continue to pile up on the ramshackle house, Aaron has a tough time explaining that to his friends. The creepy kid gets closer, taunts Aaron, and even vandalizes Aaron’s vehicle.

Aaron’s sanity begins to slip as he sees the boy more often, he descends into despair over his ruined marriage and dead sone. He questions what is real, self-medicates, and consumes more alcohol. His friends worry about him, but he has a tough time breaking from his cycle of self-destruction. After relatively slow build, and that great foundational first chapter, The Bird Eater draws to a heightened and potent conclusion.

So, let’s get this out of the way, shall we? Anytime a story features a house with a Proper Name, chances are that house is haunted. Those chances go up to 100% when the Named House is central to the Horror story. Holbrook House is no exception, rather, it proves the rule. Looking at Aaron, he is very much an unreliable narrator, especially as he relays his harrowing experiences with the creepy kid and Holbrook House to his friends. His personal demons and haunted presence mirror the haunted nature of Holbrook House Ahlborn walked the line of reality and supernatural quite finely, especially as she pulled Aaron to the conclusion of the novel.

There are quite a few implied connections between characters and elements throughout the story. Clues blatant and subtle that, as a reader, I found enjoyable in the reading experience. In that respect, The Bird Eater was very successful as a conversation between reader and writer. Aaron seems to be the latest (or current) person affected by Holbrook House, there is a deeper history to the house and area that Aaron discovers and hints that Holbrook House isn’t quite done torturing people.

Very creepy with a magnetic narrative that kept me reading, The Bird Eater is another excellent horror tale from the mind of Ania Ahlborn.

Highly Recommended

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Book Review: The Winter People (Audio Book) by Jennifer McMahon / Women in Horror Month

Publisher: Audible
Narrated by: Cassandra Campbell & Kathe Mazur
Lenth: 10 hrs and 45 min
Publication Date/Year: 2014
Genre: Horror

Jennifer McMahon is a best-selling writer of suspense novels, some of which easily fall into the horror genre, like this particular novel, The Winter People. I’ve been wanting to give her work a try for a short-while now and have been wavering on which book would be my first from her and decided on this one, the creepy description was intriguing. I’m also a fan of stories told in parallel timelines, which is a feature of this novel.

While both storylines take place in West Hall, Vermont, one timeline is told in 1908, during an uncompromising and difficult winter. Sara Harrison Shea’s* daughter Gertie dies during that winter and unfortunately, Gertie isn’t the first child of Sara and her husband Martin to lose. In denial, Sara puts the full blame for Gertie’s death on her husband Martin. She is driven beyond the bounds of sanity to do anything to see her daughter one more time, she is convinced her daughter hasn’t died.

* I'm always wary of characters with three names like that, who are constantly referred to by their first, middle, and last name. Lots of serial killers go by the three names and characters with three names tend to not be the most...stable?

In the “current timeline” there are additional parallel stories occurring: Ruthie and her kid sister wake up one day and their strict mother Alice has disappeared. Oh, by the way, these folks live in Sara Harrison Shea’s old home. There have been a spate of missing people in the West Hall area, specifically where Ruthie and her family live, and Ruthie is worried her mom might be the latest victim of some cruel and twisted presence. Adding to the creepiness is the dark history surrounding Sara Harrison Shea. She was labeled a witch, and supposedly had a book that could bring the dead back to life. These living dead people have been dubbed, by the local populace, as Winter People.

Adding another layer of parallel story is the arrival of a woman named Katherine, who is mourning the recent loss of her husband as well as the death of her son not so recently. She is drawn to West Hall when she learns her husband made an unannounced visit there just before he died.

McMahon has a great knack for compelling narrative. She switches between the parallel stories in a deliciously powerful manner. What do I mean? We’ve all had that “oh just one more chapter” thought cross our minds when we’re invested in a good book. McMahon is really good at implanting that thought in readers’ heads.

Of course one of the most enjoyable elements of stories told in parallel narratives is trying to figure out how those narratives cease to become parallel and intertwine. McMahon does a great job with this storytelling element as well, and is a complement to that whole “just another chapter” thought.

I felt ingrained in these character’s heads with each switch of viewpoint, Jennifer McMahon built a solid foundation for them that allowed for a great deal of empathy. I will say; however, I found Ruthie’s little sister somewhat annoying, but I suppose that is kind of the purpose of the character.

My issue; however, is with the audiobook edition which has two performers/narrators. The present day narrator is fine, excellent actually. The narrator who performed the story in the past sounded strained as if she were trying to whisper, or whisper shout. I wish audiobook narrators and producers would stop with this trick, which is not dissimilar in annoyance to how darkly streaming shows are shot these days.

In the end, The Winter People was a thrilling, creepy, compulsive read. It’s no wonder Jennifer McMahon is a best-selling writer, she spins a compelling, tale. I'll be seeking out more of her work in the future. This book should appeal to horror readers and thriller fans, as well.


Monday, March 07, 2022

Women in Horror Month (2022)!

March is Women in Horror Month, a celebration of women's contributions to the Horror Genre. A few of the bookstagrammers and bloggers I've been following are highlighting works by women in the horror genre during the month of March. This includes the Ladies of Horror Fiction, who is hosting a readathon, which functions as a pretty good "to-read" list. 

Another great way to find some goods books to read in the spirit of this month is to follow the  #WomenInHorrorMonth and #WiHM hashtags on twitter or Instagram. You could als follow Ladies of Horror Fiction on Instagram & Twitter and Mother Horror/Sadie Hartmann on Instagram or Twitter for good recommendations. Hell, those accounts should be followed regardless if you happen to enjoy horror.

For my part, I've got a review posting here on Wednesday (03/09), of an excellent, spooky novel I recently enjoyed as an audiobook. I may have one more audiobook review of a book I just started enjoying recently; a non-audio book review of another recent favorite writer, and perhaps an author profile going live over the course of this month. Life outside the pages (and earbuds for the audiobooks) may dictate what happens 'round here. Could be more, could be less.

All that said, here's a picture of my puppy, Dusty, sitting with me while I read the excellent Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes (a.k.a. Stacey Kade), which I reviewed for SFFWorld.

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Book Review: Come Closer by Sara Gran

Title: Come Closer
Author: Sara Gran
Publisher: Soho Press
Page Count: 166 Pages
Publication Date/Year: 2003
Genre: Horror

Possession. One of the more rife subjects explored in horror novels. Sara Gran’s Come Closer takes a powerful approach to examine how easily such a possession can destroy a person.

Amanda and her husband Ed live happily in New York City, she’s an architect, he’s a financial guy for a prominent women’s clothing company. Gran gets things moving immediately … Amanda is called into her boss’s office after he reads the proposal she placed on his desk, pages of vicious and vulgar attacks. Amanda can’t explain it, but she knows the words spoke truth to his deviant behavior. At home that night, she and Ed hear strange noises in their home, noises in the wall they attribute to pipes or mice. These noises continue to occur for a few days. Rather innocuous, since they live in an older house. I live in a house built in the 1950s, I hear noises all the time and have come to dismiss them as just normal “house noises.”

Strange things begin to occur… A stray dog she befriended and began training growls and backs away from her. Amanda finds herself arguing with Ed with more frequency, something they didn’t typically do before we met her at the beginning of Come Closer. Things that she previously brushed off, Ed’s late nights, his friends quirks, begin to annoy her even more. Amanda comes across a book, Demon Possession Past and Present with a quiz a person can take to assess whether or not they are possessed. Things like blacking out without having taken drugs or alcohol (Amanda has spaces of time she can’t recall), finding yourself picking up habits (like smoking) you’d given up or never had. Amanda takes the quiz a few times over the course of the story.

Accompanying the aberrant behavior are dreams Amanda has of a woman on a red beach who proclaims her need for Amanda, her love, and who promises to never leave. As her behavior becomes more disturbing to herself, Amanda’s life unravels. There’s a part of her that takes an almost sick glee in the destructive behavior, while another battles for control against the demon she believes to be Naamah.

Gran tells the story in Amanda’s matter-of-fact first person voice. That, for me, might be the most terrifying element of the story, just how “normal” some of the deplorable behavior and events are delivered. I had to re-read some passages with an unspoken “WAIT WHAT?” in my brain.

There’s a small hint that perhaps Amanda is suffering a psychotic break and Gran smartly has Amanda visit both a psychiatrist and a spiritual advisor to help her remedy her problem. This leads to the inevitable question I have about first person stories, is this a reliable narrator? That unreliable narrator element adds another level of dread, especially as Gran brings the novel towards its powerful conclusion.

My wife read Come Closer a few years ago. I vaguely remember her recommending it to me and she thought highly enough about the book that she wanted to keep it. I saw the book being mentioned over the last year on various blogs and books-ta-grammers and decided to finally dive in. I read in essentially one sitting on a gloomy January Sunday and it was a perfect reading experience. 

Powerful, gripping, believable creepy, and utterly unsettling.

Highly Recommended