Book Review: In the house in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt

In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt

The Blurb:

“Once upon a time there was and there wasn’t a woman who went to the woods.”

In this horror story set in colonial New England, a law-abiding Puritan woman goes missing. Or perhaps she has fled or abandoned her family. Or perhaps she’s been kidnapped, and set loose to wander in the dense woods of the north. Alone and possibly lost, she meets another woman in the forest. Then everything changes.

On a journey that will take her through dark woods full of almost-human wolves, through a deep well wet with the screams of men, and on a living ship made of human bones, our heroine may find that the evil she flees has been inside her all along. The eerie, disturbing story of one of our perennial fascinations–witchcraft in colonial America–In the House in the Dark of the Woods is a novel of psychological horror and suspense told in Laird Hunt’s characteristically lyrical prose style. It is the story of a bewitching, a betrayal, a master huntress and her quarry. It is a story of anger, of evil, of hatred and of redemption. It is the story of a haunting, a story that makes up the bedrock of American mythology, but told in a vivid way you will never forget.

This book read like a combination of fevered nightmare and fairytale. And I mean that in the best way possible. The story takes our heroine (?), known only as “Goody” and sets her down in a wood where magic weaves into the bark of the trees, and the stench of rot can be sensed when the wind blows the right way.

Like a traditional fairy tale, the story begins by showing us the fantastical…the sharp teeth are well hidden. But as the story goes on, the underlying menace comes to the fore, and the smile widens into a razor grin.

This isn’t your traditional horror story … but the dream-like prose and ever-fascinating subject matter make this book shine. Anyone out there looking for something a bit different for the Halloween season and the dying of the year should consider this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: A Well Behaved Woman by Therese Ann Fowler

A Well Behaved Woman by Therese Ann Fowler

The Blurb:

The riveting novel of iron-willed Alva Vanderbilt and her illustrious family in as they rule Gilded-Age New York, from the New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.

In 1883, the New York Times prints a lengthy rave of Alva Vanderbilt’s Fifth Ave. costume ball–a coup for the former Alva Smith, who not long before was destitute, her family’s good name useless on its own. Marrying into the newly rich but socially scorned Vanderbilt clan, a union contrived by Alva’s bestfriend and now-Duchess of Manchester, saved the Smiths–and elevated the Vanderbilts.

From outside, Alva seems to have it all and want more. She does have a knack for getting all she tries for: the costume ball–no mere amusement–wrests acceptance from doyenne Caroline Astor. Denied abox at the Academy of Music, Alva founds The Met. No obstacle puts her off for long.

But how much of ambition arises from insecurity? From despair? From refusal to play insipid games by absurd rules? –There are, however, consequences to breaking those rules. One must tread carefully.

And what of her maddening sister-in-law, Alice? Her husband William, who’s hiding a terrible betrayal? The not-entirely-unwelcome attentions of his friend Oliver Belmont, who is everything William is not? What of her own best friend, whose troubles cast a wide net?

Alva will build mansions, push boundaries, test friendships, and marry her daughter to England’s most eligible duke or die trying. She means to do right by all, but good behavior will only get a woman so far. What is the price of going further? What might be the rewards? There’s only one way to know for certain…

In her afterword, Therese Anne Fowler makes a wonderful point: that powerful/influential women, especially those who live “unconventional” lives, tend to be remembered negatively. Alva Vanderbilt is commonly remembered as a gold-digging, social-ladder-climbing floozy. Yet (as is almost always the case) there is more to her than that. The image we have of Alva is passed along largely through the memories of men and society matrons she offended. Little about her life has been put into context.

Fowler’s book seeks to put Alva’s life in a more contextual (and sympathetic) frame. Here we see Alva not as a mere social climber, but also as a woman with limited options in 19th century society to ensure the wellbeing of herself and her family. She is not a shrill hysteric, but an intelligent woman with little outlet for her talents.

I love seeing history from the other direction. While you can certainly argue that Alva, as the wife of one of the richest men in the world at the time, was by no means living in hardship, it is shocking just how restricted the lives of society women were around the turn of the 20h century.

Fans of history and historical fiction will certainly find Fowler’s story engaging.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

Welcome to the late 19th century in an America that never was. The federal government, seeking to relieve the nation’s meat shortages, had the brilliant idea of importing hippos and breeding them in the swamps of the southeast. This is, apparently, based on an actual proposal that was (thankfully) scrapped. However, in River of Teeth, the plan went ahead, and now most of northern Louisiana is a swamp full of vicious feral hippos (and more than a few outlaws and gangsters). Winslow Houndstooth is a man with a past, looking for one last payout to retire and live out the good life. He has been tasked (alongside his crew) with clearing the swamp of ferals. Of course, in a story like this, nothing can ever go as planned.

The first thing that grabbed my attention was the title. I mean, River of Teeth? How could I pass up anything with a title like that?! Add to that a recent “oh hey, did you hear about…” from Dear Husband about (I shit you not) feral hippos wrecking up the place in Mexico. It just seemed like it was meant to be.

The book is an old-fashioned western with a hell of a novel twist. Gailey gives us murder revenge, paddle boats, hippo ranchers, gamblers, lawmen, mercenaries, gun fights, knife fights, and explosives. In short, all the things you want in your old-timey western adventure and then some. Also novel about Gailey’s story is the diversity of the characters. Let’s face it, the western (pick any genre though) with wall-to-wall white male protagonists has been done (and done, and done). Gailey brings a refreshingly varied cast of characters to her story.

In fact, my biggest complaint about this story is how short it is. At 114 pages, this is more novella than novel. I read the book in a single sitting and simply wanted more. I wanted more time and interactions with Houndstooth and his crew, I wanted more history and background of the hippo endeavor and the mess that brought about a huge swamp of death. Fortunately, there’s a second book out (and hopefully more to follow) so I will get my wish.

Book Review: The Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch

The Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch

The Blurb:

Seven years after a financial crisis nearly toppled America, traders chafe at government regulations, racial tensions are rising, and corrupt financiers make back-door deals with politicians… 1799 was a hell of a year.

Thanks to Alexander Hamilton, America recovered from the financial panic of 1792, but the young country is still finding its way. When a young lawyer returns to prove his father’s innocence, he exposes a massive financial fraud that the perpetrators are determined to keep secret at any cost. And reaching the highest levels, the looming crisis could topple the nation.

This is an incredibly well researched book. Hirsch has delved deeply into 18th century New York, and he brings all the details–the sights, smells, and people, to vivid life in this richly textured mystery story.

Unfortunately, while he has a vivid eye for detail, the pacing of the story seems unequal to Hirsch’s vision. Events string along one after the other, slowly moving the plot along, some even seeming to serve little purpose. For me, the slow-moving and meandering plot overshadowed the carefully crafted setting.

Hirsch is a journalist, and has a journalist’s eye for detail and truth. Fiction is a whole different animal, and talent with non-fiction subjects does not automatically translate to prowess with fictional ones. That being said, Hirsch is clearly a talented writer, and this story marks his first foray into writing fiction. Future endeavors may even out the pacing of his plots, and tighten up wandering storylines. If so, he will likely be a talent to watch.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Toy Thief by D.W. Gillespie

The Toy Thief by D.W. Gillespie

The Blurb:

As a girl, Jack lives with her father and brother after her mother passed away during childbirth. Her father is a well-meaning construction worker who treats her more like a roommate, while her brother, Andy, is an introverted loner prone to violent outbursts, a virtual mirror to his sister who is outspoken to an extreme. The story opens on a sleepover with nine year old Jack and her close friend. While putting on a pretend show, the two girls leave a video camera running, and when Jack replays the tape the next day, she sees her friend’s toy being snatched off the end table and out the back door by a swift, nearly unseen hand. Excited and bewildered, she tries to show the tape to her thirteen year old brother, Andy who is still furious about the spat he and Jack got into the night before. Without another word, he smashes the tape of the intruder. That night, determined to catch the creature she now calls The Toy Thief, Jack sets up a series of traps, all of which fail miserably. Once she awakens in the middle of the night, she finds her friend’s toy has returned, brought back by The Toy Thief, an impossibly tall and rat-like creature with glassy eyes. Just then, Andy steps out of his room, and as The Thief flees in a panic, Andy realizes his sister is telling the truth. The two of them are able to surmise that The Thief most likely travels through a tangled section of woods called The Trails, and they go out in search of it. After returning unsuccessful, Jack awakes the next morning to find Andy missing from his bedroom. As her father informs the police, Jack knows it’s up to her to find him. Jack must venture into the dark place WHERE TOYS GO to get him back. But even if she finds him, will he ever be the same? FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launching in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.

This was a fantastic horror offering! Gillespie combines those universal childhood fears of the disappearance of something beloved and the thing under the bed to give us a story that resonates viscerally with the reader.

In terms of story and plot, The Toy Thief reminds me strongly of an early Stephen King short story (Some of his best work, in my opinion) given guts and sinew pulled over the bones to form a full-length story.

Maintaining the creep factor is incredibly hard over a few hundred pages. And while there are a few spots where the story lags, in general the pacing is strong and consistent. Gillespie is also a dab hand at creating fantastic mental imagery with his writing. The weirdness and wrongness of the toy thief shine through, as does the quiet disfunction of Jack’s family.

This is a well-written, well-plotted, and original horror story. Fans of the genre will enjoy this new entry!

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker

Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker

The Blurb:

The prequel to Dracula, inspired by notes and texts left behind by the author of the classic novel, Dracul is a riveting novel of gothic suspense that reveals not only Dracula’s true origins but Bram Stoker’s — and the tale of the enigmatic woman who connects them.

It is 1868, and a twenty-one-year-old Bram Stoker waits in a desolate tower to face an indescribable evil. Armed only with crucifixes, holy water, and a rifle, he prays to survive a single night, the longest of his life. Desperate to record what he has witnessed, Bram scribbles down the events that led him here…

A sickly child, Bram spent his early days bedridden in his parents’ Dublin home, tended to by his caretaker, a young woman named Ellen Crone. When a string of strange deaths occur in a nearby town, Bram and his sister Matilda detect a pattern of bizarre behavior by Ellen — a mystery that deepens chillingly until Ellen vanishes suddenly from their lives. Years later, Matilda returns from studying in Paris to tell Bram the news that she has seen Ellen — and that the nightmare they’ve thought long ended is only beginning.

A Dracula prequel written by a descendant of Bram Stoker?! Sign me up! Unfortunately, I had a great deal of trouble getting into the book, so much so that I nearly gave it up a few times. Why? A few factors. The first is my fault. I saw Dracula and the author and dove in without reading farther. I was therefore a bit disappointed to learn that the story didn’t deal with the Count’s story so much as it did Stoker’s. Second, the book takes quite a while to find its feet and engage the reader. The plot seems to drag along for the first few hundred pages. At 500+ pages, there’s plenty of time for the story to figure itself out, but man…that beginning is rough.

Now I will say, that once the plot begins to pick up, the book is fantastic. Stoker and Barker do a wonderful job keeping to Bram Stoker’s style and maintain a high level of gothic creepiness. Moreover, they have used historically verifiable aspects of Bram Stoker’s life to add realism to the plot. The imagery of the book is also simply fantastic. Bits and pieces strongly reminded me of elements from MR James’ classic ghost stories.

So in sum, I wound up liking this book far more by the end of it than I thought I would. Fans of Stoker’s Dracula and gothic horror in general may want to give it a go…the ending is worth the slog. More casual readers, however, may want to give this one a pass.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas

The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas

Spoiler: This is the 3rd book in Sherry Thomas’ fantastic Lady Sherlock Series, and so this review may contain minor spoilers for the first two books. So go read them. Now.


The Blurb:

Under the cover of “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes puts her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. Aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, Charlotte draws those in need to her and makes it her business to know what other people don’t.

Moriarty’s shadow looms large. First, Charlotte’s half brother disappears. Then, Lady Ingram, the estranged wife of Charlotte’s close friend Lord Ingram, turns up dead on his estate. And all signs point to Lord Ingram as the murderer.

With Scotland Yard closing in, Charlotte goes under disguise to seek out the truth. But uncovering the truth could mean getting too close to Lord Ingram—and a number of malevolent forces…

I’m a huge fan of Sherry Thomas’ take on Sherlock Holmes. She has managed to make something shiny and new from (let’s face it) tragically overused material. I’m quite taken with Charlotte Holmes; she is cool and calculating as Conan Doyle’s original consulting detective, yet wholly (Some might say unnervingly) feminine. Thomas has not presented us with a Deerstalker cap with lace trimmings, but a fully fleshed character, one who can stand on her own daintily-clad feet.

The third entry into the series continues to flesh out the characters of Charlotte and those that surround her. Fans of the will-they-won’t-they dynamic will enjoy the focus on Lord Ingram in the central plot. And, as always, Thomas provides us with a complex and layered plot, full of well-executed twists and turns.

Fans of historical mysteries and of Sherlock Holmes will find a lot to enjoy in this original and entertaining series. If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, it’s past time to get caught up.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Jane Seymour The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

Jane Seymour the Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

This is the third book in Alison Weir’s historical fiction series about the six wives of Henry VIII. I’d say there’s spoilers in this review, but can such a well known historical drama really be spoiled at this point?

This story centers around Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife and [SPOILER ALERT]

His only wife to bear him a son.

[END SPOILER ALERT]

Jane was born to lesser nobility, began her career at court as a lady’s maid to Queen Katherine (Henry’s first wife) and later Anne Boleyn after the doomed lady ascended to the throne. It was in this capacity that she caught the eye of an increasingly frustrated Henry VIII.

Alison Weir is rightly lauded for her work in both fiction and nonfictional historical works. While this particular book is a fictionalization of Jane Seymour’s life, Weir hews closely to known historical fact for much of the book. Where she deviates or invents, a very helpful and informative afterward explains her choices of plot and interpretation.

Fans of historical fiction will greatly enjoy this book, which will also appeal to romance readers. The tragedies of Henry VIII’s wives are a fascinating subject, and Weir treats them as such.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

Corey and Kyra were inseparable friends. In a small, isolated town of 200 in the northern Alaska wilderness, they grew up close as sisters. And when Kyra is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it becomes Corey and Kyra against the world in a town that is unwilling to accept anything or anyone different. Then Corey is forced to move away when her mother accepts a job at a hospital in Winnipeg. She makes Kyra promise to wait for her, that it will only be a few months until her summer break, and then things can be like they were before. But after only a few months, Kyra is dead, and the people of Lost Creek treat Corey like an interloper. What happened while she was away?

This was an atypical thriller. The setting of a small, isolated town is one guaranteed to get under my skin. Something about a community with no anonymity, but harboring dark secrets, is claustrophobic and terrifying. Due to the age of the protagonists, and the general tone of the book, this fits neatly into the YA category, but it is one of those books that will appeal to a wide range of readers. I quite liked Nijkamp’s sympathetic portrayal of bipolar disorder, and the difficulties encountered by those with the disorder to find effective treatment and acceptance.

The book’s plot centers around the paranoia of becoming a stranger in a place you once called home, and of the ease in development of homogeneous belief among small, isolated populations. These real-world situations are juxtaposed against a magical thread running through the plot, as we examine the cult-like nature of the townsfolk and the presentation of Kyra’s mental illness.

In all, this is not your run-of-the-mill thriller, and is much the better for that fact. Fans of YA genres, psychological thrillers, and (semi) horror will likely enjoy this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Blurb:

How do you stop a murder that’s already happened?

At a gala party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed–again. She’s been murdered hundreds of times, and each day, Aiden Bishop is too late to save her. Doomed to repeat the same day over and over, Aiden’s only escape is to solve Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder and conquer the shadows of an enemy he struggles to even comprehend–but nothing and no one are quite what they seem.

This is a simply fantastic debut showing from Stuart Turton. The plot manages to marry an Agatha Christie mystery with Groundhog Day, with a little dash of The Twilight Zone and Doctor Who thrown in for good measure. Such a story should be absurd in the extreme, but Turton manages to deliver a classically-toned mystery with new and original parts.

As the story begins, we are dropped into the classic brooding English manor house and grounds with our amnesiac protagonist. What at first appears to be a fairly typical turn-of-the-century mystery story swiftly shunts both reader and protagonist into strange and unexpected territory. As the threads of the story weave themselves into ever more complicated patterns, we find the tropes of the manor house murder mystery both revered and stood on their heads.

Turton’s debut novel is an incredibly original, carefully crafted story. By providing us with such a well-known and beloved literary setting, he lures the reader into a false sense of confidence that they know what is going on. It is only once deep into the story that we realize how far from the garden path we have been led.

Mystery lovers and any who are looking for a new and original read will enjoy this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.