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 Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Charles Thomas “Tommy” Tester is a Harlem native who understands the uselessness of a black man working hard for a good wage in New York City. Unlike his bricklayer father, who’s body is broken and wallet empty from long hours of backbreaking work for meager pay. Tommy prefers to hustle for his money, the mystique of a carefully chosen suit and an old guitar doing a good portion of the legwork for him. If he sometimes gets involved with the arcane and the occult, at least he’s making a loving sufficient to support himself and his aging father. But after an encounter with a sorceress in Queens, events begin to spiral out of control. Tommy has attracted he attention of dangerous beings, and he, New York, and reality itself are in grave danger.

I’m a huge fan of HP Lovecraft’s stories, though the man’s personal beliefs are frankly odious. I love the concept of unknowable cosmic horrors, of elder gods so ancient and vast that human beings (always so full of ourselves) are essentially bacteria in comparison. However, Lovecraft’s blatant racism shouldn’t be ignored, and the best modern Lovecraft derivatives take this into account rather than trying to smooth over it.

This is a retelling of one of Lovecraft’s famous short stories, but the narrative takes us along the flip side of the original. This is a story about race and arcane magic, of injustice and revenge, of the dark, foreign, and “lesser” discovering beings who make their oppressors less than nothing.

Thus may be a book about elder gods and magic, but it is also a brutal and and all-to-relevant story of those pushed out to the margins, and what happens when they are pushed too far.

Book Review: Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

Mapping the Interior is a horror novella that wraps itself around your heart and brain while remaining incredibly hard to define. I originally got this book as part of a Nocturnal Reader’s Box, and am so glad that I got the chance to read it. The story focuses on Junior, a twelve year old boy who’s mother has moved the family off the reservation after his father’s death in order to keep them safe. One night after sleepwalking, Junior sees his father…his dead father…walk through the house. As he tries to figure out what is going on and why his father is back, Junior’s younger brother, Dino’s health declines more and more. The story spins us through science and superstition, and the natures of poverty and family.

This is really an incredible book. Jones has given us a wonderful main character in Junior. Watching him trying to reason through his father’s return, and dealing with what follows is both terrifying and moving.

Like all great stories, this one sticks with you after it’s finished. I’m having a very hard time explaining why this story affected me the way it did…so consider this my strong recommendation that you read it for yourself!

Book Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Hanna is nearly perfect, at least according to her daddy. So what if she still isn’t speaking at age seven? She’s clearly very intelligent, and more than capable of communicating in her own way. Those schools she’s been expelled from? They just didn’t understand her. Suzette, Hanna’s mother suspects something is wrong. Her precocious child is displaying worrying tendencies towards manipulation and violence. While her husband remains blind to Hanna’s problems, Suzette begins to suspect she may be the target of Hanna’s wrath.

Let me say at the start that my interpretation of the book may be a bit different from most. I am emphatically childfree, don’t really care for children in any case, and tend to regard most of them as tiny little psychopaths until they reach their midtwenties. Am I justified in this point of view? Probably not. But that’s the mindset I’m coming from when reading this book.

And it was nightmarish. The book is great, don’t get me wrong. It is tightly written, and the alternating points of view between Suzette and Hanna let us truly get to know the central characters. I had to take a break from the book about 100 pages in because it was keeping me up at night. The utter despair and hopelessness of Suzette’s situation is wrenching. She is trying (though imperfectly) to do right by her daughter, though years of abnormal and worrying behavior from Hanna have made her a bit ambivalent about motherhood. Compound this with her husband’s need to see only the perfect, upper-middle class family he desires, and Suzette is entirely alone to deal with her daughter. This I find terrifying: when dealing with mental and behavioral abnormalities in childhood, it is generally left to the mother to wonder where she went wrong, and what she could have done differently. And in all cases, motherhood is a condition with no escape. Someone may regret bringing a child into the world, but there are few socially acceptable ways to divorce oneself from parenthood, especially when being “a good mother” is considered the epitome of female (and especially middle class) success.

Well, enough ranting. I did, obviously, pick the book back up (and finished the remainder in one sitting). In the interests of keeping this review spoiler-free, I’m going to say little about the latter part of the book, but I will say that I was surprised by the direction the story took.

In sum, this book is a nuanced look at motherhood and psychopathy, at the loneliness of being a stay at home mother, and the frustration of being an atypical child. This book intimately describes the horror of finding out that, rather than the sweet, beautiful child you may have dreamed about, you have given birth to a monster, and are now tethered to its side.

I’d be curious to see what more maternally-minded people thought of his book? We’re their sympathies (like mine) fully with Suzette? Or do they see something redeeming in Hanna? Do they feel the horror as “that could have been me”? Or does the horror lie in “Suzette should have done x,y,z”? I would love to hear your thoughts, feel free to leave me a comment or two!

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

Book Review: The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

Nolan Moore is, for better or for worse, that “ALIENS” guy. A former Hollywood screenwriter and renaissance man, he now hosts a popular web series The Anomaly Files, where he seeks out evidence in support of theories not supported my mainstream science. For their latest episode (and a make-or-break moment for the show) Nolan and the Anomaly Files crew head to the Grand Canyon, where a Smithsonian expedition in 1909 is rumored to have discovered a hidden cave filled with wonderful and terrible things. When, with a bit of luck they do discover the cave, they find that what it contains is far more dangerous and horrifying than they could ever have guessed.

This was a fantastic book, the story somewhere between science fiction and horror. The giants of this particular genre– Michael Crichton, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child deliver stories that are out here, couldn’t possibly be true…but while reading, some small part of our lizard brain whispers “maybe.” The Anomaly treads along that fine line, with occasional lateral movements into Lovecraftian territory.

Perhaps my favorite part of this story is its self-awareness. Nolan makes a living trying to prove the conspiracy theorists right, but isn’t truly a believer himself. When confronted by a situation that represents both his life’s ambition and most primal nightmare, he has no roadmap for how to react to the situation.

If you like your genetics with a side of dinosaurs, or your rainforests with a touch of retroviral monsters, then dive into a story that gives us archaeology sandwiched between survival horror and an unknowable, unsympathetic force.

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

Book Review: Indian Summer by Rick Hautala

Indian Summer by Rick Hautala

An Indian Summer has a small town Maine town making full use of the gloriously warm days before the chill of autumn sets in for good. Billy Crowell and his friends are playing home run derby at the local park and pretending their middle school is out for the summer when the town fire alarm sounds; a forest fire has broken out nearby. Trying to get a better look at the fire, Billy finds himself roped into helping keep the flames back. But as he makes his way along the fire line, he becomes lost, and the woods he’s known all his life are suddenly unfamiliar, dark, and threatening. After stumbling upon the bloody, ravaged corpse of a deer, it soon becomes clear that something terrifying lives in these woods…something edging closer and closer.

This is a great little horror novella that emulates Stephen King’s style more than a little. We have an idyllic small town, the fuzzy warmth of times gone by, and a young protagonist who must face a terrifying evil that lives under the idyllic surface. Most of the adults in the story seem to know that something is wrong, but without understanding or appreciating the depths of the darkness in their midst.

My biggest complaint about this story is that I felt there could have been more. I love a good scary short story, and I’m really coming to love the novella length tales, like Widow’s Point by Richard Chizmar. Most of the time, shorter is better; it allows a maximum of horror with none of the detritus that can take away from the terror. But here, I felt there was room enough for a novel-length book. I’d love more back story, more local lore I’d love more time with the strange and mysterious Ellie. I want the creeping terror that Joe Citro gave us in Shadow Child. I guess if the worst thing I can say about a book is that I wish there was more of it, that’s pretty good.

Book Review: Fury from the Tomb by SA Sidor

Fury from the Tomb by SA Sidor

In 1888, young Egyptologist Romulous Hardy is offered a vast sum of money by a reclusive millionaire to search for ancient tombs in Egypt. Hardy jumps at the chance to get out of the library and into the field, but soon finds himself dealing with things no one could have forseen. After tragedy befalls his expedition, Hardy is charged with bringing the mummies he recovered (six in all, though one sarcophagus is twice as big as any normal human) back to LA. When his train is waylaid in the Arizona desert, he learns that his cargo may be more dangerous than he ever suspected, and that cursed mummies are only the tip of the iceberg.

This was a fun, entertaining, and wild ride. Told in the style of old weird fiction stories, Sidor brings quite a bit of HP Lovecraft and The Mummy to the table. The latter half of the book, which takes place in Arizona and Mexico is evocative of Weird West stories. There are monsters and mummies and cultists and vampires. There are cowboys and banditos and Pinkertons and train heists. There’s cannibalism and curses and ancient legends. This book is a mashup of everything that makes weird fiction fun.

In fact, my biggest complaint is that in including everything, the story loses focus in places and drifts along, detached. Sometimes the actions runs along at breakneck pace, and sometimes it stutters to a halt to gaze for a while at the supernatural scenery.

Still, anyone who is looking for a good time with some good, old-fashioned pulp will probably enjoy this book. I mean, just look at that epic cover art! If the cover sings to you, then more than likely the book will as well.

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

Book Review: Welcome to Romero Park by Amber Michelle Cook

Welcome to Romero Park by Amber Michelle Cook

Romero Park is the ancestral home of Edward Dorchester, your classic haughty-yet-troubled gothic noble. It is harvest time, and Dorchester is planning a ball to celebrate the announcement of his engagement. But as the local gentry descend upon the manor, and the servants scramble to get everything in order, a fell moon rises on the proceedings, and a mysterious corruption is slowly working its insidious way through the manor house and grounds.

I wasn’t sure what I was in for when I started this book. Let’s face it, the zombie thing is on the decline, and classic-literature-plus-undead is hard to do right. Fortunately, Cook does a fantastic job with Romero Park, giving us both zombie mayhem and Victorian correctness in one package. The book uses the bones of Jane Eyre, and drapes it in rotting flesh and gnashing teeth. The story moves from person to person, flirting with the Brönte plot we know and love, but veering away into wholly original (and very entertaining) territory.

My original beef with the book is that it was largely build-up with little climax. Now that I know the book is the first in a planned trilogy, I can understand the reasons for the pacing. Cook slowly builds up the terror in store, letting us see glimpses of a future calamity, and setting us upon several red herrings. It also lets me appreciate the time the author takes with each of her characters, letting them live and breathe a bit before the undead come knocking.
This book, quite simply, is an enormous amount of fun. You know how the story is supposed to go, and you happily anticipate the chaos of the zombie apocalypse to come. And let’s face it, who hasn’t wanted some version of Blanche Ingram to get eaten by a horde of mindless undead?

If you enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (and I will confess that I enjoyed this book more), or like a whiff of rotting flesh with your classic literature, this is an incredibly entertaining read. I’m waiting on tenterhooks to see how the story plays out in the next book!

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

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

It started with strange news reports out of Russia, stories of people seeing … something and going mad, performing grotesque acts of violence on themselves and others. Then the incidents are reported in Alaska, whatever it is seems to be moving slowly westward, and no one seems to know what it is. Five years later, and the world may as well be empty. Malorie has been living in isolation with her two young children. The only rule: don’t look outside. The children have never been outside their sealed-off house without blindfolds. But now, they have to leave, and their best chance for safe refuge lies twenty miles away, down the river. Calorie will have to row the distance blindfolded, with another but her and her children’s senses to guide her. But as they set out, it soon becomes clear that something is stalking them.

This was my first read of 2018, and my god, it scared the crap out of me! The book is told entirely from Malorie’s point of view, and since she cannot look at what is happening without going mad, neither can we. Malerman forces the reader to go through the book blinded, relying on the information Malorie is able to glean using her other senses. The tension in this book is thick enough to cut with a knife. Even in story form, the lack of visual data is terrifying.

The story moves back and forth between when the incidents are just beginning, and five years later when Malorie is making her journey downriver towards (what she hopes is) safety. Malerman let’s the tension build slowly, and keeps the reader in a state of near panic for most of the book. I read Bird Box in one sitting because I literally could not stop reading. Malerman is clearly a master of the horror genre, I can’t wait to read his other books.

Book Review: Widow’s Point by Richard Chizmar and Billy Chizmar

Widow’s Point by Richard Chizmar and Billy Chizmar

On an isolated stretch of the Nova Scotia coast, the Widow’s Point lighthouse stands alone against the cliffs and the ocean. The local townsfolk look on the lighthouse with suspicion bordering on superstitious dread–there has always been an air of tragedy and death about the place. The increasing body found over the decades does nothing to help the lighthouse’s reputation.

Enter Thomas Livingston, best-selling author and ghost hunter, who is determined to spend a weekend locked inside Widow’s Point with a video camera and a tape recorder, hoping to strike supernatural gold for his next book. What he finds inside the lighthouse is something utterly malign and alien, something awake and hungry.

This is a haunted house tale along the lines of Stephen King’s early work. Imagine The Shining takig place not in an expansive, snowed in hotel, but within the twisted confines of a century old lighthouse. The story is told as a transcript, the video and audio recordings made by Livingston having been recovered by another party. Most of the story is relayed to us via transcripts of Livingston’ s audio files, allowing the reader’s imagination to provide the bulk of the horror.

This is a great read, and a truly creepy story. Chizmar has already proved himself to be a credit to the genre with Gwendy’s Button Box, and Widow’s Point does not disappoint.

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