I wouldn’t say it’s the end of the world—yet.
But there is certainly something about our current state of social and political affairs that puts us in a bit of an apocalyptic state of mind, am I right or am I right?
Whatever way it actually comes when it happens (my money is on nuclear warfare if mother nature doesn’t get fed up with us first), it seems like fiction has taken on the apocalypse from almost every angle imaginable. At least that’s what I thought before I read Peng Shepherd’s uniquely imaginative debut novel The Book of M.
In this narrative, the world begins ending when people start losing their shadows. It turns out that the shadow is in some way connected to memory and without it, we forget everything, and I do mean everything. It’s not just our memories about our past and our families and how to tie our shoes. It’s things like that animals don’t talk, that statues don’t get up and rove around, that lakes can’t appear and reappear on their own. And if you can’t remember the way things are supposed to work, things aren’t fixed anymore and it turns out that just about anything is possible.
The narrative switches between a few different characters, but the main thrust follows a couple, Max and Ory, who are separated. They each have their own journeys through the post-apocalyptic landscape, trying to find each other, a place to live, something stable, and just trying to understand who they are in this new world.
This book is about memory and how it is a part of our self-landscape. Does it really make us who we are? Do our thoughts, recollections, hopes, dreams, everything that resides within our heads—does that make up the whole of our being, our essence?
When there aren’t any of those functions left, can we really be the same people? Or perhaps on an even more fundamental level, are we even people anymore? And even further, what might restore our humanity?
I really enjoyed this book. It is imaginative, fast-paced, and beautifully written. It goes global, looking at people from different places in the world, different backgrounds, orientations, ethnicities—many walks of life are represented, and I really appreciated that.
It is also a lot of different kinds of stories rolled up into one, so it’s hard to pin it down as one type of tale. Yes, it’s post-apocalyptic, but it’s also an adventure tale, a love story, a philosophical quandary. It’s got action, flashbacks, history, fantasy, and even a surprising ending that made my heart drop out of my body.
I really recommend this book. I can’t wait to see what’s next from this author.
My thanks to William Morrow/Harper Collins for sending me this book to read and review.
To misquote Rocky Dennis: These things are a drag: dust in my hair, holes in my shoes, no money in my pocket, and having to write a bad book review.
But I cannot recommend this book.
It is a fairly average size book, just under 300 pages, but the main crux of the synopsis doesn't happen until a third of the way through the book. That is strike one for me. 100 pages of set-up is way too many pages, especially for something as simple as this.
The writing style is a classic and painful example of telling instead of showing, so much so that I felt like I was reading something written as an early attempt for creative writing 101 in college. On and on the narrator finds ways to rehash the information that is blatantly obvious and could have been shown with a little bit of finessing.
It was clear that Veronica was not a reliable narrator, that things were not quite as they appeared to be from her perspective. To be honest, I am getting a little tired of the unreliable female narrator trope. The other characters felt flimsy and underdeveloped. I didn't understand their motivation for helping Veronica or being involved with her throughout.
What I really disliked the most is that this book doesn't give you a chance to figure it out. There is no possible way for the reader to completely solve the mystery of this book, which I really consider a failure.
There are definitely clues here and there that let you know things aren't quite right and when you look back with all the pieces, everything of course makes more sense. But the twist is so far out of left field that it isn't even in the ballpark. It made me feel cheated out of a good reveal. I don't need to solve every book, and I certainly don't, but I like to know that the pieces were there if only I had been paying attention in the right places. This book doesn't have that.
Between weak writing, overused character tropes, and an unsatisfying ending, this one was not for me.
My thanks to Lake Union and JKS Communications for sending me a copy of this book to read and review.
A mix of the thematic hivemind and gothic tones of "The Lottery" with the small town Americana and charismatic villain of Needful Things, this superb book shows that Joan Samson was an amazing talent. We are so lucky to have gotten this book from her before she passed away suddenly from brain cancer soon after its publication in 1976, but I can't help but to wonder what else she might have had in store. Because this book is truly brilliant.
It is hard to just sum this book up as a mix of those two other tales, but it makes for an intriguing tagline. There are definitely traces of both Shirley Jackson and Stephen King in Samson's book. The way she writes about a small farming community and really creates the people who live there reminded me so much of how King is able to craft people (not just characters) within his stories. And the tone of the book, the fairly terse and compact sentences, without much fluff but with intensely clear description and vivid dialogue reminded me fiercely of Jackson and her strange gothic style.
But before you are even five pages in, it is completely clear that Samson created something all her own, completely original, and downright chilling.
I read this book with alternating white-hot rage at Perly, the auctioneer, and intense frustration at the Moores, the main family whose perspective we witness the decay of the town from. The book is engineered to make you feel this way, and also to engender an utter helplessness, because what else are they supposed to do? What other options do they have?
It is timely that this book is coming back into print now, with our social and political situation in its current upheaval. There are plenty of similarities to be seen between Perly's slow and total takeover and our government. The people in charge seem to take and take and take until we have nothing left to give but the unthinkable—to the point that even official channels are either under the spell or simply don't believe that anything like THAT could be happening, not here at least, in the land of the free.
Yes, it is perhaps a little close to home, and the timeless quality of the story definitely resonated with me. But Samson's story is also just powerful on its own literary merit and is a classic in my book.
The Valancourt Books edition has a new introduction by Paperbacks from Hell author Grady Hendrix!
A true stylistic master of the paperback horror novel lost in the stacks for no discernible reason, we are blessed that Valancourt Books is reissuing several of Greenhall's books (and can only hope they get the rights to the rest of his works too).
This book isn't overtly horrific in the sense of a gorefest or lots of crazy action with monsters, psychos, or hauntings (oh my)—instead, it is the type of book that reminds you why horror is great, or rather, what truly makes something scary.
It's that space where you as the reader are held suspended, that tension or hesitation between knowing whether something is based in reality or whether the supernatural has taken over. Greenhall holds the reader in this gap during Elizabeth and doesn't let go.
There are lots of other things to distract you during the course of this novel, slim as it may be. The first being the narrator and titular character herself, a very cold and calculating fourteen-year-old who sees the world in black and white and sees people as little more than the skin they inhabit, the bad habits they possess, and how she might use them to her own advantage.
But not everything is as it seems and there are layers to this story that are certainly not apparent at first reading. It is almost unbelievable how concise Greenhall is, how perfectly he chose his words. He is probably the exact opposite of Stephen King in general writing style—extreme word economy. (No diss to King, who can churn out a short story to perfection, but his novels do tend to run on the long side, if you know what I mean.)
This book delves so deeply into the mind of young Elizabeth—it is astonishing really, and feels so natural, while at the same time superbly unsettling. The strange atmosphere is maintained throughout the novel, and it isn't just the weird coldness of Elizabeth. It is the literary quality of the writing, the unique and unexpected turn of phrase that jolts you, keeping you on your toes, as though the book itself is like a snake poised to strike.
From the author of the delightfully (or debilitatingly, take your pick) disconcerting mindscrew of a book I'm Thinking of Ending Things comes a new brain puzzle.
My recommendation on this book would be to go in knowing as little as possible. Even the jacket synopsis is too much of the story, though they try to be coy about it. So, no summary from me, though I usually do little in the way of that anyway.
Reid's roundabout way of setting up the story creates an unsettling vibe within the reader right away. You just know there is more to the story than you are getting from the narrator—either there is more than they know or more than they are willing to tell you. Pieces don't quite line up and you become the detective, trying to grab ahold of any detail, any jagged edge that isn't quite right so you can puzzle out the story behind the one that is being told.
It is a unique way to read and one that holds my attention.
The short chapters are also propulsive, keeping you reading, wanting to know what's coming next. Though it's 272 pages, I read the whole thing in one day—it really demands to be read.
Whether you figure out what's going on or not, the tension is still there. I put together the clues and had it pretty well figured out, but that didn't mean I knew where everything was going to end up. It almost made it more tense knowing (or being allllmost sure—because there's always that last little doubt even when you think you know!) because each scene seemed to stack the deck a different way.
This book is a quiet, intense, psychological puzzle of a book. Fan of Reid's first book will definitely be thrilled by this one, but I think Foe is also perhaps a bit more accessible than his debut, so hopefully new fans will flock to it too.
My thanks to Gallery Books/Scout Press for sending the Night Worms advance copies of this one to read and review.
This is one horror collection that no shelf should be without.
I have been hearing a lot of love for this writer and this collection of stories, and it is completely justified. The hype is real, y'all! Go out and buy your copy immediately—no joke.
The stories felt in the tradition of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, with a mix of fairy tale elements like the twist on a poisoned apple story or the tale of princesses stuck in castles, some strangeness that could be read as metaphorical but also worked as great body horror like the one where a woman is giving birth to birds or the one where a group of women hunt for potential victims and peel their skin off to use for themselves.
In these stories, Kiste explores women at the fringes—the outcasts, the strange, the othered. The stories are interested in how these women are seen as outsiders and how they work with the limitations others have put on them and overcome them in one way or another.
I loved how the characters in these stories take action. They are not the stagnant, mopey, unreliable narrator types that are so common in the popular thrillers today. These women are powerful and have clear, strong notions of what they want from the world, even if that notion is not the one that lines up with what everyone else wants. Kiste's character's learn they aren't afraid to take what should have been theirs all along. It's empowering and beautiful while leaning over the edge into strange, fantastical, and frightening.
Sometimes the stories defy logic, sometimes they go to very dark places, but they never failed to impress me with the breadth of their creativity, the beauty of the language, and the sharp insights that are not something you always find in horror fiction.
A beautiful and haunting collection. There is not a weak story in the set. Kiste is an author I'm adding to my instant-buy list.
My thanks to Doubleday for sending free copies of Bad Man to the Night Worms to read and review.
Ben took his little brother, Eric, to the grocery store and turned his back for one minute—he never saw his brother again. Haunted by the guilt and the loss, he is still on the hunt for his brother five years later, and he ends up with a job at the same grocery store where the incident occurred.
A great set-up with interesting motivation, several suspects, ambiguity and small town intrigue, and a killer opening scene. But after Ben gets to the grocery store, that's really where the story stalls out for me. There are long unnecessary scenes spent in the store as Ben learns the ropes of how to be a stock boy. This has nothing to do with the plot and becomes as monotonous as I'm sure restocking the shelves of a grocery store is.
If you treat the book like a mystery and try to figure out whodunnit, it all unravels fairly easily. There are plenty of clues and one scene in particular that stands out. But the conclusion of the book felt jumbled and left me confused. Some things were not well explained, and in fact did not make all that much sense, and after I closed the book, I felt like I was missing something. I think it was just that the ending felt empty, though. That the book never lived up to its promise
I think this feeling came about because much of the middle of the book doesn't seem to be interested in the actual forward motion of the plot. Ben is not a motivated character. Sometimes his actions seem nonsensical, only to draw out the plot rather than to strike at the heart of the matter. I wanted something to happen, but it felt so amorphous and loose, instead of heading somewhere with intent.
I think a shorter book would have been much more effective, cutting out a lot of the middle part, especially the grocery store fluff, the red herrings we never fell for, and the inaction of the lead character. (A little is OK, but a lot is just boring.)
Auerbach has talent as a writer, but this book feels unfinished to me. It needed a stronger edit, and a more conclusive end. I am still interested to try his immensely successful Penpal and will be on the lookout for any future books from him.
There are a few misleading things about this book to get out of the way first.
The structure: This is not a novel. This book consists of short stories with a central unnamed narrator (for the most part) who, along with one other character are a part of every story in some way. The description on the back of the book is HIGHLY misleading, as it only describes the first story. It was a little confusing for me, so hopefully that helps other people!
The title: I'm just going to let you know the title doesn't really have anything to do with the book. It is mentioned in one of the stories that a character dresses in the goth style (black clothes, heavy eyeliner, pale skin—you know the type) but other than that, it really is just a cool title. The author even quips about it in his afterword, which I highly recommend reading.
Now, let's get down to the good stuff. This is a disturbingly creepy book. For the most part, the reader is inside the mind of an unnamed narrator who is obviously a sociopath with strange, violent fantasies. He has a fascination with the dark and macabre, to the point of starting his own amateur investigations into the strange murders, missing pets, and other weird happenings that go on in his town.
Sometimes involving the strange girl in class that no one wants to be friends with and sometimes investigating on his own, this narrator has a knack for uncovering other people's weird and dark secrets. But he doesn't want to turn them into the police or really get too involved at all. Instead, he just wants to know the truth or sometimes influence the situation to his liking (or just to see if he can).
The cold almost clinical way the narrator views the horrific scenes he encounters creates a stark contrast between expectation and reality. To the reader, it is crazy and gruesome, but to him, it is like watching insects in a glass jar—even as he grapples with serial killers.
Otsuichi's writing (and/or the translation) is very clean, not a lot of fluff or overwrought detail. He gets right to the point with clear descriptions of what
I tend to go through phases with short stories where I'll read tons and tons of collections, and then almost none at all, and I feel the start of short story obsession coming on.
I believe wholeheartedly that short stories are windows to the inner workings of a writer—in the gross, fascinating way that the Body Worlds exhibits are unbelievably cool and also utterly strange and morbid once you remember you are surrounded by dead people.
Short stories have to be tightly woven—getting right to the heart of who the characters are and what their motivations might be, what the setting of the story is, and the general thrust of the plot without all the long-windedness of creating backstories and flashbacks and interludes and asides that can be afforded to novels.
Short stories also need a good hook. There has to be something almost immediately that makes the reader invested, makes them want to keep reading. So there are a lot of balls to keep in the air when writing short fiction.
Land of Bones is the first book I’ve tried by Glenn Rolfe and he definitely has quite an imagination. The stories in this book all seem to be unpacking some kind of loss and deal with grief, anger, and how people react when faced with traumatic situations.
Though the content of the stories varies widely from tinges of the supernatural, to strange monsters, to a coming of age piece, to a vampire story—it really shows a wide range of interest and versatility. But interestingly, all the stories seem to hinge on the same emotional resonance, that feeling of loss and pain.
The emotion in the book comes from a real place, which makes them resonate with the reader. At the conclusion of the stories, I was often left thinking, what would I have done if I were put in that situation? How would I have handled it? I think one thing that could have made the stories stronger was if the characters could have delivered that emotional punch rather than leaving it up to the narrative. The stories basically all concluded with plot (and some were driven solely by it), more of a "telling" feature rather than a "showing" one, and for me, that really blunted the connection to the characters and their plights.
I read a hard copy of this book, so perhaps there are updates in the e-book version, but there are a lot of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors throughout. For me, that is an automatic one-star reduction. I can definitely overlook a typo here or there, but multiple errors on the same page is something that an editor would catch. I think this book needed another solid round of proofreading to correct things like all the misplaced commas, helping understanding of possessive apostrophes, and even just simple agreement of subject and verb. These things really do matter, and when they are wrong it is so disruptive to reading.
Overall, I enjoyed this collection and I think it shows a lot of promise. There are so many interesting ideas here, but they did feel a little underdeveloped at times as though the stories were just waiting to really be fleshed out all the way.
My thanks to the author for generously providing me a copy of this book to read and review.
This is body horror at its most literary.
This novella is captivating, strange, and surprising. I love reading weird and new things, and this completely fit the bill.
The story is separated in two halves, with the first set in a sanatorium in the early 1900s in Buenos Aires. A group of doctors are interested in what happens after death and they hatch a plan that seems less than legal involving guillotines and terminal cancer patients. It’s sort of like Martyrs meets something more bizarro and comedic, like Reanimator. The second half is set one hundred years later, where an avant-garde artist pushes the boundaries of body art.
The book explores liminality, the real and unreal, the horrific of the unknown (or possibly knowing the unknown), the chaos of bodies, and how humans as a species continually attempt to live beyond what is meant for us.
Death has always fascinated and repulsed humans. Does something lie beyond? How can we find out about it? Do we really want to find out about it? And perhaps that liminal, transitory space between life and death holds the answer—how can we hold on to life while seeing death and communicate back? On the other hand, the whole point of understanding death so well is really just to cheat it. And a way to cheat death, at least symbolically, is to leave your mark, to make sure that no one will ever forget you. These are the themes that came across as I read through both sections of Comemadre.
I was completely captivated by the first section and found myself losing interest in the artists. If the book could have been longer, I would have liked to see how their narratives could have interplayed with each other more, perhaps with alternating chapters. But maybe that is a tired literary structure now.
As it is, the section with the doctors felt somewhat unfinished and I just wanted to know more! The whole book has this air of weirdness, so it works, but I really lost all the momentum for the story at the switch. I wanted to know more about the creepy titular plant!
I really appreciate Coffee House Press for offering an English translation of this unique work. I think this style of writing is gaining some steam for English-reading eyes, especially with successes like Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, though it is nothing new to those who are writing it. I’m glad this book is now available to a wider audience and I hope its strangeness is appreciated!
My thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy to read and review.
Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.