Little Darlings is a mix of domestic thriller and police procedural, based on the traditional folk tale of the changeling—when a newborn is replaced with some kind of fairy or creature.
I am always interested in stories of changelings, the most impressive recent adaptation having been Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, which I definitely recommend you check out. There is something so unsettling, so eerie about imagining that a new baby—so innocent and yet someone you really know nothing about, even if it is your child—could be replaced with a lookalike.
There is a lot to like with a story that keeps you guessing. In Little Darlings, the narrative plays on the reader’s suspension of disbelief: is new mother Lauren being visited by a strange hag who is trying to take her twins away, or is it all in her head? What can we believe?
Lauren’s situation is definitely frustrating to read about. Having not been a mother myself, I can’t really imagine how exhausting it must be, but to not have a support system can only be fraying on one’s nerves and mental state. The way her husband manipulates her so that he doesn’t have to take any responsibility for the twins is disgusting. It is easy to see how with sleep deprivation, stress, and previous conditions she could have worked herself up to a state where she is hallucinating a malevolent presence.
But then, she is so sure of what she sees—and we, as the reader through her perspective, see it too.
I was not as interested in the police investigation side of the story. It felt forced that Detective Harper would have been so interested in her case (or lack thereof) to continue pursuing it, and then when she has this sudden and strangely obvious realization at the end, for me it really cheapened the detective’s character.
The last chapter in specific felt unfinished to me. It ties up nice bows with the detective which are fairly yawn-worthy and lets you know what happens with Lauren, but I wanted more resolution with the husband. The reader is never allowed in to his perspective, so we don’t really know what his deal is, but he doesn’t come off as sympathetic. Without a cohesive conclusion for him, I was just left on uneven ground and the story felt lackluster.
Overall, I found this thriller engaging though a bit clunky. If you are into domestic thrillers, you will probably enjoy the ride. The topic of the changeling has been covered extensively and this book doesn’t really offer anything revolutionary to the fairy tale.
My thanks to Crooked Lane Books for my advance copy of this one to read and review. This review is part of the blog tour for this book—please check out some of the other stops on the tour!
A slow-burn mystery about a man's inexplicable death under the unforgiving outback sun that becomes a story of family dynamics, secrets, and loyalty.
I've now read all of Jane Harper's books. While I did find this newest book more interesting than the Aaron Falk novels, I don't think her books are really my style.
The Lost Man follows Nathan, estranged brother of the deceased. I would argue that he is the "lost man" of the title, not his brother. The story is much more about their family dynamics and events that happened long ago than about Cam's death, so there is a lot of dredging up the past, old relationships, moments gone wrong, and situations that perhaps seem different in retrospect.
This is one of those narratives that is so tied up in the past (i.e. events that the reader knows nothing about until given unwieldy flashbacks or the characters decide to remember them) that you can't really know what is going on until it is really obvious. While this narrative technique isn't necessarily bad, it does make for inactive storytelling as the reader can't be a part of the discovery and creation of the story. It can feel very static or stale to read because it feels like everything has already been predetermined and as the reader we are only privy to those past events (that are shared by the characters) when it becomes relevant to the story. It just makes me feel like I'm being spoon fed a narrative, and I find that boring.
What I did enjoy was reading a book set in the Australian outback. I'm not sure that is a setting I've read about before in a novel and I really like reading about new places, especially ones I've never been to. It's always a fun trip you can take in your head.
My thanks to Flatiron Books for sending me an advance copy of this one to read and review.
Pigs. What is it about pigs? We are somehow drawn to see the intelligence in them: Babe, Wilbur (from Charlotte's Web), Napoleon (from Animal Farm). There has always been something a little mysterious—sometimes cute, sometimes scary (yeah, I'm thinking of the pigs from the worst Hannibal book)—about pigs.
In this, the year of the pig, Josh Malerman brings us a malevolent little piggy with the power of mind control. And he's going to use his power to learn everything he can from those around him—until they aren't useful anymore.
While the story shows some interest in animal ethics—who are we to raise animals just to slaughter and eat them?—at its heart, it is a good little slasher novel that wants to go straight for the jugular and get some crazy farm-gore in your face.
Though the story is definitely engaging and I did love the creepy pig, I found myself wondering about the "rules" of the book and the pig, as they seemed to keep changing throughout: some people he controls like puppets, others he gives viciously real hallucinations to, and so on. I also wasn't sure of the end game—there didn't seem to be a point for the events of the book. What exactly is the pig trying to accomplish? I didn't feel like it was envisioned very clearly, beyond some type of unformed hatred for the people who had done him wrong. (And it did seem specific to him, since he sure didn't feel that other pig lives mattered.)
I found myself wondering if this might be one of Malerman's "vault books"—you know, a manuscript he wrote a long time ago that they dug up and brushed off and said, well, this is pretty good. Let's publish this. Because it is pretty good and I really did enjoy it, but the level of writing did not feel as strong as Malerman's more recent works and there were some techniques that I consider more juvenile, like lots of all-caps to let the reader know someone is shouting and an overuse of exclamatory marks. Those things just aren't really necessary.
Overall, I had fun with this book, but it isn't Malerman's strongest. I am glad to have it as part of my collection, though, and I'm always interested to read the totality of an author's body of work.
I would be remiss not to mention the errors that I found throughout the book. For an esteemed publisher like Cemetery Dance putting out higher price-point special edition books, I was fairly disappointed with the amount of simple grammar and style errors throughout this volume. Any decent proofreader would have caught things like the difference between "its" and "it's," misused homonyms, and other small errors. It's not make-or-break, but these things definitely do detract from the quality of my reading experience and it was disappointing to see them in a book like this.
This book is the reason we read, live, and breathe horror. It is a book I'd consider required reading, not just for horror fans, but for anyone who wants to read great literature that has a social impact, books that have something to say.
Pitched as a barrio noir, these stories live in the now, wafting through the dark social and political current we live in, buzzing on the wavelength of so many hopefuls looking for a better life, while ebbing into something stranger and more dangerous.
There are six different characters and each of their stories is told in alternating chapters. The book is almost more like a mosaic, a collection of short stories with intermingling characters, but what brings the collection together are the themes, beliefs, and raw honesty of the characters.
Iglesias has a magnetic quality to his writing that cannot be ignored. He strips each character bare to who they are and lets them tell their own story without any extra fluff. There is no romanticizing the difficulties of living on the frontier, the false promises about life in America, it is all just presented as a blast of reality.
Along with the astute commentary, what really makes Coyote Songs shine is the layer of myth that the stories and people are steeped in. There is a thread of unreality, of supernatural discontent that weaves throughout, sometimes more overt and sometimes barely noticeable. I loved it.
This is definitely a book I'll be recommending all year. I can't wait to read Zero Saints.
Irreverent with witty tongue-in-cheek humor, gutsy, and brimming with balls-to-the-wall horror, Scapegoat is the backwoods horror romp I didn’t know I wanted, and all I really have to say is rock the hell on.
Wrestlemania III is the destination. Three metalhead friends are getting back together: two who are stuck in the old days of beer, boobs, and body odor and the other who grew up, got a job, and started a family. A big ole motor home along with boxes of illicit goods are going to get them to their destination, that is, unless an unplanned shortcut doesn’t do them in.
That unplanned shortcut through the Kentucky backwoods happens to run them right into a girl—cut up, terrified, running for her life—and the cult of religious crazies who are looking to finish what they started.
A mash-up of Grady Hendrix’s rock odyssey We Sold Our Souls, Kealan Patrick Burke’s remote clan of nasties in Kin, and the strange ceremonial unknown of Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, this book really has everything a horror fan could hope for. It is a truly unique narrative—offering those comparisons is my way of (hopefully) piquing your interest and getting potential readers amped up. You won’t have read anything quite like this.
Howe and Newman are obviously an excellent writing team. The humorous style, seamless transitions, and character growth all give this little horror novel a lot more depth than you would immediately assume of such a raucous narrative. I figured I was just in for a fun, bloody ride, but on top of that I got writing I really connected with, characters who made me laugh, and a plot that just kept going—this Energizer Bunny powered by death metal is comin’ atcha and it ain’t slowing down!
I was completely hooked all the way to the last page. This is one of those books that I could clearly see in my mind like a movie (which, coincidentally, it would be brilliant as). When you can really see the action of a book happening, you know it’s good.
My thanks to author Adam Howe for sending this one my way. I couldn’t be more chuffed—seriously. I’ll happily be looking for more works by both authors.
This isn’t a book I would generally choose for myself to read, but that’s what is fun about subscription services like the Night Worms box. I don’t know what I’m going to get, but I know the books are carefully curated and I can trust that it’s going to be an interesting ride.
A tale set during prohibition following a badass bootlegging boatwoman and a society girl with a penchant for disturbing the peace, there is a lot to like in the set-up of this book. The main characters are women with dreams, who aren’t afraid to articulate and act on their desire, who are working through their issues and railing against a world and society that would prefer they just fit in rather than mix things up. It is a lot of fun to see them turn expectations upside down and be the heroes instead of some dude stepping in to save the day.
The book is very interested in place: what it means to live in a specific place, love that place, and feel a part of the community—or not. What does it mean to be a part of where you live? What if you live on the outskirts of society, if you don’t fit in? And what happens when the place you live is threatened?
It is also at its core a story of bigotry, and through the lens of history and fantasy takes a look at how prejudice and intolerance can prey on a small town and the people who live there. Heartbreaking but realistic, and it is so especially relevant right now.
I never quite connected with the writing style of the book, which seemed to hold me at a distance from getting fully into the story. There was a tendency to tell instead of show, which often made me feel like I was having my hand held through the story, like I needed an info-dump or I wouldn’t understand what was going on. I was also confused by this strange narrative repetition that kept happening, where a character would repeat what had happened to them to multiple new characters entering the scene even though the reader already knew what happened—it felt so unnecessary. There are also several characters who seem only there to provide a specific purpose for the narrative rather than acting as a living, breathing part of the story, and they definitely stuck out to me.
I really wanted to love this book because the themes and characters were so badass. But in the end, it was just an average read for me, which is definitely based in part because it didn’t leave me feeling anything special.
The first part of this book feels very akin to The Hills Have Eyes or in the vein of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where the reader is introduced to a tortured girl in peril, running for her life, a girl whose group of friends stumbled on the wrong backwoods clan of truly gross and creepy wackos. I figured that would be the whole book, but I was wrong.
That is just the beginning.
The book is really interested in what happens next. Where the story really begins is after the final girl survives and wakes up in the hospital to find out that the wrong person has been blamed for her suffering and the deaths of her friends. The horror is still out there. What happens next?
There are many characters at play, which offers a look at how a horrific event like this one spirals out from the point of impact, like cracks in a window, rather than just focusing on the event itself. Though I found this an interesting idea, at times, I did feel that there were almost too many storylines to keep track of, and the story did not transition smoothly between each of them. I sometimes felt lost as to who was who and where the main thrust of the action was headed.
This is an older book, so perhaps stylistically the author has grown, but I found myself getting hung up in the dense descriptions that felt unnecessary and unevenly distributed throughout the book. Sometimes, like in the beginning, there are just so many descriptors and adjectives that I found it almost difficult to keep track of what was going on in the narrative. It was distracting, especially since that style was not consistent. Sometimes the writing was perfectly succinct, so those overly elaborate sections really stood out.
Perhaps this is one of those circumstances of my expectations being a bit too high due to extreme hype for a book, but I just didn’t really see the spark of this one; it was just OK for me.
Novellas are beginning to really grow on me. More developed than a short story but not as involved as a novel, this one-sitting type read offers a contained glimpse into a world that often leaves me wanting more, but at the same time feeling fully satisfied in the tale that was told.
Out Behind the Barn is a tense and eerie tale, almost fable-like in structure. It follows the perspective of two young boys who live on a secluded farm with Miss Maggie, a woman who takes care of them. She brings other people to the farm every once in a while, people who don’t remember anything, who need to be taught simple things—people who aren’t quite right. But they will learn—that is, until they disappear.
The story is a rumination on family and our intense need for the closeness and love of others. It delves into things not quite natural in a dark way that digs right to the heart of the issue.
Though I guessed what was going on in the story fairly early due to a few well-placed hints, the tension in the story builds and builds—it is a taut, live wire of suspense. I was invested in the story and wanted to see where it would go!
Boden and Lutzke are a team that work well together. Their collaboration on this project is seamless and I look forward to reading more of their work—what they might write together as well as separately.
This book is easily a new favorite.
A perfectly written novel from the first sentence, to the structure, voice, characterization, climax, and beyond. Every detail is exquisitely plotted and every sentence resonates.
This is the type of book I would be interested in anyway, based on the title and description: a girl who cleans up when her sister decides to kill her boyfriend—again. Ayoola claims it’s self-defense, but this is the third time and Korede is starting to get suspicious. Sounds too good to pass up! But the description for this book doesn’t really do it justice. This ended up being so much more than just a kooky little story about covering up murders. It is offers social satire and commentary, while creating a layered story and serving up characters that are a delight to read.
Though this book is obviously a satire, it doesn’t go overboard. It is still interested in creating a realistic story while giving a little wink to the reader just to say how ridiculous it all is. There was never a point where I was confused by Korede’s actions and wondering why she just doesn’t turn her sister in. Everything she does feels perfectly reasonable, given the way the events build up, not just throughout the book, but throughout her life. This character building creates the perfect storm and ends with giving Korede only one option.
The reader slowly gets to see pieces of her past, like her violent and oppressive father, how her beautiful and favored sister has always gotten her way, how even her mother pushes her aside and undermines her. Korede’s obsessive cleaning comes into focus: she might not be able to fix the way she looks or change the way her sister acts, but if she can just get things perfectly, spotlessly clean, that is one thing that she can control.
I thought the short chapters and chapter titles worked so well, giving these snapshots of Korede’s days. It seemed to be just another window into how she thought, how she catalogued life, and it captured her character perfectly.
I loved the subtle satire that played on lots of different elements and was interested in larger social issues. There are the lackadaisical police, who are not interested in the case of the missing Femi (yep, Ayoola killed him) until his rich relatives get involved. Definitely a comment on the Nigerian law system.
Braithwaite also points out our ridiculous beauty standards, which I think were illustrated most keenly in a scene where Korede wears makeup to her job as a nurse and is quickly derided by her coworkers. She knows she can’t outdo her supermodel attractive sister (who really has no other redeeming qualities) in this department, but it is heartbreaking the way that no one is able to see who she really is. If only they would listen. . .
Braithwaite also pokes at men and how often they aren’t able to see past looks. Tade, the doctor that Korede is interested in seems great—he’s good with children, listens to patients—but the problem is, perhaps he is a great doctor and not such a great person. He can’t see what Korede brings to the table, but as soon as he lays eyes on Ayoola, she is everything he wants, even as she ghosts him and acts rude.
If this book teaches you anything, it’s that looks aren’t everything. Gosh, aren’t we past that at this point? I wish, but social media and the constant proliferation of images and obsession with creating and sharing a perfectly designed life curated in little squares has really made this issue larger than ever. Or at least more visible.
This is illustrated with the power dynamics at Korede’s work. Her female coworkers are jealous of Ayoola when they meet her and immediately lash out passive-aggressively against Korede, seeing her lack of beauty as a weak spot. How can Korede fight them? She has become a hardened shell of a person, someone antisocial and mean in order to combat this sort of ridiculousness.
And in spite of all that, she would be the real catch for any man. She is smart, hardworking, a great cook—but her downfall is her intense loyalty.
This book left me thinking about a lot of things. It is a power-packed punch of a novel and one I will be revisiting soon. I hear the audiobook is great, so I’d like to give that a try!
An eerie, evocative, and strangely beautiful tale, The Water Cure offers a dystopian narrative of three sisters surviving on a completely secluded island with their parents. They are subjected to strange rituals and cures and told stories about the viciousness of men and a virus spreading in the outside world that is sure to infect them if they don’t mind their parents and participate.
Mackintosh’s dreamlike narrative worked perfectly for this fable, which was a story I couldn’t quite keep hold of. Like trying to grab a handful of water, the narrative train of the story kept slipping through the cracks of fingers and the only way to learn more was to just keep reading.
The book switches between narrators, with all three sisters narrating a chapter, and then a chapter from the perspective of each girl. I got the sense of them each as distinct personalities, but at the same time they flowed into each other as one, like water pouring from different cups into the ocean. In the second section when life on the island changes and their daily routine and structure begins to disintegrate, the narrative focuses on middle child Lia’s observations and path. She is a bit of an outsider even at the start of the story, and the sisters float away from each other, their upbringing creating a divide they can’t quite see.
The book creates this strange, isolating feeling, because as the reader, you are as adrift as the girls, not knowing anything about the world outside the island other than the little that filters back through other characters. What is really going on outside their house on the beach and who can you believe? Where are all the other people? Are men really monsters now? Are women really so vulnerable?
An ethereal rumination on familial love and obligation and dysfunction, the perception of gender inequality, and balancing the evils of what you know against the unknown, I couldn’t help but to be pulled under by Mackintosh’s intense and intangible vision.
My thanks to Doubleday for sending me a free copy of this book to read and review.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.