With brooding Gothic influences seeping in and clouding around, the highlights of this unusual story for me were the fantastic writing and the intriguing storytelling.
The strange story that jumpstarts this tale is of a woman in black, Melmoth, who appears at the corner of your eye, following, and reveals herself at your darkest, lowest moment and asks you to take her hand. Her appearance winds through all stories as the book fractures from one narrative to the next, and it seems that once you know about her, you start seeing her. (Don’t look now, but what was that, just beyond the edge of the doorway?) The themes of her vicious loneliness, witnessing, and the burdens we bear—whether self-inflicted or otherwise—are ones that resonated deeply for me and felt timely.
This is a narrative where each door you open leads to another new narrative—a houseful of narratives made up of letters, diary entries, and memories, each of the writers baring their soul, telling the worst thing they ever did, and there—always—is Melmoth lurking in the corners. Who is she? What is she? What will she do? Does she even exist?
Though the main narrative is Helen’s story, it also sets out the testimony of these other poor souls—each one as captivating as the last—leaving behind Helen as the tortured witness, Helen to be haunted by their visages, their actions, their loneliness mixing with her own, their eternal unrest binding them to her and her constant ascetic need for atonement for her own sins.
This is the type of book that leaves a lot of room for contemplating. With the repeated entreaty of the narrator directing the reader to “Look!” throughout the novel, it seems to be asking—is it enough just to look, just to be a witness, just to read the accounts of these horrors? And if it’s not, what action should be taken? What could be enough to right the world, or at the very least one’s own conscience?
I appreciated the depth of the humanity in this book. It deals with very human topics within the specter of the Gothic and supernatural. The book manages to balance on the edge of the fantastic, leaving me wondering about Melmoth the whole way through without sliding into gaudy theatrics.
Still, the book felt a little unfinished to me. Each story wasn’t the full experience, a total view of that character, their wins, their losses, their virtues, their failings. They only showed snapshots; it would take a whole novel of each to get a complete picture. And with so much room focusing on these other stories, there wasn’t as much development with the characters in Helen’s storyline as I would have liked.
Still, this is an atmospheric and wonderfully written tale, perfect for a cold winter’s night.
My thanks to William Morrow/Custom House for my copy of this book to read and review.
A new Murakami is nothing short of a gift. I’ll never understand quite what’s going on in that man’s mind, but I’m glad he gives us a chance every once in a while to peek behind the curtain. That said, I am not a fan of this newest venture.
Plotwise, I can’t say this book worked for me. It felt strongly derivative of his early Wind-up Bird Chronicle, but Killing Commendatore is a deeply watered down, white-bread substitution for that master work of genius. I won’t even go into all the ways these books are similar here, but it is pretty striking. If you’re considering reading a Murakami for the first time, put this one down and go get a copy of that. You can thank me later.
The plot winds around and around this pit behind the rented house where the unnamed narrator is staying without ever really hitting on the importance of the pit itself. I mean, I GET IT: it’s a metaphor for rebirth—he doesn’t even try to hide that one, just wait for it. I almost laughed out loud. But what does it mean? For the character? For the plot? In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Similarly, the narrative winds around and around a painting found tucked away in the attic of this house. There is all this historical background that we learn about the painting and the person who painted it, but all that strangely doesn’t seem that important. Rather it is just the image on the painting itself that is important. But I still couldn’t figure out the purpose. Or its connection to our narrator.
Yes, it’s about the journey. It’s an interruption in the narrator’s life and all of his neuroses, fears, and obstructions are getting out in the open before he can get back to normal life. But what if the journey that’s undertaken isn’t a journey at all? What if it’s metaphorical? What if it’s just a history lesson that doesn’t have any real attachment to the forward progression of the plot? What if it’s just pages and pages of nothing going nowhere only to lead back to the beginning? Is that the point? For it to go on and on and mean nothing at all in the end? Sweet Jesus, I hope not.
The most compelling parts of the narrative for me were the descriptions of painting and the portraits, especially as the main character thought about the creative process and what it meant to be a creative person. I could see the parallels to writing or dancing or playing an instrument or another creative act in this, and it felt as though Murakami was digging deep into the reason we crave creativity and where it comes from. I wish there had been more interior exploration of that.
On a character level, I found it lacking. The main character, an unnamed artist going through a divorce, is standard Murakami fare, but I found him and his lackadaisical sleeping around, record listening, and careful meal-preparing more than a little bland and lifeless. And none of it is new. It’s all just rehashing what we’ve seen from Murakami before.
The characters in the book in general tend toward misogyny and the objectification of women, which is off-putting in general, but especially when it isn’t a specific part of the plot that is purposeful, discussed, or resolved. The one female character we get to spend any real time with is a precocious young girl who is so weirdly and overly obsessed with her (lack of) breasts that they might as well be her only feature. How sad. There are other, certainly more natural, ways to go about showing the coming-of-age period for a young girl that wouldn’t involve constant conversations about breast size with a strange man three times her age. It just felt gross and like a total waste and a complete missed opportunity for an interesting development of a character, and a female character at that.
Am I just not getting it? Looking back at the description from the publisher, this book is supposed to be an homage to The Great Gatsby. Does someone want to explain THAT to me? I am not digging deep enough I guess. It’s really bumming me out that I just don’t get this book. Am I looking too hard at the plot of a book that is supposed to be idea-based? With capital “I” Ideas holding it up at all four corners rather than silly conventions like narrative structure, character, and dialogue? Perhaps. But being a fan of Murakami’s work in general, I think it’s fair for me to think this book is a failure, even if it is supposed to be about Ideas instead of a story.
The Ideas themselves felt unfinished, underdeveloped, and left floating and untethered by the end of the book. What was it all for? The surrealism/magical realism, the history lesson, the father/child conundrums, the painting, and the pit.
Maybe I need to spend more time with it. But for me, an underdeveloped plot and boring characters can’t be saved by a bit of surrealism and Ideas. Especially when we’re dealing with 700 pages.
My thanks to the publisher for my copy of this book to read and review.
My thanks to Flatiron Books for my advance copy of this book to read and review.
This is only my second run-in with Moriarty and Big Little Lies blew me away, even though I was really skeptical of it. I am one of those people who tend to shy away from those books that everyone is trying to get you to read. I tend to roll my eyes a bit, thinking, it's just a fad, it can't possibly be that good. But dang it if BLL wasn't everything and more that I wanted from a good book.
So I went into this one with my expectations raised.
I definitely loved the way it started. Moriarty is talented at juggling a large cast of characters, getting you inside each of their heads, and creating a bunch of personalities that you are just itching to see interact with each other. She knows how to set up a story, and I really didn't know where it was going to go.
Once all the characters got to the health resort and settled in, I waited for everything to start going down. And I waited. And waited some more.
Yep. That's where it went downhill for me. I really felt that nothing was happening to move the plot forward in a meaningful way. Everything that was taking place felt very rote, and Masha, the owner of the spa who is supposed to be so mysterious and charismatic felt the most transparent to me—and the most flat.
I was so surprised at how the characters really went nowhere, just letting the machinations of the plot drag them along aimlessly, for such a loooooonnnngg time. This isn't a short book y'all!
I was really disappointed by the whole last third. The ending sequence didn't feel appropriate based on the build-up of the story and I was not surprised at all by the final reveals. If I'd read this book before BLL I might not have tried another of her books because it really is just such a mediocre book, which is such a shame because she obviously has a lot of skill as an intricate plotter and great character writer.
I'll definitely be on the lookout for more of her books, but I won't be recommending this one.
This is an important collection, and a hugely successful one in my opinion. I have already been sharing my love for it and will definitely be recommending it to people who want a good horror anthology, are interested in trying out some new authors they might not have heard of, or just can't get enough of the ladies of horror fiction!
One of the main reasons I was itching to get my hands on this book is because of the King curated collection of the same theme that didn't feature a single female author. Well, Amber Fallon was like, we don't need any smelly invitation to be in your collection, we will just make our own. And so she did. BAM.
There are some women who have already made a name in the horror community in this collection as well as some I'd never read before. I loved the diversity of the stories, the different styles, settings, and voices that were brought to the table.
These three were my favorites:
Damien Angelica Walters's story that opens the collection, "The Floating Girls: A Documentary"—someone remind me to go buy her new book IMMEDIATELY. What a brilliant, inventive story, one I will definitely read again.
"Wilderness" by Leticia Trent has major Shirley Jackson vibes mixed with Trent's effortless prose. Creeping dread levels high!
Nadia Bulkin's "And When She Was Bad" has me moving her books up on my TBR list. I've not yet read any of her books and if this story is any indication, I need to get started!
I am grateful, impressed, and overjoyed that Fallon curated such a great collection. In social and political times like what we are currently going through, it is even more important than ever to support artists, especially women. Writers get to the truth. Stories show us our fears, our weaknesses, and how we might persevere.
The horror genre tends to be male-dominated, but this is an in-your-face reminder that ladies have something to say too, and it's just as badass and downright terrifying as anything that men are bringing to the table.
I can't say enough good things about this book. It is one that horror fans should definitely collect and take note of—these writers are damn talented and I can't wait to uncover their backlists and see what they might come out with next.
My huge thanks to WordHorde for sending me a copy of this one to read and review.
This was my 100th book of 2018, and it couldn't have been a better choice. In fact, it might be my favorite book of 2018 so far.
Some books just really hit you in your heart.
This book, it was more like the heart, gut, throat, chest—a full body knockout.
Karen E. Bender’s stories in this new collection are something different, something necessary for our fragile, tumultuous social and political landscape. She begins in small moments in the lives of her characters and crafts emotional, compelling stories that draw you in, until finally you realize the whole story has been about something much larger the whole time.
A woman struggling to find her way and keep herself afloat goes on three interviews, but her interviewers are all stuck in their own loops of self-misery and can’t see beyond the haze of their own problems, however large or small, and it bleeds across the interviews in an unexpected way.
A girl stuck going to Hebrew school twice a week worries about divide between her Hebrew school self and who she is with her friends at her public school, while in the background, violent crimes are perpetrated against people of her faith in other countries.
In the one genre story set in a dystopian/futuristic landscape, a woman who is lucky to have a job in the diminishing market reads complaints from and awards monetary compensation to people who dislike their jobs but are unable to leave due to restrictions from the government. She is given a promotion, but the complaints take on a darker edge and she struggles to understand the reason behind it all.
Each story is startlingly simple, full of those everyday occurrences that make life both mundane and unique. From simple interactions between strangers in an elevator or on a plane, to the longer narratives, there is a simple clarity, a pure brilliance as Bender turns a light—fiercely—on what is really going on, what really matters.
More than just casting our reflection back at us, these stories dig to the center of socio-political issues in a way that is innately human. You can't help but to feel at the very minimum the unsettling, like walking on uneven ground in the dark, that the stories bring up in your gut. There is something wrong here, I kept thinking, but how can I fix it?
Yes—how do we fix it? Are we, as a country fixable? We are good at commenting on the problems that we see, but are we ready to dig to the root of the problem, to get in there and really clean up the mess we've created?
What will it take?
Reading books like this remind me why writing and reading is so important. Fiction has a voice, and it has something to say, something we should all be listening to.
Huge, expansive and never-ending thanks to Counterpoint Press for putting an ARC of this book in my hands to read and review. It is definitely one I will be recommending to everyone. This book is out in November.
A gorgeous, unnerving, and supremely masterful novel.
". . . to plunge a viewer into a state of terror meant to take away their compass, their tools for navigating the world, and to replace it with a compass that told a different kind of truth. The trick was ensuring the viewer was so consumed by fright that they didn't even notice this exchange was being made; it was a secret transaction between their imagination and the film, and when they left the theater, those new truths would go with them, swimming like eels under the skin."
In a slim package, van den Berg delves into a wealth of topics, each one adding another layer to the narrative. The layers interact, conflict, and entangle to create something altogether spellbinding, a phantasmagoria of grief, marriage and relationships, travel, horror tropes, film, memory and the psyche, and ultimately, the search for self.
The writing is so easy to get wrapped up in, and even though it is a slim book under 200 pages, it took me almost a week to get through it because I was so invested in reading every word; sometimes I read sentences multiple times. The author writes with such precision and strength of voice that it was easy to sink into the story, while at the same time, I was constantly finding wonderful sentences that I needed to mark to revisit later.
The story doesn't go where I thought it would at all, it is a much more quiet and introspective examination of the self, the past, and how one's own life can be unrecognizable and completely familiar all at once. But it is perfect, and I very much enjoyed every minute of Clare's journey. It is in the space in between what we know and what we don't know that true exploration begins. But most people are too afraid to go there because maybe that's where the monsters live too.
"Horror films had taught her that a person could will a thing into existence, but once it was outside their consciousness, the consciousness that had been busily inventing simultaneous possibilities, it became a force unto itself, ferocious and uncontrollable."
While I can't say that this is a horror novel, perhaps it could be horror-adjacent. The references to horror movies and elements of horror analysis throughout prove that van den Berg is knowledgable about the genre, and they are more than just lip service to fans. Concepts from horror, like the final girl, play an integral part of Clare's journey, in both how she begins to see the world through a different lens and how she begins to see herself—past and present—through different eyes even as she spirals downward.
I think horror readers who are into literary fiction will quite enjoy this. It has the dreamlike propulsiveness of Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, but with more narrative flow, like Neil Gaiman's psychologically dreamlike and haunting The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
My thanks to FSG for sending me a finished copy of this book to read and review.
While I was definitely intrigued by the premise of Baby Teeth, this one unfortunately, was not for me.
The narration switches between Suzette and her seven-year-old daughter, Hanna. Hanna is very intelligent, but she has a dark side that seems to only come out when her mother is around. She has chosen to be nonverbal, has gotten herself kicked out of several schools, and generally makes life hell when she doesn't get her way. But for her dad, she is, of course, an angel.
I found the back and forth of the plot to be repetitive. Even though Hanna's misdeeds escalate throughout the book, it felt fairly unbelievable. Though she is described as intelligent, many of Hanna's thought processes—how she got from how she felt about something to what she wanted to do about it—felt much too sophisticated for such a young child.
Even if a reader could accept that, the level of language used in Hanna's sections was wildly varied and some of the descriptions that she used felt way off-base to me. I don't think a seven-year-old would ever describe a slinky evening gown as "an oil slick of a dress," and that's just one example.
I also found Suzette an extremely frustrating character—if I had a child who was exhibiting strange behavior only to me, the first thing I would do would be to try to catch that behavior on video. No one even suggests this! It drove me a little crazy.
The ending of the book was especially disappointing. Especially after being so honest and
If you are looking for a good story about mother's and their creepy children, I can wholeheartedly recommend Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin or Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child. Both of those books are incredibly wrought portraits of family in crisis and truly held me in suspense that I felt deep in the pit of my stomach long after I put the book down.
My thanks to St. Martin's Press for sending me an advance copy of this book to read and review.
After being blown away by Eileen and less than impressed by the collection Homesick for Another World, I wasn't sure what to expect from this next novel by Moshfegh.
In mid-2000 in NYC, the twenty-four-year-old narrator of this book opts of of society. It doesn't seem political or even some form of social protest, she's just tired. Or maybe bored. So she decides to quit life and do the one thing she likes full time: sleep. With the aid of a veritable drugstore of pharmaceuticals from a suspect and truly irresponsible psychiatrist, she plans to sleep through as much of the next year of her life as possible.
I think there is a year in our recent past that we all could say we would have preferred to sleep through, so I see what Moshfegh is getting at.
Where she really excels as a writer is in the intense character study. Her characters are often shallow and self-centered, but I have a hard time holding that against them, because really, we all are (at the very least inside our own heads). She creates these flawed people who, sometimes brilliantly, see who they are fully, though sometimes they view the world around them with skewed perception or half-blindness.
The narrator in My Year has followed a specific path in her life, seemingly set out for her by her birth to rich parents and her blond-haired pretty-girl good looks, and she's finding out that it doesn't bring her any joy. It feels empty because it is. And she isn't going anywhere new fast.
She (ahead of her time in 2000, as this felt very millennial to me) is fairly aimless, not knowing what she wants to do with her life. She is lackadaisical about the opportunities she's been given, spiteful about the people she spends time with, and oblivious to anything going on outside of her head and personal existence.
What will a year of hibernation do? For her, it doesn't seem to be a meditative experience, like monks seeking enlightenment. She describes how she is able to retreat from the world in relative comfort because of her fairly lucky financial situation—which has nothing to do with success on her own part. She isn't in there contemplating solving world hunger. Mostly, she is introspective, thinking about her past, her family and the experiences that brought her to where she is today.
But in the end, this is a very irreverent, driven, insightful, and darkly comedic story about one girl finding a new way to life. Yes, she is blindly believing that by ignoring all her problems she will somehow be reborn, able to handle existence again. Maybe that's true and maybe it isn't. But I think it's more about the journey, making the choice to begin again.
My thanks to Penguin Press for sending me an advance copy of this book to read and review.
What a world we live in.
Just this year, there have already been over 20 school shootings in the United States. If that isn't enough to make you start seeing that there is something horribly wrong in our society these days, I don't know what will.
What if there were a place you could go, a place to live away from all the chaos, the news feeds, the violence, the technology? A quiet back-to-nature sort of society of like-minded individuals who just wanted to reboot and get back to what really matters, like spending time with family? Would you give up all the modern conveniences to know you'd be safe and far away from potential man-made disasters?
That's the idea behind the island community of Halcyon. But this book is so much more than that.
This is an intricate multi-perspective book that seems almost disparate in the beginning, jumping from one plot thread to another that is completely unrelated (but also totally captivating, I might add). But hold on. Because the more you learn, the more you (almost) wish that you could have stayed in the dark just a little bit longer, dreaming of that perfect place.
But everyone has their darkness, and everywhere has its flaws. Eden doesn't exist in Halcyon—at least not once you scratch the surface.
There is so much that I loved about this novel. I wouldn't call it a slow burn, because although it does take a while to get to the island itself, there is so much going on in the plot that I really stayed invested in the characters, their individual stories, and the mystery behind putting together the missing pieces.
And the pacing really does not let up. Though at some points I could definitely see where the story was headed, I was propelled through the pages by the writing and the characters. The only weak link of the characters to me was Shirley, the older sister, who felt underdeveloped at times and was used as a device to move the plot toward its inevitable conclusion rather than a person making decisions of her own.
As I have been thinking through why we read (and need) horror a lot recently, I think this book offers a great argument for exactly why horror is so important. It touches on real-world issues, fears, and frustrations about the state of our society and then imagines what if?
That "what if" spins a lot of different directions, but most memorably for me, in the mind of young Edith. Suffice to say that she reminded me a bit of some kids from King novels.
I went into this book not really knowing what to expect, and I was totally blown away. Youers has a great talent for story and I would love to read another of his books!
My thanks to St. Martins Press and the author for sending copies of this one to the Nightworms to read and review!
What makes a good story? I’m not talking horror, but just a good story. Characters who feel real, a unique and moving plot, some sort of social significance, just plain old good writing? Here’s the thing haters, horror stories have those things too.
As horror fans (and I know that’s who I’m mostly talking to), we’ve all had that moment (or those moments) when we profess our love for the genre and you get that reaction, eyes sort of creasing, mouth thinning into a line, their entire body shifting back from you. A literal visceral reaction to the word horror. And the immediate response of “I hate scary things,” “I can’t read those books,” or “why do you like that?”
I am 100 percent for everyone doing their own thing, liking what they like (and who they like for that matter!) but I do wish people would give horror more of a chance. Horror is so much more than that first impression, and while it is making a waves recently due to crazy amazing hits on screens big and small like Stranger Things, It, Get Out, and real-life happenings like our current (and seemingly always escalating and never-ending) political situation, the craze for true crime, and so on, there is still a lot of ground to cover.
So why horror fiction?
Well, I guess that brings me around to the point. Why horror fiction? Writers like Paul Tremblay is why.
On the face of it, The Cabin at the End of the World has a simple set up. A little girl and her two dads taking a vacation at a secluded cabin by a lake. Four strangers converge on the family and they want something—and it’s not good.
But it’s also not what you expect. This isn’t The Strangers. This is bigger than that. Or is it?
This book is a white-knuckle one-sitting type of read. Though told in third person, it switches perspectives between the characters, giving the reader brief insights into each of their psyches and feelings. I really liked this technique; it felt cinematic to me, but in a three-dimensional kind of way because it was like I was really seeing the story through each of their eyes in turn, feeling the emotional pulses of the story, rather than just being an outside observer.
This is my third Tremblay book (I’ve read A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock too) and I’m noticing a trend of his. He loves the fantastic, that suspension of the story between reality and the supernatural. He’s always holding the reader on a string throughout his books making us wonder what exactly is going on. Is there a rational explanation—can we keep our feet firmly on the ground? Or, is something supernatural at play and we’ve left the known world behind, we’re untethered, an astronaut floating through the dark stillness of space alone with only his own breath—and the monsters. Tremblay pulls us back and forth along the string of the fantastic, leaving us to wallow in that moment of hesitation, that catch of breath between the known and unknown.
And what a delicious place to live.
Cabin is also taking on underpinning themes of the current state of the world and our society today. Though perhaps not in your face, I think these themes of environmental and also social downfall are definitely an important part of this book. And it brings me back to my original point about why horror.
Horror shows us a way through the darkness.
It shows us characters in situations that we (hopefully) never have to deal with, but reading about how others struggle—whether they win, lose, live, die, become a zombie, stake a serial killer, or just deal with the darkness within—helps us negotiate our own struggles and process our traumas in our daily life and those in the world at large too. Horror is cathartic and all the many different strands of it are worth investigating.
I am hesitant to say this is Tremblay’s best because I know there’s more coming. And we’re ready to read it when it gets here.
My thanks to Mindi (Instagram: @gowsy33 Goodreads: Mindi Snyder), who is a horror reader and reviewer extraordinaire for sending me her extra copy of this book!
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.