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!
What's the one thing that humans seem to consistently strive for? We want to look fitter, thinner, more beautiful, but it really all culminates in our society's constant obsession with youth. If you look younger, you are younger—in a way, you're cheating death. And that's the ultimate goal, isn't it. To vanquish that ultimate foe and live forever.
Well, be careful what you wish for.
In this futuristic novel, the idea of extended life takes on a dystopian edge. Some people have the genes to live many years longer than we ever thought imaginable, and maybe someday, even beat that dark, inevitable end. In this world, it might be coming, if only you are first gifted the right genes, and second, you treat them right, following a strict regimen of eating, working out, and doctor's appointments. People are also becoming a bit bionic, enhanced by technological parts that work better than the human body and extend life.
But what if you don't want to follow their rules? What if you don't want to live forever? To some, life is meaningless if you can't really live it how you want to, and death is a choice they are willing to to not only take over some sanitized, robotized version of living but use as a political statement.
I really loved this book. It has a loud message and a quiet strength. The narrators of the book are two strong women (which I already love), each on their own journey toward understanding what life means, how they want to live it, and who they want to spend it with.
This book is asking us to take a hard look in the mirror and think about what it is that is important to us. What do we want our children to revere? The suspension of youthful looks and the denial of our impending future as dust? It isn't mean to sound morbid; it is just the truth. What do we want to leave behind as our legacy? What do we want to learn? What can we change about our world? And how deeply can we love?
I did wish that the book had delved more deeply into some of the topics that it uncovered, including the bionic people and all the ramifications around their parts that keep working even when they stop (the part with Anja's mother is some of the strongest writing in the book). Though the suicides are obviously inflammatory (pun not intended) and riveting to read, I wished the characters engaged with them more. What were they thinking, feeling? The Club itself felt underrepresented for being the titular element. I would have also liked a little more world-building too, to see the contrast between the Lifers and the other people more, to get into their lives rather than just the monochrome perspective of our character's privileged viewpoint. I felt a little bit at a remove, as though I couldn't quite craft a whole picture of the world.
These are things that could have been expanded on or improved, but they don't detract from the overall beauty of the book. Suicide Club is a thoughtful and unique debut novel with a lot of heart. I can't wait to see what Heng does next.
My thanks to Henry Holt for sending me a copy of this book to read and review.
"Medicine is an approximate science. Loneliness is a specific monster."
This is my first Kepnes book, so I can't say how it compares to her others, though this one feels different. There is a strength, a quiet depth to the prose, following three characters from each of their viewpoints across a span of years as they search for each other (though for very different reasons), for answers to questions only they seem to be interested in, and to find a balance between their necessary loneliness and their intense longing.
This book defies categorization, which makes me like it even more. It is just a great story with a little of everything: a mystery, a hunt for the truth, death, lies, Lovecraft, a detective on the case, star-crossed lovers, and a paranormal twist. What's not to like?
It is a book that held me above the story rather than really pulling me down to the surface, on the level where the characters were interacting with each other. I stayed up in my head, if that makes sense. It isn't that I wasn't emotionally involved, it is just that the book is more of a slow-paced thoughtful type, letting you chew on the concepts and ideas throughout from a bird's eye view.
Throughout the book, Kepnes is contemplating the idea of a monster—what makes a monster? What defines monstrous behavior? What sort of facade can you hide behind, what sort of actions make you normal and what makes you feared and reviled? Can you be both? Can the monster be saved or changed?
Along with being a monster comes loneliness. This reminded me a lot of Frankenstein, where Frankenstein's monster doesn't know what he is until he is taught that by the reactions of others. And it makes him lonely, craving the company of others.
Why do we want to be around other people? People might hurt us or not understand us. It is because of the potential for love, the potential to share our life, our successes, and even our failures with someone else. To be comforted, cared for in times of need. An emotional and physical connection.
Providence is about all these things. It is a very human story about the people we are, the things we hide, and the lives we lead, just with a little twist of the unknown thrown in. And who knows what's possible anyway—the universe is bigger than we could ever imagine.
My thanks to Random House for my copy of this book to read and review.
If there was ever a book to make you crave food, this is it.
I wanted good, delicious Chinese food every time I cracked this book open. You can basically smell it while you read—the hot, sizzling spices, fried rice, heaping plates of beef and eggplant with garlic sauce (my favorite), and bowls brimming with wonton soup—SO GOOD.
I didn’t quite know what to expect diving into this (besides hunger pangs) but I was pleasantly surprised by an inventive and humanistic tale similar in style to Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere or Jade Chang’s The Wangs vs. the World.
I loved each of the characters and their struggles. Each chapter continues the story from a different characters’ perspective, so the reader gets a bird’s-eye view of the whole story—the good, the bad, the incendiary, and the ugly. From the brothers who co-own the Beijing Duck House that was their father’s dream and masterpiece and the less-than-ideal business decisions one of them has been making, to the servers who have been working at the restaurant for just about ever, to the newer generation and their own struggles.
I loved the entanglements of all the characters, how the book reminisced about the past and how where we come from influences who we are, whether we decide to fight it or let it be a part of our story. Li has a true talent for the craft of characters, from dialogue to being able to switch back and forth between all their perspectives and making them feel like distinct people.
There are many different types of relationships handled very deftly here: brothers, sons and mothers, unlikely lovers, young lovers, business partners, coworkers, spouses, teens and their parents—the list goes on. This web is tangled even further as many characters play multiple roles. The book uses the setting of the restaurant and the hierarchy within the restaurant as a metaphor for the rest of the world—who you are when you are at work is not necessarily who you are when your shift ends. But what happens when all of that comes crumbling down?
Identity is a tricky thing. It is tied to our perception of ourselves but also how other people see us. Where we come from, what we do, who we spend time with—all these things shape who we are. But it is not always easy to craft or change this, even if we desperately want something else. This book is a lot about identity, the finding and shifting of it, through food, the past, and those around us.
This is a book with heart—a true feast for the heart. It has moments of comedy and absurdity, but then vulnerability, loss, and heartache where the reader sees what it means to be part of a community that is so tight it is more like a family. And as it is with families—they know nothing about each other’s inner lives and constantly get on each other’s nerves. I ate this book up—Li is a huge talent and I can’t wait to see what comes from her next.
I don't read much YA fiction. I know that the genre has changed a lot, going from not existing at all to now being for adults and not just teens, but whenever I've read books specifically marketed as YA, I tend to find that they just don't hold the same weight as so-called "adult fiction."
This doesn't mean that they can't be well written or have interesting, developed characters (though in my experience this is generally not the case). YA is like the candy, the empty calories that are fun and tasty enough but don't really fill you up the way a true meal, like a literary fiction book, will.
But when a new book by Marisha Pessl comes out, it doesn't matter who the audience is supposed to be—that's a book I'll be buying.
My first experience with Pessl was Night Film, and when the advance copies came in at our bookstore, I just knew I had to have it. Such a striking cover, the bare bones of the plot instantly spoke to me, and flipping through, I could see the hints of the multi-media pages and I was smitten.
It did not disappoint. Pessl has a strong, enticing voice, does not shy away from the dark moments, and goes to interesting places with her characters. I read Special Topics in Calamity Physics soon after and though it didn't sing to me like Night Film, I could see why people were captivated by it.
And it is easy to see now, with this newest book, why Pessl would be interested in YA. Special Topics centers around a group of young adults too and Pessl obviously has a bit of a lock on that demographic. And yet, that book was not called YA and is still not marketed to younger readers. Why is that? The themes do not seem too complex or too explicit compared to some other YA books. Is it too long? Just better writing? What is it that makes a book YA?
I'm not sure I'll ever really be able to answer that question, but unfortunately, it is a category that, for me at least, the marketing is not working. I have been burned before and I will continue to shy away from books branded with this label.
All this to say that I bought Pessl's latest book with no hesitation, but I did begin it with a little trepidation. I didn't know what to expect: would her writing be different? Dumbed down? Would the plot be less complex or interesting?
The short answer is no.
Right away, her voice is apparent. And it is obvious throughout the book that she didn't change her writing style at all—this is Pessl through and through. Similar to her other two books, it is written in first person, with one main protagonist as our guide throughout.
Without spoiling the plot at all, there is a repetitive nature to some sections of the book, and I found them to drag, sometimes unnecessarily and to the detriment of the plot.
The main character Beatrice is a bit thick, honestly, and I wanted more from her. She seemed to mostly react to everyone around her rather than make decisions, which is my least favorite type of character. Action is a must.
The rest of the characters were paper-thin wisps of tired stock elements. I think the group of five (and then six once we start discussing Beatrice's boyfriend who mysteriously died) is a bit too much for the book to handle.
The plot itself ends up being more of an investigation of said mysterious death, which I couldn't quite wrap my head around the logic of that being the locus that will solve their predicament. It felt like a forced way to rehash an old storyline.
I read the book in one sitting; it is definitely short and compulsive enough to read right through. I think people who enjoyed books like If We Were Liars will be fans of the strangeness and dreamy propulsion of this book, but it didn't quite move me the way I've come to expect a book by Pessl to.
In the end—if forced to categorize it—I would call this a YA book. Though it has shades (sometimes a bit blatant) of The Secret History, If We Were Villains, and Pessl's own Special Topics, I think this book definitely caters toward younger readers. It is still an enjoyable read, and fans of her work and mysteries in general will enjoy this one.
And, there is another book on the way from Pessl, so even if this one wasn't for you, there is more to come.
I have not made my love for Wolas’s debut novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, a secret. It is a brilliant literary work that deserves its comparisons to pillars like Irving, McCullers, Capote, Didion. But it also stands alone and shines with a unique voice—so unlike anything I’ve read before not only in story, but in character, strength of the vision that is created on the page, and sheer enormity of the tangible world and people that come alive. It deserves to be read and savored. It is the type of book that gets into the deepest nooks and farthest niches of your heart and forces the beating, reminds you why you are alive, or maybe why you need to start living.
Yeah, it’s that good.
So I did not enter into The Family Tabor lightly. I had high expectations.
While Joan focuses on one specific character and her struggles, Tabor offers multiple perspectives, switching the narrative view every chapter to a different character of the well-to-do Tabor family.
They have all gathered to celebrate the patriarch, Henry Tabor, who is being named Man of the Decade. But though the family is close, not everything is as perfect as it appears and just a tiny tear at the seams of the façade offers a peek behind the curtain of the past and present struggles different members of the family are all privately facing.
The book has many, many strengths, the first of which would be its beautiful use of language. Wolas has a true talent with words and she does not squander it. This is the type of book you can barely get through a page without wanting to read some sentence over and over, or noticing a carefully constructed or unique phrase, or a detailed description you want to mark with a sticky note.
The characters are also deftly wrought, as to me, both their internal dialogue and their interactions with others throughout the plot ring very true. This novel is very much about the divide between public and private—what we share with the world and what we hide away from it. As the reader, we get to see both sides and I loved that.
This book is also very much about family power dynamics: the expectations of family, living up to your parents or your siblings even if the disparity is only in your mind, and trying to hide any flaws and not be too vulnerable or naked in front of them. Though the Tabors seem open and warm with each other, they are very guarded and keep their secrets to themselves, licking their wounds in private.
A thoughtful and meditative book concerned with the human experience and the way our past can dictate our future if we let it, The Family Tabor is not one you’ll want to zoom through. It is a delicate dessert you'll want to taste every flavor of and truly enjoy. The story is quiet and introspective, but not without drama and high stakes.
The past can dictate the future, but we can also learn from it and change ourselves in the present to create a better future. I don't think that's a new lesson or such a revelatory one, but the deft way Wolas peels back the layers illuminates how what we inherit from our parents and their parents and so on does not need to define us, though it will always be within us, coursing just beneath the surface. After all, blood is thicker than water, as they say.
Anyone with a true love of literature and a longing for the great classics who understood that language and the creation of compelling characters were the cornerstone of good storytelling will fall in love with Wolas’s work.
I am a lifelong fan and will always look forward to reading her new releases and rereading my favorites too.
My thanks to Flatiron Books for providing me with an advance copy of this book.
Rain is a recovering addict trying to forget her past and get her life back on track. She goes to NA meetings, has a small ragtag group of friends, and even has a job interview lined up. Despite her crappy apartment in a bad part of Brooklyn, her life isn’t looking so bad—that is until she looks through a pair of glasses she borrows from a woman on the subway and sees something . . . strange.
Things just get weirder from there and Rain doesn’t know who to turn to—her NA friends will think she’s using and she has burned all the other bridges in her life. What is she seeing? What is real and what is just shadows of her past?
While this book has a lot of interesting ideas, for me it was just too all over the place. Talk about double mumbo jumbo: there are supernatural evil beings, an alternate/dream reality, some weird stuff with time, ghosts, The author was trying to pack too many different threads into one book and I think it would have been a much more successful novel if he had really focused in on one or two elements.
There is a supernatural evil that is following Rain and she discovers (so slooowwwly) that its strength lies in her weakness, and it is connected to the son she gave up before she became a junkie. When I realized that the plot was centered around her specific past, it really started to lose steam for me. The whole “kids in peril” plotline is overused in horror (in my opinion) and it is fairly obvious when a kid is not really in peril.
I also was confused by the main villain of the novel, Doctor Nine—I didn’t fully understand his purpose. What was he trying to accomplish, exactly? And that name is never explained either. Not saying that is necessary, but maybe it would have helped. . . His evil plot never felt spelled out for me and I didn’t fully see the point of everything he and his assistant are trying to do.
And that is only the beginning of the proliferating threads—many of the characters are connected in multiple ways to each other and to other plots that I found unnecessary and unlikely. The detective probably could have had his own book, or at least a spinoff novella, but I didn’t think his whole story was crucial to the plot of this book and I felt that it the way it was slowly spun out slowed down the main thrust of the narrative.
I really got lost in all the different ideas, themes, and plot threads presented in the narrative. There is a dream world that several of the characters discuss—visiting certain places and meeting specific people (most of whom the reader never meets), but we only see brief scenes of this place and much of the setup surrounding it felt superfluous and I was underwhelmed by the reality of it when we actually arrived.
The ending was definitely a letdown as I felt that the action of the climax was all a bit more metaphorical than anything else. Time is a tricky thing to mess with and doesn’t always end up satisfying.
I’d like to thank the publisher for sending the Nightworms copies of this book to read and review.
I took this book on my recent trip to NYC and it definitely added an extra layer—reading about Piper and her friends and how they grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan while actually being there. Hers is an exclusive and privileged view, one filled with restrictions (both self-imposed and adult-imposed), rule-breaking, and tennis.
The true crime–memoir is not entirely a new genre, you could say that The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule's incredible 1980 book on her experience as Ted Bundy's friend definitely fits the bill.
But it is one that is currently breaking through the ranks. I have found several true crime books in the last few years that are really compelling because of their authors' unique perspective; it is very different from reading a book—however well-researched—that is done by someone who wasn't personally involved.
Similar to a few of my favorites, Maggie Nelson's The Red Parts and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich's The Fact of a Body, this book chronicles a story that is very personal and immediate for the author.
Gary Wilensky was Piper's personal tennis coach when she was fourteen. She rode in his car alone, went to lunch with him, her parents trusted him. But that all changed when he committed suicide after a failed attempt at kidnapping another of his students.
Who was this man that she confided in, felt comfortable around, thought of as one of her friends? Why has the case always followed her, almost haunted her?
Piper delves deeply into the story of her own adolescence, finding universal truths about coming of age, no matter where you grew up. She looks down the avenues of obsession that are open to us all, comparing her own walk of that line with the very wrong direction that Gary took. The book contemplates the facts of Gary's case and how that meshes with what she knew of him.
Though I loved Piper's story and I wouldn't have cut any of it, I did wish there was a bit more focus on the case itself and the factual details about Gary, what happened, and how it came about.
This case is kind of weird because it is more of a what-if than anything else. No one really knows what he had planned or what would have happened. There is only the strange evidence, and the torment, he left behind.
This is definitely more of a memoir, a coming-of-age tale with true crime elements than a story about a crime. But Piper is a very talented writer and she has a way of drawing you into the story—I promise this one won't disappoint.
We all have been there: through the debilitating anguish, loneliness, depression, and obsession of young adulthood. Skirting the line of becoming an adult, but not quite there yet. Piper's effortless prose puts the reader in between the lines.
My thanks to the publisher for my copy of this book to read and review.
The highly anticipated novel follows a young mother and exotic dancer who lives in San Francisco and Los Angeles and has been convicted of a horrible crime. She tells her story, the narrative entangling with some of the people she encounters, detailing life at prison, her life before, and how she got to where she is.
If you like Orange is the New Black, this is the book for you. I know that comparison will probably be all over the place, but this book really has a lot of the elements that I love about that show. Witty interesting characters shown to have layers and be real people behind all their banter, interesting prison insights, backstory, and even better, it doesn’t have Piper. (I’m sorry, but she’s so annoying!)
Instead, you’ll fall for the tough, smart Romy Hall, who doesn’t have a glamorous life, but does what she needs to get by. She doesn’t hold prejudices or punches and tells her story like it is without trying to make it pretty. I like her.
The main thrust of the plot following Romy was what I was most interested in and I loved her voice. I wanted to spend more time with this character! It took me a while to really get into the style of the short paragraphs and the back and forth of how she revealed her story, telling a small piece of it and then going off on a tangent about something entirely different before circling back, but though it dragged sometimes, I mostly liked it. It is a bit difficult to read in loonngg stretches.
But overall, I thought the narrative was a little scattered. The way it would jump between different characters narration was sometimes jarring and it took me a sentence or a paragraph to figure out who was talking and what part of the story they were telling. It felt like an unnecessary way to transition. Some of the characters felt a little extraneous and over-written to me, like I wasn’t sure why we were hearing from them at all (Ted Kaczynski?) and as their narratives were not all wound up within the book, those areas could have been trimmed.
The book also felt a little unfinished to me, like there is more that could have been gleaned from the themes of self-imposed isolation (what with all the Thoreau/Kaczynski/woodsy scenes) and the institutional isolation that Romy and the other inmates experience. I don’t know exactly what the book was trying to say about that. Perhaps it is there and I just didn’t get it!
But the book is also interested in injustice, gender in prison, and poverty and other socioeconomic factors that really do affect how the system runs. Too much is being taken on by the book and the narrative doesn’t cover any of it fully.
For me, the disjointed narrative and scattered style—jumping between first and third person, the difficulty in discerning who was speaking (or why they had a voice in the narrative at all), and other reasons really disconnected me from the text. I felt that it lacked the raw emotionality that should have (and could have) been conveyed by a book about such important topics as the realities and injustices of the justice system.
Not quite what I expected, but still a very interesting story by a talented and compelling writer.
My thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book to read and review.
“Am I, this trembling, hallucinating ball of sinew, really any stranger of a creature, any more improbable of an object, than a ghost?”
If you are looking for something a bit different to read, something literary, but with a compelling narrative and totally innovative plot, this is it.
The main story revolves around Nick and Hannah, a couple who are not quite sure if their relationship will make it. To try something new and escape the city, Hannah takes a job as the live-in director of the Wright Historic House, a museum in the middle of nowhere dedicated to a nineteenth-century philosopher who barely anyone has heard of.
There is something about the house, a creaky old maze, enticing and creepy at turns, that draws Hannah deeper and deeper inside Edmund Wright’s research. Nick, the narrator of the story, doesn’t realize that something is wrong with her until she is missing one morning. And then he is left retracing her steps to see what happened, what he missed, and if she can be found.
I loved this one. It will almost certainly be in my top ten for the year. (A huge thanks to Belletrist, without whom I wouldn’t have read this one!)
This is not your typical ghost story or haunted house novel—but that is one of the reasons why I loved it. “Haunted house” might be my favorite narrative to read—there is just so much you can do with that idea! I have read a bunch of them and am always looking for new ones . . . (suggestions please!) And this one tried something really new to great effect. I loved every minute of it.
I spent a lot (and I mean A LOT) of time thinking about and trying to wrap my head around ghosts and the idea of haunting as it is presented in this book. First of all, it takes the story a long time to get to these elements—in fact, it is definitely more about the people, the living people and their own psychology than any ghosts.
But in any case, how they haunt, if they even do haunt, and what a haunting might be (something your own mind creates the space for? Something enacted upon you?)—I don’t want to get into it too far since that is part of the mystery that the book threads along, but it presents a very unique concept of ghosts and what a haunted house is.
I wouldn’t say that this is a scary book by any means. It is quiet, introspective, and lyrically haunting. There is a lot of character development and such beautiful writing, but a very ephemeral nature. It touches on depression, stress, and the potential of the psyche through the lens of a relationship—how much do you really know about your partner?
Nick, as he narrates, is really telling Hannah’s story, but there is this gauzy veil around her; we don’t really know what she was thinking or feeling, only his interpretation of it. I enjoyed seeing how his thoughts grew and changed across the book.
I found the plot to be compelling—I didn’t see what was coming and the mix of an intriguing plot, a good psychological mind puzzle, and great writing that I could linger on was a perfect combination for me. I like a book I can think about, puzzle through, one with characters that feel real and complex, and one with enough buildup to let me imagine that there is more to the world of the story than we know.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.