A trip to California, a new life and a fresh start: in the pioneer days, many took the hard path of a wagon train for the chance to strike it rich and see the vistas of the West. But in 1846, the Donner Party sets out a little too late in the season and then hits one snag after another.
Soon the bad luck piling on them seems ominous, like evil is following them or somehow attached to their group—and in the mountains, the weather is starting to turn cold. But perhaps there is more to this streak of inauspicious coincidences. Is there something in the wilderness, waiting for them?
Growing up in the West, I have definitely heard all about the Donner Party and their ill-fated journey. (When it comes to cannibals, my favorite is probably Alferd Packer, but that’s a story for another time.) And though I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, I always enjoy it—like Dan Simmons’s The Abominable. So this one seemed right up my alley.
I was so on board with the tension and the buildup of this book. Katsu brilliantly weaves subtle prickles of horror, letting the reader see just enough down the trail to realize that nothing good can come from venturing onward, but never quite revealing the full extent of the horror.
I thought that Katsu did a great job with writing from the perspectives of all the characters, but I felt that by the end of the book, a few of the ones I was more interested in had faded into the background. Perhaps there were too many voices in the book.
For me, the flashbacks at the end of each section could have been a little more explanatory, especially toward the end, in explaining exactly what was going on. The information that they revealed was mostly information that I had picked up from the characters as subtext. It didn’t really need further explanation.
I expected the end of the book to have more action, to be a real culmination of all the terror, hardship, and suffering that they went through. I didn’t feel that the ending of the book paid off based on how the tension was built—I kept waiting for the true horror to drop and I felt that the book never really went there.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading this one and would recommend it to anyone interested in slowburn novels or historical fiction. Even if horror is not really your thing, this book skirts the line, and has elements of romance, adventure, and history that a lot of people would enjoy.
The Nightworms would like to thank Glasstown Ent., Putnam, and the author for sending us all copies of this book to review.
Will is your average fifteen-year-old boy: he likes hanging out with his friends, thinking about girls, playing baseball, keeping away from bullies, taking care of his little sister—oh, and coming head to head with a sadistic serial killer. You know, average coming-of-age stuff. Add to that the weird things people keep seeing in the woods and this might just be the strangest (and worst) year of Will's life.
I had no idea what to expect going into this book, but I was immediately drawn to the characters—their witty banter and strong personalities gave me a bit of a Summer of Night or The Body vibe (and I am definitely not the first person to make those comparisons).
Jonathan Janz builds likable and realistic characters with believable dialogue—something that is no small feat. He really has a knack for voice and I loved the relationship between the three friends Will, Chris, and Barley. Janz has a great talent for dialogue and I'd love to read more of his books based on that alone.
The story is built in such a way that it is easy to read and compels you to keep reading—I got through it in one sitting! So carve out some time for this sucker because you're going to want to see where it goes.
There was some double mumbo jumbo going on in this book—a term I stole from Blake Snyder and think is pretty legit: we can only ask people to believe in one "magical" thing for any story. So it is pushing it to say there is a crazy escaped serial murderer who is basically on the level of Mike Myers and also something supernaturally evil potentially roaming around in the woods.
While I was skeptical at first, and it does falter a bit for me, losing parts of one thread (which, without trying to spoil anything, I thought was going to be the main point of the book) to focus on the other, all the insanity plays out pretty well and definitely held my interest throughout the book. There are surprises, twists, and plenty of action and bloodshed.
Overall, I really enjoyed this tale and Janz's strong writing held me throughout a few of the moments that might have lost me in another book. The good news is, there are plenty of other books to read by J. Janz! I will be seeking out some of his other work. (Also, I heard a rumor that there might be a sequel in the works??)
My thanks to Jonathan Janz, Sinister Grin, and Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi for gifting copies of this book to all the Night Worms to read and review!
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started reading this book!
Malerman—always inventive—has come up with a creepy, compelling, and genuinely unique tale of betrayal, adventure, and death.
Carol has died many times—but in truth she doesn’t really die, she just has a strange condition where she falls into a coma due to stressful conditions and appears to be dead for several days. She keeps her condition a secret except for a few people she is close to, but what happens when one of the people she trusts wants her dead?
We all learned to love Malerman when he blew our minds with Bird Box—still one of the most truly scary and original horror novels I’ve ever read. He has a very specific, visceral style of writing that draws in the reader so they can’t look away. I was not as big of a fan of Black Mad Wheel, but he is such an interesting voice, I am always excited to see he has a new book coming out.
And this unique voice isn’t lost in his newest novel. The book is styled as a Western and feels very much like it is set in a different time and place from the way the characters speak and interact with the world around them, to the structure of story itself.
The reader switches between a few different characters, seeing all the sides of the story almost like a movie. We see Carol’s perspective—the creepiest and my favorite—as she describes what she can see and hear from her coma and what might be lurking with her in that tenuous spot between life and death. We see Carol’s husband, Dwight, who has a scheme all his own. We see Carol’s old flame, James Moxie, who became an infamous outlaw and now is the only other person who knows her secret. We see another trailrider, the villainous and insane Smoke, who hunts Moxie, and is out to cause whatever chaos he can.
The book threw me a bit when I first started it because the voice is fairly stylistic, but once I got a handle on the lilt of the dialogue and turn of phrase, I really got into it. There are no slow points in this story since it is constantly throwing the reader back and forth between the minds of all the characters and their specific goals, whether their intentions be nefarious or righteous.
Though the style is definitely different, you can’t argue with a great plot! I loved the first chapter set at the funeral and the way all the characters were introduced. I loved the way they fit into Western stock characters (retired outlaw, damsel in distress) but as the book progressed, busted through those stereotypes too.
I would have loved to see more of Howltown (what Carol calls the place where she goes when she is in a coma) and more of her perspective. The book is a little low on women’s perspectives and Carol, her maid Farrah, and her mom, Hattie, were all such great characters. The latter two felt especially underused to me.
Overall, I loved the blended genre that Malerman created and was really impressed that this book came from the same guy who wrote his last two books—he is constantly reinventing his own writing and for that versatility alone it is worth seeking his books out.
I read this book as a part of the Night Worms conglomerate and I’d like to thank Del Rey for sending us all review copies of the book!
If you are into cults—and you are, because what red-blooded human isn’t fascinated or at least intrigued by them—this is the cult novel you’ve been looking for.
Mason Hues is anonymous. He lives in a bare studio apartment, his mattress on the floor.
But before he was Mason, he was John Doe, and before that, he was Thirty-Seven, a member of the Survivors, a cult hidden in the mountains of Colorado where he willingly took chemotherapy drugs to make himself sick because sickness bears honesty and honesty bears change, and the change that the Survivors enacted came to shock the nation.
But now he’s Mason. And even though he’s had therapy, the teachings from his time with the Survivors are still coursing through his mind, through his veins. Maybe there’s something to the Truth he was learning. Maybe he can start over, find it again.
This book—what a wake-up call! It is such a gift when you read something that really sings, that is so unique and vivid that you can’t put it down but you want to savor every second. Not many books fit that bill.
This is not a traditional horror novel, but Stenson is not a traditional writer. He does his own thing and he innovates in a way that is not only new, but courageous—and he is not afraid to get dark. His writing digs in deep to your bone—you can feel the needle biting into your skin, the poison filling your veins. The characters aren’t stagnant; they live and breathe on the page.
Though the book is dark—and stays dark—there is a musicality to the language, a lulling repetition to the style that obviously has a lot of thought put into it. It is really a beautifully crafted book hiding in the skin of something deadly. It creates an atmosphere where every time you open the pages you are in Mason’s head, in his thoughts, seeing his vision of honesty and sickness—and almost believing in it.
Similar to his previous book Fiend, this book paints a raw, honest, and chilling picture of addiction and its consequences, though while Fiend focused on a group of junkies who survived the zombie apocalypse because of their drug habit, the addiction in Thirty-Seven (while still drug-fueled) is more insidious—an addiction of the mind.
Stenson has a knack for creating characters who are on the verge: they make bad decisions, they don’t appear to be good or likable people, but somehow when you are in their mind, you can see how they got to where they are and their choices make sense. I found myself sympathetic to Mason throughout the book, though I wasn’t sure if I should be.
I definitely haven’t read anything like this in the genre, or even at all. This book may be a bit unclassifiable—it slants toward the horror aesthetic, but why put it in a box? I want to put this one in everyone’s hands—start a little Survivors cult of my own, if you’d like to think of it that way.
I recommend this. Read it. Reading bears knowledge and knowledge bears power. Therefore reading bears power. You can’t go wrong, really.
Check out the publisher, Dzanc Books
Richard Fitcher is just your average, overweight nerd who enjoys a good round of D&D with his witch hunting clan. Only he thinks its all just a game.
He goes to Bridgeport to meet a reporter and her cameraman for a short spooky segment to coincide with their fall festival, and when everything starts to eerily go right, he is forced to start believing in the supernatural—and fast—because he’s going to have to use everything he knows to keep them all alive and hunt down the witch who’s been inhabiting their town.
If you dig some comedy mixed in with your horror, this is the book for you. Foster keeps the banter alive, constantly slinging witticisms about, even as the gore flies.
For me, it was a bit much, and wore thin at the edges over the course of the book—I didn’t find the characters especially realistic and the dialogue was probably the weakest point of the novel.
The narrative switches back and forth between the present, where Richard is being held in a police station and the past, where he is recounting the crazy night that led him there. Not everything is as it seems and I did appreciate that I had no idea where the story was going to go next.
I read this book in one sitting—it lends itself well to binge-reading—and although it was entertaining, it didn’t leave a huge impression on me. I think the constant humor disconnected me from the characters, so I didn’t really ever get them as people (rather than characters).
I have heard that Foster's previous release, The Wicked Ones, is a darker, more straight horror type of book, so that one is probably more up my alley than this one—sounds like Foster has a little something for everyone!
My thanks to the author for sending me a copy of this book to read and review as a part of the Night Worms Collective!
They meet and they have an instant connection. They learn from each other, respect each other, complement each other. Each is a perfect friend to the other in a world where very little has gone right and very little has given them cause to be happy.
This is a love story, but it isn't romantic love. Rather, it is a story about the deep and fierce love of friendship—about the family we find in other people and how beyond all measures of human cruelty and across time and distance, that friendship can still ignite a fire that can create change.
Savitha and Poornima meet each other when Poornima's father hires Savitha to weave and help make saris, which are in high demand. In each other they find joy and hope. On the eve of Poornima's wedding—which was extremely difficult to arrange for her father—tragedy befalls the girls and Savitha flees, leaving them both to their own fates—two pieces of one thread unraveling.
The girls each experience brutality, learning that their lives matter little to many around them. But they each keep an internal flame alive, that spark of hope and passion that their friendship ignited and Poornima leaves behind everything to find her friend.
This is not an easy book. It describes very harsh realities in detail like rape, domestic abuse, sex work, immigration issues, human trafficking, and other issues that people around the world—especially women—still face on a daily basis.
But reading about their struggles and how they react and overcome is a form of empowerment. These characters are not ones to take anything sitting down and they constantly move toward their goals.
What I love most about this book is that not only are the women the narrators, each taking a chapter in turn as the narrative progresses, what is central to the narrative is not dating, marriage, or the general search for or loss of men, but rather it is about their empowering friendship.
It seems to me that so often books about women or with women as the main characters are too often centered around men, sometimes so much so that the book ceases to be about the female character and is instead about how she is somehow not complete without some guy. Honestly, this is so boring to me and is the whole reason I avoid what is generally marketed as "women's fiction."
It is so refreshing to read a story that is so real and honest about the struggles of these women—so often they struggle silently with no one to help them except their own mental strength and perseverance. A book about women finding their way—their own way to what they want even though it is not an easy path, and where men are not the target.
Also I so enjoyed really becoming immersed in a culture that is very different from my own, and the author has a way of weaving in the details of that world in such a way that you can understand and see the surroundings even without knowing anything about living in the places in India that are described.
Thank you to Flatiron Books for sending me an advance copy of this book.
A weekend of corporate bonding in the woods goes awry when five women go out on a hike, but only four come back. What happened out in the woods? And where is Alice?
This book is the follow-up to The Dry and I read them both in quick succession. I am pleased to say that I found them to be very different books, in style, substance, and structure—which in my book, is what success is all about when it comes to thrillers with a successive character. Readers who liked The Dry should find plenty here to keep them riveted to the page.
I thought this thriller was similar in structure to Ruth Ware's In a Dark, Dark Wood, but with a much more interesting and smart storyline. As such, it follows Aaron Falk and his new partner in the present while they try to uncover leads on the missing woman who is entangled in an ongoing financial investigation.
At the end of each chapter, it also gives small snippets of what happened before five becomes four, before and as things go astray, and the interesting part begins as the reader tries to unravel fact from fiction, truth from lies, and it becomes clear that there is much more at stake here than first meets the eye.
The converging storylines are a nice way to build tension and definitely kept me reading chapter after chapter. I began to suspect one person after the next—it really could be any of them at so many different points of the story!
While The Dry told a story that was much more personal for Aaron Falk, the lead investigative character that ties the two books together, Force of Nature gives him room to breathe, not feeling the need to give him the tired, worn-out characteristics of a tired, worn-out cop.
I found him interesting, as the way he gets entangled in these cases is not at all straightforward—as a federal agent dealing with financial white collar crime, he doesn't get much practice at crime scenes anymore. Though he may be a little bland, he is capable enough, though in both books, the plot does seem to be lead along without much of his help.
Harper's writing is not very stylistic; it gets right to the bones of what is going on, and though I can't fault her for that, as I've read plenty of bad thriller writing to know that her straightforward and well-formed prose is a breath of fresh air, there's nothing wrong with a bit of style either.
If there are more Aaron Falk mysteries to come, I'm not sure if I'll continue to follow them—I am not much of a serial thriller/mystery reader myself. Though I would be interested to see what else Harper may have up her sleeve—if there is a standalone novel in the works, I'd happily devour it.
My thanks to Flatiron Books for my copies of these two novels.
Man, there just isn't anyone writing novellas anymore, is there?
Longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel, these interesting specimens seem to get short shrift (no pun intended), at least in the publishing world. Maybe people are writing them by the boatload, but they just aren't a salable format.
Well, I am here to say, the novella is not dead—at least not the way Ahlborn is writing them.
These pieces, both around 150 to 200 pages, pack a killer punch, immersing the reader fully in the world of the main characters without all the messy and entangling structural work that a novel entails. Get right down in the dirt and make some mud, I say. Story, character, chaos—let the fun begin.
And boy, does she.
THE PRETTY ONES
This is a period piece set in New York City, 1977, during the reign of the Son of Sam, a real-life notorious serial killer who went around shooting people, mostly brown-haired women—when they caught him, he said his neighbor's dog told him to do it, no joke, look it up. Anyway, in this story, before he was caught, Nell is a stuffy sort of girl, not very stylish, held back by her brother's strict beliefs about the way girls should look and act, but Nell desperately wants to fit in and make a friend. When she decides to make a change, that's when it all goes wrong.
Of the two, this was my favorite. Don't get me wrong—they are both great—but I am such a sucker for a good period piece. I loved all the little details that made this feel like it was true to NYC of the late 70s, especially for a murderino like me, who happens to know a lot about Son of Sam. A serial killer backdrop for a story is beyond perfect; you know I'm on board from the beginning.
Nell is great character, all her motivations are laid bare on the table for the reader. She holds nothing back; it's like reading her constant mind diary. I enjoyed reading her after the introduction where the author discussed her aspirations of becoming a psychologist that eventually turned into writing instead. I was reading all the characters through this profiling lens and it was interesting to get inside Nell's (and possibly the author's?) head a little bit.
I CALL UPON THEE
Maggie got out of her family's crazy house where so much seemed to go wrong, but now when tragedy strikes, she's forced to return home and confront the shadows of her past and possibly the ones in her closet.
I wasn't surprised to read in the author's note that this story had some autobiographical bits in it—or perhaps I was just self-projecting since there were pieces that so mirrored my own experience in my middle school years. Ah well, perhaps it's a story for another day.
In any case, on the surface, this story has a lot of familiar elements (I am being vague here, but I honestly don't want to ruin it for you; the author goes to a lot of trouble to set up this story and I'm not going to be the one to just kick out that careful scaffolding) but what is unsettling is how she takes the familiar and dumps it on its head, putting the reader in unfamiliar territory—the unheimlich, if you like to get Freudian.
All in all, it is a story that is more intricate than it first appears. It has multiple time periods at work, and a lot of the revelations come late in the game, all stacked up on one another. It is a cathartic kind of read, one that would do well if you have a dark and stormy night to cozy up in bed with. Just hope the lights don't go out.
I of course, can't wait to see what's next from Ahlborn. There are not that many women writing horror and doing it well like she is. I love that, it is not only amazing to read, but highly inspiring. I would especially be interested in a short story collection. I have long held the belief that a writer who is a master of short form truly understands how to write—once you have to strip away all the fluff and are only left with the bare bones and stringiest meat of the story, you see what chops a writer really has. If these novellas are any indication, I'd say she has quite a collection of stories to share. And we'd be happy to devour them, raw beating hearts and all.
There are a lot of thrillers on the market, so it takes a particularly intriguing premise to get my interest piqued in one of these trendy books these days.
Need to Know is about Vivian, a bright CIA analyst on the trail of Russian sleeper cells in the US. It is a unique blend of domestic and spy/political thriller that I personally have not encountered and that is definitely one of its strong points. Originality is key for thrillers in my book!
After a cursory Google search (call me naive, but I know nothing about sleeper cells and this book had me feeling more than a little paranoid) it seems that the initial concept is not at all far-fetched. Also, if you've seen the TV show The Americans, it probably seems like a similar setup.
But this book is set in modern-day Washington DC and the story follows Vivian's perspective as she uncovers huge information about a sleeper cell that puts everything she holds dear—including her husband and four young children—in danger.
It is hard to talk about this book without revealing the first twist (yes, I said first, as in there are more), but I don't want to ruin it for you!
The author herself is a former CIA analyst who specialized in counterterrorism, so that was definitely a plus when it came to the more technical bits and the behind-the-scenes portions of the book. But this also showed in her writing, as it felt a bit juvenile at times and could use some strengthening.
It is a very fast-paced read, one that I got through in just one night—I guarantee that once you read the first chapter, you'll be sucked into the second, and from there it is difficult to leave the story without knowing what happens next.
While this definitely is a fun book, I wouldn't consider it very deep or engaging. It leads the reader around the plot threads on a leash and doesn't offer much in the way to let the reader in to a deeper level where they could participate in solving the twists themselves. I found it to be a fairly surface-level book.
I definitely appreciate the domestic angle, but kids-in-peril plot lines never hold a lot of stock for me personally. I never felt that close to the children in the book as their characters are not well-developed, nor did I feel them to be in immense peril. The story is definitely Vivian's and that is where the bulk of the characterization goes.
This is the sort of book that is perfect when you just want to let your brain go on autopilot and let the book drive. It feels very cinematic and would make for a great movie.
Overall, I found it to be a good, but not overly engaging read.
Thank you to Ballantine Books for my copy to read and review.
I'LL BE GONE IN THE DARK: ONE WOMAN'S OBSESSIVE SEARCH FOR THE GOLDEN STATE KILLER—Michelle McNamara
For anyone interested in true crime, Michelle's name is one that is sure to strike a chord. Most people have a specific, memorable event that made them interested in true crime (if you're a murderino, you'll be quite familiar with the term "hometown") and there's always that defining moment that you can look back on and say, that was it, for me. I was bit and I never looked back.
True crime is like that. It is kind of all or nothing, not really a dabbling kind of interest. It isn't just that Michelle McNamara had a blog (True Crime Diary), any old fool can do that (myself included), it was the way she devoted everything she had to a case that shockingly continues to go unsolved.
The people who are into true crime know their stuff and usually there is one case that got away. for Michelle, this is that case.
The insidious man dubbed the Golden State Killer by McNamara is not one to go into lightly. It will eat at you, get into your heart, have you keeping the lights on, staying up at night, scouring the internet, and also, on a lighter note, getting to know Michelle, an undeterred and completely unrelenting force of vitality in filling in all the blank spaces of this case.
This isn't just his story—nor should it be. Neither is it a catalog of victims and unspeakable crimes, though McNamara's clear, detailed, and thoroughly human look into many of the attacks is exactly what true crime writers should hope to achieve in such tightrope situations. This is the story of Michelle's search—the people she met along the way, whether it be in case files, in real life, or through chat rooms. The breakthroughs, the near-misses, the pain, the loss, the advances in technology.
This story is a touching tribute to a life devoted to a catching a killer. At the same time it is devastatingly heartbreaking, because Michelle did not get the chance to complete her quest. This book was not finished; the monster has not been found.
Some places in the narrative her absence is cruelly felt and I could sense where there could have been more, there must have been more that she was saving or would have written later. But Michelle never got the chance, having passed away unexpected in her sleep in 2016 at the age of 46.
Despite the evidence left behind at crime scenes, dropped while running away, and found after the fact, despite numerous eyewitness accounts and countless descriptions from victims, the Golden State Killer (aka the Original Night Stalker and/or the East Area Rapist) had never been caught. He is a curl of smoke in the night, sensed with unease, followed in circles, but never conclusively traced—yet.
I can't recommend this book more highly, and it's lessons are twofold. You can follow leads—doggedly—wherever they wind. You can, and should, chase the threads of what you feel in your bones is important to you, especially if it is important not just to you, but to others as well, as Michelle's quest was (and remains to be). But be careful.
And it also offers the idea that our time is now—the time we can work together to actually get things done. Through the internet, through people devoted to maintaining strength and belief even when it seems that all hope is dead and there is nowhere to turn, we can lean on each other—and we should.
Even through the darkness that kept Michelle up at night, there was a mission. We can all carry her mission to expose the truth. Turn on the light and step out of the darkness, out of the fear.
Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.