The Godsend

January 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

godsendThe Godsend by Bernard Taylor

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I hate reading an author’s works out of order. Aside from the fact that I lose seeing the author develop a style through his works, it also means I take a step backward, as few writers write their best books first. In the case of The Godsend, I found a fine book, full of claustrophobic horror, slowly-mounting tension, and a narrator who may or may not be reliable, but I also found a book that isn’t quite as good as Taylor’s follow-up, Sweetheart, Sweetheart.

The Godsend is about a couple with four young children who meet and befriend a pregnant woman they meet at a lake. During a visit to their home, she goes into labor and has her baby before stealing off in the middle of the night, leaving her daughter behind. Efforts to find her go nowhere, and after a length of time, the couple adopts the baby. Shortly thereafter, things begin to go downhill.

Published in 1976, The Godsend came out during the craze that followed The Exorcist, where every author was trying his or her hand at the possessed-child horror genre. This isn’t a genre with which I have a lot of familiarity, but The Godsend stands out by not being a typical possessed-child horror novel. It plays with the tropes of the genre, using the expectations of the reader to build tension. The story winds up being quieter than one would expect, based on its cover and summary, but it’s clear that it’s intentional.

Taylor suggests there’s something not right with their adopted daughter. She’s preternaturally smart, strong, and clever, which doesn’t just raise his alarms, but also raises the reader’s. The thing is, the story is told in the first person from the father’s perspective, so it’s hard to tell if we’re seeing what actually happened, or if we’re only seeing things through his own interpretation of events. The story begins with him telling us about their adopted daughter from some point in the future, so how he recalls the events could be skewed. The question is, if he isn’t a reliable narrator, then how do we interpret the terrible things that happen in this story?

The Godsend is unsettling, in that it forces you to ask uncomfortable questions. It uses ideas and themes that aren’t new to the genre, but Taylor combines them in a unique way, and tells a wildly readable, engaging story to boot. I can see why Sweetheart, Sweetheart is considered his best work, but it would be a disservice to The Godsend to overlook it by comparison.

Started: 10-27-2017
Finished: 10-31-2017

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The Fold

January 17, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

foldThe Fold by Peter Clines

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I bought this book around when it came out. I didn’t get to it right away, and I heard a handful of folks talk about how it wasn’t very good. Disappointed (I loved 14), I set it aside to get to it whenever. Jump ahead two years, and I get a text from a friend: “How is it you haven’t read The Fold yet? Didn’t you love 14?” So here we are.

I think I understand why I heard the poor reviews from other readers: They hadn’t read 14 before. It had been long enough since I read the book that I didn’t realize the two books were connected until I did a search for Aleksander Koturovic to see if there was some historical connection, and saw he had been a key character in 14. From there, I started doing some more research, and yep, they’re connected. The Fold isn’t a sequel or even a prequel, but it’s set in the same universe as 14, and finding the connections was half the fun of the book.

The other half of the fun was the story itself. The characters are vivid and likable, the plot is engaging, and the style is easy. It flows like a river across a flat stone, which was refreshing, considering that my last two non-Star Wars reads have felt dull and lifeless. I saw that I wrote about feeling giddy while reading 14, and I had that same feeling here. It reminds me that I haven’t read the Ex-Heroes series yet, even though all five books are waiting for me at home.

14 was one of those books where I told people to read it, without knowing anything about it. The Fold is another of those books, but now that I’ve told you it’s related to 14, I suppose that’s a spoiler of its own. If you haven’t read 14, go do that, and then come back to The Fold. If you have, then I have to ask you what my friend asked me: “How is it you haven’t read The Fold yet?”

Started: October 24, 2017
Finished: October 27, 2017

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The Murders of Molly Southbourne

January 16, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

murdersThe Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

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Molly Southbourne was taught four simple rules from a very young age:

If you see a girl who looks like you, run and fight.
Don’t bleed.
If you bleed, blot, burn, and bleach.
If you find a hole, find your parents.

The reason is also simple: Whenever she bleeds, she creates a perfect, murderous duplicate of herself.

It’s tempting to go deeper into that premise, but to do so takes away the joy of discovering this odd, compelling story. Thompson thought it through, from beginning to end, and tells us exactly what it would be like to grow up with this sort of affliction. By all rights, the story should read like a clinical report on her condition, but Thompson frames everything through the eyes of Molly herself, and makes it come alive. It’s not that we learn about her affliction; it’s that we learn about Molly.

The only tripping point in the story is near the end, when Thompson attempts to explain Molly’s affliction. He also attempts to make the story into something larger, using a framing device around Molly’s story, which only gets in the way. I understand this is the first book in a series, which is disappointing, since it’s hard to see what else Thompson would have to say about Molly. This novella feels self-contained, with questions left to be answered, without them having to be answered. That’s not to say I won’t read the next book in the series, but by itself, this story is fantastic.

A word of advice: Start this book when you have the time to finish it. It will suck you in like a Dyson, and nothing short of your house catching fire will take you away from it. Before this novella, I had never heard of Tade Thompson; afterward, I was adding his other books to my must-read list. It’s an incredible read.

Started: October 24, 2017
Finished: October 24, 2017

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The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion

January 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

lambThe Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy

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I think it’s fantastic that Tor.com Publishing has put a focus on underrepresented groups as writers and as characters in their publications. It brings to focus people who have been kept in the background, who have been forced to keep secrets, and the more we read the books with those characters, by those writers, the more we grow to accept them. The sooner this can happen, the better.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion features a variety of characters, including trans characters and gay characters, and uses them to tell a story about a vindictive spirit that preys on the hunters. The story is set in a commune called Freedom, Iowa, where a group of anarchists have created an idyllic place where all of those who have been cast aside by society can live. Our narrator enters the town in search of answers regarding a friend who had lived there before going off to commit suicide, and what she finds, along with an open market where people can take the food they need, open gardens where everyone contributes, and the freedom to make choices outside of societal expectations, is a blood-red, three-horned deer that kills and eats the hearts of predators. Unfortunately, that includes humans.

This is a novella with something to say, and Killjoy doesn’t shy away from saying it, loudly and clearly. It reads more like a treatise on anarchy than it does a fairy tale, and Killjoy highlights the pitfalls of such a society as much as the benefits. It’s a story that bleeds its meaning through the plot, and while I’ve enjoyed that kind of story in the past (Laurie Penny’s contribution to this line of novellas was particularly good), here I found myself less interested. Part of me feels too old to get behind the idea of a commune. They appealed more when I was younger, but now I see the reality of them, where one person with a desire for power can easily corrupt the system and destroy it for everyone else.

The story moves quickly. It feels like Killjoy is more focused on her treatise than the story, so characterization isn’t as strong as it could be. They waver between good and bad, which could be another point of the story, but it’s hard to get invested in the story since they don’t feel realized. Killjoy is a good writer, and creates a good story, but it doesn’t sing like it could with better characters. Had it been a longer work, with more time to develop the characters, maybe it could have been more impactful.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion isn’t a bad book, but I’m afraid people will finish it wanting more, but not in an “I can’t wait for the sequel!” kind of way. It doesn’t feel unfinished, but neither does it feel incomplete. It just feels rushed, which is a shame, since the message and the plot feel substantial. I understand this is the first in a series, so maybe that will come. As it is, though, I’m not convinced I’ll be reading the next installment.

Started: October 23, 2017
Finished: October 24, 2017

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Mapping the Interior

January 12, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

mappingMapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

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I keep hearing a lot of good about Stephen Graham Jones. He’s considered to be one of the “new horror” authors creating a buzz, and since I’ve touched on John Langan, David Nickel, and Laird Barron, I figured it was time to touch on Jones, too. He’s written a bunch of stuff, though, so I started with Mapping the Interior, since it’s newer, and since it’s short.

The story is about a young Native American boy who sees his dead father walking through his house one night. From there, he begins an investigation, one which doesn’t just answer his questions about his father, who died when he was four, but also raises new questions about himself. The story has a focus on Native American culture, but shies away from using that as the source of the horror. This is refreshing, since older horror uses Native Americans as tropes instead of characters, and it certainly helps that Jones is himself Native American.

Jones’ imagery is fascinating. He creates a sense of disquiet through the events. The narrator’s father becomes more and more substantial as the story progresses, and the ways he interacts with the physical world make him more unnatural than if he were just a ghost. Jones avoids the tropes of the genre, and writes in a style that leaves the reader feeling a little out of sorts. He works hard to make the story effective, and it pays off.

Part ghost story, part coming-of-age story, and part surreal look at the world around us, Mapping the Interior is a cerebral horror novella that keeps you reading. It’s engaging and thoughtful, eerie and unsettling, and doesn’t rely on easy answers or conclusions. I feel like I’ve only just touched on what the novella has to say, and I can see myself revisiting it in a few years’ time to see what else I can discover in the story.

Started: October 21, 2017
Finished: October 23, 2017

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The Walking Dead, Volume 28: A Certain Doom

January 3, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

doomThe Walking Dead, Volume 28: A Certain Doom by Robert Kirkman, et al.

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Something big happens in A Certain Doom. I won’t spoil it for you, since that “something big” seems to be the point of the entire arc. Other things happen outside of that “something big”, but they seem inconsequential compared to it, not just in importance but also in a narrative sense. There’s a sub-plot regarding infighting, but it’s handled quickly, as if Kirkman were ready to get to the “something big”. There was a lot I liked about this volume (including, believe it or not, Negan), but I wish the events had received as much attention as their “something big”.

While reading this volume, I realized how well this comic works in black-and-white. Aside from giving the mood of the story a darker edge, it also helps make the blood and gore more effective. Were this presented in full color, with bright red blood and mottled grey corpses, it would come across as garish and exploitative; in black-and-white, it’s muted, making us focus more on how it affects the characters than the gore itself.

It’s hard to talk about this arc without giving away the “something big”, but it satisfies. The most significant thing to happen in this book, narratively speaking, is the character growth, though it occurs more in the secondary characters than where you would expect it to happen. As always, Kirkman ends the story in such a way that I want to keep reading, and since the series is already up to 172 issues, I figure it will keep me reading for a long time.

Started: October 10, 2017
Finished: October 10, 2017

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Bird Box

January 2, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

boxBird Box by Josh Malerman

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So many books, so many different ways to hear about them. I have so many now that I can’t remember how Bird Box came to my attention. A friend of mine recently asked how it was I hadn’t actually read this one yet, so I bumped it up my list, and I’m glad I did. This is an outstanding book in a lot of ways.

The premise is a good one: Something has happened in the world, and it drives people to kill other people and then themselves. It’s somehow tied to something people see, so in response to the threat, people learn to live inside, with their doors closed and their windows covered. When they do have to venture outside, they do so with their eyes closed, or blindfolded. The story opens on Malorie, a mother of two four-year-olds who finds herself having to go outside to save herself and her children.

Malerman sets the tone of this story immediately, in the first chapter. Aside from capturing the mood and the atmosphere of this kind of story, he also puts the reader immediately off balance by making his readers pay attention to understand the setting and the characters. He doesn’t explain it all immediately; instead, he introduces to Malorie and then tells us her story through (mostly) alternating chapters between the present and past. He tells us this story in a style that uses short, sharp sentences, in the present tense. It creates a feeling of immediacy, and keeps the story moving at a breakneck pace.

Bird Box has shadows of The Road, in that they’re both about parents trying to protect their children in a bleak, desolate world. They’re hardly similar, though, since Malorie’s approach to parenthood is so different from the father in The Road. She uses fear and pain to reinforce the lessons she has to teach her children, making her either the worst or best mother in the world. Her methods are harrowing, but so is the world they live in, and she does it all in an effort to protect the children. We may not agree with what she does to raise them, but we at least understand why she does it.

Like most post-apocalyptic horror, Bird Box focuses on who the real monsters are in situations like these: the survivors. It’s a common theme, and while it works, it’s somewhat tired. I don’t fault the author (we are, after all, the worst monsters because we choose to be horrible to each other instead of it just being our nature), but I would like to see a story in this genre take a different approach. How Malerman approaches the human monster in his story works well, even if the way he sets it up is a bit clunky.

The ending is also a bit clunky, partly because Malerman attempts to inject some hope into his story at the end. It doesn’t come easy for Malorie, but it feels like everything is wrapped up too neatly for this kind of story. I can appreciate it for being the breath we take at the end of a long swim upstream, but it’s at odds with the tone of the rest of the story. I would have preferred more ambiguity, a hint at the hope to come instead of the full-on happy (-ish) ending we get here. If it had ended before Malorie had all of her questions answered, it would have been a more effective ending.

Those issues aside, though, this is a novel that works remarkably well. It conveys a mood like few other books I’ve read, and it maintains a taut tension from beginning to end. Fans of horror in general should like it, but I would also recommend it to readers who enjoyed The Road. They’re different in lots of ways, but their similarities can’t be denied.

Started: September 29, 2017
Finished: October 10, 2017

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The Neighbors

January 1, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

neighborsThe Neighbors by Ania Ahlborn

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Ah, Ahlborn. I discovered her earlier this year through The Pretty Ones, and then went back and read Seed so I could see how her writing progressed. Both were extraordinary stories; they weren’t necessarily original, but they were engaging, effective, and well written. A new author entered my reading world, so of course I got her next book.

That book was The Neighbors, and it’s a huge disappointment. It starts out well enough, reading like it’s a new take on a “something isn’t right in the village” story when a desperate young man moves into his friend’s house in an affluent neighborhood, but it falls apart quickly. For one thing, Ahlborn uses multiple points of view for the story, when those kinds of story work best from the viewpoint of one person as they’re trying to make sense of things. Instead, we know early on what’s happening, and have to watch the main character make dumb decisions that put him further and further into trouble.

To be fair, the main character isn’t the only one making dumb decisions; all of the principle characters do. Red and Harlow, the neighbors, don’t make a lick of sense in any way, from their motivations down to how they could afford the lifestyle they live. Mick, their official neighbor, was defined enough to be a pothead, so that explained some choices, but Andrew (or Andy, or Drew, depending on … well, I’m not sure; his name changed a lot throughout the story) makes the dumbest choices of all by going as far as he does with the neighbors. It strained disbelief, enough so that I kept looking for some supernatural connection to explain it all, but no, this is a straight-up, could-happen-in-real-life horror story that doesn’t make much sense.

It doesn’t help that Ahlborn uses flashbacks liberally, and doesn’t segue from the present to the past and back again very well. I didn’t get lost going from one to the other, but the jumps were always abrupt. Seed used flashbacks, too, but they weren’t as jarring. Plus, during those flashbacks, Ahlborn tells us a lot about how Red and Harlow feel, but she doesn’t show us that emotion. I didn’t notice more telling that showing in the present-day part of the story, but the flashbacks definitely had that problem.

Seed was self-published, but didn’t read like one; The Neighbors was published traditionally, but reads like it was self-published. I know Ahlborn can write some great stories, but this book isn’t one of them.  Other reviews suggest this novel is the anomaly of her oeuvre, that her later books are as effective as the rest of her work I’ve read, so I won’t give up on her, but it was a struggle finishing this book. I wouldn’t recommend The Neighbors at all.

Started: September 23, 2017
Finished: September 28, 2017

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The Troop

December 22, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

troopThe Troop by Nick Cutter

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A year or so ago, I stumbled across a list of obscure horror novels I “Probably Hadn’t Read”. I was pleased to see that I had read most of them, but was also pleased to add a few other books to my list, including this one, written by the author of that list. (To be clear: He didn’t add his own book to the list. The overlap was enough for me to check out his own stuff.) I had high hopes going into it.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed. It started off feeling juvenile and amateurish, both in its style and tone, as well as its content. The sentences are short and choppy, and it makes the story feel insubstantial. It winds up being all action, all plot, and while I can’t say it’s without theme, it does feel pointless.

The book is graphic enough to teeter on the border of splatterpunk, which doesn’t help matters. The central horror of the novel is body horror, and Cutter has an almost gleeful tone in how he portrays that horror. It’s effective in its own way, but it feels like it goes too far. It’s one thing to make the reader uncomfortable; it’s another to make things as gross, graphic, and cruel as possible. It makes it feel like a sadistic fifth grader wrote the book, wielding his own fears without subtlety or grace.

With that simile, I should point out that Cutter sure does love using them. They’re everywhere. At one point, I counted three on one page alone. He uses so many of them that he starts reaching for them, such as “… sweat squeezed from the skin of his brow … like salty BBs”, or “… withered like to halves of a cored-out squash forgotten for days on a countertop”, or “They washed [them] … carefully, the way you’d wash oil off a baby mallard.” They’re odd, jarring, and ever-present, so if you don’t like them, you’re out of luck, like a scoutmaster infected with a parasite.

It doesn’t help that Cutter populates the story with a bunch of kids, few of whom are sympathetic. Plus, they’re all stereotypes: the bullying jock; the fat nerd; the sociopath; the cool kid; and the angry one. It’s almost like The Breakfast Club meets The Thing, only without the subtlety or atmosphere of either.

This book is terrible. Its one saving grace is near the end, when Cutter finally makes two of the characters likable enough to care what happens to them. The writing style, the structure, the characters, and the plot, though? Those should have been tossed. I don’t even see the point of it.

Started: September 15, 2017
Finished: September 19, 2017

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Death Troopers

December 19, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

troopersDeath Troopers by Joe Schreiber

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I’ve given Schreiber a hard time in the past. It’s not that I don’t think he’s deserving of it (don’t forget that in Chasing the Dead, he had his protagonist attacked by giant lobsters in her car), but while reading Death Troopers I realized that he’s a pretty good writer. He doesn’t fall into the trap that some authors use, where they tell us what a character is feeling; instead he describes what they’re feeling, and pretty accurately. He’s a good storyteller, too, which is pretty necessary when you write a zombie novel set in the Star Wars universe. This was apparently a big issue for the hardcore Star Wars fans, but I thought it was a fun read.

Schreiber populates his novel with the right kinds of characters for a zombie story — those who doubt and those who accept, those who take advantage of the situation, and those who turn out to be heroes, and those who sacrifice themselves for the rest of the group — but the progression from doubting to accepting is pretty fast. Also, near the end of the novel, one of the antagonists has a change of heart, which was unexpected, which would have been fine, except it remains unexplained. Why have a character turn around and save characters he was forcing out of escape pods 150 pages earlier? I don’t mean that rhetorically, either: Why? That explanation was completely missing from the story.

Speaking of sections of the story that make you ask “Why?”, there’s the fact that Han Solo and Chewbacca show up halfway through the story. It feels too much like fan service over storytelling, especially when this is supposed to have happened close to the events that put the two characters on Tatooine in Star Wars. They don’t even have the Millennium Falcon with them at the time of the story, since the book takes place in a prison ship.

Still, I had a fun time reading the book, but I didn’t expect it to be a groundbreaking novel, either. Fans of horror should love it (two of the tertiary characters are named Phibes and Quatermass, so there’s a lot there for the fans to discover), though they may want to start with Red Harvest. That book follows Death Troopers in publication order, but it also lays the groundwork for what creates the zombies. They make a decent duology, but I can see why people looking for traditional Star Wars stories don’t like them.

Started: September 15, 2017
Finished: September 16, 2017

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