At just over 130 pages in print form which is about 4 and a half hours in audio, Yellow Jessamine is a lightweight novella—which probably isn’t always the best format to judge a writer, I am aware. Still, I think it’s pretty safe to say Caitlin Starling’s style isn’t for me; I wasn’t too crazy for her debut novel The Luminous Dead either but was hoping that this one would strike a better chord with me, but in some ways it was even more confusing and frustrating.
Evelyn Perdanu is the protagonist of this tale. As heir to her family’s lucrative shipping business, she’s rich, she’s powerful, and she knows how to manage her people. But when one of her ships arrive to the port of Delphinium, carrying a strange illness, her nerves are rattled and she begins to suspect there may be more to the story. She’s all that’s left of her family now, her city is dying, and now it appears she may be the target of something sinister.
Then there’s the way the new disease spreads, striking its victims with a feverish craze before making them fall catatonic. Even as Evelyn is trying to convince the authorities that the outbreak is not her company’s fault, more and more are falling ill. To a one, they turn their fierce fixation on her, driving her into hiding. Frightened and cornered, Evelyn is left with no choice but to dig into her own past, trying to find the connections between her family’s checkered history and the chaos unfolding in the city.
Looking back, for a story that kicked off with such fascination and intensity, it amazed me how quickly everything shifted in the opposite direction. First off, the novella format is simply too limiting for what the author was trying to accomplish, holding down what could have been truly amazing. Listening to the audiobook, I thoroughly enjoyed the setup of the first hour or so, but soon after that, the plot went downhill as Starling tried to do too much too quickly. It feels bad saying this too, because it’s clear she had a bigger vision for Yellow Jessamine, aptly titled for the beautiful but highly poisonous flower, considering the story’s themes.
But while the book’s second half may have been packed to the gills with rich detail, I struggled to make heads or tails out of most of it. The few threads I was able to follow also weakened over time due to the deluge of newly introduced information that ultimately amounted to filler. Evelyn’s character ended up being such a mess, giving me flashbacks to Gyre in The Luminous Dead, another one of Starling’s characters whose personality seemed to be all over the map. The worst part was that Evelyn’s relationship with her maid Violetta also suffered, and what originally had the potential to mature into an emotionally deep romance instead fell flat and came across like a perfunctory nod towards diversity and representation.
By the time Yellow Jessamine was over, it had nearly lost me completely, and the final disappointment was the lack of horror elements, unless you counted weird as horror. This might also have something to do with that the fact the book was too short and strange to develop any real sense of atmosphere. The world-building was sparse, and while Delphinium as a setting would make a solid foundation for future stories, there was insufficient description in this tale to make any of the city’s history or politics convincing.
That said, you could arguably view this novella as a character study and an introspective exploration of emotion, and perhaps find value in it from that perspective. In that case, Evelyn would have been a compelling subject, though as I said, I found too much about her personality contradictory. If the story had meant to focus on the internal conflict roiling within Evelyn, to the author’s credit I think she managed to achieve this goal by the end, even if the execution could have been better.
Had the book been longer, allowing for more improvement in these areas, I might have had a better time. Ironically though, in my review of The Luminous Dead, one of my criticisms was that it dragged on for too long and might have packed a bit more punch had the story been pared down and streamlined, so maybe Starling still needs to work on ironing out pacing issues. In sum, Yellow Jessamine had promise, but a strong start gave way to a convoluted end with lackluster plot, world, and character development.
Audiobook Comments: Heather Wilds did a great job narrating, and I enjoyed listening to her voice, which had this strong, dignified, and mesmerizing quality. The book itself was simply not my cup of tea, but it was through no fault of the narrator, whose performance was lovely....more
Okay, I don’t often find YA horror to be all that scary, but Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis was definitely a bit spooky! In it, we follow Lola Nox, daughter of Nolan Nox, a celebrated horror film director who first made his name with the prohibition-era gothic piece Nightjar, which has since become a cult classic. It certainly also helped put the small mining town of Harrow Lake on the map, which was where most of the filming took place, not to mention it was the hometown of the movie’s lead actress, Lorelei.
Captivated by the young star, Nolan eventually married Lorelei and moved to New York. Lola was born, but not too many years after that, Lorelei walked out on the family, leaving her daughter to be raised by an egocentric and often emotionally unavailable father. At least, that’s what all the entertainment rags say anyway, and as Lola hasn’t seen or heard from her mother in years, there’s no reason to doubt Nolan, who may be overprotective and disparaging at times, but he’s also the only family she has left. And so, after coming home one day to discover him bleeding out from multiple stab wounds, Lola is shaken at the murder attempt on her father and terrified to consider what might happen to her if he died. Next comes the shock that she will be sent to live in Harrow Lake while Nolan is in recovery, with a maternal grandmother that she’s never met.
Upon her arrival, Lola is disturbed to find a town perpetually stuck in the 1920s style of Nightjar, the movie being its only claim to fame other than the historic landslide that purportedly killed almost half its residents. As a result, Harrow Lake is a haunted place where a local myth has sprung up around a monster known as Mr. Jitters who lives underground and emerges periodically to abduct victims to drag back to its lair. To appease him, children do weird things like hang their teeth in trees with strings, which is both super gross and a little creepy. Lola’s grandmother turns out to be a strange old lady as well, who’s always mistaking her for her own daughter Lorelei and insists that Lola dresses up as Little Bird, the main character from Nightjar. With no cell phone coverage or internet at the house, Lola is forced to find other ways to entertain herself, like exploring the abandoned amusement park or the depressing town museum that mostly features exhibits to do with Nightjar.
In her wanderings and interactions with the townsfolk though, Lola begins hearing unpleasant rumors and stories about her mother, including the one about her possible connections to Mr. Jitters. Something made Lorelei want to leave Harrow Lake all those years ago, which may also explain her current disappearance, and Lola is determined to find out what—even if it means unearthing some terrible, spine-chilling secrets.
It might not be too surprising to hear that, more so than Lola or any other character in this book, it was the town of Harrow Lake that stole the show. While it is not a happy place, it has its appeals—especially if you have a penchant for dark and macabre horror settings. Reading about the town is like stepping into a dream or like being stuck on a page in a storybook where time never truly moves forward. There’s a kind of sad beauty to it; like an insect trapped in amber, it is unable to escape its purgatorial state yet also prevented from putting itself out of its misery by completely fading away, thanks to the many fans of Nightjar who delight in seeing the town as a kind of living tribute to the film. Whatever is left of Harrow Lake survives on the meager tourism the movie brings in, so the locals are forced to play it up for all it’s worth.
The supernatural aspect is also nicely worked into the story, invoking an atmosphere and tone that’s very reminiscent of an 80s creature feature like Pumpkinhead or A Nightmare on Elm Street. Visitors may come and go, but the people of Harrow Lake are stuck with more problems than their own resident monster in Mr. Jitters. Poverty and a bitter resentment towards outsiders, especially ones such as our protagonist from glitzy New York, also result in an aura of uneasiness following Lola wherever she goes, not to mention her own mental hang-ups and anxieties regarding her parents. Consequently, we have a slow-simmering kind of horror that is subtle but no less effective, as the author’s strategy relies mainly on arousing ideas to create frightening scenarios, encouraging the reader’s imagination to do most of the work. That said, there are a few scenes where Ellis is certainly not shy about doling out all the disgusting details, and as someone who simply can’t deal with teeth, eyes, or nails used in horror movies, there were a couple incidents that downright repulsed me.
All in all, I don’t think Harrow Lake would be enough for readers looking for a more “in your face” horror novel, but if you’re more for the creeping dread of a campfire ghost story or disturbing urban legends, then it just might be for you. The ending was also satisfying in its own way, and the audiobook did a fantastic job with putting you right in the scene with its clever use of sound effects and outstanding voicework. Great performance by all the narrators....more
Left for Dead by Caroline Mitchell is the third book of a police procedural style mystery series featuring protagonist DI Amy Winter. While it is not my usual habit to jump into a book mid-series, I thought I would make an exception for this one because the publisher description simply sounded too good to resist. As it turned out though, I might have made the wrong call with that one (but more on that in a bit).
As the story opens, a heinous murder has just taken place, and the next day, Amy and her sister are out shopping when they discover the victim in the most shocking and macabre manner. Through a store window of a gorgeous Valentine’s Day display, Amy notices that the mannequin in a luxurious diamond-encrusted wedding dress is leaking blood out of its mouth. Turns out, the mannequin is actually a corpse of a young woman, who had been alive when she was trussed up in her layers of skirts and lace, then left to die where she sat on her elaborate display.
Pretty soon, more women are reported missing as the killer becomes emboldened by the thrill of the spectacle, choosing his targets using an escort service to satisfy his urges. But he’s also clever and knows how to cover his tracks. Not to mention, he has a special interest in DI Amy Winter, who is heading up investigation. In her, he sees the possibility of a kindred spirit, since it is known that Amy comes from a family of serial killers. In fact, the whole country has been watching the much publicized trial against her mother, Lillian Grimes, who is facing a life sentence for her murderous crimes. It is also the perfect opportunity to throw off the police, knowing that their lead detective will most likely be distracted by the media circus surrounding the court coverage.
To its credit, Left for Dead did work pretty well as a standalone. However, if I had to do it all over again, I probably wouldn’t have started with this one. Although the story managed to do a good job catching new readers up with the backstory of DI Amy Winter, so much of the plot was tied up in her mother and her court trial that, not being familiar with all the details that were covered in the previous books, it was hard for me to feel emotionally invested in what was a big chunk of the novel. That’s definitely on me and not the book, though, so readers who have followed this series from the beginning will likely not have the same problems.
That said, there were other issues that affected my enjoyment. While I’m aware Left for Dead is less of a suspense-thriller and more of a crime mystery involving the police and the culprit playing cat and mouse, it was still a little disappointing to find out who the killer was right off the bat. It’s one thing to give readers an intimate look at the inside of a psychopath’s mind, and I can certainly appreciate it if that was the author’s intent, but the overall character development was pretty light. Sam, a high-power advertising exec was something of a paint-by-numbers villain, and it didn’t feel like much time was put into building his persona.
Without that many twists and surprises, the book mainly relied on the Lillian Grimes plot thread to generate interest, and like I said, those of us who didn’t start reading the series from the beginning will be at a disadvantage. Not that I minded following the courtroom parts too much, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find them to be a distraction from the murder case plot arc. And with the attention divided, the result was that the investigation storyline felt a tad rushed and overly simplistic.
Ultimately, Left for Dead isn’t a bad read at all, but having read a lot more of this genre in recent years, admittedly the book falls on the more generic and easily forgettable side of things with a fairly predictable plotline and run-of-the-mill characters. Also, while you can still jump in mid-series and enjoy this as a standalone because it features a self-contained case, there’s simply too much of the story that refers to the character’s backstory in the previous books that prevented me from becoming fully invested. It’d be great if future books give Amy the closure she seeks and Lillian the punishment she deserves, but I doubt I’ll continue with the series, at least without going back to the previous books to fill in the gaps first.
Audiobook Comments: Great narration by Elizabeth Knowelden, who also narrated a great book I listened to recently (the excellent What Lies Between Us by John Marrs) so I knew the quality of performance to expect. The only change that might have made this one better was a second narrator, namely a male reader for the killer’s perspective which would have made the character’s sections feel a lot more convincing and immersive....more
I’ve read several of Josh Malerman’s books before (with mixed results), but never Bird Box, the predecessor to Malorie. However, following the recommendation of several bloggers who assured me I should be fine jumping into this sequel without having the first book under my belt, I decided to go for it (though I did watch the Netflix movie).
And yes, for all intents and purposes, Malorie can be read as a standalone. That said, there are some key points about the setting readers need to know first, but the book catches you up with all that rather quickly. Around seventeen years ago, the world was invaded by creatures that suddenly appeared, and the mere sight of one is enough to drive a person to suicidal and/or homicidal madness. Cue death, the apocalypse and all that jazz. The use of blindfolds was swiftly adopted in order to prevent a person from losing their mind, and although it was a strategy that worked, it meant having to bring the whole world to a standstill and plunging people’s lives into darkness.
In the first book, our titular character Malorie spent the early years of this chaos trying to find a safe haven for herself and her two children, before winding up at a place she thought they could finally call home. Obviously, that didn’t last. When this book opens, our protagonist and her now teenage children Tom and Olympia are on their own again. A terrible incident at their last place of refuge has broken all the trust she has in the human race. The only person she can rely on is herself, and to that end, she has forbidden Tom and Olympia to ever have contact with outsiders and has instructed them to never ever take their blindfolds off.
But teens will be teens, especially Tom, who has a rebellious streak. He has never known a world without creatures, doesn’t really understand Malorie’s fear, and resents the isolation and strict rules she has imposed. Then one day, a man claiming to be a census taker visits them at their lonely abode, leaving behind a report which turns Malorie’s world upside down. Weighing the significance of the news she has just received, she decides it is worth the risk to venture out once more with the children, blindfolded, and make the journey to discover if the information is true. And for Tom, their new mission is also a secret hope at an opportunity—a chance to break free of Malorie’s hold and see the world for himself.
By far, Malorie is the best book I’ve read by Malerman, probably because it is so straightforward. He has an incredible imagination and seems to like experimenting with different styles, so admittedly, a couple of his books have been too strange for my tastes. Yet this one I enjoyed it a lot because the story was quick and entertaining, plain and simple. Malorie, Tom, and Olympia go on a quest, and we find out in the end whether they get to fulfill what they’d hoped to achieve, and while following them, we get to see them learn a few lessons about themselves and each other.
One thing that struck me though, was the prescient nature of this book. Reading Malorie in the midst of this pandemic has made me see some of its themes in a whole different light. It’s hard not to draw parallels between the unfathomable creatures and an invisible, little-understood virus. Blindfolds can easily be seen as an analogy to masks. And like all polarizing issues, there are extreme views on each side. “Live by the fold” Malorie represents irrational fear, paranoia, and over-protectiveness, even if they do come from a place of good intentions. Tom has a more positive, realistic, and proactive outlook on the situation, but he is also reckless, inexperienced, and lacking knowledge in his youth. That said, I don’t think there’s intent of any strong message here, other than the fact the right way forward in dealing with a world full of creatures probably lies somewhere between the two characters’ views (and, of course, the inescapable truth that the parent-child bond is forever and always going to be frustrating and complicated).
Probably my one complaint would be the pacing. I loved how quickly the plot moved, but I wish more time had been spent on the ending. When the climax hit, I looked skeptically at how close I was to the end and thought to myself, “No way this is going to wrap up satisfactorily with so few pages left in the book.” And I was right. Don’t get me wrong, I thought what actually happened did a good job providing closure, but there’s no doubt those events could have been a lot more emotional, rewarding and meaningful had the ending not felt like it was tied up with a perfunctory bow, and then let’s kick it out the door and be done with it.
But overall, while Josh Malerman’s books have been mixed bag for me in the past, I enjoyed Malorie unequivocally. He’s definitely an author I will continue to read no matter what, because you just never know what unique and imaginative stories he will have to tell. ...more
I love a good haunted house book, and it’s been a while since I read one. That said, I might have hyped myself up a bit too much for Home Before Dark, because I did not find it as scary as others have said it to be. Still, it did its job and scratched a long-neglected itch.
Told via dual timelines, this novel is the story of the Holt family. Twenty-five years ago, Ewan and his wife Jess and their young daughter Maggie moved into Baneberry Hall, an old mansion nestled in the Vermont woods. A struggling writer, Ewan had always dreamed of living in a place like this, though money was always an issue. Baneberry Hall, however, was surprisingly affordable—and of course, there’s a good reason for that. The house has a dark past, filled with memories of grief, pain and death. Yet for Ewan, who possesses a fascination for the extraordinary, the estate’s macabre history simply made it that much more appealing.
But in the end, the Holts barely even made it three weeks in their new home before they fled terrified into the night, vowing never to step foot in the house again. Not long after that, a local reporter catches wind of the bizarre police report filed about the incident, sparking national interest in the Holts’ story, leading Ewan to write a tell-all account of what really happened at Baneberry Hall. The resulting book, called House of Horrors, became an instant hit, placing the family in the world’s spotlight.
For Maggie, who was only a little girl when it all happened, there was never a time she could remember not having that damn book define her life. Growing up, it felt like she was either shunned for being a freak or smothered with attention from morbid fans who are hungry for more details. Joke’s on them, though—for Maggie has no recollection of her time at Baneberry Hall. In fact, she thinks her dad made it all up. Why else would he refuse to ever talk about his book with her? And now, having lost his long battle with illness, he will never get the chance. At yet, Maggie’s not about to give up her search for answers, and following the shock and confusion of finding the deed to Baneberry Hall still under her late father’s name, she decides that the only way forward is to return to the place where it all started.
As you’ve probably guessed by this point, one of the timelines—the present one—is told through the now adult Maggie’s eyes, while the other is the book House of Horrors itself, written by Ewan Holt. These two threads are intertwined though alternating chapters, which on its own is already a brilliant concept, but what’s even more impressive is how well it was handled. Although twenty-five years separate the narratives, the transitions between them were executed in a way that allowed them to build upon each other. Needless to say, for the story to flow seamlessly and coherently, the timing had to be dead on, and kudos to the author for nailing it.
That said though, while I think the writing is superb, it did feel like there was something missing. Sager clearly knows horror, as he’s certainly got all his haunted house tropes down, drawing obvious inspiration from The Haunting of Hill House, The Amityville Horror, The Shining, and other genre classics. Still, it’s possible that this overreliance on the familiar drew his attention away from other areas, like atmosphere building. The story’s pacing could have something to do with this; simply put, I loved that we moved through the plot at breakneck speed, but sometimes we moved so fast that there wasn’t even enough time for any atmosphere to build. Plus, there’s only so many times you can reuse the same old tricks before they lose their effect—things like unexplainable bumps in the night, shadows at the corner of your eye, etc. (Although if you have a fear of snakes, be prepared for a pretty rough time overall.)
Of course, your mileage may vary, seeing as I don’t scare easily. But what’s not in doubt is how much fun I had in spite of that. While Home Before Dark might be the first book I’ve ever read by Riley Sager, I promise it won’t be the last. Several of his previous novels were already on my to-read list, and after this I’ll certainly be making it my priority to get to them, and you can also bet I won’t wait to check out whatever he does next.
Audiobook Comments: The Home Before Dark audiobook was narrated by Cady McClain and Jon Lindstrom, who both performed their respective parts really well. I did feel like there were some missed opportunities though, such as sound effects or singing (I guarantee you will never look at The Sound of Music the same way again), which might have helped the audiobook feel even more immersive....more
Max Brooks, the creative mind behind World War Z, returns to horror with another epistolary-style novel, this time taking us deep into the forests of the pacific northwest where an unfortunate group of neighbors have a deadly encounter with Bigfoot. The story is presented to us in the form of a series of documents collected by a journalist writing a book on the incident, but most of it is made up of entries from the diary of Kate Holland, the closest thing we have to a main character. She and her husband Dan have just moved into the secluded community of Greenloop near the base of Mount Rainier in Washington, a small little piece of paradise developed by tech tycoon Tony Durant who also lives there with his family. The other residents are also as you would expect—wealthy loners or progressive intellectuals who want to live off-the-grid and be “one with nature,” but also can’t do without their modern comforts and high-tech gadgets.
Sure, it’s an isolated life, but there’s no denying it’s peaceful, comfortable, and above all, idyllic. It’s the perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of the outside world, and for a while, Kate truly believed she and Dan could be happy here. But of course, that was before the catastrophic eruption of Mount Rainier, causing chaos in the entire region and cutting off all access and lines of communication to Greenloop. With no way to get the word out or any supplies in, the residents hunker down for what they expect to be a long time before any rescue comes. With a new vegetable garden planted and a rationing system in place, they might just make it…until they realize that all along, they have been sharing these forests with another predator. These creatures have also been displaced by the volcanic eruption, and they too have been driven to desperate measures to survive.
So, first let’s talk about the positives. Much like World War Z, Devolution is a fictionalized oral-history-or-firsthand-account-type piece of investigative work that seeks to piece together a momentous event in the past. Possibly, Brooks was hoping to catch lightning in a bottle twice by attempting a similar style and format for this novel, which is good news if that’s what you had in mind. Personally, I loved it—the novelty clearly hasn’t worn off for me yet, but then again, I’ve always been a sucker for epistolary novels despite some of their limitations, which I’ll talk about in a bit.
Because now, for the not-so-great, which is really a compounding of a bunch of minor gripes that made Devolution less than convincing. Yeah, yeah, I know, writing a believable Bigfoot story would be a tall order (har har) even under the best of circumstances, but there was simply too much here that felt…off. First of all, to create the perfect storm of conditions which would allow this book to make sense, we had to put together an extreme situation where a group of people would be completely cut-off, isolated, and pathetically helpless in the woods should a major disaster strike—and so we have Greenloop, populated by residents that read like they’re torn right out of a straight-to-the-Syfy-channel B-list movie.
Needless to say, it’s difficult to find too many of these characters likeable. Even with Mostar in the picture, I also find it hard to believe that a bunch of bleeding hearts could suddenly make an incredible transformation into Rambo overnight. There’s actually a line in the book where an observer notes the similarities between the Greenloop residents’ defenses and the guerilla warfare tactics used during the Vietnam War, and marvels at the way such ideas can span space and time. Nah, the reality is, one of Kate’s friends probably just saw it in a movie somewhere. It’s this attempt to make everything seem more profound than it is which kind of grated on me, though to its credit, the novel did get one thing right: Mother Nature does not play nice. Still, even then, the author fudges a lot of the details to try and make this point. In college, I had the pleasure of studying primatology in order to complete an anthropology degree, and while much of the science behind great ape biology and social behavior in this book is true including chimpanzee aggression and intelligence in group hunting, when it comes to his Sasquatches, Brooks can’t seem to decide if he wants them to be highly intelligent or mindlessly savage, so he switches between the two willy-nilly in order to suit his needs.
And then there’s the writing. I mentioned the limitations of the format, the biggest one being the challenge of creating a sense of in-the-moment urgency from something that you know was written in the past. As such, Kate’s diary entries do not actually read much like diary entries, no matter how many times she tries to convince us she’s writing like this to preserve a perfect record for posterity. Still, most readers are well aware this is not how average normal people write in their diaries, but we are willing to overlook it anyway for the sake of enjoying a story. However, the problem stems from the sheer number of action scenes in Devolution, which after a while make Kate’s narrative feel awkward. Worse, it even gave some of the more intense, brutally violent and gory sequences the opposite effect, making them feel over-the-top and goofy instead.
There were a few more issues here and there, but I think by now I’ve covered the major ones. This will probably come as no surprise, but I can’t say I thought Devolution was amazing, though I suppose it delivered a fair bit of entertainment. If having that is your goal, then this book will do just fine, but I confess to being somewhat disappointed considering I really enjoyed World War Z and was so looking forward to a new novel by Max Brooks. At least the audiobook, read by a full cast including such big names as Judy Greer, Nathan Fillion, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mulgrew and more was simply a blast, and I’m glad I got to listen to it....more
Although I’m glad I got to finish the Awakened trilogy, it is unfortunate to see the quality go down with each book. To be fair, the authors probably weren’t aiming for anything more than a mindless action-packed thriller, but still, when you compare the first book with Obliteration, the differences between the two are quite telling. Gone is any attempt at creating suspense or atmosphere, as the focus shifts entirely to cramming as much action into as little time possible.
In terms of the plot, Obliteration picks up shortly after the end of The Brink. To get the most out of it, you do have to be caught up with the previous books, so be aware there may be possible spoilers in this review for what came before. As the story begins, our big baddie Albert Van Ness has been stopped and is currently serving time in a high-security prison for his murderous crimes against humanity. It was only thanks to the efforts of Tom Cafferty that millions more did not die in the name of Van Ness’ fanatical crusade against the ancient bloodthirsty creatures that have emerged from their underground nests. The world can finally catch its breath and begin rebuilding, now that it’s safe from both monster attacks and total nuclear annihilation by a madman.
But is it really over? Tom isn’t so sure. He knows there are more creature nests still out there, and he won’t rest until he finds and destroys them all. On his latest mission with his team out in the Nevada desert though, he is shocked to arrive on the scene of a purported creature stronghold to find it completely empty. Realizing too late what it means, Tom races back up to the surface to find the world in chaos. Across the globe, cities are being overrun by the monsters who have emerged from their lairs to launch a coordinated attack all at once, killing everything in their path. Within moments, the United States loses every single one of its major urban centers, including Washington DC. Left with no choice, the President orders Tom to turn to his archnemesis, Albert Van Ness. He may be an evil maniac, but Van Ness has also dedicated his entire life to annihilating these creatures, and if anyone knows what to do now, it would be him.
This was a fun book, perfect for a bit of escapism. And had I not known the authors are capable of so much more, that would have been perfectly fine. Except I have read this series starting from Awakened, and the difference going to this one reminds me of when movies get straight-to-TV sequels. While Obliteration still delivers rapid-fire cinematic action, it does smack of going through the motions. The plot is all flash and no substance, all bloodbath and no subtlety. An army of super-soldiers just appearing out of nowhere? Hey, whatever, it’s not like the audience actually cares about explanations!
Well, except I kind of care. At the very least, I wanted more development of these characters I’ve spent three books following. What we get is pretty shallow at best, though, and it’s even more lacking for the new POVs presented. I’m also disappointed that the atmosphere was a casualty in the trade-off for more action and thrills. Looking back at my review for Awakened, I praised the book for giving me serious flashbacks to the Alien movies, as well as for its claustrophobia-inducing intensity and edge-of-your-seat suspense. That’s all been thrown to the wayside apparently, and it’s actually been happening since The Brink, sad to say.
Overall, I guess there’s something to be said about the entertainment value in a book like Obliteration, but can’t say I really enjoyed myself all that much. That said, I’m glad I saw this series through to the end, even if I can’t it remaining in my memory too long. It’s a shame, because the first book started out quite strong, but unfortunately the rest of the trilogy just wasn’t able to continue the same levels of interest or momentum.
Audiobook Comments: To his credit, James “Murr” Murray once again did a great job narrating his own book. He’s clearly experienced from his TV work, and being intimately familiar with the story and characters also helped. While I wasn’t too crazy about the book itself, I thought the narration and audio production values were well done....more
Imagine this: You wake up one day to the whole world suddenly wanting to kill you. Just the mere sight of you makes people fly into a uncontrollable frothing rage, coming at you with gnashing teeth and clawing hands ready to tear you limb from limb. This is what happens to Mitchell “Mad Mitch” Roberts, protagonist of Public Enemy Zero by Andrew Mayne. One evening, he was simply on his way to the radio station where he works as the late night show host, when he notices a young woman struggling with a flat tire on the side of the road. Nice guy that he is, Mitchell stops to offer help. Everything seems normal until he gets the woman’s attention, and she takes one look at him before launching into a snarling attack with murder in her eyes.
Terrified, Mitchell takes off, not knowing what he did to set the woman off, but chalks it up to just a random occurrence. But then it happens again. And again. At his ex-girlfriend’s house, where he barely gets a chance to say hello before being chased down the street by her and her new boyfriend. Then there was the traffic cop, who practically shreds herself to pieces in her mindless rage to get at Mitchell through the shards of his broken car window. Or at the mall, where he foolishly thought he would get reprieve with lots of people out and about. The ugly results of what happens next makes headline news, but even after studying the security footage for hours, cops are unable to explain how one man could have caused a mob to go after him like that with such mindless ferocity. Babies still strapped in their strollers were abandoned. Purses and wallets left behind. Injuries caused to themselves and others ignored by the horde as people fell and were trampled to death in their determination to get at Mitchell and rip him apart.
Meanwhile, our protagonist who barely managed to escape has gone into hiding. He knows something is seriously wrong with him, but he doesn’t have a clue what. He also can’t turn himself into the police or ask for help, not trusting the authorities not to have a similar violent reaction as everyone else the moment they get close to him. Besides, who will believe him?
Like many of Mayne’s other lead characters, Mitchell is a clever and resourceful guy who next proceeds to try and Macgyver himself out of this sticky situation (sometimes, he even feels a little too smart for a supposedly everyday Joe Schmo). And like many of the author’s books, this one was an action-packed, humorous, and over-the-top read. However, keep in mind that it’s one of his earlier works, and admittedly, that fact is pretty evident in the writing which feels more forced and awkward than his more recent stuff like The Naturalist series. I’ve become a huge fan in recent years though, and so when I found out an audiobook version of Public Enemy Zero was getting a new release, I decided to take this opportunity to explore his backlist, even knowing that it could get a little rough.
In the end, I’m glad I did, especially since the audio format worked well in this case, as Kevin T. Collins’ natural, easy narration was able to smooth out a lot of the writing’s rough edges. The book was also easier to enjoy, knowing you aren’t supposed to take it too seriously. The premise, as you can probably tell, has the feel of a fun “what-if scenario” experiment, no doubt inspired a little by zombie movies and conspiracy thrillers. From the story’s tone, I think Mayne had quite a blast writing it too, exercising his imagination and trying out some new ideas. The result is a wildly entertaining romp, as long as you don’t mind not getting much realism or answers. In fact, the one attempt at explanation using a side plot involving an Earth spirit and her fanatical follower ultimately fell flat, and honestly, the story would been better off without it at all.
So, would I recommend this book? That depends. For readers curious about checking out Andrew Mayne, I would definitely point to The Naturalist series or his new book The Girl Beneath the Sea to read first. For existing fans wondering if it’s worth picking up his earlier work though, Public Enemy Zero might be something you want to look at, keeping in mind the prose is a bit raw, with some hiccups like too much telling and not showing, clunky phrasing, clumsy transitions, awkward internal monologuing, etc. Mayne’s newer stuff doesn’t really have these problems because his writing has clearly improved and he’s found his rhythm and style, but for me it’s always fun to visit a favorite author’s older work—something I’m aware I don’t do enough. I still enjoyed this, and will likely continue to revisit Mayne’s early stories whenever I get a chance....more
To be honest, there’s not too much to say about this book. I was a big fan of Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In, and I was looking forward to more of her style of slow, creeping horror in If You See Her. The good news is, in terms of the sneak-up-on-you dread and atmosphere, she surely delivered. The not-so-great news though, is that there simply wasn’t much of a plot in this one.
Fortunately, we do start off with a strong hook. Around twenty years ago, three young men went exploring in the old dilapidated farmhouse that sits on an open field off Old Mill Road. A well-known landmark to the residents of the small town of Warsaw, Michigan, the house has a tragic history and is said to be haunted. It was also a source of endless fascination for restless teenagers like Jesse and his friends Casey and Reed, the latter of whom was practically obsessed with the place.
As the book begins, the three were at the house when something terrible happens. Reed dies in an apparent suicide, and the experience has left deep scars in Jesse and Casey’s lives ever since. Now in the present day, the two have drifted apart, but Jesse has remained in Warsaw, becoming a teacher at the local high school. He is also married to his childhood sweetheart, and the two now have a young son. Life might not be perfect, but Jesse thinks he can be happy and finally put the past behind him, until one day, Casey shows up at his door with an invitation to return with him to the abandoned farmhouse on Old Mill Road. Against his better instincts, Jesse agrees to take the trip for the sake of seeking closure for Reed’s death. Inevitably though, being back in the house awakens some long-buried personal demons, both literally and figuratively.
Not gonna lie, this book had some seriously creeptastic moments. The farmhouse was brilliant as a setting, almost becoming a major character in its own right. In fact, I wish we had gotten more of the place, since it plays such a huge role in the story’s past, present, and future. Ahlborn does nail the descriptions of the house though, from its crumbling, overgrown exterior to the malevolent seething force that lurks within. Tensions rose whenever we returned to the place, because it was clear nothing good could come to pass.
The protagonist though, was another story. As difficult as it is to admit, Jesse just wasn’t a very interesting character, and that made it harder to get into the book consider we follow him for the whole time. That said, he’s the self-confessed everyman who has opted to deal with the trauma of his youth by settling for a safe yet mundane existence. He has dreams of writing a book and getting out of Warsaw, creating something bigger and better for his family, but in the end, of course, the house had other plans. Sadly, probably the most interesting thing about Jesse was the way his life ended up blowing up spectacularly and spiraling out of control.
As such, I think this book could have been pared down and worked better as a novella. After a while, watching Jesse flounder became tedious and repetitive, and there was only so much drama involving his family life and work that I could take. The middle sections of the story dragged as a result, and I didn’t feel much of it added to the overall plot.
With tighter storytelling, If You See Her might have packed a stronger punch, but as it is, parts of it feel like a slog punctuated by moments of intensity and true horror. It’s not a bad book by any means, but speaking as an avid fan of the genre and someone who has read Ania Ahlborn’s work before and know what she’s capable of, this just wasn’t enough. Still, I remain a fan and will be curious to see what she writes next, with hopes that it’ll work better for me.
Audiobook Comments: Brian Holden did a serviceable job as narrator, though perhaps his voice is not the best suited for horror. Someone who can bring a bit more gravitas and weight to Ania Ahlborn’s atmosphere-infused prose would have been better, but overall, not a bad listen.
Whoo boy, describing the mother-daughter relationship in this story as “dysfunctional” is an understatement. You might think you have issues with your family, but wait until you read about Maggie and Nina. What Lies Between Us is the kind of book that makes you wonder what kind of secrets people around you might be hiding behind their seemingly average lives and the perfectly normal facades of their everyday jobs and everyday homes.
Every evening, Nina comes home from work to the house that she and her mother Maggie share. Every other night, she also fixes dinner for them, where she’ll cook something she knows her mother will despise, but Maggie that will compliment like nothing is amiss. After they finish eating, Nina would escort Maggie back up the stairs to the attic, where the older woman stays locked up the rest of the time, making sure that her mother’s shackles are reattached firmly to the heavy chains bolted to the wall. Then they’ll say goodnight, before Maggie is once more abandoned to her lonely imprisonment until the next time she is called down for a meal. This is her existence now, ever since her daughter discovered the terrible things Maggie has done, and this is her punishment.
What Nina doesn’t understand, however, is that whatever she thinks her mother did to her, Maggie is insistent that they were all done for her out of love. But it is probably a good thing Nina doesn’t know everything, because there are even more secrets in Maggie’s past that her daughter hasn’t managed to figure out—yet. If she ever does, Maggie is certain that Nina will come to realize why those actions had to be taken, but she is also terrified to consider what her daughter might do to her then. Nina already believes Maggie has done the unforgiveable, hence the conditions of her imprisonment and cruel treatment. But learning the whole truth might just set Nina off for real, sending her to a place where neither of them can return from.
I vowed after reading The Passengers that I would check out more by John Marrs, which was what led me to What Lies Between Us, even though it sounded like a very different kind of story. Still, I was glad I read it, because even among thrillers, this one was pretty insane. Told from Nina and Maggie’s points of view via two main timelines, the present and the past, the sick and twisted details of this complicated relationship between the novel’s two leading women are gradually revealed to us in all their glory.
Anyway, I debated long and hard about whether or not I should talk about some of these in my review, just surface-level details about the plot that won’t lead to any spoilers, before deciding not to risk even that. The shenanigans these characters get up to are simply too crazy and delicious to reveal! That said, I will say that despite some of its more over-the-top themes, the story does make a few rather introspective and poignant observations about the nature of parenthood. As parents, no one knows our children better than we do, what their strengths and weaknesses are. All we want is the best for them, try to guide them in the right direction and pray we don’t end up screwing their lives up too much. And basically, what this book does is take these ideas and throw them off the deep end.
Bottom line, I had an extraordinarily fun time reading What Lies Between Us, even with its contemptible characters, warped ideas and all. I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone to find either Maggie or Nina likeable, because ultimately they’re both horrible people. Hands down, though, the best part was letting the novel gradually tease out the complexities of their pasts and reveal their awful secrets. The ending was unsettling, but I would have expected nothing less after the intense journey it took us on. If you want a gripping thriller where you’ll practically sweat and shiver from the suspense, you’ll definitely want to check this one out for yourself.
Audiobook Comments: Absolutely brilliant narration by Elizabeth Knowelden. Normally I would I prefer more than one reader for multi-POV books, but she did such an incredible job reading both Nina and Maggie’s parts that I would have thought they were voiced by different narrators. Varying her accents and tones, she gave each character a uniqueness and individuality that went beyond the text, and I couldn’t have been more impressed with her performance.
Well, it’s not The Naturalist, but still so good! What’s also pretty awesome is that last summer I caught the author on the Discovery Channel Shark Week special Andrew Mayne: Ghost Diver, and now I can’t help but wonder how much of his experience doing for that show had ended up influencing this book. Plus I believe I read somewhere that Mayne grew up among scuba divers and law enforcement, so when I first learned about The Girl Beneath the Sea, I became curious to see how he would incorporate those ideas and concepts into this new thriller.
As the opening volume to a new series, The Girl Beneath the Sea begins by whisking readers off to the south Florida coast where protagonist Sloan McPherseon works for the Lauderdale Shores police department as an evidence recovery diver. On a routine dive in the canal one day, she comes across a recently dead body in the water—a woman who must have been killed and dumped not moments before Sloan got there. Unfortunately, that timing was just a coincidence too great for the police to ignore, landing Sloan on their suspects list. Of course, it also doesn’t help that she comes from family of eccentric treasure hunters and drug smugglers, with an uncle who’s in prison. Then comes an even greater shock—it turns out that the dead woman had a connection to Sloan’s past, making the authorities even more suspicious.
Now the only one who can help her is the McPhersons’ greatest enemy. George Solar is the DEA agent whose testimony had been pivotal in putting Sloan’s uncle behind bars all those years ago, and the memories of how that had devastated her family are still fresh in her mind. Solar’s history, however, has also been known to be rather shady, which means he may have the knowledge and connections to help Sloan out of her mess, leaving her with no choice but to trust him. As the two of them team up to investigate the murder though, they stumble into a vast conspiracy brewing amidst widespread corruption, and the deeper they dig, the more they may be putting both themselves and their loved ones in possible peril.
While it’s definitely tempting to compare The Girl Beneath the Sea with Mayne’s Naturalist series, I realize it’s not that simple. The two are very different, for one, and quite honestly I think that’s a good thing. Ultimately, I would love to see Underwater Investigation Unit establish its own identity as a series and stand on its own merits, and based on this first installment, I think it’s off to a great start. The good news is that we also don’t sacrifice any of the over-the-top action and thrills that are the hallmarks of the author’s books, though the difference is, The Girl Beneath the Sea reads more like a police procedural in its structure and pacing, emphasizing law enforcement and interagency detective work. The storytelling style itself is very similar to the crime dramas you might see on primetime TV.
Since it’s Florida, there are also gators, sharks, and the drug war. Sloan and Solar’s battle with the cartels and corruption among the ranks might not prove as thrilling for some, but to me the plot was fast-paced and exciting. As well, Sloan is a great character, maybe a bit rough around the edges. Like many of the author’s protagonists, her greatest fault seems to be her impulsivity and tendency to act quickly with little consideration of the consequences (but hey, that’s what makes his books so fun, right?) I ended up liking Sloan, despite the fact she’s a bit of a maverick and one hell of a troublemaker, mainly due to her courageous spirit and her big heart which makes up for her shortcomings. She’s also a single mom in a family with a lot of quirky members and complicated relationships, as you might imagine given the McPhersons’ history with the law and Sloan’s career with the police. Throw in her prickly situation with Solar as well, and you just know there will be no end to the surprises.
What all this means is, if you’re into Andrew Mayne’s clever, funny, and over-the-top style, I think you will also enjoy The Girl Beneath the Sea. In a way, I think the novel’s premise actually makes it more plausible than many of his other works (relatively), but the approach he takes to the crime drama procedural is certainly still unique and very interesting. Bottom line, this was an entertaining adventure and I had a hell of time. It also looks like the sequel Black Coral already has a cover, synopsis, and release date, so I guess I’ll be circling my calendar and waiting not so patiently!
Audiobook Comments: I listened to the audiobook edition, a decision I don’t regret at all. I often find that thrillers are more effective in this format especially when you have a good narrator, and Susannah Jones completely nailed it. Everything about her performance was outstanding, from her voices to her timing. She kept me hanging on every word, ending up making me stay up way past my usual bedtime so I could find out how the book ended. So if you’re considering The Girl Beneath the Sea, I do highly recommend this one in audio....more