In Shari Lapena I’ve found a new mystery-thriller author to watch, first thanks to An Unwanted Guest and now Someone We Know, another wildly entertaining can’t-put-down novel offering a classic who-dunnit plot with a modern twist. This time, we’re transported to a quiet suburban neighborhood in upstate New York, where life is about to become a lot more interesting for its residents.
It all began with a missing person report filed by Robert Pierce, whose wife Amanda had not returned from a purported trip out of town with a friend. At first, believing Amanda to have left her husband, the police were not too concerned. But then came the call about her car found submerged in the shallows of a lake, and stuffed in the trunk was Amanda’s badly beaten body.
Meanwhile, Olivia Sharpe is reeling along with the rest of her neighbors at the news about the murder, but she is also distracted with some big problems of her own. She has just found out that her teenage son Raleigh has been breaking into other people’s homes, hacking into their computers. Raleigh on his part swears that he has never taken anything and that no one has ever suspected he was there, but nevertheless, Olivia is consumed with guilt, leading her to write anonymous letters of apologies to the owners of the houses her son had broken into. To her horror, one of them is Robert Pierce, whose place is now crawling with police dusting for fingerprints in the investigation of Amanda’s murder. What they find is shocking—it appears there’s a lot more going on in this sleepy little town than anyone realized.
What an insanely addictive book this was, packed with all kinds of delicious mysteries and suspense. Lapena knows just how to get under your skin, making you dwell upon the kinds of secrets your neighbors might be hiding. She’s also an expert at unraveling your nerves, at knowing just what buttons to push to make you squirm. I mean, who wouldn’t be disturbed at the idea of a stranger in your house while you were away, snooping at all the personal information on your computer? Even when the home invader is a guileless and confused teenager like Raleigh, who can say what he was really up to and what kinds of things he’s seen? And no surprise, that ends up being an important aspect of this book.
But what attracted me most to Someone We Know was the murder mystery premise, which, like in An Unwanted Guest, was almost a throwback to the Golden Age detective classics. But unlike those stories, the investigators are not the central characters. We’re given a glimpse into the progress of the case though the eyes of a police detective, but he only plays a small part in this narrative which is predominantly about the various residents in the neighborhood. There are lots of characters to keep track of, but they’re all very fascinating and easy to remember in no small part due to the respective scandals and dirty laundry they’re all trying to hide. Like a juicy soap opera with all its tangled relationships and shocking secrets, the drama in this book was like crack.
And man, how the plot ended up jerking me around—but in a good way. You’ll think you’ve figured something out, only to have something happen to make you reconsider all your assumptions. Then almost right away, something else will happen to bring you right back to your original theory, but now, of course, you’ll be seconding guessing everything. And on and on it went, with the story hurling its twists at me left and right. The main mystery, of course, was who killed Amanda. But there are lots of other threads playing out along side it as well, making you wonder how they all tie together. As always, you can never truly take a character by their word or infer too much about their actions. That’s a lesson I learned with the last novel I read by the author.
All told, Someone We Know was everything I wanted in a mystery: delightful unexpected twists, plot developments and clues that kept me guessing, and plenty of suspects who all had their individual secrets and motives. I also enjoyed the classic feel and structure of the story along with its quick pacing and unpredictability. In short, I would highly recommend this one to fans of the genre....more
The origin of Slender Man as a creepypasta internet meme that gained traction on an online forum before becoming viral and exploding into a worldwide phenomenon has always fascinated me. It’s perhaps one of the best modern examples of how a legend or myth might come to life, its genesis and spread happening in real time for all to observe, especially following a series of violent related incidents widely covered by the media. The surreal nature of this now iconic horror figure is what immediately drew me to this book, simply titled Slender Man by an author whom, in a very meta touch, has been kept anonymous, which should clue you in as to the style and mood of story you’re in for…
In basic terms, Slender Man is an epistolary novel comprised of journal entries, emails, text messages, voice transcripts, and other forms of documentation surrounding the life of high school student Matt Barker, who is on a mission to discover the truth of what happened to his friend and classmate Lauren Bailey. The popular teen girl from Riley, an elite New York City high school, went out one night and never returned. Within hours, rumors were flying all over Riley speculating on her whereabouts, though secretly, Matt knows Lauren well enough to know the majority of them have no basis in fact. While the two teens never ran in the same circles at school, they have maintained a close friendship that neither of them advertised publicly, keeping most their correspondence through texts. Lauren had an obsession with dark subjects that, as far as Matt knew, he was the only one she ever shared with, sending with him gruesome stories and pictures that she found online that she thought were funny or interesting.
After days go by with no headway on the police investigation into the disappearance, Matt decides to take matters into his own hands, uncovering a series of strange photoshopped images on Lauren’s cloud drive, proving irrefutably that she was drawn to the legend of Slender Man. Given how the stories go—that any attention given to Slender Man is in fact a foolhardy way to summon the creature or draw its notice—Matt believes his friend is in serious danger, and the terrifying dreams he has almost nightly seem to confirm his bad feelings.
Due to its format, I suspect Slender Man will not be a book for everybody, and if you have struggled with epistolary novels in the past, it’s possible you may run into similar issues with this one. The style itself is limiting in certain situations, especially when the story calls for descriptive action. Often you end up with awkward moments where the character resorts to oral dictation and info-dumping, ludicrously stating out everything he/she is doing, and we have a few instances of this here where the forced narrative pulled me out of the immersion. One other thing to note is that the book is very Young Adult-oriented—which may end up being a disappointment to those who were hoping for a good scare out of this. Slender Man is at times deeply atmospheric and plays with your mind a bit, but for a horror novel, I did not find it scary or even that creepy. The characters’ personalities also fit in with the overall YA tone of the story, so expect a certain level of teen angst and other genre clichés like disdainful attitudes towards healthcare workers and law enforcement (or just adults in general).
Despite these caveats, I did have a good time reading the book. While the epistolary style does not always lend itself well to character development, I thought the author did a good job painting Matt Barker as a convincing and sympathetic figure, due to the fact his journal entries make up the bulk of the novel. Matt’s emotional state is strongly felt in these entries; we get a good depiction of his confusion, the genuine concern for Lauren, as well as the crushing sense of helplessness and fear as he realizes what he must do to save her. I also enjoyed the creative use of documentation to tell the story, not to mention the sheer variety of sources ranging from newspaper clippings to the Riley school letters sent out to faculty and parents, and even snippets from Whatsapp group chats and Reddit discussion forums. I thought they were a nice touch to give the situation a more “authentic” feel, and the eclectic mix also made this a super quick and addictive read.
All too soon, the book was over, and honestly, if I have one complaint about the ending, it’s that it felt rushed and the conclusion was left a little too open. But for a story of this nature about Slender Man, perhaps there was no other way around this issue. The character became a horror phenomenon precisely because of the mystery and ambiguity surrounding its motives, and the novel’s ending seems to reflect this limitless potential for speculation and the role of reader imagination. If you don’t mind the vagueness, then you’ll probably enjoy the enigma, and certainly the unknowns added greatly to the general atmosphere of the story, which was top-notch and was a counterpoint to some of the book’s minor weaknesses. Overall a fast and fun read if you’re looking for a bit of mood reading for the spooky season!...more
The Lost Puzzler was a puzzle, in more ways than one. Not only was the story shrouded in mystery, the plot was also slow to unravel, inviting the readers to seek the solution to the big question while doling out clues gradually in a teasing fashion. In addition, the structure of the book felt like a series of many separate and dissimilar segments making up a whole, thus making it feel very fractured.
For obvious reasons, novels like this often present me with a conundrum: how to rate it when I enjoy some of its pieces but not the others? In the case of The Lost Puzzler, I loved everything about the first half. We begin the tale through the eyes of a lowly scribe of the Guild of Historians who has been tasked with a dangerous mission to discover the fate of a boy who disappeared more than a decade before. This boy—named Rafik—is said to be a Puzzler, an individual with a special talent to unlock mysterious puzzle box-like nodes that are scattered across the world, hidden away in labyrinths and other dungeon-like places, where they guard the valuable treasures of the lost Tarkanian civilization. Following an apocalyptic event known as the Catastrophe, those who survived have split into different groups, and one of these groups called the Salvationists believe that the answers lie in the ancient technology of their forebears. They send teams on dangerous expeditions to plunder Tarkanian strongholds, where the Puzzler will attempt to crack their defenses while the rest of the squad protects itself from threats like traps and attacking lizard-like creatures.
Soon after the intro though, the narrative shifts to tell the story of Rafik. He was born in a community that has reverted to the old ways after the Catastrophe, becoming deeply faithful to the new gods they worship while shunning everything to do with technology. When the strange tattoos marking him as special began appearing on Rafik’s fingertips, his parents feared their son cursed, sending him away to a “friend” of the family who promised to get a good price for him at auction. Recognizing his value, a powerful guild ends up purchasing Rafik at a high price, nearly bankrupting themselves in the process. To ensure a return on their investment, Rafik’s new handlers begin grooming him for the demanding role of Puzzler, putting him through rigorous training exercises to prepare him for his first expedition.
The book flips the reader back and forth between these two timelines—the one in the present, where our historian attempts to extract Rafik’s story from a woman who used to know him, and the one in the past, which flashes back to her knowledge of the boy’s history and her recollections of her time with him. The awkward transitions notwithstanding, I generally liked how the two narratives were presented, especially the way they framed Rafik’s backstory while doing an excellent job filling in the lore and background of the setting. Like I said, I loved the first half of the book, particularly the parts detailing the initial stages of Rafik’s exile, from the time he discovered the telltale markings on his hand to the harrowing journey on the road where he is traded from master to master.
Not surprisingly, some of my favorite moments from the book came from these early segments, with Rafik’s time with the charismatic Captain Sam and his supertruck Sweetheart immediately coming to mind. The problem, however, is that many of these fascinating encounters are much too short. While I really enjoyed Rafik’s backstory, I wasn’t so much a fan of the episodic nature of his narrative. It felt really fragmented, with his character being passed like a hockey puck from one situation to the next, not to mention how a lot of the entertaining side characters end up sticking around just long enough to endear themselves to the reader before they are swiftly left behind and never to be seen again. It seemed a little wasteful, in a way, how many of the incredible characters and concepts presented here were never explored to their full potential. It made me think that much of Rafik’s backstory of his time before being sold to the Salvationist guild could have been cut down or reworked because of the way it plodded and meandered.
The novel also started losing me in its second half. After Rafik is bought by the guild, the story descends into a confusion of ideas that remind me of a bit of a fantasy RPG campaign mixed with the premise of a YA dystopian like The Maze Runner. These elements didn’t mesh as well with the rest of the world-building. I also didn’t feel as invested in the story once the present timeline took over for good. And while the conclusion provided some answers, the explanations given were convoluted and I didn’t find them particularly helpful, especially since they led to even more questions.
All of this led to my mixed opinions on the The Lost Puzzler. At times, it was a compelling page-turner where all I wanted was to know more about the life of Rafik and his abilities; other times, I was uncertain how I felt about the story’s direction and disjointed sections. That said, on the whole I found this to be an entertaining read and a fairly solid debut, and at this point I’m up for giving this world another go if there is a sequel....more
Scream All Night is not a book that falls entirely into the realm of what I typically read, but I was already made aware of that fact by the author when he contacted me to see if I would be interested in taking a look at his debut. And quite honestly, despite not being a big reader of YA contemporary fiction, I really liked the sound of it. No, it’s not a horror novel, but the fact that the premise was about the making of horror films was an idea that greatly appealed to me, not to mention the meta quality of the story.
At the center of this coming-of-age tale is 17-year-old Dario, whose father Lucien Heyward is the legendary director of dozens of beloved B-Horror cult films such as The Curse of the Mummy’s Tongue and Zombie Children of the Harvest Sun. However, few were aware of the things that truly went on behind the walls of Moldavia, the castle estate where Lucien made all of his films. Dario was just a boy when he was cast in the starring role of Zombie Children, and was subjected to verbal and physical abuse as well as unbearable emotional pressure at his father’s hands while on the set. At the time, Dario’s mother, struggling with severe mental health issues, was also unable to help her youngest son and in fact was hospitalized for much of his childhood. Life got so bad for Dario, that soon after Zombie Children was completed, the boy had himself legally emancipated from his father, choosing instead to be raised in a foster facility rather than step foot in Moldavia Studios ever again.
But Zombie Children of the Harvest Sun, despite being universally panned by critics, gained a large following of loyal fans and Dario himself became a minor celebrity. Moldavia, along with the tightly-knit community of cast and crew who live permanently on its grounds, carried on with the business of making campy movies—until the news breaks that Lucien Heyward is dying. Refusing to go out quietly, the eccentric director decides to invite all his family, friends, and fans to a mysterious event as a final sendoff. Dario reluctantly agrees to attend, with a promise to himself that this would be his last time at Moldavia. Instead, he finds himself roped back into his past when it is revealed during the reading of the will that Lucien had named Dario the heir to his studio and legacy.
A quirky dramedy, Scream All Night delivers a unique spin on a familiar idea—that of going back to your roots and rediscovering the family and friends you left behind, in spite of the painful memories. The main gist of the tale isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s all in the way it is told. Notwithstanding its blood-curdling title, which actually refers to one of Dario’s father’s favorite catchphrases, there is a surprising amount of heart and warmth found in this novel. This is one big zany family, made up of not only the Heywards but also the handful of actors, film crew, and administrative staff who have done recurring work on Lucien’s movies and found a home at Moldavia. For the same reason I love books about circuses and traveling shows, I also enjoyed the feeling of community I felt when I read about life at the studio. There is a strong sense of trust and camaraderie between everyone, a shared culture that—as weird and chaotic as it is—all of them can understand. Even Dario, who has been away for years, is unable to walk away from Moldavia’s magic once he steps back into it.
Much of the story is built around the relationships Dario has with the people who are closest to him. In addition to the troubled memories he has of working with his father, our protagonist also has his oddball of an older brother to deal with. Then there is Jude, Dario’s roommate and best friend from their youth home, who tags along for the ride and is immediately taken by life at Moldavia. Most surprising of all, there is also a romance which I thought was exceptionally well written and sweet—rare for me when it comes to YA. Hayley is a young actress who has been working at the studio for years, but she was also Dario’s childhood friend, first love, as well as co-star in Zombie Children of the Harvest Sun. The romantic elements in their story were light, natural, and free of unnecessary drama.
With all these interesting personalities in one place, there was never really a dull moment. If you’re looking for something more beyond reading about relationships though, there’s also plenty of hilarity and tragedy involved in the making of a Moldavia Studios production. While the story takes place in the present, Milman wrote that his book was “modeled loosely on Hammer Horror during the time they were filming their classic creature features at Bray studios in the 1950’s.” Fans of cult horror films will probably enjoy these sections the most, as the narrative pokes fun and pays tribute to both the movies themselves as well as the subculture of fandom surrounding the genre.
At the end of the day, you can call this a fun read about monster movies, but Scream All Night is also about so much more. It’s a story that’s full of pleasures, and genuine even in its sometimes-over-the-top portrayal of love and family. It’s a coming-of-age journey full of sadness and regrets, but also hope and lots of laughter. All in all, the novel was an unexpected surprise, both in terms of its sentimental poignancy and how much I enjoyed it. I’m very glad I picked it up....more
When I first learned of Dragonshadow, I admit I was taken a bit by surprise. I honestly hadn’t expected a sequel to Heartstone, mainly because the first book did such a good job of being a faithful retelling of Pride and Prejudice, albeit set in a high fantasy setting. Things ended well for our protagonists Aliza Bentaine and Alastair Daired, and I thought that was the end of that.
But apparently, the author had more planned for her characters, and I suppose in this world full of magic and extraordinary monsters, I should have anticipated the possibility of more stories. Dragonshadow picks up not long after the end of Heartstone, which saw the dragonriders prevail over the monstrous forces at the Battle of North Fields. Aliza and Alastair are now married, enjoying the final few days of their honeymoon when an unexpected visit from a messenger arriving from the Castle Selwyn forces them to return home early. It appears that an unknown monster has been terrorizing the rural countryside, killing other preternatural creatures for their precious hearts. But now a young serving girl has gone missing, and everyone fears that the monster must have taken her too.
Reminded of the way her own little sister had been attacked and killed by a wild gryphon, Aliza’s heart immediately goes out to the people of Castle Selwyn, and she convinces Alastair to take the contract. Not content to remain at home, however, she also persuades him to let her come along. The journey will be long and arduous, taking them through dangerous territory infested with monsters, but Aliza knows in her heart this is something she must do, or else she will forever be left behind and shut out of the most important part of her husband’s life.
As unexpected as this sequel was, I am happy that we got it. After the first book, I think many readers, myself included, were keen to know more about this world beyond the Jane Austen elements. I wouldn’t say the story was one of Heartstone’s strong points, mainly because Elle Katharine White was working under so many constraints in order to follow the original plot of Pride and Prejudice so closely, though she more than made up for it with her incredible world-building. Hence, the more I thought about it, Dragonshadow seemed like the perfect opportunity for the author to further spread her wings and explore her characters and develop her storytelling more fully.
This moment, I’m pleased to say, was not wasted. With retellings you always run the risk of readers having preconceived notions of how your characters should think and act, using their familiarity with the original work as a template. However, Elle Katharine White immediately leapt to the task of making these characters her own. The attention is shifted to more serious matters, now that the honeymoon period is literally over. Every marriage comes with its own unique problems, and Aliza is trying to figure out her new role as a dragonrider’s wife, knowing she has certain traditions to uphold. However, she also has her own hopes and dreams for the future and is reluctant to let Alastair shoulder all his responsibilities without her, a thread of conflict that runs though much of this book. That said, their love for each other remains unshakeable, and romance still plays a prominent role in this book, only now it feels even deeper and more meaningful.
I was also glad to see this sequel expand the world that so enchanted me in Heartstone. There was much less focus on dragons and their lore in this one, sad to say, but this also gave the author a chance to show off other aspects of the setting, because there is so much more to this series. The story is a mix of mystery and drama, as Aliza and Alastair come in contact with all sorts of amazing fantastical creatures in their quest to discover who or what it is responsible for all the killings, and why the two of them might have become targets themselves. White puts our couple through plenty of challenges and ordeals, both physical and emotional. It’s heartbreaking, but also rewarding in the end to watch the characters support and pull each other through hard times.
If you liked Heartstone, I would highly recommend picking up Dragonshadow, especially if you enjoyed the general concept and wanted to see more. With this sequel, I felt the series has come into its own, moving beyond any restrictions a retelling would have placed on characters and plot. I felt that Elle Katharine White took full advantage of her new freedom to deeply explore Aliza and Alastair’s relationship, and fans of fantasy adventure and romance should find plenty to sink their teeth into with this one.
Audiobook Review: I was fortunate enough to also receive a listening copy of Dragonshadow in audio, which I enjoyed just as much as the print version. I wasn’t familiar with Billie Fulford-Brown as a narrator, though she sounded very familiar and had a distinct elegance to her voice that I felt was perfectly suited for Aliza. She did a wonderful job and brought an extra layer of dynamism to the experience.
Sarah Pinborough is really killing it with her thrillers lately (no pun intended). Her last two books that I read and loved were 13 Minutes and Behind Her Eyes. Even though I discovered her work and became a fan through her fantasy and horror fiction, I’m at the point where I’ll pick up anything she writes, and if she were to continue writing in the psychological suspense genre I would not be disappointed at all.
In Cross Her Heart, we follow the lives of Lisa and her sixteen-year-old daughter Ava. While Lisa can be a bit overprotective, more so than the average parent, and Ava is a typical rebellious teenager, discovering her sexuality and testing her limits, on the outside, theirs is like any other mother-daughter relationship. However, both are hiding secrets that can threaten to tear their lives apart, and neither realize that the other not knowing would ultimately lead them into great danger.
For the moment though, Lisa is content. Ava is doing well at school and has great friends on her swim team. Lisa also loves her job working in the same office as her best friend Marilyn, who is encouraging her to get back into the dating scene. For once, Lisa feels she relax her guard and allow herself to be happy again.
But then one day, that calm is shattered when Lisa comes across a terrifying discovery left for her to find. It is a cruel reminder that she cannot escape her past. Someone knows her secret, and now they’ve tracked her down. Meanwhile, Ava has a new boyfriend, but her mind is on someone else—the one she has been exchanging sexy and exciting Facebook messages with, her secret lover who makes her feel so grown up and independent. Her mother, whom Ava resents for still treating her like a child, would never understand, of course.
Like the author’s previous novel Behind Her Eyes, this one also contains several surprising and game-changing twists, often accompanied by significant shifts in the storytelling. It also explores some rather uncomfortable questions about human nature. Do people change? Few of us are the same as we were when we were children—we grow up, we learn new things, we start seeing the world differently…but do we ever lose the very essence of our personality, the main ingredients that shape who we are? Do second chances and do-overs exist, and can society ever forgive? On the face of it, Cross Her Heart reads like your standard psychological thriller, perhaps slightly over-the-top at times, but it nonetheless gave me plenty of to chew on.
I also loved the relationship dynamics that are the central focus of this novel. Everything about the plot hinges upon Lisa’s love for Ava, or the strength of her friendship with Marilyn. While in my opinion, the portrayal of the supporting cast was rather weak and clichéd (e.g. the “bad men” in this story were all sexist assholes or abusive drunks, the difficult new coworker was predictably a manipulative and conniving bitch, and the police and law enforcement figures who were supposed to be helping were instead painted as apathetic, patronizing, and incompetent), I could tell Pinborough was channeling all her energies on developing the three main characters. All of them—Lisa, Ava, and Marilyn—were flawed individuals too, no doubt. But unlike many of the minor characters in the background, they actually came across like genuine people, each with their personal stories to tell and lives that are fascinating in their own way.
The plot was also entertaining. While I cannot say it was terribly elegant or original since Pinborough does employ a few tricks that can be considered somewhat trite and overused, the story was still nonetheless incredibly fun and addictive. Certain tropes were utilized to great effect, and even though the overall premise was perhaps a little too sensationalist, the villain perhaps a little too outrageous and unbelievable—hey, I still had a great time.
At the end of the day, I love the imagination and magic Sarah Pinborough puts into her fantasy novels, but I also love it when she gets down and real with her bold, gritty, and twisted thrillers. She’s part of a rare group of authors who seem comfortable writing in any genre they set their minds to, delivering crowd-pleasers every time....more
Contagion by Erin Bowman stars the ragtag crew of the Odyssey, a mining ship that responds to an SOS at a seemingly deserted base on a remote planet. Led by their determined by green captain Dylan Lowe, the team immediately begins searching for survivors but instead find a pile of dead bodies. The ship’s doctor, microbiologist Dr. Lisbeth Tarlow appears baffled at the cause of all the death and carnage, but her seventeen-year-old intern Thea Sadik suspects her mentor may know more than she lets on.
Meanwhile, the Odyssey’s pilot Nova Singh struggles with her developing feelings for Dylan, even as the headstrong captain makes increasingly impulsive decisions that endanger her people. On the planet, the crew also finds a disturbing message along with a chilling video made by one of the personnel before he died. Not long afterwards, the group is separated and Thea’s life is saved by a mysterious young man who claims to be the only survivor. But who is he and where did he come from? How did he stay alive when no one else was spared by whatever killed them? Finding the answers becomes imperative as one of the Odyssey’s crew suddenly becomes infected with an unknown contagion, putting all of their lives at risk unless the outbreak can be contained.
As someone who has seen my fair share of sci-fi/horror movies, books, games, comics etc. featuring some variation of the space zombie, I have to say Contagion was pretty mediocre and only mildly entertaining. To be fair, it’s tough to write a book like this, precisely because it’s been done before…so many times before. Some authors attempt to spin the story a different way, or offer something unique as a hook. Personally, I love that. It’s what keeps me coming back to this genre. The problem here though, was I just didn’t see anything too special. Bowman’s a great writer, and certainly I would put her prose at a level above the typical YA novel, but truth be told, her atmosphere and suspense building could have been better, and any fan of horror will tell you, those two things are kind of a biggie.
That said, it’s clear the author wanted the strength of her novel to be in her characters. She’s populated Contagion with a diverse cast, who were for the most part interesting to read about. Where the story stumbles, however, is the narrative mode. Told in third-person omniscient, we are bounced between POVs to cover no less than half a dozen of the crew members when really there’s only a handful of characters readers are made to care about. The rest felt like distraction and served to weaken the character development as a whole. I want to say I liked the characters, but the reality is I didn’t feel like I got to know any of them too well, and no one really stood out as all that unique or special. Kind of like this book (even though it makes me feel crummy to say it).
The action is what drove much of the entertainment. Even then, the suspense was a bit muted because I wasn’t invested enough in the characters to feel the full emotional impact even when terrible stuff happened to them, but at least the story wasn’t boring. The world was also intriguing, though I have the feeling we’ve only scratched the surface. The hints of political intrigue and corporate conspiracies given here don’t play much into the plot, though I wish they had. The ending also closes on a rather blunt “to be continued”, so I assume much of the set-up here will be elaborated upon in the sequel.
Ultimately, I found Contagion to be a very middle-of-the-road read—entertaining enough, but nothing special to write home about. Still, despite my mixed feelings, I have not dismissed the possibility of continuing with the series, though I’ll probably wait to read a few reviews of the next book before making my decision.
Audiobook Comments: I think Amy McFadden did a great job narrating, but some books just beg for multiple narrators. Given the number of characters in Contagion and their different personalities and voices, the addition of more narrators here probably would have benefited the flow of the story and increased my interest, but overall I still enjoyed the listen....more
Is there anything more heart-wrenching than a tale about a child gone missing? For protagonist Ben, there is no deeper anguish. Five years ago, his little brother Eric disappeared from a grocery store while Ben was supposed to be taking care of him. A moment of distraction was all it took. One second, the three-year-old was there, and the next, he was gone. Search teams scoured the area and the police also looked into all suspects that could have taken the little boy, but nothing ever came of any of the investigations. Soon, Eric’s photo joined the dozens of other children on the missing persons bulletin board, where their faces gaze back faded and forgotten.
But Ben has never stopped looking. He is now twenty, and the years since Eric’s disappearance have not been kind to him or his family. His stepmother has retreated into herself and his dad’s job is no longer enough to pay the bills. Ben desperately needs work, but in a cruel twist of fate, the only place that would hire him is the very supermarket where Eric went missing. Working the nightshift as a stock person, Ben quickly learns the ropes from his new buddies Marty and Frank, and as hard as it is being back in a place with so many painful memories, for a while there, things didn’t actually seem so bad.
Unfortunately, that calm doesn’t last. After a couple weeks, Ben can’t shake the feeling that something is very wrong with the store, the people there, and the entire town. A disturbing find in the lost-and-found bin suddenly reignites his search for Eric, leading to another flurry of printed flyers and house-to-house calls. There’s no one left that Ben feels he can rely upon or trust—not his parents, not his colleagues, and most definitely not the police detective James Duchaine, the man who was put in charge of Eric’s case.
I was kind of torn on my feels for this book. For days, I wavered between rating it 3 or 4 stars before settling on something in the middle. There were certain things I really liked about it, but there were also areas that I felt were weak or fell short of my expectations.
First, the positives: there were moments in Bad Man that were truly terrifying. You don’t even have to look too far beyond reality to find the horror either; hundreds of kids go missing each year, and I can’t even imagine what an awful, desperate, and helpless ordeal it is for the parents and loved ones. This novel opens on the worst day of Ben’s life—the day he lost his beloved little brother. As a mother of a three-year-old, reading this entire sequence made my skin cold and my stomach feel hollow. Ben’s panic and guilt tore at my heart. His pain and fear became mine, and I felt like crying.
For better or worse though, I didn’t find the rest of the book to be so harrowing or intense, though the story still contained its fair share of emotionally traumatizing moments. In many ways, Bad Man is more mystery than horror. Dathan Auerbach handles suspense well, keeping the reader guessing even when not a lot is happening on the page. Most of his characters are there as suspects, their secrets revealed to us slowly as their backstories are told in dribs and drabs. Ben himself is an enigma that we are warned not to fully trust. Grief touches people in different ways, and the uncertainties surrounding our protagonist’s memories is a source of much tension and conflict.
Unfortunately, this compelling atmosphere was not always present. There were times when the author dropped the ball, particularly in sections where the plot meandered and dragged. Certain threads were also picked up but never carried through and I wasn’t always sure if these were supposed to be red herrings or just Auerbach trying out different twists that he didn’t quite know how to pull off. Because this is his debut novel, I’m sort of leaning towards the latter. There are definitely pacing issues, and I didn’t think the novel as a whole had to be so long. The rambling, convoluted jumble that was the ending probably could have used some polish too, for I got the sense that the author might have forgotten to tie up a few loose ends.
Overall, I liked Bad Man, but as a horror/mystery novel, there were things that could have been done better. Author Dathan Auerbach has already found much success with Penpal, a series of interconnected short stories posted to Reddit, but I think he’s probably discovered that a full-length novel requires a whole different level and process of planning and writing. If this debut is any indication though, I believe he’s on the right track, and I look forward to see what he does next....more
I was a huge fan of Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. But his next novel Disappearance at Devil’s Rock? Not so much. Which is why I was curious when I found out about The Cabin at the End of World, because I wondered just how it would stack up. And as it turned out, I think it fell somewhere in between. Still, one thing is certain—this one feels very different from the author’s previous work.
The story opens on a remote cabin by a lake in New Hampshire, where seven-year-old Wen is on vacation with her parents, Eric and Andrew. On a quiet afternoon, while Wen catches grasshoppers in the front yard, a very tall young man suddenly appears out of nowhere and asks to speak to her. He tells her his name is Leonard, and that he would very much like to be her friend. Although she knows it is wrong to talk to strangers, Wen falls into a comfortable conversation with him, until three more people come walking out from the woods towards them, each dressed like Leonard in jeans and a buttoned-up shirt while brandishing scary improvised weapons. Despite Leonard telling Wen that these newcomers are no friends of is, he is clearly on familiar terms with them, and together they are adamant that they must be allowed into the cabin to speak to her parents.
Terrified, Wen runs inside to alert Eric and Andrew, who are alarmed at the appearance of these four menacing strangers. However, Leonard continues to swear that they mean no harm, that they only want to have a heart-to-heart talkt—so if they would just please open up the door and let them in. He claims that what they must discuss concerns the fate of the entire world. But if Leonard and his companions are as harmless as they claim, then why did they cut the phone lines, their only means of communication in these isolated woods with no cellular reception, where their closest neighbors are miles away in all directions? Why are they still on their front porch clutching their strange makeshift weapons, refusing to go away?
It appears the response is split when it comes to this novel. A couple of my blogger friends loved it, though I know just as many people who had the complete opposite reaction, with one even claiming that the book was a complete waste of their time. After finishing it myself, I think I can better understand now why the reviews have been all over the place. The Cabin at the End of the World is definitely not a book for everyone, and personally, I would not recommend this to readers who prefer stories that tie up neatly with no ambiguity. I would also caution those who are sensitive to violence and horror to stay away. Bad things happen in this book, but not really the sort that would fill you with revulsion or terror. No, in some ways, it’s even worse. This is more like the kind of horror that breaks your heart and hollows you out. Indeed, there’s not much happiness or hope in this story, just a sense of anxiety and despair that keeps your mind teetering constantly on a knife’s edge. If you enjoy heady, atmospheric psychological thrillers, then the tension and dread you’ll find here will make you feel right at home.
That said though, I can also see where some of the criticisms are coming from. Apart from not answering any questions, this story also often made me feel as though not much was happening. For one thing, the plot became very repetitive after a while, with half the book consisting of the same conversation presented in multiple ways. At first, Leonard’s emphatic promises that they weren’t out to hurt anyone paired with his disclination to actually reveal any information was an effective device to ratchet up the suspense. I mean, small wonder that Eric and Andrew would refuse to have anything to do with this apparent bunch of crazies. However, after pages of this same exchange going absolutely nowhere, it started to become tedious. One wonders why Leonard and his pals didn’t just leave their weapons in the woods and approach the house pretending to be a family in need of some help after their car broke down, as it would have spared us all this pointless time-wasting and back-and-forth.
In some ways, I feel The Cabin at the End of the World would have probably made for a better short story. The ideas here were good, but there just wasn’t enough material to sustain a full-length novel. And while I usually have nothing against open endings, I did sort of wish there had been something a little more to this one. Most ambiguous endings still offer a bit of closure, presenting a point to which you can anchor your imagination and let it take care of the rest. But this book felt like it ended in the middle of a longer scene, as if the author himself had no idea how to bring it to a conclusion, so he simply decided not to finish writing it.
In truth, despite some of the issues I was having with the novel, I overlooked a lot of them due to the story’s incredible tension and atmosphere. However, the disappointment I felt at the ending hit me so hard that it probably dragged my final rating down by a full star. Had the final chapter wowed me as much as the first one did, The Cabin at the End of the World might have easily become my favorite Tremblay book. As it is though, I can only recommend this one cautiously. Like I said, it is certainly not for everyone. Keep in mind it’s a book in which horrible things happen to good and bad people alike, and you might not like the way things play out. Definitely not a light read, but it does have the potential to generate a lot of pondering and speculation....more
I’ve never been able to say no to a good fairy tale retelling. They are my absolute weakness, and I’ve been especially tempted as of late by the recent crop of novels touting the point-of-view of the “villain”. It ultimately led me to pick up All the Ever Afters, which boldly bears the tagline describing itself as the untold story of Cinderella’s stepmother, the notoriously cruel and wicked antagonist from the classic fairy tale we all know and love.
However, the author Danielle Teller’s approach to this novel is one that I’ve seldom seen in most fairy tale retellings I’ve read, in that she has completely eschewed all aspects of fantasy and magic, choosing instead to ground her story in history. Opening on the French countryside sometime during the mid-fourteenth or early fifteenth century, the tale introduces readers to Agnes, a young girl born into poverty. Her family could not afford to raise her, so she was sent at the tender age of ten to a nearby lord’s manor to become a laundress’s assistant. Worked to the bone and unfairly treated, Agnes had no choice but to use all her wits and wiles to finagle a better position for herself, eventually managing to escape the manor for a less punishing job at the local abbey.
All goes well for several years until Agnes is seduced by the Abbess’s ward and messenger, and their relationship results in a pregnancy. Ejected from the abbey, our protagonist is set up in a village where she becomes the proprietor of a brewery and alehouse, mostly raising her daughters on her own. But soon, tragedy strikes, and Agnes is forced into a situation where she must work her way up from nothing once more. A twist of fate lands her back in the manor where she worked as a child, but the lord is now married with an infant daughter. And thus, Agnes finds herself hired on to be a nursemaid to little Ella, the awkward but radiantly beautiful girl who will one day marry the handsome prince she meets at a fateful ball.
Now Agnes and her two daughters live at the palace, where she tells her tale in the hopes of showing how accounts of her wickedness have either been greatly exaggerated or are outright lies. In fact, she was a victim of forced labor herself, and All the Ever Afters is her own rags to riches story. It is a heart-wrenching novel about growing up with nothing to your name, of having to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps to make your own success. While there have been times where she had to use her cunning or resort to deception to get what she wants, Agnes is no villain. And if on occasion she was tough on Ella or punished her too harshly as a child, we learn that it is only because Agnes has been independent and hardworking her whole life, and as a result, she cannot bear idleness or watching her stepdaughter grow up helpless and spoiled.
In a way, All the Ever Afters is also the untold story of Cinderella’s stepsisters, called Charlotte and Matilda in this version of the retelling. Like their mother, they aren’t the awful people from the many popular versions of Cinderella either, and they’ve gone through their own share of hard times. Now that I’ve read Teller’s portrayal, I also doubt that I’ll ever think about the “ugly stepsisters” epithet the same way again, not after reading about a mother’s hurt and pain from Agnes’s perspective.
As I said before, this is also a purely non-magical story; there will be no fairy godmothers, pumpkin carriages, or singing animals here (though, I was amused to see, the author had managed to work in a tongue-in-cheek jibe at the popular depiction of Cinderella and her affinity for mice, except in this book, Ella’s friendship with her rat Henrietta is nowhere near as adorable…or hygienic). A lot of fairy tale retellings tend to give the mundane things of the world a fantastical twist, but it seems All the Ever Afters set out to do almost the exact opposite, downplaying the magical elements and addressing all that we know about the Cinderella story with realistic explanations.
I also found it interesting how the novel mirrored many of the original fairy tale’s lessons—that is, to always work hard and never let setbacks or difficult people get you down. However, while the classic version also taught that beauty is esteemed, but that having a good heart is the most important, things are not so idealized in Agnes’s more realistic world. Her stepdaughter Ella—who is naïve, spoiled, and rather soft and vapid—manages to snag a prince and is loved by all in the kingdom for no other reason because she is beautiful. Meanwhile, Charlotte and Matilda, who have endured so much more, will never have anywhere close to the same opportunities simply because they are homely. Agnes’s lesson for her daughters? Life is not fair, but you still do what you must to keep moving forward.
All in all, I enjoyed All the Ever Afters very much. With Cinderella only playing a bit part, this tale truly belongs to her stepmother, who has been given new life by Danielle Teller. In this heartfelt novel, there are no magical spells or fairy godmothers, for Agnes is a woman who relies on nothing but herself to change her life and make a better future for her children. If you prefer fantasy in your fairy tale retellings, you may wish to reconsider this one, but if you don’t mind a narrative that’s more rooted in realism, then I really can’t recommend this highly enough.
Audiobook Comments: I was very impressed by Jane Copland’s narration. From her voice, I imagined Agnes to be a proud, sharp-witted and dignified woman, which is exactly the way her character is written. The audiobook experience brought a whole new level of emotion to the story, which I would not have gotten if I had just read the book. A fantastic listen....more
I’m still kicking myself for not having read Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods, her debut novel which has been garnering all kinds of praise, so when I heard about Temper I decided to check it out. Unfortunately though, I did not take to it as well as I’d hoped. While the writing was excellent and the premise was as imaginative as anything I’ve seen in a while, the book was much too strange for my tastes, which led it to fail in delivering a story of impact.
Temper is a tale of two brothers, twins Auben and Kasim. In fact, in this alternate history novel, set in very different version of South Africa than the one we know, pretty much everyone has a twin. Each pair of siblings is also born with a set of seven vices and seven virtues evenly split between them (we’re talking charity vs. greed, humility vs. vainglory, etc.) which means that occasionally, one twin might end up with all the desired traits while the other is left with the short end of the stick.
Case in point, in their relationship, Auben is the “lesser” twin, since he was born with six vices and only one virtue, while Kasim is the “greater” twin, having won the genetic lottery with six virtues and one vice. This has affected the way society treats the brothers, since lesser siblings are often discriminated against for having more vices. Worse, the twins always have to be in close proximity to each other, else it leads to undesirable physical and mental side effects, so Auben has no choice but to watch as Kasim is showered with positive attention while he himself receives all the prejudice.
Even though the brothers love each other, Auben worries that one day the tensions will inevitably destroy their bond, leading them to grow apart. Lately, he has also been hearing these insidious whispers in his mind, goading him to surrender to his darker instincts—his vices. Growing increasingly perturbed, Auben wants to trust Kasim and share with him his fears and doubts, but he isn’t even sure if his twin, content with his charmed life, will be able to understand.
Temper is a novel whose ideas might make for a better thought experiment than a story. Resplendent with imagination and originality, the premise offers lots of potential for world-building, and indeed we have a unique setting here filled with rich history, culture, and mythology. The plot, however, was a bit of a mess. To reiterate my earlier point, this is a rather weird book, and I will be the first to admit I don’t often do well with weirdness in my speculative fiction. It tends to make me feel untethered, resulting in a difficult time connecting with the story and especially to the characters, and I think this is what happened here.
There was also a lot going on—perhaps a little too much. In addition to the extensive world-building, there was also a fair number of characters to keep track of, not to mention the author’s attempts at plot twists and intrigue. On the bright side, no one could ever accuse this book of being dull, though ironically, the information deluge sometimes affected the pacing and made the story feel slow. While reading this book, several times I would find myself stopping after a dozen pages or so only to realize little to no progress had been made in the plot. This also made things more confusing and further widened the emotional divide between me and Auben, the narrator and protagonist, causing a lot of the nuances in his personality to become lost in the noise. Consequently, I probably didn’t feel as sympathetic to his plight as I was meant to, and the impact of his and Kasim’s relationship was also dampened, weakening what could have been a moving story of brotherly trust and love.
Needless to say, Temper turned out not to be the kind of fantasy novel I typically go for—it was a bit too weird, a bit too offbeat and abstract. That said though, it is a very creative and ambitious endeavor, and if you like books that experiment with crossing genre boundaries or subverting traditional sci-fi and fantasy ideas, you might want to give this one a look. It might not have worked for me, but in the right hands, this book could be a real eye-opener....more
Sometimes I find it difficult to write a review for a book that I loved wholeheartedly, mainly because of all the emotions I’m feeling and it’s as if every single one of them is vying to burst forth from me all at the same time. The Poppy War is one of those books. There’s so much I want to say about it, like why it’s so awesome, why it spoke so strongly to me, and why you should drop everything and read it at once. Really, I just loved this book so damn much, I’m at a complete loss as to where to start.
But perhaps a brief rundown of its premise would be a good first step. The Poppy War is the story of Rin, a war orphan who was adopted into an opium-running peasant family from a poor southern province of Nikara. Life was hard, but tolerable—that is, until they tried to marry her off to a man three times her age. A girl like her has few other options, however; but Rin is determined not to become some fat merchant’s bed slave, surprising everyone when she decides to study for the Keju imperial examinations and ends up acing them to get the top score in the province. An achievement like this automatically gets her into Sinegard, the empire’s foremost academy for military and combat training, and more importantly for Rin, it also gives her a way out of her arranged marriage and a reason to finally leave her old life behind.
But as it turns out, Sinegard is no easy place for a poor southern girl, where the student body is mostly made up children of the Nikan Warlords and elites. To earn an apprenticeship, Rin must work harder than everyone else in the first year to prove her worth. Eventually though, the school’s eccentric Lore master agrees to take her on, recognizing in her a deadly potential. Under Jiang’s tutelage, Rin begins to learn of secret histories and the lost art of communing with the gods, beginning her journey to master the near-mythological forces of shamanism. But before her training can be completed, tensions between the Nikara Empire and the warlike Federation of Mugen across the narrow sea finally reach a breaking point, erupting into all-out war. Along with her fellow students, Rin is conscripted into the militia, providing support in the ensuing evacuations and fighting. Despite their efforts, however, Nikara quickly begins losing ground against the Federation’s might. The Empire’s enemy fights as one, while their side is fractured with indecisiveness and bickering Warlords. Unearthly powers possessed by Rin and those like her may be the only way to save her country now, but tied as they are to terrible and vengeful gods, unleashing them fully can spell deadly consequences for the entire world if she’s not prepared.
Inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War in the early half of the 20th century, The Poppy War includes many parallels to real events, like the 1937 massacre at Nanjing. The setting, however, more resembles the culture and civilization of the Chinese Song Dynasty, where religion and worship of folk gods played a large part in the people’s daily lives, standardized competitive examinations (which the Keju was based on) were heavily emphasized, and the level of military technology was still mostly limited to premodern armor and weapons. The result is a heady mash-up of fantasy and historical fiction, peppered with many elements derived from Chinese mythology, traditions, and folklore.
Initially anticipating this novel to be somewhat akin to Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, I was at first taken by surprise by the writing style, which was much less literary than I expected. At the same time, this made the book much more approachable and easier to read, and the first part of the story even resembles a YA novel in tone and style (though it must be noted, The Poppy War is decidedly NOT a YA novel, but more on that later). Rin’s time at Sinegard is in some ways a very typical “combat/magic school story” in that she must compete for a very limited number of apprenticeships. Along the way, she makes friends and enemies among the students and teachers, while also facing discrimination from certain corners who look down on her and see her humble beginnings as proof that she won’t cut it in the Empire’s most prestigious military academy. If you enjoy books like Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song or Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, you will find plenty to like in this introductory section.
But then, the book moves on to its second act, in which Rin begins her shamanistic training in earnest. I would liken this part most to Karate Kid or Star Wars, where Jiang plays Yoda to Rin’s Luke Skywalker. There’s even a conversation paralleling Han Solo’s famous skeptical quote about the Force, but in Nakara, it is the study of Lore that is widely considered a hokey religion, and few remain in the Empire who believe in the power of an always-present, mystical energy. Rin flirts with regularly with the “Dark Side”, the destructive part of shamanism that, if left unchecked, could be used as a terrible, unstoppable weapon fueled by her anger and hate.
Then, with the invasion of the Federation, the book shifts gears for the third and final time to become more of a military fantasy novel. And here, The Poppy War gets dark. Really dark. Multiple sieges and scenes depicting pitched battles remind me of works like Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns series, with emphasis on military strategy and military life.
In Part Three, we’re also hit with one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever had to read. When you’re Chinese, it’s inevitable that you grow up hearing lots of stories about the Chinese-Japanese conflicts during the Second World War. Countless family histories have been shaped by those events, including mine. It wasn’t until I was older that my grandmother told me her family were landowners who lost everything when the Japanese forces invaded China; the warlords took advantage of the chaos to seize power, her father was set on fire, and she and a great many others had to flee to the cities in order escape the coming onslaught. So there were plenty of sobering moments when reading this book, especially the scenes describing the plight of the villages and the haunting descriptions of the trail of belongings left behind by refugees. And of course, there were the horrific atrocities. Huge warning here: the author drew from actual history for these parts, using accounts of some of the unspeakable acts perpetrated in Nanjing, or the heinous lethal human experiments that took place inside Unit 731, and she does not spare any of the brutal details. At times, it almost got to be too much, but I believe this is because Kuang truly wanted to show the sheer scope of the horrors that took place. Reading about them really shook me up and gave me chills.
Looking back, The Poppy War feels a lot like three books in one. Mainly, the last quarter of the novel feels like a completely different beast compared to everything that came before. It’s a very jarring change, but at the same time, I could understand the reasoning behind the author’s choice to present things this way. The story “grows” with Rin, and so when you look back and juxtapose the darkness in the later chapters with the early sections of the novel, all the character’s difficulties with her studies or her petty squabbles with her schoolmates now feel so trivial and far away. It really hits home just how much the protagonist and the world around her has changed.
In terms of criticisms, I really don’t have any, though I do have some questions on certain aspects of the magic. Like, how exactly does the use of the psychoactive drugs unlock a shaman’s connection to their gods, or why are certain individuals more predisposed to having these powers? And why don’t more Nikarans believe or even know of shamanistic magic when shapeshifting monkey-men and water-people are literally performing incredible, supernatural feats out in the open, right before their very eyes? Still, obviously, these minor concerns are far outweighed by the sheer multitude of positive aspects of the book, like amazing characters, deep and meaningful relationships, well-written and robust world-building, and one hell of an addictive story (no pun intended).
To say I wholeheartedly recommend The Poppy War would be a massive understatement. In fact, I’m only sad that I can’t suggest it to absolutely everyone, mainly because there are some very disturbing scenes in the later parts of the book that I would warn readers against if they are uncomfortable with lots of graphic violence and brutality. If you are okay with this though, then I strongly urge you to give this one a try, as this novel has already rocketed up to the top of my list of favorite fantasy reads of all time. It was everything I wanted and more, and my book hangover is so severe right now that the only thing keeping my spirits up is the knowledge that The Poppy War is intended to be the first part of a planned trilogy, because I seriously wish it never had to end....more
The tragedy of the Donner Party is retold with a supernatural twist in The Hunger, a dark mix of historical fiction and horror. For context, in the May of 1846 a wagon train led by George Donner and James Reed set out from Independence, Missouri like so many other pioneer families hoping to settle a new life in California. Instead of following the typical route, however, the Donner Party opted to travel the new Hastings Cutoff, encountering poor terrain and other difficulties that slowed them down considerably, until they became trapped in heavy snowfall somewhere in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Many of the party died, and some of the survivors allegedly resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.
Alma Katsu’s re-imagining of this journey—while staying true to many of the real-life people, places, and events—also plays to the mystery surrounding the terrible fate of the Donner Party, injecting a speculative element in the form of supernatural horror. While one could argue that the facts are already horrific enough, the author takes the suffering, terror, and dread even further still in this Oregon Trail story from hell that makes dysentery seem like a cakewalk. The Hunger follows several characters from the group of almost 90 members in the Donner Party, including Tamsen Donner, George’s wife; James Reed, the co-leader of the group; Mary Graves, a young woman from a large family traveling with the wagon train; and Charles Stanton, a bachelor traveling with the party with no relatives. In addition, periodic interludes are provided in the form of letters written by a journalist named Edwin Bryant, who has undertaken his own journey into the wilderness to conduct research on the mystical traditions of the Native American tribes living in the area.
Many of the other families are mentioned as well, bringing the number of people involved in this book to a staggering figure. The result? Virtually limitless potential for complex character dynamics and fascinating relationships. And indeed, Katsu made sure to take full advantage of this, giving her characters interesting backgrounds full of scandal, controversies, and mischiefs. For many, starting a new life also meant leaving the old one behind along with painful, unwanted memories. Flashbacks are provided for most of the major characters, explaining their reasons for heading west. These backstories also explained many of their motivations, and gradually revealed hidden pasts. After all, secrets don’t last for long in conditions such as these, where travelers lived cheek to jowl within cramped confines, sharing spaces with multiple families.
As you can imagine, disagreements and bitter rivalries also occurred pretty often, and these clashes only intensified as the Donner Party ran into more problems. In books like The Hunger, the horror aspect usually comes at you at multiple angles. First there is the stifling terror of the unknown, and of course people fear the supernatural because it is impossible to understand. But more frightening still is the underlying darkness of human nature that reveals itself when pushed to extremes. There are two kinds of monsters in this book: the literal kind, but also the kind that good people turn into when they feel trapped or if they or their families are being threatened. Stress, paranoia, and desperation all play a part in this tale, making the horrific aspects feel even deeper, more distressing and malignant.
From the moment the mutilated body of a missing boy is found at the beginning of the book, I was wrapped up in the story’s suspense. Graphic descriptions and scenes of violence are used to create horror, but as always, I found that the most nerve-wracking aspects came not so much from what’s written on the page, but rather from what we don’t get to see and from what’s implied. The author utilized these effects to great advantage, slowly dropping hints and details here and there, all the while sowing dissent among the party with spiteful rumors, arguments, and jealousies. An atmosphere of suspense was kept up for the most part, though because of all the POV switches and number of flashbacks involved, these tensions were frequently interrupted. However, this was just a minor nitpick, and besides, considering the amount of character development we got out of it, I deemed it to be a worthy trade-off.
The Hunger would be perfect for fans of dark historical fiction, especially if you are drawn to the period of American history which saw a great number of families leave their homes in the east for the west coast. Alma Katsu does not shy away from the details of hardship and sacrifice while on the trail though, so be prepared for a harsh and unflinching look at life as a pioneer. Readers with a taste for horror will probably enjoy this even more, and those familiar with the bizarre and macabre details of the true Donner Party will no doubt appreciate the author’s attempts to spice up the episode with a supernatural twist. All in all, a standout read....more
Noir was my first experience with the writing of humorist Christopher Moore, and I was not disappointed. In fact, it’s been a few days since I finished reading the book, and every now and then I still catch myself chuckling at the memory of some of the wild and whacky things that happened in it. Although I’m unable to comment on the way this novel compares with the author’s other work (I’ve come across some reviews from longtime fans that mention that it feels different), l can nonetheless understand why many readers find his stories entertaining.
The book opens in San Francisco, 1947. Protagonist Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin is working as a bartender at Sal’s Saloon, when a beautiful blonde named Stilton (like “the Cheese”, which is henceforth how she will be known to Sammy) breezes in through the door and captures his heart. However, the romance will have to wait, because soon afterwards, Sammy’s boss puts him in contact with an Air Force general who desperately needs his help. Certain “goods and services” are required at an upcoming function being held at the Bohemian Club, and Sammy, with his street smarts and connections, is in the perfect position to make it all happen.
But then, the Cheese disappears, and Sammy grows worried. More troubles also begin mounting as some of his other harebrained schemes proceed to spiral out of control, resulting in poisonous vipers, dead bodies, and the arrival of black-suited government men bedecked in dark sunglasses. Subsequently, when Sammy sets out on his search for the Cheese, he inadvertently stumbles into a loony conspiracy involving a mysterious flying object spotted over Mount Rainer, topped off by an unexplained plane crash in the desert near a town called Roswell, New Mexico.
Part satire and part homage, this novel feels like a zany, breathless love letter to the noir genre. Its influence can be seen everything, from the cover to the dialogue, attitudes, and mannerisms of the characters. It’s a bit like being transported straight into a 1950s classic noir film, with the tone and style of the writing giving the story’s post-war San Francisco an authentic flavor. Moore also provides fascinating commentary on the inspiration for his setting, as well as some of his experiences and the research he did into the culture, history, and environment of the city’s vibrant Chinatown.
That being said, Noir also has the feel of a tongue-in-cheek satire, which apparently is something of a specialty for the author. Certain elements are done in an over-the-top way to emphasize or poke fun at some of the genre’s more distinctive features, including larger-than-life heroes and coquettish femme fatales. As a result, rather than dark and tense, the atmosphere has been replaced by an eccentric, madcap energy that pervades the whole book, so that you have whacky things like chapters written from the perspective of an all-knowing snake, space aliens being smuggled away in rumble seats in the dead of night, and sexy beautiful women with nicknames like “the Cheese”. Noir is not really “noir” as such, in that it doesn’t really fit the style or the tone of the genre, and yet, the overall mood is still very much there, featuring a strong undercurrent of conflict and despondency in spite of some of the sillier themes.
At the end of the day, I suppose what really matters is that I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot. Humor being such a subjective beast, I wasn’t sure if my tastes would mesh well with Christopher Moore’s style, but it appears I no longer have to be concerned on that front. If it means getting more of the same laughs and cleverness I found in Noir, I’m definitely on board to read more of the author’s work.
Audiobook Comments: Johnny Heller has a voice well-suited to a book like this. The gruff raspiness of it might be jarring in any other story, but it turned out to be a good match for a lot of the characters in Noir, especially for Sammy, a slick and somewhat jaded protagonist with a lot of shady connections. More importantly, the humor also comes out in Heller’s performance, as he delivers the satire and lines of snappy dialogue with instinctual timing and flair....more
When I first found out about Gunpowder Moon, I knew I had to read it. I’m a sucker for a good sci-fi mystery in space, and the novel’s lunar setting further sold me on it.
But this is not just another one of your simple murder mysteries, and the main protagonist is not your typical detective. It is the year 2072, and Caden Dechert is a former Marine heading up a US mining operation on moon. He’s a good leader, drawing from his war experience back on Earth as he mentors his team and takes the new recruits under his wing, teaching them all about safety and survival on the lunar surface. Anything from a small leak in a suit to a speck of moon dust getting in the machinery can lead to fatal results, and no one is more diligent or careful than Dechert when it comes protecting his crew.
So when an explosion occurs, killing one of his young miners, everyone is shocked. No one believes it to be an accident, and sure enough, an investigation finds clear signs of sabotage. There are plenty of suspects to go around, but the top brass arriving from Earth are quick to point fingers at the Chinese, who run a rival mining company near the Americans’ base of operations on the edge of the Sea of Serenity. Dechert, however, is not so sure. He knows tensions between the countries are already on edge, with both sides itching for a fight. Unwilling to jump to conclusions—and hoping to avoid an all-out war—he launches his own investigation in search for evidence.
It’s a straightforward enough story, and in fact, Gunpowder Moon is not a very long book, its streamlined plot leaving little room for much filler or downtime. The driving pace gave this novel the feel of a high-octane thriller, making it a very quick and easy read. If anything, I thought the narrative could have used some slowing down, especially during pivotal moments where the author could have furthered increased the tensions or emphasized suspense.
To Pedreira’s credit though, he didn’t skimp on characterization or world-building. Caden Dechert was a wonderful protagonist, well-written and fleshed out. I was able to sense his commitment to his work and to his crew in everything he said and did. I also enjoyed the flashbacks to his life in the military, fighting in the Middle East. These sections gave us a deeper understanding into his personality, as well as possible insight into why he valued the status quo on the moon. War on Earth was ugly, and Dechert would do anything to stop all that death and violence from coming into his new life.
Gunpowder Moon also painted an intriguing picture of lunar life. The desolate landscape notwithstanding, everything about the moon—sights, smells, tastes, and sounds—was described and brought to life in stunning detail. That said, it’s the social aspects I found even more compelling. An entirely different culture exists on the moon that newcomers from Earth would never understand, giving a whole different dynamic to the relationships between the characters. A code of honor among lunar residents was strongly implied, especially for the miners who put their lives on the line every day. It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from; if someone was in need of help, people were always willing to give it, even if those involved were from a rival corporation or country. Thus, a murder meant that the killer had to be extremely motivated, a sticky fact that made Dechert’s quest for the truth that much more complicated and difficult.
No doubt, sci-fi fans seeking fast-paced action and clever intrigue would enjoy Gunpowder Moon. Ironically though, I found that the novel’s mystery plot actually played second fiddle to the wonderful depictions of the politics and culture of lunar life. But while the story could have been stronger, David Pedreira made up for it with excellent world-building and character development, which I felt were the book’s greatest strengths. An entertaining read overall.
Audiobook Comments: Time simply flew by as I listened to Gunpowder Moon, which featured a story that was well-suited to the audio format. Jeffery Kafer was a skilled narrator, successfully bringing out the tensions and excitement in the author’s storytelling. He seldom varied his voices for different characters though, which would have been my only criticism, but otherwise this audiobook was a great listen and I would recommend it....more
We’ve all heard the cautionary tales involving social media, about the dangers of being constantly plugged in. Nick Clark Windo’s dark thriller debut takes this idea even further, imagining a future where people are permanently connected via implants so that access to everything is instantaneous as well as continuous. This is “the Feed” that the novel’s title is referring to—a new tech that humans have become so dependent on, and so addicted to, that society can no longer function without it. And so, when the Feed collapses one day, the results are predictably catastrophic. Some of the most basic skills and knowledge are lost to the digital abyss as everyone must now learn how to survive offline and fend for themselves in this Feed-less new world.
For couple Kate and Tom, the adjustment has not been easy. But they have managed to keep going the past few years, living with a group of survivors as they raised their daughter Bea, who was born post-collapse. But then one day, Bea goes missing, snatched away by raiders, and so Kate and Tom must embark on a treacherous journey to bring her back.
It’s said that things have to get bad before they can get better, and likewise, some books make you go through some really rough patches before you can get to the good parts of the story. The Feed was a book like that. For most of the first half, I struggled with nearly everything—the characters, the plot, the world-building. From the moment the story opened, my patience was put to the test. I found both protagonists horribly off-putting. Kate was especially annoying, as a heavy user of the Feed before its collapse. She was an attention monger, self-absorbed and totally oblivious. To be fair, she was probably written this way by design, but in this case the author might have overplayed her personality. Tom, on the other hand, struck me as bland and lacking in any spirit or agency. I didn’t feel like I could connect to either of them at all, which made the first part of this book a difficult slog. I also struggled with the world-building and the exaggerated side effects of the Feed. Humans are biologically hard-wired for curiosity, and I found it hard to believe that almost the entire population would simply surrender themselves to the Feed unquestioningly and let themselves become so helpless.
And then the collapse happened, and subsequently, Bea’s disappearance really turned things around. Not to the point where I suddenly loved the book, mind you, but the story did become immensely more enjoyable once Tom and Kate finally had something to fight for. The second half of The Feed unfolded a lot more like a traditional dystopian novel, following our protagonists as they traversed the post-apocalyptic landscape, encountering violence and suffering. However, there is also a unique element to this world, which comes in the form of a very specialized threat. Even after the collapse, the sinister legacy of the Feed remains as those who possess the biological implants live in fear of being “taken”, a term to describe the process of being hacked and having your consciousness along with your personality and memories wiped clean and replaced. The result is a lot of chaos, mistrust, and panic, along with an “us vs. them” mentality among the survivors. While The Feed is not a zombie story, you can see how the overall tone and some of its themes can sometimes make it feel like one.
There is also a monumental twist near the end that changed nearly everything, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it simply because it was so out of left field. Did it make this book more interesting? Yes. But in terms of whether it made the story more coherent or feasible, probably not. That said, I’m impressed with how Windo handled the challenges that came about because of this surprising development. Everything could have fallen apart, but ultimately he was able to keep the threads of the story together and saw things through to the end.
I won’t lie, there were a lot of issues with this novel, particularly with the pacing and balance of the story’s numerous concepts. Still, there were plenty of fascinating ideas in here that I appreciated for their originality, especially once I got past the initial hurdles. There’s an almost sputtering, sporadic feel to the plot; in some ways, it’s like an engine that needs to be primed several times before it catches, but once it starts running, the ride smooths out and becomes a lot more enjoyable. The journey was certainly not boring, and that’s probably the best thing I can say about a novel in a saturated market like the dystopian genre....more