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Book Review: When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole

4 stars. Triggers for racism, white supremacy, gaslighting, racial violence, poverty/debt, death of a loved one, housing insecurity, gentrification.

Image from Goodreads

Alyssa Cole is a huge favorite of mine. Her romances are so much fun (and quite steamy), so when I saw she was coming out with a thriller I knew I needed to pick it up asap. That combined with the pitch of Rear Window meets Get Out…my excitement cannons were blasting! And let me just tell you, When No One Is Watching lives up to the excitement. It’s all the good stuff: excellent writing, rich and relatable characters, intrigue, thrills, romance, concise and relevant social commentary. But it’s also incredibly anxiety inducing, because it is so real.

Sydney Green has returned home to her mother’s Brooklyn brownstone after surviving a horrible marriage full of gaslighting and abuse. She was hopeful that the presence of her mother, best friend, and beloved neighborhood would offer her the love and support she needed to heal and thrive, but with her mother’s failing health and the predatory gentrification exploding around her, Sydney feels her life is spiraling out of her control.

As neighbors and familiar businesses start disappearing suddenly without a word, only to be replaced by white yuppies and their over-priced boutiques, Sydney starts to think there is a larger nefarious conspiracy going on…or is she going crazy? Everything happening around her goes against everything she’s known about her neighbors and herself, and when she can’t buy cigarettes or take an Uber without being directly or indirectly threatened by mysterious white people, how can she take action to discover what exactly is going on in her neighborhood?

It turns out that Sydney is not crazy at all. Something evil and insidious is happening, and Sydney might be her neighborhood’s last hope. Luckily she has a bit of help along the way from an unlikely source.

When No One Is Watching sheds a bright light on predatory and targeted gentrification and systemic racism and white supremacy. I live in a very gentrified city, and as I was reading this book I was thinking about the people I know who have been evicted from their homes that they’ve lived in for 15+ years, or folks who can’t afford to stay in a neighborhood that, for generations, meant home and community for them. All so that the Whole Foods can move to a larger lot. I even wondered about my own apartment building and neighbors. It was definitely hard to read some parts of this book, because it just felt so real.

While When No One Is Watching is not horror in the fantastical sense, it certainly is in the realistic sense. This is real life horror. Cole’s humor and style of writing make the book entertaining and exciting to read, but you would be wrong in thinking that When No One Is Watching isn’t making a clear statement. For people who are trying to understand more about systemic racism (as we all should be), this would be a good book to pick up followed closely by The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. I look forward to more thrillers by Alyssa Cole!

Out 9/1/20. Thank you to Netgalley and William Morrow Paperbacks / HarperCollins Publishers for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

New Coming-of-Age Horror for Your Fall TBR

One of the most beloved horror tropes is the coming-of-age story. Admit it. You love the Losers Club, Stand By Me, Monster Squad, The Lost Boys…anything that reminds you of that last summer before high school when you were biking (or in my case, rollerblading) around town with your best buds, sneaking into movie theaters, staying up all night in your forts or around campfires, and learning new and potentially upsetting truths about the world. Horror pairs so well with this kind of story because many times our real life coming-of-age anecdotes are horrific in one way or another. At the very least it was a significant transition, and those can be tough. Horror stories can act as a catharsis, a way to feel control, or a fun way to play out nostalgia and revisit some important and potentially fond memories with your best friends before the world made you an adult.

Lucky for us, this fall is seeing a handful of books that could plug that nostalgia hole in your heart! I want to highlight five today. They range from middle-grade to adult and hit on a wide range of subjects.

Image from Goodreads

Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones (9/1, Tor.com): As always, Stephen Graham Jones delivers an inventive and mind-blowing story that both completely disturbs and delights. Sawyer and his best friends are growing up. The end of high school is looming, and they’ve long since stopped playing games like they did as kids. But when they decide to prank one of their own at her job in a movie theater using an old mannequin they used to play with, Sawyer feels like they’re kids all over again. But then the mannequin stands up and walks away by itself, and only Sawyer sees it happen. Shortly after, people start dying. This novella has quite a few twists and a campy B horror vibe, but overall it’s a tight plot with a heartbreaking end. Night of the Mannequins is a delusional and demented coming-of-age story with Jones’ distinct tone (lighthearted and fucked up, pleasantly mixed together). Adult audience. Trigger warnings for mental illness, violence/murder, death of a close friend.

Image from Goodreads

The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry (9/8, Berkley Books): Holding on to her dark fantasy roots, Christina Henry delivers a brutal dose of nostalgia with her 1980s throw-back small town horror novel The Ghost Tree. Lauren is about to turn 15, and her life has been difficult lately. Her mom has been on her case about every little thing, her best friend Miranda is more interested in boys than hanging out at the Ghost Tree in the woods like they used to, and, oh yeah, Lauren’s dad was brutally murdered in those same woods a year ago. But her life is about to get a whole lot harder when the dark curse that has a tight hold on their small town of Smith’s Hollow starts to go off the rails and things get even more dangerous and terrifying than they already were. The Ghost Tree felt a bit like Stephen King’s IT in that Lauren is faced with the dark events of her childhood and her coming of age. And the way that hate works as an infection and a tool of dark supernatural forces throughout the town feels a lot like Pennywise to me (in the best way). And I feel I must mention that fans of Stranger Things will surely enjoy this book. This was my first Christina Henry read, and I cannot wait to dig into her other series! Adult audience. Trigger warnings for death of a loved one, racial violence, murder and gore, inappropriate relationships between an adult and a minor.

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The Last Halloween by Abby Howard (10/06, Iron Circus Comics): This horror comedy comic is technically YA, but adults will find lots to love here. Mona is a ten-year-old left to her own devices on Halloween night when she’s attacked by…a monster? Fleeing to find help, she runs into a motley crew of…entities? And is taken back to their…mad scientist guardian? While with her new friends, Mona learns about how there is one monster for every human, and the only thing usually keeping the monsters at bay is a human who seems to have been killed. So now the monsters are free to roam and murder to their hearts’ content. Well, you know what this means. It’s now up to Mona and her new friends to try to save humankind and the world as they know it! But Mona, who is wise and sassy beyond her years, is really annoyed that she’s stuck with the job. Why couldn’t they get ahold of Kurt Russell? The Last Halloween is funny, gruesome (definitely for older teens and above), action-packed, and full of heart and found family vibes. Young Adult and up audience. Trigger warning for gore.

Image from Goodreads

For Better or Cursed by Kate M. Williams (12/15, Random House Children’s, Delacorte Press): Originally slated to come out September 15th, it looks like the publication date has been bumped to December 15th, but I’m still gonna talk about it. This is the second installment in the Babysitter’s Coven series, which follows Esme Pearl and Cassandra Heaven during their adventures as Sitters: monster fighting, dimension defending, supernaturally skilled badasses who also sometimes babysit. The first book was an absolute delight and definitely deliver that coming-of-age vibe with a side of teen drama and a large helping of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In this next installment, Esme is finally getting used to her new reality, but something is off with Cassandra and she can’t quite figure it out. Even more stressful…they have been called to a once-in-a-generation conference (for lack of a better descriptor) by the Sitter’s governing body to basically train up and meet others in the organization. But despite this opportunity, Emse can’t stop feeling like something is wrong. Young adult and up audience.

Image from Goodreads

Don’t Turn Out the Lights: A Tribute to Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark edited by Jonathan Maberry (9/1, HarperCollins Children’s Books): This is less about coming of age and more for readers who might be experiencing their own coming of age right now. This middle-grade horror and dark fantasy anthology is jam-packed full of amazing stories by some of the hottest names in horror fiction, including Tananarive Due, Josh Malerman, R.L. Stine, and more. This collection, as it says in the subtitle, is a tribute to the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series that many of us loved growing up and had a profound effect on who we are now as adults. It even includes creepy illustrations. That seems worth a shout out in a coming-of-age round up to me! If you have any spooky kids in your life, this would make a great Halloween gift. Middle-grade audience.

Full reviews of some of these books are on the way and will be published when the books are. Which are you most excited to get your hands on? And what are your favorite nostalgic horror reads? Let us know in the comments, and happy reading!

Thank you to Netgalley and all listed publishers for providing ARCs for review.