5 Stars.Trigger warnings for self-harm, postpartum depression, suicide, infanticide, family trauma, abuse, untreated mental illness, and probably more I’m not realizing.
Iseult is odd: awkward, nervous, strangely pale, and has a huge scar where here collarbone broke during her delivery, killing her mother. But that’s ok, because her mother now lives in that scar and talks to her, telling her what to do and how to live. In fact, her mother won’t leave her alone! The only thing that calms her mother’s voice and makes Iseult feel normal is cutting.
Iseult’s father keeps trying to marry her off, but she’s a bit of an old maid, not terribly pretty, and says very strange things at the worst times. She has no interest in getting married, but she also has no interest in living with her father either. Iseult’s father is cruel to her and can’t wait to be rid of her. Once it becomes painfully clear that Iseult will never willingly marry and leave his house, he arranges a marriage.
When he introduces Iseult to Jacob, a man with silver skin, it appears that things could maybe change for the better. Jacob is kind to Iseult, and Iseult starts to have hope. But her mother does everything she can to manipulate Iseult in ways that are confusing and selfish. Iseult must battle with herself, her father, and her mother’s voice to try to find happiness.
Most of this book is about Iseult and her mother struggling with each other. It’s full of horrible things happening to Iseult. Lies, betrayals, unnecessary cruelties. It does not end happily, but you do get some closure.
This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the most disturbing. There were moments when I had to set it down for a second to catch my breath, but I never wanted to stop reading it. It’s just so good! I think “beautiful nightmare” describes it well. Do not read this book if you have any of the triggers attached below. They are extreme.
The Unsuitable is so beautifully written. It’s upsetting but also exciting and fascinating. You love and care for Iseult, which makes it even harder to read her tragic journey. I will buy anything Molly Pohlig writes in the future.
The Unsuitable was published 4/14/2020. Thank you to Henry Holt & Co. and Netgalley for providing an ARC. Review originally posted to @jocelyn73c Bookstagram account.
5 Stars.Out 3/24/20. Trigger warnings for eating disorders, body horror.
Elise’s best friend Julie was missing for two years. Their friends Molly and Mae were certain she was dead. They had a funeral for her. And then Julie came back with no memory of the time she was gone.
Trying to get life back to normal, the four women decide to go on a girls trip to a trippy boutique hotel in the Catskills. But when they all get there and see Julie for the first time since her return, they realize something is very very wrong. And yet, no one can bring themselves to talk to Julie about it, not even Elise. Not until it’s too late.
The Return by Rachel Harrison is an amazing book, scary and thrilling with well crafted characters. Harrison blends absolute terror with humor and humanity. There are well-placed moments of levity, and even the most frightful scenes are injected with meaning beyond just a good scare.
This book an excellent examination of female friendship, especially with groups of women who have known each other for a long time–the history you bring up and the history you agree to forget; the wrongs done to each other that can build up; the resentment, the judgement, but also the deep love. What do you owe your closest friends? What do they owe you? What does it mean to really be there for each other? While this is obviously a horror novel and exists in the realm of the fantastic, it is very likely you have been in Elise’s situation before…trying to figure out how to help an old friend who is clearly having problems and could use support, but perhaps the baggage between the two of you is getting in the way.
In asking these questions and tackling these problems, The Return does that thing that I love best about horror, which is shine a light on real life struggles. I really loved The Return and recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about female friendship, the movie Jennifer’s Body, and/or folk horror (yup, there’s a bit of that in there).
Thank you to Netgalley and Berkley Publishing Group for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
4 stars. Trigger warnings for child neglect, torture, death of a parent, graphic violence.
I’ve been blessed lately with books that feel like they’ve come right out of The X-Files, and as a massive X-Files fan this is obviously great for me! I wasn’t sure what to expect from Bent Heavens, but I knew Daniel Kraus’ impressive track record. Despite not having read any of his work in the past, I felt like I could trust him. That trust was in great jeopardy for a lot of this book, but by the end Kraus found himself in the camp of authors that I will automatically read no matter what.
Liv Fleming’s father is gone. He disappeared one day, for the second time, but this time he didn’t come back. Was Lee Fleming right? Did aliens truly abduct him to conduct brutal experiments? Or did he just go crazy? One thing was clear, he was very unwell. Liv has done her best to move on: she has new friends and participates in new activities, but her past refuses to leave her. Her mom is an alcoholic trying to hold down two jobs and her old childhood friend, Doug, will not let her father go. He dutifully follows Lee’s instructions, confounding as they are. Every week Doug and Liv check the traps Lee built to keep them safe from the beings he swore took him.
Liv can’t find it in her to cut Doug off, to tell him she won’t play along anymore. But right when she feels herself about to break free, she finds something in one of Lee’s traps…something that looks startlingly extraterrestrial. What happens next, what she and Doug do and what Liv discovers, is so horrific and heart-breaking. This book comes to its horror designation honestly.
Doug falls down a horrific and all too real rabbit hole. He does research on “enhanced interrogation techniques” from the Bush era and makes it his mission to go through each technique with the creature. At first it was to force information out of the creature about what happened to Lee Fleming. But that flimsy excuse goes out the window fast, and it soon becomes solely about the torture.
This goes on for at least a third of the book. It felt like they were torturing a dog. I was about to give up. It was so brutal and hard to read. But just in time, Liv decides to dig a little deeper and break out of Doug’s rageful gravity. What she discovers, however, only compounds the horror of her and Doug’s actions.
I think it’s important to mention here that the afterword is a note from Daniel Kraus concerning the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, which makes the purpose of the book and the actions of some of the characters painfully clear. This book is a statement against torture. It is a brutal and honest look at what governments have sanctioned under pathetic if not fully false pretense. Humans have a lot of evil potential inside of us, and it doesn’t take much to let that flourish. But we also have a lot of good, powerful enough to conquer that evil.
This book feels a lot like The X-Files in many ways: the “something strange in a small town” vibe and the science fiction twist, but most importantly the conspiracy aspect. The reminder that a healthy distrust of authority is critical. It’s a poke in the side to remind us that the truth is out there, and we need to be brave enough to shine a harsh and unforgiving light on it. That is the only way to let the good in to conquer the evil. Sometimes that can take extreme bravery and courage. This in no way condones irresponsible conspiracy theory rhetoric and behavior. There is definitely a line between “healthy distrust” and harmful nonsense.
I can’t say Bent Heavens ends happily, but it does ends satisfyingly. The strongest moments are definitely in the beginning and later portions of the book. I know that Kraus is making a point with his extended focus on torture, but to me those scenes were the weakest.
In addition to the intense plot and excellent twists that Kraus works in throughout Bent Heavens, the writing itself is really great. You get swept up in it and carried through all manner of horrors and action. Kraus also captures the sensations and experiences of grief wonderfully. Liv struggles through the entire book with the trauma of losing her dad in such a public way and without much closure. It colors everything she does, every decision she makes. Putting her actions up against her friend Doug’s (who also viewed Lee as a father) is a wonderful way to compare what grief can do to individuals.
While Bent Heavens is classified as a Young Adult novel, I would only recommend it to older teens. It’s a bit of a roller coaster and will surely have readers divided. But despite struggling through a chunk of the book, I found that it was worth it in the end.
Published 2/25/20. Thank you to Henry Holt and Co. (BYR) and NetGalley for providing an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review. Review originally published on jocelyniswrong.com.
This is a nasty little book, brutal and beautiful. To call it simply atmospheric would be doing it a great disservice. Jennifer Giesbrecht’s debut novella The Monster of Elendhaven is absolutely phenomenal. In a short 160 pages, Giesbrecht paints a world of cold, dark filth. It drips with pain and sorrow. The characters are wretched but fascinating and fully developed. I use these descriptors not as a way to dissuade you in reading it, but to let you know what arena you’d be playing in. The characters are wretched, yes, but you love to follow them in their dastardly plots. The setting is stark and harsh, but you will not be able to look away. And while the story is creepy and gory, it has moments of true tenderness and humor.
In The Monster of Elendhaven, a superhuman man named Johann stalks the dark and seedy streets of Elendhaven, acting as the city’s own Jack the Ripper of sorts. There’s something unique about Johann though: it appears he can’t be killed. He’s tried. Multiple times. When he encounters Florian, a man from one of Elendhaven’s oldest families, he sees a kindred spirit. Soon they team up, Johann acting as the strong arm for Florian’s dark revenge fantasies. But even the best laid of evil plans can experience some hiccups. Someone is hunting Florian, and they mean to kill.
Magic plays a huge role in this book, but it’s the kind of magic that you need to look at out of the corner of your eye. Sorcerers and magic used to fill the world, but as time passed it became dangerous to be a sorcerer. It was punished, shunned, and bred out of society…but not entirely. Elendhaven, being a fantasy mirror of a Germanic/Nordic country, has old magic and old lore that does not forget the truth behind the universe. It is a place where fantastical things can still happen. I love settings like this, that exist in the spaces between the modern mundane world and an older magical world.
What Giesbrecht does in such a short space is so impressive. She gives us a fully realized story, equipped with rich characters, a visceral setting, a deep mythology, and a satisfying end. And while we only get a fragment of the lore this world contains, it is robust and offers the appropriate support to the tale at hand. I could read a whole series based on these characters or set in Elendhaven or its surroundings.
The Monster of Elendhaven is like if Tim Burton and Rob Zombie collaborated on a film together. It’s a Dickensian tale on crystal meth. It will chill you to your core but leave you wanting more. I wait in eager anticipation for whatever Giesbrecht publishes next!
I grew up on a lake. My grandparents had an adorable lake house on one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York very close to the small town I grew up in. We spent most of our summer days making the quick drive to their house and enjoying the fresh, cool water, the slight breeze, the gorgeous and magical woods, and the secret worlds we created. There were caves, waterfalls, glens, clearings, fields of wild flowers, and of course the lake itself. We learned how to swim and sail on that lake, and spent countless hours sunbathing on the dock and telling ghost stories around the fire on the beach. Our favorites were about the ancient monsters that lived at the bottom of the deep Finger Lakes, which were formed by glaciers making giant cuts in the land thousands of years ago.
Lake houses mean true peace, serenity, and happiness to me, so this book hit me like a ton of bricks. I was always on the look-out for ghosts in and around my grandparents’ lake house, but Scott Thomas’ Violethas made me grateful I never found them!
After Kris’ husband is killed in a crash, Kris takes her young daughter Sadie to her family’s lake house on Lost Lake in Pacington Kansas to get away from the memories and the prying eyes of family for the summer. Kris hasn’t been back to the lake house in thirty years, since she was a child herself. Her memories of the place are happy and full of joy, and she thinks the house could help her and her daughter handle the grief of suddenly losing her husband. The issue (one of many, as it turns out) is that the lake house hasn’t been touched in years. It has been neglected and is now overgrown and even rotting in some places. And it becomes very clear early on that the state of the lake house mirrors the state of Kris’ soul, and just like with her own trauma, Kris assumes she can just slap a coat of paint over it and it will get better.
Not long after Kris and Sadie reach the house, Sadie starts to act very peculiar. Her behavior becomes increasingly erratic. As Kris struggles to decipher what is happening to her daughter, she begins to uncover dark truths about her own past and the history of her family’s lake house that she repressed for years. There was a reason her father never took her back after the summer of 1988, after her mother died. There was a reason why everyone who tried to rent the place for the summer always asked to switch to a different house. There was a reason her father wanted to let the house rot after his own death. And now Kris has to face this truth head on to save her daughter and herself.
I know this summary makes Violet sound like one big metaphor for past repressed trauma, and it is, but don’t worry…it’s full of terrifying paranormal shit too. There were moments during this book that had me on the edge of my seat with my hair standing on end. It truly terrified me. I really enjoyed Thomas’ use of the paranormal concept of tulpas, which is criminally underutilized in my opinion. But as a metaphor for how we manage past and present family trauma, Violet works wonderfully! As my father-in-law says, if you keep sweeping shit under the rug, one day you’re going to trip over that rug.
Thomas’ writing is cinematic and sweeping. He takes his time with descriptions and really lets you sink into a scene. He reminds me of Stephen King in that way. I felt that Violet showed a lot of similarities to Pet Sematary in particular, especially concerning the questions of family, death, and the limits (or lack thereof) of grief. Good horror addresses the nasty truths of life. Thomas has done that here, and he has beautifully crafted a story that all readers can relate to whether they believe in ghosts and tulpas or not.
Throughout the book, music is successfully used to usher in both the beauty of the past and the pain. My lake house memories also have a soundtrack that feels like warm summers, cookouts, laughter, and family. If those songs were suddenly perverted to work directly against those associations, I’d probably lose my mind. This is exactly what Thomas does to Kris, and I loved it. I have to tip my hat to anyone genius enough to transforming “Blackbird” by the Beatles into one of the most horrifying songs in the world. From now on, every time I hear a college dude with an acoustic guitar clumsily strumming that melody on the quad of the campus I work on, I will have to replace my eye roll with a shudder of pure terror!
“Blackbird” aside, I would like to request that someone make a Spotify playlist with all the titles mentioned throughout the book, because they are some of my favorite songs of all time. Whoops, looks like I did that myself.
There are monsters in the world, unspeakable evils that rob us of that which is most precious to us. Life can break your heart and rip you apart, but Noah Turner has more to contend with than the familiar horrors of human existence. Noah can see monsters, like real monsters. Big harry creatures. And they can see him too.
Shaun Hamill’s A Cosmology of Monsters is an incredibly touching story about the Turner family. What starts off as a cute love story quickly turns to sorrow as Harry and Margaret Turner and their three children face tragedy after tragedy over the years. But in the midst of their struggles (struggles that many of us would recognize and be acquainted with), a fantastical element rears it’s furry, sharp-toothed head. A true monster has had its sights on the Turner family for decades, and Noah, the youngest, decides to let it into his home, his family, and his heart. What Noah doesn’t know is that his father also saw monsters, and his mother knew something was wrong.
I knew from the cover art that this was a book I needed to pick up. Once I read the synopsis I was hooked, and I couldn’t put it down. This stunning literary horror debut hit me in all the right places. I was up way past lights out flipping the pages, fully invested in the Turner family’s story and the monster(s) that haven’t stopped haunting them for generations. I couldn’t get enough of the throwback 80s/90s vibes mixed with Lovecraftian horror! Despite it being a horror/fantasy novel, I found it oddly relatable.
Not only did Hamill tell an amazing and spooky tale, but he successfully created a cross-genre masterpiece. When people think of horror, their minds usually go to slashers or haunted houses. It is actually an incredibly rich and diverse genre with a little something for everyone. The beauty of horror is that it can act as an incredibly effective mirror to society. The really timeless horror writers recognize this and build their spine-tingling tales on elements rooted in real life.
Good horror is like a good lie, there’s a lot of truth mixed in with the rest. In A Cosmology of Monsters, I would say that truth element is generational trauma. The Turner family faces a lot of hardship, but their biggest struggle is one of communication and forgiveness. It’s a story of regret, reconciliation, and family healing. But don’t get me wrong, it’s also about big scary monsters and a hidden inter-dimensional city hungry for your soul. Don’t worry, there are true horror elements wrapped up in the interpersonal family drama. Hamill’s writing is so beautifully descriptive that it will make you cry and shiver in equal measure.
A Cosmology of Monsters has absolutely landed itself on my favorites of 2019 list. If you enjoy family sagas, literary fiction, horror, or science fiction I highly recommend this debut novel by Hamill. I definitely recommend it if you are a fan of the TV shows Stranger Things and This Is Us (weird, I know). I would also compare A Cosmology of Monsters to Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, both pulling on Lovecraftian elements and involving family stories over generations.