For Fans Of:Tana French, Christina Henry, dark fantasy and crime novels
Trigger Warnings:Murder (both of children and adults), violence, gun violence, death of family members, abandonment, missing persons, mental illness, divorce, bullying
I first discovered Cynthia Pelayo’s work with her collection Loteria, which features dark fantasy short stories and flash fiction based on the Mexican game with the same name. I own a copy of the game and absolutely love the illustrations associated with it. Sometimes for fun I’ll pull Loteria cards and then flip through Pelayo’s book to read her entry on that specific card. It’s a wonderful way to go through that collection. Pelayo is a well established name in horror and crime writing, especially for her poetry. Her most recent poetry collection, Into the Forest and all the Way Through, honors the life and stories of over one hundred missing or murdered women.
When I heard that Pelayo had a novel coming out this year, I rushed to Netgalley with the hopes it would be available. It was. I smashed the download button so hard. Children of Chicago is dark, gut-wrenching, emotional, and relatable. After having heard Pelayo talk on several panels and reading her past work, I know the deep admiration and affection she has for Chicago and its Latinx populations, having grown up there herself. It is clear that Children of Chicago is another tribute to this world she holds so close.
Detective Lauren Medina has dealt with loss her entire life, but now that her father has passed away, her divorce is finalizing, and her partner on the force is retiring, things seem to be coming to a head. When teenagers start turning up dead around Medina’s childhood neighborhood in Chicago along side new graffiti announcing the Pied Piper, Medina realizes that her painful past is anything but behind her. In fact, the deaths of her sister and stepmother are more closely connected to Medina’s current case than anyone could guess. What appears to be instances of gang violence and children attacking other children might have a deeper, more sinister origination. Something that has been around for centuries, and does not care about the rules of our world. Can Lauren stop the cycle and free the city and herself from terror in this dark modern retelling of an old fairy tale?
Pelayo writes about painful realities with a patina of folklore. I recently did some research on folklore, urban legends, and how we communicate, and the histories and connects between in all are really fascinating. It was incredibly fun to see this melding of urban legend with folklore and fairy tales in Children of Chicago. The book felt a lot like Candyman and Slender Man — Slender Man, in particular — which have both transcended urban legend status and gone on to a sort of mythological standing. The plot is an example of old folklore tropes being communicated through urban legend and interpreted through new technology to cause real harm, much like what happened with the Slender Man killings. But Children of Chicago is much more than that. It’s a look at real violence in real communities and the darkness that stretched across generations, across centuries, that causes it. And it’s about a beautiful, complicated city, which feels a lot like a stand-in for our society at large.
I think most people are familiar with Pelayo as a poet, so Children of Chicago is a bit of a change-up. Her skill as a poet is very apparent in her prose. I enjoyed her style of writing, especially for this dark fairy tale retelling. It had something like an affectation to it, which I felt added necessary atmosphere to the plot and characters. Her characters felt very present on the page. I really enjoyed Pelayo’s mixture of genres, adding a bit of crime, mystery, horror, and dark fantasy. Children of Chicago is dark and can be pretty terrifying at times. I recommend it to fans of authors like Tana French and Christina Henry, shows like The Killing and The Fall, and anyone who likes dark secrets coming home to roost.
Children of Chicago will be out on 02/09/21.Thank you to Netgalley and Agora Books for providing me with a digital ARC.
This past year was both a successful and frustrating reading year for me. I finished 90 books, which is the most I’ve read in one year ever, but I saw a significant drop-off in my reading after March. This was mostly due to COVID-19 stress and anxiety. My husband and I also were fortunately enough to buy a house this year, so that took up a lot of time and brain power.
Here are my favorite books that I read in 2019 and 2018. These lists are on my old blog.
Below are my favorite books that I read in 2020. I’ve sectioned them off into different categories, and I think I’ll continue to do this for future Best Of lists. It’s fun and offers an opportunity for more explanation and context. If I have existing reviews of these books, I will link to them!
Favorite Backlist Titles
The Diviners by Libba Bray: I’ve owned this series for years, and now that Bray has finished it I have little excuse to hold off reading it! The Diviners (and the entire series) is an example of one of those books that I know will be perfect for me, so I think subconsciously I keep putting them off because I don’t want them to be over. Another example of this for me is My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix. The Diviners was everything I had hoped for! Exciting, action-packed, full of fascinating historical details, amazing characters, vivid settings, and extremely strong political commentary. This was the only book I could focus on during the worst parts of my reading slump. Read my full review here.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: I read this early in 2020 and was lucky enough to hear Machado speak when she visited Pittsburgh. She surprised and delighted me! Her writing is very serious, dark, introspective, and absolutely brilliant. When speaking casually, however, Machado is effervescent, warm, welcoming, and also still absolutely brilliant. I was intimidated by this essay collection about intimate partner abuse because I could feel the weight of it and even related to certain elements. The inventiveness with which she approached the formatting and narrative structure blew me away completely. Machado will always be a must-read for me.
Lolly Willowesby Sylvia Townsend Warner: I loved this quiet kooky little book! Written in 1926, the plot follows Lolly, an unmarried childless woman in England who, after a whole life of living with family members, helping to raise nieces and nephews, and following social norms, decides to move out to the country where she can be alone! This is shocking to her family, and they simply do not accept her decision. They don’t stop her from doing it, but they constantly question her choice. Living alone makes her feel free and joyful, but soon her family follows her and invades her new-found sanctuary. To rectify the situation, Lolly makes a deal with the devil. Literally. It kind of comes out of nowhere and I love it! The tone of this book is warm and a bit silly. You sympathize deeply with Lolly, and you can’t help but want to move to her remote little village (where apparently everyone are Satanists). This book does a wonderful job of describing why it is so important to have independence and autonomy, even when it comes to the little things.
Bunnyby Mona Awad: Talk about a head-scratching ‘huh?’ of a book! I loved it, but I do not understand it hahaha I don’t want to say much because it’s best to go in cold for this one. Just know that it feels like a fever dream. This was very entertaining and distracting during a weird and hard year. It also made me have some deep thoughts that were fun to explore.
The Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams: I love this YA series that has been frequently and accurate described as Buffy meets the Babysitters Club! Esme is a normal teen. She loves fashion, music, babysitting, and spending time with her best friend. Cassandra is a new girl in town, a bit rough around the edges. When the football coach (and Esme’s Dad’s best friend) tells the two girls that they are actually chosen ones with supernatural abilities that need to be used to protect the human realm from the realm of the demons, they have questions. But there is no denying the fact that they are different. And when the little girl Esme is babysitting on Halloween is kidnapped, all hell breaks loose (literally). Esme and Cassandra have to achieve the unthinkable under shocking circumstances. This is a very fun series. The second book recently came out with another on the way!
The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns: I think about this book all the time. I had never read any Comyns before, but I feel like I need to read all her work now. This short book is brutal and fantastical. It feels a bit like del Torro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in that way. A young woman in (I’m guessing 19th century) England watched her dearly beloved mother die of illness while her father’s indifference adds to the grief. Her father is a cruel, evil man who abuses his daughter constantly. When he’s not abusing her he’s neglecting her. During times of extreme stress, she discovers that her body floats of its own accord. It’s not long before this is discovered. This is a story of abuse, trauma, grief, and self-love. It does not end happily at all, but it completely blew my mind.
Severance by Ling Ma: I already planned to read this book in 2020, but luck would have it that I actually picked it up in March. I was one of those people who wanted to consume as much plague content as I could in the first few months of quarantine. I’m still down with the sickness, but not as heavily as back then. This was an honest, realistic look at what a situation like ours could become. It was unsettling, humorous at times, and made me feel grateful that our plague is not any worse (although I hear that a new strain is taking hold). Ling Ma’s writing is fabulous, and I recommend this book to anyone.
Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queenby Dexter Palmer: Ho boy! This is a book about a woman who appeared to give birth to rabbits in 18th century England. What a bonkers tale. And it’s true! Kind of. This fictionalization of some incredibly bizarre events had me glued to the page. I feel like I learned a lot about general life in England at that time, as well as medical knowledge and how information was shared across the country. I really enjoy historical fiction that gives me a window into specific period of the past, and Dexter did a wonderful job of that. This was the book where I learned that people who write Science Fiction are usually also very good at writing Historical Fiction because both rely on intense world building and sense of era. Past and future. So interesting! This book is disturbing but completely fascinating.
Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix: What a gift to readers Grady Hendrix is, am I right? Funny, exciting, absolutely terrifying. I really enjoyed this inventive horror comedy that takes place in an Orsk, an Ikea-like home goods mega store. I especially appreciated that it took place in Cleveland and referenced the Pittsburgh Ikea often, which is where I have purchased like 80% of my furniture. This book is super fun, and honestly very scary at times. Hendrix got a lot of attention for his new release in 2020, but don’t skip the backlist, people! You’ll thank me later.
Favorite New Releases
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: I loved Gothic fiction young in life and was delighted to take a class devoted to it in undergrad. I was so excited to see a bit of a resurgence in popularity this past year, led by Mareno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. This book has it all: 1950s Mexico, a strong female lead, an evil creepy house, madness, and mushrooms. It also has a clever take on eugenics and the occult that a certain brand of white person was obsessed with in the first half of the 20th century. Not saying that line of thought has died, but it’s no longer as accepted.
The Boatman’s Daughter by Andy Davidson: Do you like action? Brooding? Cults? Women highly skilled with a bow and arrow? Ancient swamp magic? REVENGE?? I’m sure your answers were all ‘yes’, and so I highly recommend to you The Boatman’s Daughter by Andy Davidson. This book is a thrill ride with plenty of bloody action, terrifying folk magic, and beautiful found family vibes. It feels like Winter’s Bone meet Beasts of the Southern Wild, and it’s amazing. Read my full review here.
The Returnby Rachel Harrison: The Return is scary and thrilling with well crafted characters. It’s 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. The Return nails it. Read my full review here.
Secret Santa by Andrew Shaffer: I’m sorry, but who DOESN’T need a lighthearted Christmas-themed horror romp set in the 1980s publishing world featuring Nazi occult paraphernalia?
Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones: 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).
If you haven’t gotten yourself all hooked up with the Libby app yet, please take some time to treat yourself. It allows you to borrow audio and ebooks from your public library with your library card. It’s how I get a lot of my reading done.
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray: Another hilarious, fast-paced, politically-minded novel from Bray! The audiobook is complete with fun sound effects and cues that really bring the story to life. I don’t usually enjoy those extra elements, but they are so well done here. I listened to this while driving from Pittsburgh to Rochester for a girlfriend’s bachelorette party. On the way I hit one of the worse snow storms I’ve ever driven through, which is saying a lot because I come from upstate New York. I was sure I was going to die. Luckily, this book helped me stay focused on the road and kept my spirits high. I made it to my final destination, and not in the Devon Sawa sense.
Gerald’s Game by Stephen King: I’m not sure what made me love this audiobook so much. It has elements I don’t normally enjoy, like random music spliced in, but I was so taken with the story. This book really surprised me! It’s definitely in my top five Kings. If you haven’t picked this one up yet, I highly encourage it. Perhaps…on audio??
Favorite Graphic Novel/Comic
The Last Halloween by Abby Howard: I laughed so hard and felt so much delight while reading this graphic novel. There were many references and jokes that horror fans will love. It’s a sweet story of found family working together against insurmountable odds with a very heavy dose of humor. This was such a pleasure to read, especially during a hard year. Read about this book and more coming of age stories here!
Favorite Short Story Collection
And I Do Not Forgive Youby Amber Sparks: Cutting and imaginative with a killer cover! These stories and poems have really stuck with me and are perfect for lovers of dark fantasy and fairy tale retellings. There are several stories from this collection that haven’t left my mind.
How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friendby Linda Addison: This collection of mostly poetry (and some short prose) is packed full of style. These stories and poems range in genre from humor to fantasy, horror to scifi. The mastery in Addison’s writing is just so apparent. My favorite story is in the form of a series of emails between a corporate employee and a new artificial intelligence HR system. The system has her name misspelled in the records, but when she tried to correct the error she cannot get a hold of a human, and the AI system insists she is not who she says she is because the woman they have in their system has a differently spelled name. She is subsequently fired and framed for crimes that she never committed, all for the want of a human in the Human Relations department. Don’t worry, it ends hilariously.
Favorite Non-Horror Book
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk: I really enjoyed pretty much everything about this book. The protagonist is cranky and weird, but she still managed to endear herself to me. She enjoys her nature, her dogs, fake astrology readings, and being alone. Sounds like a woman after my own heart! When people turn up dead in her small remote Polish town, she takes it upon herself to get involved. This book has a very fun twist that I refuse to spoil for you.
Favorite Horror Book
Misfits by Hunter Shea:I read mainly horror and horror adjacent work, so most of these categories could actually be boiled down to ‘favorite horror’, but I wanted to have an excuse to single Misfits out. When I want a solid balls to the wall horror, I usually want something like this book. It has local legends, terrifying monsters, a rag-tag crew of *ahem* misfits fighting for survival! It’s brutal, bloody, and nonstop action. One of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read! If you like the movie Wrong Turn and ’90s grunge music, this is a must read. Read my full review here.
Most WTF Book Read
The Unsuitable by Molly Pohlig: While this category might not seem complimentary, trust me when I say it absolutely is. I love it when books blow my mind, and The Unsuitable managed to edge out many mind-blowing WTF books this year for this high honor. 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. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the most disturbing. Read my full review here.
Best Distraction During a Hard Time
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: I read this on a trip to Knoxville for a library conference…on March 11th. My husband traveled with me, and on the 13th we were supposed to drive over to visit my Dad and two of our best friends in North Caroline and Virginia, and then drive home. But then everything shut down and lock downs started. We decided to leave Knoxville early and skip that last part of the trip. I read Ninth House on the drive back from Tennessee to Pittsburgh, and it was very helpful to stay distracted while the world got very scary very fast. It’s also my ideal book, so there’s that.
Favorite Book Overall
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: No surprise here! This book was so good. I don’t even know how many times it had me jumping to my feet yelling “WHAT!?”. My husband was probably very annoyed with me by the end of it because I kept insisting on reading him sections and exclaiming about the things that were blowing my mind and even acting out parts that I thought were super amazing. Poor man. But honestly, he’s better for it. The Only Good Indians is inventive, unique, terrifying, and jam-packed full of heart. I ordered myself a beautifully illustrated copy as a treat and can’t wait to read it again when it arrives! Read my full review here.
There they are…my favorite reads of 2020. I’m determined to make 2021 a good reading year. I hope to keep up with reviews (ha), but my only real resolutions are to read 100 books and increase the diversity in my reading in all ways. I always hope to read more of the books I already own…but with the library and Netgalley that can be a true challenge.
5 Stars. Triggers for violent rape on the page, child abuse and neglect, extreme violence, extreme gore. I discuss the rape in this review.
Hunter Shea’s Misfits is a brutal, wild ride about found family and belonging. It’s incredibly entertaining, packed with frenetic energy, and will remind you what it was like to be a teen fighting against the world with just your friends as allies. That said, Misfits is not for everyone. It’s aggressive and will leave you feeling like you’re covered in mud. But it asks the questions, what lengths would you go to, and what would you sacrifice, to protect your own found family when the world seems to be literally ripping each of you apart?
Remember in high school, driving up and down back roads at night in your best friend’s car, music blasting, windows down, maybe passing a joint or splitting a cigarette, swapping stories? Remember how your whole crew would pile in and someone would put on whatever album completely captured your teenage experience, and you would all tool around, killing time? I guess that’s not necessarily universal, but one of the qualities of Misfits is that it brings back that particular memory for me, that specific brand of nostalgia.
Each setting we visited throughout the book felt so reminiscent to those I grew up around. In fact, if it hadn’t been explicitly stated that it takes place in Connecticut, I would have sworn this was the Finger Lakes region of New York. The mental image of driving down dark wooded back roads to someone’s cabin while Chris Cornell’s voice echoes hauntingly out of the car stereo is a personal memory of mine that I was able to inject directly into this book.
Mick, Vent, Chuck, Heidi, and Marnie are best friends, living in a small Connecticut town in the early 1990s. They’re the stoner grunge kids at their high school; more outcast than not. Most of them come from broken, abusive, or (at the very least) challenging homes. Most of them are neglected. But they have each other, and that’s what counts. When one of their own is brutally assaulted, they decide to take justice into their own hands. They take the attacker out to the woods and leave them for the Mellon Heads. The Mellon Heads are an old Connecticut folktale: deformed, violent, feral humans living out in the dark depths of the New England forests. Their plan backfires, however, and they find themselves in more trouble than they could have ever imagined.
This was my first Hunter Shea book, and all I knew about him going in was that he did creatures and monsters well. I can now confirm that is true, and I will add that he is also a master of character, action, and setting. The horror in this book stems from both fantastical folklore and the real world. Misfits deals a lot with the concept of belonging, as the name suggests. Our main characters and heroes feel themselves to be misfits and are certainly viewed that way by others. Their status as such make them easy targets for those looking to cause harm or take advantage. The villains of the story are also all misfits, some in a more conventional sense than others.
It’s not hard to feel sympathy for our main crew. We’ve all known kids like this or were kids like this. Shea builds that attachment between reader and heroes, and then exploits the fuck out of it. It’s made clear from the beginning that this is a group of kids who bad things happen to in life, regardless of whether it’s a monster delivering the blows or society at large. Despite knowing this, or perhaps because of it, you become invested in their journey. Just be prepared.
Shea’s writing had me on the edge of my seat throughout the entire book. Misfits starts with a crushing bang and increases in pace throughout. There are twists, insurmountable odds, extreme acts of love and heroism, and heart-wrenching losses. It was this characteristic of Misfits in particular that really hooked me and left me thirsting for more of Shea’s writing.
While I loved this book and think it will end up being one of my favorites of the year, I feel that I need to address the rape. There is a violent, though quick, rape scene that occurs within the first 10% of the book. It is the inciting incident that sets all the action in motion. The ongoing and important discussion about the use of rape as a plot device in entertainment, especially as a way to grow a female character, should always be considered for narratives like this. In this case, I feel that there could have been a different catalyst to the action that would have worked, but that being said I also feel that Shea handled the rape and subsequent fallout very well.
The character who is assaulted in Misfits does not suddenly become a brave warrior woman who exacts brutal and total revenge. No, she is broken and scared. She leans on her friends, terrified to make her attack public knowledge (an accurate reaction). She mourns the damage her body has gone through and how the assault has forever changed her life. It was believably and honestly written, and the event itself is not lingered on or glorified except to demonstrate the true love and support of her found family.
I think I understand why Shea chose rape as a device here: there needed to be an extraordinary crime committed against them for the misfits to do what they did, risking their own lives and ultimately setting off the extreme and terrifying events of the rest of the book. But I do wonder if the rape was completely necessary. After about halfway through the book you start to forget about it entirely. Could another inciting incident have gotten the job done?
Sexual assault is incredibly serious and needs to be used with extreme caution in all media. Each instance is different, however. Misfits is a brutal book. Much of it sheds light on everyday brutality along with the fantastical brutality of creature features and slashers. The brutality of the crime matches the tone of the book, and ultimately I think Shea navigated it well. That being said, I am not an assault survivor, and I believe that we need to listen to and take seriously the opinions of those who are in instances like this.
I recommend Misfits to people who enjoy The Hills Have Eyes, Mandy, Alice in Chains, and lots of blood and guts. It feels kind of like getting wasted on Smirnoff Ice in your friend of a friend’s cousin’s barn. It leaves you rattled and probably sick as hell, but there is a lot of heart there and a hell of a lot of entertainment.
Published 9/8/20. Thank you to Flame Tree Press and Netgalley for providing the ARC.
4 Stars. Trigger warnings for suicide, extreme gore and violence, rich entitled assholes.
I was so intrigued by Hill House Comics’ selection when it first crossed my path. This horror comic pop-up, started by Joe Hill and housed at DC, offers an eye-catching collection with great cover art, great summaries, and great names attached! I was very excited when I was approved for the ARCs by Netgalley. And the first collection, Basket Full of Heads, did not disappoint.
Story by Joe Hill, Basket Full of Heads is a gory, campy adventure full of twists and humor along with the appropriate horrors. June goes to visit her boyfriend Liam in the sleepy fishing town of Brody Island where he’s working as a part-time cop over the summer. They’re having dinner with his boss when word that four escaped convicts are on the loose, reigning terror on civilians. As her boyfriend’s boss leaves with the other full-time cops on the force, the four escapees break into the boss’ house and attack June and Liam. They kidnap Liam and whisk him away, leaving June to fight off one remaining escapee herself. Luckily Liam’s boss has a huge collection of old Viking artifacts stored in the house, including weapons. June gets her hands on an axe, but it doesn’t exactly do its job quite as one would expect.
This collection of issues #1-7 was well paced, very funny, and incredibly entertaining. It reminded me of all the things I love about ridiculous ’80s slashers. I also appreciated that it was a one-and-done, so to speak. I don’t need to hunt down more issues or wait for them to come out. The entire story is contained in this one volume, and it wraps up very nicely! The artwork is likewise excellent and fits the story incredibly well. I tip my hat to Leomacs (Illustrator), Riccardo La Bella (Illustrator), Dave Stewart (Colorist), and Deron Bennett (Letterer).
I appreciated June as a main character. She is brave, savvy, capable, and full of love for herself and those near and dear to her. That is not to say she is naive. Despite being accused of that multiple times, June proves herself to be otherwise. In fact, when the gaping maw of the patriarchy comes for June in a painful and hurtful way, she does not hesitate to take action and fight for herself and all the women wronged by evil men. I have to applaud Joe Hill for his character work across the board, but especially with June.
Basket Full of Heads is the first installment of Joe Hill’s Hill House Comics pop-up. Next up is my most highly anticipated installment: The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado, out 09/28/20.
Out 09/08/20. Thank you to NetGalley and DC Comics for providing the ARC.
4 Stars. Trigger warnings for death of a loved one, racial violence, murder and gore, inappropriate relationships between an adult and a minor.
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.
Henry does an amazing job revealing the dark underbelly of small town life. As someone who grew up in a small town, the world Henry builds is very realistic and all the more terrifying for it. Smith’s Hollow feels so much like my own small home town. The woods we would play in, the rumors about witches and big scary houses, the annual festival and fair days every summer, the relationships you would have with everyone else in town, the politics unique to small town life…but I hope my small town was never in the clutches of a centuries old curse that delivered carnage and terror in exchange for prosperity.
There are many twists and reveals throughout The Ghost Tree that will keep you on your toes. Henry includes a rich mythology, and while there certainly are many moving parts and increased complications in her narrative, she succeeds in keeping a very tight plot. Her writing style is exciting and intimate, making you very invested in the story and characters.
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!
Out 9/8/20. Thank you to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group for providing an ARC.
5 Stars. Out 7/14/20. Trigger warnings for body horror, animal killing, gore.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones is a literary horror novel to take all literary horror novels. It’s an open, bleeding heart, beating with the force of broken families, old traditions, and bad decisions made by young men that have the unfortunate power to shape their futures. This book has been described as Peter Straub’s Ghost Storyset on the rez, and it absolutely has that vibe.
A decade ago, four young Blackfeet men decide to hunt where they shouldn’t and kill more than they need. Ten years later, a vengeful spirit rises up to settle the score. The men must face their pasts and their identities in a bloody reckoning. But the spirit won’t stop with them, it must turn to their loved ones as well.
I have never read a more inventive story, which is saying a lot because I’ve said that about at least two other books in 2020 prior to this one. Jones has blended many literary influences, Native cultures and beliefs, and applied unique formatting to The Only Good Indians. Once I began reading it, I could not put it down.
Anyone who reads Stephen Graham Jones knows that his work is so much deeper than just a horror story. Horror has the beauty of speaking real truths when treated correctly, and Jones wields that power often in his novels. Jones’ messaging in The Only Good Indians about tradition, respect, perseverance, resiliency, and family are powerful, as is his heartfelt assertion in the acknowledgments that all Native women should stay alive to thrive and flourish.
The Only Good Indians is bone-chillingly frightening, shockingly thrilling, viciously bloody, and full of an enormous amount of heart. Jones really killed it with this one.
Thank you to Netgalley and Gallery / Saga Press for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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.
4 Stars. Trigger warnings for violence against women, self harm, assault, sexual assault, lots of blood and gore.
Do you like action? Brooding? Cults? Women highly skilled with a bow and arrow? Ancient swamp magic? REVENGE?? I’m sure your answers were all ‘yes’, and so I highly recommend to you The Boatman’s Daughter by Andy Davidson. This book is a thrill ride with plenty of bloody action, terrifying folk magic, and beautiful found family vibes. It feels like Winter’s Bone meet Beasts of the Southern Wild, and it’s amazing.
Miranda Crabtree is an orphan and has been since her father disappeared in the bayous of Arkansas when she was eleven. The only evidence left behind was a shotgun shell and a baby Miranda could have sworn was dead when her father and an old witch took it deep into the woods. Miranda barely escaped that night with her life. Something in the bayou wanted her.
That night, Miranda lost the last of her family, but she gained a new brother in the abandoned baby and a new grandmother (Baba) in the old witch, who found her and nursed her back to health. To keep them safe, Miranda aligns herself with bad men: an unstable and washed up preacher/cult leader, a weed grower, and a corrupt and murderous constable who tries to hurt her in more ways than one. Luckily, Miranda knows how to handle herself. When the preacher and constable start making some dangerous moves, Miranda finds herself having to fight for not only her life, but the lives her brother, her Baba, and a new arrival who turns out to be more significant to her family and the people of the bayou community than Miranda realizes. The balance of the ancient magic in the swamps depends on it.
Turning to her learned survival skills to defend herself and her family, Miranda also has to turn to a darker more dangerous power. Her Baba is a true witch, a woman deeply connected to the spirits of the bayou and the spirits brought over from her homeland. Her power and magic has deep roots in Slavic folklore, and they seem to feel just as at home in the American South as they do in Europe. But this power does not come without sacrifice and pain (and blood). And even with those sacrifices, these spirits are not in the business of customer satisfaction, if you know what I mean. Miranda must take this risk and call on the power of the bayou, unsure of if and how it will answer.
The Boatman’s Daughter is over 400 pages long, but the writing sucks you in and seamlessly ushers you through the split narratives. Davidson’s writing is so vivid, you can feel the sticky heat of the bayou as you read. He handles extreme and graphic situations with a kind of beautiful fluidity. This book is not without its gore and trauma on the page, and yet Davidson has a skill for making it feel significant and real without over sensationalizing.
The characters are rich and inventive, and some of them are absolutely terrifying. I will also give Davidson credit for writing what I thought was a wonderful female character. Miranda is strong, vulnerable, and competent. She’s incredibly skilled, but woe to the first person to tries to call her a Mary Sue. I loved reading her and going on her journey.
I would absolutely classify this book as horror, but it’s an interesting blend of subgenres that make it feel different from a classic horror novel. The real world horrors are front and center through most of this one. And while there is a heavy dose of paranormal creeps, most of those elements appear at the end. So if you like slashers and thrillers, I would definitely recommend picking up The Boatman’s Daughter.
This was my first experience reading Andy Davidson and I can 100% say that I will pick up anything else he writes in the future.
Published 2/11/20. Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux / MCD x FSG Originals and NetGalley for providing an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review. Review originally published on jocelyniswrong.com.
4 Stars.Trigger warnings for hoarding, death of a loved one.
A few years ago, I went with my Mom to stay with her and my Aunt at my aunt’s new cabin on a kettle lake in upstate New York. Kettle lakes look like ponds, but they were formed by ice blocks melting many a year ago. Bloody Pond, the kettle lake my Aunt has her cabin on, is spring fed so the water is crisp and clear. It’s very refreshing! My Aunt’s cabin is set deep among some pines, and it feels very bewitching to be there.
We had a lovely weekend in her adorable cabin, swimming, reading, eating, and drinking. There was, of course, an amazing campfire, and we stayed up late talking and laughing. But the later we stayed up (and the more red wine I drank), the more I couldn’t stop looking out into the pines. It got really creepy. What could be in those pines? Were there creatures watching us? What kind of creatures?
I was also raised on a very healthy dose of creepy folklore. My family has a lot of Scottish and Irish blood, so stories of changelings and brownies and selkies etc. were very common. I’m convinced my mom is in good with some faeries. I think it’s because of all of this that I loved T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones so much. I think I love folk horror best now.
Mouse lives in Pittsburgh (heyo, local gal!), and she doesn’t see much of her immediate family. Her Aunt raised her after her Mom died, but she talks to her Dad every week on the phone. Her Grandma lived in rural North Carolina (I also have family in North Carolina…too many coincidences), but now that both she and her Step-grandpa are dead, their house is just sitting vacant. Mouse’s Dad calls her up and asks a huge favor…would she please go down and clean the house out so they can decide what to do next with it? She can’t say no.
The house is a disaster. Her Grandma was at hoarder status before her death, and Mouse knows it’s going to take forever to get through the piles she left behind. But she’s got a radio and her lovable (if doofy) coon hound Bongo by her side. She also has her Step-grandpa’s old journal for reading material, and boy is it a doozy! He talks about carvings on stones, twisting about like the twisted ones, laying down like the dead ones, poppets, not being able to sleep, and of course how generally awful Mouse’s Grandma was.
Mouse gets hooked on the journal and begins searching for a book that her Step-grandpa keeps referring to, but as she hunts the stuffed house for this missing book (or anything related to her Step-grandpa’s ramblings), things go off the rails. I don’t want to spoil anything, because the plot is so twisted and fun, but Mouse and Bongo soon learn that they are in a place where the veil between their world and a different, more ancient and magical one, is very thin. The woods behind the house are a dangerous place. There are monsters out there, and Mouse’s Step-grandpa knew it. The monsters knew about him too, and now they know about Mouse.
I blew through The Twisted Ones! T. Kingfisher’s writing is so entertaining and juicy. The imagery is rich and shocking, the characters are well developed and a ton of fun, and the lore is fascinating. As a piece of folk horror, I found it gripping and compelling. When you take old-country stories and beliefs and you bring them into stark contrast with the modern era, sometimes the juxtaposition itself is unsettling. This book goes way beyond unsettling, however. There is one image that I will never get out of my head. Now, when I stare out at a sea of dark, damp pines at night, I will think about that image and probably run screaming back into a well-lit house.
But The Twisted Ones isn’t a beat-you-over-the-head scary book. It’s full of creeping dread, and there are some horrific images (as mentioned above), but it’s mostly a well told adventure with some solid scares and a well developed setting. Something I appreciate the most about it is its sense of humor. Mouse is hilarious, and the neighbors she makes friends with at her Grandma’s house are so fun you find yourself wanting to have dinner with them yourself.
The Twisted Ones is a well-rounded novel for those who are intrigued by the darker side of things. It’s steeped in old-timey lore and family secrets, with a healthy dose of humor and adventure. If you enjoyed The Ritual by Adam Nevill or The Blair Witch Project, you’re sure to enjoy The Twisted Ones. But I recommend this book to both horror and non-horror readers alike! It’s truly a romp of a story.
Published 10/1/19. Thank you to Gallery / Saga Press and NetGalley for providing an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review. Review originally published on jocelyniswrong.com.