Kate’s Review: “The Night Swim”

51169341Book: “The Night Swim” by Megan Goldin

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a print ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: After the first season of her true crime podcast became an overnight sensation and set an innocent man free, Rachel Krall is now a household name―and the last hope for thousands of people seeking justice. But she’s used to being recognized for her voice, not her face. Which makes it all the more unsettling when she finds a note on her car windshield, addressed to her, begging for help.

The small town of Neapolis is being torn apart by a devastating rape trial. The town’s golden boy, a swimmer destined for Olympic greatness, has been accused of raping a high school student, the beloved granddaughter of the police chief. Under pressure to make Season Three a success, Rachel throws herself into interviewing and investigating―but the mysterious letters keep showing up in unexpected places. Someone is following her, and she won’t stop until Rachel finds out what happened to her sister twenty-five years ago. Officially, Jenny Stills tragically drowned, but the letters insists she was murdered―and when Rachel starts asking questions, nobody seems to want to answer. The past and present start to collide as Rachel uncovers startling connections between the two cases that will change the course of the trial and the lives of everyone involved.

Electrifying and propulsive, The Night Swim asks: What is the price of a reputation? Can a small town ever right the wrongs of its past? And what really happened to Jenny?

Review: Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for sending me a print ARC of this novel!

We’re seeing more and more podcast themed books, and as of now I, for one, am still very pleased with this theme in thrillers. If an author does it well, it adds a whole other layer to a story that combines my favorite kinds of books with one of my other favorite forms of entertainment. When St. Martin’s Press sent me “The Night Swim” by Megan Goldin I was elated, as this book had already kind of been on my radar because of the podcast theme. When I did jump on into the narrative, it sucked me right in. And it also made me very, very uncomfortable.

“The Night Swim” has two crimes that our protagonist, Rachel, is following. One is for her podcast, ‘Guilty or Not Guilty’, and it follows a high profile rape case in the small town of Neapolis. A popular and charismatic young man with Olympic dreams is accused of raping a sixteen year old girl, and the town (as well as people all over the world) are split on whether or not he’s guilty. While Rachel is in town, she keeps getting mysterious correspondence from Hannah, a woman who wants Rachel to investigate the death of her older sister Jenny, who was found drowned twenty years before, also in Neapolis. We have multiple narrative styles to tie these two seemingly unrelated cases together. We have Hannah’s letters to Rachel, Rachel’s podcast, and a third person narrative following Rachel’s podcast research and eventual investigation into Jenny’s death. It’s a lot, but Goldin makes it work, blending them all together and carefully revealing how some things, like rape culture and small town politics, never really change even as decades pass. This thriller is really part murder mystery, part courtroom drama, and Goldin balances both aspects meticulously. I was held in suspense regarding what the outcome of the rape trial was going to be, but also as to whether or not Rachel was going to find out what really happened to Jenny. The reveals were all well done and some were genuinely surprising, and while I did piece together a few clues probably earlier than I was supposed to, all of the big reveals were still surprising and enjoyable.

But what made this book stand out from other thrillers I’ve read as of late, and what made it a very difficult read at times, was how frank and unflinching Goldin is when it comes to the themes of rape in this book. While I feel that sometimes other thrillers will have rape as a plot point or as a crime in their pages, going into details or seeing the traumatic fallout aren’t as focused on, rather focusing on the investigation to bring the perpetrator to justice. In “The Night Swim”, Goldin opts to show what it is like for a victim to have to relive her attack while on the stand, and in the spotlight of a high profile trial. After reading Chanel Miller’s “Know My Name”, the memoir of the woman raped by Brock Turner (and whose case is clearly inspiration for this storyline), it was especially jarring and upsetting to read these parts as the victim, Kelly, is forced to tell her story in graphic detail in front of a courtroom full of strangers. But while it was hard, I thought that it was important to show that rape isn’t just a plot point, that it has a horrific fallout, and that the fact that victims have to basically be re-traumatized to get justice, justice that isn’t even guaranteed, is abominable. The descriptions of Kelly’s rape (as well as the assault of Jenny) will definitely be hard to read for many people, so content warnings abound in this book. And while we don’t really get to know much about Kelly outside of her victim status, we DO get to know Jenny very well.

It’s a hard one, but I did really like “The Night Swim”. Steel your heart and get ready for righteous indignation to rush through you, but I think that if you are a thriller reader you should probably pick it up.

Rating 8: A compelling mystery is accompanied by an unflinching look at rape culture and trauma. “The Night Swim” is difficult at times but also feels like it takes on difficult themes that other thrillers may gloss over.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Night Swim” is included on the Goodreads lists“Books for Serial Podcast Lovers”, and “Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2020”.

Find “The Night Swim” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Hollow Ones”

52594581Book: “The Hollow Ones” by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: A horrific crime that defies ordinary explanation. A rookie FBI agent in dangerous, uncharted territory. An extraordinary hero for the ages. Odessa Hardwicke’s life is derailed when she’s forced to turn her gun on her partner, Walt Leppo, a decorated FBI agent who turns suddenly, inexplicably violent while apprehending a rampaging murderer. The shooting, justified by self-defense, shakes the young FBI agent to her core. Devastated, Odessa is placed on desk leave pending a full investigation.

But what most troubles Odessa isn’t the tragedy itself-it’s the shadowy presence she thought she saw fleeing the deceased agent’s body after his death. Questioning her future with the FBI and her sanity, Hardwicke accepts a low-level assignment to clear out the belongings of a retired agent in the New York office. What she finds there will put her on the trail of a mysterious figure named John Blackwood, a man of enormous means who claims to have been alive for centuries, and who is either an unhinged lunatic, or humanity’s best and only defense against unspeakable evil. 

Review: Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for sending me an eARC of this book!

I have loved Guillermo del Toro ever since I saw “Pan’s Labyrinth” back in college. I don’t think that there is one del Toro movie that I haven’t at the very least been entertained by. I try to see all of his movies, and I went to his traveling show of his personal collection of props and artwork when it came to Minneapolis. I also liked his foray into writing, having enjoyed his novel adaptation of “The Shape of Water”, and his vampire dystopia “The Strain” Trilogy that he wrote with Chuck Hogan. So when I had the opportunity to read his and Hogan’s newest collaboration, “The Hollow Ones”, I leapt at the chance. It was a fun surprise too, as I had no idea that they had a new book coming out. I really gotta get more on top of my del Toro stanning I guess.

We move from vampire lore and into demons and possession with “The Hollow Ones”, where del Toro and Hogan give us a mythology and magical system with some influences from a few different sources. You have references to occultist John Dee, references to Voodoo and Hoodoo, and inspirations from Judeo-Christian ideas of possession and Western occultism. Our protagonist Odessa is trying to reconcile the strange and horrible things that she has seen or has been hearing about as mass murders and spree killings start breaking out around New York and New Jersey, namely having to turn her gun on her FBI partner after he turned uncharacteristically violent during a confrontation with a mass murderer. Odessa serves as the audiences’ stand in as she learns about the dark magic at hand, and after she is connected to the mysterious John Blackwood (in my ARC his name was John Silence, but that has changed for the final product). Blackwood has been chasing insidious beings called Hollow Ones for centuries, his immortality a curse tied in with these creatures that jump from host to host and cause as much violence as possible while inside. We not only explore Blackwood and Odessa’s teaming up in the present, but also Blackwood’s partnership with Soloman, a Black FBI agent who had a similar case in the 1960s in the Deep South, and who is now the man to connect Odessa to Blackwood after a Hollow One has started up again. I liked seeing the juxtaposition of two agents having to contend with being Others within their field (Soloman’s arc in particular was a fascinating comment on the Jim Crow South and how being a Black agent put a target on his back), and having to hunt down a disturbing evil with a strange and awkward immortal. It’s just kind of a fun concept, and del Toro and Hogan make the system believable and interesting enough that it’s ripe with potential for scares and shocks. And let me tell you, scare and shock it does, as the Hollow One we are following is INCREDIBLY violent, so much so that I feel a need to put a content warning for a particular scene involving this creature and a baby. Yeah, that wasn’t an easy moment to read for me right now. But it does show that del Toro and Hogan aren’t fucking around with this thing, and also shows just what Odessa and Blackwood are up against, and what Soloman and Blackwood were up against previously.

All that said, “The Hollow Ones” never really moved from ripe potential into a full blown pay off. While it does follow a clear path and story, and while the foundation is there for something really great, I felt that it totally captivated me. I liked Odessa a lot, but Blackwood wasn’t terribly interesting to me even though he should, as a cursed immortal, should be INTERESTING. And on top of all that, it’s very difficult these days to ignore or overlook stories where authors take ideas and concepts from other cultures and don’t do the due diligence to do so appropriately. While I enjoyed the themes and plot aspects of the 1960s storyline, using Voodoo, Hoodoo, and folklore from slave narratives felt very uncomfortable, especially since it was being used in a way that appeared to be ‘demonic’, or at least Othering. I love you, del Toro, but that stuff may not be for you to play with in the stories you tell. Not unless you are VERY careful and respectful with how you do it. And I’m not saying that I think that this was intentionally racist, but it does go to show that some of those past tropes in horror (occultism, the mysterious ‘voodoo’ spells, etc) really do have problematic origins and that you can’t really hold it up through a lens of nostalgia.

This is the start of a series I have heard, and I will probably pick up the next book. As I said, lots of potential in the world building and the characters themselves. But “The Hollow Ones” wasn’t the big bang I was hoping for.

Rating 6: A solid horror thriller with some interesting ideas, “The Hollow Ones” has potential, but doesn’t quite flesh itself out as much as I had hoped, and delved in some culturally appropriative storytelling elements.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hollow Ones” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward To in 2020”.

Find “The Hollow Ones” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “He Started It”

51373979Book: “He Started It” by Samantha Downing

Publishing Info: Berkley, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I was sent an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Book Description: Beth, Portia, and Eddie Morgan haven’t all been together in years. And for very good reasons—we’ll get to those later. But when their wealthy grandfather dies and leaves a cryptic final message in his wake, the siblings and their respective partners must come together for a cross-country road trip to fulfill his final wish and—more importantly—secure their inheritance.

But time with your family can be tough. It is for everyone.

It’s even harder when you’re all keeping secrets and trying to forget a memory—a missing person, an act of revenge, the man in the black truck who won’t stop following your car—and especially when at least one of you is a killer and there’s a body in the trunk. Just to name a few reasons.

But money is a powerful motivator. It is for everyone.

Review: Thanks to Berkley and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Even though it got a lot of hype when it came out, I never actually read “My Lovely Wife” by Samantha Downing. I’m not sure why it never made it to my hold list, but for whatever reason it just hasn’t been on my book stack. But given all the buzz it has, when Berkley sent me a link to Downing’s newest book, “He Started It”, I was pleasantly surprised and delighted. And the description alone was enough to get my hyped: feuding siblings, a missing person, family secrets, and a mysterious potential stalker? That just screams something that I would want to read about! As someone who used to go on family road trips all the time throughout her childhood, sometimes to the point where everyone in the car wanted to murder each other, that was the icing on the cake!

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One of my shining moments was convincing my sister she had kidney problems because she had to stop and pee so often. Memories. (source)

“He Started It” is from the perspective of Beth, one of three dysfunctional siblings who are on a road trip in hopes of collecting an inheritance from their recently deceased grandfather. When we first meet these siblings, all we know are that 1) they aren’t really close to each other, and 2) this road trip is a re-creation of a trip they took with said grandfather when they were kids, and if they want to get their money, they have to do it. As we get to know Beth, siblings Eddie and Portia, and Beth and Eddie’s spouses Felix and Krista, we find we are following a group of very unlikable people who have a lot of secrets. And while the characters themselves are all pretty reprehensible, the road trip they take is incredibly fun, mostly because the secrets start coming out and you just have to know more. As Downing slowly shows us what happened on the childhood road trip, and slowly starts to reveal facts and details that are more and more salacious as time goes on, you find yourself completely hooked into what happened to these siblings and what motivates them in the present day. As mentioned, we are mostly getting into Beth’s head, so it’s hard to know how reliable she is and what kind of picture we’re getting, but all that is just part of the salacious fun as more well crafted twists come out of the woodwork. And almost all of the big reveals and shocks feel well earned too. And while none of the characters were enjoyable, I still wanted to know what happened to them because I wanted to know if they would all get what was coming to them. Suffice to say, I devoured this book in a very short time, and really had to force myself to put it down when I had other things to do.

In spite of how freakin’ addicted I was to this book, I will say that the ending threw a wrench into my overall experience of it. I’m not going to spoil anything for you guys, because up until that point I had a really fun time and I still think it’s worth the read. But what I will say is that it felt abrupt, it felt unresolved, and it felt a bit like a shocker just for the sake of being shocking. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, per se, but it did mean that this book never really moved from ‘mindless fun thriller’ to ‘you gotta read this book, thriller fans of all ages!’ That’s not a bad thing when you want to bring a stack of books to your backyard escape. But it may not stand out too much from other stories in that stack.

“He Started It” was fun in the moment, and as someone who is trying to live more for the moment, I was thankful for it as I was reading it.

Rating 7: Though the ending kind of throws the whole thing off, “He Started It” is a fun and kind of salacious thriller that will take your attention and refuse to return it until you’ve finished.

Reader’s Advisory:

“He Started It” is included on the Goodreads lists “Psychological Suspense for 2020 (U.S. Publications Jan-July 2020)”, and “Books Featured on First Chapter Fun”.

Find “He Started It” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “These Women”

52218559Book: “These Women” by Ivy Pochoda

Publishing Info: Harperluxe, May 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: In West Adams, a rapidly changing part of South Los Angeles, they’re referred to as “these women.” These women on the corner … These women in the club … These women who won’t stop asking questions … These women who got what they deserved … 

In her masterful new novel, Ivy Pochoda creates a kaleidoscope of loss, power, and hope featuring five very different women whose lives are steeped in danger and anguish. They’re connected by one man and his deadly obsession, though not all of them know that yet. There’s Dorian, still adrift after her daughter’s murder remains unsolved; Julianna, a young dancer nicknamed Jujubee, who lives hard and fast, resisting anyone trying to slow her down; Essie, a brilliant vice cop who sees a crime pattern emerging where no one else does; Marella, a daring performance artist whose work has long pushed boundaries but now puts her in peril; and Anneke, a quiet woman who has turned a willfully blind eye to those around her for far too long. The careful existence they have built for themselves starts to crumble when two murders rock their neighborhood.

Written with beauty and grit, tension and grace, These Women is a glorious display of storytelling, a once-in-a-generation novel.

Review: I know that through my true crime reviews, and maybe even a thriller review or two, that I’ve mentioned the concept of ‘lesser dead’ on this blog. For those who may not have seen that, it’s basically the idea that law enforcement doesn’t prioritize certain victim groups when trying to solve cases. Groups included in this concept are POC, addicts, and sex workers. When I read a book review of “These Women” by Ivy Pochoda, the fact that it was emphasizing a literary thriller take on this concept, I knew that I really needed to read it. But as I read “These Women”, it became apparent that the narrative wasn’t only going to focus on forgotten sex workers who are the victims of a serial killer, but also on other women who are connected, if not directly affected.

We have multiple perspectives in “These Women” who represent a swath of women living different lives in South Central, Los Angeles. You have Feelia, a sex worker who narrowly survived being murdered. Dorian, whose daughter Lecia was a victim of the same murderer. Julianna, a sex worker who Lecia used to babysit for. Essie, a detective for the LAPD whose colleagues don’t take her insistence on paying attention to a potential serial killer seriously. Marcella, a neighbor to Julianna who finds a cell phone that sparks her creativity, no matter what that may mean for another person’s privacy. And Anneke, a judgmental woman who has certain opinions about other women in her community. On the surface a lot of these characters seem different from each other, but once you get really into the grit and meat of this book you realize that, while there are some differences and some privilege differences, all of these women are struggling in their own ways, usually because of societal expectations thrust upon them. I felt that Pochoda gave pretty good attention to most of them, though there were some that were more compelling than others. The pain was very real in a few of them, the rage in others, as well as perspectives that were more about privilege and superiority. They all worked well, and really brought on guttural responses at the various injustices that are feeling especially pertinent in this moment.

While this is definitely more a character study, or an examination of some aspects of the culture we live in, there is a mystery at hand, and that is who is killing these sex workers, and why. The mystery did take a back seat to the other aspects of the book, but for the most part I thought that it was well laid out and plotted so that I was taken by surprise by the reveal when it happened. I also found myself really enjoying how all the pieces eventually came together, both in terms of the mystery and in terms of how all of these characters are connected to one another. It also is a good way of showing that there is common ground between all of these women in a way, and how a society that looks down upon the gender as a whole makes victims of them all in different ways, and sometimes in ways that can be damaging to each other. All of that said, I did feel that the story ended a little abruptly, and I think that that is in part due to the structure of it as a whole, with no moment to tie all of the perspectives together. It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day because this is less about conclusions and more about concepts, but for me it just felt like it was cut off when there could have been a little more room to sink into an end.

Overall, “These Women” is dark, emotional, and gritty. Also very sad. But I think that it tackles a good number of themes and realities that many thrillers sometimes leave by the wayside. Ivy Pochoda has a very clear message, and while it’s hard to immerse oneself in, it’s necessary to do so.

Rating 7: A very powerful message about how society views the victimology of certain groups, “These Women” is a compelling literary thriller, even if it ends a bit abruptly.

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Women” is included on the Goodreads list “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, & Thrillers, 2020”.

Find “These Women” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Year of the Witching”

49789629Book: “The Year of the Witching” by Alexis Henderson

Publishing Info: Ace, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received and eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.

In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.

But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.

Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

So for the past few months some friends and I have been continuing our ‘Horror Movie Club’ that we had just started before social distancing became the name of the game. We log into Netflix and open up Netflix Party, then watch a scary movie every Tuesday. Back in May we watched “The VVitch”, one of my favorite witch movies because damn, that ending. I was the only one who had seen it, and when that ending twist came the chat exploded with glee and I basked in the (what I see as ) feminist message at the end. You intertwine witchcraft and feminism and I am totally there. So when I read the description for “The Year of the Witching” by Alexis Henderson, I immediately, IMMEDIATELY, requested it from NetGalley. I want MORE feminist witchcraft in my reading, after all.

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EMPOWERMENT! HEXES! PATRIARCHY SMASHING! I WANT IT ALL! (source)

First and foremost, it should be noted that “The Year of the Witching” is a dark fantasy, bordering on straight horror story. Horror in terms of scary imagery, but also horror in terms of the horrors of fundamentalism, misogyny, racism, and corruption. Bethel is a community that seems to take some of its inspiration from Puritanism and the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints, with nods to Puritan beliefs of witch craft and the FLDS notions of a Prophet and polygamy. Citizens are kept in line with religion, and girls and women are the ones who bear the brunt of the hardships and the punishments for stepping out of place. Immanuelle is accepted by her family and mostly by the community, but is always Othered because of her mother’s ‘sin’ and because of her race. It’s far too seldom that witch stories involve Black of brown witches (with a few recent exceptions), so for Immanuelle to have the potential for magical powers and to be biracial with dark skin is pretty awesome. It also opens up the potential to  not only explore misogyny in Bethel, but also misogynoir as well. The entire society is an exploration in how a society can use fear and religion to exert control and power over its members, and at the top of this is the Prophet, who leads the town and passes judgements that sometimes end in pyres where women and outsiders are burned for the sins of being women and outsiders. And while the people in Bethel are being subjectted to this, it’s very clear that they are still complicit in this system.

That isn’t to say that Henderson falls into the trap of ‘one side is completely evil and the other side is completely good’, as the witches of the Darkwood that Immanuelle is drawn to (as was her mother) are described as evangelists in their own right. Immanuelle is caught between two extremes, and has to suss out if out of reaction to one side she will swing all the way to the other side, which has its own malevolence. Henderson really figured out how to find the nuance, which we don’t always get to see in stories that have as much rage and revolution in them as “The Year of the Witching” does. Which is awesome. Instead of falling merely into rage, even if that rage is completely justified, Henderson lets Immanuelle explore other ways to proceed when it comes to the liberation of herself and the women in her life. And I loved that.

And yes, this is a very creepy tale with some really neat witch mythos inside of it. You have your usual ‘cast out women who were seeking power’ tale, but Henderson goes a little further with it, giving each witch in the coven a specific backstory, specific roles they played before and after the clash, and unique descriptors that harken to folk horror as well as body horror. I especially loved the descriptions of Lilith, aka The Mother, who is the leader and in direct opposition of The Father and what the people of Bethel believe. I don’t want to spoil her description because I really want it to to be a surprise to readers, but holy hell, it’s both something out of a nightmare and also powerful as hell.

“The Year of the Witching” is an excellent YA horror novel with a lot to say. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on it. Especially if you loved the end of “The VVitch”.

Rating 10: Spooky, angry, feminist and empowering, “The Year of the Witching” is a dark and scary tale of agency, independence, and discovering your inner power.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Year of the Witching” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dystopias with Gender or Religion-specific Phobics”, and “Black Heroines 2020”.

Find “The Year of the Witching” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Cold Vanish”

48717769Book: “The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands” by Jon Billman

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: For readers of Jon Krakauer and Douglas Preston, the critically acclaimed author and journalist Jon Billman’s fascinating, in-depth look at people who vanish in the wilderness without a trace and those eccentric, determined characters who try to find them.

These are the stories that defy conventional logic. The proverbial vanished without a trace incidences, which happen a lot more (and a lot closer to your backyard) than almost anyone thinks. These are the missing whose situations are the hardest on loved ones left behind. The cases that are an embarrassment for park superintendents, rangers and law enforcement charged with Search & Rescue. The ones that baffle the volunteers who comb the mountains, woods and badlands. The stories that should give you pause every time you venture outdoors.

Through Jacob Gray’s disappearance in Olympic National Park, and his father Randy Gray who left his life to search for him, we will learn about what happens when someone goes missing. Braided around the core will be the stories of the characters who fill the vacuum created by a vanished human being. We’ll meet eccentric bloodhound-handler Duff and R.C., his flagship purebred, who began trailing with the family dog after his brother vanished in the San Gabriel Mountains. And there’s Michael Neiger North America’s foremost backcountry Search & Rescue expert and self-described “bushman” obsessed with missing persons. And top researcher of persons missing on public wildlands Ex-San Jose, California detective David Paulides who is also one of the world’s foremost Bigfoot researchers.

It’s a tricky thing to write about missing persons because the story is the absence of someone. A void. The person at the heart of the story is thinner than a smoke ring, invisible as someone else’s memory. The bones you dig up are most often metaphorical. While much of the book will embrace memory and faulty memory — history — The Cold Vanish is at its core a story of now and tomorrow. Someone will vanish in the wild tomorrow. These are the people who will go looking.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

I love National Parks. I’m not really an outdoorsy person in the sense that I don’t like camping, but I do love hiking, I do love nature, and I do love epic landscapes. And National Parks give me all of that and more! While it’s hard to pick a favorite, I will say that my most recent National Park trip, Rocky Mountain National Park last summer, was beautiful and breathtaking. But one of the weird/surreal moments during our trip was standing at the top of a trail head and seeing a Missing Person poster for a man who had disappeared in the park earlier in the spring. It was a grim reminder that while the National Parks are treasures and wonderful opportunities for education and exploration, they are not without their dangers. Enter “The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands” by Jon Billman, a book I had been looking forward to ever since I read his Outside Magazine article that inspired it. Missing people in public lands is scary, guys. And Billman does a great job of demonstrating why while personalizing some of the missing, and how in some cases they vanished with nary a trace.

Billman’s main focus is on the disappearance of Jacob Gray, who disappeared after going for a bike ride in Olympic National Park. Jacob had been showing signs of mental illness and depression, but his family members don’t believe that he was suicidal. His bike and stuff was found but he never was. Billman follows the family members, especially father Randy, as they continue the search in the park well beyond the initial date missing. It feels a little voyeuristic, but at the same time I did like that we got to see the fallout for the family members after the searches, or lack thereof (more on that in a moment) stopped and it was left up to family and friends to go on. The search takes Randy and in turn Billman far and away from the park, and they have to parse through conspiracy theories, rumors of serial killers, and even Bigfoot sightings in hopes of finding a lead. It’s emotional and very sad, but also quite compelling to see how these searches can go. There are other stories dropped in as well, such as a woman who went missing while on a run (who may have been killed by her husband… or maybe it was a serial killer who had means and opportunity), another hiker who went missing in Olympic National Park around the same time that Jacob did, and a hiker who disappeared while on a trail in Mesa Verde. It’s strange and distressing, but Billman is sympathetic and respectful in his accounts. On top of that we also get a look into cadaver dogs and how they’re trained, various histories of some of the settings, and some deep dives into Bigfoot theory. So many Bigfoot theories.

For me the most interesting aspect of this book was not so much about the missing person cases themselves (though some are admittedly fascinating as hell), but how the bureaucracy when it comes to doing official searches gets so gunked up when people disappear on public lands like this. Billman talked about this in his article, but it’s no less frustrating when he talks about the issues specifically in Jacob’s case. For example, there was question as to whether he disappeared in the park itself, or if he crossed the river and the disappeared in the Olympic National Forest. Both places wanted to shirk the duty onto the other, and then there was a large delay in getting any official search parties on the ground when time is of the essence. The unclear jurisdiction issues are one of many issues. Another one that confounded me was that there was no database of missing people in various public lands and parks. One would think that you’d want to have records of this, but it seems the government is barely keeping on top of the number of people missing, much less who they are and other pertinent info. It just kind of reiterates how messed up our government can be in some ways, and it doesn’t make me want to do any heavy duty hiking or camping in remote areas any time soon if it’s to be done on public land. I’ll stick to the paved trails, thanks.

Overall, “The Cold Vanish” is fascinating and eerie, and digs a little deeper than a typical ‘missing persons’ themed book.

Rating 8: A look at missing people and the mysteries of so called ‘conquered’ wilderness, “The Cold Vanish” is strange, bittersweet, and compelling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cold Vanish” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists as of yet. But if you liked “Into the Wild” or other books about disappearing into the wilderness, this would be for you.

Find “The Cold Vanish” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Only Good Indians”

49045750Book: “The Only Good Indians” by Stephen Graham Jones

Publishing Info: Gallery/Saga Press, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: The creeping horror of Paul Tremblay meets Tommy Orange’s There There in a dark novel of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition in this latest novel from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, Stephen Graham Jones.

Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

It wasn’t until recently that I decided to give Stephen Graham Jones a try in terms of looking at a new horror author. I knew that he was a favorite of a friend of mine, and I had requested his book “Mongrels” but never got around to reading it. But when I saw that his newest book, “The Only Good Indians” was available as a ‘Wish For It’ option on NetGalley (aka if you throw your hat in the ring, you may get lucky and get a copy. Kind of a literary lottery for us book reviewers!), I thought why the heck not, and clicked the wish button. To my great (and pleasant) surprise, I was sent an eARC of the book, and waited until it was closer to the publication date to give it a go. It became very clear from the get go of two things: this was going to be quite the experience, and that I had really missed out during my wishy washy ‘I’ll get to him eventually’ malarkey.

“The Only Good Indians” is a horror novel, but it takes great care to go much deeper than merely trying to scare the reader. Along with the tension and scares, we get a deep and heartfelt look into the minds and lives of our main players, all of whom are marked for doom, though the reasons as to why are held close to the vest. Four men, Lewis, Gabriel, Cassidy, and Ricky are four Blackfeet men who were friends in their youth but have vaguely grown apart for various reasons. But the biggest thing that connects them now is a decade old hunting trip that ended with not only the breaking of important traditions. Not only did they hunt on a part of the reservation that was reserved for the elders of the group, they also killed far more elk than they really needed to, including one young female that really, really fought to live. Though they tried to make things right by using as much of the bodies as they could, and giving all the meat to the elders, they were banned from hunting on the reservation ever again. And now, something is hunting them down one by one. It seems like it could be a paint by numbers vengeance folk horror story, but Jones dives in deeper, slowly letting the reader get to know each of these men and the various highs and lows that they reckon with in their day to day lives. By the time vengeance has arrived, you know so much about these men that them being in danger raises the stakes higher than they normally would be. And not only do we get to know them, Jones intermingles their stories along with themes of what modern Indigenous people both on and off the reservation have to contend with, from a loss of identity to a disconnect from traditions to substance abuse to flat out racism. When you take this weaving of social justice issues into a horror motif, what you get is a story that hits you all the more in the gut, but also brings in bits of humor and joy and hope that, if not for these men, that things can slowly be better for those they care about of the younger generations. That is, if this hellbent on revenge and angry entity doesn’t get to them first.

And let’s talk about the horror aspects. Because HELL YES, this is EXACTLY what I want from my folk horror. Jones lets the tension ebb and flow, with slow burning building up and explosive climaxes, and a slow build up again onto the next. It makes the dread feel palpable and makes it so that it’s hard to put the story down. On top of that, the reader really gets into the minds of not only the four hunters, but also that of the thing that is after them. You understand it’s motives, you understand it’s rage, and you can’t help but feel like all of that is justified. It’s easy just to have a monster that slowly takes people out one by one, but far more satisfying to see what makes the monster tick. And with the more subtle and cerebral horror of that we also get some very graphic, gross you out body horror and unsettling imagery that has stuck with me ever since I finished the book. Take all this into account with the social justice issues, and I think that the comparisons between Jones and Jordan Peele are fairly justified. Though that said, Jones stands on his own, no question.

“The Only Good Indians” was a fantastic and emotional horror novel. Don’t make the same mistake I did, people! If you’ve been sleeping on Jones, go out and read this book. You will not regret it.

Rating 9: Haunting, horrifying, and hopeful, “The Only Good Indians” is an examination of revenge, identity, and the circles of violence that can cause such pain.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Only Good Indians” is included on the Goodreads lists “2020 Books by Native Authors and Authors of Color”, and “2020 Horror to Scream For”.

Find “The Only Good Indians” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Child Star”

44280824Book: “Child Star” by Box Brown

Publishing Info: First Second, June 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Child Star is a fictional documentary-style graphic novel about how growing up in the spotlight robs young actors of a true childhood.

Child star Owen Eugene had it all: a hit sitcom on prime time, a Saturday morning cartoon, and a memoir on the bestseller list. The secret to his success was his talent for improvisation . . . and his small size. On screen he made the whole world laugh, but behind the scenes his life was falling apart. Hollywood ate him alive.

Inspired by real-life child stars, bestselling author Brian “Box” Brown created Owen Eugene, a composite character whose tragic life is an amalgam of 1980s pop culture.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this graphic novel!

My love for “The Lost Boys” meant that when Corey Haim died I sat down and cried very deeply. He (and his costar and friend Corey Feldman) were two child stars who were plagued by personal demons that were brought on by fame (and all the bad things and people that come with it), so his death by overdose was tragic, but not surprising. He was just one in a long line of child stars whose life turned to tragedy. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t thinking of Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, Gary Coleman, and so many others as I read Box Brown’s new graphic novel “Child Star”. Which is, of course, the point.

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My heart….. (source)

This is kind of new for Brown, as up until now his graphic novels have been non-fiction. “Child Star” is written in a faux documentary style, so the approach feels like a ‘True Hollywood Story’ kind of tale. I definitely found it interesting that even in a fictional take (though arguably this is the life of Gary Coleman, fictionalized) Brown approaches the content in a just the facts manner. We are told the story of Owen Eugene, a child actor whose popularity exploded due to a 1980s family sitcom, and his small stature as caused by a genetic disorder. We see Eugene’s rise and fall through the eyes of family, friends, and colleagues, and trace how his life in Hollywood changed, and ruined, his life. I really enjoyed the documentary style put on the page, and liked how it truly felt like I was watched a seedy VH1 TV show as I read it. From his parents who clearly took advantage of their son’s fame to the predatory higher ups in Hollywood to the people who knew Eugene due to personal and professional settings, Brown creates a very well thought out, and incredibly tragic, tale of a person all based on the perceptions of those around him, and the reliability and unreliability of their words. Owen Eugene as a character is always a bit of a mystery because of this secondary source template, but I think that we get a nuanced and complex characterization, even if it’s being told through the eyes of others. He has a lot of analogs in real life, and while Gary Coleman is clearly the main influence the sad truth is that so many child stars suffer similar paths and fates that you can see many others inside of this tale.

There is a certain nostalgia on these pages to go with the pathos, and that is for 1980s family sitcoms. I was a little too young to experience it in real time, though I saw my share of reruns of “Growing Pains” and “Who’s The Boss” thanks to syndication. “Child Star” taps into the feel for how these sitcoms would play out, their plots derivative and their casts charming if not a little generic. What struck me the most, however, was how Box worked in the whole way that politics and Nancy Reagan’s ideals would weasel their way into these shows and put forth ‘very special episodes’ about various societal ills. Looking back at those episodes through more modern lenses usually means that we see how cloying they are (especially the ‘don’t do drug’ episodes; I remember rewatching the “Growing Pains episode where frat boys offer Michael cocaine and then mock him when he says no. Coke is EXPENSIVE. No one is going to mock you for saying no, it’s more for them!). It also comments on how Owen was just used in a whole different way for other peoples motives, even if those other people were the President and First Lady.

I will say that while I haven’t had issues with Brown’s art style in the past, for some reason in “Child Star” it felt a little out of place and took away from the impact. I think that part of it is because in the other books I’ve read by him, the stories do have emotional aspects, but are also filled with hope and a little bit of whimsy. In “Child Star” it just feels like a tragedy, and therefore seeing the very cartoony illustrations was a little jarring.

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(source)

Overall, “Child Star” is another well done graphic novel by Box Brown. It’s a bummer to be sure, but also interesting to look at these issues that no doubt still haunt various celebrities.

Rating 7: A poignant and sad faux documentary graphic novel that explores the wrecked life of a child actor, “Child Star” makes you think about the dark side of fame, especially for those who are too young to handle it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Child Star” isn’t included on many Goodreads lists, but honestly any memoirs by former child actors, like Corey Haim’s “Coreyography”, and Tatum O’Neal’s “A Paper Life”.

Find “Child Star” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Survivor Song”

52581895Book: “Survivor Song” by Paul Tremblay

Publishing Info: William Morrow, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: “Fresh and surprising. Survivor Song may be one of Tremblay’s best—beautifully detailed, viscerally frightening, and deep with emotional resonance. —Dan Chaon, New York Times bestselling author of Ill Will

A riveting novel of suspense and terror from the Bram Stoker award-winning author of The Cabin at the End of the World and A Head Full of Ghosts.

In a matter of weeks, Massachusetts has been overrun by an insidious rabies-like virus that is spread by saliva. But unlike rabies, the disease has a terrifyingly short incubation period of an hour or less. Those infected quickly lose their minds and are driven to bite and infect as many others as they can before they inevitably succumb. Hospitals are inundated with the sick and dying, and hysteria has taken hold. To try to limit its spread, the commonwealth is under quarantine and curfew. But society is breaking down and the government’s emergency protocols are faltering.

Dr. Ramola “Rams” Sherman, a soft-spoken pediatrician in her mid-thirties, receives a frantic phone call from Natalie, a friend who is eight months pregnant. Natalie’s husband has been killed—viciously attacked by an infected neighbor—and in a failed attempt to save him, Natalie, too, was bitten. Natalie’s only chance of survival is to get to a hospital as quickly as possible to receive a rabies vaccine. The clock is ticking for her and for her unborn child.

Natalie’s fight for life becomes a desperate odyssey as she and Rams make their way through a hostile landscape filled with dangers beyond their worst nightmares—terrifying, strange, and sometimes deadly challenges that push them to the brink. 

Paul Tremblay once again demonstrates his mastery in this chilling and all-too-plausible novel that will leave readers racing through the pages . . . and shake them to their core.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

Given that I have greatly enjoyed everything that Paul Tremblay has written, it was a no brainer that I was super interested when I found out that he had a new book coming out called “Survivor Song”. I am pretty sure it was this past winter that I requested it on NetGalley to read an advanced copy, maybe January or February. I tend to like to hold off on reading the ARCs I get from NetGalley until it’s closer to the publication date, just so a review is fresh in my mind. So it wasn’t until we were in the clutches of a pandemic, with PPE shortages, high death rates, a mysterious virus, and quarantine that I picked up a book about an epidemic…. with PPE shortages, high death rates, a mysterious virus, and quarantine….

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For. Fuck’s. Sake. (source)

BUT, we beat on, boats against the current etc, because it’s Paul Tremblay, a favorite author of mine. And I knew that if anyone was going to make the best of it, it is him. And hey, given another significant theme in this story at least I’m not pregnant too! You have to look for the bright side.

“Survivor Song” is a terrifying epidemic story that takes the zombie tale and twists it around into something else. I’d say that the closest comparison I could draw would be to “28 Days Later”, as in this story it isn’t the undead that are wreaking havoc, but people infected with a sped up rabies-like virus. But unlike “28 Days Later”, “Survivor Song” has a whole lot of hopeful heart beating at its center, and that is because of the enduring friendship between our protagonists, Romola and Natalie. These two women are racing against the clock, as very pregnant Natalie was bitten by an infected person and they hope to get her to a hospital where they can administer a vaccination. As one can imagine, it doesn’t go as planned, and both women have to venture forth in hopes of a plan B as the clock ticks away. Tremblay so effortlessly paints their relationship and friendship that you are immediately rooting for them, and the reader can see themself and their best friend in these characters very easily. I loved how realistic their friendship was, from the compassion and support to the sniping and the desperation. They meet a few people along the way, from teenage wise asses to terrifying milia members, and as they journey forth and the stakes rise higher and higher, the tension spikes and will leave you scared for them, and hoping they make it through. Both women feel real, and their motivations are laid out plainly. Even though it is made clear at the beginning that this is no fairy tale, you still have hope. Tremblay always knows how to give the reader hope, even when things are dark and despairing. It’s one of the things I love about his work.

In terms of the horror, oh boy. The timing of this book, as mentioned above, couldn’t have been better or worse depending on how you want to look at it. Tremblay nails every issue that we are currently experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic, from PPE shortages to anti-scientific thought to conspiracies run amok to a government that doesn’t act and dooms thousands. As I was reading this book I just shook my head. It’s too real. That would be the only reason that I wouldn’t rate this book as high as I might have otherwise. That isn’t Tremblay’s fault. Hell, if anything he nailed it. But as of now, when I don’t feel safe going into public for extended periods of time, or feel like my parents can hold my kid, or I see more and more deaths as people say that having to wear a mask is tyranny, “Survivor Song” just hits a little too close to home.

Don’t let that stop you from reading this book. It’s really quite good, even if it’s hard to handle. Paul Tremblay is one of my faves for a reason. “Survivor Song” reiterates that.

Rating 8: Definitely a little hard to ‘enjoy’ in this moment, “Survivor Song” is both terrifying and emotional, but showcases the power of lady friendship above all else.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Survivor Song” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Smart Apocalyptic and Dystopian Fiction”, and “Books for a Pandemic”.

Find “Survivor Song” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House”

25099Book: “The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” by Neil Gaiman, Steve Parkhouse (Ill.), Chris Bachalo (Ill.), Michael Zulli (Ill.), Mike Dringenberg (Ill.), & Malcolm Jones III (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, June 1990

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A being who has existed since the beginning of the universe, Dream of the Endless rules over the realm of dreams. In The Doll’s House, after a decades-long imprisonment, the Sandman has returned to find that a few dreams and nightmares have escaped to reality. Looking to recapture his lost possessions, Morpheus ventures to the human plane only to learn that a woman named Rose Walker has inadvertently become a dream vortex and threatens to rip apart his world. Now as Morpheus takes on the last escaped nightmare at a serial killers convention, the Lord of Dreams must mercilessly murder Rose or risk the destruction of his entire kingdom.

Collecting issues #9-16, this new edition of The Doll’s House features the improved production values and coloring from the Absolute Edition.

Review: Our revisit of this classic comic series presses on, and now that Morpheus/Dream has reclaimed his power over The Dreaming, he has more work to do! As I continue my re-read I have been struck by how visceral and enchanting “The Sandman” universe is, and while it does still harken to other DC characters and mythos on occasion, we have started to stay firmly within a world of Gaiman’s making. And it is just as engrossing this time as it was the first time.

I don’t know why I waited so long to revisit Dream, The Endless, and the Dreaming, because going back to “The Sandman (Vol. 2): The Doll’s House” really hit home how much I love this series. There’s dark humor, there’s lovely fantastical world building as you get more familiar with The Dreaming (Dream’s domain he rules over) and begin to meet other Endless (specifically Desire in this arc), and there’s an undercurrent of horror to go along with the fantasy. Our main drive this time is that of Rose Walker, a woman who is, unknown to her, a Dream Vortex, and therefore something very dangerous for The Dreaming as her very existence could damage it beyond repair. On top of that, a few of Dream’s Nightmares have escaped, and are wreaking havoc in different ways. In this volume Dream is still trying to re-steer his ship after his captivity, and we see just how far the damage of his absence has  gone. Rose has her own mission, and it is to find her little brother, who has gone missing. With the help of a mysterious but kind man named Gilbert, Rose goes looking for her brother, just as Dream starts looking for her. We see a few callbacks to other parts of “Preludes and Nocturnes”, which were done in slow and subtle ways, which made them feel all the more satisfactory as they were peeled back and revealed. The dreamlike atmosphere of this series is still present, as is the darkness. This time that horror aspect is in the form of a ‘Cereal Convention” that Rose and Gilbert stumble upon, which is actually a gathering of serial killers that are hoping to share insight with each other. I had forgotten how twisted this entire thing was, and let me tell you Gaiman doesn’t hold back. To the point that I really feel a need to give a content warning for abuse and sexual assault (and also a note that there is descriptions of violence against trans people in particular. Which felt very problematic but also very of the time that this series was going).

But once again, it’s a standalone story that has a lot of philosophical oomph and a lot of heart that stood out to me in this volume. While the arc of Rose Walker and the ‘cereal’ convention is definitely stellar, it was the story “Men of Good Fortune”, in which Dream and Death decide to give a man named Hob Gadling eternal life after they hear him waxing philosophical about mortality in a pub in 1389. Every hundred years, Hob and Dream meet at this pub, and Hob tells Dream about what he is doing with his eternity. There are highs and lows as Hob experiences the evolution of London, and we get to see how he changes the direction of his life and how it leads to success and devastation. What struck me the most about this story, outside of seeing how one person might shift and evolve with the world they live in were they to have eternity to do so, is that Hob and Dream are an unlikely set of friends whose friendship feels natural and touching. I remembered that Hob pops up here and there throughout the series, but I had forgotten how lovely his introduction was.

The art is still excellent. We’ve started to see more experimentation in design, style, and placement, and while sometimes there is a very traditional art style (like in “Men of Good Fortune”), sometimes it is very abstract. It really just adds to the flavor of the atmosphere that they’re all trying to create, and for the most part it works.

“The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” opens up the series to more possibilities, and more darkness. You can tell that this is something very special on these pages.

Rating 9: More chills and world building along with introductions to more of the Endless, “The Sandman (Vol. 2): The Doll’s House” keeps the horror elements up while also showing moments of true tenderness.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” is included on the Goodreads lists “Great Non-Superhero Graphic Novels”, and “Psychological and Philosophical Comics”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: