Kate’s Review: “Lovecraft Country”

25109947Book: “Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff

Publishing Info: Harper, February 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The Library!

Book Description: The critically acclaimed cult novelist makes visceral the terrors of life in Jim Crow America and its lingering effects in this brilliant and wondrous work of the imagination that melds historical fiction, pulp noir, and Lovecraftian horror and fantasy

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn—led by Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb—which has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his—and the whole Turner clan’s—destruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today.

Review: As a fan of horror literature, it’s no surprise that I do have a fondness for the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Last year my husband got me the complete annotated Lovecraft for our anniversary, and it sits on my shelf in it’s huge and daunting glory. Cthulhu is also one of the most badass literary monsters out there. But here is the thing about Lovecraft: He was an unrepentant racist and white supremacist. People can trot out the ‘man of his time’ argument, but that doesn’t matter at the end of the day. I don’t think that there is a problem enjoying his works and his writing, but to deny that other side of him is inherently dishonest and problematic.

And that brings us to “Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff. Ruff takes the works of Lovecraft and pays homage to them while simultaneously exploring and exposing American racism. He splits this book into multiple parts that all have their own little twists on Lovecraft stories or Lovecraft themes, and while they could probably stand alone, they all combine into an overarching narrative. While all of these stories have magical elements, from a haunted house to a magical cult of sorcerers to a magic elixir, all of these elements are connected to race. The haunted house does house a ghost, but the creaks and bumps in the night may also be the neighbors who are angry that a black woman has moved in. The sorcerer cult hopes to use Atticus as a vessel, as his ancestor was a slave who was raped by her master and started his recent familial line. The magical elixir gives a black woman the ability to turn white when it would be beneficial to her. They all reek of Lovecraft, but are so much more.

Our protagonists, led by Atticus Turner, are all members of an African American family in Jim Crow Era America, but their hardship and experiences of violent racism are by no means limited to the Deep South. Atticus has his uncle’s “Safe Negro Travel Guide” (based on “The Green Book”) to tell him what areas are or aren’t safe for him and George to be in, but that doesn’t keep him immune or safe from non-magical threats such as racist cops and locals who threaten or even give chase to them. It was pretty clear from the get go that the greatest threats in this book were not going to be Cthulhus or ancient ones, but White America and the hatred and bigotry that it stewed in during the time period of the novel. On the cover of this book, designed to look like a pulp novel, there are a number of things that show you just what you’re getting into. The blurb that sticks out says ‘America’s Demons Exposed!’, and right below it there are images of ghostly figures that look a whole lot like the Klan. This book is less about Lovecrafts works, and more about Lovecrafts thoughts, thoughts that were shared by people in all parts of America. And I think that Ruff did a great job of using this theme to talk about the ugliness that still haunts us today, even though we as a country are so uncomfortable thinking and facing that. America’s demons indeed.

And plus there were definitely some really creepy parts in this book. My favorite section was that of the Haunted House, “Dreams of the Which House” (a play on Lovecraft’s “Dreams in a Witch House” in both title and theme). The story concerns Letitia, Atticus’ childhood friend who had accompanied him on his road trip. She is looking to buy a house, and the one that Letitia settles on is in an all white neighborhood. It’s also very cheap because it’s haunted. So when Letitia is spending time in this house, there are strange and scary things that the ghost does. But then, there is an even bigger threat from the neighbors, who have started to harass Letitia just as much as a ghost might. I liked this one the best because I liked Letitia, I liked how she interacted with the ghost, and I liked how she made a stand in her house against ghost and Klan alike. Ruff also did a very good job of addressing racism in housing and property rights in this chapter, and microaggressions faced in day to day living (with Letitia and Atticus both being assumed to be ‘the help’ in her own home by white characters).

And I should say that while I think that Ruff did a good job, my perspective is that of a white woman, so if there are issues that POC have with this interpretation of racial oppression and bigotry, please do let me know.

“Lovecraft Country” is a book that I hope Lovecraft fans will read. I hope that many people will read it, as it explores themes that we simply can’t ignore.

Rating 8: A very well done horror story on both supernatural and realistic levels.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Lovecraft Country” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Quality Dark Fiction”, and “Best Weird Fiction Books”.

Find “Lovecraft Country” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Vampire Lestat”

43814Book: “The Vampire Lestat” by Anne Rice

Publishing Info: Knopf, 1985

Where Did I Get This Book: The Library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Once an aristocrat in the heady days of pre-revolutionary France, now Lestat is a rockstar in the demonic, shimmering 1980s. He rushes through the centuries in search of others like him, seeking answers to the mystery of his terrifying exsitence. His story, the second volume in Anne Rice’s best-selling Vampire Chronicles, is mesmerizing, passionate, and thrilling.

Review: When I was in high school, like many teenage girls who didn’t feel like they fit in anywhere, I went through a few identity explorations. I was a hippie, I was a rocker, I was a punk, and I was, mostly at the heart of myself, a goth. Black lipstick, black nail polish, dog collar, I had all of that and a sullen attitude and an obsession with the macabre. Though not as extreme, I was kind of Molly Shannon’s character from the “Goth Talk” Saturday Night Live skit.

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Though my best friend was more of a flannel and Minnesota Wild merchandise kind of guy. (source)

I also had a serious love for vampires. This was before “Twilight”, so my objects of obsession were “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, and Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles”. I read “Interview with the Vampire”, “The Vampire Lestat”, and “Queen of the Damned”, but quit the series once I figured out that it was super different from the movie “Queen of the Damned”, which was probably where my true heart was in regards to that that universe. But that should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, as that movie was all about vampire bad boy goth rocker Lestat and his swagger.

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I’m not sorry. (source)

So one night my husband and I decided to watch “Queen of the Damned”, and the next day I decided to pick up “The Vampire Lestat” at work. Call me inspired. It wasn’t long after starting, though, that I realized just how much that movie bastardized the book, the characters, most everything from the Anne Rice stories. I guess I’d blocked that out.

Picking up after “Interview with The Vampire”, “The Vampire Lestat” is the origin story of that book’s antagonist, Lestat de Lioncourt. We knew he was a snarky snippy bad boy in “Interview”, so now we get his side of the story in “The Vampire Lestat”. Unlike “Interview”, “The Vampire Lestat” is a book about a vampire who has few to no regrets about who he is at the end of the day. What I had forgotten from my high school years is that Lestat is not only a brat and an egoist, he also probably has too many emotions and feelings about those around him and those he cares about, which ultimately screws him over again and again. I like that Rice gave him the same problems as other angsty vampires of that trope, but instead of being gloomy and sulky, he turns it into armor. Lestat is definitely a cruel and destructive character by the end of this book, but seeing why he is that way is the kind of story I am a huge, huge sucker for. I especially liked his relationship with his friend and lover Nicky, a sensitive soul who isn’t cut out for the vampire life. It lays groundwork for why Lestat is so drawn to Louis, in spite of their clear differences. The descriptions of the decadent life of pre-Revolutionary France were sumptuous and rich, and Rice took me to every single place that she wanted to. While her writing can tread into the melodramatic at times, I love how she can really transport the reader into her world.

I also like the brass balls that Rice had in writing an openly bisexual character (knowing some of his love interests down the line I say bisexual instead of gay) to be her protagonist. While I’m sure in the 80s it could have been written off as ‘he’s a vampire and therefore some kind of twisted creature’, the love that Lestat has for Nicky and Louis both is never portrayed as anything other than real and all encompassing. True, they aren’t the most healthy of relationships (at all), but in the subtlety and banter and tenderness of these characters, Rice wrote up a story far more romantic than the movie version of “Queen of the Damned” did when they forced Lestat into a monogamous and hetero relationship with Jessie (not that I’m not a fan of that too, because I am, but it seems so sanitized compared to this book. And that came out in 2002! This book was written in 1985 for God’s sake!). And tragic. So very tragic. Lestat has vulnerability in this book that I had completely forgotten about, but it doesn’t compromise how ruthless he is. If anything the fact that he can love so much and be so cruel and vicious makes him all the more intriguing to me.

But then there are the not as good things. This book suffers from serious  fantasy bloat, as while it is supposed to be Lestat’s story we also get some background for other characters that doesn’t feel like it fits. I love Marius and I like Armand, but I wasn’t here for their stories, I was here for Lestat’s. Unfortunately, these backgrounds were shoehorned in, and I found myself skimming those parts, which is too bad because that mythology is definitely interesting. I just didn’t feel that it fit in this story. There was also the uncomfortable relationship that Lestat had with Gabrielle, his first vampire fledgling who also happens to be his mother. While nothing was explicit and while Lestat was more preoccupied with Nicky, the weird erotic undertones between these two were a bit off putting. I want to like Gabrielle, because there is a lot of depth there. She has her place as a woman during the 1700s, so becoming a vampire gives her a new freedom that she never could have experienced when she was alive. So it’s really unfortunate that her presence was a bit more uncomfortable than it should have been given the potential that was there.

Overall, re-reading “The Vampire Lestat” was a fun endeavor if only because I appreciated it a bit more this time around. I will probably re-visit “Queen of the Damned” (the book) at some point, but for now I’m content with the bastardized movie and thinking about Lestat, Louis, and Nicky.

Rating 7: I love Lestat to death and his voice is snarky, bitchy, and dark. His story, however, is a bit convoluted and sometimes loses him as the main character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Vampire Lestat” is included on these Goodreads Lists: “Rooting for the Bad Guy”, and “Best Gay Vampires” (you knew this was coming. Lestat and Louis FOREVER!).

Find “The Vampire Lestat” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Book Club Review: “Warm Bodies”

9475392We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Books with Movie Adaptations.” 

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for bookclub. We’ll also post the next book coming up in bookclub. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own bookclub! 

Book: “Warm Bodies” by Isaac Marion

Publishing Info: Atria, October 2010

Where Did We Get This Book: Serena owns it, Kate got the audiobook from the library

Book Description from Goodreads: R is a young man with an existential crisis–he is a zombie. He shuffles through an America destroyed by war, social collapse, and the mindless hunger of his undead comrades, but he craves something more than blood and brains. He can speak just a few grunted syllables, but his inner life is deep, full of wonder and longing. He has no memories, no identity, and no pulse. Just dreams.

After experiencing a teenage boy’s memories while consuming his brain, R makes an unexpected choice that begins a tense, awkward, and strangely sweet relationship with the victim’s human girlfriend. Julie is a burst of vibrant color in the otherwise dreary and gray landscape that R lives in. His decision to protect her will transform not only R, but his fellow Dead, and perhaps their whole lifeless world…

Serena’s Thoughts:

I read this book several years ago, and watched the movie right when it came out, so when bookclub decided to do a “book/movie” theme, this was an easy choice for me! I hadn’t re-read it since, and with the movie version being the more recent version I had experienced for the story, it was fun reviewing the original material and seeing the difference from the reverse perspective as well.

I think this book flew beneath the radar for quite a while before it was announced as a movie, and then when it was, everyone dismissed it as “zombie romance.” Which, really, shouldn’t that intrigue people, not put them off? But alas, judgement arose. And given that the new editions of the books have been released with the movie cover (a whole post could be committed to the subject of how much I hate movie-covers for books), I can’t even blame people who pass this over with that thought. I mean, look at this thing!

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Can you get any more teen-pop-stereotypical-romance-looking than that? No, the answer is no. And this is a tragedy, because the story is not that at all. Sure, there is some romance, but it’s sad to see what is a very philosophical book be overlooked simply because of that inclusion.

R is such an intriguing narrator. For a character whose actual dialogue is limited to brief syllables, he’s quite verbose as a protagonist. While much of the changing that he goes through can be attributed to his run in with Perry’s brain (the teenage boy he eats on one scavenging trip) and Julie, the living girl he befriends, R is clearly a force of change himself. With brutal honesty, he evaluates zombie society, humanity, and the force of human will.

With so many pop-culture representations of zombie-hood currently, Marion’s version is very intriguing. Zombies are often just stumbling, groaning, beasts. But here, they have, at the most basic sense, a world of their own. Their attempts to re-create life through human constructs such as marriage, school, and religion, all while bereft of the inner feelings that accompany them is not only sad but deeply disturbing. Further, Marion succeeds at something that the poor, struggling writers of “The Walking Dead” tv series have been attempting for so long: connecting the dots between the living and the zombie-fied. “We are the walking dead,” and all of that, but done in a subtle and truly impactful manner (unlike certain shows…).

I haven’t spent much time talking about Julie, and I think she was the biggest surprise for me when I re-read this book. The first go around, I didn’t really put much thought into her as a character. This time, looking more closely, I appreciate the fine line that Marion walked when writing her. She could so easily fall into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl category. But for all of her snappy lines and crafty bedroom design (cuz of course, she’s a teen girl, then obviously she must paper mache her room!), Julie’s background is dark. Much darker than I had remembered. These struggles help round her out as a character and allow her to offer a unique perspective into the world of the Living, without getting too caught up in the super sweet, “hope is all you need!” naivety that she could have been reduced to.

All in all, I had a really fun time returning to this book!

Kate’s Thoughts:

Perhaps you will be surprised to hear that it wasn’t me who picked the zombie book for our bookclub, but our dear Serena. But that should just go to show that this book isn’t just for fans of the horror and zombie genre. I think that the nice thing about the zombie genre, when done well, is that it’s usually far more about humanity and the human psyche than it is about marauding monsters. The few exceptions I can think of are “Dawn of the Dead” (the original), in which zombies are drawn to a mall because of a instinctual need for the routine of their past lives, and “Day of the Dead,” in which Bub the zombie starts to relearn various human emotions and actions, and feels affection for the man who has “created” him in a way. So “Warm Bodies” kind of took that concept and ran with it. Marion takes it even further though, and deconstructs just what makes humanity in a person, and gets way existential about it. Which kind of surprised me in the best way possible.

It took me a little while to warm up to R, as I did, admittedly, have a hard time with how he just kind of took Julie under guise of keeping her safe, and hid from her that he had, uh, eaten her boyfriend. But as he went on, he really, really grew on me, and I became very fond of him and his journey of self discovery. His rumination about what it means to be human, and his descriptions of the zombie culture and how it functions on indifference and complacence, were so thought provoking and tragically beautiful that I was completely enraptured with his voice and narration. I love the idea that zombies aren’t really totally lost if they look for connections and seek out beauty in life (because of R and Julie and their own connection).

Julie too makes for a very good character, like Serena said. She never rang false and never felt like she was too perfect, or too understanding and good.  I really, really loved her relationship with R. Their connection grew and progressed in a natural way, and I never felt like it was unrealistic or forced as time went on. It was also very complicated and had many layers, as R did, indeed, kill and eat her boyfriend, Perry. But even that was resolved and reconciled in a way that I found believable, and I was thinking that there was no way that I was going to be satisfied with that whole thing. Joke’s on me, I guess.

And I also want to say that M, R’s best friend, was exactly the kind of pal that I aspire to be. Snarky and sarcastic (even as a zombie) but ultimately loyal, and pretty damn great. I also liked Julie’s best friend, Nora, who is pragmatic and thoughtful, but never feels like she’s just a second fiddle. It goes to show that Marion took great care when crafting his supporting characters as well.

I greatly enjoyed “Warm Bodies.” I am so glad that I finally got to it with Serena’s good taste in book club books!

Serena’s Rating 9: Really great, even better the second time around.

Kate’s Rating 9: Such a complex and enjoyable love story, and a very deep look at what makes a human a human.

Book Club Notes and Questions:

“Warm Bodies” came out a couple years ago, nearing the end of the paranormal romance phase of teen movies and right in the midst of the rise of dystopia as the new theme. As a film, it’s a bit more light-hearted than the original source material, but that isn’t to say that it isn’t a good adaptation. Nicholas Hoult plays R, a casting choice that makes almost perfect sense. First of all, his eyes are huge and expressive, and can convey so much emotion as R, even when he is still in the midst of being in his limited zombie phase. He is nuanced and subtle in his acting, and makes a believable zombie who is slowly evolving. Theresa Palmer plays Julie, and also brings justice to that role. Her back story isn’t as dark and depressing, at least it isn’t explored as much, and while it’s nice that things worked out a bit better for her, it’s too bad that we lost that character exploration. It’s also too bad that the decision was made to cast Nora, in the book a biracial woman, as a white woman. It’s not that Analeigh Tipton didn’t do a good job, because she is pretty great, but it’s a sad reminder that Hollywood is still fully into white washing characters.

1. Zombie stories have always arose from what seems to be society’s own existential fear. What is your perspective on the unique version of zombies and human society that is presented in this book?

2. It is never made quite clear what the “Bonies” are in this world. The human equate them almost to aliens and the zombies themselves almost fear them. How do you think they came to exist? Did they have their own inner society? Own goals and agendas?

3. The movie lightened up the story a lot and there were a few significant changes. What changes did you like? Were there ones you wished they hadn’t changed?

4. What notable differences between the book and movie did you see in the portrayal of the main characters (R, Julie, Perry, Nora, and M)?

5. Music, writing, and art are discussed a lot in this book. Does the story have anything to offer on the impact these things have on humanity? And the more fun question, if you were a zombie and had a favorite song, what would it be?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Warm Bodies” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Not your normal zombie!!!” and “Living On Their Own/On The Run (Teens/Young Adults).”

Find “Warm Bodies” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “My Best Friend’s Exorcism”

26118005Book: “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” by Grady Hendrix

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, May 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description from Goodreads: Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since fifth grade, when they bonded over a shared love of E.T., roller-skating parties, and scratch-and-sniff stickers. But when they arrive at high school, things change. Gretchen begins to act…different. And as the strange coincidences and bizarre behavior start to pile up, Abby realizes there’s only one possible explanation: Gretchen, her favorite person in the world, has a demon living inside her. And Abby is not about to let anyone or anything come between her and her best friend. With help from some unlikely allies, Abby embarks on a quest to save Gretchen. But is their friendship powerful enough to beat the devil?

Review: As a child who was born in 1984, I have vague memories of the 1980s and the cultural amazements that this decade had to offer. Much of my pop culture influences from my early years were solidly 1980s fodder, as my favorite childhood movies were “Ghostbusters” and “Bill and Ted”, I have memories of my nanny subsisting on a soundtrack of Madonna and Prince, and definitely remember a lot of shades of neon in the wardrobes of those around me. I also remember washing my Mom’s car in our driveway using a rag with Reagan’s face on it, because ‘we like wiping mud onto Reagan’s face’, as my Dad put it one day. So I have enough awareness of the decade to have at least a little bit of nostalgia for it. This means, of course, that when I heard about “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” I practically jumped out of my skin in pure, unadulterated excitement. A horror novel that drips of 1980s nostalgia?

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All this needs for maximum excitement is some Ecto-Cooler and some push pops! (source)

True, sometimes the 80s factor was laid on pretty thick, but the good news is that our protagonists, Abby and Gretchen, stand well enough on their own that they aren’t 80s stereotypes walking around on the pages. Hendrix did a really good job of creating a believable and complex girl friendship, so well that I was kind of surprised by it. Not to say that a guy can’t write this kind of thing, but it felt pretty true to life, ups and downs and all, without feeling like it was pandering to the audience. Abby is a girl from a lower income family (during a time when greed was so good) who is desperate to live the upper class life that Gretchen has, even if it’s vicariously and even if Gretchen’s parents are pretty wretched people most of the time. Gretchen’s family life is very representative of this egomaniacal Reagan’s America, and the setting of Charleston, South Carolina adds the racist and sexist and repressive attitudes of Dixie into this already gross recipe. The tension of the hierarchical culture is always present, as Abby is at a prestigious private school on scholarship, surrounded by rich kids (and administrators) who act like friends, but always see Abby as The Other because of her family income. The privilege reeks off of the kids in this school, and Hendrix brings it up through various situations and scenes that not only show the monetary privilege, but racial privilege as well. This is not an idyllic Charleston by any stretch of the imagination, as racism, misogyny, and Satanic Panic are always beneath the surface.

To me I was incredibly fascinated with Gretchen’s possession, and the ways that it manifested. For one, Gretchen’s place in society is one that a stereotypical exorcism story may not place her in. Instead of the daughter of a single parent whoring around actress a la “The Exorcist”, Gretchen’s parents are no doubt the kind of people that William Peter Blatty thought to be the ideal parents. They are conservative, they are religious, and they are strict to be sure that Gretchen has no improper influences in their home. One scene that stuck out in my mind was when Abby and Gretchen were caught listening to Madonna, and when Gretchen’s mother catches them she beats her daughter pretty violently with a hairbrush. A very, very interesting choice of family for a demon to target, in my opinion. It was as if Hendrix took that old chestnut exorcism story theme of ‘if you accept God and Jesus into your life, bad things won’t happen to you’, and spits in it’s face. Bold move, Hendrix, and I feel like it paid off. It was also a cool choice to make Abby, the girl whose family isn’t religious and doesn’t necessarily believe in this stuff, the person to cling hard to the possession theory. Satanic Panic was prevalent in the late 80s and early 90s, where lots of otherwise rational people believed that Satanists were conspiring against the country, so Abby was a good representation of that. I also liked that I was left questioning just what was going on in this story. Hendrix threw enough red herrings and misdirections in there that I was questioning what was the product of a demonic possession, and what was the product of trauma, or really just the fallout of mean girls doing mean things to each other.

And since it wouldn’t be a horror story without some horrific moments, I am happy to report that there are a fair number of decent scares in “My Best Friend’s Exorcism”. Hendrix is pretty solid and taking a concept that could be seen as light hearted and tongue in cheek, and then make it into something very unsettling and disturbing. While I’m not really one to be scared by possession stories in general, there were some moments in here that had me on the edge of my seat, just as there were moments that really grossed me out. One moment in particular. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say that a certain fad diet urban legend was used to the most disgusting degree as a means of demonic torment towards a frenemy of Gretchen’s and Abby’s….

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What has been read can never be un-read…. (source)

There were some things about this book that made me a bit uncomfortable. I understand that Hendrix was setting a place and time and doing so with certain attitudes. But some of the casually thrown about racist and sexist and homophobic things thrown around, while no doubt prevalent to 1988 in Charleston, made my modern sensibilities very uncomfortable. I get what he was trying to do, but I also think that it sometimes fell flat and came off as tone deaf. I cringed a bit more than I wanted to at times.

Overall, however, I tore through “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” and greatly enjoyed the ride. It isn’t for the squeamish at times, but those with an affection for the 1980s and strong girl friendships may want to give it a try. Just…. you know, prepare yourself.

Rating 8: A fun and scary book that puts a very complex and real girl friendship at the center. Sometimes it felt a bit fumbling when it came to social issues, but overall it was a good read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Best Friend’s Exorcism” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Upcoming Books of Note: Horror”, and “Book Titles That Give You No Choice But To Check Out The Books”. I would also say that if you liked this, give “The Exorcist” a try if you haven’t already. Lots of influence comes from it, obviously.

Find “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “HEX”

25533076Book: “HEX” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Publishing Info: Tom Doherty Associates, April 2016; Original Dutch edition published in April, 2013.

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description from Goodreads: Whoever is born here, is doomed to stay ’til death. Whoever settles, never leaves.

Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a 17th century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Muzzled, she walks the streets and enters your homes at will. She stands next to your bed for nights on end. Everybody knows that her eyes may never be opened.

The elders of Black Spring have virtually quarantined the town by using high-tech surveillance to prevent their curse from spreading. Frustrated with being kept in lockdown, the town’s teenagers decide to break their strict regulations and go viral with the haunting, but in so doing send the town spiraling into the dark, medieval practices of the past.

Review: It takes a heck of a lot to scare me, guys. I’ve been watching suspense films like “Rear Window” and “Vertigo” since I was a kid, I started watching slasher films when I was in middle school, and my first venture into horror movies in the theater was when a chaperone took me and a friend to “The Blair Witch Project”the summer before freshman year of high school. Suffice to say, I’m a veteran at the horror rodeo, and it now means that the subject of horror I’m consuming needs to really pull out all the stops in very specific ways before I am affected by it. It’s good in that I’m not kept up late at night jumping at every sound, but bad in that I like being scared for funsies every once in awhile.

But “HEX”? “HEX” kept me up at night.

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I don’t know why I thought reading it before bed was a good idea. (source)

I think that it was a combination of multiple things that made “HEX” such a scary read for me. The first is that Katherine van Wyler (aka the Black Rock Witch) just sounds like a really scary entity. She walks in silence, towers over people, just stands in place for hours on end, and has her eyes and mouth sewn shut. I mean jeeze, this is the stuff that my nightmares are made of. While the people in Black Spring are used to her, and while they pretty much know how to handle her, that isn’t to say that they aren’t living every day in fear of her and what she could do, and has done in the past. You do get Katherine’s backstory, but Heuvelt saves that for a little later. The book itself just opens with our protagonist family, Steve, Jocelyn, Tyler, and Matt Grant, going about their business as Katherine stands and blindly stares in their living room. I closed the book after the first chapter and just sat there for a moment, wondering what exactly it was I was getting myself into. There are scenes with her that took my breath away because I was so tense, and scenes where I was nearly shaking. She is absolutely terrifying. But Katherine is tragic as well. She has cursed this town for what it did to her back when Black Spring was still run by Dutch settlers, and as you find out more about what that is, the more sympathy you feel for this creature that everyone lives in fear of. Not to say that the reader isn’t still in fear of her as the book progresses. I mean, the description alone is just scary as hell, and there were moments of characters tromping through the woods at night that took me back to that summer before freshman year when I was practically pissing myself watching “The Blair Witch Project”. That is to say I had to nope the hell out and stop reading.

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Something about witches, man. (source)

But something that sets this book aside from other genre horror is that it is not The Black Rock Witch who should be most feared. The town of Black Spring has evolved in such a way because of this curse that they have turned into something far more unsettling. While I didn’t have as big of a problem with the HEX Group (the surveillance group that keeps tabs on Katherine’s whereabouts through surveillance and the vigilance of the townspeople reporting in on their phones), I most certainly had a problem with the Town Council. Led by a zealous old man named Cotton Mathers, the elders of the Town Council are determined to make sure that everyone in Black Spring keeps this life and Katherine a secret from the outside world, and anyone who goes against those rules are subject to unspeakable punishments. Black Spring is still stuck in an age that is very reminiscent of the Puritans, and their religious fervor and practices of atonement and groupthink were by far the most upsetting moments in this book. The way that the town gets whipped up into a frenzy out of fear of Katherine just reeked of the scariest parts of history, and while I sometimes had to put the book down because of the witch-related suspense, I was far more upset by the absolutist violence and terror that the humans in this book doled out, to their own citizenry and to Katherine alike.

The characters were also very well written. The members of the Grant Family were the main protagonists, with Steve and Tyler at the forefront. Steve and Jocelyn were unlucky enough to move to Black Spring from the outside and realize that they couldn’t leave for longer than a couple weeks, but Steve has since adapted to the ways of the town and believes in keeping the status quo as a way to protect his family. Steve loves his family to a fault, but most of his love is for his oldest, Tyler. Steve really just wants everyone to be safe, and is acquiescent to the life that they have found themselves in, even if that means that they are ultimately prisoners.

Tyler, on the other hand, has grown up in Black Spring, but has also had the Internet his whole life and has seen the outside world, and wants to live in it. Their conflicting views provide the main conflict at the heart of this book: the old ways being pushed against by the younger generation. Tyler is the one who wants to expose the Black Rock Witch Haunting to the world via his website and blog, thinking that if outsiders knew it may break the curse, while the elders of the town think that it would just spread it. I understood both sides of the argument, and what I liked best about it was that neither side was completely right, or wrong. Tyler has a hard lesson to learn in who to trust for such good intentioned (though ultimately selfish) sentiments, as one could argue it’s one of his friends, Jaydon, who sets of the events of this book. Jaydon has his own personal vendetta against Katherine, and that in combination with a childhood of abuse and rage set off a lot of very upsetting events and violence directed at Katherine that made me, as a woman, a bit sick to my stomach to read. Again, it’s the people of Black Spring that are the biggest villains of all in this book.

I also greatly enjoyed the character of Robert Grim, the head of the HEX Group and main tracker of Katherine’s movements. He’s brash and he’s sarcastic, but he’s also one of the few voices of reason in Black Spring. He’s a realist living in a town filled with superstition and fear, and he is noble to a fault when it comes to trying to protect the community he doesn’t really fit into, not at the heart of his being. It would have been so simple to make him just another antagonist, but Grim is quite possibly the most righteous of characters in Black Spring.

“HEX” was a fabulous, very scary read. Fans of horror really need to pick this one up, because it has everything you could ever want. But maybe don’t read it at night. And if you live by a wooded area like me, definitely try not to think about that either…

Rating 9: This book scared the dickens out of me. Definitely recommended but maybe not for those easily scared.

Reader’s Advisory:

“HEX” is pretty new and not on many Goodreads Lists as of yet, but I would put it on “Best Books Featuring Witches”, and “Boil Boil Toil and Trouble”.

Find “HEX” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Fireman”

25816688Book: “The Fireman” by Joe Hill

Publishing Info: William Morrow, May 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: I bought it!

Book Description from Goodreads: From the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author ofNOS4A2 and Heart-Shaped Box comes a chilling novel about a worldwide pandemic of spontaneous combustion that threatens to reduce civilization to ashes and a band of improbable heroes who battle to save it, led by one powerful and enigmatic man known as the Fireman.

The fireman is coming. Stay cool. 

No one knows exactly when it began or where it originated. A terrifying new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one: Boston, Detroit, Seattle. The doctors call it Draco Incendia Trychophyton. To everyone else it’s Dragonscale, a highly contagious, deadly spore that marks its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks across their bodies—before causing them to burst into flames. Millions are infected; blazes erupt everywhere. There is no antidote. No one is safe.

Harper Grayson, a compassionate, dedicated nurse as pragmatic as Mary Poppins, treated hundreds of infected patients before her hospital burned to the ground. Now she’s discovered the telltale gold-flecked marks on her skin. When the outbreak first began, she and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact: they would take matters into their own hands if they became infected. To Jakob’s dismay, Harper wants to live—at least until the fetus she is carrying comes to term. At the hospital, she witnessed infected mothers give birth to healthy babies and believes hers will be fine too. . . if she can live long enough to deliver the child.

Convinced that his do-gooding wife has made him sick, Jakob becomes unhinged, and eventually abandons her as their placid New England community collapses in terror. The chaos gives rise to ruthless Cremation Squads—armed, self-appointed posses roaming the streets and woods to exterminate those who they believe carry the spore. But Harper isn’t as alone as she fears: a mysterious and compelling stranger she briefly met at the hospital, a man in a dirty yellow fire fighter’s jacket, carrying a hooked iron bar, straddles the abyss between insanity and death. Known as The Fireman, he strolls the ruins of New Hampshire, a madman afflicted with Dragonscale who has learned to control the fire within himself, using it as a shield to protect the hunted . . . and as a weapon to avenge the wronged.

In the desperate season to come, as the world burns out of control, Harper must learn the Fireman’s secrets before her life—and that of her unborn child—goes up in smoke.

Review: Joe Hill is easily my favorite writer out there at the moment. I haven’t read a piece of work of his that I haven’t really enjoyed. His comic “Locke and Key” is one of my all time favorites, and his novel “NOS4A2” was my favorite book I read in 2014. When he first announced his most recent novel, “The Fireman”, I had to wait a long while before it was actually published. I waited not that patiently, and then put it on pre-order so I could get it and start it the day that it came out. And then a few days later (aka this past Saturday), I had the opportunity to see him in Minneapolis reading from this book. My friends and I were treated to a lovely evening of Joe Hill reading an excerpt, a sing along, and a great Q and A session.

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I was also chosen to play the kazoo during the singalong. Watch for my kazoo album, coming never!

It took me four days to read this 700-some page book, and let me tell you, I had a very hard time putting it down. While “NOS4A2” remains my favorite of Joe Hill’s novels, “The Fireman” is a very close second. There are many reasons for this, which I could probably write a dissertation on, but I will try and keep the fan-girling to a minimum.

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To. A. Minimum.

Hill has always been praised for his amazing character development, and “The Fireman” has an entire slew of characters that reinforce this praise. While the book is named after John Rookwood, the avenger who dresses like a fireman and can manipulate his Dragonscale to control the fire inside, this book is solidly about Harper Willowes, the pregnant nurse who just wants to survive so her can have her baby. When we first meet Harper, she is a sunny and optimistic school nurse who is very good at keeping things positive for those around her. But when a man stumbles upon the playground and bursts into flames, Harper’s world starts to crumble, so her resolve in this regard is tested. While Harper does, of course, have to adapt to her new surroundings, her strength is always apparent and she does not have to sacrifice her core personality to this bleak landscape. I LOVED that. It would be so easy to turn her into a cynical, bitter shell of her former self, but Hill instead keeps her character very Mary Poppins, therein reinforcing that women can be strong in many, many ways and don’t have to fit a certain mold to survive. By the end of this book I was worshiping at the altar of Harper Willowes, and put her up there with my other favorite Hill female characters. The holy trinity for those interested are Georgia from “Heart Shaped Box”, Vic from “NOS4A2”, and now Harper. I loved how she interacted with all of the other characters, especially her slow progression from damsel, to ally, to equal when paired up with Rookwood. She knows that he’s messed up, cares for him all the same, but does not put up with any of his nonsense.

Harper is also very loving and maternal not just to her unborn child, but to other children at Camp Wyndham, the sanctuary she finds herself at. Her relationships with Allie and Nick, the children of Rookwood’s dead girlfriend Sarah. Allie is angry and very, very flawed, while Nick is sweet and introverted. Harper approaches them in ways that are never patronizing. She doesn’t put up with Allie’s crap when she is at her worst, but always lets her know that she is, ultimately, loved. And Harper goes out of her way to learn sign language so she can communicate with Nick, who is deaf and therefore always feels very much like The Other at the camp. Harper treats them both with respect and kindness, and never patronizes them.

John Rookwood in turn was always at his best when he was interacting with Harper. As he is so inclined to not be the optimist, they played off each other and helped each other see other sides of things, and never really belittled each other for their opposing outlooks. I was afraid that he was going to merely be there to say ‘I told you so’ when things went wrong, but it never felt that way. He served as a contrast, because if Harper is caring, he is vengeful, and they helped each other find those parts in each other when it was necessary. Plus, his powers are just cool. I mean, he can throw fire and make giant fire birds. It was also very cool to see him in contrast to Harper’s husband, Jakob. While Jakob started out as this kind of mellow, caring, intelligent guy, the moment that Harper got sick he showed his true colors and revealed himself to be a despicable, terrifying antagonist. Rookwood sort of had the opposite transformation, as he, while never terrible, did start out as coarse and a bit harsh. But Dragonscale, and Harper too, empowered him and made him a better person who was more inclined to become part of something bigger than just himself and his grief for Sarah. It was very interesting seeing these two very different men react to their surroundings and situations, and see how they are changed by the illness that is destroying civilization.

And it can’t be a pandemic story without human beings totally falling apart, so while it was no surprise that Camp Wyndham became a freaky violent cult, it was still very upsetting to watch. While other pandemic stories usually jump right to the cult once it’s already been established as such, “The Fireman” lets the reader see how Camp Wyndham went from a loving sanctuary with many loving characters, to a horrific example of group think run amok. When Harper meets them, she finds a group of people who have Dragonscale who have learned to control it, and harness the goodness of it. Calling this The Bright, they’ve discovered that singing all together can make them all glow, and give the community a sense of euphoria and belonging. It really does start out as a safe haven for people who are being hunted down and killed by Cremation Squads, led by a bigoted radio shock jock calling himself The Marlboro Man. And because we got to see the characters at their best before, and understand why they are afraid, seeing them at their worst was especially heartbreaking. While it would be very easy to have them be dangerous cultists from the get go, Hill has no interest in letting the reader take the easy way out when it comes to this group. And boy, does that hurt.

I do think that this book went on a little longer than I wanted it to, but that’s really the only qualm that I have with it. With a sudden shift in setting after a situation that would have made a perfectly great climax, it started to drag a little bit, but I totally get why the choice was made. The ultimate ending, however, was absolutely beautiful, and I was openly weeping as I read through to the VERY last page of the book. And I mean the very last page. That’s a hint, from me to you.

I absolutely adored this book. Joe Hill continues to be my favorite author writing today, and “The Fireman” shows off his talents in all of their red hot burning glory. Also, see him speak if you have the opportunity. He’s a joy.

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TO A MINIMUM!

Rating 10: Another fabulous dark fantasy/horror story from Joe Hill. I loved every bit of this book, from the characters, the themes, and the writing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Fireman” is a brand new book and not on many lists yet. But the themes are similar to the books found on “Popular Pandemic Books”, and Harper would be right at home on “Girls Who Kick Ass”.

Find “The Fireman” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Fellside”

26030697Book: “Fellside” by M.R. Carey

Publishing Info: Orbit, April 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to end up. But it’s where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life.

It’s a place where even the walls whisper.

And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess.

Will she listen?

Review: My husband and I would consider ourselves ‘casual’ fans of the Netflix show “Orange is the New Black”. Casual in that we like it, but we never actually finished season 3 but will probably just dive headfirst into season 4. I’m a big enough fan that when I read about “Fellside” for the first time, my thought was ‘Oh wow, it’s like OITNB but it’s like a haunted prison or something!’ I will be the first person to admit that I wasn’t terribly impressed by M.R. Carey’s other novel, “The Girl With All The Gifts”, but given that I love me a good ghost story and the women’s prison setting sounded intriguing, I knew that “Fellside” was going to be on my list of must reads. There are a lot of things you can do with a prison setting in terms of storytelling, and I was hoping that it would be ripe with possibilities in this book. I wasn’t completely wrong, but I also found myself sort of falling into the same trap as I did with “The Girl With All The Gifts”.

I want to give a little more background to this story than the Goodreads description did. Jess Moulson is a heroin addict who has been sent to Fellside Prison because she was convicted of starting a fire that killed a little boy named Alex. While in Fellside, she starts hearing the voice of a little boy who says he is Alex. She wants to atone for what she thinks she did, but then starts to find out that maybe it wasn’t her who was responsible for Alex’s death. Meanwhile, the prison system around her is festering with corruption, and a fellow inmate named Grace is basically running the joint through intimidation and violence. So you not only get a sad and gothic ghost story, you also get the thrills and fears of a prison drama. And I really do mean gothic. One of the things that I really liked about “Fellside” is that it does ready like a gothic novel, with a protagonist who is in an isolated setting in a large new environment (which is located on the goddamn moors for crying out loud), who may or may not be haunted. In terms of giving a new twist to a gothic tale, I think that Carey did a fabulous job. I also did like the prison setting for the most part, as it gave opportunities for a lot of very disturbing, and pretty darn political, truths about prison life. The violence inside, the way that the justice system fails some people who have no business being in such a place (there is one character named Naz who was a victim of human trafficking but ended up inside because she was basically seen as more a perp than a victim, and her story ends VERY tragically), and the way that those in power don’t care or purposely abuse their power are just a few of the themes that this book touched upon.

I think that one of the problems I had with this book was that some of those side stories didn’t do much for me as a whole. I wasn’t as invested in reading about how the warden was blackmailing the prison doctor into doing his bidding. I didn’t really care about the nurse who hates Jess for being a supposed child killer and yet has to care for her as dictated by her profession. I also didn’t understand the point of having one of Jess’ lawyers be in love (but more likely savior complex lust) with her, as I think that even without his romantic attachment to her he could have wanted to help his client. I thought that some of the supernatural systems, like Alex showing Jess how to leave her body and walk through other people’s minds and dream-scapes, weren’t as intriguing as I had hoped they would be. I think that had it been limited to Alex being able to do that instead of giving Jess that ability too, I would have been more okay with it, but as it was I just found that aspect to be the weakest of the ghost storyline.

For the most part I enjoyed my experience reading “Fellside”, as it did creep me out and it did surprise me. I liked it more that “The Girl With All the Gifts”, and it has convinced me to keep picking up books by Carey when they come out. I wonder if “Orange is the New Black” would consider ever adding a supernatural storyline. I mean, obviously not, but if they DID, they should look at “Fellside” for a good how-to guide.

Rating 7: A spooky read with some very political and important themes, but some of the side stories and mythology left me feeling a bit cold.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fellside” is included on these Goodreads lists: “2016 Horror Novels”, and “Upcoming Books of Note: Horror”.

Find “Fellside” at your library using Worldcat!