Kate’s Review: “The Return”

46354144Book: “The Return” by Rachel Harrison

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2020

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

Book Description: A group of friends reunite after one of them has returned from a mysterious two-year disappearance in this edgy and haunting debut.

Julie is missing, and the missing don’t often return. But Elise knows Julie better than anyone, and she feels in her bones that her best friend is out there, and that one day she’ll come back. She’s right. Two years to the day that Julie went missing, she reappears with no memory of where she’s been or what happened to her.

Along with Molly and Mae, their two close friends from college, the women decide to reunite at a remote inn. But the second Elise sees Julie, she knows something is wrong—she’s emaciated, with sallow skin and odd appetites. And as the weekend unfurls, it becomes impossible to deny that the Julie who vanished two years ago is not the same Julie who came back. But then who—or what—is she?

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

I cannot tell you how excited I was when Berkley emailed me a link to the eARC of “The Return” by Rachel Harrison. I had been waiting and searching NetGalley to see if a request for this book would go up, eager to read a book that was being called a mash up of “The Shining” and “Girls”.

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So… like this???? (source)

In my mind this meant super disturbing horror AND soapy catty girl fights (though a serious lack of Adam Driver, the only redeeming feature of that dreadful show in my mind). It took a fair amount of willpower to save it for a later date, and honestly I dove in a lot earlier than I normally do with eARCs that I get. I clearly had high hopes. And they were met. And HOW.

From the get go “The Return” sucks you in and lets you know the kind of story and people you’re going to be dealing with.  Julie has disappeared, and her best friend Elise doesn’t want to believe that this is anything more than a histrionic call for attention. Julie has a history of this, after all, so when mutual friends Molly and Mae are concerned Elise refuses to be. Until Julie doesn’t come back and is declared dead, with a funeral and everything. So when she returns two years later claiming no memory, the reader knows that something is amiss, both in Julie’s story AND the relationship she has with her best friend. Therefore, isolating the four friends in a strange hotel and letting them slowly realize that Julie isn’t ‘the same’ is the perfect slow burn horror that especially resonates with anyone who has had a friendship that has potentially run its course. The horror elements are on point, from the descriptions of Julie’s emaciated look to the quirks and strange changes at the hotel that may or may not be Elise’s imagination to the imagery of dark beings in the corners of vision. There were numerous moments where I found myself incredibly unsettled, or had to set the book down for a bit and regroup. There is one especially suspenseful scene near the end the effectively lets the scene build up from everything being okay, to minor unease, to outright terror, so the reader experiences everything that the character is going through within the moment as you read it. I loved it, even if it deeply upset me and really put me off going exploring in our nation’s national parks by myself… And some of the descriptions of Julie’s physical transformation were absolutely disgusting, really amping the body horror aspect up to sit alongside the Gothic themes of an isolated location, as bad weather rolls in and people start disappearing…

But the other theme that struck me about this book is how well it captures the last dying gasps of a friendship on the skids. Elise, Julie, Molly, and Mae were all close back in the day, but now have drifted apart geographically and emotionally. With the four of them scattered across the country, some of them settling down, others making poor romantic choices, and others are stagnating and refusing the see it. Seeing the four of them try to force a reunion in the wake of Julie’s remarkable reappearance is something you could see in a tawdry drama, and the story would work even if you pulled the horror elements out. You especially see the tumultuous friendship between Elise and Julie, told through references to the past and seen in interactions in the present, as Julie has come back very much not herself. But then, I couldn’t help but think that it’s all a very well done metaphor for when you don’t know a person anymore, even without the strange body horror aspects, or the rotting teeth, or the fact that bodies may be piling up. Elise and Julie are codependent on each other’s friendship, no matter how damaging it could be for both of them.

“The Return” blends an effective Gothic and body horror tale with the deterioration of a long standing friendship. It’s a horror story that was worth the wait and the anticipation, and one that may be more relatable than you would think.

Rating 9: A sudsy and creepy horror story that not only brings the scares, but examines tough realities about friendships that start to fade away.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Return” is included on the Goodreads list “2020 Horror to Scream For”.

Find “The Return” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Deep”

46371247Book: “The Deep” by Alma Katsu

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 2020

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

Book Description: From the acclaimed and award-winning author of The Hunger comes an eerie, psychological twist on one of the world’s most renowned tragedies, the sinking of the Titanic and the ill-fated sail of its sister ship, the Britannic.

Someone, or something, is haunting the ship. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the passengers of the Titanic from the moment they set sail. The Titanic’s passengers expected to enjoy an experience befitting the much-heralded ship’s maiden voyage, but instead, amid mysterious disappearances and sudden deaths, find themselves in an eerie, unsettling twilight zone. While some of the guests and crew shrug off strange occurrences, several–including maid Annie Hebbley, guest Mark Fletcher, and millionaires Madeleine Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim–are convinced there’s something more sinister going on. And then disaster strikes.

Years later, Annie, having survived that fateful night, has attempted to put her life back together by going to work as a nurse on the sixth sailing of the Britannic, newly refitted as a hospital ship to support British forces fighting World War I. When she happens across an unconscious Mark, now a soldier, she is at first thrilled and relieved to learn that he too survived the tragic night four years earlier. But soon his presence awakens deep-buried feelings and secrets, forcing her to reckon with the demons of her past–as they both discover that the terror may not yet be over.

Featuring an ensemble cast of characters and effortlessly combining the supernatural with the height of historical disaster, The Deep is an exploration of love and destiny, desire and innocence, and, above all, a quest to understand how our choices can lead us inexorably toward our doom.

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

It’s been ten years since I was working at our local Science Museum and had shifts in the Special Exhibit about the Titanic, and while I am intrigued by the story still, I’m also a tiny bit burnt out on it. This doesn’t necessarily discourage me from reading stories that are related to or based upon the maritime disaster, however, because if I love the author or the premise sounds promising I’ll happily give it a whirl. Because of this, when I heard that Alma Katsu’s newest horror novel, “The Deep”, took place on the Titanic (and also on the similarly doomed sister liner The Britannic), I immediately requested an eARC from NetGalley. Lucky for me, I was given access. Given how much I LOVED Katsu’s take on the Donner Party in “The Hunger” (as reviewed HERE), I was all in for what she could do with the Titanic.

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And I hoped it would leave out a hokey romance. (source)

Katsu has once again brought beautiful prose and an eerie supernatural twist to a well known tragedy, and I think that I liked “The Deep” even more than I did “The Hunger”. She utilizes both actual historical figures such as Madeleine Astor, Lady Duff Gordon, and W.T. Stead, as well as original characters to give an all encompassing view of what happened during the ill fated voyage, and what roles everyone played in each other’s experiences both before and after the iceberg. It is the characterizations of all these characters that “The Deep” found it’s greatest strength, and given how much I loved the other parts that says something. Katsu mostly uses the real life characters to examine the social roles that they all played at the time, to great effect. My favorite to follow was Madeleine Astor, the VERY young, pregnant wife of mogul J.J. Astor. Her age is definitely alluded to through her immaturity compared to other characters, but we also get to see how the position she was in couldn’t have been easy. She was always seen as a trophy wife and her legitimacy was questioned by Astor’s family after his death, and Katsu gets into her head and really explores the insecurities that a young wife at this time in her situation almost certainly would have had. I really looked forward to her chapters, because they always left me with such bittersweet feelings. Our original characters mostly focus on stewardess Annie, whose story is told in flashbacks on the Titanic and in the present on the Britannic, where she has become a nurse thanks to her friend Violet Jessup (an actual woman who survived BOTH sinkings). We slowly find out that something strange is afoot on the Titanic, a ghostly presence of some sort, and see through the flashbacks and the present just how it has affected Annie, and how she has affected others. Annie is clearly traumatized by the time she gets on the Britannic, but there are hints that even before she was on the Titanic that something is afoot with her. Along with her we get Mark and Caroline, a young married couple with a small child in tow. Annie is drawn to Mark, and her interest begins to feel like downright obsession over him and his daughter. There, too, is the mystery, as it seems like Mark reciprocates, but then perhaps he doesn’t. The unreliable narration that comes from multiple characters really helped the mystery at hand. I was kept guessing pretty much the entire time as to what kind of supernatural hijinks were afoot, and how it connected to our cast of characters.

And speaking of the supernatural, like in “The Hunger” Katsu perfectly balances the eerie and unsettling along with more subtle and underlying horrors of the real world. It isn’t completely clear from the get go just what we are dealing with in terms of supernatural themes, but as it’s slowly revealed we get to explore the ideas of spiritualism that were popular at the time, as well as lesser known mythologies that line up with some of our characters backgrounds and culture. This easily could have gone in a predictable fashion, as a ghostly presence on a ship like this is no doubt filled with possibilities, no matter how obvious. But instead we got a suspenseful story that combines things that go bump in the night with the horrors of gender, class, and obsession. I really, really loved how she tied it all together and how well she pulled it off.

“The Deep” is another triumph from Alma Katsu. She brings historical fiction horror to new heights, and if The Donner Party was a little too gruesome, The Titanic will be a good way to experience what she can do with the genre.

Rating 9: Haunting and chilling, “The Deep” brings new spooky life to the Titanic story, and paints a supernatural picture that is effortlessly as emotional as it is suspenseful.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Deep” is new and not yet on many Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Fiction Books About The Titanic”.

Find “The Deep” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Deathless Divide”

38124119._sy475_Book: “Deathless Divide” by Justina Ireland

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The sequel to Dread Nation is a journey of revenge and salvation across a divided America.

After the fall of Summerland, Jane McKeene hoped her life would get simpler: Get out of town, stay alive, and head west to California to find her mother.

But nothing is easy when you’re a girl trained in putting down the restless dead, and a devastating loss on the road to a protected village called Nicodermus has Jane questioning everything she thought she knew about surviving in 1880’s America.

What’s more, this safe haven is not what it appears – as Jane discovers when she sees familiar faces from Summerland amid this new society. Caught between mysteries and lies, the undead, and her own inner demons, Jane soon finds herself on a dark path of blood and violence that threatens to consume her.

But she won’t be in it alone.

Katherine Deveraux never expected to be allied with Jane McKeene. But after the hell she has endured, she knows friends are hard to come by – and that Jane needs her, too, whether Jane wants to admit it or not.

Watching Jane’s back, however, is more than she bargained for, and when they both reach a breaking point, it’s up to Katherine to keep hope alive – even as she begins to fear that there is no happily-ever-after for girls like her.

Review: A couple years ago, Justina Ireland wrote the YA horror/historical fiction book “Dread Nation”, a novel about the zombie uprising during Reconstruction in the U.S. Her main character, Jane, was a black teenage girl being trained to be a personal bodyguard for upper class white people, as after the zombies came Black and Indigenous people were recruited to protect the white people of society. It ended with an overrun town and Jane, her frenemy and fellow attendant Katherine, her old flame Jackson, and a group of refugees deciding to head West to California, as Jane was hoping to find her mother. When I heard about “Deathless Divide”, the sequel to “Dread Nation”, I was anticipating another zombie horror novel with the usual apocalypse themes. What I got was something completely different. This time, we get a horror historical fiction novel with distinct themes of a Western, and the lonesome redemptive attempts that come with that genre.

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Spoiler Alert: It does. (source)

“Deathless Divide” picks up right after the end of “Dread Nation”, and almost immediately it gets turned on it’s head as to what I had expected from the narrative. For one thing, we are not only getting Jane’s POV, we also get the POV of Katherine, the high strung, prim, and incredibly talented classmate and sometimes friend of Jane. I wanted to know more about Katherine in “Dread Nation”, so when we got to get inside her head in “Deathless Divide” I was overjoyed. Katherine always intrigued me the most from the first book because I loved that she is unabashedly feminine, and is still an incredible fighter, perhaps the best in the book. Too often we see women characters who are made ‘strong’ at the expense of having their femininity stripped away. This is fine, of course, as there are lots of ways to write female characters, but women can fight and kick butt in a corset if they want to, dammit! I also liked getting a deeper exploration of Katherine and the issues that she has to contend with as a very attractive woman who is constantly underestimated, and who, as a woman who passes for white, doesn’t always feel like she has her identity all figured out. Getting to see more of Katherine was delightful. 

The other unexpected shift in the narrative was, as I mentioned before, the fact that it has a distinctly Western theme about it. Usually as a rule I am not a fan of Westerns, as the themes usually don’t grab me AND so many of the Westerns that I think of feel imperialistic. But in “Deathless Divide” Ireland does a really good job of taking the theme of the lone gunslinger and applying it to Jane as her journey progresses, especially since the usual trope of that is a white man. I loved the role for Jane, as she has endured so much trauma and loss and violence because of her race and the fact that Black and Native people have been used as protectors and bodies to protect the White people in a zombie ravaged society. It’s no wonder she would become morally ambiguous as she travels the west looking for revenge. It makes the idea incredibly tragic. And it’s just another of many ways that Ireland once again explores themes and issues of race and racism in America, and like in “Dread Nation” it works very well. From POC being used as guinea pigs to further scientific research to race and class relations in urban settings and capitalism to colorism, “Deathless Divide” shows that some times don’t really change much, and that we still have a long way to go. 

As for the zombies, not much has changed from the first book, and they aren’t as centered this time around. But that said, we do get to delve into the ideas of potential cures, and how different science experiments can bring different outcomes when it comes to the zombies and how they interact with their potential prey. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but just know that Ireland still manages to make the zombies feel fresh and interesting even when they aren’t at the forefront. After all, like in all good zombie stories, it’s the humans that are the bigger threat.

(note: As I mentioned in my review for “Dread Nation”, there had been criticism of the Native characters in that book. I’ve not seen anything in that regard about this book, and I don’t think that I as a white woman can say if Ireland has been more responsible this time around. We do get a more complex and deeper dive into the character of Daniel Redfern, however. If anything changes on this front I will update this post.)

“Deathless Divide” is the end of the road for this world and characters (at least for now; Ireland has said that it COULD happen that more gets written, maybe), and I think that it’s a great follow up and completion. I’ll miss Jane and Katherine.

Rating 8: A satisfying ending with a bold new genre take, “Deathless Divide” wraps up a world of zombies, racism, and empowerment for Black women.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Deathless Divide” is included on the Goodreads Lists “Black Heroines 2020”, and “LGBT SciFi and Fantasy 2015-2020”.

Find “Deathless Divide” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Cirque Berserk”

04 Cirque Beserk CoverBook: “Cirque Berserk” by Jessica Guess

Publishing Info: Unnerving, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I was sent an eARC by the author.

Book Description: The summer of 1989 brought terror to the town of Shadows Creek, Florida in the form of a massacre at the local carnival, Cirque Berserk. One fateful night, a group of teens killed a dozen people then disappeared into thin air. No one knows why they did it, where they went, or even how many of them there were, but legend has it they still roam the abandoned carnival, looking for blood to spill.

Thirty years later, best friends, Sam and Rochelle, are in the midst of a boring senior trip when they learn about the infamous Cirque Berserk. Seeking one last adventure, they and their friends journey to the nearby Shadows Creek to see if the urban legends about Cirque Berserk are true. But waiting for them beyond the carnival gates is a night of brutality, bloodshed, and betrayal.

Will they make they make it out alive, or will the carnival’s past demons extinguish their futures?

Review: Thanks to Jessica Guess for sending me an eARC of this novella!

If there are two things you should know about me and my pop culture affinities, I love slasher movies, and I love the 1980s (in terms of the art and music scene, NOT the political one). And if you give me slasher movies from the 1980s, I’m golden. When Jessica Guess contacted me asking if I would be willing to read her new novella “Cirque Berserk”, the description alone sucked me in. A haunted/evil carnival? Urban legends? A mention of the 1980s? And then, the cover had ROLLER SKATES?! I was IN!! If anything I figured it would be campy and entertaining, but “Cirque Berserk” was more than that. It achieved something I’ve seen a few horror novels fail: it felt like I was reading a slasher movie.

Guess creates a fun urban legend, some visceral gore and violence moments, and wicked characters that are easy to root for even when they are committing horrendous acts of violence. You assume that you’re going to be reading a novella that hits the usual slasher tropes and check boxes: the supernatural or unstoppable/ faceless killer, the final girl, the innocent but expendable teenagers, and on and on. But Guess takes those tropes and manages to subvert them in various ways that kept catching me by surprise. I thought I knew where certain characters or scenes were going, and then the rug would be yanked out from under me and I’d be genuinely surprised. I really don’t want to spoil anything about the plot’s big reveals, and I found them to be fun and effective, but I WILL say that Guess created not only a good mythology for Cirque Berserk and the horrifying things that go on there, she also gives the baddies some real motivation, motivation that the reader can, in some ways, relate to. She also gives the killers identities and backgrounds that aren’t generally seen as much in slasher stories, at least in the sense of how they are fully explored and given some actually tangible and relatable reasons for why they do what they do, at least at first. The focus is less on the expendable teenagers who’ve wandered into the fairgrounds, and more on the baddies, and how they got to where they are when we meet them.

And honestly? This novella is, pardon the bad pub, a scream to read. It opens with a classic slasher movie situation, and goes balls to the wall in terms of visceral horror violence as well as showing the stakes that we are dealing with. We get flashbacks to the fateful and dreadful night when Cirque Berserk went bad, we get some really gnarly kills right out of the Tom Savini playbook, and we get some pretty creepy moments and concepts AND a cameo from my favorite Biblical demon Lilith. On top of all that, it becomes quite clear, quite quickly that this candy coated fever dream of a slasher story is going to be accompanied by a bitchin’ 80s sound track, including tracks by Whitney Huston, Bonnie Tyler, and A-ha.

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(source)

Honestly, if you like old school slasher movies that are dropping in day glo 80s nostalgia, “Cirque Berserk” is a novella that you should absolutely check out. It’s fun, it’s a quick read, and it has some great curveballs.

Rating 8: A hell of a fun ride that reads like a slasher movie on the page, “Cirque Berserk” was an entertaining read that I greatly enjoyed.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cirque Berserk” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of now, but for a similar read I would steer you towards “My Best Friend’s Exorcism”.

“Cirque Berserk” isn’t in WorldCat yet, but you can find it HERE at Unnerving Magazine.

 

Kate’s Review: “The Sun Down Motel”

45885644Book: “The Sun Down Motel” by Simone St. James

Publishing Info: Berkley, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Book Description: The secrets lurking in a rundown roadside motel ensnare a young woman, just as they did her aunt thirty-five years before, in this new atmospheric suspense novel from the national bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.

Upstate NY, 1982. Every small town like Fell, New York, has a place like the Sun Down Motel. Some customers are from out of town, passing through on their way to someplace better. Some are locals, trying to hide their secrets. Viv Delaney works as the night clerk to pay for her move to New York City. But something isn’t right at the Sun Down, and before long she’s determined to uncover all of the secrets hidden…

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

I have memories of spending childhood road trips, be it out to Lake Superior or just visiting family down in Iowa, staying in motels. Eventually my mother had it and we were upgraded to hotels, but there was always something kinda fun about the rooms leading out to the parking lot, at least in my mind. It’s been a long while since having that kind of experience, but I thought about it a lot as I read “The Sun Down Motel” by Simone St. James. I greatly enjoyed her book “The Broken Girls”, and when this ended up in my inbox I was happy to see that she had a new book. And not just any old new book, but a new book involving a missing woman, a true crime obsessed amateur sleuth, AND a haunted motel!

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It’s like this book was written with me in mind!! (source)

Our two stories/mysteries take place in two different timelines and POVs. The first is that of Viv, who left home in 1982 in hopes of going to New York City, but finds herself in Fell, a strange small town in upstate New York that has a lot of weird and violent baggage. Stranded and broke, she decides to take a job as the night clerk at the Sun Down Motel, a run down motel that’s seedy at best. She disappears without a trace. Then in 2017, her niece Carly, wanting to figure out what happened to her aunt, arrives in Fell, and takes the same job Viv had. Viv’s perspective is in the third person, and Carly’s is in the first, and both POV styles worked well for their parts of the story, and worked together to weave a complex and rich set of mysteries. The first mystery is what happened to Viv, and the second is the question of why the Sun Down Motel is so damn haunted, and I was fully invested in both. St. James was masterful at building upon both mysteries from each others foundations, and I was kept guessing for pretty much all of the book.

And then there are the haunting and ghost elements of this story. These too were incredibly well done and right up my alley. From strange noises, to the feeling of a presence near you even if you can’t see anyone, to lights going out one by one and doors opening on their own, St. James has taken a number of the best tropes from the haunted house genre and applied them effortlessly to a run down motel. The history of The Sun Down has the tragedy and scandal that is comparable to The Overlook in “The Shining”, and like King St. James has created a whole character for a place made of brick, mortar, and ectoplasm. The various ghosts range from the tragic to the intimidating, and all of them had sufficiently creepy moments. Both Viv and Carly have their run ins, and the first one we see was genuinely heart pounding and knocked my socks off. St. James makes it clear that she has not come to play, nor has she come to be ambiguous. There are ghosts at the Sun Down, and one of them is especially PISSED OFF.

But the thing that struck the most resonant chord with me as a reader was the undercurrent of the toxicities of misogyny within our culture, both in the 1980s and in modern times. Girls go missing or are murdered in Fell, and while it causes sensation and gossip, the women are completely forgotten soon thereafter, or objectified in the moment. A mother goes missing and ends up murdered, and the town mourns and turns her into a martyr. A girl with a bad reputation is murdered, and there are underpinnings of victim blaming. A warning is sent out about a strange man who is seemingly fixated and following a girl, and no one cares enough to investigate further. And a ghost who was the victim of misogynistic rage has a wrath and fury that was never afforded to her in life, and has turned her into an unsolved and salacious mystery in death. St. James both makes true crime aficionados plucky and useful in their quest for the truth, but also points out that their interest and arguably ‘hobby’ is based in actual people’s pain, and can cause damage in and of itself. I really, really liked how these themes were sprinkled throughout the story.

I highly recommend “The Sun Down Motel” for fans of thrillers and horror alike! And if you can, read it in a roadside motel, and don’t pay too much attention to the strange sounds you may hear outside. It’s probably nothing.

Rating 9: Eerie and suspenseful, and simmering with justifiable anger, “The Sun Down Motel” is a wonderful mystery with fantastic characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sun Down Motel” is included on the Goodreads lists “2020 Gothic”, and “Haunted House Books”.

Find “The Sun Down Motel” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Rust Maidens”

40874196Book: “The Rust Maidens” by Gwendolyn Kiste

Publishing Info: Trepidatio Publishing, November 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Something’s happening to the girls on Denton Street.

It’s the summer of 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Phoebe Shaw and her best friend Jacqueline have just graduated high school, only to confront an ugly, uncertain future. Across the city, abandoned factories populate the skyline; meanwhile at the shore, one strong spark, and the Cuyahoga River might catch fire. But none of that compares to what’s happening in their own west side neighborhood. The girls Phoebe and Jacqueline have grown up with are changing. It starts with footprints of dark water on the sidewalk. Then, one by one, the girls’ bodies wither away, their fingernails turning to broken glass, and their bones exposed like corroded metal beneath their flesh.

As rumors spread about the grotesque transformations, soon everyone from nosy tourists to clinic doctors and government men start arriving on Denton Street, eager to catch sight of “the Rust Maidens” in metamorphosis. But even with all the onlookers, nobody can explain what’s happening or why—except perhaps the Rust Maidens themselves. Whispering in secret, they know more than they’re telling, and Phoebe realizes her former friends are quietly preparing for something that will tear their neighborhood apart.

Alternating between past and present, Phoebe struggles to unravel the mystery of the Rust Maidens—and her own unwitting role in the transformations—before she loses everything she’s held dear: her home, her best friend, and even perhaps her own body.

Review: I honestly couldn’t tell you where I heard about “The Rust Maidens” if you asked me. I THINK that it was on a Goodreads list at one point, but I can’t tell you what the theme of said list would be. Probably horror, but still. All I know is that it came in for me at the library, and when I picked it up I thought to myself ‘oh yeah….’ The reason I say that I only think that it was probably on a horror list but am not certain is because “The Rust Maidens” is one of the most unique horror stories I’ve read in the past year or two, based on the themes that it decides to take on along with some good old fashioned body horror you might see in an early Cronenberg film.

“The Rust Maidens” is a tale of decay, both the decay of the human body and the decay of a once prosperous part of Americana. In Cleveland, Ohio in 1980 Phoebe is a working class teenager living in a working class neighborhood. The community has put on a face of togetherness and wholesome American values, while the livelihood of a number of the men, the mill, has been experiencing more and more uncertainty. Phoebe’s story is told during the summer of 1980, and also almost thirty years later when she has to return to the neighborhood after years of grief and guilt. Spunky and rabble rouser Phoebe of 1980 is a stark contrast to the jaded and affected Phoebe of later life, and the changes over the years, which seemed to catalyze with the Rust Maidens, are now very apparent in her old neighborhood. The fact of the matter is that “The Rust Maidens” is a story of degeneration, not just of the afflicted girls, but of the community around them, and the decay of the American Working Class once the 1980s hit. While the Rust Maidens are slowly wasting away, Denton Street and the blue collar workers who live there are facing yet another potential strike at the mill. Phoebe’s family and neighbors believe that the promise of that job will always be there for them, even as the union gets continuously beaten down and the specter of the upcoming Reagan years lingers. Decay takes on many meanings in this book, and Kiste isn’t afraid to point out that when people are scared, scapegoats are sought out. And the Rust Maidens are the perfect scapegoats. It’s fully intentional that Kiste made the neighborhood turn on a bunch of scared and ‘sick’ teenage girls, given that they had already turned on Phoebe before for daring to not conform. The aggression comes from all sides, from deadbeat boyfriends to angry old men to women who think that girls should be and act a certain way. The metaphors are real, and the feminism in this horror story is angry and apparent.

And on top of the themes, the body horror is VERY real. The descriptions of the Rust Maidens as their bodies start to change and wither away/transform is unsettling at best, and revolting at it’s worst. But on top of that, it’s also very upsetting on an emotional level to see these girls be maligned and feared, and to see how some of them react to the revulsion towards them. Being extra sensitive to such things right now, one of the Rust Maidens is a new mother, and her child whisked away from her because of her condition. She is constantly drawn to the baby, who is placed with the father and his family even though he’s a complete lout. The descriptions of the mother’s pain, even when she was starting to become something else, had me crying pretty handily, so thanks for that, Gwendolyn Kiste!

“The Rust Maidens” is a unique and fascinating horror novel. Those who like their body horror with a little bit of metaphor should check it out post haste!

Rating 7: A bleak and angry examination of decay and the expectations of teenage girls, “The Rust Maidens” serves body horror and feminism in heaping, scathing doses.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Rust Maidens” is included on the Goodreads Lists “Best First Novels: Bram Stoker Award Winners”, and “2018 Indie Horror Book Releases”.

Find “The Rust Maidens” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Twisted Ones”

42527596._sy475_Book: “The Twisted Ones” by T. Kingfisher

Publishing Info: Gallery/Saga Press, October 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When a young woman clears out her deceased grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina, she finds long-hidden secrets about a strange colony of beings in the woods.

When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?

Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more—Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants…until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.

Alone in the woods with her dog, Mouse finds herself face to face with a series of impossible terrors—because sometimes the things that go bump in the night are real, and they’re looking for you. And if she doesn’t face them head on, she might not survive to tell the tale.

From Hugo Award–winning author Ursula Vernon, writing as T. Kingfisher. 

Review: Of all the horror genres, folk horror tends to be one of the few that I have a hard time sinking my teeth into. While I love the movie “The Wicker Man” (and “The Blair Witch Project”, if you can classify it as such? I feel like maybe you could?), I still haven’t seen “Midsommer” and don’t feel a huge draw to do so. I’ve read a few folk horror novels, and none of them really stood out to me as particularly engrossing or engaging. But I am always wanting to give the subgenre a chance. Because of this, I wanted to read “The Twisted Ones” by T. Kingfisher. After all, while it was described as ‘folk horror’ by some reviewers, the idea of monsters in the woods slowly creeping up was too good of a premise to pass by.

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Have I been burned by this premise before? Yes. Yet I keep the faith that I won’t be frustrated every time I pick up such a book. (source)

“The Twisted Ones” starts out with a lot of promise. A woman named Mouse (our first person narrator) has gone to her grandmother’s house (along with her dog Bongo) to clean it out after she has died. Mouse and her grandmother didn’t get along, as her grandmother was a TERRIBLE human being, but Mouse was close to her stepgrandfather, Cotgrave, and as she’s cleaning memories of her time with him bubble up. At night she has to contend with her grief and guilt regarding Cotgrave, her anger at her grandmother, and strange noises she hears outside that Bongo just won’t leave alone. As one might guess, the noises aren’t just harmless nature sounds, and soon Mouse finds herself being drawn into stories of ‘twisted ones’, and stumbling into landscapes that shouldn’t be there. Throughout all of this, I was definitely enjoying this story and the slow burn that Kingfisher was putting forth. I liked how through Mouse’s narration we are tuned in with her own initial skepticism (and delightful snark), though we have a dread in our gut that the noises and the weird blurs of animals running around in the dark aren’t just run of the mill North Carolina fauna. As it slowly becomes clear that Mouse and Bongo are dealing with something sinister and threatening, the tension is so tightly wound that the reader will potentially look out their own dark window at night and worry about what they will see. The building tension is grand, as are the supporting characters that Mouse meets while she is in the cabin in the woods. From Foxy the eccentric woman down the road to Tomas the helpful handyman, Mouse and the cast of characters feel real and sympathetic, to the point where you care about them and what happens to them.

All that said, once we get to the heart of the horror and find out what these creatures are any why they are here, the fear and scares immediately departed for this reader. I think that when it comes to ‘monsters in the woods stories’, I am only interested until the monster is revealed. The terror and dread is the unknown, the strange noises in the woods, the blurs in the moonlight. When we get to portals and interactions with the actual beings face to face, and the other revelations as to what they may or may not with Mouse, my interest was completely lost. But I think that has more to do with a lot of my own folk horror tastes, which are firmly placed more towards ambiguity and the unknown. I am far more taken in by an unseen Blair Witch who may or may not be stalking a group of filmmakers in the woods, than I am by a reveal of ‘monsters in the woods aren’t real but used to control the town’ two thirds of the way through the narrative. You have me when it’s ambiguous in folk horror. The moment you explain it, my interest wanes.

This is very much an instance of my own personal tastes getting in the way of the story, and that shouldn’t dissuade ride or die folk horror fans from checking it out. “The Twisted Ones” has some tense moments and scary themes regardless of how I felt about the last third of the book. So don’t take my word for it. Give it a go if this sounds like a book that will keep you up at night and out of the woods.

Rating 6: This had some tense moments and a fun and snarky narrator, but the big reveal was a bit of a let down. That said, it could be just me, and not the book itself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Twisted Ones” is included on the Goodreads lists “A Walk in the Woods”, and “Best Supernatural Books, No Romance, No Series”.

Find “The Twisted Ones” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Monster, She Wrote”

44594661Book: “Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction” by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Weird fiction wouldn’t exist without the women who created it. Meet the female authors who defied convention to craft some of literature’s strangest tales. And find out why their own stories are equally intriguing.

Everyone knows about Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein; but have you heard of Margaret Cavendish, who wrote a science-fiction epic 150 years earlier? Have you read the psychological hauntings of Violet Paget, who was openly involved in long-term romantic relationships with women in the Victorian era? Or the stories of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, whose writing influenced H.P. Lovecraft? Monster, She Wrote shares the stories of women past and present who invented horror, speculative, and weird fiction and made it great. You’ll meet celebrated icons (Ann Radcliffe, V.C. Andrews), forgotten wordsmiths (Eli Coltor, Ruby Jean Jensen), and today’s vanguard (Helen Oyeyemi). And each profile includes a curated reading list so you can seek out the spine-chilling tales that interest you the most.

Review: Even though horror is hands down my favorite literary genre (or genre of any kind of consumable media), that doesn’t exclude it from my general lack of experience with ‘the classics’. Sure, I’ve read books like “Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, and “The Turn of the Screw”, but in general I have kept my horror experiences fairly solidly in the 20th century and beyond. On top of that, a lot of what I’ve read has been fairly male dominated. So when I saw that “Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction” was a book that was coming out, I decided that I needed to educate myself about horror classics, specifically those written by women, and to expand my ‘to-read’ list to fit the recommendations made within this book.

And boy are there many recommendations! “Monster, She Wrote” gives us a list of female authors of horror and speculative fiction, gives a comprehensive but succinct biography of each of them, and explains the importance and significance of a few of their works, or at the very least gives us the plot and lets us suss out the significance for ourselves. Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson are sure to cast a wide net throughout the genres, covering a number of different authors and subgenres within the genres. Each section is divided based on the subgenres, which I liked because it made is so I could give extra focus on the kinds of stories that really tickle my fancy and to hone in on the authors that perfected the stories. While they, of course, cover some of the heavy hitters like Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson, they also are sure to bring in diverse perspectives, including women like Toni Morrison and Helen Oyeymi, so that the texts discussed and recommended aren’t incredibly white in nature (side note, I loved that “Beloved” was included in this book and Morrison by association. It’s one of my favorite books and at it’s heart it is, indeed, a very effective ghost story). I also got to learn about a number of authors who I had either only heard of in passing, or had never heard of, and because of this I now have added people like Edith Wharton and Anne Radcliffe to my list of ‘must reads’, as well as modern voices like Oyeymi (I will be talking to my Mom so I can borrow her copy of “Boy, Snow, Bird”). Finally, at the end of each biography we get a handy dandy list of books to try out, split into three categories, labeled ‘Not To Be Missed’, ‘Also Try’, and ‘Related Work’. These suggestions are stories by the authors themselves, as well as other stories and tales by different people whose themes are either direct call backs or similar in tone. How great to have a curated and well put together list of suggestions!

It’s also important to note that throughout all of these biographies and personal histories of these women authors, there are hints and senses of the difficulties and obstacles that many of them faced or face as women living at their respective times in their respective societies. These hardships could be due to gender, class, or race, and Kröger and Anderson, while never focusing on it, absolutely acknowledge it and make the reader realize that women voices in the genre have been very important and formative, and yet have been downplayed or, in some cases, almost forgotten (there were a few instances in which an author’s ‘Not To Be Missed’ work was noted as being out of print. How incredibly upsetting).

Any horror or speculative fiction fan ought to do themselves a favor and read “Monster, She Wrote”. You will undoubtedly get some new reading ideas, or gain new appreciation for authors you already love, or authors you have yet to discover.

Rating 8: And informative and expansive history of significant female voices in horror and speculative fiction, “Monster, She Wrote” has a lot of reading ideas and a lot of fun and interesting facts about an array of authors.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Monster, She Wrote” isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of now (why?), but it is included on “Best Books About Genre Fiction”.

Find “Monster, She Wrote” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Dead Girls Club”

45701350Book: “The Dead Girls Club” by Damien Angelica Waters

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, December 2019

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

Book Description: A supernatural thriller in the vein of A Head Full of Ghosts about two young girls, a scary story that becomes far too real, and the tragic–and terrifying–consequences that follow one of them into adulthood.

Red Lady, Red Lady, show us your face…

In 1991, Heather Cole and her friends were members of the Dead Girls Club. Obsessed with the macabre, the girls exchanged stories about serial killers and imaginary monsters, like the Red Lady, the spirit of a vengeful witch killed centuries before. Heather knew the stories were just that, until her best friend Becca began insisting the Red Lady was real–and she could prove it.

That belief got Becca killed.

It’s been nearly thirty years, but Heather has never told anyone what really happened that night–that Becca was right and the Red Lady was real. She’s done her best to put that fateful summer, Becca, and the Red Lady, behind her. Until a familiar necklace arrives in the mail, a necklace Heather hasn’t seen since the night Becca died.

The night Heather killed her.

Now, someone else knows what she did…and they’re determined to make Heather pay.

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

I’ve spoken before about how my childhood was distinctly lacking in spooky urban legends about my community and neighborhood. I don’t know if that’s just larger city living or if I was surrounded by people who didn’t have time for such nonsense, but I do feel a little sad that we had a serious lack in fun, innocent creepy stories (and instead contended with actual creepy stories, like the flasher who’d jump out at joggers on the path by our house). I think that because of this I am especially drawn to stories with scary local folklore themes, and that was the main draw of “The Dead Girls Club” by Damien Angelica Walters. Well, that and the description of a group of teen girls who liked to talk serial killers for funsies. I wish I had that kind of friendship as a teenager. I went into “The Dead Girls Club” with high hopes and expectations that it would meld teenage girl angst with the supernatural, and for awhile I thought it had succeeded. Until it didn’t.

But before we talk about my frustrations, I want to emphasize that “The Dead Girls Club” was a pretty fun ride for the majority of the story. It hops between timelines, that of the present day, and that of the early 1990s. Our focus is mostly on Heather, a woman whose childhood best friend, Becca, was killed one fateful summer, after telling tales of a supposed witch called The Red Lady. Becca, Heather, and their friends were part of a secret club that liked the creepy things in life, but Becca’s obsession with the Red Lady urban legend starts to take over all of their lives. Especially when it seems that this made up story may have some truth to it. In the present we see Heather have to confront this summer when she starts getting secret messages from an anonymous someone (or perhaps something) that hints to knowing the truth about what actually happened to Becca, and what role Heather played in it. We see her try to discern who is stalking her, and see how her lingering fear of The Red Lady starts to take it’s toll on her life and psyche. This is interspersed with flashbacks to when Becca first started telling the stories, and we get to see the slow burn and build up of a deteriorating friendship and what exactly happened between the two girls, which left Becca dead.

I thought that the biggest strengths in this book laid in two factors: the first was the mythology and ambiguity of The Red Lady. Walters gives us enough evidence on both sides of the coin to make the argument that The Red Lady is real, or that The Red Lady is a combination of a lonely child’s imagination run amok and the hysteria shared between friends that are looking to freak themselves out. I do think that the narrative falls on one solution eventually, but I did like that a lot of left up to interpretation for a majority of the story. The other strength was in how Walters portrayed the complicated nature that some teenage friendships can have, specifically between two girls. I know this complexity and complication pretty well from my own experience, and seeing how Becca and Heather both start to grow apart and yet still cling desperately to each other was well written and completely believable. Hell, the Red Lady story itself was a fun and scary one, with smatterings of feminist revenge and all the best ghost stories that come with it. Walters also peels back the motivations for both Heather AND Becca, and once you get to the cores of both of them the spectre of tragedy is just as heavy as the spectre of the Red Lady. They are both sympathetic and frustrating characters, and I think that is the only way they could be written.

But the reason this gets bumped down a few ratings is because, unfortunately, Walters decided to throw in one big and out of left field twist that, for me, derailed the entire story. I won’t spoil it, as I think this is still worth the read, but by the time one of the big reveals came to be I rolled my eyes and muttered a frustrated but not terribly surprised ‘seriously?’ Again, I am not a hater of well done twists. If you can set it up effectively enough that in the moment you have a ‘but of COURSE’ epiphany based on small clues that came before it, I’m going to sing it’s praises forever. But in this case it just felt like a twist for the sake of a twist, and not one that was earned. You gotta earn those twists, people. That’s the only way to stick that landing.

“The Dead Girls Club” is a creepy and unsettling story that didn’t live up to its potential. It’s still worth taking a look, and I am definitely putting Damien Angelica Walters on my radar. But it could have been stronger.

Rating 6: A creepy thriller with a fantastic urban legend at its heart, but it gets derailed by a frustrating twist ending.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dead Girls Club” is new and not included on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Mysteries Featuring Urban Myths/Folklore”.

Find “The Dead Girls Club” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Burned House”

48575470._sy475_Book: “The Burned House” (Jonny Roberts #2) by Alexander Lound

Publishing Info: Self Published, November 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The author sent me an eARC

Book Description: Nearly a year after learning that he can speak to the dead, Jonny Roberts has spent much of his time working with his new medium friend, Aaron. Whether it’s reconnecting loved ones with dead relatives, or helping spirits to cross over, Jonny has been happy to help.

That is, until a young boy is found dead, his body impaled with floorboards, sharpened into knife points; and in the same house where a family died seven years earlier, in a tragic fire.

Suspecting that the event might be down to the supernatural, Aaron and Jonny soon investigate. But when the spirit makes it clear that it doesn’t intend to stop at the boy, they begin to wonder if this might be their most dangerous case yet…

Review: Thank you to Alexander Lound for approaching our blog and sending me an eARC of this book!

Halloween has long passed, but there’s always time for a ghost story as far as I’m concerned. So when Alexander Lound emailed me asking if I would be interested in reading and reviewing the second book in the Jonny Roberts series, “The Burned House”, there was really only one way I could answer.

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Honestly I’m halfway convinced that all of my reactions to anything could be summed up by one of the Rose siblings. (source)

If you recall, I enjoyed the first in the series, “The Spirit in the Crypt” as I found it to be an engaging ghost story with likable characters and high stakes. Teenage medium Jonny Roberts is a fun protagonist, and I was eager to see where things went next for him and his girlfriend Cassy, as well as his medium mentor Aaron. Now that we’ve established Jonny as a full fledged medium, that meant that he’d have to delve deeper into his powers, and with that could mean upped stakes and higher tension. And boy oh boy did we go in both those directions.

In “The Burned House”, Jonny has started to come into his own as a medium, helping Aaron with various spirit cases, and while he and his girlfriend Cassy are still happy and in love, the tension with his ‘profession’ has started to come to the surface. And in this story, there is reason to believe that Cassy’s hesitance may be right, as Jonny and Aaron are soon entangled in the death of a boy, whose body was found in a house in which a family burned to death a few years prior. It soon becomes clear that it’s the work of an angry spirit, and the only insight they have is from the surviving family member, a teenage girl named Megan. Jonny, of course, wants to help, but the good intentions he has involve more and more risk. The story is basically Jonny potentially biting off more than he can chew, and how that threatens not only his life, but his relationships. I liked that Lound showed how someone with his abilities would potentially have a lot of difficulties with relationships with ‘normal’ people, and that you can understand why both he AND Cassy have legitimate reasons to feel the way they do about his new calling. It also means that we get some deliciously angsty scenes with teenagers. And as a teenager who was in love with her boyfriend and had to deal with some problems that felt earth shattering at the time, these scenes felt very, very true to life.

The mystery and motivation behind the angry spirit was well plotted out and fun to get through. I cracked the code early on, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was easy to crack. I’ve just been reading these kinds of stories for years, so I know what to look for. And even though I guessed the outcome early, I still enjoyed the journey that we took to get to said outcome. Lound really does up the stakes this time around, with the looming threat of injury and death at the hands of an angry spirit a very real issue. And we don’t pussyfoot around what all of this could mean for Jonny and his friends; on the contrary, there is a very significant loss in this book, one that I didn’t see coming, and one that was a bit of a bummer. But no spoilers here. I just want to hit the point home that we are starting to see the consequences that Jonny has to contend with because he has decided to pursue being a medium.

“The Burned House” was a thrilling and fun follow up to “The Spirit in the Crypt”. It checks all of my favorite boxes of a ghost story and medium story, and I’m eager to see where Jonny Roberts goes next!

Rating 8: Another satisfying YA ghost story, “The Burned House” continues the adventures of Jonny Roberts, and shows the upped stakes that being a medium means, both physically and emotionally.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Burned House” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “YA Novels and Psychic Abilities”, and “Young Adult Ghost Stories”.

“The Burned House” isn’t available on WorldCat as of now, but it will be available for purchase this week. For more information, go to Alexander Lound’s WEBSITE.

Previously Reviewed: “The Spirit in the Crypt”