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.
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.
A harsh, controlling father. A quiescent mother. A house that feels like anything but a home. Natasha gathers the strength to leave, and comes upon a little house in the wood: A house that walks about on chicken feet and is inhabited by a fairy tale witch. In finding Baba Yaga, Natasha finds her voice, her power, herself….
Review: I don’t read a lot of novels in verse, but I’ve been a fan of Jane Yolen for quite a while. Pair that with a Baba Yaga story, and I’m in! This was a quick read, and while it took me a bit to really feel invested in the story, in the end, I really enjoyed this interpretation of Baba Yaga and the writing decisions behind presenting it as a story in verse.
The story follow Natasha, a girl running from a very unhappy home. As the cover of the book so beautifully depicts, she makes her way into the woods where she finds a certain house walking about on chicken feet. From there, the modern setting from which Natasha came mixes with the fairytale version of Baba Yaga that readers are more familiar with.
There are a bunch of incredibly strong themes in this book. Natasha, coming from a bordering on abusive home, travels an intense journey of self-discovery throughout the story. Through her, we see the struggles that face those who live in shut-down families, like the challenges to not only find one’s own voice, but even to give validation to one’s own thoughts as valid and worthy of expression. In her “new life,” she must not only tackle these growth areas, but deals with both sides of the emotional coin in loss and love. There’s also a very nice through-line about found families and the strength of connections that can be forged between two individuals who, outwardly, have nothing connecting them.
I also very much enjoyed the poetic style of the book. Like I said, I don’t read a lot of novels in verse. If anything, I’m more likely to pick up a collection of poetry than I am to read a book like this. In the past, I’ve often struggled to feel truly connected to a story that reads like a novel but is told through such a reduced number of words and often presented in challenging formats on the page itself. Maybe this comes from too many poetry classes, but I’m often so distracted trying to analyze line breaks and why a certain piece was laid out on the page the way it was and what that says about the content to maintain a consistent connection with the ongoing story.
I had the same problem with this story, but about halfway through, I was able to get more fully into the action. I think this slow dive in also had to do with the way that Yolen tells her story. Things aren’t all simply revealed from the beginning. Instead, we’re slowly introduced to who Natasha really is, what her life has been, and how the events she’s currently experiencing connects to it all.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s a very short read (not only page count, but word count), so readers are likely going to be able to finish it in one setting. If you’re skeptical about novels in verse, I’d also say that this might be a good introductory piece, especially if you have an interest in fairytales and Baba Yaga in particular (I didn’t get into her much, but I really enjoyed Yolen’s interpretation of this classic character as well!). And, of course, fans of Yolen’s work will not be disappointed by this new entry.
Rating 8: Though it starts slow, the style of the story adds power to the deeper themes it is presenting throughout, such as self-discovery and finding one’s own power in the world.
“Finding Baba Yaga” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant lists. But it should be on “Novels in Verse.”
Book Description: “Beneath the Sugar Sky” returns to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. At this magical boarding school, children who have experienced fantasy adventures are reintroduced to the “real” world.
Sumi died years before her prophesied daughter Rini could be born. Rini was born anyway, and now she’s trying to bring her mother back from a world without magic.
Review: I read and loved the first book in this series of novellas, had complicated feelings about the second, though still largely enjoyed it, and was counting down the days until I could get my hands on this one (even better, I got it early so I was able to do away with my “counting calendar” before the madness really took over).
“Beneath the Sugar Sky” introduces us to Cora, yet another girl who has been unwillingly returned to a world where she feels she no longer belongs. New to the Home for Wayward Children, she is just beginning to make friends with the others around her and beginning to understand the far-reaching and complicated network of other worlds that children have traveled to and from for years. But, like them all, she wants only to find her door and return as soon as possible. Instead, what she finds, is a girl who has traveled to this “regular world” with one goal and one goal only: to resurrect her mother, Sumi, who died so tragically way back in the first book.
First off, I loved the combination of introducing a completely new character and world through Cora, but also directly tying the plot to the action from the very first book in the series, and using this contrivance to more naturally bring in characters from the first two books with whom we are familiar and enjoy. I particularly loved the surprise appearance of a past main character and exploring more fully the world she loves.
And that was another great thing! We got to visit multiple fantastical worlds in this book! I always love adventure/quest stories, and that it was lovely following our band of strange heroes through various worlds and seeing how they reacted/experienced each of these worlds. We know that the worlds choose children who are natural fits for those worlds, so seeing those characters out of place in a strange new world was very interesting, highlighting how “high nonsense” worlds would have a negative impact on characters who are more aligned to “logical” worlds. And how the world itself could actively resist those rules being pushed upon it.
Alongside some returning characters, the two new faces are Cora and Rini. Cora, our main character, was an excellent addition to a ever-growing pantheon of characters who push against conformative exceptions of society that make quick judgements of who a person is. In this particular story, we see Cora dealing with the judgements based on her weight. Her athleticism, particularly in the water, was continuously dismissed before she finds her own door that leads to a water world where she goes on adventures as a mermaid. There, in the freezing depths, her extra layers and strong, poweful body are an asset. So, here, returned to a world that sees only a “fat girl,” Cora is struggling to re-assert the powerful self within her.
While I did like the exploration of the judgements and insecurities that Cora deals with in this aspect, I was also a little underwhelmed with its resolution. Namely, there never was much of a resolution to speak of. Throughout the story Cora remains insecure about the judgements she assumes others are making about her. At the same time, she knows her own strength and begins to see how truly in-tune her own world was to her particular strengths. But she also finds ways to use those same strengths in other environments. However, I felt that this particular thread was left a bit hanging in the end. The plot itself was resolved, but this arc seemed to just peter out without any true revelations, either on Cora’s part or on other’s.
Rini was very fun, being the first “native” other world character we’ve seen. It was fun watching her character travel through the book with a “nonsense” perspective on everything. So far, we’ve only seen children from our world who, while particularly attuned for one world or another, understand that strangeness of it when compared to our “real world.” Through Rini, we see a character who has grown up in one of these strange lands and understands its rules and history (there was some great stuff with a creation story here) as as “obvious” as we consider our own world’s rules and history.
This was an excellent third story to McQuire’s Wayward Children series. While some of the internal conflicts weren’t resolved to the extent that I wish they had been, I very much enjoyed her combination of new worlds and characters with familiar faces. Further, each book seems to build upon the last as far as the mythology and connection between all of these various worlds. Even more fun, the characters themselves are learning right along side us! For fans of this series, definitely check this one out. And for those of you not on this train yet, get on, but start with the first as it’s a “must read” to fully appreciate this on.
Rating 8: Whimsical and dark, but coming up just short on a few of its character arcs.
Book Description: Charlotte is learning to control her emerging magical prowess under the secret tutelage of Magus Hopkins. Her first covert mission takes her to a textile mill where the disgruntled workers are apparently in revolt.
But it isn’t the workers causing the trouble. The real culprits are far more extranormal in nature.
Review: The second novella in Newman’s “Industrial Magic” series see Charlotte still learning to control her powers in the hopes of avoiding life in the restrictive, but privileged, Royal Society. Her brother, however, has been recently admitted to the Society, and is beginning to run into problems of his own. There is something going on at the textile mill that he has been tasked to oversee. He recruits Charlotte to work undercover and discover what is going on. But what she finds is more than he expected, or either of them wanted to know. “Weaver’s Lament” raises all the stakes, and I found myself enjoying it even more than I did the first!
Charlotte, as ever, is an excellent protagonist. She’s capable, curious, and still a bit naive about the Royal Society and, especially, the role her brother is now playing by being involved within it. I had a fairly good understanding of her motivations and character from the first book, and this one simply built upon what we already knew. More and more, we understand why she resists joining a society that in many ways would elevate her to a life of riches and success. But her characterization wasn’t one of the stumbling blocks I found in the first story.
After reading the first book, most of my confusion and qualms came from not understanding who I was supposed to be rooting for among the cast of secondary characters. Charlotte’s own confusion here didn’t help. But as this story moves along, I was relieved to see that, while Charlotte may still have the wool pulled over her eyes, we, as readers at least, are beginning to understand the roles these other characters play in her life. Specifically, we begin to see the true colors of her brother Ben and Mage Hopkins, the member of the Royal Society who has been training Charlie over the last several months. At the same time, as we begin to understand the motivations, priorities, and loyalties of these two men, we are still seeing them through Charlotte’s eyes and her perspective is very much colored by her experiences and wishes. She wants her brother to be the same man he was when he left, and even her evaluation of the man he was then is forever seen through the lens of her love for him as a sibling. Mage Hopkins, too, is both the man who is training her as well as her greatest liability for being turned in to the Royal Society should he ever suspect that her training is not enough to keep her from going “wild.”
The primary mystery was also very compelling. Not only did it expose more tidbits of knowledge of how the magic system in this world works, but we saw how the Royal Society uses its magic in industrial work like the textile mill. But the other half of the story is the more human one: Charlie’s shock and horror at the conditions of the mill workers and, at best, the complacency of those in power to the situation. At worst, she finds active participation and collusion.
We also learn more about what it means for an untrained mage to “go wild,” as Charlie struggles to hold herself and her power in check. But even as she discovers the price that comes with remaining free, she, and the reader, begins to question the truth behind any of it. There were a couple surprises wrapped up in this aspect of the story that added new layers to the fantasy aspects of this world. I’m excited to see where Newman is going with all of this.
There’s a lot going on in a very short book, but I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it. My only criticisms would come down to a writing style that at times felt stunted, perhaps due to the constraints of the shorter page count. But this by no means hindered my reading experience, and I would highly recommend both this book, and the previous novella, to any fans of historical fantasy fiction or steampunk fantasy.
Rating 8: It’s always thrilling when a second book out performs the first, and here we really see Newman coming into her stride with this series!
“Weaver’s Lament” is a newer book and isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Gaslamp Fantasy.”
“Weaver’s Lament” does not yet have a library catalog entry, but request it from your local librarian!
Where Did I Get This Book: An ARC from the publisher at ALA.
Book Description:A collection of four chilling novels, ingeniously wrought gems of terror from the brilliantly imaginative, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Fireman, Joe Hill
“Snapshot” is the disturbing story of a Silicon Valley adolescent who finds himself threatened by “The Phoenician,” a tattooed thug who possesses a Polaroid Instant Camera that erases memories, snap by snap.
A young man takes to the skies to experience his first parachute jump. . . and winds up a castaway on an impossibly solid cloud, a Prospero’s island of roiling vapor that seems animated by a mind of its own in “Aloft.”
On a seemingly ordinary day in Boulder, Colorado, the clouds open up in a downpour of nails—splinters of bright crystal that shred the skin of anyone not safely under cover. “Rain” explores this escalating apocalyptic event, as the deluge of nails spreads out across the country and around the world.
In “Loaded,” a mall security guard in a coastal Florida town courageously stops a mass shooting and becomes a hero to the modern gun rights movement. But under the glare of the spotlights, his story begins to unravel, taking his sanity with it. When an out-of-control summer blaze approaches the town, he will reach for the gun again and embark on one last day of reckoning.
Review: While we were at ALA, Serena and I were making our way through the throngs of eager librarians at the publisher tables. After all, the vendor’s hall had just opened up, and that meant free books. At one point Serena grabbed my arm and pointed to a stack of books. I immediately saw that they were ARCs of the new novellas collection by Joe Hill, entitled “Strange Weather”. Given that you all know my deep deep love for Joe Hill, it should come as no surprise that I basically went like
I saved it and saved it and SAVED IT for Horrorpalooza, and I can say that it was basically worth the wait. I’m going to talk about all four novellas, split up into four sections. I’ll try to keep it concise, but this may be a ramble, y’all.
“Snapshot”: Okay, so I’ll be honest. I read “Strange Weather” for Horrorpalooza, but I would say that this story was the only one in the set that was a mostly ‘conventional’ horror story. More on the others later. What I liked about “Snapshot” was that it had the nostalgia feel down pat, with our protagonist being a teenage boy named Michael who is fairly normal, if not a little awkward. His neighbor and family friend Shelly Beukes has been succumbing more and more to memory loss and dementia, and Michael keeps an eye on her for her aging husband Larry. She keeps talking about a “Polaroid Man” who is stalking her, but it’s chalked up to her failing memory. Of course, Michael then meets this “Polaroid Man” and his camera that steals memories from people. From the description of this guy to the very concept of someone stalking you to steal your memories, I was sufficiently spooked by this first novel. I thought that Michael also had a very realistic voice, and it just proves that Hill, like his father Stephen King, really knows how to write a book from the perspective of kids and pull it off. There was also a lingering sense of pathos about this story, as it didn’t end after a battle of good and evil, like so many horror stories do. I had to wipe tears away from my eyes as Hill ruminated and explored the ideas of losing oneself to time and old age, and how it affects those who love you. Man does this man know how to make me cry.
“Loaded”: This was probably the ballsiest, and most maddening, book in the collection. Hill doesn’t shy away from his personal politics and opinions in his public persona, and he has a lot to say about gun violence in this country. “Loaded” takes the themes of gun violence, racism, privilege, and, dare I say, the Alt-Right (before it became so prevalent), and turns it into this sucker punch of a story. Basically, a white mall cop with a history of racism and violence is said to have stopped a mass shooting at a mall, in which five people were killed, including the suspect. He becomes a hero to the community. But then his story starts to fall apart as a reporter with her own painful memories involving racist cops and police brutality starts to dig into his ‘heroic act’. This one built up nice and slow, piecing things together bit by bit until I was on the edge of my seat. This was also the story in the collection that made me yell out in anger at the end, and have to walk around my house a bit before I could continue onto the next one. Hill brings up a lot of hot button by ever relevant issues in how we view authority, how we downplay racism in our culture, and how deadly situations that can totally be prevented instead explode because of our obsession with guns and the inability (or refusal) to confront our racist culture and disdain for gun control. DAMN this one pulsated with indictments and anger, and while it was bleak as HELL, I like that he took it on, even if there were a couple of tropes used that feel a bit outdated and not so culturally sensitive (like, why did the father of Aisha’s daughter have to have run off on her?). Overall, this one lights up the page with frustration and misery. Be ready.
“Aloft”: This story might have been my favorite in the book, actually, which I wasn’t expecting because it was the one that was the LEAST horror-oriented. A guy named Aubrey is skydiving with the girl he pines after, as part of a promise they made to a mutual friend who has now passed on. But he manages to land on a solid, cloud-like…. thing. It tries to provide him with everything he needs, as if it has a mind of it’s own and wants him to stay, and Aubrey is tempted to take it up on it’s hospitality. What I liked about this one was that it just kind of felt a little whimsical, as well as bittersweet. We learn about Aubrey and his relationships with his crush, Harriet, and their now deceased bandmate June. You slowly see his strengths and weaknesses, and how his inability to take various plunges in life now applies to not taking ‘the plunge’ off this weird ‘cloud’ that so entices him to stay. I just loved the mechanics and the world building of this ‘cloud’. We don’t really know what it is, we don’t really know how it works, but I was so tickled by the various things that it could do. It’s just such an original concept, even if it wasn’t particularly ‘scary’. It reminded me of some of the more whimsy-based stories in “20th Century Ghosts” that didn’t scare, but entertained through sheer creativity.
“Rain”: Hill is no stranger to the Apocalypse story. You remember how much I LOVED “The Fireman”, so when I realized that “Rain” was an end of the world story but with NAIL RAIN, I was pretty pumped. Our protagonist this time is Honeysuckle, a woman who lives in Boulder and is excited that her girlfriend is finally moving in with her. Unfortunately, the day that Yolanda is going to move in, a storm cloud comes through, and instead of water, the sky rains sharp crystals that look like nails. They shred every living thing below, causing death, damage, and panic. In the acknowledgments Hill said that he was kind of having a bit of fun with the fact he’d already written such an epic end of the world story, but “Rain” isn’t exactly light hearted. It is very despondent, as Honeysuckle travels on foot to Denver to try and find Yolanda’s father, having to deal less with rain than the human wreckage and evils along the way. From a strange cult to homophobic misogynists, Honeysuckle has a long road ahead of her. This one made me cry deeply at one point, because, fair warning for a spoiler here, a person that Honeysuckle comes upon is completely broken over the fact his cat Roswell has been impaled by these crystals. Roswell is still alive, but in agony, and Honeysuckle decides to put the poor animal out of it’s misery. And it was here that all my tears for other things in this collection decided that enough was enough.
But even though Hill said in the acknowledgments that the Trump election made him make this story far less hopeful that he originally intended, he doesn’t leave it totally hopeless. I appreciate that even in darkest times in his writing, he will usually give us the strength to keep on hoping. Unless it’s “Loaded”. GOD that was a rough one.
All in all, I thought that “Strange Weather” was a very strong collection of stories. Joe Hill continues to amaze me and move me, and if you haven’t already, please do seek him out. This might be a good collection to start with, as it balances so many of the genres that he excels in.
Rating 8: A solid and enjoyable collection of four novellas that made me laugh, cry, shudder, and have to walk around my house in a rage. So you know, everything I want Joe Hill to do.
Book: “You Should Have Left” by Daniel Kehlmann, Ross Benjamin (Translator)
Publishing Info: Pantheon Books, June 2017
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description:From the internationally best-selling author of Measuring the World and F, an eerie and supernatural tale of a writer’s emotional collapse
“It is fitting that I’m beginning a new notebook up here. New surroundings and new ideas, a new beginning. Fresh air.”
These are the opening lines of the journal kept by the narrator of Daniel Kehlmann’s spellbinding new novel: the record of the seven days that he, his wife, and his four-year-old daughter spend in a house they have rented in the mountains of Germany—a house that thwarts the expectations of his recollection and seems to defy the very laws of physics. The narrator is eager to finish a screenplay, entitled Marriage, for a sequel to the movie that launched his career, but something he cannot explain is undermining his convictions and confidence, a process he is recording in this account of the uncanny events that unfold as he tries to understand what, exactly, is happening around him—and in himself.
Review: Back when I was just out of college but still hadn’t quite found my footing, my dear friend Blake (bestie from high school, now far away friend) told me about this creepy book that he was reading called “House of Leaves” by Mark Z Danielewski . He said that it was basically three stories combined into one, told with transcripts, footnotes, weird spacing choices, and a claustrophobic nuance that made the reader feel like they were going a bit loony. I asked my sister to get it for me for my birthday, and when I picked it up it was so intricate and odd that it took me awhile to read it. But boy did I love the concept of a scary story told in weird, experimental ways. Flash forward to this fall, when my Mom sent me another of her emails saying “I found this book through the New York Times, you should look into it.” That book was “You Should Have Left”, and when I finally picked it up a few weeks later, I started having flashbacks to my time spent with “House of Leaves”. Only this one, clocking in at less than 150 pages, was possible to read in one night.
When we meet Narrator (as he has no name), his wife Susanna, and their little girl Esther, they have taken a cabin retreat to give him time to work on his newest screenplay. I mean, if you want isolation from the world around you, a mountain cabin is probably the way to go. The only parts of Narrator’s story we get to see are through his own writings, be it meditations on writing, the screenplay itself, or his random diary-esque entries talking about his family, the cabin itself, and other observations within the moment. It’s when he makes off the cuff remarks about things that seem odd that you start to slowly realize that something isn’t quite right here. Narrator is under such pressure, both in his professional life and his personal life, that as the reader you are constantly wondering how reliable these various things are. It’s a great device, and Kehlmann uses it pretty well. As various things happen, both in his personal and professional life AND within the house itself, it’s hard to know if one causes the other or vice versa. There were some really good moments of uncanny horror in this one, from strange silhouettes out of the corner of the eye to Narrator maybe seeing himself walking around inside the house even though he’s outside of it. Moments like these made it so that I was thrown for a loop and a bit weirded out, which was fun and unsettling and very satisfying because of it. Even though I read this all in one sitting, throughout that sitting I would find myself looking towards the dark corners of my bedroom and into the hallway, knowing I wouldn’t see anything, of course, but worried that I might. Any Gothic novel worth it’s weight knows how to make fear from isolation and darkness, and I felt like Kehlmann achieved it.
The translation itself was pretty good, Benjamin was very skilled and making the prose flow easily, and it never felt clunky or forced, or like anything was being lost from German to English. I find that can sometimes be a problem for translated works, so it was good that the suspense was still palpable and the tension still tight.
But sadly, because I went in with “House of Leaves” on the brain, this one didn’t quite live up to all of my expectations. I know that short and sweet horror can be very effective when it is done right, and while I do think that “You Should Have Left” was done very well, it sort of felt like a been there, done that kind of read for me. While that isn’t necessarily a relevant thing for those who haven’t read “House of Leaves”, it just wasn’t quite strong enough to buck that association and comparison. Had it been longer, and had we spent more time with Narrator as he either a) falls victim to a haunted house, or b) falls victim to his own emotional breakdown, perhaps I could have left my past associations at the door. While I do fully intend to go back someday and re-read “House of Leaves”, “You Should Have Left” is probably a one and done kind of ghost story for this reader.
If you’re in need of something short this Halloween season, “You Should Have Left” will probably whet your appetite pretty thoroughly. It’s unsettling and creepy, and knows how to push the right buttons.
Rating 7: An unnerving and eerie novella that kept me on edge, “You Should Have Left” was strange and raw. At times it felt like “House of Leaves”-Lite, but a solid and fast horror story it still is.
“You Should Have Left” is not on any Goodreads Lists as of right now, but honestly, if you want some similar books dealing in isolation and potential mental breaks, give “The Shining” and “House of Leaves” a try.
Book Description:In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.
Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.
This was a terrible plan.
Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.
Review: The fact that this novella is based on a true consideration undertaken by the U.S government, importing hippos to the U.S. to be used alongside cows in meat production, was all it took to land it on my TBR list. The fact that the cover features several characters riding hippos moved it quickly to the top.
And if the finished result wasn’t all I had hoped it could be, there’s still no denying the pure fun that is delivered with such a unique concept as hippo-riding outlaws!
First for the parts I did enjoy. As I said, the pure genius of this concept is spot on. I mean, who knew about the late, great hippo plan? If anything, this proves that the U.S. government was just as capable of thinking up ridiculous plans back in our earlier days as country as it seems to be now! But Gailey doesn’t just rest the historical wackiness of this plan, she brilliantly conceptulizes what this plan would have looked like if implemented.
The Louisiana territory is largely converted to extensive marshland, as hippos can only travel so far out of water. Various breeds of hippos have emerged, beyond the ones simply raised for meat. Some are faster than others, some larger, some more capable of managing longer distances on dry land. They are imagined to be a combination of a horse and a cow: close traveling companion in some cases, purely a form of meat production in another.
But, let’s not forget, hippos are very much NOT cows. They are strong, faster than they look, and fully capable of enacting their tempers on poor, unaware people who may get in their way. And, like all good plans, the great hippo importation quickly got out of control in this case, leaving wide range of the Mississippi river chocked up by an out-of-control feral hippo population, one that the notorious riverboat crime lord, Mr. Travers, has fully made use of to create his own scary, little kingdom.
Enter our heroes, tasked with a government funded mission to clear out the feral hippo population, once again opening up the river to commercial traffic. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Travers is not on board with this plan.
As I’ve said, the setting and creative use of the hippos was spot on in this story. So, too, the pacing is strong, reading like a charming classic Western adventure story, but with hippos. It’s easy to see these influences play out in many scenes, and in many ways the writing reads like a screenplay for what would surely be a super cool TV mini series.
But this strength is also a weakness. It almost reads too much like a screen play with a few beats hitting just slightly off target. There are moments when the dialogue veers a tad too close to the cheesy, and the descriptions could also seem pedestrian at times, lacking the detail and cohesion.
Which leaves us with our cast of characters. And there are many. We have the leader of our little troop, a man with a dark past tied up with Mr. Travers. A con woman. An assassin. A poisoner/munitions expert. And a man who knows the Mississippi region like the back of his hand. This is a lot of characters, all with big personalities, to be jammed into a short novella that also has a lot of story to tell. Characters would come and go so quickly that the fates that awaited them never really struck any chord. See you later, I barely knew you, I guess?
Further, Bailey attempts to right in a romantic story line, as well. And while I applaud her for her representation of this couple, their romance feels rushed to the point of unbelievability. And, in many ways, this relationship is used as a driving force for the decision-making of several of our characters, which just plays all the weaker for being given so little time to develop.
So, while I loved the conceptualization and adventure of this story, I was left wanting in a few areas. The writing style seemed to slip at points, and the numerous characters often overwhelmed any attachment I could develop for any single one, leaving some of the more important story beats to land flat. However, being a novell, this is a low stakes read, time-wise, so if you’re looking for a fun, quick adventure story unlike any other you’ve probably come across, I’d still recommend checking out “River of Teeth.”
Rating 6: An overwhelmingly large cast and some writing slips prevented me from fully committing to the Western adventure romp.
Book: “Down Among the Sticks and Bones” by Seanan McGuire
Publishing Info: Tor, June 2017
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description: Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.
This is the story of what happened first…
Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.
Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you’ve got.
They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.
They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.
Review: Last year’s “Every Heart a Doorway” , aYA fantasy novella by Seanan McGuire, completely took me by surprise. It asks the important, but rarely asked, question: what happens when these special, chosen children return from their adventures in other worlds? In that book, we met Jack and Jill, twin girls who had spent years in their own magical land. Like many others at the school, they each had their own struggles adjusting to life back in this reality. Here, we have their back story. And, while I still love the creativity of this series, the fact that I knew the end story for these two did affect my perception of this story. It’s purely a personal problem, however, so all in all, this is a strong second outing for this series.
Like most children who wander into strange worlds, Jack and Jill don’t quite fit into the reality that they were born, too. Their mother, Serena (oh no!) makes a princess out of Jill, and their father, Chester, attempts to turn Jack into the son he wished he had. Growing up within these strict definitions that were chosen for them, it’s no surprise that when they discover a doorway in their attic, they choose to walk forward. The world that awaits is filled with monsters, science, and chaos. But perhaps most frightening and thrilling of all: choices. For two girls who have been told who they are since birth, this new found ability to decide offers temptations and dangers.
The greatest strength of “Every Heart a Doorway” was the clear-eyed approach it took on childhood. It’s all too easy to wrap up childhood in fluffy dreams of nostalgia, to wave away the worries and pains of childhood as nothing more than immaturity. This strength comes to the forefront in this book, a story that is even darker than the original novella. Jack and Jill’s childhood until age 12 in “reality” is one full of struggle against the various constraints of gender. I greatly appreciated the fact that both definitions, the “princess” and the “tomboy” are shown equally for the damages they can inflict. They both demonize a type of behavior in girls in lieu of presenting the “one true way.” It is made clear that the strictness of both and the lack of flexibility in the definition of “girlhood” is the root of the problem with either perception.
I also greatly enjoyed the time spent in the fantasy world, obviously. This world is dark, scary, and the choices presented to the girls have real consequences. As we saw in the first book, both girls are changed by their time in this world, and it was fascinating watching them each slowly develop into the characters we are familiar with from the first book.
This, however, was also where I found myself struggling with this book. I like darkness in my fantasy novels, but I do struggle to fully enjoy stories that end on this same dark note. I think the fact that I knew the events that took place in “Every Heart a Doorway” before reading this colored my perception of certain things and prevented me from fully committing to both of the main characters. I felt like I was almost keeping the story at a distance, because I knew not to get too attached. This is clearly a very personal flaw with the story and one that’s completely tied up in my own reading experience, so take it with a million grains of salt. Because, even saying that, knowing the end result also kept me interested as the girls transformed into the characters I knew, as I said before.
This was a solid second outing in this novella series. I believe there is a third, “Beneath the Sugar Sky,” in line to be published this coming January, and I will definitely be at the front of the line to get my hands on it! Definitely check this book out if you’re a fan of dark fantasy, especially of the classic monster variety!
Rating 7: An excellent dark, fantasy story, both benefiting and, for me, suffering from the fact that we had already been introduced to these characters in the first book in the series.
Book: “Gwendy’s Button Box” by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar
Publishing Info: Cemetery Dance Publications, May 2017
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description:The little town of Castle Rock, Maine has witnessed some strange events and unusual visitors over the years, but there is one story that has never been told… until now.
There are three ways up to Castle View from the town of Castle Rock: Route 117, Pleasant Road, and the Suicide Stairs. Every day in the summer of 1974 twelve-year-old Gwendy Peterson has taken the stairs, which are held by strong (if time-rusted) iron bolts and zig-zag up the cliffside.
At the top of the stairs, Gwendy catches her breath and listens to the shouts of the kids on the playground. From a bit farther away comes the chink of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball as the Senior League kids practice for the Labor Day charity game.
One day, a stranger calls to Gwendy: “Hey, girl. Come on over here for a bit. We ought to palaver, you and me.”
On a bench in the shade sits a man in black jeans, a black coat like for a suit, and a white shirt unbuttoned at the top. On his head is a small neat black hat. The time will come when Gwendy has nightmares about that hat…
Journey back to Castle Rock again in this chilling new novella by Stephen King, bestselling author of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, and Richard Chizmar, award-winning author of A Long December. This book will be a Cemetery Dance Publications exclusive with no other editions currently planned anywhere in the world!
Review: One of my favorite things about Stephen King (and there are so, so many things to love about this man, in my opinion) is that he likes to make references to his past works within his books. It makes it feel like his stories exist in their own universe, and it makes it fun to try and spot references as you read his books. He also brings some characters from some books into other books. For example, in his Science Fiction/Suspense book “11/22/63”, his main character travels back in time to stop the Kennedy Assassination… and makes a detour in Derry, Maine, the infected town in “It”. We even got to see some of the characters from “It” in that book, even though they were definitely just treats for his readers. But the character that he does this the most with is Randall Flagg, aka The Man in Black, aka The Walkin’ Dude, aka Walter O’Dim. Flagg is mostly seen in “The Stand” and “The Dark Tower” Series, but every once in awhile he’ll show up in other King works. It’s rumored that he’s He Who Walks Behind The Rows in “The Children of the Corn”, and Raymond Fiegler in “Hearts in Atlantis”. I’m always on the look out for Flagg to come back, as he’s one of my favorite villains of all time.
And in “Gwendy’s Button Box”, the new novella by King and Richard Chizmar, it’s very possible that he has.
Gwendy is a typical awkward pre-teen girl. Teased by her peers and living a less than ideal home life, she’s taken it upon herself to slim down before she starts high school. She does this by running up a very steep set of stairs every day in her hometown of Castle Rock, Maine. And it’s on one of these days that she meets Richard Farris, a mysterious stranger wearing a black hat and coat. The Initials R.F. tell us right away that this is very likely to be Flagg, as does his appearance due to his penchant for wearing black. Oh, and the fact he gives her a magical box covered in buttons, and tells her that it is her responsibility at this moment to keep this box safe. While he doesn’t say it outright, he implies that pressing the buttons could have dire consequences for the world around her. It’s such a terrifying and fascinating concept to hold such a small yet powerful thing in your hands, and Gwendy is the one who is going to be the keeper of that responsibility. At least for now. This is Flagg at a more benign level, as he feels less destructive and more impish, almost like a mentor to Gwendy. The Box rewards her with beautiful chocolate animals, antique coins, and a boost of self esteem. While it didn’t feel like the Randall Flagg that I know and love, this potentially kinder, gentler Randall was pretty fun to read and rather ‘aw’ inducing. After all, how kind and gentle could he be truly if he knows that this box could potentially spell doom for mankind if it falls into the wrong hands?
I think that King and Chizmar did a very good job of writing Gwendy. Even though this is a novella and doesn’t have many pages to delve into her psyche, I felt that she was a realistic and relatable pre-teen girl. She isn’t too popular, she is unsure of herself, and she is happy to take the highs of this box and it’s responsibilities, but reluctant and scared of the lows. I enjoyed that as I was reading this book it was hard to know if there was a cause and effect going on, at least part of the time. When Gwendy pushes one of the buttons, shortly thereafter the Jonestown Massacre happens. Is that coincidence? Or did Gwendy cause it? It’s philosophical tension at it’s finest, making the reader question if she has any affect on the world, or if Richard Farris (aka Randall Flagg) is merely toying with her. She struggles with the knowledge that she has this thing that could potentially be destructive, and yet lives for the perks that it may be giving her. I also think that King and Chizmar did a good job of capturing adolescence as a whole, even if a magical button box wasn’t there. Gwendy makes friends, loses others, finds first love and has to deal with cruel and bad people who are in her life, and it always felt so real and bittersweet watching her go through her teenage years, button box or not.
King and Chizmar created a pretty cohesive book. It’s hard enough to pull off a novella, to hit all the points that you want to hit, and I imagine that doing it with another person is harder still. But it never felt like I was reading two competing voices in this book. It sounds like they created a system that worked for the two of them, and I have to say that I was very impressed with what they came up with. It has that undercurrent of thriller, wondering if Gwendy is going to keep hitting buttons and cause a catastrophe. But it also has that coming of age feel as Gwendy learns about herself and life. Given that King and his son Owen just wrote another book together, I see this as a positive sign that King has the ability to adapt, or at least tweak, his writing to mesh with another person’s.
“Gwendy’s Button Box” was a quick and very satisfying read. We get a nice taste of a return of The Walkin’ Dude, but we also get a heroine grounded in realism, and an existential crisis that kept this reader on the edge of her seat.
Rating 8: Filled with ambiguity and philosophical horror, “Gwendy’s Button Box” doesn’t only bring us back to Castle Rock, it may bring back The Man In Black. King and Chizmar work well to make a cohesive story between two voices.
Book Description:The year is 1850 and Great Britain is flourishing, thanks to the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts. When a new mage is discovered, Royal Society elites descend like buzzards to snatch up a new apprentice. Talented mages are bought from their families at a tremendous price, while weak mages are snapped up for a pittance. For a lower middle class family like the Gunns, the loss of a son can be disastrous, so when seemingly magical incidents begin cropping up at home, they fear for their Ben’s life and their own livelihoods.
But Benjamin Gunn isn’t a talented mage. His sister Charlotte is, and to prevent her brother from being imprisoned for false reporting she combines her powers with his to make him seem a better prospect.
When she discovers a nefarious plot by the sinister Doctor Ledbetter, Charlotte must use all her cunning and guile to protect her family, her secret and her city.
Review: I’m trying to increase my short story/novella reading, and so I was excited when I heard about this new steampunk, fantasy novella put out by Emma Newman. And while I feel like the novella aspect of the book may have weakened aspects of the story, overall, I was very pleased with this story which is the beginning of what looks to be an ongoing series.
Charlotte is in hiding. Not only is she a successful illustrator who must publish under a false name to hide her gender which might cripple her chances at success in a male-dominated profession, but she’s also a talented mage. And to be a mage is to give up one’s life to God and Country, be removed from one’s family (though the family is compensated based on the potential ability of their soon-to-be-lost family member), and be trained into serving in the elite Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts. Charlotte has no interest in losing her family, her burgeoning profession, or, worst of all, her fiance. Mages aren’t allowed to marry, and as Charlotte is already engaged to a perfectly pleasing man, so being discovered for the Latent that she is would be catastrophic. Instead, when her family hits hard times, her father recognizes the signs of a magic in his house, but falsely attributes it to his son, and brings in the society mages to test him for abilities. Charlotte must help her brother trick them into accepting him into their group, all while solving a dark mystery into which Charlotte’s father’s debts have dragged them all.
I very much enjoyed the originality of this world. The mages’ society is both something to be esteemed and feared, and this balance is struck again and again throughout the novel. Families can greatly profit from sending a family member to be trained, but they also lose their loved ones in the process, and that loved one gives up the chance to lead a normal life. In one of the opening scenes, Charlotte and her brother witness a young boy being dragged away from his mother once he’s been discovered as a Latent mage. The horror and the tragedy of this early scene is an important reminder as the story progresses and the true danger that her family faces at the hands of her father’s debt collectors becomes clear. It would be easy to question why Charlotte doesn’t simply bring herself forth. In many other fantasy series, having great powers is always shown as a purely good thing. But the sacrifices that come with this life are made clear throughout the entire story. Not only does one give up one’s planned life, but the mages society itself is not without its own dangers and dramas.
Charlotte was a very good lead character. Through her eyes, we can see the fears that have driven her throughout her entire life. Not only does she need to hide her magic, but her own success as an illustrator, a profession that she shares, nay exceeds at, with her own father. He, of course, is unaware of this commonality and the fact that Charlotte has spent much of her own money supporting her brother, in particular. Also, right away, her relationship with her fiance is set up as a challenge. Charlotte has not been honest with him either about these aspects of her life. In truth, her closest relationship is with her sickly brother, the only one to fully know her.
One of the bigger challenges for me in this story was the introduction and use of the mage who aides her in investigating the debt collectors. He is presented as a very attractive man whom Charlotte is drawn to right off the bat. However, throughout the story he routinely misleads her, sends her into dangerous situations without giving her complete knowledge, and out-and-out manipulates her. This behavior is explained, but, for me, he never quite recovers as a heroic character. While Charlotte and her fiance are clearly not well-suited (talk about a wet blanket relationship), I wasn’t as able to forgive the flaws of this new love interest as easily as Charlotte seemed to. The end of the book sets them up to work together in the future, with only the barest hints of romance alluded to (she’s still engaged, mind you), so I’ll be curious to see what comes of this going forward.
My only other struggle was with the pacing and the writing in spots. Charlotte had a few revelations that felt out of the blue and un-earned, and the pacing was jarring in the middle when the plot had to gallop along to cover all the multitude of plot points that were jammed into such a short story. I feel that the story could have benefited from an extra 25-50 pages to fully flesh out the deeper emotional beats and ensure that the plot ran more smoothly.
The world building was strong, however, and Charlotte was a fun main character, so I’m definitely on board to see what troubles she finds herself in in the future! And to see what becomes of her brother, Ben, another character I very much enjoyed who is now trapped in a magical society that thinks he is more than he actually is.
Rating 7: A great start to a new series, if only rubbing up a bit against the restraints of a shortened page length.