Ring Shout- P. DèjIí Clark

Here there be monsters…

What if those monsters that we deal with, even today, those monsters with so much hate in their hearts, turned out to be actual monsters? Evil to the bone monsters that needed to be fought with sword and magic? That’s where Clark takes us in this fast-paced novella that will leave your heart racing. 

Ring Shout takes us back to 1920’s Macon, Georgia, to the heart of Klan country. But these aren’t just regular hate-filled Klansmen, these are Ku Kluxes. If you have the sight, you could see that these are true monsters. They are 9 feet tall, bone white, with ivory claws and 6 eyes on their pointed heads. Our hero Maryse and her friends are tasked with fighting them. On their side is the power of the Shout, and of old Gullah magic. As the Klan sets out with a plan to use the movie Birth of a Nation to unleash an ancient terror on the earth, Maryse must make some horrible choices in order to save the world from the hate that would overcome it.

I loved this little book & I give it a solid 4 stars- I mean, how timely did it end up being?!  It is full of stellar body horror in just the right amounts, and then it adds in a big shovel-full of Lovecraftian monster madness- who could ask for more? But Clark also includes just enough true history to feel uncomfortably realistic in the worst ways. One thing it is not is subtle, so be prepared for some full-on, swords-out racist fighting! And that is something we surely need more of!

Many thanks to NetGalley & Tor for this e-arc in exchange for an honest review.

Wonderland- Zoje Stage

Walking in a winter……

Note to publicists: stop comparing new novels to our cult favorites! It is never going to work out in your favor. Never. That was the first big problem with Zoje Stage’s Wonderland– they said it was as if Shirley Jackson had written The Shining. That’s a pretty high fucking bar. And this book was not that. I can tell you some of the ways they might be similar, but they are not the ways that fans will clamor for.

How cold was it?

First- like The Shining, this is a story of a family that becomes isolated in a remote, snow-bound place. And they start to go mad. That’s it. Similarities done. 

Second- like Shirley Jackson, Stage tries to find something frightening in the mundane. In this case, weather. But unlike Jackson, it is never quite successful, and tension is never drawn.

So, this is the story of the Bennet family, who has moved from the bustle of NYC to the quiet of the Adirondak mountains. And they were not prepared. Horror ensues. The story really is that simple, but Stage tries to take us into the mind of the main character Orla to show how she is going mad. However, I had trouble believing that any of these characters behaved like real people. That was also one of the things that bothered me about Stage’s first book Baby Teeth- it really stretched the possibility of real human reactions. You know, I can suspend a little disbelief for fiction, but, come on. The excessive repetition doesn’t really help in this case. Other reviewers have noted how many times Orla mentions her children’s names- which are (really) Eleanor Queen and Tycho and how many times you will hear about her ballet career. 

My primary beef with this book is how hard it tried to make snow frightening. Not scared of a snow dragon? No?  How about snow rollers? No? Well how about 10 feet of snow? No? How about a glacier?

Does rolled up snow scare you?

Ugh. None of it was scary. And almost all of it could be seen about a mile away.

Besides making me google a few interesting things, this book mostly entertained me by making me rant a little. It gets 2 stars.  There were a few times I might have been a bit spooked, and I truly enjoyed the descriptions of the husband’s artwork, so there’s that.

**********SPOILERS***********

Do you want to build a snowman? I briefly wondered if it was freaking Elsa!

Now, I am totally down for a ghost or a possession, or even a god, but maybe pick one. I have no idea what we really ended up with here. A girl who morphed into a tree who evolved into a god?  I was left totally unsatisfied with the ending as well.

Burn Our Bodies Down- Rory Power

Look at this gorgeous cover!

“How to keep a fire burning. How to stitch a fight up until it’s only a scar. That’s the kind of thing you learn with a mother like mine. Mostly though, you learn how to be loved without proof.”  

This is what 17 year old Margot Nielson thinks of her own mother. And the other very important thing she has learned is never to ask about her own history. She and her mother live alone and isolated from any other family members, and Margot is beginning to question why. When she comes upon an old family Bible with a photo in it, her journey to find her own past begins.

Upon the photo was the name of her family farm- Fairhaven- and a phone number. When she calls the number, she finds that her grandmother has been waiting for her to call for years, hoping to hear from her. But her mother FREAKS and forbids her from seeing or speaking to her.

So what’s a teenager to do? Run away of course! Margot heads out to find her Gram in Phalene, which turns out to be not far away. The day she arrives, she meets some local teens who recognize her immediately as a member of the Nielson family and tell her when a fire has broken out on her family land. When they arrive, Margot finds a young woman dead in the corn fields, a woman who looks so much like her they could be sisters. But could they be?

As Margot’s family history unfolds, she learns about their connection to the land, to the corn, and to eachother. Family secrets come to light, and they are horrifying.

she who walks behind the rows…

I read this book in one day, hardly wanting to put it down. The story was just so compelling to me, and so very weird! Now I will note that I always judge YA fiction a little bit differently than I do adult fiction- I feel that story is far more important for it. And I also try to keep in mind that I am not exactly the target audience, given that I am 45 years old! 🙂 There were aspects of this story that you could see a little ahead of time, but maybe not if you were 14 or 15. And I was actually surprised by some of it. I understood that there was going to be a deep connection between the crops and the family, I just didn’t realize exactly how deep. 

I also enjoyed Margot as a character; watching her try to find some sort of individuality where there was little to be found was fascinating. I have been enjoying the move towards queerness in YA literature often being a very small thing. The same way it is in many heterosexual stories. As if being gay was only one part of who a person is (imagine that!); I think that is so important because it makes it all that more “normal,” and it’s just as important as the stories that focus on it.

I should also add that I also loved this story just because of the CORN! I have an odd fascination with corn, and a huge collection of corny items, and this book with all it’s weird corn imagery was just my style.

I gave this strange little book 4 stars! I wish some of the other characters besides Margot had been given more fleshing out, and the same with her relationships with those characters. But all in all, I really enjoyed this read.

The Loop- Jeremy Robert Johnson

A bloody good read….

But when I try to picture a utopia, where we, like, all rise above, and we’re kind and we grow as a species, I can’t see it. So either I’m too dumb to have that kind of vision, or I’m just smart enough to know that humans could never pull it off. It’s way easier to imagine dystopia, and war, and all the bullshit we’ve been living in.

JRJ

Strap in, bitches! We are not in a utopia, that’s for sure. This book is a high-octane ride from the very beginning. Lucy and Bucket are best friends, and just about the only brown kids in their crap hillbilly town of Turner Falls, Oregon. But Lucy is confident that they can make it through their senior year and put the town in their rearview as long as they have each other. Unfortunately, their plans fall apart one day in school when one of the rich kids attacks & kills the teacher with a textbook. In a matter of minutes, the room is swarming with police and he is shot. But not before Lucy & Bucket saw his strange blue eyes and saw that weird thing in his neck.

Something very wrong is going on in Turner Falls. And it all connects back to the giant biotech company IMTECH, who has decided to use the children of its own execs as guinea pigs for an insane experiment.

Now Lucy, Bucket, and another of their outcast friends Brewer are on a mission to save the world.

The promo material calls this book a conspiracy thriller, and that’s just about right- it will take you down all the rabbit holes of all the conspiracies you’ve heard out there: drones, government monitoring, implants. But it does it all through the lens of a bad-ass female protagonist, so there’s that! Lucy is easy to root for. This book has everything a horror/thriller lover might want: lots of gore, a fast paced plot, and so much action! 

But it just wasn’t my style. I’m more of a slow burn kind of gal. What really saved this book for me was the ending, where the language shifted from crass teenage dialogue (which was realistic, I thought) to a more poetic style. I won’t tell you why, but I’m glad I hung in until then. It really opened up at that point for me.
I gave this one almost four stars 3.75! But that is just a matter of personal taste. This book is well written and a lot of fun, and I think a lot of other people will just love it!

The Only Good Indians- Stephen Graham Jones

Some horror novels creep up on you- those slow burns- and some are just straight up hardcore slashers where you rush towards the end. But every once in a while, you come across a work that scares you because it hits too close to home, because you feel it deep in your bones. The kind of book that you are still thinking about days, weeks, months later- the kind that has you turning on lights, your heart beating a little too fast. That is what The Only Good Indians was for me, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

This is the story of the past haunting four Indian friends, and not in a metaphorical way. When they were young, these four cocky Blackfeet indians went on a hunt on forbidden elder tribal land, and what happened there has followed them into adulthood. They are coming up on the ten year anniversary of the hunt, and one of them has already died. Will any of the others survive the revenge that is coming to them? And what exactly does it mean to be a “good Indian?”

This story is raw and bloody and heart-wrenching in all the best ways. I love horror that draws from folklore and traditional stories, and this is one of the best that I have read. Graham-Jones draws from his own tribal background, and the horrifying stories of other tribes to create a heart-rending modern folk tale. 

I give this book a HUGE 5 Stars, and highly recommend that you mark your calendars for its release on May 19th.! I will be putting up a more thorough & spoilery review at that time.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy!

Bunny- Mona Awad

Bunny was a brilliant beach read!

“Innovative.

Experimental.

Performance based.

Intertextual.

SO intertextual.

Basically: a hybrid.

A hybrid: That most obscure of academic beasts. What you call something when you just don’t know what you’re doing anymore.”

Mona Awad’s Bunny is so this! I am not sure if I should call it horror, or comedy, or dark comedy, or just plain weird literary insanity…

Set at an elite New England grad school, Bunny zeroes in on the Lit department, where the poets are losers, and the very richest and most beautiful of creative writers are a part of a clique known as the Bunnies. The Bunnies call each other Bunny, and are each beautiful and sickeningly sweet as cupcakes- as a matter of fact, they mostly look and smell like cupcakes, too. You might see a bit of Heathers or Plastics in these ladies.

I love you, Bunny!

But one of the members of their writing group is emphatically NOT a Bunny- Samantha Heather Mackey, or Smackie, as her friend Ava calls her. Ava “would never eat a lavender cupcake that tasted like perfume or wear a perfume that made her smell like a cupcake. She would never wear lip balm for cosmetic purposes. She would never wear it unless her lips were seriously, seriously chapped.” Samantha is a scholarship student, and she and Ava find the Bunnies group hugs and fake voices detestable. 

Down the rabbit hole…

That is, until the day they invite her to one of their Smut Salons. Where they make her special drinks and recite weirdly erotic passages. And then ask her to bring them a bunny. A real one. All of a sudden, Samantha is seeing rabbits everywhere. Are they talking to her?

The Bunnies invite Samantha to one of their own private “Workshops,” which Samantha thinks will be about writing. They do end up creating, but it is definitely not literature. They are creating their own hybrids, their own darlings. And you know….sometimes you have to kill your darlings.

The deeper Samantha gets into the world of the Bunnies, the more the edges of reality begin to blur- is she drugged? Are these things even happening? 

This book is simply genius! Even if you have never taken part in a creative writing class, Awad drowns you in the process- exposing the very depths of creation and the gut-wrenching birthing process that writers go through to bring forth a finished work. I was more than amused to discover that she and I went to the same private grad school in Denver! While we didn’t exactly have a cave to work in, I know how close-knit English departments can be. And how lonely school can be in a new place where you don’t know anyone. This book is about all of that: friendships, loneliness, creation, the agency of womanhood, and most of all: cute lil bunnies!

There aren’t enough stars to give to this, so of course I’m giving it all 5! It was dark & delicious, and oh so funny- I was literally laughing out loud so often my friends were questioning my sanity. But then again, so was I.

Coyote Songs- Gabino Iglesias

This was both a cover & bookstagram inspired purchase!

“Resolve was a fickle beast. Vengeance was a capricious lover. Anger was a planet covered in water that simultaneously obeyed the pull of too many whimsical moons. Pain was an unstable variable in a secret equation written in a language that never existed. Confidence was a fragile thing dangling over a sea of crushing teeth by a thread of shadow tied to a beam of hope.”

I am not sure what I can add to all the amazing reviews out there of this exquisitely original book, but I will try to put my thoughts into words. After I finished, I took a few days to think about it before writing this, mostly to think about what I had read.

This is a truly beautiful and mournful book. Above you get just a taste of the amazing lyricism of Iglesias’s writing, but if you are looking for a beam of hope, my friends, you should probably look elsewhere. Because here is the realm of Santa Muerte. La frontera- the frontier- the border. And it is just as horrifying as you think it is.

Death reigns at the border…

Iglesias writes in what many others are calling a “mosaic” style, by writing individual stories and weaving them together into one big picture. Some of the people in these stories don’t even have names; we have no names for the coyote or the mother or la bruja (the witch.) Even though the other three have names- Pedrito, Jamie, & Alma- I’m not sure that it matters, because they could be anyone in this godforsaken land.

Each piece of this mosiac gives the reader a glimpse into the horrors that lie in wait around the border: a young boy whose father was killed by militia, a coyote who strives to bring children over, the ghost of a woman who died while trying to cross over, a young mixed race performance artist who wants to make a statement. Every story is filled with blood & fear. The opening story made me gasp aloud.I felt some kind of connection with every single character in the book, but most of all with La Bruja, the witch. I felt like her chapters float through the book, intertwining the others. And her language is the most lyrical of all; the quote above is from her.

I applaud Iglesias for writing a story so current, so raw. He weaves together not only the individual stories, but also multiple genres. He calls it a “barrio noir,” but I felt as if I was reading a mix of horror and magical realism, with the grit of the noir as well. And all of this expertly done.

I can only give one small criticism, and it is primarily a criticism of myself. I wish I knew more Spanish. I live in Colorado and it would be WAY more useful than the freaking French I took so many years of. Anyways, this book switches from Spanish to English frequently and very smoothly. Often, I either understood, or just got enough from context and my limited Spanish to just keep reading. But there were many times I had to stop and translate, and that made what should have been a very quick read significantly longer. But I am not saying at all that it would be better if the Spanish wasn’t there, because I don’t think it would be. It just hindered my own personal experience. Due to this, I give it 4 Stars, because even with that distraction, it was just amazing!

Experimental Film-Gemma Files

“Given everything that’d happened…wouldn’t anybody have stopped short and said to themselves: holy shit, it’s like I’m in some kind of horror movie, here?

“In its purest form, done right, watching an experimental film is the closest you can come to dreaming another person’s dreams. Which is why to watch one is, essentially, to invite another person into your head, hoping you emerge haunted.”

What I loved most about this novel is the visual descriptions. Because this is a book about film, Files has to make the reader see the story. She does an absolutely brilliant job at this; I could feel the brightness, my eyes tearing up, the glare off the screen.

It’s been compared often to House of Leaves and Night Film, and I think those comparisons, in some ways, are apt. They are all “found footage” books, describing uncovered films. The act of describing a movie puts the reader at a certain distance that the author must bridge with language. Like we are at another remove from the subject of the book by our very inability to actually see it. The author must be our eyes.

In order to do that, the author must be a stellar storyteller, and Files is certainly that, “we’re storytelling creatures. Give us a bunch of seemingly random images and we will try to organize them into a linear progression.” That’s what this book is about- trying to find the story behind some random images found in an experimental film.

We follow film critic Lois Cairns as she digs into the history of a woman who is possibly Canada’s first female filmmaker- Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb. The subjects of Mrs. Whitcomb’s very experimental films are always the same, the noon witch of Slavic mythology Lady Midday. The myth of Lady Midday itself is one I’ve never heard before, and it’s always a joy for me to learn a new mythology, especially one that can inspire such horror. See, Lady Midday appears at the very moment of noon, “between the minute and the hour,” to tired field workers, asking them questions or distracting them. If they answer wrong….they lose their head to her scythe! She also causes physical distress; she is essentially the personification of heatstroke.

“She who Gives All, who walks behind every row.”

As Cairns begins to learn more about Mrs. Whitcomb, the readers learn more about both of their lives. I read some reviews that were critical of the portions of the book devoted to Cairns’ personal life and relationship with her family, but I found them extremely important, both as character study and as a way to link her to Mrs. Whitcomb. Their lives parallel each other in more and more obvious ways as the novel progresses. They both had sons on the spectrum (of course, Whitcomb wouldn’t have known such a term that long ago), husbands that seem almost ineffectual, and most of all, they both spent time in the presence of Lady Midday.

And that is where it all goes wrong. The Noontime Witch takes over everything in Lois’s life and she becomes obsessed. Her goal is to make a film about it, of course, and she gets some funding for it. An old colleague is also following Lois’s story, putting obstacles in her way at every turn. Lois becomes increasingly more physically ill until she reaches a breaking point.

How many people will she drag into the light with her?

Blinding…

This book is amazing! The characters are all intricately drawn, even the ones from a century ago, and the story moves at a quick pace even with all the detail. And, most of all, it was scary! Not like gore & killers scary, but real disturbing down in your stomach scary. Like the next time I had a migraine, I immediately thought about Lady Midday kind of scary.

That, my friends, is five stars scary!