Another Twitter friend and member of the #WritingCommunity, another fantastic writer. Ark Horton is a writer I’ve shared a couple of anthology TOCs with, and I’m continually impressed with her skill and imagination. Heroes & Harbingers is the first novel I’ve read by her, and it won’t be my last.
Heroes & Harbingers checks a lot of the boxes—urban fantasy, dark academia, portals to alternative realities—that I look for in a book. On top of that it takes a deep dive into Greek mythology, another favorite of mine.
It’s set in and around Annie Lytle Magical Magnet High School, but unlike most novels set in the magic school sub-genre, the main characters are for the most part teachers instead of students. There’s a History of Magic teacher who’s also a bird woman and harbinger of death from Russian mythology, and an immortal Irish warrior serving out the last decade of a hundred year community service sentence as a public school teacher. Bree, a student to both of them, and her younger, sick sister, are recently orphaned, and life is about to throw them an entire novel’s worth of curveballs. They are ruled over by the Council of Pantheons, a powerful organizations of gods and demigods, who have named Bree as this century’s Chosen One. There are hidden agendas, secrets, and forces at play, and knowing who can be trusted is a dangerous game with potentially deadly consequences.
Horton sets all these pieces into motion and then steps back with what I’m sure was an evil grin. The plot gallops along at a breathless, often intense pace. The characters are well-developed, and I cared about what was happening to them. She writes with compassion and care. Horton’s magic systems and mythologies are all internally consistent and imaginative, with tantalizing glimpses into alternate realities that I hope will be explored more in the next books. Did I mention that this is the first in a trilogy?
One other thing I want to mention. Heroes and Harbingers is set in a magical, fanciful Jacksonville, Florida, a city Horton clearly knows well. It works well as an anchor to the fantasy. I’ve spent a little time in Jacksonville, and she nails the city’s vibe.
Heroes and Harbingers debuts on June 11, 2022, and is worthy of a pre-order now!
I didn’t discover Neil Gaiman the way it seems many folks did, through the Sandman comics. My first exposure was American Gods, at which point, mind blown, I dove in and read everything by him I could find (including, eventually, Sandman). He’s since then been firmly planted in my top 5 authors of all time.
Fast forward to last night, when his American tour brought him to my hometown of sunny Cleveland, Ohio. Did I fanboy a little? Yes. Did I create a custom t-shirt for the occasion? Also yes.
Anyway, and to keep this short and sweet, Gaiman put on a wonderful show. He read several stories and poems, making it clear why he’s the perfect person to read his own work. He answered a bunch of questions submitted by audience members, and his answers were charming and funny, truthful and sometimes touching. He mentioned visiting our local Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which was cool.
Gaiman talked for two hours. I would have gladly sat there for a couple more. I also grabbed up signed editions of American Gods and Good Omens, for the icing on the literary cake.
Since joining the Twitter writing community a couple of years ago, I’ve learned several things. For instance, that writers are, by and large, kind, welcoming, generous with their time, and insanely talented. I’ve made what I hope will be lasting friendships. And, as I’ve ventured out from the usual writers who make up my towering TBR pile to read some of their work, I’ve been reminded over and over that self-published and indie-published books are every bit as well-written as their traditionally published counterparts.
Case in point: Perception Check by Astrid Knight. I met Astrid, as I’ve met many writers, when we both wrote stories for the same anthology. I liked her short story work right away, and Perception Check (The Mages of Valmyra Saga Book One), an epic fantasy, is a rollicking good time.
When Violet Spence was 13, her and her best friend May were attacked by monsters, and May was abducted. No one quite believed her story, of course, and now, ten years later, she’s still haunted by that night. Her only solace is a Dungeons and Dragons-like tabletop roleplaying game called Mages of Valmyra that she doesn’t actually play, but studies obsessively. Then one day she finds a character in the guidebook that looks and sounds exactly like May.
Through a combination of sleuthing and luck, Violet and some friends find themselves in a real life Valmyra, a land of goblins and magic tormented by powerful mages. Their quest to find May and bring her home is an exciting, sometimes harrowing, and altogether epic adventure. Knight writes with spirit and imagination, with plenty of humor to leaven the tension. Her characters feel real and well-rounded, each of them flawed but with moments of heroism. I found myself cheering for them to succeed.
Knight mentions in the afterword that Dungeons and Dragons played an important part at a crucial time in her life, and that’s clear in every paragraph of Perception Check. If you’re a fan of tabletop games, you’ll find plenty of knowing asides. Knight plays with fantasy and gaming tropes like a pro. The magic system that infuses the novel is well thought out, inventive and internally consistent.
Perception Check releases May 24th, and is available for pre-order now. Whether you’re a tabletop gamer, a lover of fantasy, or just someone who appreciates an epically fun read, give this one a try!
As a public service announcement, just in case you don’t have time to read this whole review:
Seasonal Fears is a “sidequel” of sorts, set in the same alchemical universe as McGuire’s miraculous novel Middlegame, with several returning characters. I finished reading it literally fifteen minutes ago, so I haven’t had much time to ponder, but I think, for me, it’s at least as good as Middlegame, and maybe, just maybe, even better. Ask me again in a couple of weeks, after the overwhelming experience of reading this book has properly settled in.
Melanie and Harry have been inseparable since they were small children, and there’s a reason for that. They were both born (although in Melanie’s case it’s a bit more complicated than that) to be the living embodiment of seasons—Harry the summer and Melanie the winter. Now, after 300 years, the king of winter and the queen of summer have died, and new ones must be chosen to take their place. Without warning, without preparation, this high school football player and cheerleader are thrust into a world they know nothing about, with death for both of them as a possible, even likely outcome.
That’s about all you’re getting from my in terms of plot. I don’t believe in spoilers. What I will tell you is that Seasonal Fears becomes a perilous road trip across America, with heart stopping danger and jaw dropping wonders around every corner.
McGuire is at her very best here, and it’s so much more than just the plot, which hums along like a fine-tuned engine.
As the father of young adults who were teenagers not that many years ago, I can attest to the fact that she understands how teenagers think, and act, and talk. McGuire has proved this again and again, particularly in the Wayward Children novels, and she truly delivers here. Melanie and Harry are living (well, that’s complicated too), breathing (also complicated) characters, filled to bursting with love and hope, but also despair and anger and frustration. The other characters, and most of them are teenagers as well, are just as achingly real.
There’s another thing McGuire is better at than just about anybody. She explains the complex alchemical concepts underpinning Seasonal Fears (and Middlegame before it)—humans as the living embodiment of things like math, language, and the seasons, for instance—in a way that makes it understandable, without dumbing it down, but more importantly without taking away the breathtaking, mind-blowing grandeur of her ideas. That, my friends, is a high wire act.
A couple other thoughts:
Sprinkled throughout the novel are excerpts from a children’s book that retell, in children’s fantasy book language, the history and mythology of McGuire’s world. These snippets are so good that, just putting it out there, if McGuire were to write a full-on children’s fantasy, it would be a game-changer, an instant classic. 2. This would make one helluva television series. Please. 3. I’m supposed to be working on a short story with a deadline this weekend, but I just kept reading instead. Those last hundred or so pages are a freight train I was not capable of stopping. So I guess what I’m saying is, it’s not my fault I’m behind.
Seasonal Fears debuts on May 3, 2022. Pre-order it now. Get a few extras for friends and family members. It’s that good.
After Zero Saints, Coyote Songs, and now The Devil Takes You Home, I have just one thing to say: Gabino Iglesias does not fuck around. This new sub-genre of thriller he has created and wholly owns—part high-octane crime novel, part blood-curdling horror, part merciless depiction of the desperation spawned by grinding poverty—is utterly original and devastating. I’ve seen it called barrio noire, and that seems apt to me. Like his other novels, The Devil Takes You Home is set along both sides of the frontera, the U.S./Mexican border. The tone is pitch black, honed to a razor edge, and steeped in a rich, atmospheric stew of Catholicism, mysticism, and supernatural lore. As always with Iglesias, Spanish is sprinkled liberally throughout the novel’s dialogue, lending it authenticity.
The story begins in a moment of grief, sorrow, and rage for a man named Mario. He falls into being a hitman to pay for his young daughter’s overwhelming medical expenses, and then finds himself drawn into the proverbial one last job that promises a large enough payoff to maybe, just maybe, let him start a new life. This leads to a harrowing descent into violence and unspeakable horror.
I won’t give away the particulars here. Those are for you to discover. Iglesias writes with an unfettered, feverish intensity. At the point where other authors might pull back and fade too black, he puts the pedal to the metal with what I’m sure was accompanied by, as he wrote it, a primal scream. There are a couple of scenes in The Devil Takes You Home that made me set the book gently down and step away for a little while. He writes with what I can only describe as a reckless bravado. Even when he’s showing you something you don’t want to see, he does it with such sensory-drenched language, such a flair for description, that you can’t look away. There’s a rhythm to the words, a musicality that I loved.
Iglesias’ characters, to a man and woman, are complicated and original, with backstories often delineated by heartbreak and violence. Mario, in particular, is filled with so much anguish and pain that I found myself understanding the choices he makes, no matter how foolish they ultimately are. The other characters are just as strong.
The Devil Takes You Home is not for the faint-hearted. Iglesias takes you on a tour through a world saturated with blood and defined by evil. It’s a frightening but exhilarating ride. It will be released on August 2nd, 2022. Don’t miss this one.
I’m going to compare this novel to another novel that isn’t really anything like it, but go with it. There’s a method to my madness. When I read The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, I found myself smiling the entire time. The same thing happened with The Wilderwomen. This novel bursts with beautiful ideas, incandescent language, and moments that invoke a true sense of wonder. I couldn’t help smiling as I read it, even when the words simultaneously brought tears to my eyes, which happened more than once.
Teenage Finn Wilder and her older sister Zadie were set adrift when their mother Nora disappeared five years ago. Finn lives with a foster family, Zadie is on her own, and they’ve also drifted apart from each, overwhelmed by the pain and hurt caused by Nora walking way. Something was increasingly wrong with her in the months before her leaving, but they don’t know what.
One thing the sisters share besides the loss of their mother is that they both have special talents. Zadie can sometimes see future events, and Finn receives “echos”, of other peoples memories they’ve left behind. When Finn loses herself in an echo from Nora, she convinces Zadie to go on a road trip following that echo in search of their mom.
This road trip becomes a journey that forces Finn and Zadie to confront things that have been left unsaid, brings them together, and shows them a world filled with mysteries and wonderment. Lang has crafted a novel that sings and dances—the quiet, tender moments are balanced with joyful sequences that had me, as I said above, smiling in delight. Her characters, particularly the three Wilder women, are richly drawn and fully realized. I was fully invested in them and their journey from beginning to end. Speaking of the end, Lang nails it. It’s deeply satisfying.
The Wilderwomen will be released on November 15th, 2022. Believe me when I tell you, this is worthy of a pre-order. And one last thing, as a Clevelander, I was happy to discover that Lang is a fellow Ohioan. We’re lucky to have her.
I don’t read enough graphic novels. There, I said it. Here it is March, and this is the first graphic novel I’ve read. Silk Hills is so good that I’m kicking myself for not adding more graphic novels to my TBR pile, and I’m going to remedy that.
The ad copy for Silk Hills mentions that it would be perfect for fans of The X-Files and Twin Peaks, and that’s right on. I would also add for Mothman aficionados. It has that vibe. Silk Hills is a hardscrabble Appalachian town fallen on hard times since the mines closed. When Beth, an ex-military private investigator, comes to town in search of a missing kid, she runs up against not just the grinding poverty of a town rotten at the core, but drug dealers and a potent, sinister new high made from moth dust.
Silk Hills is creepy and relentlessly atmospheric, anchored in grim reality while also delving in dark flights of fancy. Sherron’s artwork is loose yet detailed, packed with unsettling imagery that made my horror-centric heart happy. There’s great energy here. The words from Ferrier and Level dovetail perfectly with the art, telling a deeply involving story rich in Appalachian folklore. Beth is an especially winning protagonist, and a total badass.
Silk Hills will be released May 24th, 2022, and is well-worth a pre-order.
You may have noticed, if you’re one of my many (at least three or four) regular readers, that the last book I reviewed before this one was S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland. I’m not in the habit of reading two novels in a row by the same author—so many books, so little time—but Blacktop Wasteland, the story of a former criminal pulled into one last job to give his family a better life, blew me away.
The excellent news for lovers of crime fiction is that Razorblade Tears is even better.
A gay, biracial couple is savagely murdered, leaving behind a young child. Not surprisingly, the police do not seem overly concerned with solving this brutal crime. Enter the fathers of the two men. The fathers—one white, one black, both ex-cons with violent histories—share a common shame and regret. Neither was accepting of his son’s sexuality. Haltingly, grudgingly, they agree to team up in search of their sons’ killers.
This is a tale of revenge, yes, and Cosby writes action scenes and violence with a frightening intensity, a kinetic energy that makes his prose charge along like a dynamite truck without brakes. But Razorblade Tears is so much more than just a crackling good crime novel. Ike and Buddy Lee, the two fathers, are forced to confront their demons directly, to deal with uncomfortable truths about themselves. Cosby never shies away from subjects like racism, homophobia, and transphobia.
He also has a real gift for dialogue that can be by turns threatening and funny, but always feels authentic.
Razorblade Tears‘ characters, both main and supporting, are well developed and fully realized. I was especially drawn to Cosby’s depiction of family, the way grief can tear it apart and love can, just maybe, hold it together.
The fact that Razorblade Tears is an amazing read should come as no surprise, as it’s made many best-of lists. I can only add that it belongs right near the top of those lists.
Here’s a thing I love as a reader: When you read a novel by a writer new to you, and it’s so good you immediately start another by the same author. That happened to me with S.A. Cosby. I finished Blacktop Wasteland and began RazorbladeTears that same night.
Here’s another thing I love as a reader: When a writer takes a trope dear to your heart and redefines it, does it so well that all other authors thereafter must acknowledge it. Again, that happened for me with S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland, the trope in this case being the criminal gone straight who gets pulled back in for one last job, for the sake of his family.
Cosby takes that premise and dips it in blood and engine oil. At one time Beauregard “Bug” Montage was the best wheelman in the south, having learned the trade from his father, and all-around bad man who ran out on his family, leaving behind his car and a gaping hole in his heart.
Now Bug is a mechanic and family man, but business is tough and money is tight. When a “can’t miss” jewelry store heist presents itself, he decides to get behind the wheel one more time. Needless to say, shit goes south, betrayals abound, and bullets fly.
Blacktop Wasteland is a white-knuckled ride filled with memorable set-pieces and even more memorable characters. Cosby orchestrates the violence like a virtuoso, with a staccato rhythm to his prose that moves the story along at breakneck speed. He has a special gift for describing motor vehicles with precision, from their inner workings to the thrill that comes from being the best at driving them at top speed, on the bleeding edge of control.
Bug is a father, a son, and a husband, and he examines all those relationships, the good and the bad, with heartbreaking honestly.
Cosby writes crime fiction with a style all his own. Blacktop Wasteland is a must-read, and a couple of chapters in, I’m confident that I’ll say the same thing about Razorblade Tears.
We all have our weaknesses when it comes to books, tropes or character types we’re immediately drawn to. One of mine, and I have many, is environmental/biological horror. More specifically, nature run amok/striking back. It can be animals (Dr. Rat by William Kotzwinkle), insects (Invasive by Chuck Wendig), plants (The Ruins by Scott Smith)—you get the idea.
Jayme Bean’s Untouched definitely has some The Ruins vibes, but she’s very much her own writer, and this is an exciting, original and engrossing novel.
The setup is simple and devastatingly effective—a doctor takes two grad students into the remote Amazon rainforest for research purposes, but also to find a fellow researcher who has stopped checking in. Shit gets real quickly when the jungle, seemingly with a mind of its own, separates them, and Untouched becomes a tale of discovery and survival.
Bean excels at describing the rainforest as something beautiful yet overwhelming and ultimately terrifying. She makes you feel the oppressive heat and humidity, the claustrophobia that can come from lush vines and sharp, spiky, dangerous plants pressing in on you from all sides. She has a background in zoology, which comes through clearly in her vivid descriptions of the wildlife they encounter. Her descriptions of plant life are just as vivid, just as detailed. Bean writes with a scientific authority that makes her story feel all the more plausible. Untouched is at heart a cautionary tale—nearly all living things, when threatened, will take steps to protect themselves.
If Bean’s rainforest setting feels authentic, so do her characters. They are all complex and fully realized, with interesting back stories. Threaded throughout the novel, weaved into the terror, is a touching new romance with beats that feel just right. Bean writes straight, gay, and bi characters equally well. I found myself rooting for them to survive, just to see where the relationship would go.
Alma Katsu wields research like a scalpel, deftly flaying open your tender parts with surgical precision, leaving your nerves quivering, exposed. I first discovered this talent of hers when I read The Hunger, which uses the meticulously researched story of the Donner party as scaffolding on which to build a supernatural horror novel that was equal parts terrifying and heartbreaking.
Now, with The Fervor, Katsu uses as her foundation one of the most shameful occurrences in U.S. history—the imprisonment of those of Japanese descent, the majority of them U.S. citizens, in internment camps during World War II. With painstaking detail she describes the very real horrors our government committed, interning men, women and children, entire families, stealing their property, destroying countless lives. Katsu starts with those raw materials, then weaves in supernatural horror steeped in Japanese folklore.
Katsu follows the lives of several characters—a young Japanese girl and her mother, a Japanese woman interned even though her husband is a white pilot off supporting the war effort, a white small town pastor, and equally small town reporter—as a mysterious, horrific sickness descends on an internment camp, causing the victims to become violent before succumbing to death. The sickness soon spreads beyond the confines of the camp. There’s a secret government plot, evil doctors, and breathless escapes and chases. All of it with a virulent, and sadly historically accurate, racism as a constant backdrop.
Katsu is a richly descriptive writer. She’ll make you squirm in the more horrifying supernatural passages, but you’ll also feel a righteous anger during the parts that are all too human, and no less horrifying.
If you don’t ordinarily read afterwords, please read this one. Katsu explains, with passion and fury, what led her to write this extraordinary novel.
The Fervor releases April 26, 2022. Don’t miss this one.
You know what I love as a reader? When I discover an author new to me, and on the basis of just one novel I’m hooked. It happened to me last year with Catriona Ward (to be fair, with her it was two novels, The Last House on Needless Street and Sundial). Now it’s happened again, with Kiersten White and her novel Hide. My friends and family members, and possibly total strangers, are going to get tired of me talking about this remarkable novel.
The premise of Hide is deceptively simple: A group of 14 people from all walks of life, all of them young, are invited to participate in a competition, a game of hide and seek set in an abandoned amusement park. The winner, the one who can spend a week without getting caught, wins $50,000. The amusement park is in ruins, overgrown with trees and vines, laid out in a maze meant to confuse and disorient.
Our main character, Mack, is a victim of violent trauma—her father slaughtered her mother and younger sister while she hid. Mack is broken. She blames herself for her sister’s death. She blames herself for pretty much everything.
The other competitors are a varied lot, and we get to know them all. White excels at creating memorable characters. There’s not a single cardboard cutout here. Still, it’s Mack that I fell in love with and found myself rooting for. She’s damaged, but has hidden reserves of strength and bravery even she doesn’t know she has. She reminded me, in little ways, of Jade, the main character in Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw, and that’s high praise coming from me.
There’s a little bit of a Hunger Games feel, a little reality TV competition vibe, as alliances are formed and betrayals executed. Then characters begin to disappear. I don’t really want to give too much more away. Hide is a nerve-shredding supernatural horror thriller, accent on the nerve-shredding. White ratchets up the tension right from the beginning and never lets up.
White also has a lot to say about how trauma affects us, and our ability to overcome that trauma. About the transformative power of found families, and the sometimes corrosive, corrupting power of family obligations. There are old, evil family secrets, and, go with me on this, a nod to the Minotaur myth. I read the final 50 pages of this in a mad rush, heart in my throat.
The release date for Hide is May 24, 2022. Please pre-order this. I can’t sing this novel’s praises enough.
I’m going to start this review with a short digression. Somewhere near the turn of this new century I walked into my local Half Price Books with a gift card burning a hole in my pocket. I had a plan—rather than choosing back catalog books from one or more of my go-to authors, I would expand my horizons with someone new to me.
I walked out of the store that day with four books. Strega and Blue Belle by Andrew Vachss, and Mucho Mojo and Bad Chili by Joe R. Lansdale. To say these books were revelations to me would not be overstating it. With Vachss’ Burke, I got hard-nosed noir as black as a moonless night, unflinching in their depiction of the horrors people are capable of, particularly against children. With Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard, I was introduced to pure, unfiltered mojo storytelling. From that day on I would seek out and read every book by them I could get my hands on. When I found out later that the two men were friends, I wasn’t surprised. Both men were uncompromising and unapologetic in their approach to writing and life. Sadly, Vachss passed away not long ago, which I found out in a post from Lansdale. The world of crime fiction has lost a giant.
Now back to our regularly scheduled review! Born for Trouble is a new collection of Hap and Leonard stories, which is always cause for celebration. Unlike the past couple of collections, which focused on the boy’s early years, the stories in Born for Trouble cover Hap and Leonard in their later, more mature years. Don’t panic, mature refers only to their age. They are still, for the most part, the same shit-talking, shit-kicking badasses you know and love. Hap may be coming to terms with married life and fatherhood, and he’s a little less quick to pull the trigger, but he’s still tough as nails. And Leonard is still Leonard, just as volatile, just as willing to fuck shit up.
As far as the stories go, this is a book of crime fiction, and there are few better than Lansdale. In several of them, Hap and Leonard are working as private investigators, with Hap’s wife Brett. His adult daughter Chance is along for the ride as well. They are often working with, and sparring with, their friend Marvin Hanson, the police chief of LaBorde, Texas. There are murders aplenty here, colorfully corrupt characters, and the sort of wall to wall mayhem and adventures Hap and Leonard always seem to fall into.
I had read several of these stories before as Kindle singles, and I didn’t mind rereading them a bit. Lansdale is a master storyteller. Settling down with this collection is like getting together with old, cherished friends—the kind of friends who you just know are going to get you in trouble, and you just don’t care.
Born for Trouble will be released March 21, 2022. This one’s a must-have.
John Scalzi isn’t just good, he’s deceptively good. Here’s what I mean. You pick up one of his novels and settle into your favorite reading chair, and maybe you mean to just read a chapter, but all of a sudden you look up, bleary-eyed, and three hours have gone by without you realizing it. He’s so damn readable that it’s easy to miss all the things he’s doing better than most folks writing science fiction today, from drum-tight plotting, to world-class world building, to believable characters, to solid, believable science. Scalzi pumps thrilling hard science fiction straight into your eyeballs, and makes it all look effortless.
Case in point: The Kaiju Preservation Society. Kaiju, the monolithic creatures (think Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, etc.) most often found stomping all over Tokyo, are real. They live on another Earth in an alternate dimension, and are sometimes able to cross over to ours when we explode nuclear bombs, which thin the barrier between worlds. I should probably mention that the kaiju have evolved to have internal, biological nuclear reactors. A small group of scientists, backed by our world’s governments, large corporations and billionaires, have established outposts on Kaiju Earth to study the beasts, to preserve them, and, perhaps most importantly, to keep them in their world and stop them from crossing into ours.
Scalzi takes this premise and has a rollicking good time. This is a thrilling, fast-paced adventure that had me flipping pages so fast I would have gotten paper cuts if I wasn’t reading on a Kindle. He’s worked out the flora and fauna of Kaiju Earth in exacting detail, so everything that happens, no matter how wild, feels utterly believable. Of course, when you mix giant creatures, their equally oversized and deadly parasites, snarky scientists, and nefarious billionaires, bad things are bound to happen, much to my delight. I can’t remember the last time I had this much pure fun reading a novel. Exactly what I needed to close out this dumpster fire of a year.
The Kaiju Preservation Society releases March 15, 2022. Preorder your copy today. If 2022 is anything like 2021, you’re going to need this.
Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, of which Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third following The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, is doing something unique and truly special. Chambers has created a huge, and hugely detailed, intergalactic tapestry comprised of humans, a variety of alien species, and complex AI entities, and spread them across the universe. That’s cool, in and of itself. What takes it to a whole other level, for me, is that with each book so far Chambers has introduced us to new and different characters, in new and different, far-flung corners of their universe. Taken together, the novels form a mosaic of sorts, a future history as grand as any in science fiction today, but built of smaller, more intimate stories rather than lightyear spanning space battles and multi-generational sagas.
Record of a Spaceborn Few concerns the Exodus Fleet, a gathering of spaceships that contain the last remnants of the humans who left a poisoned Earth generations ago. They’ve long been accepted by the myriad other citizens of the galactic community, but they keep one foot in space, living in their ramshackle, antiquated ships rather than settling planet-side. Because this is Chambers, we get to know the members of the Exodus Fleet through the lives of a half dozen or so denizens, intimately, not just how they live their lives day to day, but also their hopes and dreams, and the things that keep them up at night.
Through the first part of the novel the characters are mostly separate, telling alternating stories, but midway through a tragedy brings them together. Chambers handles that tragedy, and the resulting heartbreak, with compassion and understanding.
This is hard science fiction with heart, humor, and humanity (and I’m not just talking about humans, here). Chambers has lots to say about the nature of community, about diversity and inclusivity. Reading the Wayfarer novels gives me comfort is a way few books do. They are a joy.
Chambers won the Hugo Award for best series in 2019. The fourth novel in the series, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, was published in April of this year.
It’s weird—as overwhelming and depressing as 2021 has been in many ways, it yielded some amazing books. Here then, my year in reading, by the numbers:
33—The total number of books I read. I’m including my current read, the excellent Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers, which I should finish by the end of the year. I usually read between 25 and 30 books a year, so this is about average for me. I would love to read more but this whole having to work for a living, and sleep, really cuts into the reading time.
15—The number of books that most folks would consider horror or adjacent. Hey, I like what I like.
10—Science fiction and fantasy. Nope, no way am I going to try to differentiate between the two, there’s way too much crossover for that. I like it, I read it, that’s good enough for me.
The other eight books are a mix of thrillers, crime novels, books that stomp all over the lines between different genres, and one western by Joe R. Lansdale his ownself. And speaking of Joe…
4—The most books I read by any one author. That would be Mr. Lansdale. Happily, he’s as prolific as he is masterful.
I really tried to mix it up this year, at least as far as reading different authors. For instance…
8—The number of books by authors I was reading for the first time. I’m happy to see that I tried some new writers, and I have to say, I’m getting good book recs, because none of them disappointed me. Several have been added to my ever-growing list of must-read authors.
0—The number of reads that would not be considered “genre” in some way. Like I said, I like what I like.
IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER— My six favorite reads of the year. If I was writing this yesterday, or tomorrow, this list might be different.
My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones—I only discovered Jones a couple of years ago, but he’s quickly become one of my favorite horror writers. Hell, one of my favorite writers, period. After Mongrels, The Only Good Indians, and now My Heart Is a Chainsaw, he has confirmed his position as one of the very best in the field. Jones writes with heart, passion, and a brutal lyricality of language and voice that is always distinct, and always just right for the story he’s telling.
The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig—With The Book of Accidents, Wendig takes his first stab at straight-up horror, and not surprisingly, he knocks it clean out of the park and into the parking lot. He’s playing with big themes here: Evil creates more evil, trauma creates more trauma, and it takes effort and heart and love to break that cycle. Love, particularly the familial kind, can be every bit as powerful as evil.
Sundial and The Last House On Needless Street by Catriona Ward—Two for one, here. With these books, Ward is now one of my favorite writers, simple as that. Ward burrows her way beneath your skin, sets her barbed hooks deep, then drags those hooks out of your flesh slowly but inexorably. She conceals twists and shocks throughout her work. They explode like land mines, psychic shrapnel, constantly reshaping the novels, never letting you catch your breath.
Moon Lake by Joe R. Lansdale—Lansdale is a natural born storyteller. A couple pages into a Lansdale novel, and you’re sitting around a campfire on a dark summer night somewhere in East Texas, listening to magic being conjured from the smoke, or parked on a barstool in Nagadoches, throwing back a beer while a master spins a yarn. When I tell you that with Moon Lake he’s operating at the height of his considerable powers, that’s really saying something. This one is special.
The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey—Gailey has become one of my favorite authors over the past few years. On paper, at least, this is a science fiction novel. Here’s the funny part, though—the science fictional aspects of The Echo Wife, as enthralling as they are, are just a small part of what makes this such an exceptional novel. The novel’s plot, a piano wire-taut, expertly crafted thriller involving a particularly twisted extra marital affair, divorce, and multiple murders, rushes inexorably toward its conclusion with consummate skill.
Billy Summers by Stephen King—Much like with Joe Lansdale, here’s another old pro working at the top of his game. Billy Summers is a crime thriller, but it’s also a road novel, and a war novel, and finally a love story. King pulls off a bit of sleight of hand towards the end that’s ultimately satisfying. There’s soul searching, and hard-nosed decisions are made, and there is, at the end of it all, well-earned redemption.
FINALLY, A WORD ABOUT NETGALLEY— I signed up with Netgalley.com this year and am really enjoying it. The chance to read books I’m looking forward to, before they’re released to the general public…what’s not to like? And if a few folks read my review and decide to buy the book, that’s satisfying to me.
Even if I wasn’t already a fan of Cassandra Khaw, which I absolutely am, I would have purchased this slim novel anyway based solely on the stunning cover art by Samuel Araya. All the adjectives that can be used to describe the cover—creepy, atmospheric, decadent, mysterious, monstrous—work doubly well for Nothing But Blackened Teeth.
Five college friends descend on an abandoned, thousand year old Japanese manor to celebrate the wedding of two of the group. But this isn’t just manor. Its walls, its very foundation, is filled with the bones of a bride who’s husband-to-be was killed, and the bodies of hundreds of other girls who were interred to keep her spirit company. This group of friends has been chasing the lure of haunted houses for years, and they’ve found the motherlode here. The manor was sealed up with everything inside it, from artwork to artifacts, and as fitting a building that’s a literal ossuary, everything has gone to rot and ruin, decomposition and decay.
What begins as a night of drinking and feasting soon degenerates into bickering and recriminations. These are friends in name only. It quickly becomes apparent that whatever relationships they once had have curdled, festered, and are now as deteriorated at the manor they find themselves in.
Then the ghost of the bride and her minions arrive.
Khaw has a gift for extravagant, unnerving language, and Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a tour de force. They meld toxic relationships, heartbreak and grief, Japanese folklore, brutal violence, and hallucinogenic horror into a black-hearted haunted house extravaganza. Khaw is a true original. They write like no one else working today, building dense, imagery-saturated scenes with delirious abandon.
Spooky season may be over, but don’t let that stop you from visiting this haunted manor. Just pray it lets you leave.
I get book recs from a variety of sources—Twitter, from both friends and authors I follow, reviews (io9 and Tor.com are both great resources), friends IRL, and, frequently, my son. Eric is a high school English teacher with a taste in books remarkably similar to mine. We do have some differences in likes, particularly his obsession with massive, multi-volume fantasy series, which I just don’t have enough time to fully appreciate. So many books, so little reading time. But, usually, when he suggests something, chances are I’ll like it.
Which brings us to The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. He’s been singing the Murderbot praises for a couple of years, and now that I’ve read All Systems Red, the first in the series, I’m upset with myself for waiting so long. My only excuse is, so many books, etc.
This book is so much fun it should be illegal. All Systems Red is a novella (as are, I believe, all the other volumes except for the most recent), and it’s a fast, breathless read. Murderbot, as it refers to itself, is a SecUnit, a security android of sorts, contracted out to protect teams of scientists as they explore distant planets. A couple important things to keep in mind here. First, Murderbot has hacked its own system, and is more self-aware than anyone knows. It may be a man-made creation that’s part machine and part organic, but it definitely has a mind of its own. And second, the future Wells has envisioned is very corporate and cutthroat, so things don’t always work like they should. Think lowest bidders and corporate espionage.
Wells’ world building is solid and inventive. She manages the difficult trick of throwing the reader headlong into her world, without a massive info dump, while giving enough context clues that I settled right in and never felt lost. In All Systems Red, we have rival corporate exploratory groups, mass murder, and a harrowing game of cat and mouse. All of it is well thought out and utterly believable. The science, and make no mistake, this is hard science fiction, feels right. The scientists Murderbot is assigned to protect are nicely differentiated. They are characters in their own right, and never read like chess pieces Wells is just moving around the board.
The genius here, though, the true genius, is in the character of Murderbot itself. It narrates in its own distinctive voice, and let me tell you, Murderbot has issues. It’s sarcastic, a little world-weary, and not all that fond of humans, to the point where it’s not so enthusiastic about protecting them. It would prefer some alone time so it can watch the hundreds of hours of entertainment (read futuristic soap operas) it has saved to its memory. Murderbot may step up and save the day when lives are on the line, but not without a lot of grumbling.
All Systems Red is also wildly funny, which I was not prepared for. I found myself genuinely laughing more than once. Wells has already won Hugos and Nebulas, and The Murderbot Diaries is Hugo nominated this year for best series. I say, give her all the awards. I’ll be adding the other Murderbot books into regular rotation in my TBR pile.
I first discovered Richard Chizmar with the Gwendy books (Gwendy’s Button Box, cowritten with Stephen King, and Gwendy’s Magic Feather). I thoroughly enjoyed both, and I’m looking forward to the third book in the series, Gwendy’s Final Task, coming February 15, 2022.
In the meantime, we have Chasing the Boogeyman, and let me say this as clearly as possible: Chizmar hits it out of the park. He does something truly unique here, using his own youth and young adult life in a small Maryland town as the bones of his story. Chizmar himself is the main character, just back in town after graduating college. His real life friends, family, fiancé, are all characters, the streets of his hometown the streets where his tale takes place. And then he introduces into this nostalgic, real life setting a fictional, terrifying serial killer who brutally murders four teenage girls. Chizmar, the character, becomes obsessed with trying to find the killer, soon dubbed the Boogeyman by local media. It’s an inventive, downright audacious piece of metafiction.
The murders as described are harrowing, in large part because Chizmar shows just how easily it can happen, and just how quickly a town can descend into fear and paranoia. Chizmar has a real gift for describing small town life, the ins and outs, the way neighbors support and rely on each other, and sometimes turn on each other.
Chizmar is an immensely readable writer, and Chasing the Boogeyman is a page-turner. I stayed up way too late reading on multiple nights. The ending, when it comes, is satisfying as hell. I’m happy to report that I never guessed the identity of the killer.
One other thing—I enjoyed the non-serial killer parts of the the story just as much as the central mystery. Chizmar is a natural storyteller. The world he shows us is evocative and lovingly described. And if the real life Chizmar is anything like his character in Chasing the Boogeyman, I’d like to meet him for a beer. My treat.
I read The Last House on Needless Street, Catriona Ward’s last novel, just a little while back, and was suitably gobsmacked. It’s equal parts, audacious, heartbreaking, and creepy, a tour de force that finds Ward juggling five or six different narrators (one of whom is a cat…seriously), each more unreliable than the last. It’s a thrilling, flawless high wire act.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but holy fuck, Sundial is even better. Ward burrows her way beneath your skin, sets her barbed hooks deep, then spends 272 pages dragging those hooks out of your flesh slowly but inexorably. Sundial is part psychological horror, part desert-set gothic, and part extremely dysfunctional family drama, with a little Island of Dr. Moreau thrown in for good measure.
Rob has a curdled marriage to a sometimes abusive husband, and two daughters. The oldest, Callie, has a darkness inside her that’s beginning to manifest in horrifying ways. Ways that remind Rob all too well of secrets buried in her own troubled past.
And…that’s all you’re getting. Much like she did with Last House on Needless Street, Ward has concealed twists and shocks throughout Sundial. They explode like land mines, psychic shrapnel, constantly reshaping the novel, never letting you catch your breath. To give away any more than I have would be criminal.
Sundial release March 1st, 2022, but is available for pre-order now. This is a must-read. In fact, anything Ward writes from now on will be a must-read for me.
If you’ve spent any time on this blog (and if you haven’t, go have a look around—I’ll be here when you get back) you know that Seanan McGuire is one of my favorite authors. She is amazingly prolific, with stand-alone novels and several on-going series, all of it of such high quality that it’s more than a little intimidating. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything I’ve read by her, but there’s a special place in my heart for her Wayward Children series, of which Where the Drowned Girls Go is the newest addition.
A novella like the others, Where the Drowned Girls Go is the seventh book in the series, and like the others, it is equal parts lyrical, whimsical, at times harrowing, emotionally devastating, and breathtakingly imaginative. The Wayward Children books are portal fantasies. They tell the collective stories of what happens to the children who find the doors they need—doors to other worlds where they have experiences that are fantastical or horrifying, where they become heroes or monsters—but then come back here, to their mundane lives and parents who don’t understand them.
The other books in the series take place either in other worlds or on the grounds of Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. This one is a little different, in that we are introduced to The Whitethorn Institute, a school whose mission to close all those doors, keep the children here and away from them, whether they want to be or not. Eleanor reluctantly agrees to allow Cora to transfer to the Whitethorn Institute because the Drowned Gods are calling to her from beyond their door, trying to drag her back. She thinks it’s her only option, but things go south quickly. Now she’s trapped.
McGuire has always written movingly about inclusivity, and that is certainly the case here, with a special emphasis on body positivity. Like all her characters, Cora is complex and fully realized, with a determination and bravery that is hard won and inspiring. Where the Drowned Girls Go, particular in the opening chapters, has an air of melancholy that makes it clear wayward children must make difficult decisions and live with the consequences. Whichever side of the door they may be one, whichever door they walk through, the lives of children are much more complicated, and sometimes heart-rending, than adults know.
Where the Drowned Girls Go released January 4, 2022, and is available for pre-order now.
Some folks are natural born storytellers. Whether holding down the end of the bar in a hole-in-the-wall dive, or sitting around a campfire under a star-filled sky, when they start telling a story, every person within earshot hushes and strains forward, hanging on every word. The really good ones, the best ones, can weave castles in the sky, can coax a laugh from your belly and tears from your eyes, with just a few well-chosen words.
Natural born storytellers are rare. Even more rare is when one of them is also an excellent writer. This may sound counterintuitive. Dave, you may be thinking, aren’t all writers natural born storytellers? Thing is, I don’t think so. There are many wonderful writers, authors at the top of their craft, who I suspect would not be able to hold the attention of a bar full of drunks. They have learned to write, to tell a story, but they are not natural born storytellers.
Joe R. Lansdale, I suspect, would have those drunks hanging on every word.
Radiant Apples, his newest novel, is a masterclass in storytelling. Lansdale writes compelling crime novels, horror, fantasy, westerns, and probably shopping lists. Radiant Apples is a western, set in the very early 1900s. The main character and narrator, Nat Love, is now a fifty-something African American porter on a Pullman train, but he’s led an exciting, colorful life. Known as Deadwood Dick in his younger years, his past exploits as a buffalo soldier, bounty hunter, and Marshal for Hanging Judge Parker have been recounted in dime novels (somehow without mentioning that he was black).
Nat is settled in his current, uneventful life, until the train he’s working on is robbed by the Radiant Apple gang, a relatively inept but violent and just plain mean group of miscreants. Due in part to his former life, Nat gets hired to bring the gang in. He and his old running buddy, Choctaw, hit the road in pursuit. They’re both older, out of practice, and maybe a little slower on the draw. Lansdale orchestrates the climax of the novel, a gun battle on the streets of a corrupt Oklahoma town, like a true maestro.
Through Nat’s words, Lansdale brings all the gun play and danger in the wild and wooly west to vivid, breathtaking life. Nat may be a might cantankerous, but he’s also got more than his share of hard-won wisdom. Lansdale captures Nat’s voice perfectly, and Choctaw’s as well. They’re both funny, inappropriate as hell, and full of piss and vinegar. They may be rode hard and put away wet, but they’re honorable men, which doesn’t mean they’re not willing to kill men in need of killing.
Because this is Lansdale, you know he’ll have some things to say about race. Nat is black and Choctaw is biracial, black and American Indian, and Lansdale doesn’t shy away from the indignities they’ve suffered. As always, he’s clear-eyed and matter of fact.
Radiant Apples is Lansdale at his best, spinning a thrilling yarn that will keep you enthralled from first page to last. It releases November 30th, but do yourself a favor and pre-order this one. It’s special.
No windswept moors, no crumbling castles perched at the top of cliffs, just waiting for a distraught maiden to cast herself onto the jagged rocks below. As the subtitle suggests, and the stories themselves make clear, this is not your grandfather’s gothic horror. In the words of editor Alex Woodroe: “Twenty-five women and non-binary authors from the worlds of Horror Fiction and Illustration form an unholy union and drag the blackened heart of Classic Gothic Horror into modern daylight! In the process, they have sculpted an altogether sleeker, more feral beast.”
This is an apt description. In Somnio is crafted from 19 short stories and several wonderfully macabre illustrations, and what strikes me is the breathtaking variety of subject matter. Most have modern settings, some could easily be described as experimental in structure, yet they are all recognizably gothic horror. I mentioned distraught maidens above—the women characters here have power and agency. They are not helpless victims. And make no mistake, this is gothic horror with the accent on horror. There are some seriously creepy stories here, the kind that crawl under your skin and lodge themselves at the base of your brain.
As an editor, Woodroe has a keen eye and a deft hand. In Somnio is a uniformly strong collection. Each story, individually, belongs here, and they also work together as a whole, thematically. That, to me, is the sign of a good editor.
In a book filled with excellent stories, I’d like to mention a couple of standouts. These ones in particular sunk their claws into me a little extra deep: • The Blight of Black Creek by Mary Rajotte • Trespass by Aster S. Monroe • Wild Thing by S.E. Zeller • What We Sow by Taylor Jordan Pitts • Always An After by A.P. Howell • The Reaching Sea by Victoria Nations As I said, Woodroe has gathered together a great group of stories, and your favorites may be completely different than mine.
I believe this is Woodroe’s first collection as editor. If that’s the case, I look forward to seeing what she does next. In Somnio drops November 1st, and is available for pre-order now.
If I tell you that The Violence is a novel about domestic violence, about the effect of abuse on three generations—a mother, her two daughters, and their grandmother—do you picture a domestic drama? What if I tell you The Violence is also a pandemic novel? With Covid-19 still fresh and raw in Americans’ minds, with Trump reelected, a new virus called the Violence causes explosive, murderous rage at whomever is closest to the infected, often resulting in death. Finally, what if I tell you that a new version of professional wrestling plays a prominent role in the novel? What are you picturing now?
Whatever that is, whatever you have in your mind’s eye, The Violence is so much more.
The scenes of abuse are harrowing, even hard to read. There is harm and violence of every kind—physical, verbal, psychological, emotional—and Dawson never allows you to look away, or even to blink. It’s like she’s poking at an open wound. The intimacy of these scenes is extraordinary. The victims of that abuse—Chelsea Martin, her mother Patricia, her teenaged daughter Ella, and her young daughter Brooklyn—may be beaten down, but they are fighters, with hidden reserves of strength and resilience. Dawson puts these characters through the wringer. As The Violence progressed, I often found myself cheering for them, no matter how tense and hopeless the situations they found themselves in.
When it comes to describing the Violence pandemic, Dawson again excels. She’s sharply critical of the pandemic response, both the previous one and the current. After what we’ve all experienced with Covid-19, this new pandemic feels painfully real. The Violence, when it happens, is unnerving, even terrifying. Dawson is unflinching in describing it.
And the professional wrestling? Dawson has a great feel for that world, all the little details that make it seem just right. And that includes the idea that family isn’t just what you’re born into, but any group that takes you in and treats you with love and respect.
Dawson has written something truly special here. As I mentioned earlier, The Violence is often hard to read, but I think it’s also important, even essential. It releases February 1, 2022, but is available for preorder now.
I find myself, yet again, in the uncomfortable position of wanting to sing the praises of a novel without giving much of anything away. You should go into this one without knowing too much, so as not to diminish the considerable pleasures it’s sure to bring. But, I need to say something to entice you, so…
Abitha, a young widow in 1666 New England meets a demon, perhaps the devil himself. If you think you know where this is going from that brief description, think again. Slewfoot surprised me at every twist and turn. Brom has a true gift for immersing the reader in every aspect of seventeenth century Puritan life, in the culture centered around the church, in the day to day life of the colonists. He also immerses us in a much stranger, much wilder world—that of the ancient Pagan spirits that call the forest their home. Brom has an affinity for the natural world that is evident on every page.
That tension, between the ultra religious colonists and the earthy, primitive yet powerful wildfolk who roamed the land long before humans arrived, forms the backbone of Slewfoot. Brom digs down deep into the difference between good and evil, God and the devil, between slayer and protector. I found the conversation endlessly fascinating, but there’s so much more to this novel. This is no dry, boring religious exercise. Slewfoot is action packed, drenched in fire and blood. There’s mystery and magic, and in Abitha, and Slewfoot himself, Brom has created complex, layered characters I found myself rooting for. Abitha is not afraid to question the beliefs that shackle her fellow villagers. She’s tough and brave, and the transformation that caps her story arc is both surprising and, in some ways, inevitable. I also found Slewfoot’s journey of discovery, his quest to find his true nature, emotional and affecting.
It’s telling to me that, in a novel filled with godlike wild folk who have slaughtered without mercy for centuries, the biggest monsters in Slewfoot are the Puritan town fathers who use the Bible as a bludgeon, who use religion as a tool to fear-monger, to consolidate and keep power over the people they are meant to protect.
One important note: The published version of Slewfoot includes more than two dozen of Brom’s beautiful illustrations. I read this as a digital ARC which did not include the artwork. From what I’ve seen (including the front and back covers shown above), they are worth the price of admission all by themselves.
A professional hitman has one last job to do, and then he’s getting out, but it doesn’t quite go according to plan. You’ve heard this story before, right? For a lot of authors, that would be good enough. They’d write it as a high octane thriller with a formidable body count and leave it at that.
Luckily, Stephen King isn’t just any author, and Billy Summers is so much more than a cookie cutter hitman thriller. This is probably going to be my shortest review ever, because seeing what King does with this basic setup is such a pleasure, I don’t want to give, well, anything away really. Suffice to say that Billy Summers, the character, is a wholly original creation—an Iraq war veteran and decorated sniper with a moral code every bit as strong as his talent for killing. He also just might be a writer, and we get to read some of what turns out to be his own autobiography.
The other main protagonist, a young woman of extraordinary strength and resilience, is one of the most complex and fully realized female characters King has ever written. She’s joined by a rogue’s gallery of underworld bosses,underlings, and hangers-on. King has written a lot of crime fiction in recent years, and he seems at home in the shadowy world these characters move through. There’s an authenticity to all of this that feels just right.
If I’ve made it sound like Billy Summers isn’t a crime thriller, that’s on me. King ratchets up the tension, and there are plenty of bodies piled up. So yes, Billy Summers is a crime thriller, but it’s also a road novel, and a war novel, and finally a love story. King pulls off a bit of sleight of hand towards the end that’s ultimately satisfying. There’s soul searching, and hard-nosed decisions are made, and there is, at the end of it all, well-earned redemption.
I’ve tried to give you at least an idea of the novel—hopefully enough to whet your appetite. Listen, just read Billy Summers. I think this King fella is gonna be big.
This has been one helluva year for horror. Maybe there’s something in the air, something in the water. Maybe the flaming dumpster fire that is the past couple of years has somehow concentrated all that consuming rage out there and distilled it into pure, undiluted creative excellence. Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Chuck Wendig’s The Book of Accidents, Joe Lansdales’s Moon Lake, Hailey Piper’s Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy—that’s just off the top of my head, the list goes on and on.
Which brings me to The Last House On Needless Street by Catriona Ward. Ward has written a book so audacious, so original, so unnerving, that I want to shout about it to the world, or at least to the folks who read this blog. My problem is that due to the nature of the novel, I don’t really want to share anything about the plot at all. The Last House On Needless Street works best when you go in cold and let it worm its way under your skin and sink the claws in.
What am I willing to I tell you? This is a horror novel, make no mistake. Ward ratchets up the tension right from the beginning and plays your nerves like a virtuoso. The Last House On Needless Street begins with a young girl going missing, and it is stressful, particularly reading it as a parent.
I said it’s audacious a couple paragraphs back. Here’s what I meant. The novel has four, no five, main characters telling the story in alternating chapters, and every one of them is an unreliable narrator. That’s crazy, it should be impossible, and Ward pulls it off without breaking a sweat. Each character is distinct, with their own world view, their own language, their own (damaged) past. Oh, and one of them is a cat. This is a highwire act without a net, and every word of it works.
I said it’s a horror novel, and it is, but it’s more than that. Ward explores heartbreaking issues of abuse, mistreatment, family dynamics, and mental instability (I’m treading carefully here, to not give anything away), with compassion and understanding. All while never not keeping you on the edge of your seat.
The Last House On Needless Street drops on September 28th. This one is well worth a pre-order. I can’t wait to read what she writes next.
Yes, Twitter can be a dumpster fire. But I’ve found a supportive community there for my writing and artwork, I’ve made some fine friends from around the globe, and increasingly, I’ve discovered amazing authors new to me. Case in point, Hailey Piper. A little while back I noticed that writers I love, and members of the writing community whose opinions I trust, were all recommending her as a horror writer to watch. So I picked up The Worm and His Kings, and holy hell, they were so right. This was cosmic horror with both the cosmic and the horror on equal footing. More than that, it explored gender, love and loss with a sensitivity and compassion that never lessened the terror, but only deepened it. (You can read my review here: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2021/02/20/book-review-the-worm-and-his-kings-by-hailey-piper/).
If The Worm and His Kings convinced me that Piper was a real talent, then her short story collection Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy puts her on the same level as the very best horror writers working today. 18 stories, and not a weak one in the bunch. They are varied as can be, but they share some common themes—each one is a dark meditation on life, death, and all the spaces in between. Piper’s stated goal on her Twitter profile is to make horror gay as fuck. She does that in many of the stories here, exploring gender and sexuality with her trademark sympathetic yet hard-nosed approach.
There is a deep sadness, a current of melancholy, that runs through this collection. Piper doesn’t hold back. She is perfectly happy to drag your heart through the wringer and leave it shredded. She has a real knack for writing damaged characters, characters who don’t belong in their worlds, or even in their own skins. She also doesn’t hold back on the more horrific elements. These stories are unnerving, disquieting, and at times truly unsettling. I felt hints of writers like Kelly Link and (the short stories of) Paul Tremblay, but Piper is her own writer, a true original.
As I said, there’s not a weak story in the bunch, but a couple of standouts for me: “Candyland”, “Seven Signs He Doesn’t Love You”, “Crones In Their Larval State”, and “Jormungandr’s Dance”. Special mention must be made of “Recitation of the First Feeding”, the longer, final story in the collection. Quite simply, it’s a tour de force—somber, aching, beautifully told, and utterly devastating. The fitting end to such a superb collection.
If you haven’t yet discovered Hailey Piper, this might be a good place to start. I guarantee you’ll come back for more.
Grady Hendrix had been on my radar for awhile—I loved his Paperbacks from Hell posts—but I hadn’t read any of his novels until my son brought home Horrorstor. That novel, an all-out horror romp set in an IKEA type store (and set about 20 minutes away from my house, which was also cool) impressed the hell out of me. The horror was suitably horrific, there were moments of real humor, and Hendrix’s attention to detail when it came to spoofing IKEA was nothing short of amazing. This was an author in complete control of his material.
I love discovering an author I like who has a robust back catalog, and Hendrix does. My next read by him, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, proves I was right about him—Hendrix is in complete control, and I’m just glad to be along for the ride.
Set in genteel Charleston, South Carolina, TSBCGTSV is centered around a group of middle-aged women, neighbors who are comfortable in their lives, even if a bit bored. Their husbands work too much, their kids are off doing kid things, they volunteer…same old, same old. Their only excitement, if you can call it that, is their book club, where they’ve begun to read true crime books—think In Cold Blood and The Stranger Beside Me. Then Patricia, one of the members, is violently attacked by her elderly neighbor, which brings that neighbor’s young nephew to town. James is exciting, and a little bit mysterious, and he quickly insinuates himself into their close-knit neighborhood.
Meanwhile, kids on the poor black side of town start to go missing. Patricia things James is not what he appears and may be responsible, but convincing her book club friends won’t be easy. At least until the evil comes to their part of town.
This novel was everything I was hoping for based on the title. Once again, Hendrix’s attention to detail is just right. He gets the rhythms of life in Charleston perfectly, both the affluent side with their big homes and cleaning women, and the poor side of town, which seems a world away. The book club women are all distinct characters with families that feel real and lived in. Mrs. Green, a black cleaning woman who teams up with Patricia to protect her family, is tough as nails and has a flinty dignity. Hendrix doesn’t shy away from exploring the differences between Charleston’s haves and have-nots, and it gives CGTSV a deeper, welcome subtext.
The horror, when it comes, is brutal and unnerving. Hendrix has a real knack for blood-drenched action set pieces. He makes you see the pain inflicted, and feel the tension. Watching these women, sometimes grudgingly, come together to battle an evil force that is faster, stronger, and far more experienced, is satisfying to the soul. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough as I cheered them on.
My TBR pile is in danger of falling over and crushing me, but I’ll definitely be adding more from Grady Hendrix to the mix. I’ve heard great things about his newest, The Final Girl Support Group. In the meantime, give The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires a read. Hendrix is the real deal.
Brian Eno famously said, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
What’s that got to do with When Things Get Dark: Stories Inspired by Shirley Jackson? Glad you asked! Much like the Velvet Underground inspired a group of musicians who would go on to have lasting musical influence, Jackson has clearly influenced the very best horror, horror adjacent, and dark fiction authors working today.
Ellen Datlow has long been one of our finest editors, with impeccable taste, and this table of contents is shockingly good. Check out the list of authors featured in the anthology: Joyce Carol Oates, Josh Malerman, Carmen Maria Machado, Paul Tremblay, Richard Kadrey, Stephen Graham Jones, Elizabeth Hand, Kelly Link, Cassandra Khaw, Karen Heuler, Benjamin Percy, John Langan, Laird Barron, Jeffrey Ford, M. Rickert, Seanan McGuire, Gemma Files, and Genevieve Valentine.
Many of them are personal favorites of mine, authors whose books I immediately read upon publication. All of them are working at the top of their game here. Some of the writers featured seem like natural fits—when I first read Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link and Growing Things by Paul Tremblay, Shirley Jackson came to mind in the best way possible. Kindred spirits. It’s not surprising to me that they turn in two of the standout stories in this collection, which is saying something considering the uniformly high quality. Joyce Carol Oates, Carmen Maria Machado and Seanan McGuire also seem like good fits on paper, and they are.
Then there are the surprises. The genius of Ellen Datlow is that she looked at amazing writers like Stephen Graham Jones, Richard Kadrey, and Cassandra Khaw, who I don’t think of as working in quite the same fictional space as Jackson, and thought, hell yes. They knock it out of the park. In fact, everyone does.
While none of the stories are direct homages to Jackson, they are all clearly inspired by her work. The stories are set in the suburbs, in small towns, in remote spaces. They are uniformly character driven, not plot driven. They are open ended, often without a concrete resolution, but always compelling. There’s no outright horror here. The stories are unsettling, disquieting, even disorienting. I found myself replaying stories in my head long after reading them.
This collection is special. Somewhere, Shirley Jackson is peering over those glasses of her, one eyebrow raised, a sly smile on her lips.