Book Review: Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

Title: Hollow Kingdom
Author: Kira Jane Buxton
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Print length: 308 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

One pet crow fights to save humanity from an apocalypse in this uniquely hilarious debut from a genre-bending literary author.

S.T., a domesticated crow, is a bird of simple pleasures: hanging out with his owner Big Jim, trading insults with Seattle’s wild crows (those idiots), and enjoying the finest food humankind has to offer: Cheetos ®.

Then Big Jim’s eyeball falls out of his head, and S.T. starts to feel like something isn’t quite right. His most tried-and-true remedies–from beak-delivered beer to the slobbering affection of Big Jim’s loyal but dim-witted dog, Dennis–fail to cure Big Jim’s debilitating malady. S.T. is left with no choice but to abandon his old life and venture out into a wild and frightening new world with his trusty steed Dennis, where he discovers that the neighbors are devouring each other and the local wildlife is abuzz with rumors of dangerous new predators roaming Seattle. Humanity’s extinction has seemingly arrived, and the only one determined to save it is a foul-mouthed crow whose knowledge of the world around him comes from his TV-watching education.

Hollow Kingdom is a humorous, big-hearted, and boundlessly beautiful romp through the apocalypse and the world that comes after, where even a cowardly crow can become a hero.

If you think a book whose lead character is a crow must be weird, well, you’re right. It’s also amazing and fabulous, and I loved it a bunch!

In Hollow Kingdom, something is very wrong with the humans (referred to as MoFos by our hero, S.T. (whose name stands for Shit Turd, in case you’re wondering). There’s the fact that Big Jim’s eyeball has fallen out. And their heads are all at weird angles. And they run their fingers over surfaces until they’re worn down to bone and beyond. And they’ve become feral. Yeah, the world has definitely changed. And S.T. doesn’t like it one bit.

All S.T. wants is for things to go back to normal, so he can watch TV and eat Cheetos with Big Jim, but sadly, it’s looking less and less likely. Finally, S.T. decides to set out with Big Jim’s dog Dennis to find out what’s going on with the rest of the MoFos outside their Seattle home.

It’s not pretty. The world has fallen apart. As S.T. learns from the murder of crows who hang out at the university, all of humanity has been destroyed by a technology-spread virus. Now, it’s time for nature to reassert a sense of balance in the world. The zoo animals have been released, and giraffes and elephants wander the city. There’s a trio of tigers on the loose as well, and a local stadium has become home to hippos. S.T. and Dennis set out on a mission to free the domestics — finding ways to break into homes and release the pet animals who would otherwise starve to death, locked inside houses where there are no more humans to open the doors or provide food.

It’s a dangerous and awe-inspiring adventure, and S.T. is a magnificent narrator. He considers himself more human than crow, and his journey gives him an opportunity to reconsider where he fits in the natural world and to reconnect with his crow-ness.

The mythology of the animal world is inventive and oddly logical, and the interplay between species works so well. And it’s not just animals — for those who listen, even the trees have wisdom to impart.

S.T. is an opinionated, foul-mouthed anti-hero, who finds himself in the hero business purely by accident, and then rises to the occasion. That doesn’t mean that he loves everyone he meets or revises his condemnation for lesser creatures, including his loathing of penguins — as when he encounters the welcome sign at the zoo:

You can imagine how elated I was to discover that they’d placed cutouts of frolicking penguins all over their sign. Fucking newspaper-colored, ice-balled dick goblins, yeah, that’s who you want as your brand ambassador.

He looks down on lots of birds and animals, to be sure:

It had become clear on this second attempt at going airborne that I now had the aviation skills of an obese chicken. Again, I tried to focus on the positive and not the comparison to a bird who likes to sing while ovulating and has the worst retirement plan of all time (pot pie).

But there are also moment of adulation:

We were utterly surrounded. Plovers, kingfishers, ospreys, sapsuckers, larks, nightjars, shrikes, and buntings. I got starstruck at the sight of a snowy owl, because, I mean, Harry Potter.

S.T. isn’t the only narrator — in brief chapters mixed in throughout the book, we get scenes from the point of view of cats, dogs, trees, and even a polar bear. One of my favorites is Genghis Cat, who has a unique worldview, especially when it comes to taking care of the orangutan who’s come into his life:

Orange needs my protection. He is very, very fat. I summon my feline kin to join me in his protection. Striped ones with laser-pointer moves, jumpers, long-haired assassins, night kings, mousers, shadow stalkers, tree scalers, and one strange naked one that looks like an uncooked chicken. We are killers, warriors, hunters.

I could go on, but you probably get the idea. Hollow Kingdom is strange and wonderful, incredibly fascinating and surprisingly funny and moving. It’s a brave new world, one without MoFos like us, and the animal kingdom is ready to take it on.

Hollow Kingdom is, plain and simple, a great read, unlike anything else I’ve read in the past few years. Don’t miss it.

S.T., is that you?

Book Review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: Mexican Gothic
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: June 30, 2020
Print length: 352 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

An isolated mansion. A chillingly charismatic artistocrat. And a brave socialite drawn to expose their treacherous secrets. . . .

From the author of Gods of Jade and Shadow comes “a terrifying twist on classic gothic horror” (Kirkus Reviews) set in glamorous 1950s Mexico—“fans of classic novels like Jane Eyre and Rebecca are in for a suspenseful treat” (PopSugar).

After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

This creepy, disturbing gothic novel lives up to all the rave reviews!

Mexican Gothic takes place in 1950s Mexico. We first meet Noemi Taboada coming home from a fancy party. She’s the pampered, pretty daughter of a wealthy family, at odds with her parents who want her to marry well (and soon), while what she really wants is to enroll in university to pursue a masters degree.

As the story starts, Noemi’s father shares with her a disturbing letter from her beloved older cousin Catalina. Catalina recently married a man she’d only known briefly and moved with him to his family’s isolated mountain estate. In her letter, Catalina seems to be rambling and incoherent, talking about hearing things in the walls and begging for help. Catalina’s husband explains her ravings away as a side effect of tuberculosis, and insists that she’s getting good medical care. But Mr. Taboada is worried enough that he decides to send Noemi as his ambassador to check up on Catalina’s well-being and nurse her back to health — or bring her back to Mexico City, if needed.

Noemi’s arrival at the Doyle estate is shocking. High up an isolated, treacherous mountain road, the mansion, High Place, is shambling and neglected, shrouded in mist and in a state of disrepair. Noemi is greeted by Florence, cousin to Catalina’s husband Virgil, a domineering, strict woman who asserts herself in charge not only of the house’s routines, but of Catalina’s care as well.

The house is dismal, and so are its occupants. There’s a no-talking rule at dinner, Noemi is forbidden from smoking, there’s no electricity and cool baths are encouraged, and the place is altogether repressive and awful. The only bright spot is Florence’s son Francis, a young man about Noemi’s age, who appears to be sympathetic and supportive, eager to help Noemi and keep her company.

Noemi’s visits with Catalina are severely restricted, and Catalina seems to be kept drugged most of the time. The doctor who sees her once a week doesn’t think anything is wrong, and the family is dismissive of Noemi’s prodding to call in a psychiatric specialist or to get another opinion.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because man, is it good! The atmosphere is grim and creepy in all the best ways. Strange insular family? Check. Decrepit old house? Check. Windows that don’t open and mold on the walls? Check and check.

Like in any good gothic novel, the setting is mysterious and threatening, and our brave heroine has no easy means of escape as she’s drawn further and further into the sick and twisted family secrets that have entrapped her cousin and now seem to be pulling her in as well.

And those secrets? Well, gross and disturbing and menacing don’t even quite encompass what’s going on in that terrible house. I love the growing sense of terror, the sickness at the heart of the family history, the interplay between these wealthy English landowners and the people of the surrounding areas, and the desperation that drives Noemi as she comes closer and closer to finally seeing the truth.

The moodiness of the book put me in mind of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and even Angels & Insects by A. S. Byatt. If you’re a fan of creaky old houses with terrible secrets, this book should be right up your alley. It’s not blood and guts horror exactly — more of the quietly creeping chill that turns into growing terror as more and more awful things happen.

Mexican Gothic is so well written, so dramatic and well-plotted. I loved it, even thought it completely creeped me out and kept me turning the pages in a non-stop anxious frenzy. I can’t wait to read more by this author!

Book Review: Devolution by Max Brooks

Title: Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre
Author: Max Brooks
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication date: June 16, 2020
Print length: 320 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The #1 bestselling author of World War Z takes on the Bigfoot legend with a tale that blurs the lines between human and beast–and asks what we are capable of in the face of the unimaginable.

As the ash and chaos from Mount Rainier’s eruption swirled and finally settled, the story of the Greenloop massacre has passed unnoticed, unexamined . . . until now.

But the journals of resident Kate Holland, recovered from the town’s bloody wreckage, capture a tale too harrowing–and too earth-shattering in its implications–to be forgotten.

In these pages, Max Brooks brings Kate’s extraordinary account to light for the first time, faithfully reproducing her words alongside his own extensive investigations into the massacre and the legendary beasts behind it.

Kate’s is a tale of unexpected strength and resilience, of humanity’s defiance in the face of a terrible predator’s gaze, and inevitably, of savagery and death.

Yet it is also far more than that.

Because if what Kate Holland saw in those days is real, then we must accept the impossible. We must accept that the creature known as Bigfoot walks among us–and that it is a beast of terrible strength and ferocity.

Part survival narrative, part bloody horror tale, part scientific journey into the boundaries between truth and fiction, this is a Bigfoot story as only Max Brooks could chronicle it–and like none you’ve ever read before. 

Quick, what do you think of when you hear the word “Sasquatch”?

If it’s this:

… you’re going to be in for one hell of a rude awakening when you read Devolution.

In Devolution, Sasquatches are real. And they’re very, very mean.

Author Max Brooks brings us the story of a Sasquatch massacre (not a spoiler — it’s right there in the subtitle) through the journals of a woman named Kate Holland, as well as through interviews and articles that shed light on the mystery of what happened to the community of Greenloop.

Kate and her husband Dan have just joined Greenloop at the start of the story. Greenloop is a high-tech, high-efficiency community formed of six families who’ve settled (in luxury homes) in the wilderness near Mt. Rainier. But it’s not really a back-to-nature, living-off-the-land arrangement. Greenloop is a quick 90-minute drive to Seattle, and while the settlement believes wholeheartedly in composting and living green, they’re not self-sustaining. Supplies and groceries are delivered weekly via drones, so there’s really no need to worry too much about the food supply or emergency backups. Everything is taken care of!

Well, of course, the peace and perfection of Greenloop don’t last. When Mt. Rainier erupts, Greenloop finds itself cut off from the outside world, its one road in or out completely blocked by the mud and lava flows and now impassible. But not to worry — the majority of the community members are sure that help will come soon, and that this is just a glitch in their happy little utopia.

Only Mostar, a war survivor who makes fabulous artwork but whose outlook is decidedly grim, realizes that they’re all in trouble. She recruits Kate and Dan to her survival project, planting a food garden, inventorying the calorie count of all items in their kitchens, and planning for worst case scenarios.

At first, Kate goes along with it all mainly to humor Mostar and have something to do. But then, strange things start to happen. She feels like something is watching, perhaps chasing her, when she’s out walking in the woods. A mountain lion encroaches into the settlement, but it seems more like it’s running away from something than running toward the people. And then there’s the smell — an awful stench of rot and garbage that becomes more and more overpowering.

Until finally, something comes out of the woods — a sasquatch. They’ve all heard the stories over the years. and most try to find other explanations for what they’re experiencing. But eventually, there’s no hiding from the truth: There’s a pack of sasquatches in the woods, and they’re strong, smart, hungry, and organized.

Mixed in with Kate’s journal entries about the looming danger and the threats and attacks that mount from day to day are snippets of articles about primate behavior, which highlight that primates in the wild are not the gentle giants that people would like to believe them to be. There’s plenty of evidence of primates’ ability to stalk, hunt, and carry out organized attacks, as well as documentation of their consumption of meat, including the flesh of other primates.

And yes, the humans of Greenloop sure look tasty to a group of invading, starving sasquatches.

I probably should have said this right from the start… this book has blood and guts and gore. The scenes of violence are disturbing and graphic and gross, so be warned — don’t pick up this book if you can’t stomach scenes that are… well… stomach-turning.

That said, Devolution is exciting and compelling, and I just couldn’t stop reading. I had to know what would happen next, and next, and after that, even while shaking my head and thinking to myself — no, it can’t really be working out this way. The author wouldn’t really do that, would he?

(Answer: Yes. He would, and he does.)

Max Brooks is the author of World War Z, which was an amazing read. Devolution lacks the global reach of World War Z, the sense of real life events unfolding via news coverage and interviews with survivors. The storyline in Devolution all takes place within the confines of Greenloop, creating (intentionally) a very claustrophobic feel. The people of Greenloop are trapped, and as a reader, I could practically feel the walls closing in around me, and the despair that the characters must be feeling knowing that there is no escape and no last-minute rescue on the way. If they have a chance of being saved, they’ll have to do it themselves.

Kate is a good main character, and I liked the changing nature of her relationship with Dan as they move from a disaffected and alienated married couple on their last legs to people with a mission, rising to the occasion. Mostar is vivid and heroic, but the other characters don’t stand out all that much. The founding couple of Greenloop is supposed to be charismatic and inspiring, but I didn’t feel like I got to see them in action enough for them to make an impact.

I did wish for a little more exposition at the start. I would have liked a bit more backstory on the founding of Greenloop, and more to pinpoint its location and setting. I didn’t get a true sense of the community’s isolation and dependence on a single access road until later in the story, and the eruption of Mt. Rainier itself, which triggers the main plot points, is rather muted and distant. I think a better sense of the geography of Greenloop relative to Rainier and Seattle would have been helpful.

But other than that, I was totally engrossed in Devolution. It’s horrifying but oddly compelling. If I’ve ever thought about Sasquatch mythology, it’s been simply of the supposed images caught on film of hairy men-creatures living in isolation in the woods. Devolution treats us to Sasquatch as a competing species of primate — and the question is, who really is the top of the food chain?

Don’t read this book in a cabin in the woods or on a camping trip… but if you’re safely located in a busy city far from the wilds, definitely dig in and enjoy!

Book Review: Laughter at the Academy by Seanan McGuire

Title: Laughter at the Academy
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Publication date: October 31, 2019
Length: 376 pages
Genre: Horror/fantasy (short story collection)
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From fairy tale forest to gloomy gothic moor, from gleaming epidemiologist’s lab to the sandy shores of Neverland, Seanan McGuire’s short fiction has been surprising, delighting, confusing, and transporting her readers since 2009. Now, for the first time, that fiction has been gathered together in one place, ready to be enjoyed one twisting, tangled tale at a time. Her work crosses genres and subverts expectations.

Meet the mad scientists of “Laughter at the Academy” and “The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells.” Glory in the potential of a Halloween that never ends. Follow two very different alphabets in “Frontier ABCs” and “From A to Z in the Book of Changes.” Get “Lost,” dress yourself “In Skeleton Leaves,” and remember how to fly. All this and more is waiting for you within the pages of this decade-spanning collection, including several pieces that have never before been reprinted. Stories about mermaids, robots, dolls, and Deep Ones are all here, ready for you to dive in.

This is a box of strange surprises dredged up from the depths of the sea, each one polished and prepared for your enjoyment. So take a chance, and allow yourself to be surprised.

There are two things I think I’ve established by now over the course of many years of writing book reviews: 1 – I love Seanan McGuire. 2 – I’m not a big fan of short stories.

So when Seanan McGuire releases a collection of stories, what’s a fan to do? Buy it immediately, then stick it on the shelf and delay, delay, delay…

Well, I’m here to say I’m an idiot. Because OF COURSE I ended up loving this book once I finally sat myself down and gave it a try. It’s Seanan McGuire! What’s not to love?

This collection brings together stories from 2009 through 2017, and as the author makes clear in her introduction, all stories take place outside of her “pre-existing universes” — so you won’t find October Daye or the Incryptid’s Price family members anywhere in these pages. All stories appeared in other publications and anthologies over the years, and it’s a treat to have so many available in one glorious collection.

Quick aside: I purchased the pretty hardcover special edition from Subterranean Press as a splurge, but it’s also available in e-book format for a much more reasonable price.

These 22 stories cover a wide range of themes, topics, and tones. Some are funny, some are sad, some are terrifying, and some are just downright creepy. Absolutely none are boring or skippable! One of the things I loved about this book was the mix — from story to story, it’s always something new, and so many surprises!

I’ll share just a few highlights about my favorites of the bunch:

The title story, “Laughter at the Academy”, is all sorts of awesome about mad scientists and a condition called “Schizotypal Creative Genius Personality Disorder”. It’s brutal and fun and, well, mad.

“Lost” is creepy and disturbing and sad, as is any story about children all over the world acting strangely at the same time. It made me think of Torchwood and Childhood’s End, although it isn’t really much like either one.

Seanan McGuire is excellent at unleashing hell on the world, so a story about viruses ravaging humankind is scary and perhaps too timely right now, but I loved “The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells” all the same. Super frightening. And prescient — this is from her introduction to the story:

I also believe that the modern world’s disdain for quarantine and willingness to support structures which encourage its violation is going to do a great deal of damage one day… and that with the new diseases emerging regularly from a variety of sources, that day may not be particularly far in the future.

And as the story itself describes:

If they were to stay home, avoid the company of strangers, and wait for a vaccine, they might stand a chance. But no one listens to the doctors, or to the newspaper headlines begging them to stay indoors.

One of the coolest stories in the collection — so weird and unexpected — is “Uncle Sam”. Ever wonder why women go to the bathroom together? Read this and find out.

There’s also a story about Valkyries, a western sci-fi story…

Cherry’s first to the cattle call, her guns low and easy on her hips, her hair braided like an admonition against untidiness.

… military mermaids, a steampunk invasion of carnivorous plant-based aliens…

“A… diplomat?” Arthur blinked at me as our carriage rattled to a stop, presumably in front of our destination. “But the first thing you did was eat my sister’s maid.”

… a Peter Pan story, a Twitter-based ghost story, more end-of-the-world/end-of-humankind scenarios, a GoFundMe for bringing on eternal Halloween…

… and the story that’s given me nightmares ever since, “We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War”. There are dolls. And they’re scary as hell. This is creepy and brilliant, and if I ever get over my first reading of this story, I’ll come back and read it again!

Seanan McGuire’s writing is as amazing as always, and this collection shows her range and ability to try on any genre or style and make it work.

Obviously, I loved this book, and I’m so glad I got over my reluctance to read short story collections. Laughter at the Academy is a must-read for Seanan McGuire fans, but you don’t have to have previous experience with her work to appreciate the funny, scary, and strange worlds presented here.

Book Review: If It Bleeds by Stephen King

Title: If It Bleeds
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: April 21, 2020
Length: 447 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From #1 New York Times bestselling author, legendary storyteller, and master of short fiction Stephen King comes an extraordinary collection of four new and compelling novellas —Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, The Life of Chuck, Rat, and the title story If It Bleeds— each pulling readers into intriguing and frightening places.

A collection of four uniquely wonderful long stories, including a stand-alone sequel to the No. 1 bestseller The Outsider.

News people have a saying: ‘If it bleeds, it leads’. And a bomb at Albert Macready Middle School is guaranteed to lead any bulletin.

Holly Gibney of the Finders Keepers detective agency is working on the case of a missing dog – and on her own need to be more assertive – when she sees the footage on TV. But when she tunes in again, to the late-night report, she realizes there is something not quite right about the correspondent who was first on the scene. So begins ‘If It Bleeds’ , a stand-alone sequel to the No. 1 bestselling The Outsider featuring the incomparable Holly on her first solo case – and also the riveting title story in Stephen King’s brilliant new collection.

Dancing alongside are three more wonderful long stories from this ‘formidably versatile author’ (The Sunday Times) – ‘Mr Harrigan’s Phone’, ‘The Life of Chuck’ and ‘Rat’ . All four display the richness of King’s storytelling with grace, humor, horror and breathtaking suspense. A fascinating Author’s Note gives us a wonderful insight into the origin of each story and the writer’s unparalleled imagination.

The novella is a form King has returned to over and over again in the course of his amazing career, and many have been made into iconic films, If It Bleeds is a uniquely satisfying collection of longer short fiction by an incomparably gifted writer.

Call me crazy, but Stephen King books are my version of comfort food. When I need distraction from the drama of daily life, I know I can sink into a King book and get carried away from everything weighing me down.

So getting a library e-book download of If It Bleeds this week was just perfect timing! Also very surprising, as I’d expected to be on the hold list for months… so thank you, San Francisco Public Library!

I approached If It Bleeds a little hesitantly, as short stories are really not my thing. Still, there was the book, just waiting for me on my Kindle, so how could I resist?

I’m so glad I dove right in! If It Bleeds consists of four novella-length stories, all unrelated, and all very different in content and tone. And each was a treat!

The story that garnered the most pre-publication buzz is the title story, If It Bleeds (which appears 3rd in this collection). If It Bleeds stars Holly Gibney, whom even Stephen King refers to as a favorite character! Holly was first introduced in the Bill Hodges trilogy, and then was a key character in The Outsider (the adaptation of which aired on HBO recently).

Here, Holly is the lead in her own story. She is horrified by news of a terrible mass murder by bombing at an elementary school — and then is hooked by a discrepancy she notices in the appearance of the local newscaster who was first on the scene. Holly is never one to let go of details, and as she investigates, she becomes personally involved in tracking down and stopping a monster.

It’s a good story, very suspenseful, although I’m not sure how much sense it’ll make to someone not familiar with The Outsider. It’s not an exact sequel, but the earlier novel definitely informs the way Holly’s case unfolds and what she knows.

As for the other stories… well, I loved them!

In order of preference, my least favorite would be the final story in the book — although don’t get me wrong, I still really liked it! Rat is the story of a writer who’s never been able to finish a novel, although he has published some highly regarded short stories and is an English professor. When a new story idea appears to him, he’s sure it’s his novel at last, and decides to retreat to his family’s remote backwoods cabin to work on it in isolation before the inspiration disappears.

Rat is an interesting look at creativity, the writing process, a writer’s fear, and the superstitions and bargaining that may accompany a fickle gift. Stephen King does love to feature writers as main characters, and then put them in dangerous, awful situations. Is the writer here really experiencing the disturbing things he thinks are happening, or is he losing his grip on his sanity? Read the story and decide!

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is the first story in the collection, and feels like classic Stephen King. It combines his patented nostalgic look back at childhood with a small-town setting, the loss of loved ones, and a piece of technology that changes everything. It’s a story about growing up and saying good-bye, but also just a good, spooky, odd ghost story. Very cool.

Finally, the 2nd story in the book, which was my favorite of the bunch. The Life of Chuck is weird and wonderful, and I adored it. Told in three sections that move backward chronologically, this story is surprising and captivating, and strangely moving too. I don’t want to give away a single thing about it! Definitely check it out!

All in all, a terrific collection! As I mentioned, I don’t typically seek out story collections, even from my favorite authors, so I’m really grateful that I happened to be able to get this from the library.

And true confession time: I loved it so much that I ended up using an Amazon gift card to treat myself to my very own hard copy!

If It Bleeds is a great addition to Stephen King’s huge body of work. If you thought he might possibly run out of original stories to tell… this book shows that that’s not at all likely to happen. A must-read for King fans!

Shelf Control #213: We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.pngTitle: We Sold Our Souls
Author: Grady Hendrix
Published: 2018
Length: 337 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In the 1990s, heavy metal band Dürt Würk was poised for breakout success — but then lead singer Terry Hunt embarked on a solo career and rocketed to stardom as Koffin, leaving his fellow bandmates to rot in rural Pennsylvania.

Two decades later, former guitarist Kris Pulaski works as the night manager of a Best Western – she’s tired, broke, and unhappy. Everything changes when she discovers a shocking secret from her heavy metal past: Turns out that Terry’s meteoric rise to success may have come at the price of Kris’s very soul.

This revelation prompts Kris to hit the road, reunite with the rest of her bandmates, and confront the man who ruined her life. It’s a journey that will take her from the Pennsylvania rust belt to a Satanic rehab center and finally to a Las Vegas music festival that’s darker than any Mordor Tolkien could imagine. A furious power ballad about never giving up, even in the face of overwhelming odds, We Sold Our Souls is an epic journey into the heart of a conspiracy-crazed, paranoid country that seems to have lost its very soul…where only a girl with a guitar can save us all.

How and when I got it:

I bought it as a new release in 2018.

Why I want to read it:

If you happened to stumble across my blog earlier this week, you may have seen my review of Grady Hendrix’s newest book, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. I loved it, just like I’ve loved everything I’ve read by this author. And even though I bought a copy of We Sold Our Souls, I just never got around to reading it — maybe the heavy metal theme turned me off a bit, but for whatever reason, it’s still there on my shelf, unread. And that just won’t do.

Grady Hendrix’s book are always unique and strange and thoroughly entertaining. I’ve heard this one is great! Clearly, I have to fill in the gap in my reading by getting to this book ASAP.

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Title: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires
Author: Grady Hendrix
Publisher: Quirk
Publication date: April 7, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias meet Dracula in this Southern-flavored supernatural thriller set in the ’90s about a women’s book club that must protect its suburban community from a mysterious and handsome stranger who turns out to be a blood-sucking fiend.

Patricia Campbell had always planned for a big life, but after giving up her career as a nurse to marry an ambitious doctor and become a mother, Patricia’s life has never felt smaller. The days are long, her kids are ungrateful, her husband is distant, and her to-do list is never really done. The one thing she has to look forward to is her book club, a group of Charleston mothers united only by their love for true-crime and suspenseful fiction. In these meetings, they’re more likely to discuss the FBI’s recent siege of Waco as much as the ups and downs of marriage and motherhood.

But when an artistic and sensitive stranger moves into the neighborhood, the book club’s meetings turn into speculation about the newcomer. Patricia is initially attracted to him, but when some local children go missing, she starts to suspect the newcomer is involved. She begins her own investigation, assuming that he’s a Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. What she uncovers is far more terrifying, and soon she–and her book club–are the only people standing between the monster they’ve invited into their homes and their unsuspecting community.

Let me just get this out of the way: I LOVED this book. The setting is perfect, the community and marital dynamics are spot-on, and the creep factor is through the roof. Grady Hendrix does it again!

Here’s the situation: Patricia Campbell lives with her husband and two children in the Old Village, a neighborhood in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina — just across the bridge from Charleston — where everyone knows each other and looks out for one another, where an unknown car is immediately noticed, where no one locks their doors because it’s safe, and anyway, not really in line with standards of Southern hospitality.

[Fun fact: I once lived in Mount Pleasant for a couple of years, a long time ago, so the setting here just thrilled me to bits and pieces.]

The women of Old Village are mothers and housewives, and when Patricia and a few others realize that a “literary” book club isn’t to their taste (i.e., none of them actually read Cry, The Beloved Country and get roundly shamed for it), they form their own club — focused on true crime stories and bestselling thrillers. And they love it. The women bond over Helter Skelter and The Stranger Beside Me, and they also become best of friends.

The community’s placid life is disrupted when Patricia is attacked by her elderly neighbor Ann Savage. It’s brutal and frightening, and results in Patricia’s earlobe being bitten off. Ann dies, but her visiting nephew James Harris decides to stay and settle in the neighborhood — and his appearance starts a chain of strange and eerie events.

Note: The Goodreads blurb (above) describes James Harris as “artistic and sensitive”. He’s not.

Patricia becomes more and more suspicious of James, but he’s quickly insinuated himself into the lives of the families of Old Village, including becoming business partners with most of the husbands, investing with them in a real estate development that promises huge payoffs. And when Patricia tries to sound the alarm after witnessing a horrifying act, her psychiatrist husband treats her like she’s crazy, and then forces her to choose: Either give up this nonsense about James, or give up her marriage and family.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is a horror story, a snapshot of a time and place (1990s upscale South), and a snide commentary on women’s voices and the men who ignore them. The women in this story are all smart, but all subservient to their husbands — all of whom are the providers and the decision-makers. It’s particularly telling that the small, intimate, enjoyable book group gets completely turned upside down once the men decide they need to step in — turning into a gathering of 40+ people, reading Tom Clancy books and completely ignoring the opinions and preferences of the women who actually started it all.

There’s also pretty harsh critique of the insularity of the privileged. So long as the bad things are happening to other people’s children — particularly, to the children of a poor black community — the people of Old Village don’t seem to be too bothered. There’s an “it can’t happen here” attitude that only Patricia seems to have an issue with. For the husbands especially, the deaths and disappearances have nothing to do with their own lives, and in any case, the accusations that Patricia makes sound ridiculous, and perhaps more importantly, could cause problems with their business investment, and well… we can’t have that.

Don’t forget, though, that this is a horror novel, despite the snark and the humor. I like horror, and I don’t have a problem with blood and gore… but that said, there were two scenes in this book that absolutely CREEPED ME THE EFF OUT. I just don’t do well with creepy-crawlies, and these two scenes were intense and GROSS. (Okay, yes, I still loved the book, but HELLO? NIGHTMARE MATERIAL!)

Grady Hendrix does an amazing job of pulling this story together, making the relationships touching and real while also being creepy and scary — and then having the women save the day through their own version of brutal kick-assery. It’s a great read, thoroughly enjoyable… but maybe not for the squeamish.

I have one more of Grady Hendrix’s books on my shelf still to read, but so far, I’ve loved everything of his that I’ve read.

Check out my reviews of his previous books:
Horrorstor
My Best Friend’s Exorcism
Paperbacks from Hell (non-fiction)

Top Ten Tuesday: Top ten Stephen King books I need to read

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is: Genre Freebie (pick a genre and build a list around it! i.e., best/worst romances, non-fiction for travelers, memoirs for foodies, classics that feel timeless, romance novel kisses, science fiction that feels too real for comfort, women’s fiction for newbies, etc.)

I was thinking about horror — fitting for these days, right? — and mind naturally went to Stephen King, and how even though I think of myself as having read a lot of his books, there are still plenty more to get to. So, without too much fuss or bother, I thought I’d share the ten Stephen King books that are highest on my Stephen King TBR list!

Note: While putting together this list, I realized that I’ve already read ALL of SK’s releases since 2009. Go, me! And I’m only include one Dark Tower book on my list, even though I actually have four from the series still to read. Because if I never get around to reading the next one (#4), why bother listing the ones that come later? I also realized that the reference list I was using for Stephen King books didn’t include his Richard Bachman books, so actually, there are even more SK works for me to get to! In any case, here are my ten priorities… for now.

1. The Dead Zone (1979)
2. Firestarter (1980)
3. Needful Things (1991)
4. Dolores Claiborne (1993)
5. The Dark Tower: Wizard and Glass (1997)
6. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999)
7. The Green Mile (2000)
8. Dreamcatcher (2001)
9. Lisey’s Story (2006)
10. Duma Key (2008)

If you’ve read any of the above –which one should I read first?

What’s your TTT topic this week? Share your links, and I’ll come check out your top 10!

Book Review: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

Title: The Twisted Ones
Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Publication date: October 1, 2019
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

The set-up of The Twisted Ones hooked me from the start. Freelance editor Mouse heads off to her dead grandmother’s isolated home to prepare it for sale, but upon arrival, discovers it’s stuffed to the rafters with newspapers, coat hangers, clothing, and all sorts of useless junk. If it were me, I probably would have made a run for it at soon as I pushed open the front door and saw the mess waiting inside, but Mouse decides to stick it out. After all, she can work anywhere, and her father has offered to split the sale proceeds with her when it’s all done.

Accompanied by her beloved but not entirely bright coonhound Bongo, Mouse gets to work. When she discovers an old journal kept by her long deceased stepgrandfather, things get weird. Mouse was well aware that her grandmother was a hateful, mean woman who was universally despised, but through the diary, she learns even more about her cruelty. What’s more, she also sees hints of madness or dementia through her grandfather’s writings, particularly through his repetition of lines that seem to have become a sort of mantra for him:

I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones…

When Mouse and Bongo accidentally find an impossible hilltop through the woods in the backyard — when there aren’t actually any such hills in the area — things get weirder. Strangely carved stones and menacing trees are clear indications that things are not normal. As Mouse encounters more and more oddities, the woods near her grandmother’s house and the things they contain become even more menacing.

This was a terrifically creepy read. One ray of sunshine to note up front: As my friend who recommended this book pointed out, Mouse opens the first chapter with Bongo by her side as she looks back on the events she’s about to describe. So, for those who might enter in fear of something awful happening to a very good dog, rest assured, Bongo will be fine! Somehow, this seems important to know from the get-go.

I really enjoyed Mouse’s narrative voice. She’s plainspoken, but not without a sense of humor. As she recounts the events that occurred, she recognizes that most people would assume she’s lost touch with reality, but she feel compelled to tell the story anyway.

I am going to try to start at the beginning, even though I know you won’t believe me.

It’s okay. I wouldn’t believe me either. Everything I have to say sounds completely barking mad. I’ve run it through my mind over and over, trying to find a way to turn it around so that it all sounds quite normal and sensible, and of course there isn’t one.

As the story progresses, I found myself telling Mouse to get in her truck and drive away as quickly as possible, which really would have been the smart thing to do. When she finally decides to do just that, there’s a very good reason why she doesn’t, and the big showdown at the end practically begs to be made into a horror movie (that is sure to keep viewers from ever getting a good night’s sleep again, especially if they’re attempting to sleep in a cabin in the woods).

Something about the answers to the book’s mysteries didn’t quite feel as monumental to me as I expected, which is why I only went with 3.5 stars. Still, it’s a terrific, engrossing read that provides plenty of creepy, scary atmosphere and plenty of reason to be afraid of the woods, the dark, the woods in the dark, and anything that comes tapping at your door.

Shelf Control #189: Wraith by Joe Hill

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

I thought I’d go with something appropriately terrifying for the eve of Halloween:

Title: Wraith
Author: Joe Hill
Published: 2014
Length: 204 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Joe Hill’s New York Times Bestselling novel, NOS4A2, introduced readers to the terrifying funhouse world of Christmasland, and the mad man who rules there: Charlie Talent Manx III. Now, in an original new comic miniseries, Hill throws wide the candy cane gates to tell a standalone story that is at once both accessible to new readers, and sure to delight fans of the book.

How and when I got it:

I bought it back in 2014 when it was first released.

Why I want to read it:

NOS4A2 was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever read. Okay, most Joe Hill books scare the daylights out of me — but at the same time, I enjoy every horrible, super-scary moment! Wraith is a graphic novel set in the same world as NOS4A2, and I knew I had to have it… but I haven’t quite psyched myself up to read it yet!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!