Book Review: Getaway by Zoje Stage

Title: Getaway
Author: Zoje Stage
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication date: August 17, 2021
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A cinematic and terrifying new novel from “the master of the psychological thriller” and the bestselling author of Baby Teeth and Wonderland, about three friends who hike into the wilds of the Grand Canyon—only to find it’s not so easy to leave the world behind (Entertainment Weekly).

It was supposed to be the perfect week away . . . 

Imogen and Beck, two sisters who couldn’t be more different, have been friends with Tilda since high school. Once inseparable, over two decades the women have grown apart. But after Imogen survives a traumatic attack, Beck suggests they all reunite to hike deep into the Grand Canyon’s backcountry. A week away, secluded in nature . . . surely it’s just what they need.

But as the terrain grows tougher, tensions from their shared past bubble up. And when supplies begin to disappear, it becomes clear secrets aren’t the only thing they’re being stalked by. As friendship and survival collide with an unspeakable evil, Getaway becomes another riveting thriller from a growing master of suspense and “a literary horror writer on the rise” (BookPage).

I went into Getaway not knowing much about it other than that it takes place in the Grand Canyon and that something ominous happens. The cover image makes it clear that this will not be a happy book! But I truly had no idea what awaited me, and that was a good thing. With no foreknowledge, I was shaken and then terrified by every new development.

That said, if you haven’t read Getaway and want to experience it the way I did, stop reading this review right now! Just know that this is a five-star reading experience, steel yourself to be truly disturbed, and go for it.

Onward, though, to discussing more of the book. First off, I must say that I had no idea that there would be a Jewish component to this book, and that’s always something that speaks to me. The book starts off shockingly, as we learn that main character Imogen survived the horrific attack on the Etz Chayim synagogue in Pittsburgh, by chance arriving just as the shooting began and being able to hide outside rather than being inside the building to be massacred.

Although physically unharmed, Imogen bears psychological scars that only intensify those she already carried from “the thing” (which we learn about over the course of the novel) that happened to her in college. Over her adult years, Imogen has become more and more reclusive, to the point of agoraphobic. She doubts herself, her worth, and her ability to function in the world.

Imogen and her sister Beck grew up in an outdoorsy family, with frequent backpacking and wilderness trips. It’s been years since Imogen has felt secure enough to venture out like this, but Beck has arranged for the two of them plus their friend Tilda to spend a week in the Grand Canyon. Once inseparable, Tilda and Imogen have been estranged since “the thing”. Beck hopes that their week together, away from society and distractions, basking in the beauty of the wilderness, will provide an opportunity for the three of them to come back together, heal, and reestablish the closeness they once had.

Needless to say, things go horribly wrong. I wont’ say how or why, but the beautiful getaway that Beck envisioned turns into a nightmare in which their lives are on the line, and any wrong move can spell disaster. The three women must rely on each other and on their own internal resources if they have even a tiny hope of making it out of the Grand Canyon again.

Getaway is a thriller that introduces its dangers in an almost innocuous way. As with the characters, I was lulled into thinking “how bad could this be?” But the danger becomes more and more clear, and the escalation is terrifying yet also insidious. There seems to be hope, again and again, that reason and compassion and conversation can yield a solution… but that hope gets dashed repeatedly, and it quickly becomes clear that only drastic action can save them.

(Sorry, being deliberately vague here… but honestly, it’s best not to know much in advance.)

I loved the complexity of the women’s relationships, and how this informs the way they interact as well as how they initially respond to the threats they face. Imogen, as our point of view character, is fascinating — we see her doubts and fears, her resentment toward Tilda, her sense of inadequacy when comparing herself to Beck, and the self-doubt she’s harbored for years about whether she’s good enough, whether she’s able to defend herself, whether she lets herself and others down in times of urgency. In order to survive, Imogen has to face her inner turmoil and put herself on the line in ways that would seem unimaginable in any other facet of her life.

Truly, Getaway is rich and complex, and scary as hell. I was creeped out and terrified throughout much of the book, and had a hard time envisioning any outcome that wasn’t devastating. At the same time, I loved the main characters, loved the Grand Canyon setting, and really marvelled at the author’s ability to weave together the elements of an engrossing thriller with a moving story about friendship and resilience.

This is my first encounter with Zoje Stage, but I hope it won’t be my last! I know she has two previously published novels, and I’m eager to find out more about them. If you’ve read either Baby Teeth or Wonderland, please let me know what you thought and if you recommend them!

Getaway is highly recommended, a powerful and frightening read that’s also redemptive and empowering. Don’t miss it.

Book Review: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Title: The Hollow Places
Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Gallery/Saga Press
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A young woman discovers a strange portal in her uncle’s house, leading to madness and terror in this gripping new novel from the author of the “innovative, unexpected, and absolutely chilling” (Mira Grant, Nebula Award–winning author) The Twisted Ones.

Pray they are hungry.

Kara finds these words in the mysterious bunker that she’s discovered behind a hole in the wall of her uncle’s house. Freshly divorced and living back at home, Kara now becomes obsessed with these cryptic words and starts exploring the peculiar bunker—only to discover that it holds portals to countless alternate realities. But these places are haunted by creatures that seem to hear thoughts…and the more you fear them, the stronger they become.

With her distinctive “delightfully fresh and subversive” (SF Bluestocking) prose and the strange, sinister wonder found in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s LabyrinthThe Hollow Places is another compelling and white-knuckled horror novel that you won’t be able to put down.

One word review: Creepy.

Five word review: Scary. Snarky. Weird. Nightmarish. Un-put-downable.

But let me expand a little…

In The Hollow Places, Kara (known as Carrot by her uncle and close friends) is recently divorced and without a place to live. Her uncle Earl runs a totally awesome-sounding small-town museum (Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities and Taxidermy). It’s a mish-mosh place full of (yes) taxidermied animals, fossils, relics, weirdness, and whatever people choose to send him. Earl is a sweetheart of a man, a total believer in whatever strangeness he comes across, but also kind-hearted and accepting and unconditionally loving when it comes to Kara.

Earl invites Kara to come live in the spare room at the back of the museum and help him with cataloguing and inventory. With so many positive memories of her time with Earl during her childhood, Kara is happy to accept. The taxidermy in the museum feels like being surrounded by old friends (and does not creep her out in the slightest, like it would for me!).

When Earl has to leave for a few weeks to get knee surgery, that’s when the weirdness starts. One day, Kara discovers a hole in a section of the drywall, which she attributes to clumsy tourists. Enlisting the help of Simon, the friendly and slightly odd barista next door, she plans to repair the hole… until they look inside it and see not the expected boards and plaster, but a corridor.

And it’s a corridor that should be impossible. Kara knows the layout of the building perfectly, and there just isn’t room for a long hallway like this. Naturally, they decide to explore, and end up in a bunker that opens onto an island in a river… in another world.

The world they discover is immediately disconcerting. There are willow trees everywhere, and the river is filled with small humped islands that appear to all contain bunkers. The sand has weird funnel-shaped holes, and there’s something just completely otherworldly and alien about this place.

The more they explore, the more horrors they discover, and they soon realize that they may not be able to get back to their own world.

I won’t go into too much more detail about the terror of this willow world, or what happens next, but it’s SCARY AF and gave me nightmares, for real. And despite the nightmares, I loved this book.

T. Kingfisher’s writing is funny and snarky, even when the circumstances are creepy and horrible. I love how Kara looks at the world, and some of the descriptions are laugh-out-loud hilarious, even in the midst of the terror.

Kara is a freelance graphic designer, and her worldview is amazing. Even while dealing with her disillusionment over her failed marriage and her jerk of an ex, she’s funny:

Dammit, I can’t believe I spent so much of my life on a man who would unironically post the line “Today is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.” And in Papyrus, too.

Simon is really fun too, and I love how he throws himself into the adventure with Kara, even while reminding them both how bad an idea this could be.

Come on, let’s go back to the coffee shop and I’ll make us Irish coffees and we’ll discuss this like people who don’t die in the first five minutes of a horror movie.

Even as hideous danger looms, Kara is still Kara:

It sounded slow. If I got to my feet and grabbed my cane, I could hobble away, and then we could have the slowest chase scene ever.

I read a good portion of this book in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, and that pretty much guaranteed that I’d never be able to sleep again! Well, at least not that night.

The writing and the pacing are terrific, and the plot is weird and terrifying. The willow world is baffling and yet horrible, and there are certain descriptions that made me feel that I would drop dead of complete and utter fright if I found myself in Kara’s place.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that besides the awesomeness of Kara, Simon, and Uncle Earl, and of course the museum itself, there’s also a Very Good Cat named Beau who is all sorts of amazing in the most cat-like ways possible. I’m guessing the author is an animal lover, because her previous book, The Twisted Ones, had a Very Good Dog as an important character. (Rest assured, Beau is just fine by the end of this book. Beau is a bad-ass.)

The Hollow Places is a crazy disturbing read, but I mean that in the best possible way. A perfect read for the creepy-reading month of October!

Book Review: Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey

SHE LOOKS LIKE ME. SHE SOUNDS LIKE ME. NOW SHE’S TRYING TO TAKE MY PLACE.

Liz Kendall wouldn’t hurt a fly. She’s a gentle woman devoted to bringing up her kids in the right way, no matter how hard times get.

But there’s another side to Liz—one which is dark and malicious. A version of her who will do anything to get her way, no matter how extreme or violent.

And when this other side of her takes control, the consequences are devastating.

The only way Liz can save herself and her family is if she can find out where this new alter-ego has come from, and how she can stop it.

There are actually two interwoven storylines focusing on two different characters in Someone Like Me. First, there’s Liz, a single mother whose ex-husband is an abusive creep. Second, there’s Fran Watts, a 16-year-old girl who’s known at school as a freak. Ever since a bizarre and traumatic abduction ten years earlier, Fran has suffered from a host of symptoms of mental illness, and fears that she’s just plain crazy.

During a particularly bad encounter with her ex, when he turns violent and seems on the verge of killing her, Liz finds herself responding by bashing Mark with a broken bottle — but she’s not the one controlling her own body. Someone else seems to be pulling the strings, and yes, it saves her life, but it also leaves her terrified.

Meanwhile, Fran is accompanied by an imaginary friend, a fox known as Jinx, who has been with her ever since the kidnapping and who’s always ready to protect her. And sometimes, Fran sees the world change — the color of a blanket or a figurine or something else in the background will change from one thing to another. Desperate, Fran returns to her psychiatrist to beg for stronger meds, anything to make these hallucinations go away. When Fran sees Liz and her teen-aged son Zac at the clinic as well, a strange connection is forged between the two teens, and they start to discover that the oddities in Fran and Liz’s lives may be linked.

Someone Like Me is a gripping story of psychological terror. We alternate between Liz and Fran, seeing their world views and the (figurative) demons they each battle. Each is desperate to just live a normal life, and fears that she’s losing her grip on sanity and reality. Of course, there’s something else going on here, and it’s weird and scary — and neither Fran nor Liz feel that they’ll be believed if they find a way to describe it to anyone.

At 500+ pages, Someone Like Me is a bit longer than it needs to be. Some of the chapters, particularly the chapters focused on Liz and her family and her struggles, seem overly long, and the story takes a while to really build up steam. Still, it’s worth sticking with. By the halfway mark, the plot really picks up and the crazy twists become more and more absorbing.

M. R. Carey knows how to tell a fast-moving story with great action sequences. I loved The Girl With All The Gifts. This book doesn’t quite measure up, possibly because it’s a story set in our day-to-day world, with just a taste of supernatural/mysterious forces/unexplained phenomena, whereas The Girl With All The Gifts was a marvelous example of horror world-building, creating an entire post-apocalyptic new world order for the characters to navigate. But leaving the comparisons aside, Someone Like Me is very good, very creepy, and very inventive. Definitely check it out if you enjoy stories of psychological horror and twisty mindgames!

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The details:

Title: Someone Like Me
Author: M. R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: November 6, 2018
Length: 500 pages
Genre: Psychological horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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