Archive for July 2020

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager

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"Every house has a story. Ours is a ghost story."

July has officially become a horror month at my house. I've always been a fan of horror movies, but my reading of the genre really didn't venture too far beyond the occasional Stephen King novel. This month I've decided to change that. New releases from Paul Tremblay and Stephen Graham Jones provided a very strong start, but the book I was most eagerly anticipating was the new Riley Sager novel. Over the past couple of years, he has become a favorite author, always mixing classic horror thrills with intriguing character work. When recording an interview with John B. Valeri for his YouTube channel Central Booking, we agreed that Sager's Home Before Dark would be the perfect novel to read next. As is often the case, John's recommendation proved to be an expert choice.

Years ago Ewan Holt moved his young family into the sprawling Baneberry Hall. The aspiring author was hardly settled into the Victorian manor when the strange things started happening. Only three weeks into their stay, the Holt family fled in the night, escaping the horrors that they experienced in the estate. Most people would have put that past behind them, never to speak or think of it again. Ewan Holt is not most people. Instead of burying the terror that he and his family faced, he saw an opportunity to exploit it. His bestselling book House of Horrors was born, an in-depth chronicle of the Holt's haunted time at Baneberry Hall. The book became THE definitive ghost story, capturing the minds and imagination of a generation of readers. But the book wasn't without its critics. To this day, people still question the validity of Holt's claims. After all, there's no such thing as ghosts.

Maggie Holt is tying a nice bow on the remaining bits of her father's affairs. Ewan has passed away leaving a surprise for his only daughter, the deed to the famed Baneberry Hall. Maggie has little memory of her time at the house. She was only a child at the time of her family's infamous inhabitance of the haunted place. She has spent years trying to escape the shadow of her father's book. In fact, she doesn't believe any of it happened. Her competence in the restoration of old homes should mean she can flip the dilapidated property quickly and finally put this past behind her. As she begins the process of renovating her former home, Maggie begins to experience things that can't be reasonably explained. Maybe her old man wasn't as crazy as all his critics made him seem.

This is the third novel by Riley Sager that I've read (I still have Final Girls waiting patiently on my kindle), so I thought I knew what to expect going into it. Indeed, Home Before Dark features many of Sager's signatures. There's the strong female main character, flashbacks to past events that are slowly revealed to impact the present-day plot, and the creepy horror elements that keep the suspense tightly wound and the pages turning. All that being said, I don't remember being as thrilled by Sager's writing as I was with this one. On the surface, the story seems like a straight-ahead haunted house novel, but there were so many twists and turns that I simply didn't see coming. Add to this the element of our main character coming to terms with her family's past, and you've got the kind of read that will have you devouring the book in only a few sittings. Home Before Dark sees Riley Sager step up his game to an even higher level than his previous fantastic books. Believe the hype on this one. It is a really great read.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 33)

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

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"Woe unto them that are with child."

The year is 1918. The world is in the throngs of a deadly flu pandemic, overcome by crippling death and despair. In Dublin, the country is doubly challenged by both the Great Flu and the World War. With most citizens occupied by one of these two hardships, the city has become, "...a great mouth holed with missing teeth." In a matter of extreme literary foresight, this is the world that author Emma Donoghue has chosen to set her latest novel. The Pull of the Stars sees Donoghue tackle the pandemic of 1918 in a novel that takes on an ever more poignant tone given the state of the COVID-19 pandemic that the world continues to grapple with today. Her works always resonate with me emotionally, but the parallels between this historical fiction and the real world make this particular novel all the more affecting.

We meet Julia as she approaches the stone facade of the hospital, mentally preparing herself for the daunting day that lies ahead. As a nurse who has also trained as a midwife, the twenty-nine-year-old has been assigned to the makeshift maternity ward specifically reserved for those expectant mothers who have contracted the flu. Julia enters the overstuffed room to see that the middle of the three hospital beds is empty. Another life was lost in the night. This is a new reality. Julia quietly makes a small scratch in the back of her pocket watch, a silent and permanent acknowledgment of the lost life. With hospital beds overflowing and hospital staff hard to come by, Julie knows two things. One, it will not take long for that empty bed to host the next woman. Two, she will be overseeing the care of this ward completely on her own.

"Patient first, hospital next, self last.

Julia is right on both accounts. The night nurse, a stern and disapproving nun from the local convent, informs Julia that she will be the sole nurse for the meager maternity room. Julia is quickly overwhelmed by the sheer multitude of her daily tasks. One patient is in and out of consciousness, struck by the absolute worst parts of this horrid illness. She is able to stop the fits long enough to vomit all over the floor, leaving Julia to tend to her patients while also completing janitorial duties. Relief comes in the form of Birdie, a young woman who has been plucked from the streets to assist in any way possible. Birdie has no training in nursing, let alone even the most primary understanding of basic human anatomy, but she is a welcome sight. Unprompted, she begins mopping the mess on the floor allowing Julia to tend to the patients uninterrupted. As if on cue, the orderlies bring another pregnant woman into the room, filling the last remaining bed.

From a plot perspective, that is pretty much the focus of The Pull of the Stars. We follow Julia as she makes her way through a couple of days in this hospital room. Women come and go, giving birth in between. Some are successful, bringing in new life amongst the despair of this plague. Others are tragic, a reminder that this life is not promised to us, even in birth. The cramped confines of this impromptu ward become a microcosm of the world at large. Just like those lives outside, Julia and the women in her care are forced to reckon with the mystery of life in a time of unparalleled adversity.

Emma Donoghue is known for placing her readers directly into the worlds that her novels are set within. We were all in that storage shed with Jack and his kidnapped mother in Donoghue's novel Room. In Akin, she transported us to the streets of France as an elderly man searched for answers to his family history. It comes as no surprise then that The Pull of the Stars plants us directly amongst the crowded beds of the hospital. We feel the joy, hope, and pain as Donoghue writes of every striking detail. The medical procedures are given as much credence as the emotional strife that happens in between. The characters soar off of the page, connecting on a level that only the most well-tuned authors are able to create. There is an innate intimacy that exists between a nurse and her patients, a trust that forms between two relative strangers. Donoghue invites us into that confidence, allowing us to experience all of the emotions that the women in that room do. This emotional prowess combines with the strange synchroneity of this historical novel mirroring the events of our present-day pandemic to make for a read that touches the reader on every level. We are only halfway through this eventful year, but The Pull of the Stars is already my favorite novel of the year.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 32)

Two Truths and a Lie by Meg Mitchell Moore

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After reading two dark horror novels in a row, I was longing for something lighter to read. Don't get me wrong, I love diving into books that challenge and shock me, but there are times when I just want to read for the pure escapism of it all. Enter Meg Mitchell Moore's latest novel Two Truths and a Lie. I was pleasantly surprised to see this one arrive on my doorstep. It was included with a few others sent to me from the publisher in exchange for a review. From the cover, I wouldn't have picked this one as something I'd normally read. Still, comparisons to Big Little Lies and books by Elin Hilderbrand were more than enough to pique my interest.

The small seaside town of Newburyport, Massachusetts is the perfect place for starting over. Newcomer Sherri Griffin is hoping to do just that. She's recently divorced her husband, gained sole custody of their teenage daughter Katie and is ready to move on with her life. Sherri soon comes into contact with the Mom Squad, a group of local women who have their finger in every aspect of the Town, professionally and socially. To the shock of the other moms, the squad's former head Rebecca welcomes Sherri into their ranks. The pair bond over a common sense of misfortune. You see, Rebecca was widowed not too long ago, so she knows a thing or two about starting over.

Beyond learning about the mothers, Moore equally devotes pages to the story of their daughters. Rebecca's daughter Alexa is the pinnacle of popularity at the local high school. She has combined her gorgeous looks and natural knack at deciphering financial information into a successful YouTube channel. At the urging of her mother, Alexa agrees to babysit Sherri's eleven-year-old Katie. With Katie fast asleep, Alexa turns to snooping around the Griffin's home. She stumbles upon a composition notebook filled with Katie's writing. There's the usual stuff, of course, but Alexa is shocked when she finds information about Katie's past. The past has a funny way of catching up with the present. Armed with the dark knowledge of the Griffin's past, Alexa struggles to keep these secrets to herself. Worse, that dark past is threatening to invade the present, endangering everyone who stands in its way.

Going into Two Truths and a Lie I was really in the mood for juicy drama mixed with light thrills, and that's exactly what Meg Mitchell Moore delivered. This is the kind of breezy summer read that provides just enough depth to sink your teeth into without becoming overwhelming. Comparisons to Elin Hilderbrand's summer novels are the most appropriate, though I don't think I enjoyed Moore's characters in the same way. Their past hardships were enough to motivate their actions, but not enough to excuse some of the cattier confrontations. The mystery element serves more to keep the plot moving than to shock or thill in the traditional sense. Instead, Two Truths and a Lie spends most of its time fleshing out the characters. While I had a few qualms about the way some of these women acted, I did find the mother-daughter relationships to be the most believable part of the book. Either way, Two Truths and a Lie never tries to be anything more than a diversional summer read. It is the kind of escapist story that more than satisfied my need for something different and something that I could read on a summer afternoon. If you are looking to lose yourself in a story while soaking up the summer sun, Two Truths and a Lie by Meg Mitchell Moore should more than suffice.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 31)

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

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"The land claims what you leave behind."

July is shaping up to be a horror-centric reading month for me. I read Paul Tremblay's latest novel last week, and plan to read Riley Sager's newest haunted house story later this month. In between is the work of new-to-me author Stephen Graham Jones. The blurb for The Only Good Indians compared his writing to that of Tremblay, so I knew I would be in for a treat. I quickly requested a copy of the book from the publisher and was pleased when they sent one my way. It proved to be a visceral exploration of coming to terms with the past and dealing with all the grisly consequences.

Years ago, a group of young American Indian men made a reckless decision. The foursome snuck onto land that was protected by their native Blackfeet tribe. The light of the moon illuminated a herd of elk peacefully grazing amongst the sacred field, unaware of the slaughter that was about to come. Each of the boys killed one of the animals in cold blood, breaking the bond between man and nature that their ancestors had protected for so long, an irreversible rift that would follow the boys for the rest of their lives.

Years later, Lewis and the other guys all feel as if they've buried the past. None of them speak of the horrible things they did that fateful night. Lewis is still haunted by the mother elk that he killed, still sees the lifeless body of her unborn calf. He's on the ladder in his living room, fiddling with a light fixture that seems to have a mind of its own, when he notices the figure. His eyes must be playing tricks on him. Through the circling blades of the ceiling fan, Lewis swears he saw an elk standing there in the middle of his home. Only this was no ordinary animal. She was standing on two legs with an almost human-like quality to her. Is his mind playing tricks on him, or is this the beginning of something more sinister? Is nature finally seeking revenge?

There is something completely unsettling about The Only Good Indians. Stephen Graham Jones has written a novel that feels almost ritualistic in its brutality. It is the kind of horror that makes you feel as if you would be better off not witnessing what is unfolding but dares you to keep looking. After a wild opening that completely sucked me in, the novel stalled for the first quarter or so. There was character building, but I can't say that I was invested in Lewis or his life. It was the strength of wanting to know more about his mysterious vision that kept me reading. Fortunately, a violent event at the end of the first act really turned up the momentum. From then on, the novel maintained a perfect balance between gory horror thrills and well-drawn character building. I would be remiss if I didn't point out that the book features graphic descriptions of violence, death toward both humans and animals. Still, The Only Good Indians delivers as a gory horror thrill ride and interesting take on culture and revenge.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 30)

Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay

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"Everything isn't ending. Civilization is more resilient than people think."

Paul Tremblay's penchant for high-concept horror with down-to-earth character development has seen him ascend the ranks of modern American horror authors. With each new novel, his work becomes more terrifying and more emotionally impactful. In his latest novel Survivor Song, Tremblay writes one of his most compelling narratives to date. A twist of fate has made his imagined scenario in the book eerily mirror the current situation that much of the world is still grappling with. I've always been a fan of Tremblay, so I happily accepted a copy of Survivor Song from his publisher.

Before this year, it would have been hard to imagine a world riddled with a global health pandemic. That's exactly the premise Tremblay presents in this novel. A highly contagious strain of rabies with an accelerated incubation period has begun to ravage parts of the US. Cities have been shut down under government-mandated lockdowns, hospitals are at full capacity, and people are panicking. Individuals infected with the virus lose all semblance of normal human function. They become crazed zombies, infected with the unyielding need to bite and infect others.

The book opens with a bang as pregnant Natalie is helping her husband Paul unload groceries. Their whole city is on lockdown, so they are eager to safely get their items into the house. A moment of carelessness sees them leave their front door ajar, allowing an infected man to enter their home. In a flash, Paul is killed and Natalie is bitten in the arm. Fearful of infection and eager to keep her unborn child safe, she frantically drives to her friend Dr. Ramola's house. The two race against the clock of the impending infection to try to save the life of Natalie's child.

Survivor Song is Tremblay's most terrifying novel to date, made even more timely by the fact that it is publishing as the world deals with a real-life infectious virus. I was amazed at how closely Tremblay's fiction captured the scenario we are dealing with now. A year ago, I would have found a glorified zombie tale to be unbelievable, but now it is chillingly close to life. Beyond the plot, Tremblay inhabits his novel with believable characters who you can't help but root for. Flashbacks provide context for Natalie and Ramola's relationship, allowing the emotional stakes to soar alongside the journey to safety. Being that this novel is really close to our current life, I do think you need to be in the proper mood to read it. Still, there's no denying the craft, thoughtfulness, and escapism that Survivor Song provides. "This is not a fairy tale. this is a song."

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 29)

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