Archive for October 2021

Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

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What are you afraid of? As October comes to an end, we celebrate the one night a year where ghouls and goblins are actually welcomed. As I set out to celebrate Halloween this year, I decided to listen to one more horror audiobook. Knowing my love for all things horror, the fine folks at Macmillan Audio sent me a review copy of Cassandra Khaw's new ghost story Nothing But Blackened Teeth. I was happy to accept it and listen to one final spooky book for the year. With a gothic setting in a faraway land, a group of characters with a multitude of secrets, and a chilling legend of a ghost, it was easy to fall under the spell of Khaw's work. 

A group of five young people has gathered in the most unlikely place imaginable to celebrate the pending nuptials of a couple in their midst. The thrill-seeking quintet has forgone the usual wedding venues in favor of an ancient Japanese mansion, long abandoned to the past. As if the setting isn't creepy enough, the legend of its history certainly takes things over the top. Years ago, a bride-to-be was buried beneath the home left to eternally lay in waiting for her missing husband. She's said to have haunted the building ever since. Throughout history, multiple women have been sacrificed to keep the bride company. As the group begins their stay in the mansion, their own personal histories begin to come to light, waking the sleeping bride. Her pale face has no features beyond the dark black teeth that peek out from her mask. A haunted smile welcoming the newest guests. 

In Nothing But Blackened Teeth Cassandra Khaw weaves a traditional haunted house story through the lives of five friends grappling with their personal love and loss. I loved the way that Khaw's legend of a lonely bride mirrored the hope and heartbreak of the present-day characters, both coming together into a new kind of nightmare. The audiobook is narrated by Suehyla El-Attar whose voice perfectly captures both the quiet intensity of the character dynamics and the more propulsive horror elements that drive the plot. Oddly though, I found myself more invested in the plight of the book's monster than the people living through the terror. Khaw doesn't delve much into their past, electing to have much of their motivations remain hidden. The monster, however, is given a full back story that reads like something out of a tragic historical legend. With the brief length of this work, all of that amounts to a story that promises something more impactful than it actually delivers. Still, the unconventional setting and truly scary monster are more than worth the price of admission. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 43)


Friday Flicks: Dune

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Earlier this year I faced my fears and finally tackled the literary behemoth that is Frank Herbert's Dune. The book is a sprawling tale of a messiah-like figure who rises among battling kingdoms across the planets. While I appreciated the work for what it was, especially within the context of the time it was written, I can't say that I actually enjoyed reading it. Countless characters, planets, and political slights in the first part of the work had me struggling to keep everything straight in my mind. Reading it became such a chore that I was happier to just be finished with it than I was with anything that actually happened in the book. 

It was with a conflicted trepidation, then, that I approached Denis Villeneuve's ambitious adaptation of Dune. Despite my misgivings of the novel, I've long been a fan of Villeneuve's films. If anyone could have a viable chance at successfully bringing the "unfilmable" novel to the big screen, the director of the likes of Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049 seemed like a pretty good choice. Still, there's a reason most filmmakers have been wary of touching Dune. You need only look at David Lynch's dismal 1984 adaptation as a warning of just exactly how wrong this entire undertaking could go. The sheer scope of the story made it an inaccessible read to me, so I feared this latest attempt to film the work would do the same. 

The film opens with wide shots of the desert planet Arrakis. Images of the expansive world flash across the screen as Hans Zimmer's otherworldly score undulates beneath. We are instantly transported to the future, the year 10191 to be exact. The control of the planet and the economically vital 'spice' that is harvested from it are being transferred from one ruling race to another. Young Paul Atreides's (Timothee Chalamat) family is on the receiving end of this gift. From the start, he is being groomed to one day take the mantle from his father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaacs). Paul's royalty stems from both his father and mother's bloodlines and an early scene of him being tested for his worth as a ruler perfectly captures the look and feel of Herbert's work. As you can imagine, holding the power over spice, the drug-like resource of this world comes with immense wealth and influence. As such, other families strive to strip the Atreides clan of their power. It is this desire that drives the conflict and action of the film. 

From the start, Villeneuve succeeds where other filmmakers and arguably Herbert himself could not. The opening portion of the film perfectly sets the stage of the world, the key players, and the conflict that is about to unfold in a way that is both thorough and accessible. I'd argue that even the most casual of viewers would be able to come into the film blind and leave with a solid understanding of what happened. In an adaptation of work as rich as Dune, that's no small feat. Villeneuve and co-writers Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts smartly opted to adapt only the first half of Herbert's novel, giving the story room to breathe and unfold at a pace that perfectly suits the material. The movie is anchored by breathtaking cinematography, a rattling score, and performances from an ensemble cast who each brought some of their best work to the table. The 156-minute runtime flies by, all leading to a logical stopping point that lines up just before the halfway point of the novel. Dune Part 2 has already been announced for the fall of 2023. After the success of this one, I can't wait to see it. 

 

Come Closer by Sara Gran

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"So you think you're possessed, it said. Don't we all, from time to time."

It can be easy to ignore the things that are right in front of our noses, more convenient to look the other way than face a challenge head-on. Perhaps that is just human nature. Let's be honest, we've all had a moment of procrastination where we couldn't be bothered to handle a task that needed to be done. Who among us hasn't waited an extra day to fold the laundry or take out the trash? Usually, these decisions don't radically alter the fabric of our lives. We either do it the next day or wait until that thing we were ignoring can't possibly be ignored anymore. Sara Gran's novel Come Closer sees her character facing the unassuming banality of daily life in a similar way. Unfortunately for her, by the time she realizes the enormity of the thing she is ignoring, it is far too late. 

Amanda is living her dream life. She has a loving husband, a comfortable home, and a job that supports the lifestyle she's always wanted. The tapping begins quietly, a soft, barely noticeable sound. Amanda can't quite place where within her apartment it is coming from. There are no signs of a leak anywhere to be found. As she searches her home, the noise seems to be moving around, evading any attempt to locate the source. Her husband hears the tapping too, so Amanda knows she isn't imagining things. Alas, the mysterious racket continues. Resigned to the fact that she may never discover the cause of the sound, Amanda halts her search and learns to live with it. The incessant tap, tap, tapping fades from her mind, vanishing into the background noise of her everyday life. 

The strange sound is just the beginning. Soon Amanda begins to have vivid dreams. In them she sees the figure of her childhood imaginary friend, a face she's long forgotten. Amanda recalls the mischief her friend would urge her to get into, the little devil on her shoulder egging her on. She's alarmed when she catches a glimpse one day of that same little face, the imaginary girl has now grown into a very real woman. But that can't be true. It has to just be her mind playing tricks on her. Then the blackouts begin. She has long stretches of time where she simply has no recollection of what happened to her. Amanda neglects her job, her home, and even her husband. By the time she seeks help for whatever is happening to her, the darkness inside has already taken hold.

If you are looking for a quick horror read to squeeze in before the spooky season retires for another year, Sara Gran's Come Closer perfectly fits the bill. In just under 200 pages, Gran writes of a woman slowly succumbing to either demonic possession or severe mental illness. The first-person narrative places the reader directly into the mind of this woman, helping us to feel the confusion, fear, and resignation of every moment. There is nothing spectacular or overtly supernatural about what is happening. Instead, Gran grounds every scene firmly in reality. I found this to only elevate the suspense as everything that happens in the book could truly happen in real life. What I read was one woman's slow descent to madness, a place that she has no real hope of ever coming back from. That, my friends, is truly terrifying. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 42)


Ice and Stone by Marcia Muller

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Ice and Stone, the 34th installment in Marcia Muller's prolific Sharon McCone series, begins with a disclaimer from the author. Muller writes that this novel was written well before the historic and tumultuous 2020, and as such, there is no mention of the COVID-19 pandemic. More importantly, the strife of police brutality and the undeniable impact of the Black Lives Matter movement was not on the forefront of Muller's mind as she concocted this story. Nevertheless, readers will no doubt find the themes of racism and prejudice to permeate the fabric of the book. As I read this note, I was struck by just how long racism has infected our country. For this book to be conceived before the historic year that brought the struggle of racial tensions and systemic racism front and center into most of our lives only further illustrates just how long this issue has been part of our existence. 

Normally a murder of any kind rocks a community. Surely the remains of two indigenous women in the wilderness of northern California would spark some kind of concern. Sadly though, this incident is just another in a long line of similar cases in the area. Each time investigators are called in, and each time they are ruled as isolated events. Despite all evidence to the contrary, officials seemed satisfied to believe that the murders of indigenous people in the same area have nothing to do with each other. They are quickly brushed off and fall away into the long line of cold cases. 

Private investigator Sharon McCone refuses to let these cases rest. When most other officials are perfectly okay with letting these murders be brushed aside, McCone is eager to see justice be served. We learn that she's recently discovered more about her own heritage and has found a kinship with the women who have been murdered. She is hired by a group of native women to investigate these horrific crimes and finally put the matter to rest. McCone begins an undercover operation to investigate the truth behind the crimes, an operation that sees her unearth secrets of the community that she's planted herself within. She'll have to work fast though. You see, she fits the exact profile of the very women she's been sent in to investigate the killings of. If she doesn't find justice soon, she may find herself as the killer's next victim. 

This was the first book by Marcia Muller that I've read, and I don't think that you need to have read the other 33 books in the series to fully enjoy this one. That being said, I do think it would be interesting to read some of the earlier books to see how the main character has evolved over time, especially since the first novel was released in 1977. Muller writes a compelling murder mystery filled will small-town politics, questionable characters, and racially driven crimes. I shared in McCone's frustration with the authorities more comfortable looking the other way than dealing with the reality of the bold racism that was motivating the crimes within their jurisdiction. For her part, Muller expertly balances the social commentary with a breakneck mystery that equally kept the pages turning while taking on a deeper meaning. Through the lens of the events that have unfolded over the last couple of years, I found her story to take on an even more urgent and timely tone. When a book like Ice and Stone allows you to be entertained while also commenting upon larger issues, you really can't go wrong. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 41)

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

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After the tease of cooler weather a couple weeks ago, this week it seems like the autumnal air is finally here to stay. I've been trying to sprinkle in a few spookier reads among my usual genres, and have been eagerly awaiting Sarah Pearse's novel The Sanatorium since it was released. It was hard not to be sucked into the world that Pearse has conjured.  A decommissioned sanatorium turned luxury hotel is the kind of setting that just brims with the creepiness that I crave during this time of year. Throw into that the promise of a mystery, and I was completely sold. 

Le Sommet has been strategically positioned amongst the dense forest and steep mountain peaks of the Swiss Alps, giving it both a sense of grand majesty and unyielding isolation. In the early days of its operation, this setting helped the sanatorium stay out of sight and out of mind, a place where society could hide away the people who couldn't function within it. All these years later, that kind of treatment has been halted and the building that housed it relegated to an abandoned vestige of the past. But the former Sanatorium is being given new life, renovated into a minimalist hotel that combines the historic location with more modern amenities. Even as the hotel opens, however, it isn't without controversy. The architect of the redesign has gone missing, vanished without a trace. 

Elin Warner has recently taken some time away from her job as a detective. The pressure was becoming too much to handle and negatively impacting her performance. This break is intended to help her replenish her mental and emotional health. She's surprised to hear from her estranged brother and is even more surprised when he invites her to visit the recently opened Le Sommet to meet his new fiancee Laurie. Elin is hesitant to go, but without the excuse of work the keep her home, she sees no real alternative. Her arrival to the austere establishments coincides with a blistering storm, mirroring the foreboding unease she feels. 

Things with her brother aren't much better than they've been before, and she can't help but question his intentions for inviting her there. The next morning, Elin awakes to learn that Laurie has disappeared in the night.  Her experience as a detective kicks into high gear as she begins investigating the strange disappearance. The more she looks into things, the direr the situation seems. Even worse, the winter storm has cut off all access to the outside world. What Elin could never imagine is the sheer scope of the danger she and the rest of the guests at the hotel have just placed themselves into. You see, unbeknownst to anyone else, another woman has gone missing. With her out of the picture, the knowledge of this place and its history have vanished too. Now Elin will have to dig deep into her own investigative prowess to uncover the truth before it is too late. 

Sarah Pearse's debut novel The Sanatorium offered the promise of a classic locked-room mystery set in a brilliantly unsettling location. Indeed the opening of the novel perfectly sets the scene and adds to the dread with a mysterious figure hooded in a historical gas mask from a hundred years ago. But then, all pretense of a spine-chilling mystery is dropped in favor of a family drama that had me scratching my head. Surely this wasn't the same book I had just begun to read! Don't get me wrong, there are portions of this novel where glimmers of that opening suspense shine through, but for the most part, the book is more the main character grappling with her own drama than actively investigating a mystery. What should have been a chilling examination on the sins of the past turned out to be a slow unearthing of family secrets that made reading this book more of a chore than it needed to be. I've seen that Pearse has written a follow-up novel featuring her heroine, but after trudging through this one I don't know that I'll be rushing to pick it up. Simply put, The Sanatorium just wasn't for me. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 40)


Deadly Cross by James Patterson

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With as many books as I read each year, it is pretty rare for me to keep up to date with a series. There are just too many books to read with not enough time! That being said, James Patterson's Alex Cross series is the exception. My mom has gifted me the latest book each year for Christmas, so it has become a personal tradition to stay current on Patterson's series. Alex Cross continues to be his best and most consistent character, so I always look forward to reading the next one. As has become another kind of tradition, I've procrastinated nearly a year to read the current book Deadly Cross. Armed with my hardcover copy and an afternoon to kill, I finally settled into the familiar warmth of the latest Alex Cross novel. 

DC Metro Police Commissioner Bree Stone has called upon her husband Alex Cross to review the scene of a brutal murder. The half-clothed remains of a man and woman have been found in a car right outside of a prominent charter school. The school happens to be the same institution that Alex's daughter attends, and Alex is surprised to see that he is familiar with both of the victims. The first is the very much still married man who founded and runs the charter school. The second is both a former patient of Alex's and the ex-wife of a man at the height of his political career. As Alex assists Bree in taking in the scene he is certain of one thing. This murder is about to rock the entire community. 

Patterson usually has multiple cases going on in his books, and this one is no exception. As the main murder investigation progresses, Alex, his partner Sampson, and Bree also focus on the disappearance of several missing girls, and an odd incident that has seen various politicians shot at. There's a lot happening in the book, but it all comes together in the end. Beyond the various mysteries, Patterson spends a good amount of time updating us on his characters. The Cross family has grown over the course of the series, and we get to see a bit about how each of them is doing. Tragedy strikes the extended Cross family early on in the book, and it forces Alex to slow down, reflect on his own life, and volley with the worth of his career in relation to his role as a father. 

As far as James Patterson novels go, Deadly Cross is a pretty good one. Patterson seems to have found his stride again with the characters, and this one continues the story with everything I've come to appreciate about these books. First, there are the mysteries. Three of them to be exact. Each of them draws in both Alex and the reader as they begin to mesh with his personal life, tying him closer to each case. I was enthralled with the hunt and couldn't stop reading. Patterson is known for burning through a plot, and this one certainly had the pages flying. I've always said, though, that the true strength of the Alex Cross series lies within the characters that Patterson has built over the course of 28 novels. Deadly Cross sees the family grappling with their own mortality and coming together to face an unexpected tragedy. It was hard not to share in all of their emotions, especially having seen them evolve with each new book. Character work and the ever-intriguing puzzle of several active investigations propel the book, making it one of the better Alex Cross novels in recent years. Suffice it to say, I'll be eagerly awaiting the next book later this year. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 39)

The Perfect Ruin by Shanora Williams

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Sometimes it is best to go into a book blind. I won a copy of Shanora Williams's latest novel The Perfect Ruin in a Goodreads giveaway that I didn't remember entering. (Please tell me I'm not the only one to have done this!) I didn't even recall reading a blurb about the book, so I had zero expectations about what it would be. It turns out that knowing nothing was the perfect way to approach this novel. Williams shrouds much of the motivations of the first part of her book in mystery, so coming in with no preconceived notions about what the story is really worked to my advantage. 

Ivy has spent years in therapy recovering from the trauma of her childhood. When we first meet her, we don't know exactly what that trauma is, and it isn't clear why she has faced such a long period of recovery. What we do know is this. Ivy's therapist has just revealed the name of a person who is responsible for much of her troubles. Armed with this new information, Ivy has vowed to get revenge. To reveal any more of the plot would rob you of the discovery that makes reading the novel as much fun as it is. Suffice it to say that each of the characters keeps their secrets close and their enemies even closer. 

The Perfect Ruin reads a lot like one of those made for T.V. melodramas where every character has a secret and each reveal becomes more shocking and outlandish than the last. That's not a knock on the quality of writing by any means. In fact, each layer of the plot in this one kept me turning the pages waiting to see what crazy thing would happen next. I do think, however, that reading this book will require you to suspend your disbelief to fully enjoy it. Many scenes reminded me of classic prime-time soap operas like Desperate Housewives or Dallas. It is a credit to Williams that I found myself caring about the characters in this one, especially as they acted from mostly selfish motivations. The ending of the book did crescendo to one too many twists for my tastes, but it was all in good fun and in keeping with the momentum that drove everything before it. The Perfect Ruin is the best kind of popcorn read, an entertaining page-turner that never takes itself too seriously. 

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 38)


The Chain by Adrian McKinty

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"They have all sipped from the Drink Me bottle. They have all unwound the clew of red thread. They have all fallen through the looking glass."

For most parents, there is perhaps no worst fear than losing their child. We can probably agree that they'd do anything to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their kids. In his 2019 novel The Chain, Adrian McKinty digs into the depths of just how far a parent will go to protect their child. I first heard of the book when another author, Don Winslow, began to tout it on his Twitter. It sounded like the kind of thriller that I find hard to ignore, so I quickly pre-ordered a copy. Then, as is too often the case with some of my most hyped books, I let it sit on my shelf unread for two years. While time may have heightened my expectations for the novel beyond what it ultimately delivered, it is still a worthy read for anyone looking for a breakneck thrill. 

Imagine for a moment that you're having a bad day. You just got a call from your oncologist that they need you to come into the office for some urgent news. You already know what that news is. Your cancer has returned. This is probably one of the worst days of your life. Just as you're thinking that things can't get any worse, however, your phone rings again. This time the voice on the line is unrecognizable, mutated by an electronic filter designed to hide the identity of whoever you are speaking to. They tell you that your child has been kidnapped, and the only way you'll ever see them again is by following their instructions with no deviations. You've just become another link in the chain.  

This is the nightmare that unfolds for Rachel Klein at the start of the book. She quickly compartmentalizes the news around her cancer to face the more pressing matter of her daughter's abduction. Within the next 24 hours, she has to come up with a ransom or risk never seeing young Kylie again. But the money isn't the most disturbing part of the abductor's request. You see, the person holding her daughter is no ordinary criminal. The person is actually a mother herself, facing the same exact nightmare as Rachel. Her own son has been taken, and if Rachel doesn't also abduct a child within the next day, they will both lose their own. 

The premise of The Chain is quite ingenious in both its simplicity and its execution. Adrian McKinty imagines a diabolical scheme that sees normal people turning into the worst kind of desperate criminals in only a few short hours. The mechanism of this concept lies within the willingness of parents to protect their children at all costs. As each new child is taken, the next parent must pay a ransom and kidnap another child, thus feeding into the chain in an endless cycle. From the opening pages, I was glued to this narrative, unable to look away from the terrifying story as it unfolded. The genius of McKinty's writing in this work is his ability to balance relatable characters with an unrelenting pace. Seriously, I tore through this novel within a few hours but was surprised at how nuanced the character work actually was. The book isn't without its flaws, and I found the last act unworthy of the brilliant setup that preceded it. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more original and engaging read. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 37)

You by Caroline Kepnes

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What is the last show that you binged? I recently ripped through season one of You on Netflix. I know I'm late to the party with this one, but wow was it a wild ride! I had a moment while watching the first episode where things began to feel a bit too familiar to me. Imagine my surprise when I realized that not only was the series based upon a book but that I had actually listened to the audiobook before. Never one to shy away from a book-based series, I did what any self-respecting bibliophile would do. I reread the book! Caroline Kepnes's novel was every bit as fun and twisted as I remembered it being. 

Joe Goldberg has quite the obsession. In fact, it is an obsession that many of us readers can probably relate to. Joe loves books. He's a voracious reader and has turned this passion into a career. Joe works at and runs a book store in New York's East Village, a place where he's made quite the comfortable life for himself. There isn't a ton of money in selling books, but this day job affords him the ability to collect and sell the rarest editions of classic novels. In the collection and preservation of these valuable works, Joe lets his obsession run wild. It is in the book store that Joe first lays eyes on Guinevere Beck, a gorgeous college student who is perusing his shelves. As she completes a purchase, Joe takes notice of her name on her credit card. Later that evening he Googles her name, and a new obsession is born. 

Think about how much information about a person you can find on the internet. Most of it is even willingly shared on the web through our use of social media. It isn't hard to imagine then the information about Guinevere Beck, or just Beck as her friends call her, that Joe is able to unearth. She posts about everything she does, a fact that Joe instantly uses to his advantage. The pair have an "unexpected" run-in at a bar, and things begin to kick into high gear. Joe's obsession with Beck sees him manipulate more encounters until he becomes her boyfriend. He will stop at nothing to become Beck's perfect man, even if that means resorting to the darkest of acts imaginable. 

It seems appropriate that I would kick off my October reading with a book like You. My love of horror runs deep, but with this novel, Caroline Kepnes presents a different kind of terror. There's an undercurrent of fear that runs through every moment of the book. Not the kind of classic fright that may immediately come to mind when thinking about this spooky season, but rather psychological suspense that will nonetheless chill you to the bone. Obsession of any kind can be potentially dangerous, but the infatuation behind the story in You is as uncomfortable to read about as it is enthralling to behold. As I did while reading Jeff Lindsey's Dexter novels, I often found myself feeling a bit guilty for enjoying the story of Joe as much as I did. Kepnes manages to make the reader empathize with and root for her demented main character, even as he sinks to the depths of his despicable delusions. You won't be for every reader, but if you too are looking for a creepy story that provides a unique kind of scare, this one just might do the trick. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 36)

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