Archive for October 2022

The Troop by Nick Cutter


"That’s what’s different about kids: they believe everything can happen, and fully expect it to."

When you were a child, what were you most afraid of? For me, it was costumed characters. Something about a giant mascot just horrified me beyond belief. In fact, I remember sitting in a grocery cart at a very young age, screaming at the top of my lungs as the Cheeto mascot tried to approach me. My poor Mom finally had to step in and politely ask him to stop following us so we could peacefully go about finishing our shopping. Thankfully, that irrational fear abated with age, but I still have a lingering nightmare involving a guy dressed in a duck costume that haunts me to this very day. As an adult, new things frighten me, things that are much more rational. Still, I find that nothing is as scary as things were when I was a kid. In his novel, The Troop author Nick Cutter, a pseudonym for Canadian author Craig Davidson, preys on our childhood fears by planting a troop of boy scouts directly into a nightmare scenario. 

Tim Riggs has been a scoutmaster for years. Today brings one of his favorite traditions, the yearly camping trip. Over the next three days, the boys will get to explore the wilderness, learn to live off of the land, and share ghost stories around the warmth of a bonfire. For their part, the five boys are eager to escape the real world for a few days. Each of them is on the cusp of manhood, so this outing serves as a potentially final adventure of boyhood. This year's outing takes the troop to an isolated island. The remoteness of this place is palpable. Yes, there are certain comforts like a cabin to sleep in, but the troop can't shake the sense that they truly are on their own. A feeling that will turn from welcome to dread very quickly. 

Not too far into their trip, the troop is interrupted by an intruder, a thin, rambling whither of a man. Tim was certain that the group would be alone on this island, uninterrupted by the outside world. But here this man stands, clearly not in his right mind, and voraciously hungry for any food in his vicinity. The man's hunger is ravenous, he quickly goes from consuming the food that the troop offered him to more unusual tastes. The boys and Tim are frightened by this encounter, unsure of how exactly to proceed and help this man. What they won't know until much later into the night is just how frightened they all should be. The unwanted visitor is the host to a horror more terrifying than anything they could have ever imagined. 

"It is a fact that cannot be denied: the wickedness of others becomes our own wickedness because it kindles something evil in our own hearts."

I love a book that scares me. I read so many books that it can be hard to find something that truly gets under my skin, but The Troop did just that. Nick Cutter has imagined a plot that is as shocking as it is gruesome. Perhaps more dangerous than the physical threats that the troop faces is that of their own emotions. Fear can't be quantified, yet it becomes the main driver of the horror in this book. Think The Lord of the Flies but much darker. Cutter doesn't hold back on giving us all the gory details. If you are even the slightest bit squeamish this book won't be for you. I'm a die-hard horror fan, and even I was shocked by some of the scenes in this book. Like all great horror authors, Cutter knows that none of the gore will land if the reader isn't heavily invested in the characters. He shifts perspective from character to character, giving us an intimate look into their lives and psyches. The masterful character work only adds to the terror that they encounter. This is the perfect read for Halloween and a book that will continue to haunt my nightmares long after I've put it away. 

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

(2022, 47)

Breed by Chase Novak


How far would you go to make your dream a reality? Alex and Leslie Twisden seem to have it all. Money is no issue, and they live in a beautiful home in New York's Upper East Side. Despite everything they have, beginning a family of their own has completely evaded them. The pair have agreed to have a child no matter what the cost. Now having exhausted almost every option in conceiving a child, the couple is desperate. When a colleague at work recommends a treatment Alex has never heard of, he's eager to share the news with Leslie. For her part, Leslie is skeptical at best. The expensive procedure will be performed by a doctor that hasn't appeared in her extensive research, and she's not exactly sold on flying to a foreign country to meet with this expert. However, her desire for a child persists, so she finally agrees to go along. Their experience will be traumatic but effective. 

From the outside looking in, twins Adam and Alice Twisden seem to have perfectly normal lives. They live in an affluent neighborhood, attend a good school, and have parents who love them. Behind closed doors, though, things aren't what they seem. Each night without fail, the Twisdon Twins are locked into their bedroom by their reclusive parents. What are they being secured from? The twins aren't exactly sure, but they do know that they hear strange noises coming from their parent's room, noises that are more animal than human. 

I've had Breed on my TBR shelf for nearly a decade. At the time I purchased it, I was reading through many of Stephen King's classic works, and I was hungry for more horror novels. Author Scott Spencer, writing under the pseudonym Chase Novak, has written a chilling novel that more than kept the pages turning. The first half deals with parents who are desperately traveling to the ends of the earth to conceive a child. The cost of their desperation leads to side effects that are downright horrifying. There's a sadness to the situation that Novak deftly handles. We can't help but empathize with the characters as they do anything and everything to get their wish. The second half of the novel is less narratively cohesive than that of the first. It was fun to see the kids dealing with the reality of their family, but it was far more inconsistent in tone than the opening half. Still, Breed succeeds as a solid popcorn read with just the right amount of spookiness to satisfy readers this time of the year. 

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2022, 46)

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel


 "A life lived in simulation is still a life."

Emily St. John Mandel is an author who has been on my radar for several years. I've seen glowing reviews of her previous novels The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven, but I've never gotten around to reading them. Like other much-hyped books, I added them to my TBR list and then ignored them. Her latest novel, Sea of Tranquility, was published earlier this year, and the reviews have been glowing once again. Comparisons to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, a novel that both mesmerized and confounded me, piqued my interest even more. I decided it was finally time to read a Mandel novel, and Sea of Tranquility would be a perfect place to begin. 

What is reality? How do we decipher what is valid from what is imagined? These questions mark the impetus of this novel. It opens in 1912 with Edwin, a young man who has been castigated from his family and his home country in embarrassment. He couldn't keep his mouth shut, and now he finds himself halfway across the world, landing in Western Canada's wilderness. As he wanders the forest, Edwin steps into a place that leaves him questioning his very sanity. "He steps forward into a flash of darkness, like sudden blindness or an eclipse. He has an impression of being in some vast interior, something like a train station or a cathedral, and there are notes of violin music, there are other people around him, and then an incomprehensible sound—."

Just as we begin to grapple with the implications of what Edwin experiences, Mandel thrusts us forward a hundred years. We see a composer giving a lecture about his composition that centers around a video recorded by his sister. In the recording, she is seen walking through the forest when time and space seem to blip. Again, before we have time to wrestle with what we read, Mandel moves us forward to the year 2203. We meet a novelist who is on a book tour promoting her latest work. The tour has taken her from her home on a moon colony back to earth. As she laments missing her family, news breaks of a plague beginning to spread on the planet. In a fiction that mirrors Madel's own reality, the author must face promoting her book amongst the spread of a life-threatening illness. 

It isn't until the mid-point of the novel that things begin to come into focus. We land in the year 2401, to a world (galaxy may be more apt) that is completely transformed. Humanity exists in domed colonies, a reality that is both alien and familiar. Gaspery, a man we've seen glimpses of in the preceding stories, is fully introduced as a nightwatchman of a hotel, a job he hates. His sister works at a more exciting, but secretive, gig as a scientist who has been investigating anomalies in time and space. She reveals to Gaspery that different centuries and realities are bleeding into each other, an oddity that is without explanation. Gaspery, desperate to shake his dead-end job, agrees to assist her in traveling across time to get to the bottom of this strange aberration. 

With Sea of Tranquility Emily St. John Mandel takes her readers on a journey across time and space, daring us to ask big questions and to find answers nestled in unlikely places. From a sheer construction standpoint, the novel is a mastery of craft and plotting. Each story corresponds to the next and vice versa creating a nesting doll effect. Yes, other authors have used this device before, but perhaps none to such a rewarding effect. I'll admit to being a bit discombobulated at first. It was hard to see the forest from the trees, especially as Mandel thrust us forward in time with each new section. This confusion is resolved by introducing a character who is able to traverse time, giving us readers someone to help make sense of how everything is connected. Despite the narrative wizardry at play here, Mandel manages to ground her work in characters who glimmer with reality, even when that reality is so different from our own. Ultimately it is the way these characters, love, and lament that makes Sea of Tranquility truly shine. 

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

(2022, 45)

In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt


October is here, bringing my favorite time of the year. The humidity of the South Texas summer has given way to a slight crispness in the air, the perfect weather to curl up with a light blanket and a good book. With the spooky season finally upon us, I've decided to pepper in some horror reads among the other books on my TBR list. Laird Hunt's 2018 novel In the House in the Dark of the Woods recently caught my eye at my local library. It promised an "indigenous horror story set in Colonial New England," a premise I couldn't pass up. At a little over 200 pages, I hoped the book would be a quick start to my seasonal reading. 

The world outside is strange and wonderful, dark and foreboding. The woman leaves her man and boy to enter the woods in search of berries. She becomes lost amongst the trees, encountering bizarre places and people along the way. What secrets do these dark woods hold? The woman's duty to her family beckons her forward, her desire to find her way home forcing her through situations she would never have dreamed of. Fantasy and reality blend together into a dark fairy tale that will leave the woman forever changed by the things she encounters. 

In the House in the Dark of the Woods is a peculiar read, something more akin to a folktale than horror in the literal sense. Think Lewis Carrol's Wonderland mixed with Hansel and Gretel. Lair Hunt's lyrical prose enraptured me from the start, but I struggled to invest in the story he portrayed. There's no real sense of direction to the novel. Instead, we bear witness to one woman encountering oddity after oddity. What began as an intriguing setup brimming with a dark undertone gave way to an annoyance that nothing of real consequence seemed to be happening. Even after reading the entire book, I still can't say with confidence that I fully understand what exactly happened. The atmosphere is certainly creepy, but In the House in the Dark of the Woods offers little else. 

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2022, 44)

Righteous Prey by John Sandford


If you ask me for my recommendation of a great detective series, I won't hesitate to suggest John Sandford's Virgil Flowers series. Through 12 novels Flowers has used his unconventional methods and charming personality to solve some of the most challenging murder cases. Sandford is probably better known for his prolific Prey series featuring Lucas Davenport. The two characters have come in contact in previous books, but none more so than they did in the last Prey novel Ocean Prey. Sandford has slowed his output in recent years. Rather than deprive readers of either of their favorite heroes, he's elected to pair them up in the yearly Prey novel. Righteous Prey, the 32nd book in the long-running series, was provided to me by Sandford's publisher. It features the team-up of Davenport and Flowers in a chilling mystery that only they can solve. 

As the title would suggest, the murderers in the book kill for a 'righteous' cause. The group calls themselves The Five, and they have made it their mission to rid the world of deplorable people. The first victim to be killed is left with a number 1 on their forehead, a chilling label, and a sign that the killer may just be getting started. These fears are confirmed when an anonymous press release is revealed. In it, The Five take credit for the murder and pose quite a moral dilemma. You see, they are offering a large donation in cryptocurrency to a charity that relates to how the victim was perceived as a bad person. When victims number 2 and 3 appear in other parts of the country, each with their own accompanying press release and donation, law enforcement calls in reinforcements. Lucky for us, those reinforcements are Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers. 

Lucas has been a US Marshall for years. When he gets the call about The Five, he immediately thinks of his buddy Virgil from Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. The pair is hot off of a massive drug bust off the coast of Florida, but they've since gone their separate ways. Virgil has settled down with his wife and newborn twins and has recently submitted a pass at a novel. A new, quieter career could be on the horizon. When Lucas calls and requests his help, Virgil finds it hard to pass up the intrigue of such a complex murder case. With the blessing of his wife, Virgil teams up with Lucas to stop the serial killers before they can enact their cause on the next unsuspecting victim. 

Virgil Flowers is my favorite detective for a reason, and Righteous Prey continues to prove why. Sandford writes a complex mystery that shifts the POV between his main characters and the group of killers they are hunting. This gives the reader the benefit of knowing all the details of the crimes before the investigators do. Lucas and Virgil have a witty rapport, bringing comedy and lightness to an otherwise brutal story. Sandford delves into the cryptocurrency boom, imagining the darkest side of that world while never telling the reader what to think about it. In these highly politicized times, it is nice to be able to escape into a thriller that is timely but not taxing. The pace of the book is brisk, making for another unputdownable read from one of my go-to authors. The ending leaves a few questions as to the future of our heroes. I for one, can't wait to see what they do next. 

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

(2022, 43)

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