Book Review: The Family Plot, Cherie Priest (2016)

Friday, October 28th, 2016

A Creepy HGTV/CW Crossover

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

In all the years she’d been talking to houses, the houses had never talked back.

“We can’t salvage ghosts. They don’t sell for shit.”

Music City Salvage is struggling: several of their clients stiffed them on pretty hefty bills, and their warehouse of stale stock just isn’t moving. So when old money Augusta Withrow approaches them about buying the salvage rights to her family estate, owner Chuck Dutton jumps at the maybe-too-good-to-be-true chance. At forty grand, it’s a gamble: that’s more cash than they’ve got in the bank, but the payoff could be huge. Or the deal just might bankrupt the family-owned company.

Chuck’s daughter Dahlia heads up the salvage team. Also on board: her cousin Bobby, with whom she hasn’t been on the best of terms lately, not since he sided with her ex-husband Andy in the divorce; Bobby’s son, Gabe; and resident nerd Brad, a salvage virgin. The quartet has a week to travel the two hours from Nashville to Chattanooga, strip the mansion and numerous outbuildings clean, and pack it all up before the wrecking crew arrives to do its worst.

It should be easy peasy, except that the estate is situated at the base of Lookout Mountain, and there’s a storm a-brewing, threatening to wash them all away. And Bobby is an alcoholic, and Dahl might be headed down that path too, and they kind of hate each others’ guts. Oh, and the estate is haunted. By no fewer than four ghosts. What could possibly go wrong?

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Accident Season, Moïra Fowley-Doyle (2015)

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Superb idea, so-so execution…

three out of five stars

(Trigger warning for child abuse, domestic violence, and rape. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

It’s the accident season, the same time every year. Bones break, skin tears, bruises bloom. Years ago my mother tried to lock us all up, pad the hard edges of things with foam and gauze, cover us in layers of sweaters and gloves, ban sharp objects and open flames. We camped out together in the living room for eight days, until the carefully ordered takeout food—delivered on the doorstep and furtively retrieved by my mother, who hadn’t thought how she would cook meals without the help of our gas oven—gave us all food poisoning and we spent the next twenty-four hours in the hospital. Now every autumn we stock up on bandages and painkillers; we buckle up, we batten down. We never leave the house without at least three protective layers. We’re afraid of the accident season. We’re afraid of how easily accidents turn into tragedies. We have had too many of those already.

So let’s raise our glasses to the accident season,
To the river beneath us where we sink our souls,
To the bruises and secrets, to the ghosts in the ceiling,
One more drink for the watery road.

— 3.5 stars —

I can’t remember the last time I had such mixed feelings about a novel.

On the one hand, the story’s premise – every October the Morris-Fagan family is beset by a series of seemingly random accidents, from cuts and bruises to more serious calamities, like car accidents and drownings – is fabulous. The invention of a so-called “accident season” is creative and compelling and provides so many potential avenues of exploration. Are the accidents merely coincidence? Bad luck given meaning by a family who sees what it wants to see? (We humans have a way of forming patterns out of randomness.) A self-fulfilling prophecy? (The worst.) Or perhaps the accidents are the work of a sinister force, either supernatural or more worldly? (Not all monsters are nonhuman, you know.)

The plot gets even weirder than the synopsis hints at with the introduction of Elsie, a plain Jane, mousey girl who mysteriously appears in all of Cara’s photographs – even those taken on a family vacation on the Mediterranean. As the accident season of her junior year draws to a close, the narrator Cara; her older sister Alice; their ex-step-brother Sam; and Cara’s best friend Bea scramble to find Elsie, who’s suddenly gone missing from school and whose presence/absence seems somehow connected to the family’s ill fortunes.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Fellside, M.R. Carey (2016)

Friday, April 8th, 2016

Disappointing

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Jess Moulton wakes up in a hospital bed with few memories of the previous eight months. A heroin addict, she and her boyfriend John Street shot up in her flat; when a fire broke out later that night (started, according to the police, by Jess herself), John was able to escape with third degree burns on his hands and arms, but Jess wasn’t so lucky. Passed out cold, the fire melted half her face before first responders pulled her from the inferno. Alex Beech, the little boy who lived in the upstairs apartment, wasn’t so lucky; left home alone that night by his parents, Alex died of smoke inhalation.

After multiple skin grafts and extensive cosmetic surgery to repair her face, Jess is swiftly tried and convicted of murder. The Crown insists that Jess set the fire on purpose, to kill John and herself; the fact that someone else died instead does not manslaughter make. Left with no memories of the event – and a pretty low opinion of herself, college dropout and relapsed “junkie” – Jess does little to assist in her own defense. After the verdict comes down, she’s sent to Fellside, a women’s prison near the Yorkshire Moors. Convinced that she is indeed a “murderess,” Jess tries to kill herself by the only means at her disposal – a hunger strike.

Just as she’s on the precipice, Jess is visited by the ghost of Alex Beech – who enlists her help in finding the real killer. Fellside is fraught with danger: a drug smuggling ring led by Harriet Grace of “State of Grace” fame; corrupt wardens; incompetent management; damaged women with little left to lose – yet the greatest risk lies in that other world, the spirit world inhabited by dreamers and ghosts. A world that Jess has been able to traverse since she was a child.

Spooky, right?

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Shallow Graves, Kali Wallace (2016)

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Horror With a Heart

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including rape culture.)

Mom and Dad would be so disappointed. They had always told us there was no such thing as ghosts.

There’s something Karen Garrow once said about the fate of the universe. It was on one of her television shows, an episode I watched a dozen times on the basement TV. All of us, she said, all of us and all of everything that had ever existed and ever would exist, it was all made up of matter that formed in the very first moments of the universe, and it would all last until the very end. The atoms would decay, the particles would break apart, everything would disintegrate and shatter until it was unrecognizable – too degraded – but that would take so many billions and billions of years we didn’t even have words for time scales that large. Everything had come from the same hot explosion and everything would end in the same empty darkness. It had nothing to do with what we believed or what we wanted or how desperately we needed to reassure ourselves that the brief moment in which we lived meant anything at all. None of it would matter in the end.

And Karen smiled her playful smile, and she said, “But it isn’t the end yet. It matters now, everything we have, for as long as we can hold onto it.”

I was so fucking tired of men deciding whether or not I got to go on existing for another day.

One minute, seventeen-year-old Breezy Lin is at a high school party; the next, she wakes up in a shallow grave, in a vacant house just a few blocks from her house, a creepy man haunted by a creepier shadow eagerly digging her free. She reaches for him, pulls…and something in him snaps. The coroner’s report will list the cause of death as a heart attack, but Breezy killed him. Just like he killed that family of four, gathered around a dinner table, so many years ago.

A year has passed since her death, and during this time Breezy has morphed into something unnatural. Raised by magic – and the deaths of thousands of birds, every single one within a two-mile radius of her grave – Breezy is a revenant. An animated corpse, resurrected from death to hunt the living. Breezy can spot killers, who wear their guilt like a cloak; their sin calls to hear, awakens her hunger, and after she eats, she will carry their ghoulish memories with her, always. Unable to go home, Breezy starts hitchhiking across the country, seeking vengeance for other murdered souls.

But not for her. Never for her, because Breezy has no memories of her death. Her murder remains a mystery.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Suffering (The Girl from the Well #2), Rin Chupeco (2015)

Monday, August 31st, 2015

“Just a boy and his ghost.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and other forms of violence.)

Okiku was the first person in my life who was completely mine, in the same way that I was the only person that had ever been completely hers. She taught me to face my inner demons, that their presence did not mean I was broken. She loved my darkness, and I loved her light.

I’m no hero, but I do have a superpower. Except my superpower tends to wander off when she’s bored.

It’s been two years since the malevolent spirit of his aunt Chiyo, formerly a powerful miko, was purged from Tarquin Holloway’s body – with the help of his mother Yoko, the Chinsei shrine maidens, and Okiku, the 300-year-old ghost of a 16-year-old servant girl. Now seventeen, Tark’s life has returned to normal – ish : a high school senior in Washington, DC, Tark looks forward to graduation and college. He gets good grades, despite his occasional nightly outings; and, though he doesn’t have many friends – weird things always seem to happen around Tark, making him the subject of gossip and suspicion – at least the other kids have stopped bullying him. Well, mostly.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Uninvited: A Novel, Cat Winters (2015)

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Hope is the Girl with Bright Blue Butterfly Wings

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence.)

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

We were music. We were jazz. We were alive.

Like her mother Alice and her Granny Letty before her, Ivy Rowan can see Uninvited Guests. Ghosts, harbinger spirits who only appear to Ivy to herald a death. Instead of offering her comfort, the ghosts of her beloved ancestors inspire nothing but fear and dread in Ivy’s bleeding heart. Every time they visit her, someone dies.

The year is 1918. As the twin horrors of World War I and the Spanish Influenza rip across the globe, leaving millions of corpses in their wake – many of them the young and the healthy; those who should have their whole lives ahead of them – the ghosts seem to come at Ivy in droves. Death is a constant.

There’s her younger brother Billy, who was killed in the Battle of Saint-Michiel just a month ago. Eddie Dover, target of so many teenage crushes, also felled in battle. And Albrecht Schendel – the German businessman her father Frank and youngest brother Peter beat to death in cold blood.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Girl from the Well, Rin Chupeco (2014)

Friday, June 12th, 2015

“An onryuu with a conscience, kami help us.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through NetGalley.)

I have always striven for detachment, a disinterest in the living. Their preoccupation with each breath of air, the brevity of their lifetimes, and their numerous flaws do not inspire sympathy in me. I can plumb their minds and wander the places they frequent, but they hold little significance.

I do not care to remember names. I do not care to recognize faces.

But this one is called Tarquin Holloway.

He has a cousin named Callie Starr.

His eyes are very bright blue.

He is lonely.

It is not in my nature to be interested in the living.

But there are many things, I have found, that defy nature.

“An onryuu with a conscience, kami help us.”

Should a person experience a brutal and unwarranted death at the hands of another, she does do not go gentle into that good night. Rather than continue on to the afterlife – whatever that may entail; it’s not for the narrator to say – she remains in a sort of purgatory, her spirit tethered to her murderer. Only when her death is avenged, and her killer brought to justice, is her soul free to move on. If she still wants to, that is.

Okiku is a yuurei – a spirit that cannot rest. Three hundred years ago, the 16-year-old girl was tortured and murdered, her body tossed down a well like so much trash, at the hands of a retainer – and with her beloved Lord’s permission. In the centuries since, Okiku has roamed the world, hunting down those who prey on children: murderers, rapists, and pedophiles. Fueled by vengeance, Okiku is an especially powerful yuurei: an onryuu, able to harm the living.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Ice Twins: A Novel, S.K. Tremayne (2015)

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

This Book is Bonkers

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and violence, including rough sex.)

“Mummy, why do you keep calling me Kirstie?”

I say nothing. The silence is ringing. I speak:

“Sorry, sweetheart. What?”

“Why do you keep calling me Kirstie, Mummy? Kirstie is dead. It was Kirstie that died. I’m Lydia.”

It’s been thirteen months since Sarah’s six-year-old daughter Lydia – one half of the “Ice Twins” – died in a tragic fall from her parents’ first-floor balcony in Devon. In the wake of the accident, the family all but fell apart: Sarah spiraled into a morass of grief and guilt – for it was she who was supposed to be watching the girls that fateful night – while her husband Angus found solace in the bottom of a whiskey bottle. An angry, sometimes-violent drunk like his father, Angus eventually was fired from his architecture job after assaulting his boss in an alcohol-fueled rage.

And the remaining daughter Kirstie? Well, she’s adrift without her other half. Best friends and then some, Kirstie and Lydia lived in their own little world. They had their own secret language and elaborate in-jokes, and in the months leading up to the accident, their identities had become so intertwined that they often dressed alike, swapped personas, and referred to themselves as a single entity, e.g., “Mummy, come and sit between me so you can read to us.” Now that Lydia’s gone, Kirstie is an island: alone, apart, desolate.

So what could be better than relocating Kirstie to an actual island? (Yes, that was sarcasm. Sarah and Angus are the worst.)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Walls Around Us, Nova Ren Suma (2015)

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Dark, Haunting, Beautiful – One of My Favorites of 2015

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an ARC for review from book blogger Miss Print. Also, trigger warning for sexual harassment and allusions to rape.)

Home is where the heart is, and where the hell is, and where the hate is, and where the hopelessness is. Which made Aurora Hills pretty much like home.

Amber Smith is a little more than three years into four-year sentence at Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center for manslaughter. After she ages out, she’ll be transferred to an adult prison for killing her abusive stepfather, a crime she may or may not have committed at the tender age of thirteen.

Then one hot, humid August night, the cell doors come open – and for a few glorious hours (no one quite knows how long the power was out and the COs caught unawares; it’s as though time has stopped, or lost all meaning), the forty-one girls housed at Aurora Hills get a taste of the freedom long denied them. Some, like Amber’s cellmate D’amour, make a run for it – only to be carved open by the barbed wire atop the first fence, and then burned to a crisp by the middle, electrified fence. Others overtake the various wings – A, B, C, even D, which houses the suicides – ransacking the canteen and causing general mayhem.

But Amber? Despite her protestations that none of them are special (“…the exact opposite of special. We were bad. Broken. It was up to the state to rehabilitate us into something worthy, if it even could.”), that night Amber is afforded something very special indeed: a glimpse of their future.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Anya’s Ghost, Vera Brosgol (2011)

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Single White Lady

four out of five stars

What begins as somewhat typical tale of teenage angst morphs into something much darker when high schooler Annushka Borzakovskaya – Anya for short – takes a tumble into a long-abandoned well while cutting though the park on her way home from Hamilton School. There she finds the bones of one Emily Reilly, a young woman who was murdered ninety years ago, her body never found. Attached to the bones: Emily’s ghost, which follows Anya home upon her rescue. Anya accidentally swept up Emily’s pinky, along with her food and other belongings, you see. Or did she?

At first, Anya’s rather rude to the hapless, mousy Emily; a ghost could seriously damage her already lackluster reputation. But when Emily proves a helpful ally – helping Anya cheat on her bio test; scoping out the contents of her crush’s backpack; giving her a bitchin’ makeover and a boost of confidence to match – Anya happily embraces her new BFF, leaving the former title-holder Siobhan in the dust.

Before long, Emily’s interest in Anya’s life veers into Single White Female territory; and after a little digging, Anya discovers the shocking, sinister truth about Emily’s death.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Out of Tune, Jonathan Maberry, ed. (2014)

Monday, December 1st, 2014

A Solid Collection of Short Horror/Fantasy

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I receive a free e-copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Also, the story summaries may include spoilers, so skip them if you’d rather read the anthology with fresh eyes. Trigger warning for rape.)

Confession time. I requested a review copy of Out of Tune based solely on the merits of one of its contributors: Seanan McGuire. I devoured the Newsflesh trilogy (penned under the pseudonym Mira Grant) and thought that her contribution (“Each to Each”) was the single best thing in Lightspeed’s special “Women Destroy SF” issue (a magazine filled with awesome things, mind you). I recognized some of the other names, but no one struck a chord like McGuire. Additionally, my interest in old ballads pretty much begins and ends with covers recorded by my favorite folk singers – Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie. I didn’t really have any expectations, good or bad, for this collection.

Overall, I came away pleasantly surprised. The fourteen stories in Out of Tune run the gamut: there’s lots of horror and fantasy, peppered with a little romance and some good, old-fashioned ghost stories. Some, like “Wendy, Darling,” incorporate elements of other, much-loved tales, while others have an air of historical fiction; here I’m thinking of “In Arkham Town, Where I Was Bound,” which features Edgar Allen Poe as the incidental narrator. The authors’ respective senses of humor – whether wry, playful, or just downright wicked – are evident throughout. A few of the stories are remarkably poignant and painfully beautiful; “Driving Jenny Home,” I’m looking at you. As for the Big Bads, you’ll spot a number of usual suspects – ghosts, demons, mermaids, and wicked women – as well as villains less common to ballads, such as gods from Norse mythology.

(More below the fold…)