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Thursday, May 4, 2017

What I’m Reading: Gwendy’s Button Box and In the Valley of the Sun

In the current issue of Booklist, I have two star reviews of horror titles. One is the brand new Stephen King and Richard Chizmar novella that even I was surprised was so great, but the second was a total surprise-- a debut novel, by Andy Davidson, that knocked me off my feet. The King, that one your patrons will probably grab and inhale in one sitting on their own, but the Davidson...buy it, hand it out, even read it yourself. Trust me. This is one a wide range of people will enjoy.

As usual, I am including the full text of my draft review which always has a little more than ends up in the magazine plus the three words and such that I always include in my reviews.


Gwendy’s Button Box.

King, Stephen (author) and Richard Chizmar (author).
May 2017. 168p. Cemetery Dance, hardcover, $25 (9781587676109)
First published May 1, 2017 (Booklist).

The fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine is known around the world for the strange things that always seem to happen there. It has been a while since King let his imagination wander back to this beloved location, but with the help of award-winning author, Chizmar, Castle Rock is not only back, but it has returned to reveal one of its best secrets yet. Beginning in the summer of 1974, we meet Gwendy as she climbs 305 Suicide Steps to the top of Castle View to find a man in a dark suit and hat waiting patiently for her on a bench. He has something to give her, something beautiful but sinister, something magical but dangerous: the Button Box. It dispenses valuable coins and amazing chocolate treats, but its buttons can also be used to cause world-wide devastation, and Gwendy is now charged with keeping the box safe for the foreseeable future. What follows is a novella, told in a tone that is both sweet and ominous, of Gwendy’s coming of age. From a plump twelve year old to a college graduate, her time as the steward of the box is filled with its share of utter happiness and crushing sorrow. It moves quickly, as life does during these seminal years for us all, but where this novella shines is in the universal questions it asks of the reader. How much of any of our lives is of our own doing versus being a result of intervention from an unseen force? And, how much power do any of us have to save the world, or conversely, destroy it? Readers will eagerly devour this thought provoking and satisfying tale, even as it leaves them unsettled in its wake. Like The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Gaiman or Every Heart a Doorway by McGuire, this is dark fantasy storytelling at its best, regardless of length. 
YA Statement: Like all of King’s works, there will be teens clamoring to read this novella. With its teenaged protagonist and thought provoking issues around growing up and finding yourself, this is an excellent option. 
Further Appeal: Look, I’m not going to lie, I was cautious when reading this. Would it be as good as people were expecting? The answer is yes! I am actually surprised by how much I really loved it considering I started this novella daring the pages to impress me.

I know you don’t need me to hand sell this title to patrons, but you CAN use it to hand other titles to people, books they would never know about without your help.  To help you, help them I have many readalikes linked through in the review above and below in my “Readalikes" section. So your marching orders are to use this title’s popularity to spread the word about other great reads.

Three Words That Describe This Book: coming of age, dark (yet also sweet), nostalgic

Readalikes: I mention two other novella readalikes above by Gaiman and McGuire. Both are great options and the links I added go to the reviews I wrote with more readalikes.  Click through above, especially with the Gaiman. The list of readalikes to Ocean at the End of the Lane works perfectly here too. All of the readalikes are novels, but they are not long and all move fairly briskly.

Another shorter title that is a tad bit more weird fiction than straight horror, but will appeal to people who like the thought-provoking story, coming of age themes, and open-ended nature of this novella is This Census-Taker by China Mieville. Like Gwendy and her magic box, here our young protagonist possesses darkly powerful keys.

Finally, if your patrons like this novella, they HAVE to read Chizmar’s novella found at the end of his most recent collection A Long December. The novella gives the title to the whole collection. You can read more about what I have to say about that novella here. Many may question how much Chizmar wrote in Gwendy’s Button Box, but if you have read A Long December, you won’t have any doubts as you can clearly see his skilled hand in this collaboration.


In the Valley of the Sun.

Davidson, Andy (author).

June 2017. 384p. Skyhorse, hardcover, $24.99  (9781510721104); e-book (9781510721111)
First published May 1, 2017 (Booklist).

It is 1980 and the US is still reeling from the effects of the Vietnam War, especially in the harsh landscape of rural Texas. Travis is not a good man, he even wears a black hat. Haunted by his violent past, he takes it out on the women he meets. But one night, a strange, pale skinned girl leaves him bloodied and weak in his own trailer only to awaken with an inability to tolerate daylight and a strange and overpowering hunger. When widow Annabelle and her ten year old son Sandy, see the trailer in the parking lot of their long empty roadside motel, she offers the sickly cowboy some work around the place in exchange for his board. The three lonely souls soon strike up an awkward friendship, but not for long because a veteran Texas Ranger is following the trail of dead girls that leads right up to Travis’ doorstep, and no one, not even Travis, understands the monster they are truly up against. The shifting point of view smoothly moves between the major players, allowing the reader to sympathize with all, even the most evil ones. But this is not your typical vampire novel, rather it is actually a lyrical western, with a large dose of psychological suspense. Everyone has a secret here and no one is completely innocent. It is a story dripping with atmosphere, a hauntingly dark, yet oddly beautiful debut with wide appeal, where the plot and the characters play with your mind, and the pacing is like the harsh landscape, a slow but riveting burn. This is one that readers won’t easily forget after turning the final page. Hand it often to fans of literary, psychological suspense with a strong sense of place who don’t mind a subtle touch of the supernatural, and especially target fans of the film Hell or High Water and the novels of Cormac McCarthy or Stephen Graham Jones
Further Appeal: This book was amazing from the first page. First of all, talk about a flawed protagonist, Travis wears a black hat for goodness sake. The unease in this book starts from the dead, lifeless girl on page one and only builds from there; it is intense. The characters are all complicated and flawed. The setting is rendered perfectly-- both the beauty and savagery of the landscape and the time period [post Vietnam War]. And the whole vampire thing is so subtle. I normally dislike vampire stories, but for this one, it works perfectly both as a metaphor AND literally.

But what is the most striking thing about this book it the lyrical beauty of its language. This is a book you can give out to readers who read for language. Over the years I have found that there are a lot of those readers. They don’t care as much about plot or other appeals as long as the language itself captures them.

I was a little sad when I finished this book because I think I read the best debut horror book I will read all year and it is was only March when I finished it. Expect me to bring this one up A LOT in the coming months.

Finally, it is important to note that the Western is having a moment once again, but it is in this reimagined way. Pay attention to that because it is trend that is still on an upward trajectory.

Three Words That Describe This Book: lyrical, haunting, atmospheric

Readalikes: Seriously, if you could stuff Cormac McCarthy into Stephen Graham Jones- mix the old Texas master with one of the up and coming ones and have that newly created author write a book- you would get this novel. Mongrels by Jones and either No Country for Old Men OR The Road by McCarthy [depending on your personal preferences with storyline] are where you should begin.

Mentioning No Country for Old Men which is also a very good movie, brings me back to the fact that in the review I give a watch alike. This book is more similar to Hell or High Water than any book I have ever read. The setting of that Oscar nominated movie is more contemporary, yes, but otherwise the feel, characterizations, and bleak beauty are all there. I hand sold this title to best selling horror author Jeff Strand based on this comparison alone.

Finally, if you want a Southern Gothic classic that also has a monster storyline, but one that is not the crux of the story, try the often forgotten, but absolutely AMAZING The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell. It’s set in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, but the zombies are not why you read this novel.

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