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Friday, June 9, 2017

What I’m Reading: Supernatural Thrillers That Make Great Beach Reads

For your summer reading pleasure today I have two excellent examples of supernatural thrillers. These are books with horror elements but which read much more like a thriller-- desperately fast pacing, specific areas of detail (archeology in first review and geopolitics in the second), and lots of cinematic action. I would call these books “horror adjacent.” Horror fans might not be completely satisfied but man, thriller fans will; in fact, you might get some of those thriller readers to branch out and give horror a try after reading these books.

These are books every public library should own as they will find a wide audience. Both are also extremely easy to book talk as you will see. I even provide soundbite reviews for both to make it easy for you.

I will begin with Ararat by Christopher Golden. The plot summary from Goodreads:
When a newly engaged couple climbs Mount Ararat in Turkey, an avalanche forces them to seek shelter inside a massive cave uncovered by the snow fall. The cave is actually an ancient, buried ship that many quickly come to believe is really Noah’s Ark. When a team of scholars, archaeologists, and filmmakers make it inside the ark for the first time, they discover an elaborate coffin in its recesses. The artifact tempts their professional curiosity; so they break it open. Inside, they find an ugly, misshapen cadaver—not the holy man that they expected, a hideous creature with horns. A massive blizzard blows in, trapping them in that cave thousands of meters up the side of a remote mountain…but they are not alone.
Appeal: That's just the summary. Here's why you would read this book or not.

The supernatural thriller parts are perfect. Golden is a best selling and award wining author, so this fact should not surprise you in any way. But it should open him up to new fans. This novel has all of the best action and danger of a Clive Cussler adventure except instead of an evil organization or government, the bad guys are up against a demon. A pretty awful and terrible one.

Like any good thriller the pacing is quick and the action is cinematic. It is breathless by the end but does not sacrifice the details for the pacing which is good because those details are what make it an interesting read overall.

The frame is well done. From the details of mountain climbing, to what it would be like to live on said mountain as a storm rolled in, and the archeological specifics are fleshed out but also seemelessly integrated into the story as it happens. It is very satisfying.

The international cast of characters is realistic for who would be there if Noah's Ark was found. Our main characters are an engaged couple who are famous adventurers with books and documentary movies. They are an American, Jewish male and a lapsed Muslim, British woman. But there are people of many races and ethnicities from all over the world working in different areas of expertise. This is a truly representative cast of characters from all walks of life. But the best thing about the characterization here is that the anxiety and pure terror-- those most horror moments-- are a result of the novel’s superior characterization.  I will say no more about that though because it would give away the fun and scares of reading this book.

The ending is FANTASTIC and it's 100% horror, not thriller. Of the two books I am reviewing today, this one is the most like a traditional horror story, but I do think the thriller aspects that make the book a great, wide audience crowd pleaser, will keep it from being a favorite of pure horror fans. Horror readers will enjoy it, but not love it [like they loved The Ruins in my readalike list below, but then again, non horror fans don't love that books as much either]. Supernatural thriller fans on the other hand, might just find themselves a new favorite author!

This is a book you can hand out easily to many readers. Simply say to them this quick Becky's soundbite review:
Imagine that the ruins of the real Noah's Ark were found, on top of Mt Ararat, in the middle of winter. Send a team of government officials, religious scholars, and archeologists up to excavate and study it. Then watch in sheer terror as while at work, they also find the remains of a demon, one whose soul has been patiently waiting for fresh victims for centuries. Finally watch them all try to escape the demon's clutches [remember they are on top of a mountain, in the middle of a blizzard]. This is the perfect read for a hot day. It's chilling-- both literally AND metaphorically."
That is all you need to tell potential readers. The look on their faces will immediately let you know if this book is for them or not.

Three Words That Describe This Book: detailed action sequences, chilling, interesting frame

Readalikes: I mentioned Clive Cussler above and that wasn't a joke. People who like his adventure stories about raising undersea wrecks will enjoy this story, as long as they do not mind the supernatural aspects here.

Speaking of undersea adventure, Ararat reminded me of my favorite horror-thriller beach read from last summer-- Pressure by Brian Keene. Click through for the details but except for the setting, the books are pretty similar.

But if you really want your terror to come from another cold mountain [without a boat lodged on top of it], Sarah Lotz has you covered with her most recent release, The White Road. Lotz is a solid supernatural thriller writer in her own right. You should check out her other books too.

Speaking of very cold settings for horror try The Terror by Dan Simmons. Here the explorers are looking for the Northwest Passage but they find a monster instead. It is a classic of this subgenre.

Finally, I mention The Ruins by Scott Smith multiple times in this entire post [for both books], I also manage to bring it up all of the time in general [proof here]. This is one of my all time favorite horror novels. I first read it years ago, but it has never left me. In 2015, I included it in this column in Library Journal where I wrote:
In Scott Smith’s The Ruins ..., four American friends vacationing in Cancun, Mexico, meet a German tourist who enlists them in the search for his brother, who went missing on a trip to the Mayan ruins. Despite warnings from the locals, the five climb an ominous hill covered in flowering plants—a hill that ends up holding them captive. Forced into a mortal struggle with a monster, they soon regret their decision to enter the jungle. Smith’s petrifying, original, and gruesome story never lets up and is sure to make readers regard even the most common of houseplants with a touch of fear.
The Ruins is more terrifying, more gory, and more intense than Ararat but man is it great. Plus Smith blurbed Ararat so, he approves.

Okay, next book...

I read Skitter a few months ago. It is the second book in Boone’s The Hatching series. As my review from Booklist explains:

Skitter

Boone, Ezekiel (author).May 2017. 352p. Atria/Emily Bestler, hardcover, $26  (9781501125072); e-book (9781501125096).  First published April 7, 2017 (Booklist Online).
Few things invoke immediate fear in humans like a giant spider can. Now imagine an action packed, apocalyptic thriller, featuring carnivorous spiders quickly destroying the world. But if arachnophobia was Boone’s only inspiration, it wouldn’t sustain book one, let alone a series, and thankfully, after introducing this scenario in The Hatching, Boone still has always had much more up his sleeve. Skitter picks right up where book one left off, skipping around the world, moving quickly between places and characters, allowing readers to see the world wide implications of dealing with this deadly threat. We meet many compelling characters, some we like and some we loathe, but they all feel real, their fear is palpable, and their motivations and actions ring true to who they are. This is a horror novel that moves swiftly and catches the reader up in its tantalizingly terrifying wake. However, the scariest moments here come from the fact that watching the apocalypse happen, in real time, has an unexpected urgency; the geopolitics are eerily realistic despite the fact that the spiders are not. But, don’t expect any resolution because true to its place as the second book in a planned, trilogy, Skitter leaves you hanging and breathlessly waiting for more. This is perfect for fans of speculatively driven, apocalyptic literature with a geopolitical focus and tons of action like World War Z or any series by Mira Grant.
Further Appeal: I hit at the major appeals in the review, giving almost no plot there because you read this book because of the eerie urgency and original frame. What the details of the plot are is secondary.

One thing I did not mention though are the characters. Since this is book 2, you have really gotten to know them-- good and bad. Boone switches off between characters all over the world, but there are clearly a few for which he has the most affection and interest. I am not convinced all will make it through safely at the end of book 3, but you will keep reading to see what happens to these characters as much as to see how the spiders will be defeated and how civilization will prevail. That is the sign of a good horror novel or thriller-- when you care about the characters as much as the scares.

It is important to note that you must read book 1 first and after reading this one, you will be desperately awaiting book 3.

Like Ararat above, this is a supernatural thriller, but while the Golden novel is more horror than thriller, this is more thriller than horror. The action, heroes on a desperate mission, and political stuff takes precedence over the terror.

Three Words That Describe This Book: apocalyptic, chilling, cliffhanger

Readalikes: The two I mentioned in the review are the best options- especially the Newsflesh trilogy by Grant which I have reviewed here. As you can see in my review of the final book in the series, the thriller aspects win out over the horror.

I would also suggest also Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger Series- the gold standard in today’s supernatural thriller world.

For fans of spiders in horror try Sarah Pinborough’s, Breeding Ground or David Wong’s This Book is Full of Spiders. Both are excellent and will give you the creepy crawlies for weeks.

For people who just want more of the danger of nature in general but don’t care about the political and/or apocalyptic angle, I would also suggest The Ruins from above, the classic Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham or Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer.

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