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Friday, June 14, 2019

What I'm Reading: The Hungry Ghost and Sealed

I have two reviews in the current issue of Booklist Magazine, one horror and one pre-apocalyptic sf. Both are solid titles that are good for general library collections. Both will appeal to a wide range of readers which makes them great for public libraries. Both are solid and well crafted debut novels. And both are short, fast reads with strong female protagonists.

As usual, here on the blog I am posting my longer, draft review with further appeal statements, my "three words,"  and more readalikes.

The Hungry Ghost.

Storm, Dalena (author).
June 2019. 226p. Black Spot, paper, $13.99  (9781732935754); e-book, $5.99 (9781732935761)
First published June 1, 2019 (Booklist).

In this debut horror thriller, Storm takes the Buddhist concept of the “hungry ghost,” a spirit waiting for reincarnation but who is out for evil, and gives it an American twist. Sam is recently divorced from her alcoholic husband and just beginning a new relationship with a former student when a car accident leaves her in a coma. A hungry ghost uses the negative energy of Sam’s lovers and mother to find her body, possess it, and begin to use it to feed off of the living. Meanwhile, Sam’s soul seems to reborn somewhere else. Can the real Sam stop the hungry ghost from wreaking havoc? This is a fast paced, creepy, and atmospheric tale filled with plot twists, well drawn characters, and a close third person narration that allows readers access into the heads of all of the players, even the hungry ghost itself, a narrative device that exponentially increases the horror. The result is an entertaining story that is more than just a terrifying and fresh take on the possession trope, as it is also an intimate look at our connection to our loved ones, inlcudes a LGBTQ positive frame, and lots of rescue cats, cats that are both adorable and integral to the plot. This is a great choice for fans of horror thriller combos like The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins and The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes and Asian horror like The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun and The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike.
Further Appeal: First I want to address the elephant in the room, this book is based on Buddhism and the author is a white lady. Now, I did some research and she was an Asian studies major, so I felt better reviewing this book. Also, all of the characters are white. The frame is just this Asian concept.

Sam, her new girlfriend, her ex-husband, and her mother are all well drawn characters. With the close third person narration we get to see more of them than they give out to the world, which keeps the tension high and makes everyone more sympathetic. I really did love that the ghost is a character too. It made the entire story feel more real. I honestly believed all of this terror and horror was happening as I read because of narration.

It was like a suspense novel in this way. We are frightened because we know "the truth," and the characters do not. It is terrifying. Storm did a good job carrying that feeling throughout without over doing it. She let the characters carry the story and yet kept the pace moving.

Finally, the cats. I cannot stress enough how integral the rescue cats and the guy who runs the shelter are to the plot. This alone is a selling point for your animal lovers. Trust me.

This is a book you can hand out with confidence to a wide range of readers.

Three Words That Describe This Book: creepy, multiple points of view, plot twists

Readalikes: I gave a bunch above but really any fast paced horror thriller that isn't about the blood and guts will work. There is a lot of psychological horror here too.

If you like the American-ized version of an Asian theme I would also try The Handyman by Bentley Little which I reviewed here and gave more readalikes for.

But as I mentioned above, this book is horror but uses many suspense techniques. So readers who really enjoy intense suspense with lots of peril and the shifting poverties between heroes and villains will also enjoy this book.


Booth, Naomi (author).
July 2019. 240p. Titan, paper, $14.95 (9781789091243); e-book (9781789091250)
First published June 1, 2019 (Booklist).

In this short, compelling, and anxiety inducing debut novel, Alice is 36 weeks pregnant, living in rural Australia with her boyfriend, Pete, having just fled the city due to debilitating pollution, severe climate change, and an outbreak of a contagious disease, cutis, which causes human skin to grow unabated, ultimately killing by sealing in its victims. Told entirely from Alice’s viewpoint, she enhances the unrelentingly tension of the plot by making it clear throughout that she is also not to be trusted. She is alarmist about the severity of the cutis outbreak, in deep grief over her mother’s death, and anxious about becoming a mother. Can the reader trust her view of the situation when other characters around her don’t and she even doubts herself? Or is Alice the only realist in a quickly escalating world crisis? Her intensely personal yet unreliable narrative voice is what holds the story together and keeps readers turning the pages, more quickly and compulsively as the story moves to its visceral conclusion. Sealed refuses to be categorized: it is a pre-apocalyptic cautionary tale, an intense psychological thriller, a fable on motherhood, and pure body horror all wrapped up into one unsettling package that will leaves readers pondering the novel long after turning the final page. Fans of Margaret Atwood will enjoy this but also target readers who enjoyed The Grip of It by Jemc, Annihilation by VanderMeer, and The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste.
Further Appeal: As you can see from this review, there is a lot going on here in a very short package, but that is not a bad thing. The point I want you to take away from my review is the sentence I bolded. That is the crux of why someone would like this book. 

The super disorienting unreliable narrator and how she makes you question everything is also very cool. Is this a madwoman unravelling or a pre-apocalyptic tale? I don't know! And that is a good thing. This will be a great option for book clubs who want to try something different because it is full of questions that don't have a right answer and will keep you thinking.

It is also super fast paced. Yes, it is short, but you can't look away. The pacing escalates quickly and evenly. 2 or 3 sitting max to read this book. You just want to keep going.

Finally, the one thing that is clear here is that this is a cli-fi book. Climate Fiction is a very hot [pun intended] trend and I have an entire post about it with more information here. Sealed combines cli-fi and its effects with the idea of bringing life into this world of impending doom.

Three Words That Describe This Book: unrelenting tension, unreliable narrator, cli-fi

Readalikes: Above I make quite a few suggestions. The Atwood rec is obvious but it doesn't hit directly at the intense fear that Alice exudes. Any female oriented dystopian novel, of which there are many very good ones right now, would work well. Here is a link to run a google search.

The three title recs I give in the review work really well in tandem. And those links go to my reviews of them. If you could take all three of my title recs and smoosh them into one short book, you would have the overall feel of Sealed. But I would add that I think Vandermeer's Borne is a very good comp too. I choose Annihilation because it is short with intense, disorienting pacing. But both titles would work. These works have strong female characters.

Finally, don't forget how popular Australia is with American readers right now. Jane Harper's Aaron Falk series is not a crazy comp title here. For some, the setting will prove enough to suggest. Also the excellent, The Bus on Thursday by Shirley Barrett which has been described as "Bridget Jones meets The Exorcist," would have more speculative elements.

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