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Monday, February 17, 2020

What I'm Reading: 2 New Booklist Reviews Including the New Grady Hendrix!

The latest issue of Booklist has 2 horror reviews by me, including one hotly anticipated titles and one, brand new voice. As always, my reviews here on the blog use the longer draft version of the review and I add more information to help you help more readers.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.

Hendrix, Grady (author).

Apr. 2020. 400p. Quirk, $21.99 (9781683691433)
First published February 15, 2020 (Booklist).
Hendrix latest is another crowd pleasing mix of humor and horror, yet this may be his darkest and most personal yet. Set in the same suburban, Charleston world as My Best Friend’s Exorcism, but this from the point of view of the mothers, the story follows Patricia and her friends, the housewives who work tirelessly for their families. To spice up their lives, they start a true crime book club, the titles and ensuing discussions of which then frame the entire novel, adding a satisfying layer of dark humor and satire. However, when James, a stranger with few family ties, a weird condition which makes going outside in daylight difficult, and a bag full of cash moves into the neighborhood, odd things begin happening and children start to go missing. Hendrix has masterfully blended the disaffected, southern housewife story with a terrifying vampire tale, giving agency to women who society dismisses without losing sight of the fact that this still a horror novel, one that takes a very dark turn. The anxiety and tension are palpable as these women not only have to battle societal stereotypes and demeaning husbands, but also an intensely evil, centuries old vampire, all to save their children from very real harm. Who would you take in a match up between your mom’s book club and a vampire? Whether they are horror fans or not, a wide swath of readers will enjoy how Hendrix settles this debate. The perfect mix of American Housewife by Ellis, The Stranger Beside Me by Rule and Dracul by Barker and Stoker, Hendrix’s latest is destined to be a book club staple for years to come.
Further Appeal: This book is going to be a HUGE hit with non horror fans, especially books clubs. It is a love letter to book clubs and to mothers [especially Hendrix's mother and her friends], yes, but it is also an excellent, well constructed, original, and scary as heck vampire novel. 

There are no "sparkly" vampires here; in fact, Hendrix plays with the trope of the sparkly vampire brilliantly, showcasing how vampires can be charming and seducing, but reminding all involved that they are killers and nothing more.

This book is filled with thought provoking issues about the place of women in society and family dynamics, the power of female friendship, and the importance of book clubs even when they seem silly and trivial. It also takes a hard look at racism and poverty [as well as the larger problems that come as a consequence], patriarchal dominance, and the limitations of polite, upper-crust, southern society.

The time and place are very key to the story. And while it is fiction, it reads very much like the true crime books the characters are reading.
I also want to note that the titles of the book club books are also the titles of each section and the  discussion meeting of each are then a pivotal moment of that section. 

This is a well constructed novel that is both scary and sweet, about many important issues across society. It is a book about books. And it is the best original vampire novel to come out in many years. You will laugh and cry, and possibly want to hide the book in the freezer for a bit too. What a great combination of emotions.

Three Words That Describe This Book: thought provoking, terrifying, dark humor

Readalikes: If you combine the three in the review above you get an overall sense of what to expect. Some readers might be drawn to more stories about the time and place, others more true crime, and still others scary vampire tales. My list of three readalikes captures each of those appeals.

Another more serious vampire novel that also focuses on a mother but is set in Texas and begins about a decade before Hendrix's novel is In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson. Davidson's novel is just as dark but without the satire, tongue in cheek moments that bring some levity to Hendrix's tale.

The Return.

Harrison, Rachel (author).
Mar. 2020. 304p. Berkley, $26 (9780593098660)
First published February 15, 2020 (Booklist).

In this creepy debut, four college friends, now entrenched in their adult lives, come back together when one of the friends, Julie, disappears while on a hike. The remaining friends try to come to terms with what has happened, but Elise, the closest to Julie, and our increasingly unreliable narrator, never truly believes Julie is dead. When Julie reappears on her front porch, two years later, with no memory of what happened, the unnerved friends plan a weekend girls’ retreat, at a remote mountain inn to celebrate. Except the Julie they knew so intimately is not the same. She looks gaunt, feels cold to the touch, reacts differently, and has a ravenous appetite for raw meat. As the weekend progresses, things go from bad to worse both among the friends and throughout the hotel. People fall ill, blood is dripping from the vents, the rooms seem to shift and move, Elise sees a shadowy, menacing figure in dark corners and on balconies, and Julie’s behavior goes from odd, to troubling, to absolutely terrifying. Combining a satisfying and extremely unsettling psychological suspense with just the right touch of supernatural horror and a compelling and thoughtful new adult story centered around the power, emotion, and limitations of female friendship, The Return is an intense read that will appeal to fans of Nic Joseph and Amy Lukavics.
YA Statement: This is a great option for older teens who have moved on from high school set psychological suspense but aren’t interested in the adult version yet since it often focuses on wives and mothers. Add in the creepy atmosphere and just scary enough supernatural threat, and this will be a crowd pleaser.

Further Appeal: Here are some of the appeal notes I took while reading this book:
  • Better than average for a debut, good control of the narrative voice, characters, and pacing
  • First person unreliable narrator.
  • Creepy and disorienting, but also bloody and disturbing [if real]
  • Psychological suspense with supernatural explanation, or is it real?
  • Fills a much needed gap in the popular "girl" domestic suspense subgenre. These friends are much younger than their compatriots in the genre. Their status a new adults finding their way in the world, on their own is key and it is also what makes this books stand out. A different vibe than domestic suspense with wives and mothers. But not YA. They are clearly adults, with new adult concerns. 
  • The focus is on the plot, the escalating tension, dread, and violence, not on the characters. They are rounded out fine, but the focus is on the action, not on them and their growth.. 
This is an intriguing supernatural suspense story, a page turner that would be a great vacation read-- especially if you are going to a secluded place in the mountains with friends [well, maybe not, depending on how "real" you want the book to feel].

Three Words That Describe This Book: disorienting, fast paced, new adults

Readalikes: I picked two authors who straddle the line between teen and new adult characters, who focus on female friendships, and terrifying situations. One is realistic and one has supernatural.

I think fans of any psychological suspense who don't mind supernatural possibilities will enjoy this book, but the frame of these young women just entering adulthood is what makes this novel different from the slightly older women in the popular "Girl" books.

Checking more intense teen titles may work better than domestic suspense, but it will depend of the reader.

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