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Monday, February 5, 2018

What I’m Reading: A Novel, A Novella, and a Collection-- Booklist Reviews

In the newest issue of Booklist I have three reviews of three very different books. Please note, I post my draft reviews with extra RA info here on the blog. The official reviews are the in magazine; full citation with each review.

Let’s start with the one every single library in America will be ordering....

Unbury Carol.

Malerman, Josh (author).
Apr. 2018. 384p. Del Rey, hardcover, $27.00  (9780399180163)
First published February 1, 2018 (Booklist).
Carol is prone to falling into comas that mimic death, for days at a time. While in them, she is very much alive and sentient, yet completely immobile. Only her husband Dwight and her friend John Bowie, whose burial opens the novel, know her secret. With Bowie gone, during Carol’s next spell, Dwight fakes her death and attempts to bury her alive. So begins this original retelling of Sleeping Beauty as a tale that mixes the genres of suspense, dark fantasy, and the spaghetti western, holding the reader hostage in its magical and sinister thrall for the duration. All of the major players, take their turns narrating the story from their various perspectives, back and forth, including but not limited to, dastardly Dwight, Carol’s long lost, outlaw love-- Moxie, the perfectly rendered villain sent to stop Moxie-- Smoke, and more. But the most interesting point of view is Carol’s, as she resides in her coma, trapped in darkness, in a free fall, listening to everyone around her, frantically struggling to save herself. Malerman seamlessly blends the very best of the genres whose tropes he has borrowed from and creates something compelling and new with strong world building, a steadily building pace, and a tone that is breathtaking and menacing. This is an intricately plotted, lyrical, page turner with complex characters. It is a novel about love, betrayal, revenge, and the primal fear of being buried alive, that will leave scores of satisfied readers in its wake. Start by suggesting it to fans of atmospheric, supernatural suspense that is both thought provoking and terrifying like Keith Donohue’s The Motion of Puppets or the back list gem The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier, but hand out freely to anyone looking for “a good read.”
Further Appeal: Many patrons who dont normally read horror” were introduced to Malerman with Bird Box. It is still my personal go-to suggestion for people who want to give the genre a try. However, with Unbury Carol, I think Malerman might reach even more readers. As I note in the review, there is a little bit of many different genres in this book, but the overall feeling that this mixture produces is of a magical, timeless tale, with a very sinister tone.

The setting is just like a Western, but the place is not actually real. It is based on a real place, it feels real, but it is NOT real. The frame is amazing. The towns come alive, the trail that connects them feels like a place you can visit. Also, remember, I have been saying this a lot, but it bears repeating, Westerns are very hot, especially “weird westerns,” and that is exactly what this is.

But this book is more than a western, it is also a fractured fairy tale, dark fantasy, horror, and historical fiction. It has something for everyone but without being too scattered. It is amazingly cohesive for all of this genre blending.

This is a character centered novel; the complex cast of characters and their varied motivations and backgrounds matter immensely. Yet, the pacing is still steady. The pace stays compelling because of the frequent shifts in POV. You keep turning the pages to see what is coming next, from where, and from whom.

Another key appeal here is Carol. She is a strong female lead who doesn’t need the men to save her; they are key to the story and the suspense, but in the end, she is the only one who can save herself.

Finally, it is important to note that Josh Malerman now has 3 novels, all of which are critically acclaimed, but which on the surface seem very different. However, I can tell you that all three do have 1 very strong feature that unites them. They are all very aural, sound and more specifically, being an active listener is key in all of his work. It adds to the unease of every story too because as modern humans, we want to rely on “seeing” things, but in Malerman’s world, listening is what we are asked to do instead. It is creepy and unnatural and boy does it work each and every time!

Three Words That Describe This Book: Magical, Sinister, Intrictaely Plotted

Readalikes: The two authors I mention in the review above are great options. I have linked to every time I have mentioned these authors and there are a lot more readalikes available with those links.

People who in general also like Karen Russell, Patrick DeWitt [especially Undermajordomo Minor], or Kelly Link will also enjoy this novel. Again, the links I provided will send you to even more options with reasons why.

Fractured fairy tales may also be an entry point for readalikes here, but only ones with a very realistic setting. Uprooted by Naomi Novik came to mind right away. Also the Seanan McGuire Wayward Children novella series.

[I realize I am mentioning almost all female authors here, but I cannot stress enough how female driven this title is. Even the two titles I mention in the review, while by male authors, have very strong female leads, leads that drive the action.]

Genre blending western readers will also be intrigued. Again, go to my post on the topic that was also referred to above for more options.

Finally, when I read this book back in November, I made a note that it would be an awesome option for readers who are sick of domestic suspense. This is a strong woman being victimized by men who, in the end, saves herself, despite or in spite of them. Just throwing that observation out there.

Widow’s Point.

Chizmar, Richard (author) and Billy Chizmar (author).
Feb. 2018. 160p. Cemetery Dance, hardcover, $25  (9781587676475)
First published February 1, 2018 (Booklist).
Acclaimed horror author Richard Chizmar and his son, Billy, deliver an original and terrifying cursed place tale that may only take one sitting to read, but will leave readers looking over their shoulder for weeks to come. Thomas Livingston is a bestselling author of nonfiction about the supernatural. For his newest book, Livingston spends three days locked inside one of the most haunted places in North America, Widow’s Point Lighthouse. His plan, to document the secrets behind this cursed location, home to over 150 years of deaths, odd occurrences, and horrible violence by both recounting its past and relating his present experience. But even a prepared expert like Livingston is no match for the horror lurking inside these stone walls. With its “found footage” frame of recordings left by Livingston and creepy pen and ink drawings scattered throughout, this is a haunted house tale that allows the reader to experience the action, the dread, the doom and the danger at both a breathless pace and from an intimate perspective. Readers are right next to Livingston as he uncovers layers of intensifying horror, watching in pure terror as the supernatural evil lurking in the lighthouse takes over everything in its path. While at first glance this novella appears to use all the same tropes employed by the long line of haunted house tales that came before it, readers will quickly find that this story is more viscerally terrifying, realistic, and intense than any of its predecessors. It is a modern ghost story that will scare even the most seasoned horror reader, and will be eagerly devoured by fans of paranormal investigation tales, as well as those who enjoy intense, cursed place stories like Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt or the back list gem Ghost Radio by Leopoldo Gout.
YA Statement: With a college age co-author and a story that features extreme dread, a terrifyingly realistic found footage frame, a breakneck pace, and no on-stage violence, this is a great option for teens looking for a modern ghost story that will make them feel the fear.
Further Appeal: The cursed place where a paranormal investigator dares to go to prove it all wrong, and fails, is a trope that many horror readers enjoy. Often these stories are told with found footage. It works very well here. The way the different types of footage are presented in the prose format [with some drawings] is compelling, intense, suspenseful and terrifying. 

And, as I say in the review, even though these tropes are well worn, this story felt fresh, original, and exciting.

The father-son writing team might also interest a lot of readers, and it has teen cross over appeal.

The book is short and super fast paced. You can read it in a single sitting, but you might not want too. You might need a break, but you will love every minute of it. I also cannot guarantee that you will even be able to visit a lighthouse again though.

Three Words That Describe This Book: Cursed Place, Found Footage, Intense
Readalikes: The two listed in the review have links to my blog reviews with even more readalike options.

Some people might love the intense and terrifying story of a cursed place but are sad that this one is over too quickly. For them, I would also suggest The Grip of It by Jac Jemc. This haunted house story was so terrifying and intense that I had to physically leave my house for a moment to take a breath of fresh air.

But don’t forget about movies like Blair Witch Project or any paranormal investigation TV shows too. They are great watch alikes.

Cries from the Static.

Speegle, Darren (author).
Feb. 2018. 226p. Raw Dog Screaming, paperback, $15.95  (9781935738398)
First published February 1, 2018 (Booklist).
Compiling 17 horror stories and poems, about half of which were previously published in different genre periodicals, Cries From the Static is an excellent introduction to an up and coming author whose voice is ready for a larger audience. Using lyrical, often beautiful  language to describe brutal things, Speegle looks deeply at the inner lives and turmoil of all people, but especially, the expat, as these tales are set all over the world. While each piece is unique with a different frame, and varied protagonists, all are insidious, speculative, and unsettling. For example, in the short piece, “Things That Tend to Disturb,” Speegle holds the reader in a paralyzed state of unease as he lists, for two and a half pages, things both universal and very specific that while not overtly terrifying on their own, are highly unnerving when all piled up together. Or, like the more traditional story, “The Horticulturalist’s Daughter” which follows a family, mom, dad, and special needs, bird obsessed daughter, as they navigate their surreal life in the Cotswolds. These are dark tales and poems, literary genre benders that get under your skin and burrow into your head much like the award winning work of Jeff VanderMeer or Paul Tremblay. Chances are that you have nothing by Speegle on your shelves currently, but you do have many fans of his popular brand of weird fiction, making this collection a great place to start.
Further Appeal: Since this collection is so varied, I don’t have much more to say than what is in the review. This is an author people just need to read. And seriously, I cannot stress enough how unsettling that 2.5 page list of things that disturb is. Wow. Worth the price of admission.

Three Words That Describe This Book: unsettling, lyrical, insidious

Readalikes: Poet and novelist Stephanie Wytovich would also be a good readalike author here. And, although Speegle does not have the feminist angle of Carmen Maria Muchado’s stories, I found the way each tells an unsettlingly, dark story to be very similar.

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