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Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Flashback Review: In the Valley of the Sun with Updated Readalikes

Sometimes you read a book that just fell into your lap, one you had no idea even existed, one that you had never heard about, and after reading it, you are stunned, you want to run and tell every person, everywhere to read it, and it never leaves you. This is what happened to me the first time I read In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson.

I cannot use enough superlatives to talk about not only this book, but how much it blew me away. And I went out of my way to spread the word far and wide. I championed it for a Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel [it was a finalist], I made sure a member of the RUSA CODES Reading List knew about it and it made the 2018 horror list as an honorable mention, I included it in a Library Journal column, obviously the Booklist review below, and I even talked about it on Nebraska Public Radio.

Enough sales were generated for the hardcover that a paperback was just recently released by Skyhorse. And, Davidson recently signed a 2 book deal with FSG/Macmillan to publish 2 Big 5 horror novels. The first, entitled The Boatman's Daughter is due February 2020 is already generating buzz. In general FSG has been publishing more subtle and literary horror-- The Grip of It and Universal Harvester are two critically acclaimed examples-- and I am very excited about this. These titles will get ordered by libraries; these titles will get read; and that means more patrons will be asking for more horror like the books they just enjoyed.

If you haven't read In the Valley of the Sun yet, or don't own it, now is the time to grab a paperback for your collections. You will also then be ready for Davidson to break out early next year. This novel is unlike any vampire novel you have ever read and will greatly appeal to fans of modern westerns [of which there are many as I wrote about here] too.

Below is the original review post from May 2017. But to this review, I would also add two books that have come out since which are great readalikes. Both are literary horror with lyrical language and a perfectly rendered, highly detailed setting-- The Hunger by Alma Katsu and Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi both of which were among my favorite horror readers of 2018. You can use the link to read my longer reviews for each.

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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