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Monday, June 14, 2021

What I'm Reading: My Heart is a Chainsaw and August's Eyes

To start your week I have TWO reviews to post from the latest issue of Booklist. One is already on my list as a BEST of 2021 and the other was a nice surprise, a title you may have missed without my review but one that will appeal to a large audience and it is from a solid indie publisher whose books you can get from your normal ordering sources.

It's win-win all around with these reviews.

As usual, I am posting my Booklist draft review with bonus appeal content and my "three words."

Let's get this thing going with an AMAZING book.

My Heart Is a Chainsaw

 My Heart is a Chainsaw
by Stephen Graham Jones
Aug. 2021. 416p. Saga, $26.99 (9781982137632)
First published June 1, 2021 (Booklist).

Following the success of The Only Good Indians, Jones returns with a love letter to the Slasher. Jade, half-Indian, poor, and motherless, finds her only solace in the Slasher movies of the 1980s and the extra credit essays she writes to her history teacher, explaining the genre’s themes, essays that also educate the reader about slasher history, no matter their familiarity with the genre. But when a group of rich investors “discover” beautiful and secluded Proofrock, ID, a town with an already troubling history of mass murders and lake witches, the balance is upset. Issues of class and privilege collide with the threat of a July 4th massacre. Jade pins all hope for survival on the new girl, the rich and beautiful Letha, the perfect Final Girl, but no one takes Jade’s warnings seriously. Readers will be drawn in by the effortless storytelling and Jade’s unique cadence. A methodically paced story where every detail both entertains and matters, set in an expertly rendered place that ultimately explodes with all the violent action readers have been warned is coming, and yet with details they could never predict. This brilliantly crafted, heartbreakingly beautiful slasher presents a new type of authentic Final Girl, one that isn’t “pure” and may not be totally innocent, and yet, can still be a vessel for all of our hope. Finals girls are in season this Summer and this will be a nice chaser to The Final Girl Support Group by Hendrix, but it also pairs well with thought-provoking, trauma themed horror such as Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts or Victor LaValle’s The Changeling.

YA Statement: Jade is an engaging and authentic teen narrator who is struggling with very real demons [and a lake witch]. Her honesty and vulnerability will draw in many teens, whether they are fans of slashers or not.

Further Appeal: I have so many wonderful things to say about this book. First, this is a methodically paced book, but in the very best of ways. Jones carefully build the setting and Jade. The place here is as important as Jade. 

The chapters that are "Slasher 101" chapters may slow the plot down, but they provide the necessary background for both Jade as a character and the history of the Slasher film. What is so remarkable about this book is that it is a love letter to the Slasher genre by someone who is an expert and loves it but it is 100% accessible to a newbie as well. 

In fact, these Slasher 101 chapters to her teacher are a great narrative device to teach readers who are unfamiliar, giving them the language they need to understand and anticipate what is coming and yet, SGJ still has tricks up his sleeve. Of course he does. That's why it is a star review.

This book is also part of a trend of the "flawed" final girl, one who is more like us. Not the perfect, virgin from the older films, but a real person who is not all good or all bad. Jade is us; with all of our flaws, and yet, she is also trying to save everyone, even though she should be more worried about saving herself.

But this is also more than a book about a flawed final girl. It is a story about identity, race, class, and most importantly, trauma. Readers' emotional investment in Jade will grow, slowly, like a well tended garden, as the book moves through. And when it blooms, that investment will break your heart. 

Here are some of my notes about Jade that I didn't get to above: 

  • Jade is obsessed with slasher because the wrongs are punished and revenge is sweet. The bad guy dies. But readers do not know for sure who the real bad guy is until near the end.
  • Jade carries the story with her authentic voice, her unwillingness to confront personal trauma, and her obsession with a genre in which all wrongs are punished and revenge is sweet. 

The ending of this book is near perfect. My LJ editor [who got to read and review this book for that venue] and I have discussed it many times. The ending leaves you breathless and in tears. Heartbreakingly beautiful, yes, but you also question exactly what happened and the part Jade played in it all. But that is also the larger point of the book and what SGJ wants you to think about yourself and life.  

Speaking of the ending and the pacing-- it speeds up for the last third; like really, really speed up. In a good way. We have been lulled into learning about Jade, we have gotten used to her cadence [which reminds me of Jones' own unique cadence when he speaks], the town, and the impending Slasher attack she thinks is coming, but we are so engrossed in the world building and character development that the action is like being thrown into the freezing cold lake. And it is great.

Also every SGJ book nails its ending. They are perfect. Terrifying and emotional. Heartbreaking beautiful and 100% still entrenched in the Horror genre. Brilliant!

Three Words That Describe This Book:  heartbreakingly beautiful, meticulously crafted, thought provoking

Readalikes: See the three above in the review. Specifically the Hendrix. Both look at the flawed final girl, both come out this summer, I gave both stars, and yet, the accomplish this all in different ways.

This novel also reminds me of newer authors like V. Castro and Cynthia Pelayo. They also explore race and class with flawed female characters. Their works are heartbreakingly beautiful, meticulously crafted, and thought provoking, but sill filled with outright supernatural terror.

August's Eyes
By Glenn Rolfe
Aug. 2021. 256p. Flame Tree, $24.95 (9781787585782); paper, $14.95 (9781787585768)
First published June 1, 2021 (Booklist).

At age 12, Johnny witnessed a kidnapping, and after that kid ended up dead John, now grownup, blocked the memory. However, it is slowly trying to resurface in the form of menacing nightmares that are so realistic they seem to be spilling over into John’s waking world. Is that kid from his dreams with the missing eyes, stalking him in a rundown unmarked van in real life too? As John begins to uncover his lost memories, the happy life he has built begins to fall apart. Told from multiple points of view including John, his wife, and even the dead serial killer, this is book with a low page count but a methodical pace as Rolfe provides readers with an unflinchingly menacing, uncomfortably unsettlingly, and brutally honest look at very real trauma and pure evil. But this is not a story without hope, and it is through Rolfe’s creation and sustenance of the dark and magical “Graveyard Land,” where the story experiences both its scariest and most hopeful moments. While this intense tale is reminiscent of classic works by Ketchum or King, it also brings to mind more recent titles like Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam and California by Edan Lupucki.

Further Appeal: This is a VERY good pulp horror novel that adds an excellent thought provoking angle.   Readers are drawn into the serial killer story that has a menacingly real supernatural side, but they are also asked to think about human evil and our own place in it as by standers. Morality is on naked display here. Every reader will be uncomfortable and squirm because every reader will see some of themselves in one of the characters.

Speaking of the characters, they are all better than average for a pulp novel. I especially liked the older teen who John is a father figure toward. He also carries some of there narration but I did not have room to note that in the review.

The killer is also a character and I need to make this clear, the book goes into graphic detail about what he did to the boys he kidnapped and killed over time. But like Ketchum's classic, The Girl Next Door, I would argue that this is important for us the reader to understand the story and the moral dilemmas Rolfe is exploring in this work. But reader beware, this book has violence and sexual violence to children.

This book will appeal too your fans of more graphic Psychological Suspense, even those who do not normally read books with a speculative element. 

Three Words That Describe This Book: shifting POV, unflinchingly menacing, contemplation on evil

Readalikes: I give 4 options above. But I would also point you to Flame Tree Press in general. It is the gold standard for today's pulp horror. Every book is excellent, but they are all different. They are well edited, produced in sturdy trade paperback editions, and are distributed by S&S, so they are also available on Edelweiss and from your normal ordering platforms. If you have horror readers, I would consider adding every book they put out. 

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