Book Review: the End We Start From by Megan Hunter

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

Catastrophic environmental change has brought biblical floods to London. As the city succumbs to the water,  a woman gives birth to a baby boy, who she and her husband name Z. As the flood waters continue to rise, the woman and her husband must flee the city with a days old baby in search of safety and higher ground. As Z grows from baby to toddler, the family is forced to find new refuge again and again.

Okay. This was not my type of book. The writing is excellent, Hunter has a minimalist style that is somewhere between a steam of consciousness narrative and a poem. The cataclysmic destruction of the English landscape fades into background noise against the interaction of the woman and her son. But as someone who is not exactly baby-friendly, there are waaaaaaay too many descriptions of baby bowel movements for my peace of mind. Honestly, the whole “children are the future” thing seems a little overly optimistic when the planet is literally falling apart around you.

But, I’m absolutely willing to admit that most of the problems I had with this book stem from my own anti-baby tendencies. The book is truly beautifully written, and showcases a legitimate debut talent. The steam of consciousness reminds me a bit of The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida. While this book was not up my alley, I would be excited to read Hunter’s future works.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

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Book Review: My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

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My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

Abby has been friends with Gretchen since they were ten years old. Now high school students, they have traded in their ET posters and roller skates for the mall and parties in the woods. After one such escapade, however, Gretchen begins to act strangely. Very, very strangely. With the peculiarities mounting and the weirdness surrounding Gretchen becoming more and more disturbing, Abby must face the truth: Her friend is possessed, and Abby is the only one who can help her.

Grady Hendrix is certainly one of the bright lights (if that phrase is appropriate) in modern horror fiction. His previous book, Horrorstör, was an intelligent, hilarious, and creepy haunted house tale. In My Best Friend’s Exorcism, we find out what would happen if The Heathers also featured demonic possession. Here, Hendrix has again left his unique imprint on the genre, taking us into a friendship sundered by satan and adolescence, which really are much the same thing.

If you’re a horror genre fan, but have been looking for something a bit off the beaten path, something campy and fun while still maintaining creep factor, Grady Hendrix should definitely top your TBR.

Book Review: The Way to London by Alix Rickoff

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The Way to London: A Novel of World War II by Alix Rickoff

Lucy Stanhope is a spoiled debutante living the good life in Singapore in the early years of WWII. Her mother is a selfish narcissist, and her step-father is a lecherous creep, and Lucy has no problems defying them or society to live the way she wants. However, when the weight of scandal becomes too much, Lucy finds herself packed up and shipped off to Nanreath Hall in England. Going from the tropical luxury of Singapore to the dreariness of war-time Britain is a kick in the teeth for Lucy. When she befriends a young war orphan, the two make plans to escape the drudgery of the country for London. The perilous journey across a war zone will force Lucy to face her priorities in life, and to confront her mistakes.

This is a beautiful, vividly written book. Rickoff has put an enormous amount of effort into packing every page with an incredible amount of historical detail. You can almost smell the tropical flowers on the breezes of Singapore, and feel the clammy touch of the fog in England. The story is slowly paced, allowing plenty of time to take in the story and get to know the characters.

That being said, this book wasn’t really up my alley. I’m not really one for romances (though if I were going to pick a romance genre it would likely be historical romance). It also kind of irked me that as rich in detail as most of the book was, the author is still relying on the “spoiled brat of a woman is made pure and whole by the love of a noble man” trope, which is nearly as bad as “the pure and virtuous woman finds the strength to tame the wild, uncouth man” trope. For all the detail and time spent on the setting and getting to know our main characters, the interaction between Lucy and her foil/savior, Michael, is uncomplicated and a bit flat. You know through all the sniping that they’re going to wind up together in the end, though I have to admit there were other contenders I was rooting for, and one (from her time in Singapore) whose story would (in my opinion) have been a bit more interesting.

So in all, this is a well written book in a genre I don’t have a lot of patience for. If you’re generally a fan of romance novels, or are into the WWII setting, this might be a good title for you to try.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Pork Pie Hat by Peter Straub

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Pork Pie Hat by Peter Straub

A graduate student with a passion for jazz finds out that the legendary “Pork Pie Hat,” far from being dead as previously presumed, is alive and well and playing at a dive bar in the East Village. The student goes down to see him play, and the mysterious “Hat” soon becomes an object of fascination. As the compulsion to see him play begins to push aside his coursework, the student manages to snag an interview with the strange and reculsive saxophonist. On Halloween night, Hat tells the student a story from his childhood, of screams in a dark and lonely wood, of mysterious and menacing men in big black cars . . .

I had no idea what to expect when starting this book. At a mere 175 pages, it really qualifies as a novella (or extra-long short story) rather than a true novel. The shorter length, however, is perfect for devouring in one sitting (which I highly recommend).

This is my first time reading something by Peter Straub, but I knew he had written with Stephen King in the past, so I felt like I had some idea of what I was getting into. Pork Pie Hat both confirmed and defied my expectations. Straub’s style in this book is vaguely Lovecraftian (even if the subject matter is not), and overall the book is a creepily atmospheric tale, even if it is given more to “all monsters are human” than the supernatural (but hey, being black in the South in the early part of the 20th century would have been terrifying a;ll by itself).

So, if you’re looking for a quick bite of a story to get yourself into the Halloween spirit, this is a great book for you. Straub does a wonderful job putting you in Pork Pie Hat’s shoes on a dark Halloween night so long ago.

Book Review: Fever by Deon Meyer

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Fever by Deon Meyer

A mysterious illness swept across the world, killing off 95% of the population. Months after the disaster peaked, 13 year old Nico Storm and his father, Willem, drive across the blighted landscape of South Africa, trying to survive in a new and terrifying world. Coming to a small town with hydroelectric power equipment still intact, Nico’s father dreams of creating an ideal, rational society out of the ashes of the old world. The community grows and so do its enemies. Loyalty, honor, and optimism must wage a war against fascism, zealotry, and violence.

This is an epic book, as the post-apocalyptic genre lends itself to. The book spans years, from Nico and Willem’s first days scavenging, through to the development and success of the community that they establish. The book’s true focus is not necessarily on the post apocalyptic world, but rather on the nature of humankind itself. The book is written from Nico’s perspective, and focuses on the defining moment of his life: the murder of his father. By unwinding the story of the post-fever world and the development of a utopian community, we unravel the events which led to Willem Storm’s assassination.

This is a very human novel. There are no monsters or mutants here to provide danger, simply people. In that regard, the book strongly reminds me of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The tension and suspense come not from creepy-crawlies out to eat our protagonists, but the very very scary question about what will triumph in a global catastrophe. Will “the better angels of our nature” win the day, or will they fall to the petty evilness that lurks in the human psyche? I think it is this question which makes the post-apocalyptic genre so compelling. Can we put our faith in human nature?

This book was well written and grand in scale. The South African setting provided a new point of view for me over here in the United States. Anyone with a love for post-apocalyptic tales should check out this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

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The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

The book is a slightly less-than-direct prequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Though you do not have to read that book before you read this one, I would highly recommend doing so.

Merrick Tremayne is a shadow of his former self. Formerly employed by the East India Company as a smuggler, an accident has left him with a crippled leg and no prospects for the future. But when an expedition is planned to seek out quinine in the mountainous jungles of Peru, Merrick’s knowledge and family history make him indispensable for the success of the mission.

However, once he arrives at New Bethlehem, the village founded by his grandfather, Merrick finds that the fairy tales and stories he grew up with may hew closer to the truth than he ever could have guessed. Merrick must discover the secrets of this strange village–and Raphael, the mysterious local priest–in order to continue his mission.

Natasha Pulley has a real talent for incorporating magical and fantastical elements into a thoroughly believable historical setting. Her melding of history and fantasy is organic and subtle, and a fine example of how magical the genre can be. I also enjoy how Pulley steps out of the usual tropes of this type of fiction–exploring the Japanese Civil War in Watchmaker, and taking us into the mountains of Peru (and the shelling of Canton) in The Bedlam Stacks. Pulley explores colonization, international intrigue, and imperialism in this new book, and amidst the magic of her location, she reminds us of the ever-increasing consequences of invasion and interference.

Some aspects of the plot are similar to those in Watchmaker. We are again confronted with a man we are unsure if we can trust, even as Merrick grows closer to him. The mystery of the danger lurking in the forest outside of New Bethlehem, and the questions surrounding Raphael are well written. The book moves slowly in parts, but the climax of the book is actually quite creepy. While the magic here is more fantastical than that on display in Watchmaker, I feel that Pulley did a wonderful job of integrating it into the story.

If you enjoyed Natasha Pulley’s first book, you should certainly check out The Bedlam Stacks. Any fan of historical fantasy should look into the series.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

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The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Helena grew up in an isolated cabin deep in the marshes of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she understood the horrible truth of her unconventional childhood: her father was a kidnapper and rapist, and her mother his victim and prisoner. Now an adult, Helena has two young children of her own, and her father, known as The Marsh King, has been in prison for over a decade. Then one day, state troopers show up at her door; her father has escaped from prison. Helena knows that he will be coming for her, but her father is a consummate woodsman, able to disappear into the wilderness at will. Helena will have to use every bit of information he taught her in order to track him down and keep her family safe.

This nail-biting thriller contains shades of Room by Emma Donoghue and Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller. The story weaves between the present day, where Helena is living a more or less normal life in rural Michigan (though she still struggles with the intricacies of society), and her childhood living on the land in the isolated cabin on the marsh. We can acutely feel the subtle damage done to Helena by her father, yet she was raised to more or less worship him. Her father is a rapist, a kidnapper, and a sadist, but he was also the man who raised her, and what little girl doesn’t want the approval of her father? This dissonance between the facts and the feelings of her childhood present Helena with a horrible and complex dilemma. She knows her father is an evil man, and that he means to hurt her and her family, but how do you truly stop being daddy’s little girl?

I really liked this book. Dionne has taken a theme that occupies both newspaper headlines and our nightmares and made it into a terrifyingly realistic, gripping story. The weaving of past and present events is done well, revealing in increments the full story of Helena’s childhood. If you’ve been looking for a fast-paced, stay-up-until-one-in-the-morning read, this is the perfect book for you.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk


Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk

This is the sequel to Damned, which I didn’t realize when I started reading. So, caveat: There will likely be spoilers for Damned in this review. Bonus: you can read this book as a stand alone, though I’m sure it makes a lot more sense if you’ve read the previous book (though that is always hard to tell with Palahniuk).

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This book explores the further adventures of Madison Desert Flower Rosa Parks Coyote Trickster Spencer, out in the world now as an undead spirit after a Halloween ritual backfires. Madison decides to revisit her movie-star parents’ apartment, which starts a reminiscence of a hideous summer spent with her hayseed grandparents upstate. As Madison works through her (frankly insane) past, she comes to realize that she and her family have been the central cogs in a doomsday battle between the forces of heaven and hell.

I always feel a bit at a loss when trying to describe Chuck Palahniuk. The man has the ability to turn weird tastelessness into an art-form, and I feel like folks either love him or they hate him.This book feels a bit less fun (I’m not sure that’s the right word, but oh well) than his previous books, but that may be because I didn’t read the first book in the series. Palahniuk is on form with plenty of what-the-fuck moments, twisted humor, disgusting metaphors, and lots of information about things you wish you would never need to know. The ending is a bit unsatisfactory, in that it doesn’t really exist, so I can only assume that Palahniuk is planning on making the series a trilogy.

If you have never read a Chuck Palahniuk book, this is definitely not the place to start, try his most well known: Fight Club, or one of his other popular stories, like Choke, or Invisible Monsters. If you are a Palahniuk fan, I’d certainly recommend giving this book (and the previous one) a shot.

Book Review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

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New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

This is one of the Hogarth Shakespeare series; the Bard’s classic plays reimagined by modern-day authors. Last year I got to read Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest. Now, I’m moving on to Othello as envisioned by Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier sets her retelling in 1970s Washington DC. The era, with its incendiary post-civil rights racial tensions, provides a brilliant backdrop for a story that orbits intimately around Othello’s otherness (both his race and, presumably, his religion).

Disconcertingly, Chevalier has set her story in an elementary school. The major players are now sixth graders; the horror and the tragedy of the plot enacted by eleven year olds. A bold choice, but one that ultimately plays out well. The petty intrigues and backstabbing of playground rivalries seem to need only a small push to spiral into terminal misunderstanding and violence.

The story, set over a single school day, begins with Osei, also called O, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat starting his first day at a new school, and the only black student enrolled. He quickly befriends Daniella (also called Dee), one of the most popular girls in school, and the two hit it off almost instantly. Unfortunately, Osei’s unlikely friendship with Dee, and his acceptance by Casper, the most popular boy at the school, inspire bully Ian to concoct a malicious plot to put the “uppity” Osei in his rightful place.

New Boy is a powerful retelling of a play that is in itself timeless. Othello continues to resonate with audiences today because the attitudes of racism, resentment, and revenge are depressingly familiar to us all. The child-like cruelty of the elementary students in New Boy is at once horrifying and familiar. The reinforcement of this cruelty by the adults in the picture (who, as one character points out, “should know better”) provides further commentary on the pervasiveness of racism and the continuous effort at education and cultural exploration needed to help combat it. By setting the story in the 1970s, Chevalier gives us some temporal space from such abominable ideas, but recent events should quickly make it obvious that we have not come nearly as far as we would like to think.

In all, this is a great modern retelling of a Shakespeare classic (is that redundant? I think it may be). Othello is an important story, and New Boy will make it more accessible for those who don’t have the time or inclination to wade through the Bard’s archaic prose.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Target Omega by Peter Kirsanow

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Target Omega by Peter Kirsanow

Michael Garin is the best of the best, a US special forces soldier so good at his job, and so mom and apple pie, that he would give Captain America an inferiority complex. Garin’s anti-WMD strike force is deployed in a successful mission to prevent a terrorist cell from acquiring a nuclear device. Within 48 hours of their return stateside, all but Garin have been killed by a deadly foreign operative. Finding himself the prime suspect in the deaths of his teammates, Garin goes rogue to uncover the motive behind their deaths and to stop a devastating attack against the United States.

Okay, first off: this book is fun. This is the literary version of The White House has Fallen, Broken Arrow, Rambo, or anything starring John Cena. There are explosions, car chases, shoot ’em ups, and thoroughly implausible hand-to-hand vs. gun fights. The main characters are pretty one-sided and fulfill their genre-defined role, but with this type of story they don’t need to be anything more. This is a popcorn-grade summer action flick bound into paper format, and I enjoyed reading this book.

On the other hand, as is common with this particular genre, there was a lot of ‘Murica flavored chest thumping, and red white and blue dick waving. highly enjoyable action scenes are interspersed with eye-roll worthy proclamations about what it means to be an American (guns, church, and apple pie), and the nature of the true enemy (pansy-ass liberals, duh). As I myself thoroughly own the title of bleeding heart liberal out to destroy all that makes America great, these darling little snippets did take away a bit from my enjoyment of the book (yes, I know, “cry me a river, snowflake”blah blah blah).

So, in sum, I do recommend this book to those who love military-oriented action thrillers, or for anyone wanting an entertaining beach read this summer. It was a genuinely good book, after all. But if you’re the type to take red state MAGA asides with more than just an eye roll (and in the current political climate, I heartily sympathize), this may not be the book for you, at least not right now (maybe 2018? Hopefully?). So read the book, it’s fun, but with just enough family-member-you-avoid-talking-to-at-get-togethers to keep me from being able to whole-heartedly recommend it.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.