Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

Bird BoxI had intended to read Bird Box during RIP but didn’t get around to it in time. I thought I might save it for next year, but then a spooky mood came over me and I started reading it right before a camping trip. Perfect, I thought, a creepy read in a creepily lit tent!

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out quite the way I intended. The beginning parts were indeed sufficiently creepy, and I ended up reading most of the book before I even left for my camping trip. The story, if you’ve missed out on it, is that in the near future a Terrible Thing happens and people start killing themselves or going on murderous rampages and then killing themselves, all because of a Something that apparently lives outside. If you see it, it makes you go insane, so nobody knows what it is to go kill it or whatever. So, that’s terrifying.

Also terrifying is the main character’s decision to take herself and two small children into the outside, for reasons that are explained later, down a river on a boat with the Something potentially RIGHT NEXT TO THEM OMG.

More terrifying are the backstory scenes that lead up to this big decision, wherein you find out why this woman is living with these two kids, alone, in a house covered in blood. Spoiler: people are just as creepy as unknown Somethings, sometimes.

So, sufficiently creeped out, I snuggled into my tent to read the last parts of this book by lantern-light, only to have my lantern, with its four heavy D batteries, fall right on my face. After ascertaining that I hadn’t chipped a tooth or bled all over the place, I decided that the camping gods really just wanted me to go to sleep, so I did. Then I got up with the sunrise and decided to read while I waited for my husband to wake up.

And so, not unlike The Family Plot before it, I found myself reading the end of a spooky book in the calmest, quietest, most tranquil setting possible. Which is a terrible way to read a horror book, let me tell you.

It also didn’t help that the story changes a bit toward the end; where at the beginning it’s all questions and creepiness and Bad Things and whatnot, the end is full of answers (well, not the big answer) and resolution and possibly no more Bad Things, which, boring. I literally do not want to know whether or not these people survive. And I guess I don’t, but I have a pretty good idea.

But, on the other hand the writing is really good and the horror is largely psychological and I certainly did want to avoid going outside while reading this. I’m still not a fan of the ending, but that’s not really unusual for me. I would definitely recommend this if read only with spooky mood lighting at midnight in an empty house et cetera.

The Family Plot, by Cherie Priest

The Family PlotRIP is almost over, but you’ve got plenty of time to read this book before (or during!) Hallowe’en. I picked this up late on a Saturday night, spooked myself until I fell asleep, and then woke up and finished it on a Sunday in the light of day. Good life choices?

I don’t even remember why I picked this up — it must have been on a list of creepy reads somewhere and I saw “house” and “ghost” and “American Pickers” and then magically the book was on hold for me! Man, if only I did have a ghost that picked out my books, that would make life super easy.

Or super scary, I guess. The premise behind this book, as you may have guessed above, is that a merry band of pickers set off to spend a week in a creepy old house while they gut it for dollars. Things are weird from the beginning, with weird footprints in the floor dust and doors randomly locking and unlocking themselves, and then the actual ghosts come out in full force. That’s right, there’s no wondering here; this house is haunted and it would really like you to know that. Our Fearful Leader decides that her picker band can totally weather the ghosts for a few days because Arbitrary Reasons for Not Getting the Heck Out of There, and things get much worse before they get better.

I had a lot of issues with this book, starting on the first page when I thought the writing style might make me roll my eyes so hard they’d become ghosts haunting the editor’s house. It’s very… faux-noir, can’t decide if its homage or satire, super casual but also kind of formal… it’s weird. But, I wanted to see some ghosts, so I kept going.

The ghosts were pretty okay; as I said on Goodreads, there’s this running creepy shower business that had me seriously contemplating skipping the shower that Sunday morning, but my respect for others’ noses won out. Flashes of yellow dresses and small children running around are most sufficiently creepy.

But then I ran into the same problem I had with Heart-Shaped Box, wherein I went to bed right at the spookiest part and so my second sitting with the book was like 75% less creepy. Dang it! Don’t get me wrong, there was some pretty weird and scary stuff in that second part, but in the morning light it just wasn’t the same. Also, spoilers?, the ending of the book is super anti-climactic and a little too explainy for my tastes, so I didn’t leave with a great impression.

BUT, for all that I’m down on the book now, I really did enjoy reading it and probably would have enjoyed it much better if I could have consumed it in one sitting, in the dark, with one of my husband’s creepy video games providing background noise. If you, like me, heard “house”, “ghost”, and “pickers” and your ears perked up, you’ll probably have a decent time with this book.

Weekend Shorts: Post-Hurricane Comics

Hey, look, a theme! And this is really a double theme, as my pile of comics reflects the fact that we’re in RIP season with mystery and spookiness abound! I enjoyed these comics outside in the lovely post-hurricane weather that approximates fall in Florida, and I’m hoping that weather sticks around but not the hurricane stuff. I don’t think my heart can take another one this year!

Goldie Vance, #1-4, by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams
Goldie Vance #1I put this series in my pull list basically as soon as I heard about it, back when it was just a four-issue thing. I actually have #5 in my house, as this series, like all the other miniseries I’ve subscribed to, is now ongoing, but I figured let’s take this one arc at a time.

It’s not quite what I was expecting; it’s advertised as along the lines of Nancy Drew and Veronica Mars and other Girl Detectives, and it… is, but it isn’t. It lacks the depth of mystery found in those stories, proooobably because it’s a comic and it’s intended for tweens and how much space do you have in those 20-something pages, anyway, and I found myself rather baffled and a bit disappointed in the ending.

But, on the other hand, you have delightfully fun characters. There’s Goldie, who wants nothing more than to solve ALL THE MYSTERIES; her friend Cheryl, who wants to be an astronaut; Walter the beleaguered actual detective who wants nothing more than to be left alone and maybe meet a hot chick; and Goldie’s dad and mom, hotel manager and mermaid-costumed entertainer, respectively. Did I mention this book is set in 1962, in Florida? And that most of the main cast is not white, and that so far that’s not a plot point? And that Goldie Vance is apparently a race-car driver with a crush on the hot record store chick? The mystery might be the weirdest, but I’ll stick with this cast for a little while longer and see what they’re up to.

Beyond Belief, #2-3, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and Phil Hester
Beyond Belief #3I thought these would be perfect RIP reads, until I got to the end of #3, realized there was a #4 to be had, scoured my shelf to find it, couldn’t find it, and then took to the internet to discover it CANCELLED. Who cancels what I presume was already the final issue??? Gah, comics publishers are the worst.

Right, so, anyway. Frank. Sadie. Reluctant monster hunters. In issue 2 they take on the incredibly creepy imaginary friend of the moderately creepy imaginary friend of a little girl who used to have under-the-bed monsters which Sadie is very sad not to get to meet. After besting this beast, Sadie’s friend Donna from issue 1 is kidnapped, leading to…

Issue 3! In which Frank and Sadie take on a literal tree with a literal cult following that seems to be doing evil but might actually be doing good but it is VERY HARD TO SAY BECAUSE THERE IS A CLIFFHANGER ENDING THAT I WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO FINISH THANKS IMAGE. I might be be overly upset about this, but, I mean, seriously. I really enjoyed these two issues, which have a perfect blend of weird creepy story and Frank and Sadie banter and truly amazing artwork that captures the over-the-top quality of this series.

What’s that? If I put my mad librarian skillz to use I can actually find issue 4 available for purchase online? Excuse me a second…

[$3 and several minutes later…]

Beyond Belief, #4, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and Phil Hester
Aha! So. Yeah. The literal tree was being sort of a good guy, as he was trapping a big evil. Meanwhile, two detectives get in on this case and one of them becomes a ghost and the other one becomes Donna’s husband (I mean, later, not in this issue, there’s no time!), and all the good things I said about the previous issues still hold.

I do hope, whatever caused this shenanigan aside, that there can be more Thrilling Adventure Hour comics (Sparks Nevada too!) in the future, because they are sooooo good. I mean, I’m still getting sporadic radio shows in my feed long after the podcast “ended”, so anything can happen!

The Night Sister, by Jennifer McMahon

The Night SisterI made an agreement with my boss that we would switch off reading the books for the library book club, which definitely seemed like a great idea after my disastrous first outing with them. But then the next book up, this one, sounded actually pretty interesting and so I stole it from my boss so I could have a good book club experience.

The best-laid plans…

Except this time, it was the rest of the club (only half of whom even showed up) that hated the book, while I was like, wait, I thought it was pretty okay!

It could have been better, sure, but it was so squarely in my wheelhouse I couldn’t hate it when I tried. It’s got multiple points of view, multiple time period settings, interwoven plot lines, Big Mysteries, awesome lady protagonists, and a hint of the supernatural. It’s also a quasi-gothic novel, which is a genre of book that I seem to like more in theory than in the reading but I really like it in theory, so.

What actually happens in the novel: In the present day, a woman violently kills her family and herself, and her estranged childhood best friends, who are sisters, come together to figure out if it had anything to do with that Big Mysterious Thing that happened to them as children. In that childhood period, the Future Murdery Woman and the sisters hang out and navigate teenagerhood and also try to figure out the Big Mystery of the motel FMM’s family lives in. In the farther past, FMM’s mother navigates her own teenagerhood and also tries to figure out the Big Mystery of her sister, who she thinks might be a shapeshifting mare of the kind that her grandmother once warned her about.

It’s a fascinating novel, playing with genre and switching styles between the three time settings as the location setting stays the same — or rather deteriorates, as vacant motels are wont to do. There’s something cool to be seen in the fate of the motel through the generations and in how it is represented, first as a strongly gothic imposing presence and eventually just as a creepy sort of place. There’s a not-subtle nod to Hitchcock and Psycho included in the book as well, and he’s definitely a strong influence on the story.

Where it went wrong for the rest of the club and admittedly a little bit for me as well is the ending, which [SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH] takes what I expected to be either an ambiguous ending or a heavy metaphor about life and swerves to the completely literal, having those mares be real and having some of the characters actually be these shapeshifters. This revelation doesn’t quite fit with the tone of the rest of the novel and so is completely jarring, leaving me with a “Bwuh?” face and then a “Hmmph.” face as a finished it. But with some space between me and the book, I find that I kind of liked it as a “twist” ending. It reminded me a bit of another novel I read a few years ago, though I’m pretty sure there weren’t actual demons in that one? Man, I need to write more spoilers in my reviews so I can remember these books better.

That was a long spoiler tangent, sorry!

Anyway, I ended up liking the book more academically, for playing around with literary conventions, than for its entertainment value, as it is lacking a bit in the plot and character departments. My book clubbers would argue that it’s lacking completely in those departments, but I stayed intrigued the whole way through so I’ll give McMahon points for that. And I will definitely be putting her on my list of Authors Whose Best Works I Should Read Some Day, as she’s pretty prolific and has some apparently very good works to her name.

Recommendation: For those looking for a moderately spooky read and who like a novel that plays with convention and expectation.

Weekend Shorts: Locke & Sandman

Last week I talked about bingeing on single issues on hoopla, but this week I’m going to talk about a couple of trades that I read and loved and probably the only thing stopping me from binge-reading the rest of the already completed series is that I wanted to come tell you all about them first. Darn you, internet persons!

Sandman, Vol. 1: “Preludes and Nocturnes”, by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III
Sandman, Vol. 1Sandman has been on my list of comics to read for a very long time, even before I considered myself a “comics person”. And since the whole series is on hoopla, that’s totally going to happen. Eventually.

This first volume is interesting. It’s essentially the story of Dream, who is accidentally summoned instead of his sister, Death, by some less-than-great summoners. The first issue covers the bad things that happen when you trap the god of dreams in the mortal world — people who sleep forever, people who can no longer sleep — and what happens when that god gets out — revenge in the form of eternal waking. Remind me not to piss off a dream god, is what I’m saying.

The rest of the volume follows Dream as he recovers from his imprisonment and hunts down his stolen tools. This part is a little weirder, as Dream meets not only Cain and Abel but also John Constantine and weird demons and some Justice League people I don’t know and a weird crazy villain guy… There’s a lot going on.

I think my favorites of the issues are the first one, which sets everything up, and the sixth one, which pits a bunch of people against each other as their minds are controlled and which is quite well done in terms of story and art.

I wasn’t as super sold on this series as I’d hoped I’d be, but I recall from my initial interest in the series that the first volume isn’t necessarily the place to start so I’m pretty sure it’ll get better. I just need to find time to read nine more volumes!

Locke & Key, Vol. 1: “Welcome to Lovecraft”, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Locke & Key, Vol. 1This volume, on the other hand, was awesome sauce from beginning to end. I’m a sucker for a creepy murder story and also for a creepy supernatural story, and this is both!

The book starts off with the horrible murder of a high school guidance counselor by a bright but very troubled student, flashing back and forth between the murder and the aftermath. The counselor’s family makes it out alive, but they decide to pack up all their stuff and move into the counselor’s childhood home, called Keyhouse, with his brother. As these things go, though, Keyhouse is not necessarily a safer place for the family — the house is full of secret places and mysterious keys and an apparition who seems to be running the whole show from the bottom of a well.

I love the way this book plays with its creepy elements, interspersing them perfectly with the mundane to make everything seem almost normal. I also love the characters; Hill does a great job of showing their love for each other even while they’re still a bickering family. And that chick in the well, well (HA), she’s veeery intriguing and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainIf you’ve talked to me about books any time in the last month or so, you’ve probably heard me ask the following questions: Did you read and like Gone Girl? Were you okay with the fact that almost everyone in that book was an awful human being?

And then, if the answer is yes, an exclamation: You should totally read this book The Girl on the Train that’s coming out really really soon!

Really really soon is finally now, so seriously, if you liked Gone Girl, look into this one.

The story starts off innocuously enough. Our main narrator, Rachel, rides the train into and out of London every day, and passes by a house on the tracks where she sees a lovely young couple and imagines their wonderful life together. But then, one day, she sees the wife kissing a man who is not her husband, and then shortly afterward Rachel sees this woman’s picture all over the media on account of she’s gone missing. Rachel is sure that this mystery man had something to do with it, so she decides to go to the police and tell them what she knows. But as she gets more involved with the investigation, we (both the reader and Rachel) learn that Rachel’s life isn’t exactly what it seems.

It’s absolutely fascinating. Rachel is a super unreliable narrator, and we find out very quickly that she’s lying about her reasons for being on the train, lying about her interest in the missing girl’s neighborhood, lying about how much alcohol she drinks — really just lying to us and herself about a lot of things. We learn some of this through her admissions, but we learn even more when the narration switches over to her ex-husband’s new wife, Anna, and even more than that when we get narration from the missing girl, Megan. All three ladies’ lives are intertwined, more than any of them really knows, and the pieces from each story they tell add up to an even spookier story than it looks like from the start.

We already know I’m a sucker for unreliable, multiple, and awful narrators, so clearly this book was made with me in mind. But it’s a really great work of suspense, with danger at every turn and terrible decisions being made and that sense of never knowing which way is up in the narrative. And for all that the narrators are terrible people, I really wanted things to work out for all of them. It’s hard to talk about any specific part of the book without spoiling how the story got to that point, so really you should just go read this now and come back and then we will talk about ALL THE THINGS.

I will say that the ending is weak compared to the rest of the book, with things wrapping up just too nicely, but I think for most people that’s a welcome change from the end of Gone Girl, which ending I liked way more than anyone else. For me, if I don’t know what the heck is happening in the rest of the book, it only makes sense not to know what’s going to happen after the book ends you know? That’s probably just me.

Anyway. Go read it. Do it.

Recommendation: For and possibly only for people who like unreliable, multiple, and/or awful narrators, because that’s pretty much the entire book.

Rating: 9/10

Descent, by Tim Johnston

DescentI picked this book up on a whim, knowing nothing except that the cover is cool and that the jacket copy promised a disappeared girl and a bereft family, and you know there’s nothing I like more than a bereft family. Okay, that’s totally not true, but I am definitely fascinated by how people react to trauma, especially a close-knit group of people, so I was intrigued.

The book starts off pretty okay, with a girl and her brother gallivanting about the mountains of Colorado on a family vacation. The girl, Caitlin, is a distance runner looking forward to athletic-scholarship-funded college in the fall. The brother, Sean aka “Dudley”, is, as you may expect by the nickname, less athletically inclined but still for whatever reason willing to grab his mountain bike and at least attempt to keep pace with his sister. But then an accident happens and the kids’ parents get that call that no parent ever wants to get, that Sean is in the hospital with lots of injuries. And Caitlin? She’s gone missing, in the mountains, where no one is going to be found who doesn’t want to be found.

So that’s pretty sweet, right? And really, this is the only reason I stayed ’til the end — I had to know what happened to Caitlin and whether she’d be found and how her family was going to survive this whether Caitlin survived or not.

But everything else, ecch. I just told a friend the other day that I love non-linear stories, but I forgot the caveat that I like non-linear stories when I can take the non-linear pieces and slot them into a timeline that will be nice and pretty by the end of the book. This one, not so much. Not only does Johnston hop back and forth in time, but he does so without warning, without segue, and without any darn proper nouns. He’ll set up a scene with a girl and a boy and you have no idea which girl and which boy they are or when they are or where they are for at least a paragraph and that’s an interesting style, sure, but I do not like it.

And then once you figure out what characters the author’s even talking about, they are mostly inscrutable. I have no idea what’s up with the dad or the brother for the most part, and there’s this whole extended bit with the brother and a hitchhiker and a bar that serves, to me, only to show that dudes are horrible even when they’re the good guys, which is a recurring theme throughout the novel. On the chick side, Caitlin’s plight is pretty straightforward and the mother’s issues are pretty standard, and for the most part they’re just weak and helpless women waiting for one of those horrible men-folk to help them out, which bah. The only character who gets any semblance of an arc is the sheriff’s deadbeat brother, who starts off one-dimensional and then is magically given new and interesting dimensions and becomes actually very cool, and I cannot figure out why all of the characters couldn’t be that cool from the start.

Luckily that gripping plotline comes around again to become this utterly horrifying and awful ending which would have fit better on a much different story, but I wouldn’t have read that story due to it being far too visceral. If I could have that ending as a standalone short story, though… that might work.

Overall there were enough good pieces to this story that I think it turned out decent, but knowing what I know now I would probably not have started this book. It’s like catching one of those murder-of-the-week shows on TV — I didn’t particularly want to stick around another hour (or several, in this case), but I just had to know.

Recommendation: For those who like suspense and intrigue, but really moreso for people who aren’t put off by unusual narrative styles.

Rating: 6/10