Camilla Bruce is now on my list of must-read authors. Her interest in the darker elements of the female experience—and in this case, the sociopathic murderous elements—makes for fascinating reading. This was a great work. But it could have been shorter.
Character portrayals: ★★★★★
Have you heard the story of the Widow of La Porte? Belle Gunness' reign as one of the most prolific female series killers in early 1900s America is a chilling (and true) tale.
Belle Gunness was born Brynhild Storset in Norway in the 1800s to a poor family of rural tenants. Her earliest years are spent with vicious nurture and violent nature, and an early sexual encounter gone extremely sour—the author's editorializing at work with this fact, as this encounter is rumored in Norway but not officially confirmed--leads to her first murder. Little Brynhild poisons her abuser and likes the feeling of power she gets.
Little Byrnhild doesn't do well in Norway. The villagers whisper about her and her pride chafes at the knowledge that everyone in her small town knows of her shame. She writes to her older sister, Nellie, in America and desperately asks for her to help her.
Nellie agrees to fund Brynhild's voyage to America and takes her under her wing in a Norwegian-American apartment community in Chicago. Brynhild becomes Bella. Bella's pride, greed, and need for control over the men in her life lead to some dark decisions... and her sister Nellie begins to suspect that something is not all right with her sister.
As the years go by, Bella's life seems to be marked by obvious tragedy. Her husbands and children just keep...dying. And her homes and businesses just keep... burning down. What's up with that? Eventually, Bella moves to rural Indiana and marries Peter Gunness, her new persona as Belle Gunness begins. And once Peter suffers a tragic accident with a meat grinder—or cleaver, depending on who you ask—what's a twice-made widow to do with a huge farm but create an ad asking for male farm hands to come and help her? It's not exactly her fault if all the men disappear in the night...
The black widow spider creates her wicked web...
Told in two points of view, one from Belle herself and one from her sister, Nellie, In the Garden of Spite takes us along for the ride as we silently witness Belle's entire life from girlhood to her bloody reign as Belle Gunness on her murder farm. It's a chilling tale meant to unsettle, and Camilla Bruce's mastery of ominous, distanced writing really sells the tension throughout this almost 500-page novel.
But bringing up the length of this book brings up my only caveat—it was pretty long. In the marketing, the focus is entirely on Belle's time in La Porte as a murdering farm widow. This seems to be a bit misleading and definitely affected how I viewed the pacing of the book. When you start a book expecting to read a novelization of the Widow of La Porte....and then it takes 380 pages to get to Belle's life as "Belle Gunness" in the first place... Honestly, it made the first 3/4 of the novel feel incredibly slow. I kept waiting for the "real" plot to happen and that took away from the experience of reading the characters' life stories.
I'd definitely recommend going into this knowing that you're getting a life's story and not a snapshot novelization or a glorified true crime fixation.
This is a personal and chilling character study of one woman's descent into the darkest levels of the human psyche and her lack of acceptance of her own darkness. It's also about the toll that life on her loved ones, and the knife's edge between loving and protecting your family versus realizing the monster in your family tree.
Definitely read the author's note at the end - it gives a lot of context for Belle's real life, the amount of research the author used, and a key list of artistic differences that the author decided to take on in order to explore the themes.
Thank you to Berkley, Goodreads, and NetGalley for my giveaway ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Four men discover that things they buried in the past don't stay buried in this multi-layered cultural horror novel by master writer Stephen Graham Jones.
Potential to linger in your mind forever: ★★★★★
Execution of plot: ★★★★★
This was stellar. That seems to be an odd opinion as I don't see too many 5 stars rolling around, but this horrific tale of past sins, cultural obligations turning into traps, cyclical identity horror, and more was amazing.
The Only Good Indians is a different kind of horror novel. Oh, it goes there with its horror—extreme trigger warnings for horror inflicted on animals being a main example. But it's also a layered look at what it means to be Indian/Native American/Indigenous in today's America—and the cultural identity, cyclical injustices, and lingering wounds of the past that refuse to heal both within the community and in the country at large.
Ten years ago, four friends decide to break the laws of the land and hunt for elk in the elders' only zone. While there, they find a herd of elk and take them down in a glorified slaughter. One of their kills is a young female. And she was pregnant. (Killing young/pregnant targets is taboo for hunters.)
Now ten years later, those four men all live different versions of a modern Native experience. Two are still on the reservation, struggling with their own pasts and present within the constant social chains of familial obligation and tribal identity. One man fled the reservation after the OD of his brother and escaped to North Dakota to work on a oil rig. One man fell in love with a white woman and pretends he's made his own choices to be away from the reservation as opposed to hiding from the sins of his past.
But the past draws long shadows, and the Elk Head Woman is coming to avenge the slaughter of the land. Who will be the first man to fall?
Presented in sections dedicated to the different men and their encounters with the horror stalking them, this novel kept me on the edge of my seat from the first page to the last. Jones' talent for ominous atmosphere delivered through distanced writing was fantastic. It speaks to the talent of the writing that something with relatively little jump scares and/or action was able to keep my muscles so tense for so long, ready for the next jump. This book was terrifying, its progression toward its only conclusion ceaseless and inevitable.
I don't think this kind of horror novel will be for everyone, and as my friends' ratings suggest, that is clearly the case. If you come to this novel with an expectation, expect it to be ignored. The Only Good Indians stands alone in its pacing, its plot, and its ability to have each action and reaction exist not only as concrete points of the surface horror novel but also reflections of horror in myriad forms of the Indian/Native American/Indigenous experience.
Thank you to the publisher and Libro.fm for my audiobook copy in exchange for an honest review.
What do you have when you add Salem Witch Trials, plagues, cursed witches, polygamy, oppression of women, fantasy settings, racial commentaries, and religious allegories together? This book.
Enjoyment: ★★★ 1/2
In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. A biracial girl in a town of only white people, her very existence brings shame to her family as it reminds the settlement of her dead mother's sins—and witchcraft.
The Prophet is a man (I bet you guessed) and the town of Bethel exists as a small, settlement-type town in the middle of Nowhere, Nowhere. Their town is surrounded by the Darkwood, and the Prophet's religious teachings warn of the wood's dangers and temptations. Lilith and her coven of witches live in the Darkwood and they live in sin, and if you let them tempt you you'll be lost forever.
Or at least, that's what the man says.
Like so many tales of oppressive male-dominated religious regimes, The Year of the Witching is highlighting issues of gender, power, and control—and how many of those bindings go hand in hand with some extreme conservative religions. The Prophet may be in charge and he may call himself holy, but his many many underage sister wives tell a different story by the bruises on their skin.
Combining issues of female agency and power, race and poverty, and a heavy dose of critical notes on religion, this tale was extremely representative and often sacrificed world building and plot for the sake of allegory. I'm not saying that it wasn't done well, but I definitely want to highlight that fact for other readers.
At the end of the day, I thought this was a solid debut. As someone who likes fantasy/horror speculative novels that go there and push the reader, I thought this fell short. The messaging was fantastic, but the plot itself stopped its own progress by keeping it from going to that extra level. Things felt predictable—with the heart of the novel focused on the lofty concepts it was harder for the characters to authentically reach their goals.
Without spoiling this particular novel, a good example of this would be like a book to movie adaptation. It's hard to be surprised when you go the theater to view an adapted movie from a book that you've read. You know the main plot points, you've read the book, so it's really a matter of relying on the adaptation to still surprise you with something new within the framework of something that you already know.
The Year of the Witching didn't have that extra oomph for me, but I think it did for other readers.
Thank you to Ace - Berkley via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Given the ratings, I was surprised at how much in enjoyed this slim novel about dream walking and monsters. It’s a odd one.
Out of Body comes out on May 26!
Out of Body is definitely a polarizing novella. For me, it was a clear winner—but that's because it felt like the darker, grown up version of one of my favorite young reads. This reminds me SO MUCH of Scott Westerfeld's The Midnighters.
Owen is a librarian living out his days of monotony in a haze of repetition. He's 35, but he feels both ancient and young. (He dresses like an old-school businessman, yet survives on boxed mac and cheese and frozen pizza.)
One day, Owen witnesses a robbery-turned-murder at his local gas station, where he's viciously knocked out with a head injury. After his head injury, Owen discovers that something about his reality has changed.
Now, he can dream walk. But other things also walk the nights...and not all of them are friendly.
The novel's so short I have to stop there - spoilers!
What I loved:
I LOVED the similarity in concept between this novel and Scott Westerfeld's The Midnighters. Both involve a select group of people who are active during the nighttime due to speculative circumstance. (Beyond that, the concepts are very different.) I loved Owen's bland character—yes, I know that sounds like a negative, but hear me out. Owen's lack of character distinction perfectly represents the feeling of detachment that a surrealist dreamscape requires. It was the perfect amount of distance vs. Other.
What I didn't love:
I can see why others didn't enjoy the pacing of this novel. It was slightly odd, and slow for the beginning bits. However, I think that is also an intentional part of the distanced narrative, so this "negative" was neutral at best for me.
Thank you to TOR via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
CAVES. A close-knit group of people. A documentary in progress. Supernatural spooks. Lots of humor, laughs, and horror. I loved this so much.
Cave factor: ★★★★★
Overall enjoyment: ★★★★★
Don't let the meh reviews fool you. If you're a fan of caves, you'll love this. If you're a fan of documentary-based horror films, you'll love this. If you're a fan of closed-in groups of people experiencing some tough stuff, yeah you'll love this too.
The Anomaly follows a down-on-their-luck YouTube web series about a middle-aged man named Nolan Moore who explores the conspiracy theories and weird places of the world. For YouTube fans who understand the Buzzfeed Unsolved reference, this part of the story feels a lot like what would happen if that show got weirder, older, and less entertaining. The documentary group is scraping by, waiting for their one big break. And then, they find it.
Hidden within the Grand Canyon lies a cave. An explorer named Kincaid found it during his initial surveys of America's West, and he said amazing archaeological treasures existed inside. But then he never told people where to find it, and the cave disappeared over time.
Nolan is interested in finding the cave, but like all of his other documentaries, he's not really expecting to find it.
The group enters the Grand Canyon and—to everyone's surprise— they find the cave. That's the easy part.
Unbeknownst to them, the cave has some secrets to share. There was a reason Kincaid never wanted people to find this cave. And Nolan's crew is about to find out why.
Ahhhhhhhh. This was so fun to read, folks. First off, I'm highly biased as I love any and all horror stories involving caves. I'm a huge fan of the movie The Descent, featuring caves and spooky things, and one of my favorite reads of last year was The Luminous Dead, again about caves and spooky things. So it's with no surprise that I offer this up to fellow cave fans as another entry into that sub-genre of thriller/horror.
Another selling point for this book was the surprising amount of humor - like actual, laughing out loud in the room humor. Ken, the series' producer, is my favorite character because of that.
Without getting into spoilers, I do agree with some of the reviewers who didn't enjoy the ending. I did enjoy it, but that's because I don't need thrillers to be grounded in reality—especially when they're explicitly clear that they have spooky elements. So I guess, a word of caution to those who do care about that kind of thing. If you're entering this spooky, horror-movie vibe book and expecting a logical boogieman, maybe this one isn't for you.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.