An ominous, snail-paced crawl to the finish line with a lot of hidden horror and an ambiguously dark ending. This was interesting, but soooo not for me. (Take the star rating with a grain of salt.)
First off, I'd like to say that my low rating is 100% tied to my personal feelings for this novel's content and my general reading experience. I think, like most horror novels, how we respond to content warnings and plot points are very much dependent on individual reader preferences—and it's hard to know what you're getting into without spoiling yourself to a book's contents. Sundial was one of those reads for me—if I'd known where the plot was going to go when I started reading, I would have passed on it. (For that reason, I think some people who aren't excited by the book's pitch but do like certain horror tropes would love this book. But they'll have a hard time learning that without knowing details beforehand. A conundrum that often exists in this genre. )
But hey, we're here now, and I am going to do my best to sell this very well-told story that did not work for me, personally.
Rob's life as a suburban mom of two daughters looks great on the surface. Her husband has money and is respected, her job is stable and conservatively appropriate, and her two daughters appear to be beautiful and normal.
This is a horror novel, so I'll stop there with how things "appear" to be.
Rob's hiding behind several of her secrets, and her husband, Irving, isn't much better. Come to think of it, her oldest daughter, Callie, and her youngest daughter, Annie, also have their secrets. This is a family bound in their silence and (badly) hiding behind the cracks.
The façade is crumbling, and Rob's about to realize that there's nothing she can do to reverse the damage—it's time to do damage control.
And for Rob, the only thing that makes sense is to return to the start of everything--Sundial.
An isolated compound in the middle of the Mojave desert, Sundial is where Rob grew up. It's an odd place—almost cult-like—with more scientific experiments and death than most of us can imagine. Her family is bizarre, her upbringing strange. Rob's childhood and its secrets lay buried in the dirt along with the truth.
Rob grabs her oldest daughter, Callie, and flees to Sundial to fix the problem. (What is the problem though, exactly? Is it what Rob thinks it is? Is it was Callie thinks it is? Is it even what we, the readers, think it is?)
Told through split POVS, split timelines, and interspersed with story entries of a fictional world, one thing is true for this novel—the story is never solid.
Sundial is a very interesting concept for a novel. It takes many pieces from other stories, and its display of the truth/reveals held a classic "twist" flavor to it that made sense when looking at the entire novel from a bird's eye view. (In practice, it led to a very frustrating reading experience.)
As the reader, I was so frustrated by the stilted, distanced gaze. All of these characters felt like they were permanently behind a glass wall—sounds and pictures came through just fine, but I could never forget that there was a wall between us. I was so aware of the story being a "story" the entire time.
I also think that without foreknowledge of the ending, the entire first half of the book feels like a snail crawl. I didn't know what was happening, not enough action was carrying me through the confused intro stage, and I was so aware of the metaphorical wall between character vs. reader that my connection to the characters didn't exist. There was nothing tying me to continuing this story beyond the sense of duty I had as a book reviewer to complete my read of an advance reader copy.
Personal issues aside, I do think Sundial excelled in its sense of place and setting. The desert compound that the book takes its title from is grounded in gritty realities and horrors that felt as real and oppressive as a desert heat. The horrors within this book had a unique backdrop in Sundial's sense of place, and the animal elements were different than other horror novels I've personally read. The unique factor is strong here—genre readers will no doubt appreciate that.
I think all fans of horror should consider picking this up, especially if my cons don't seem like cons above... this is definitely an interesting and unique entry into a genre that is brutally exacting in its demands for new content.
Calling all fans of Mexican Gothic....This is not a book for the meek, it's a book for those of us who loved that story and are looking for a more intense, Gothic-a la Victorian version of it with more magic and more medical gore.
Horror elements: ★★★★★
Engagement: ★★★ 1/2
Jane Shorefield lives her life by the numbers. A rare female accountant in a a world that feels like Victorian England, she's done the math and decided that she needs a husband--and after careful consideration of the bachelors in her small town, she decides on Doctor Augustine Lawrence.
Augustine is single, attractive, and respectable, with well-paying job as the town's only doctor. He's a great match. It is weird that Augustine is still single and seemingly not interested in marriage... but Jane decides to give it a try. She proposes a business transaction: they'll get married to save Jane from spinsterhood and to provide Augustine with a live-in woman to help him with his practice's accounts.
Now Mrs. Jane Lawrence, she discovers several things in quick succession.
First, Augustine's practice is filled with death and the dying--for a woman who only thought about the numbers involved, it's a rough awakening to be thrown into a hectic and gory surgery on her first day in the practice.
Second, her husband refuses to let her spend the night in his family estate outside of town. His vicious vehemence takes her aback. Jane agrees, but like all good stories we know that doesn't last.
Third, there's something Augustine isn't telling her. Jane can't expect anything more, as she knows they did this for convenience and not for love, but there's something under the surface that Jane can feel at the edges of their relationship. What is it?
When a simple miscommunication leads to Jane arriving at the estate, everything begins to change. Jane quickly realizes that her world is not what it seems.... and at the heart of the wrongness is Augustine.
Gross, gory, and enrapturing, The Death of Jane Lawrence was a doozy of a novel.
The sense of menace in the writing was top tier. From the beginning, you can feel the trap closing around Jane despite her point of view trying to make logical sense of her surroundings. I was waiting with baited breath for the shoe(s) to drop. (Boy, do they ever.)
Once Jane gets to the estate and things start to happen, the pacing and plot develops into its final form of intricately paced and plotted horror. I both loved the pacing and absolutely hated it. It was too slow for me, but I couldn't stop? That duality carries throughout the entirety of this novel. You're attracted and yet repelled, boring and yet enraptured, disgusted and yet understanding.
Intense. I liked it a lot for what it was, but count this one in the category of "I can't believe I liked this, it was so dark and twisted" fiction such as Mexican Gothic, Follow Me to Ground, and others.
Spoilers for the graphic elements: (view spoiler)
Thank you to the publisher for my copy 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.
A haunted house, a family with too many secrets, a girl-turned-woman caught in the crossfire. Many years later, it's time for the woman to come home and deal with the remnants of her past.
Final, final ending: ★★★★
This DELIVERED. I was gripped for the entire read. I was surprised at points and not at others. I had a heck of a good time reading it in one sitting. But but but...?
Maggie Holt grew up in the shadow of The Book. The Book: a haunted "nonfiction" account of one family's few weeks of horrors in a haunted Victorian mansion. The Book was written by her journalist father when she was very small, and captured the weeks that their family lived in Baneberry Hall and experienced the most terrifying time of their lives.
Or so the world believes.
Maggie, now a grown woman, believes The Book was a clever piece of fiction that her father wrote for money. The fact that she remembers nothing of her time in Baneberry Hall—good or bad—speaks to that fact. (Well, except for her lingering night terrors, which hang with her to this day...)
So when her father dies and shocks Maggie with the deed to Baneberry Hall, Maggie knows that now, finally, it's her turn. It's her turn to find out the truth about her past and reclaim her childhood in the eyes of the public. And time to lay old ghosts to rest, permanently.
But Baneberry Hall isn't ready to give Maggie up yet, and something is determined to go bump in the night...
What if The Book wasn't a lie after all?
What I loved:
I say this every time I read a Riley Sager book: I loved the writing. There's something to be said for a story that doesn't skimp on facts and yet doesn't overuse its details. This was another Sager novel that I read in one sitting late one stormy night (if you can control your weather, I highly recommend that experience). It's moody, it's dark, it's spooky. It's also a story within a story, with spliced sections of Maggie's POV in the present and spliced chapters of The Book itself recounting the past. I loved that element too—talk about a tried and true method of creating suspense. And also, the elephant in the room, I'm a sucker for haunted houses so I was, at a minimum, going to enjoy this novel for that element alone. Which I did.
What I didn't love:
The only thing I didn't love is a small spoiler from the very end. It wasn't enough to tip me from 5 stars to 4, but it was just enough that I went, aw, really? Really? Because this novel would have been perfection if it had done one more thing. I don't want to include it here because some folks will read it and then the story won't work for them the same way, but for those who have read it I'll send you to my Goodreads review so you can read the spoiler: (view spoiler)
Thank you to the publisher for my copy 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.
Super weird, definitely meant to disturb, and not afraid of killing any expectations you had about faeries. Welcome to You Let Me In.
Concept: ★★★★ 1/2
Writing style: ★★★★
Content warnings: Yes, a lot of them, please see end of review.
You Let Me In comes out on April 21.
First off, I'd like to make a disclaimer that I'm about to praise this novel, but it in no way means that I am praising the subject matter. There are dark themes in this, and if you are concerned about warnings please see the end of this review.
You Let Me In follows the story (or stories?) of Cassandra Tipp's life. Tipp was a reclusive writer with a troubled upbringing and a tragic life, and it's time for her to tell her story. She's ready to share her truth...but you might not be able to believe it.
It's literally so hard to decide what to share and what not to share about this novel. I went in with very little—just what's in the description. I think in order to enjoy this for what it is, you should go in with little information.
One of the main themes at play in You Let Me In is the concept of memory and trauma. Did these events happen as Cassandra said they did? Is it possible for two conflicting stories to both exist? What is the "real" story? Is there a "real" story?
Now, you might be wondering, this was published by TOR...the fantasy publisher. Memory and trauma don't sound fantastical. What's up with that?
According to Cassandra, the "Pepper Man" is her closest companion. A "faerie," the Pepper Man lives next to Cassandra, lives off of Cassandra, and ultimately entwines her life with his and takes her on adventures under the mound. Faeries in this are not handsome, not romantic, and NOT something mysterious in the woods. These faeries are the undead/unmade. I don't know if I agree with the designation of "faerie" in this, but it IS very otherworldly. (In a way, I think readers who enjoyed Never Contented Things will like this too. Similar executions on unsettling faeries meant to horrify.)
My favorite aspect of this novel was its extremely masterful pacing and sense of truth. Novels often claim that they "leave the truth up to the reader." In my experience, they rarely deliver. There's always a more fleshed out "truth" to believe. In You Let Me In, this debut actually delivers on a double-edged sword of truth. What really happened? It's up to you. I know what belief I took out of this, but you and I might disagree. It speaks to the author's skill that we can have such opposing takeaways.
One of the main sticking points (as I see it, anyway) for You Let Me In revolves around its placement in the discussion of speculative fiction at this point in time. It's getting harder and harder for speculative dark fiction to deliver on an engaging, well-crafted, and memorable narratives. On the one hand, it seems like we're just getting more twisted and triggering narratives to deliver on this promise. On the other, some of the recent entries into the genre are dark and yet amazing (see Follow Me to Ground, which I also loved.) While this one's themes are dark and its content very upsetting to people with different expectations, I found it extremely singular and one-of-a-kind. Does it fall on the side of "too much" because of that? I don't know. I struggled with my opinions. I definitely loved what it was doing in realm of writing and story development, but I really struggled to enjoy the content due to its extremely dark themes.
Bottom line: read this if you like the genre, but definitely go in with eyes wide open regarding warnings and expectations.
Thank you to TOR for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Content warnings: Potential rape (depending on the versions of the story), potential familial abuse (same as previous), consent issues throughout, bad family treatment of main character's mental health, childhood trauma, abortion discussed, death of a child (discussed, version of truth issue again), murder, mind games, problematic mental health professional, etc.
I was NOT expecting this slim novel to be so awesome, so horror-based, and so suspenseful. Loved it. It would have been an automatic 5 stars, but some things didn't jive.
The Return comes out on March 24, 2020!
Elise is told her best friend, Julie, went missing on a solo hiking trip. Two years go by, and Elise refuses to believe or accept that Julie's dead. She's sure Julie will turn up again, good as new.
Two years to the day that Julie disappears, she returns. She doesn't remember anything about her time missing, and things are...different. But Elise is ecstatic anyway—Julie came back.
To celebrate Julie's return, Elise and Julie's two other friends organize a girl's weekend at a lodge in the New England woods. The lodge is crazy wacky—think individually-themed rooms, Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton, and The Shining all in one—and the girls are immediately set up for a weird time.
But the lodge isn't the weird part. Julie is.
Something's wrong with Julie, and it might not be what Elise is expecting...
Wow. What a cool, unique, horrific debut. This clocks in at just under 200 pages, and I devoured it in one sitting. The suspense was killer—at any given moment, I was on pins and needles waiting for the next creepy thing, the next reveal. The girls' friendship dynamics were painfully raw, honest, and full of recognizable traits that I identified with from my own friends. The reveal, while easier to guess than others, was still well done and I loved the final climax.
The only thing that kept The Return from being an automatic 5 stars for me was the overall pacing. You can tell that this story had a killer hook and good suspense, but due to the lack of a side-plot or believable red herrings its pacing suffered. Lots of dialogue-based scenes and not enough significant action. However, as the suspense was done SO well, this was relatively easy to ignore. It would have been a much bigger problem if this novel had been longer.
Thank you to Berkley via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
What a twisted nightmare. A fairy tale you'd never want to meet.
Warnings: Very graphic in the medical sense
I almost hesitated to rate this the full 5 stars because it's such a twisted speculative novella, but at the same time I think it's one of the most singular things I've ever read, so sue me. I loved it.
Follow Me to Ground is witchy, spooky, medically graphic, and disturbing. It follows the life of two non-humans, a father and a daughter, who live in a fairy tale-type scenario where they are the mystical healers that the town goes to when they're desperate. Ada and her father bury people in The Ground behind their cottage and heal their insides by scooping out the illness (literally).
Ada and her father aren't human, and they don't pretend to be.
Enter Samson, a local boy/man who captures Ada's ageless young girl/woman attention. (The hyphens are because the ages in this story are described in both ways...it highlights the overall fluidity of this story.) Samson and Ada begin an affair.
What started out off-kilter and uncomfortable gets even more so when Ada and Samson's love affair begins to fracture at the edges, and all is not what it seems. Is Samson a good man? What's up with his pregnant sister, who lives with him alone? What will Ada do when confronted with Samson's attentions vs. her nonhuman ties to The Ground?
Written with a one-of-a-kind narration and crackling tension-filled sentences, this is the kind of story that stays with you. If you liked Wilder Girls for its unflinching acceptance of body horror and its lack of explanations, you'll like this. If you liked Seanan McGuire's short stories on fairy tales best left alone, you'll love this.
I don't know what it says about me that I appreciated this story, but damn this was weird and awesome.
Thank you to Scribner for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.