Murder in paradise,
Echo by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Travel journalist and mountaineer Nick Grevers awakes from a coma to find that his climbing buddy, Augustin, is missing and presumed dead. Nick’s own injuries are as extensive as they are horrifying. His face wrapped in bandages and unable to speak, Nick claims amnesia—but he remembers everything.
He remembers how he and Augustin were mysteriously drawn to the Maudit, a remote and scarcely documented peak in the Swiss Alps.
He remembers how the slopes of Maudit were eerily quiet, and how, when they entered its valley, they got the ominous sense that they were not alone.
He remembers: something was waiting for them…
But it isn’t just the memory of the accident that haunts Nick. Something has awakened inside of him, something that endangers the lives of everyone around him…
It’s one thing to lose your life. It’s another to lose your soul.
My thoughts: Thomas Olde Heuvelt is one of contemporary horror’s best authors. His writing is sharp, confident in its exquisitely ominous builds and terrifying pay-offs. Hex was one of my favorite reads of 2016, so I very much looked forward to Echo which I imagined would deliver a similarly memorable chilling experience. At it did, for the most part. The prologue that opens this book is one of the most effectively creepy scenes I’ve ever read, setting the stage for a gloriously atypical horror novel. Following a mysterious mountain climbing accident that kills his friend and lands him in a hospital with a major facial disfigurement, Nick Grevers is haunted by an experience he can’t fully recall. Helping him through his troubled recovery is his boyfriend, Sam Avery, who is battling some inner demons of his own. The narrative shifts back and forth between both men’s points of view as the mystery surrounding the incident, and Nick’s horrific injuries, unfurls, eventually landing them both in a small Swiss village whose superstitious inhabitants don’t take kindly to strangers. It’s a wonderfully spooky set-up that surprises with more than a few highly imaginative scares before dovetailing into a (literally and figuratively) chilling climax. But it takes a while to get there. And that, in my opinion, is this book’s biggest drawback: it’s too long. While Nick’s diary entries charting his descent into darkness are gripping , Sam’s chapters are less engaging, resulting in a somewhat uneven story progression. And once they arrive in Switzerland, the suspenseful slow-burn sputters and stalls out before eventually regaining that lost momentum and barreling to a satisfying climax.
Reckless Girls by Rachel Hawkins
When Lux McAllister and her boyfriend, Nico, are hired to sail two women to a remote island in the South Pacific, it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. Stuck in a dead-end job in Hawaii, and longing to travel the world after a family tragedy, Lux is eager to climb on board The Susannah and set out on an adventure. She’s also quick to bond with their passengers, college best friends Brittany and Amma. The two women say they want to travel off the beaten path. But like Lux, they may have other reasons to be seeking an escape.
Shimmering on the horizon after days at sea, Meroe Island is every bit the paradise the foursome expects, despite a mysterious history of shipwrecks, cannibalism, and even rumors of murder. But what they don’t expect is to discover another boat already anchored off Meroe’s sandy beaches. The owners of the Azure Sky, Jake and Eliza, are a true golden couple: gorgeous, laidback, and if their sleek catamaran and well-stocked bar are any indication, rich. Now a party of six, the new friends settle in to experience life on an exotic island, and the serenity of being completely off the grid. Lux hasn’t felt like she truly belonged anywhere in years, yet here on Meroe, with these fellow free spirits, she finally has a sense of peace.
But with the arrival of a skeevy stranger sailing alone in pursuit of a darker kind of good time, the balance of the group is disrupted. Soon, cracks begin to emerge: it seems that Brittany and Amma haven’t been completely honest with Lux about their pasts––and perhaps not even with each other. And though Jake and Eliza seem like the perfect pair, the rocky history of their relationship begins to resurface, and their reasons for sailing to Meroe might not be as innocent as they first appeared.
When it becomes clear that the group is even more cut off from civilization than they initially thought, it starts to feel like the island itself is closing in on them. And when one person goes missing, and another turns up dead, Lux begins to wonder if any of them are going to make it off the island alive.
My thoughts: I read this book in two sittings. It would have been one, but my laptop battery died at about 1:00 a.m. so I had to pick things up in the morning. Suffice it to say, this is a very hard book to put down, with a central mystery that unfolds at a steady pace, masterfully setting up its premise, its players, and then, once all the pieces are in place, hitting us with a flurry of narratives twists and turns. The forward narrative is juxtaposed by flashback chapters that shed light on two of our characters, the seemingly innocent Lux McCallister and her mysterious passenger, Amma. Hawkins does a brilliant job of of revealing just enough about their respective backstories to flesh them out as interesting and complicated characters, but withholding key elements that, once revealed, deliver some surprising revelations.
When it all comes together at books’s end, however, the author doesn’t quite stick the landing, delivering a couple of surprises that, while clever, stretch credulity. Still, it was something I was willing to roll with – until the wheels completely came off in the last few pages. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but I’ll just say the last few deaths stuck me as a character betrayal, reading more like a development designed to shock the reader rather than service the wonderful story established to that point.
An incredibly compelling read, but a disappointing ending.
Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi
In the 2050s, Earth has begun to empty. Those with the means and the privilege have departed the great cities of the United States for the more comfortable confines of space colonies. Those left behind salvage what they can from the collapsing infrastructure. As they eke out an existence, their neighborhoods are being cannibalized. Brick by brick, their houses are sent to the colonies, what was once a home now a quaint reminder for the colonists of the world that they wrecked.
My thoughts: The year is 2050. Those in a position to do so have already abandoned Earth in favor of better lives in space colonies. Those who remain, mostly black minorities, struggle to survive in a harsh, dystopian setting. This book uses shifting, multiple narrative POV’s to explore various themes ranging from classicism and racism to climate change and gentrification. It’s a powerful, provocative read that, at times, feel a little diffuse in its storytelling, relaying its message through a non-linear approach that reads more like a collection of slice-of-life vignettes than a straightforward telling. Its detailed depiction of life in what has become of New Haven, Connecticut is at turns dispiriting and maddening, but there’s hope at the heart of these characters and their respective relationships. In some ways, this book reminded me of Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren, another tour-de-force study of a broken system, rife with social commentary. Goliath boasts superior world building and a deliberate pacing that proves challenging yet ultimately rewarding.
What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher
When Alex Easton, a retired soldier, receives word that their childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying, they race to the ancestral home of the Ushers in the remote countryside of Ruritania.
What they find there is a nightmare of fungal growths and possessed wildlife, surrounding a dark, pulsing lake. Madeline sleepwalks and speaks in strange voices at night, and her brother Roderick is consumed with a mysterious malady of the nerves.
Aided by a redoubtable British mycologist and a baffled American doctor, Alex must unravel the secret of the House of Usher before it consumes them all.
My thoughts: This is a clever retelling of The Fall of the House of Usher with an interesting queer angle that, disappointingly, never impacts the story in any way. Our protagonist, Alex, pays a visit to an old friend only to find her seriously ill and her brother, well, seriously strange. What ensues is a fresh take on the Poe classic that honors the original source material while shedding light on the probable (terrifyingly improbable) causes for the events that transpired at House Usher. It’s a quick read, partly due to its relatively short page count, but mostly because it is smartly written, incredibly entertaining, and possessed of a delightful undercurrent of dark humor. What Moves the Dead firmly cements itself as stand-out in the horror sub-genre I’ve come to refer to as lichen-gothic.
The Employees by Olga Ravn
The near-distant future. Millions of kilometres from Earth.
The crew of the Six-Thousand ship consists of those who were born, and those who were created. Those who will die, and those who will not. When the ship takes on a number of strange objects from the planet New Discovery, the crew is perplexed to find itself becoming deeply attached to them, and human and humanoid employees alike find themselves longing for the same things: warmth and intimacy. Loved ones who have passed. Our shared, far-away Earth, which now only persists in memory.
Gradually, the crew members come to see themselves in a new light, and each employee is compelled to ask themselves whether their work can carry on as before – and what it means to be truly alive.
My thoughts: Through a series of short interviews, the combined human and humanoid crew of the Six-Thousand Ship offer insight into their lives aboard the corporate vessel. They touch upon everything from the mundanities of their occupations to deeper philosophical issues related to their respective existences. At first, the abstract nature of the entries and the lack of tangible personalities makes it difficult to connect with the material beyond the interesting premise, but as things progressive, one can’t help but be drawn in by the emotions conveyed and the metaphysical questions posed. By the halfway mark, I was all in as things started to go sideways for certain members of the crew forcing the board of directors overseeing the mission from Earth to take action. A thought-provoking contemplation on what it means to be human.
Joan is Okay by Weike Wang
Joan is a thirtysomething ICU doctor at a busy New York City hospital. The daughter of Chinese parents who came to the United States to secure the American dream for their children, Joan is intensely devoted to her work, happily solitary, successful. She does look up sometimes and wonder where her true roots lie: at the hospital, where her white coat makes her feel needed, or with her family, who try to shape her life by their own cultural and social expectations.
Once Joan and her brother, Fang, were established in their careers, her parents moved back to China, hoping to spend the rest of their lives in their homeland. But when Joan’s father suddenly dies and her mother returns to America to reconnect with her children, a series of events sends Joan spiraling out of her comfort zone just as her hospital, her city, and the world are forced to reckon with a health crisis more devastating than anyone could have imagined.
My thoughts: Some thirty pages into Joan is Okay, you might be forgiven for assuming our protagonist is a sociopath, so devoid is she of empathy in her dealings with others. But as our story progresses, we come to realize that while she may be introverted and socially awkward, Joan is a complex woman wrestling with a plethora of emotions beneath her stoic surface. She’s an incredibly endearing character, deadpan and acerbic (often unintentionally so), bewildered by a lot of the every day occurrences we take for granted. She’s a brilliant doctor, dedicated to her profession and revered by her peers, yet things like small talk and parties are beyond her ken. Still, she seems to have her life in calm control – until an impromptu visit from her mother, who has traveled all the way from China following her husband’s death, upends her quietly ordered existence, forcing her to reconsider some of the cultural contradictions she has long ignored.
Joan’s relationship with her Old World mother resonated with me, the son of an immigrant, landing spot-on in its observations of family obligations and frustrations. I absolutely loved these characters as well as Wang’s prose which is spare but punchy, packed full of humor and wry observations, yet with a meaningful mission in its exploration of identity, what gives it form, and how it remains immutable in the face of life’s unexpected challenges.
15 books into 2022, and this one is far and away my favorite. In fact, it’s the best novel I’ve read in years despite its rather abrupt ending. A rare 5 stars from me.
2 thoughts on “January 24, 2022: 2022 Reading Reviews!”
Yay! Thanks for the book suggestions!
Joan is Okay sounds really good, been a while since I read something set in modern times with no time travel, pandemic monsters or clanging swords. I’m recovering from sciatica, doing a painful crab walk to get about and working to stretch the pinched nerve. Encanto is to blame, one minute I was hip shimmying and the next my back was painfully reminding me why I gave up salsa dancing.