Six more new and upcoming titles for your consideration…
Devil House by John Darnielle
Gage Chandler is descended from kings. That’s what his mother always told him.
Now, he is a true crime writer, with one grisly success–and movie adaptation–to his name, along with a series of subsequent lesser efforts that have paid the bills but not much more. But now he is being offered the chance for the big break: To move into the house–what the locals call “The Devil House”–in which a briefly notorious pair of murders occurred, apparently the work of disaffected 1980s teens. He begins his research with diligence and enthusiasm, but soon the story leads him into a puzzle he never expected–back into his own work and what it means, back to the very core of what he does and who he is.
My thoughts: Despite the title and the cool retro horror cover AND the chilling blurb, this is not a horror novel. I would even hesitate to categorize it as true crime. Rather, it is an exploration of the craft of the true crime genre, how it blurs the lines between truth and fiction and how, all too often, the collateral damage of notorious crimes are the people left behind to serve as superficial characters in lurid adaptations. The book is effective in that respect, demonstrating how authorial bias shapes a narrative, altering facts and thereby reshaping the collective consciousness. It’s ambitious, but its experimental nature proves somewhat tiresome at times and the whole ends up feeling disjointed despite flashes of brilliance and the powerful underlying message.
Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You by Ariel Delgado Dixon
A young woman thinks she has escaped her past only to discover that she’s been hovering on its edges all along: She and her younger sister bide their time in a dilapidated warehouse in a desolate town north of New York City; their parents settled there with dreams of starting an art commune. But after the girls’ father vanishes, all traces of stability disappear for the family, and the girls retreat into strange worlds of their own mythmaking and isolation.
As the sisters both try to survive their increasingly dark and dangerous adolescences, they break apart and reunite repeatedly, orbiting each other like planets. Both endure stints at the Veld Center, a wilderness camp where troubled teenage girls are sent as a last resort, and both emerge more deeply warped by the harsh outdoor survival experiences they must endure and the attempts by staff to break them down psychologically.
My thoughts: There’s an interesting relationship at the heart of this book about two sisters, our nameless narrator and her clearly sociopathic younger sibling, but its frustratingly one-sided. We jump backwards and forwards in time, following their struggles and their eventual reunion, along the way detailing our protagonist’s time at a remote center for troubled girls. While the interpersonal dynamics are interesting, it feels like we’re missing a crucial piece of the puzzle in that we never really get to know Fawn who plays such a critical role in this book. Sure, we get to know her marginally through her actions, but we never understand her motivations or what unseen factors may have played a role in her atypical development. The book starts strong but ultimately fizzles as it becomes clear we won’t be receiving any deeper insight into a character whose influence has played such a pivotal role in the life of our narrator. Also – the author makes use of the dead dog trope, so sensitive animal lovers beware.
Red Thread of Fate by Lyn Liao Butler
Two days before Tam and Tony Kwan receive their letter of acceptance for the son they are adopting from China, Tony and his estranged cousin Mia are killed unexpectedly in an accident. A shell-shocked Tam learns she is named the guardian to Mia’s five-year-old daughter, Angela. With no other family around, Tam has no choice but to agree to take in the girl she hasn’t seen since the child was an infant.
Overwhelmed by her life suddenly being upended, Tam must also decide if she will complete the adoption on her own and bring home the son waiting for her in a Chinese orphanage. But when a long-concealed secret comes to light just as she and Angela start to bond, their fragile family is threatened. As Tam begins to unravel the events of Tony and Mia’s past in China, she discovers the true meaning of love and the threads that bind her to the family she is fated to have.
My thoughts: This book does not live up to its promising premise. The dialogue is clunky, the characters are unbelievable, and tonally it’s all over the place with instances of attempted humor popping up in the most inappropriate of scenes. To be fair, some of that humor was unintentional, like the moment our recently widowed narrator is informed: “I just talked to the lawyer for the beverage company that owns the truck that ran over Tony and Mia”. There’s a romantic sub-plot involving a handsome doctor that rings false and, occasionally, a little cringe-inducing: “She wondered what it would be like to run hand under his shirt and over his muscular chest and hard abs…Gah!” Gah? There’s the promise of some interesting family dynamics, but the characters offer little in the way of nuance. Adoptive daughter Angela is so precocious that, at times, it seems like she’s 5 going on 25. Our protagonist’s mother on the other hand, comes across as a caricature as she spins an absurdly positive outlook, encouraging her daughter to make the best of things and move on – only days after her husband’s death. this one is a miss.
The Good Son by Jacquelyn Mitchard
What do you do when the person you love best becomes unrecognizable to you? For Thea Demetriou, the answer is both simple and agonizing: you keep loving him somehow.
Stefan was just seventeen when he went to prison for the drug-fueled murder of his girlfriend, Belinda. Three years later, he’s released to a world that refuses to let him move on. Belinda’s mother, once Thea’s good friend, galvanizes the community to rally against him to protest in her daughter’s memory. The media paints Stefan as a symbol of white privilege and indifferent justice. Neighbors, employers, even some members of Thea’s own family turn away.
Meanwhile Thea struggles to understand her son. At times, he is still the sweet boy he has always been; at others, he is a young man tormented by guilt and almost broken by his time in prison. But as his efforts to make amends meet escalating resistance and threats, Thea suspects more forces are at play than just community outrage. And if there is so much she never knew about her own son, what other secrets has she yet to uncover—especially about the night Belinda died?
My thoughts: I think that this book could have been a really interesting exploration of guilt and redemption, but the author takes an easy out, absolving the young man accused of murder in the early goings. Even though he is guilt-ridden following his release from prison for a crime he doesn’t remember committing, the way this novel sets up makes it very clear he is innocent and it will be up to his mother, our protagonist, to ultimately identify the real killer and thereby exonerate her son. Along the way, young Stefan attempts to make things right and, in true My Name Is Earl fashion, embarks on a project to better himself and, in so doing, help others. Mom’s investigation into the murder, meanwhile, progresses at a ponderous pace, ultimately culminating in a twist reveal that proves as silly as it does surprising. A missed opportunity.
Road of Bones by Christopher Golden
Kolyma Highway, otherwise known as the Road of Bones, is a 1200 mile stretch of Siberian road where winter temperatures can drop as low as sixty degrees below zero. Under Stalin, at least eighty Soviet gulags were built along the route to supply the USSR with a readily available workforce, and over time hundreds of thousands of prisoners died in the midst of their labors. Their bodies were buried where they fell, plowed under the permafrost, underneath the road.
Felix Teigland, or “Teig,” is a documentary producer, and when he learns about the Road of Bones, he realizes he’s stumbled upon untapped potential. Accompanied by his camera operator, Teig hires a local Yakut guide to take them to Oymyakon, the coldest settlement on Earth. Teig is fascinated by the culture along the Road of Bones, and encounters strange characters on the way to the Oymyakon, but when the team arrives, they find the village mysteriously abandoned apart from a mysterious 9-year-old girl. Then, chaos ensues.
A malignant, animistic shaman and the forest spirits he commands pursues them as they flee the abandoned town and barrel across miles of deserted permafrost. As the chase continues along this road paved with the suffering of angry ghosts, what form will the echoes of their anguish take? Teig and the others will have to find the answers if they want to survive the Road of Bones.
My thoughts: A producer and his camera man embark on a Siberian road trip, along a bleak, wintry highway enroute to Oymyakon, a remote settlement where they intend to shoot a documentary grounded in the region’s tragic and bloody history. Following a terrifying road mishap that opens the novel, our heroes, two locals in tow, come upon a local town mysteriously bereft of inhabitants. Doors are unlocked, half-eaten meals sit on tables, footprints in the snow lead out of the community and into the dark woods. To this point, the novel is atmospheric, suspenseful and very, very scary as the tension and mystery builds. But the pressure is released with the reveal of the source of the disappearances. While not altogether disappointing (and, in fact, there are points where Golden’s description of these supernatural beings is downright terrifying), introducing the physical manifestation of these otherworldly forces does lessen their impact and sets the rest of the story on a more standard course. While I loved the friendship between our two intrepid documentarians, there wasn’t a whole lot of substance to these characters beyond that bond. There’s an extraneous character who commands several chapters but doesn’t contribute much in the end, and there’s a MacGuffin in the form of a young girl who requires protection for reasons that are never fully revealed. And I’m fine with cryptic elements, but it feels odd not to have a consistency in the presentation of this lore. Overall, however, a well-written horror novel that delivers its fair share of thrills and chills.
Mercury Rising by R. W. W. Greene
Even in a technologically-advanced, Kennedy-Didn’t-Die alternate-history, Brooklyn Lamontagne is going nowhere fast. The year is 1975, thirty years after Robert Oppenheimer invented the Oppenheimer Nuclear Engine, twenty-five years after the first human walked on the moon, and eighteen years after Jet Carson and the Eagle Seven sacrificed their lives to stop the alien invaders.
Brooklyn just wants to keep his mother’s rent paid, earn a little scratch of his own, steer clear of the cops, and maybe get laid sometime in the near future. Simple pleasures, right? But a killer with a baseball bat and a mysterious box of 8-track tapes is about to make his life real complicated…
My thoughts: A sci-fi adventure set on an alternate Earth in a technologically-advanced 1975, 15 years following a Venusian attack on the planet. Our anti-hero, Brooklyn, convicted as an accessory to murder, gets a shot at freedom (and redemption) by joining the Earth Orbital Force. He figures he can keep his head down, stay out of trouble, and eventually resume his daily life – but trouble finds Brooklyn in the form of an alien threat. He’s in well over his head, but that doesn’t stop our reluctant hero from ultimately stepping up in an attempt to save the world. It’s a great hero’s journey with some inspired alt-worldbuilding that loses some steam when it strays into silly SF territory, tonally undermining the dramatic stakes. All in all, however, it’s a fun read.
So, what have YOU been reading?