Author: Grady Hendrix
My rating: 4 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience
Ever since Abby’s birthday party at the roller rink, when Gretchen was the only guest to show up, they’ve been BFFs. They’ve shared secrets, done practically everything together . . . they even have their own secret expressions that no one else understands. But in high school, a very strange and scary experience at a friend’s beach house marks the beginning of change. Gretchen starts acting weirder and weirder, and it’s scaring Abby, especially when she begins to clue in to what’s actually going on.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism was a truly strange read, but I liked it quite a lot. It’s like a good, quality horror story–but one that has its roots in old-school pulp horror. There are tons of references to 1980’s pop culture (since that’s when the story is set). There are even a number of visual references–pamphlets, postcards, yearbook pages, etc.–to build the vibe, which I though was pretty cool. The story honestly begins reading like some kids’ coming-of-age story, with the girls becoming friends, growing up, sharing experiences. Then, about a third of the way through, things just start getting darker and scarier the further you go. The author does a great job of balancing the horror of what’s happening with the awfulness of Abby’s reactions–because what she in response to the changes in Gretchen is pretty terrible too. The whole story is a great picture of how we will do the impossible–and the unconscionable–for the people we love. This is an edgy yet old-school horror story full of friendship and 1980’s Charleston culture . . . as well as some pretty gross stuff. Recommended.
Author: Ira Levin
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Joanna’s life seems to be going just as it should. She’s got a supportive husband, has two healthy children who argue only as much as any others their age, her photography is beginning to be recognized and profitable, and the whole family has just moved to the quiet suburb of Stepford. Only, Stepford isn’t exactly what she was expecting. In fact, in the whole area, Joanna has only found two other women who are remotely normal . . . all the rest seem to be perfect housewives, actors in commercials almost, focused only on their housework and pleasing their husbands. It’s all terribly backward for the times, and something about it just doesn’t sit right with Joanna.
Fair warning that 1) I’ll probably spoil something about this story somewhere in the review, and 2) I’ll likely ignore a lot of things that are typically commented on or have different opinions from those that are popular. This book is iconic enough–and well enough known–that I’m not really trying to avoid either of the above. The Stepford Wives is a psychological thriller set in 1970’s suburban Connecticut. It’s also a solid example of what I would term “suburban horror”–the whole idea that in the suburbs no one will give you too much grief about [insert horrible thing you do here] so long as your house is tidy and your lawn neat and green. So yeah, basically throughout the whole town, all the women are being murdered and replaced by robots because the menfolk in this backwards place prefer that over real, modern women with opinions and personality and interests outside the home. Blah, blah, social commentary, you get the picture. It’s a great insight, this far out from when the story was written, into the mindsets and social atmosphere that were prevalent at that point. From a strictly storytelling perspective, this story is fascinatingly written. Much like Rosemary’s Baby, Levin limits us to what Joanna knows but also sticks strictly to the facts. This happened, that happened, in minute detail at times–we’re given occurrences, hints, the passage of time, and Joanna’s gradual horrifying realization, but we never actually delve into her psyche and emotions. It’s all objective and almost clinical at times, the clear, spare way in which things are written. But I really like the way it’s done; in some ways, it increases the horror of what’s happening as you begin to realize along with Joanna just what’s going down in this place. Also, the pacing of the story is deliberate, spelled out in minute daily events, in a way that makes the progression seem inevitable. I enjoyed The Stepford Wives quite a lot and would recommend it to those interested in psychological thrillers/horror. Just don’t expect a fast-paced, emotion-drenched story coming in to it.
Author: Charlaine Harris
Midnight, Texas, vol. 2
My rating: 4 of 5
Things are changing in the small town of Midnight, Texas. First, some big corporation comes in to renovate and reopen the Midnight Hotel, a move that makes zero logistical or financial sense as far as any of the locals can figure. Then one of Manfred’s clients dies, and Manfred is falsely accused of stealing her jewelry, leading to a small fury of reporters and police coming through town. Naturally, this comes at the most inopportune time, since the Rev has a young guest who is growing at inhuman rates; not the sort of thing you want photographed. Obviously something must be done–the only question is, what exactly?
Going into the second volume of Harris’s series set in Midnight, I find myself continuing to be enchanted by these stories. Day Shift continues in much the same vein as Midnight Crossroad, developing the secrets of this tiny community and showing their united front in protecting the town. Over the course of the story, more character backstory unfolds. We get to find out what several characters are or what secrets they’re hiding. . . but there’s still enough mystery to make me want to come back for more! The story continues to be told from multiple characters’ POV, with additional characters such as Olivia and Joe being added in this volume. The mix of characters is pretty unusual, but I find them charming–sometimes at the same time as I find them shockingly dark or heartless. I suppose the fact that several of them aren’t exactly human contributes to that side of it, although that’s another thing that makes this town and its residents so utterly fascinating. This book brings a good balance of that–the lives of its unusual citizens–and plot–the death of Manfred’s client, the whole kerfuffle afterwards, the hotel opening. Plus the tone is just really down to earth and readable. Recommended.
Author: Charlaine Harris
Midnight, Texas, vol. 1
My rating: 4 of 5
Midnight, Texas: a town so small that if it weren’t for the single stoplight at its main crossroad, the entire place might just blow away. It’s a quiet place that keeps its secrets, the sort of place no one moves to without a reason or a secret of their own to keep. Newcomer and internet psychic Manfred Bernardo finds that it’s the sort of place that suits him just fine. But the town’s quiet is shattered when pawnshop owner Bobo’s missing girlfriend turns up dead outside town and political extremists start stirring up trouble. And as he becomes part of the town’s inner circle, Manfred finds that they have their own ways of dealing with trouble.
I really enjoyed Midnight Crossroad, definitely more than I have Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books. They’re set in the same ‘verse, but this book has a different tone to it. It’s not a romance or particularly a mystery, for one, although there are certain mystery elements. More so, it’s an urban fantasy with a noir-ish, small-town flavor that uniquely suits the particular story and characters the author brings us here. It gets kind of dark, and basically everybody has secrets (not all of which are revealed in this volume). But there’s also a lot of small-town southern charm. I really enjoy the various characters–they’re well developed and enjoyable. I liked that we get chapters from the perspectives of more than one person as well, although this particular volume clearly focuses of Manfred, and to a lesser extent on the witch Fiji. Midnight Crossroad is an engaging urban fantasy, er, rural fantasy (?) with an intensely dark yet comfortable to read style that I enjoyed a lot. Definitely recommended.
Author: Namwali Serpell
My rating: 3 of 5
Warning: Strong/offensive language
Will knows he’s done plenty of bad things in his life. But the things he’s gotten caught for, gotten in trouble for? He swears those were never actually him. . . .
In this contemporary retelling of Poe’s “William Wilson,” we are given an intriguing look into the mind of a very paranoid, disturbed individual. Everything is told in first person, with an older character in prison for the rest of his life looking back on how his downhill road all started . . . with a gravely-voiced doppelganger–same name, same clothes, even the same tattoo–that no one else seems to notice or remember. You’ve got an obviously unreliable narrator, and it’s interesting to see the persecution complex that builds in his mind throughout the story. There’s a strong use of dialect that adds quite a lot in terms of character development as well–though strong warnings for the language, including some racially offensive terms. I haven’t read the original Poe, so I can’t say how they compare, but “Will Williams” was an interesting character study, with a nice use of dialect, rising tension, and sense of madness.
Author: Polina Dashkova
Translator: Marian Schwartz
My rating: 4 of 5
When Mitya Sinitsyn is found hanged in his apartment, nearly everyone seems to arrive at the obvious conclusion that he committed suicide. But considering how strongly his wife denies the possibility of such a thing happening, family friend and journalist Lena Polyanskaya begins to pick at the threads of his death . . . and finds the obvious begin to unravel before her. The clues she discovers begin leading her on a dangerous trail going back fourteen years to a trip she, Mitya, and his sister Olga took as young professionals together. Because somehow, something that happened on that trip was significant in a way she never realized–if she can only figure it out before she ends up dead because of it.
Madness Treads Lightly is the first Russian psychological thriller/crime novel I’ve ever read. Actually, it’s one of only a few Russian novels I’ve read, period. I should probably remedy that. In any case, this was a worthwhile read, one that would likely be enjoyed by most people who enjoy crime novels in general. Plotwise, you’ve got an interesting story–not really a mystery, since it becomes pretty clear what happened and who committed the crimes. But it’s intriguing to watch Lena go all amateur detective while still being at heart a mom and a journalist–an ordinary woman, not some insanely skilled crime fighter or anything. There’s a lot going on, and a number of interlocking plot threads to follow, but it all comes together quite well. I honestly found the native look at everyday Russian culture and society in the 1990’s to be nearly as interesting as the actual plot, though. Things like the way capitalism and crime were interconnected, foods that were common, polite social customs, etc. are fascinating to see displayed in such a way that they’re clearly just a normal, unremarkable part of the characters lives. But Russian naming conventions, though; I still don’t understand. . . . One more thing of note is that, although I would certainly consider this a thriller of sorts, it has a pacing that wouldn’t fit with the typical Western conception of that genre. It’s more of a slow, steady unfolding of one plot element after another, which sounds kind of dull when I say it, but it actually fits the story and works. Recommended.
Author: Charlaine Harris
Sookie Stackhouse, vol. 2
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience
Things in Sookie’s life had never been easy, what with her unwelcome gift/curse/whatever of telepathy, but they had definitely taken a turn for the stranger and more complicated once she started dating Bill, a vampire. Although the reprieve his presence gave her mind, what with being unable to read his, well . . . it certainly hadn’t been all bad, not by far. But Sookie’s life shows an extreme run of bad luck as she finds a coworker dead in the parking lot, gets summoned to Dallas to conduct telepathic interrogations, gets kidnapped, is attacked by a maenad, and fights with Bill. Not that she’s about to let all that stop her from investigating her friend’s murder and seeing justice done.
I found Living Dead in Dallas to be a solid follow-up to the first volume in the series, Dead Until Dark. It builds well upon the groundwork that was laid in the first book, developing Sookie and Bill’s relationship, getting Sookie further embroiled in vampire Eric’s schemes, and bringing some new mysteries and dangerous elements to add to the overall intensity of the story. The author does well keeping that small-town Southern girl vibe going, even when Sookie is dumped in the big city of Dallas and expected to manage. We get some solid character development in this volume as well–you’ve got a self-educated, smart woman who is very brave and has strong convictions . . . yet who is also remarkably brittle at times. She’s an interesting character. The story itself is kind of all over the place, but in a way that actually ties together eventually. There’s enough going on to keep things engaging, and the pacing is good. Other than a fair warning that this is definitely an adult book, I would generally recommend Living Dead in Dallas, especially to paranormal romance and mystery lovers.
Authors: Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience for language, violence, sexual content, and general adult situations
Little could Dr. Melisande Stokes have foreseen the consequences when she was initially approached by the dashing Major Tristan Lyons to do some obscure translation work–work that she had to sign nondisclosure agreements before she could even be told about. Certainly, she couldn’t have predicted that it would get her stuck back in 1850’s England! But then, the entire operation is full of surprises, as any government operation dedicated to reviving magic to time travel by way of quantum mechanics is bound to be. Actually, the whole thing sounds absurd, and yet, the U.S. government seems convinced that it’s actually possible . . . and they’re pouring in the funds to support their conviction. And so, armed with a research budget and their own skills and intelligence, Mel and Tristan form the beginnings of the Department of Diachronic Operations.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. captivated me before I even opened the cover. I mean just look at the cover design; doesn’t it just promise all kinds of fun?! And the story inside does not disappoint. To start out, the whole idea of quantum theory and magic being in any way linked is just mind-bogglingly strange . . . yet at the same time brilliant. If you think about their reasoning, it actually makes sense; there’s an element of plausibility that’s brought into the whole thing. And the way the story plays with alternate timelines and the interplay of quantum mechanics and magic is just fascinating–it’s all extremely well thought out, complex, and convincing. Yet while you have this almost hard science flavor being brought in with all that, there’s also this great sense of humor and people throughout. There are a lot of strong personalities at play in this novel, and they are allowed to roam free and do what they will, which creates all sorts of interesting drama and plot in a very natural, believable manner without being overdone. I also loved the way the entire story is told in documents–the majority of it being memoirs Mel is writing while trapped in 1851, combined with interdepartmental memos, diary entries, wiki pages, etc. It’s modern, expressive, and (again) just a very credible way of presenting the story that’s also full of humor and personality. The one thing that I didn’t love about this story is that it’s essentially a military operation, one that gets really big by the latter parts of the story, and as such, our main characters (that I love) get a bit lost in the shuffle for a while. But they pop back to the surface when things fall apart at the end, so it works out. Definitely recommended.