Disclosure: I bought this book of my own accord. Affiliate links may be in the review below.
Title: The Beauty
Author: Aliya Whiteley
Release Date: January 16, 2018
Genres: Horror, Post-apocalyptic
Star Rating: 4/5
Who would you trust to help rebuild humanity, if you had the chance?
The Beauty begins in a grey, bleak lowland at the ends of civilization—literally and figuratively. A group of men and teenage boys struggle to survive in the Valley of the Rocks, a small community surrounded by woods far from the cities the last generation fled from. All of the women in the known world died of a mysterious fungal disease, and the only evidence of their existence is the small graveyard outside the encampment. The group’s leader only values enduring hardship and remembering the group’s reasons for separating from society in its beginning. He forbids its imaginative young storyteller, Nate, from telling stories of what could be in the future—especially when bright, unusual yellow mushrooms begin to sprout from the graves of their buried mothers, wives, and teachers.
Whiteley’s novella feels like a fever dream became sentient and decided to write a cryptic, horrifying social commentary about the staying power of gender roles. Like the fungal sickness, a malign bitterness spreads and propagates via the men who were once close to the group’s women before they died. Several of the group’s older men insinuate to its young protagonist that his memories of his mother before her death are not only inaccurate, but rose-tinged and naive, with a heavy implication that she deserved to die. There’s never an explicit reason given for this remark, but their paranoia and avoidance of talking about the fungal sickness hints that they blame the women for falling to the disease—either out of fear that the men might eventually lose their immunity, or out of anger for dying and leaving them behind. The marked hostility of the older men toward the women in their memories, and their reactions to what may be a chance to repopulate, feels chillingly familiar to any reader who’s experienced misogyny or veiled sexism.
Power and its corrupting effect are also explored, in a way that’s reminiscent of Lord of the Flies (affiliate link) but still fresh. In addition to the social horror throughout, there’s enough revolting imagery, tension, and shocking events to balance out the intellectual implications of the book. My reasons for giving only 4 stars are minor, compared to the book’s positives: the ending is satifying, but I feel happens a bit too quickly, and with less tension than I anticipated after such a slow burn of a build-up. The edition I’ve reviewed also contains the short story “Peace, Pipe,” which is solid and well crafted, but underwhelming after the brilliance of the main novella. I would recommend this to any readers who are fans of smart horror, dystopian literature, or cutting social criticism.
Chaos Walking series, by Patrick Ness (YA) – start with The Knife of Never Letting Go (Extremely high recommendation!)
Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell
Content warnings: gore, disease, loss, grey areas of consent, implied sexual violence
Disclosures: I read this book via my Kindle Unlimited account. The review below may contain affiliate links.
Title: Opium and Absinthe (Kindle version)
Author: Lydia Kang
Release Date: July 1, 2020
Genres: Historical fiction, thriller, mystery
Star Rating: 5/5
Admittedly, I appreciate Jane Austen’s wit and storytelling, but books about 19th century society have never been my cup of tea. However, I absolutely loved the Victorian mystery Opium and Absinthe--it combines the social satire, romantic subplots, and spirited heroine of Austen with murders and plot twists of the era’s penny dreadfuls. It balances its sweet and bitter elements in a way that many authors try to reach without success.
In Lydia Kang’s novel, teenage heiress Tillie Pembroke lives in her domineering grandmother’s mansion, where she has only one friend: her sister, Lucy. To everyone else, Tillie fails at anything expected of an 1899 socialite: eating, speaking, or even riding a horse. So after Lucy is found dead with puncture wounds on her neck, Tillie decides that behaving “unacceptably” and finding her sister’s killer, even with a badly broken collarbone, is better than doing nothing at all. She uses her endless resourcefulness, friendships with destitute paperboys, and any vampire lore she can find to uncover the truth—even if it’s unladylike.
It feels as though it’s impossible to genuinely know many of the people in the upper social strata, because everyone except its heroine adheres strictly to the social norms of the period. Tillie’s family, rich friends, and servants are fully fleshed out and feel real, but they’re unable to return her frankness and openness of feeling. This lends itself well to the mystery surrounding Lucy’s death; the reader can never be sure if they’re reticent because they fear being ostracised, or whether they have something sinister to hide. In contrast, Tillie is genuine and easily likeable, even as she commits social gaffes, relies too heavily on laudanum, and sometimes unintentionally makes life worse for those around her. Her curiosity, strong will, and refusal to submit to the demands of her family and society around her are admirable and often lead to humor.
Even the love interests, maids, family members, and possible suspects in Opium and Absinthe have backstories woven into the narration and hinted at by side characters. Both the rich and poor neighborhoods of New York City feel as vivid as its populace, and the contrast of settings is instrumental to Tillie’s growth as a character. The changes of rules and behavior in public and private settings, and the lack of privacy even in Tillie’s home, help to keep the tension high and the reader guessing throughout the plot.
I often guess the solution to a mystery early on, but I was surprised by this one’s eventual end. I also usually dislike romantic subplots, but found myself cheering Tillie and one of her love interests on. I would recommend this to any reader enjoys slightly darker reads with a strong female lead character—especially those who are tired of clichés often found in literature for women.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte – for a dark 19th century tale, with brooding men and tragic women
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires: A Novel, Grady Hendrix – for underappreciated women being gaslit as they investigate vampiric activity in a 1990s upper-class neighborhood
The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, Deborah Blum – nonfiction that describes just how hard it was to find justice for crime in earlier American times
Content warnings: attempted sexual assault, drug addiction, domestic violence, some gore.
Title: The Only Good Indians
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Release Date: July 14, 2020
Genres: Horror, Native American, POC, Diverse, Supernatural
Star Rating: 5/5
Disclosures: I bought this book of my own accord.
How many sides are there to the truth, really?
As an estranged group of Native friends find themselves alone in sanity-rending situations, that question arises again and again. In The Only Good Indians, everyone struggles to get a look at the objective truth for long; the task is made nearly impossible by the dubious veracity of stories and perception from the past, whites, and the people around them. It’s a clever subversion of the Rashomon style of storytelling, which normally has multiple characters describing one point in time: the cast of characters have sections from their point of view, as the inciting factor of this story moves itself steadily forward, showing just enough of itself to create confusion and a feeling of impending doom. Each protagonist is truthful about their past deeds and their beliefs, though they’re obviously biased—it’s the world and others around them that the reader can’t trust.
The less you know about this book going in, the better. Jones captures the frenetic thought patterns and twisting logic of its characters with grace and quietly building dread, which can only be cheapened by knowing too much. However, it’s never so esoteric or confusing to turn a reader off; for every little bit of evidence that doesn’t add up, there’s a dozen insights to be drawn from the interactions between its characters, the worldly anxieties that plague them even when they’re in mortal danger, and the way each one has learned to cope with the thousand little cuts that come with growing up on a reservation.
In terms of genre, there’s a subtype of horror for anyone to like in this: The quiet, creeping kind when things aren’t just right. The heart-wrenching, emotional class when something is never able to be undone. The gaslighting, trembling-hand type of horror when you can’t trust your own senses anymore. The existential dread of everything in your world falling apart, while the days still go by as usual for everyone else. And, lastly, the sort that makes you feel glad that you’re safe, reading in your cozy spot, with all of your skin and bones just where they’re supposed to be.
I rarely would describe a book as perfect, but I really can’t think of anything that could improve upon this title. I would recommend this to anyone who loves horror, but especially anyone who cares about diverse voices in literature, the connections between fellow humans, and a perfect mix of hope and tragedy.
The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Now You’re One of Us, Asa Nonami
Content warnings: gore, violence, racism, xenophobia, drug addiction.
Author: Joshua Marsella
Release Date: May 11, 2020
Genres: Supernatural horror
Star Rating: 4/5 stars
Disclosures: I bought and read this book through my Kindle Unlimited subscription.
I picked this up after seeing some buzz about it on Twitter—I’m always excited to support and find new horror writers, especially indie authors. I’ve been disappointed doing so several times, especially when newer authors write books with prominent female characters, but found that Marsella, in his first published work, was able to write flawed, but developed, believable, and human main characters.
Scratches follows an isolated mother and son, Janet and Connor, who move into her delapidated, inherited childhood home out of financial need. They have a dynamic of yearning to connect with each other but pulling away out of pain, which escalates with time in the house--especially after Connor begins to sleep in the foreboding basement, which his mother refuses to enter.
The novella does a fantastic job of examining two people who need each other, but fail to communicate as they suffer from intergenerational trauma. The tension between the two builds along with their internal anxiety and guilt. While some books subject their female characters to horrific happenings out of moralistic punishment or a grab at sympathy, this isn’t the case at all with Scratches. Janet comes across as someone that all of us have probably known, and felt for, at least once in our lives—particularly for those who grew up in poverty or a dysfunctional family. She originally closes herself off so much that Connor feels isolated and burdensome, much like she did as a child; however, the narration slowly begins bring all of her pain, shame, and anger out into the open with the progression of the plot.
Likewise, Connor is acutely aware of the invisible eggshells that coat the floor of their ramshackle dwelling. Despite the poor conditions of the house’s basement, he moves his bedroom downstairs to avoid further stressing and annoying his mother, which provides the catalyst for both the internal and external changes in both of their lives. Connor behaves very believably like a kid in his circumstances, and there’s an artful balance drawn between a kid who’s had to grow up too quickly and a child who’s emotionally unprepared for healing the family’s wounds.
The few things that distracted me from the story were some stylistic choices and a few grammatical errors. The plot moves quickly, but in the beginning of the book, the length of the chapters is much shorter than later on, which feels a bit choppy. The dialogue feels less authentic than the internal descriptions of the characters, especially the comic book shop clerk—to be fair, though, dialogue can have a steep learning curve, and this is his first novel. I would be excited to read a second work from Marsella, and think that just a little copy-editing and perhaps reading his dialogue out loud could catapult him into a force in the world of indie horror.
Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
Several stories in Ghostly, Audrey Niffenegger
Content warnings: sexual assault, wartime violence, child abuse, alcohol abuse.
Reviews of horror, nonfiction, and other genres from a life-long lover of books.