Category Archives: Horror

The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown

 Stars: 5 out of 5

This was a surprise winner for me. I picked it up on whim and because the cover was so cool. I didn’t expect much of the story apart from space horror. I got that alright, but I also got surprisingly a lot of heart.

Imagine for a moment that you are on board of a generation ship that is running out of resources and no matter how many times you do the math, it all points to the same thing: we won’t reach Earth before our air and food runs out. Add to that that the ship is traveling through a literal minefield deployed by two unknown alien species at war with each other. The humans are just collateral damage in this battle, but it hurts the ship and their chances of survival all the same, because we don’t have the technology to detect and avoid the mines. Then add to that the fact that they unknowingly picked up a hitchhiker or two when they left the colony. And those hitchhikers are fond of human flesh. Yes, the sum total is one terrifying ride.

What I didn’t expect, is that this short novel, more a novella, would be populated by fleshed out characters I would sympathize and root for.  Jacklyn “Jack” Albright is an amazing character. She feels real. She has her flaws and insecurities and moments of pettiness or self-doubt, but she is also courageous and willing to do the right thing even if doing so means facing off with a terrifying monster that tears people apart like they were paper cutouts. She is trying her best to keep her crew together and prevent her ship from falling apart after each space mine, or “engagement” they encounter. She is overwhelmed and terrified, but she still tries everything she can to face the new treat when it arises. That’s what a true captain is, unlike her father who chose to abandon them in this trying time. 

As I had mentioned, the book is very short, and I devoured it in a lazy afternoon reading session. And I ended up loving the story and all the characters and wanting to know more. Like why had the colonists decided to attempt a doomed voyage back to Earth? What had gone wrong in the new colony? Especially since the existence of the native species was just speculation, from what I could understand. Who are those spacefaring aliens waging war across the stars? They seem to have technology eons above what humanity can master.  I really hope that the author will revisit this universe in her future books. 

PS: I received an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Nightmare Man by JH Markert

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

This is a hard one to review. On one hand, I liked it because it gave me a lot of the older Stephen King vibes. I love older Stephen King. On the other hand, this book has a lot of issues that just piled up the longer I read it which ultimately took away a lot of the pleasure from reading and let the frustration set in.

From what I see, this is the author’s first book and, unfortunately, it shows. There is a solid story somewhere in there. In fact, there are several solid stories that could have been several solid books. Unfortunately, the execution is a bit lacking.

As I mentioned, there is just too much stuff happening in this book. There are several serial killers and psychopaths running loose in this small town. There are nightmares galore. There is an old detective with his own secrets. There is a writer with his dark past and strange family history. There is a psychiatric asylum… It’s like the author tried to throw everything on the wall and try to make it all stick. 

Well, it makes for a very dense story where not a single thread is given enough attention to matter. And because so much information is stuffed into the book, things happen very slowly, and we also don’t have enough time to go deeper into each incident. As a result, I didn’t particularly care for any of the mares running around the little town and killing off people, or about the writer’s story, or really about the detective’s either. There is just too much happening to concentrate on.

My other issue is that there is not action in this book. Which, I realize, contradicts my previous statement that there is too much happening. Yes, things are happening, people are being murdered in horrible ways… but it’s all done “offscreen” so to say. Our protagonists either arrive at the crime scene after the fact or discuss it after the fact, or have flashbacks to some other plot point after the fact, etc. Do you see the trend there? Everything is given us through dialogues and flashbacks. In fact, I think the only time the characters are actually in the thick of the action is at the very end of the book when the mares come home. But even then, a lot of the action is told by the protagonists who arrive after the fact to discover the bloody aftermath and cooling bodies. 

Well, this might work for a little bit, but when the whole book is written in this manner, it just gets boring. There is not tension, no suspense, and there is no feeling that the characters are in clear and present danger… which is the whole point of a horror book, no? This story would have been a lot more impactful, if the author had cut out at least half of the flashbacks and put us into the action instead of having the characters retell that action to each other over a glass of bourbon afterwards. 

And finally, I’m not sure what the police procedures are in small towns, but I am positive that revealing the name of a suspect in a conversation with another suspect is illegal. Especially if that suspect is married to a reporter. Same with discussing the details of an ongoing investigation with a civilian which might or might not be tied to the killings. Yet the detectives in this story do it several times. And not only the detectives. In fact, it seems like doctor patient confidentiality, or the confidentiality of a confession are non-existent in this book as soon as it’s convenient to the plot to break them.

And honestly, the least said about that ending, the better. It feels like the author tried to tie all the loose ends from all the different stories they started in this book, and didn’t quite manage that. It was dense, jumbled, and quite unsatisfactory.

I would however say that the author has potential. I finished this book in three days, despite all my misgivings, after all. If they continue writing and honing their craft, I’m sure future books will be much better.

PS: I received an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Rising Tide (Ben Gold 2) by Rajan Khanna

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

This was better than the first book. Mainly because I thought I saw some character growth in Ben. After all, he sacrificed the Cherub to save a town instead of running away, like he would have done previously. That was the first selfless action I’d seen him do. And he does a lot more selfless things in this book, which is a big plus in my book. 

I was fully onboard for that change, because honestly, I didn’t like Ben in the first book. He is selfish to the extreme. All he cares about is himself and his ship. To see him outgrow that and start acting against his own selfishness to help others was fulfilling. He was protecting the island. He helped rescue the scientists. It looked like he genuinely cared for Miranda’s research in finding the cure for the virus…

Unfortunately, as I came to find out by the end of this book, this was less a fundamental change of Ben’s character than his need to act like the person he cares about (Miranda) wants him to act. He loves her, so he craves her her approval. So her goals become his goals. As soon as he realizes that Miranda is gone, he reverts to his old selfish ways. I mean, seriously, he just drops everything and runs. He abandons the people he’d been fighting back to back with, who he even started considering friends, and just takes off. This, right there, killed the book for me, because it showed that the supposed character growth was just a gimmick. Talk about killing my interest in a character.

My other problem is that this book doesn’t contribute anything worthwhile to the worldbuilding. Yes, we learn about some other factions and power players, but we still don’t know the motivations of the main factions we went against in the first book. What does Valhalla want? But more importantly, what do the scientists want? Their motivations are waved off by “evil scientists do evil stuff because they are evil” gimmick. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t work in a post-app world like this one. Why did they make this new virus? Do they want to completely depopulate the planet? Well, newsflash – the ferals are doing a pretty good job without anyone’s else help. Besides, if they eliminate what’s little left of the human race, then what? I doubt they will be content with farming their own food, cleaning their dwellings and doing other menials tasks of keeping themselves alive in a world without convenient minions to do their bidding. So yeah, their motivations are never explained. 

There are also several threads introduced in this book that are completely dropped and never mentioned again. For example, that strange feral outside the police warehouse in Ben’s recollections. Why attract the reader’s attention to that? It’s never mentioned again. What was the point? I understand that we see this story through Ben’s eyes, and he can’t think past his own self-interest, but it just feels so… disjointed. And while there was a driving force behind this story – Miranda’s search for a cure, I’m afraid that this is truly destroyed now. 

Which brings me to this: while I enjoyed the fast-paced action of the first 2 books, I don’t feel the need to follow Ben’s character any further. He proved that he doesn’t change. It also doesn’t seem that we would learn more about the virus or find a cure for it in the next book, so I think I will say goodbye to this series right here and now.

To Blackfyre Keep (The Seven Swords 4) by Anthony Ryan

Stars: 4.5 out of 5

I like this book a lot more than the previous 3, maybe because the storyline was pretty straightforward, but also because our (un)merry band of curse sword bearers got a lot more character development here. I admit that I hadn’t been particularly impressed when I had picked up the first book in the series, but this is getting better and better with each installment. 

The world is what fascinates me the most here. It’s complex and layered, with countries and regions that have a very distinct feeling. I enjoyed exploring them in each consecutive book. And the purpose of the seven cursed swords is more and more intriguing. 

I also liked how Guiome is evolving from book to book. He starts to care about people who journey with him and not just his quest anymore. He also got a dose of humility in this book when he discovered just how much he actually came to rely on the power of his cursed sword over the years. Curse as he may their arrangement, without the magic of the sword to keep him alive, he is just a man. Still strong and formidable, but ultimately killable. 

I am also very sad for Seeker if what is hinted about her daughter is true. It would destroy her if she finally catches up to her child only to discover that she is just a shell inhabited by a demon. Having to kill that demon would probably shred her soul as well.

I’m also happy we learned a bit about why the druid decided to join our band of adventurers. And he was a lot less annoying (and a lot more helpful) in this story.

And of course the addition of a new traveling companion, the Cursed Knight. I can’t wait to see how that plays out in the next book.

Yes, I am loving this series better and better with each book and I can’t wait to pick up the next one once it comes out.

PS: I received a copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Plague Birds by Jason Sanford

Stars: 2 out of 5

If you are looking for a book with a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat and driven by memorable characters… this is not a story you are looking for. If you are looking for a mismatched bag of great ideas loosely wrapped into something resembling a story with characters that have the depth of cardboard, then by all means, give Plague Birds a try.

This was a very disappointing read. I was lured into this book by the excellent cover (I mean, seriously, look at this thing, it’s gorgeous) and a blurb that promised an interesting story set in a unique world. The world is unique, alright, and that’s why this gets 2 stars instead of 1, but the interesting story never materialized.

Instead, I felt like the author had a basketful of interesting concepts that  he really wanted to play with and include in the story, but he couldn’t quite figure out how to weave them into a coherent narrative, so he just tossed them all in, shook it a little and left the end result to chance. So we get villages governed by AI, cannibal monks in a monastery dedicated to preserving the knowledge of a lost human race, a forest that becomes sentient by torturing people who venture into it, and so on and so forth. Yes, those are fascinating and often horrifying concepts that were interesting to explore, but what they add to the main story is unclear.

Speaking of main story. I am still not sure what it was. What was the end goal here? Was it to discover the through behind the death of Crista’s mother? Was it to reach the city of Seed? Was it to catch the villain killing plague birds? The stakes are not clear, and there is no sense of urgency, so the story meanders along with Crista seemingly without purpose. Yes, they need to stop the Veil, but there isn’t a ticking clock to create a sense of urgency. They can hunt those people for hundreds of years without anything bad happening for all we know.

And I could have forgiven this lack of cohesive story if the characters I was forced to follow were interesting. Not the case here. I am still not sure I know Crista even after spending this journey with her. Despite this being told in first person from her point of view, the author does a very poor job actually showing us her thoughts, motivations and inner workings. 

This goes for all the other characters as well. In fact, this book is all tell and almost no show. We get flashbacks and infodumps galore. People react in ways that often puzzle me because the author never explained what made them tick. Though in the case of the main villain, I am not sure even the author knew what made him tick, because his motivation is thinner then rice paper. I mean, he could have killed Crista several times over, but he chose to mess with her mind and/or even help her instead. Why? Never explained.

Another big disappointment for me was that this book reads like a YA story. With all the typical YA shortfalls and tropes. Including insta-love (or should I say insta-lust?). Yet it’s not classified as YA on NetGalley or Goodreads. Had I seen that before I had requested this book, I would never have bothered. I have nothing against the YA genre. I just don’t read it.

PS: I received a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes

Stars: 3 out of 5

This book had so much promise! Ghost ship in space! Damaged protagonist! Horror of the psychological and other kind! I couldn’t wait to start it. And for the first three quarters of the book it was really great. I honestly thought that this would be one of the best horror books I’d read in 2022… then the ending botched it all, at least for me.

Then again, I am not a fan of evil corporations doing evil things because they are evil. It’s been done to death by now in books, movies, and video games. Let the corporations rest. Find another villain for your stories. Thanks.

Also, this story was truly frightening as long as we didn’t know what really happened to the Aurora. I was terrified for our characters when they first boarded the ship and started exploring. The obvious signs of violence and the fact that we didn’t know what had cause everyone to go mad was really scary. The ending killed that, in my opinion. As soon as I knew what was behind everything, I didn’t care anymore. As I said, it’s one thing to watch a group of hapless people battle against an unknown entity, and another to see them battle against a corrupt space corporation. I’ve seen the second scenario too many times before.

I loved Claire though. She is a very relatable protagonist. I couldn’t help but root for her the more I learned about her past trauma. And since she has psychological issues of her own, she makes the perfect unreliable narrator here – we never know what is just in her head and what is affecting everybody else. And she doesn’t know it either, which adds to the angst. 

Unfortunately, the other characters were a lot less defined. In fact, most of them were just placeholders: the self-assured jerk, the innocent young girl, the nerdy hacker, the evil corporation goon, the entitled rich guy. I honestly couldn’t care less about any of them. 

I was also not sold on the burgeoning love story. I think it was shoe-horned into the main story just to make the reader care more about the characters. Well, it did the opposite to me. The whole courtship felt so forced that it turned me away from the characters. I think I rolled my eyes every time they interacted. It wasn’t needed. Claire had enough motivation trying to save her team without adding a love interest into the mix. 

Finally, I wasn’t a fan of the ending. It felt a little bit too convenient and didn’t fit with the rest of the story. I understand that the author wanted to give a HEA to the characters and an emotional payoff for the reader, but to me it felt flat. 

All in all, it was a good read for most part. I mean, I finished it in one day. But it could have been so much better. 

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Stars: 5 out of 5.

This was an amazingly, delightfully creepy book! The older I get, the less I seem to enjoy horror books, especially the gore and guts kind of horror. I still enjoy the atmospheric, psychological horror, but I find it hard to find good book that don’t repeat the same tired clichés or manage to completely botch the ending. I’m glad I picked up The Hollow Places, because this book delivered.

I think the best part about it is how slowly it develops the creep factor. We start in this wonderful little museum of improbable and impossible things that might look scary and unusual, but are, most of them fake. And our protagonist is someone who grew up in that museum. Who knows every nook and cranny of that building, who played among the display cases and hugged the stuffed animals as if they were her childhood friends. To Kara, or “Carrot” how her family and friends call her, the museum is the safest place on earth. This is a refuge when her family life is shattered by a divorce. A chance to regroup and start over.

And the author takes time to set the stage and introduce us to Kara and her uncle, as well as the museum itself. It’s done in such a way that as a reader, I was in love with the little building as well. I was feeling warm and safe there.

So when creepy and unexplained things start happen in this safe place, it completely knocks the ground from under your feet along with the protagonist. The horror of what’s happening has an even bigger impact because it is intruding into this safe zone.

The author also introduces the horrors of the Willows very progressively. At first, it just looks like a slightly creepy, but ultimately benign world. Yes, it’s flooded. Yes, there are bunkers everywhere, but no people. Yes, the willows are strange, but they are just trees, right? As more an more bizarre things happen to our protagonists, as the level of horror slowly ramps up, so did my blood pressure. I felt for them. I felt with them, especially after the school bus and their realization that they lost their bunker, and that they are possibly stuck in this weird no-man’s land forever.

I loved Kara. She is funny, she is a mess, but she is so relatable. Maybe because I’ve been in her shoes, with a messy divorce and a husband that acted exactly the same way. Yes, Carrot was slightly too stupid to live when it came to one particular object, but I can let it slide, because I liked everything else about her.

And Simon! If I had to get lost in a weird in-between place of existence with somebody, he would be my first choice. He is cool under pressure, and funny, and also relatable. 

And special shoutout to Beau, the bestest, most adorable cranky cat in literature. 

As I mentioned, the horror in this slowly builds up and finds its culmination when the safe place suddenly becomes unsafe. Unlike other horror books I’ve read recently, the author didn’t drop the ball here. The resolution is satisfying and the ending is everything I wanted it to be. And even though our protagonist win in th end, they are left with physical and emotional scars, which is also very logical and realistic. 

All in all, this was a very enjoyable book. I will definitely recommend it to my friends and I will check out other books by this author. Heck, I already told my husband he absolutely needs to read it.

Last Exit by Max Gladstone

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

It pains me to give a less than stellar rating to Max Gladstone, but this is the first book of his I’ve been disappointed with. How can a book about found family, road trip, end of the world, parallel universes and so on be so… boring?

I loved this author’s Craft series. They are wonderfully imaginative and full of interesting characters and thought provoking concepts. So of course I jumped on the chance to get an ARC of this through NetGalley. And my initial state while I was reading this book, before the boredom set in, was that of bewilderment. Is this the author who wowed me with his other books? Am I reading this wrong? What is going on?

Oh, there are glimpses of the author I love in this story. There are moments that are tightly written and intensely terrifying. Like when the Cowboy first becomes aware of Sarah on the interstate, or the confrontation at the Best Western, or when Zelda is in the bug-infested tunnels under an alt New York. Those scenes had me at the edge of my seat, with my heart in my throat, terrified for the well-being of the characters…

Unfortunately, those moments of brilliance are few and far between. And they are bogged down by pages and pages of flashbacks, introspections, inner dialog about how miserable the characters are and how they think that the world is ending. It’s self-pity and self-recrimination on page upon page upon page. So you get this brilliant scene when the action is non-stop, the stakes are high, and the characters in danger… then you have 50 pages of inner monolog topped with a flashback on their first journey. Momentum – shot dead, not by the cowboy in a white hat, but by sheer boredom. In fact, I think that the book is at least 200 pages too long. My Kindle assured me that it was 400 pages long, but it felt like one of those 1000+ pages door stoppers – never-ending.

I think this approach would have worked if I cared for any of the characters, but I didn’t. They are all unlikeable, selfish people who wear their failures like a badge of honor and wallow in self-pity for most of the book. And since the reader has to follow them and be privy to their most inner thoughts, it makes for a very painful read, and not in a good way. 

Also, it is constantly hinted that their first journey to find the crossroads went horribly wrong and resulted in Sal’s downfall, but the book drags the actual story over pages and pages of hints and self-pity. By the time we actually learn what happened it feels… anti-climatic? I was like, “So all this misery is because of this? Are you kidding me?” Not a good thing when Sal’s downfall and Zelda’s guilt about it are the cornerstone of this story. 

By the end of the book I was so bored with the story, that I just skimmed through the last 10%. Also not good. The ending is supposed to be rewarding. It’s supposed to justify the effort the reader put into sticking with 400 pages of story. It was anything but that. And the big reveal and twist wasn’t all that shocking either. 

When I had finished the other books of this author, I had a sense of satisfaction and joy. I had wanted to savor the story, to re-read passages that I liked the most. When I finished Last Exit, all I had is a sense of relief that the slog was finally over and that I could delete the ARC from my Kindle. 

I will not recommend this book. Max Gladstone is a wonderful author though, so I suggest you read his Craft series instead. 

Goblin by Josh Malerman

 

Stars: 3 out of 5

This was a meh kind of book. It’s a series of short stories book ended by the story of a delivery driver bringing something terrifying to the city of Goblin. The short stories are related only by the location where they happen – the city of Goblin on the same particularly rainy day and night. 

I think that was one of the reasons the book was kinda meh to me. Yes, Goblin in itself is an interesting, if rather unhappy place. A place for the spirits. A place where humans were never supposed to settle and thrive. The short stories illustrate the eeriness of Goblin perfectly. Problem is, they don’t do much more than that. 

I read a book mostly for the characters and then for the worldbuilding. I notice that I tend to lose interest if I don’t have anybody to root for. If I don’t have a tour guide through the world the author is showing me. And that’s what happened here. Goblin is a fascinating place. Unfortunately, the people who live there are a lot less so.

We read stories of several different people who are not connected to each other, so it’s already hard to figure out why we should follow these characters or even care. Those stories are also not connected at all to the prolog, where a delivery driver is bringing something to Goblin. Something horrible… Well, Goblin already has plenty of horrible things. There is the Goblin police, the Witch of the North Woods, the owls, etc. So by the time that horrible thing finally reaches Goblin, it’s rather anticlimactic. It’s just another monster to add to a city already full of them. What’s the point?

Also, none of the stories we read about have any real resolutions, apart from the story of the man who was afraid of the ghosts. That one, we see to it’s logical conclusion. The rest of them leave is suspended in the air, without an explanation or a conclusion to them. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to say.  And the arrival of this great terrible thing in the end isn’t enough to satisfyingly end any of those stories. 

In conclusion, it was an okay book to pass the time with, but I probably won’t remember what it is about in a month or so. This is the third book by this author I’ve read and found rather underwhelming, so I think I’m just not the intended audience here. A lot of people love these books, so your mileage might vary. 

PS: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Of Starlight and Plague by Beth Hersant

Stars: 1 out of 5

DNF at 52%

I know that zombie books aren’t a paragon of high literature. I expect that. But when I pick up one, I expect to be entertained at least. This is the first boring zombie book I’ve ever read, so that must be a record. I picked it up because it has a bunch of 4 and 5 star reviews on Goodreads, and now I am honestly baffled. Were we reading the same book? Was there a particular lens I forgot to put on before I started this? I came for mindless zombie fun, what I got instead is a poorly written snooze fest. 

I think the biggest problem here is that the characters are skin deep. Granted, I don’t expect great characterization in a zombie book, since most of them will be zombie appetizer, but I expect to have one or two main characters that I can follow through the story. I need to have somebody I can associate myself with and see the world through their eyes. 

Here, we have no such thing. The two people responsible for the plague die by end of part 1. Which is a shame, because it would have been an interesting story to follow them through the pandemic. To see them realize the horror of what they have unleashed and do everything in their power to stop it before the world is destroyed. It’s a wasted opportunity and it’s such a shame.

Then we have Tammany, an old wise mambo in New Orleans. She seemed interesting and had at least a little depth to her character, even if most of that depth was full of  clichés about voodoo practitioners.  But her story was cut short by the end of part 2. 

By the time I decided to part ways with the book, we were introduced to yet another smart old lady who was planning on surviving the plague with her family. That felt redundant. Why not just continue with Tammany? Why introduce a whole new character, when they serve exactly the same purpose. The story of survival would have been in a swamp in New Orleans in Louisiana instead of a farm up north, but it would have served the same purpose. As it stands, that’s yet another character that has to be introduced, yet another conflict that has to be set up from the beginning. 

And that’s another problem with this book. Since the author has to set up so many characters, the action constantly jumps back and forth in time. We get to the inevitable “zombie” outbreak from the point of view of one character… then we switch to the very beginning of the story again for the next one and follow them to the same precise moment of the outbreak again. Rinse and repeat. This made me feel like the story is just spinning its wheels without going anywhere. And if a story isn’t going anywhere, I eventually loose all interest in it. 

Or the author introduces a character just as they get killed or loose their soul to the New Rabbis then backtracks a few days or weeks to show us how they got there. Problem is, we already know that character is zombie food (or zombie themselves), so why invest time in making an emotional connection with them by learning their story? We won’t be following them for long. 

And what about this irritating way all characters have to quote scientific journals or other sources in their conversations or even in their thoughts? Who, in their right mind does that? Who stops in the middle of their dream to explain a term that she’d known since she was a child? A term that is part of her culture? Yes, that term might be confusing for the reader at first, but most of us are smarter than an average monkey. We can figure out what it means based on the context. Explaining it so blatantly in the text does two things – it insults the reader’s intelligence and it immediately pulls them out of the story because it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Same with incessant quotations of scientific articles and research. I get that the author did her research and is proud of it, but why make your characters shove it down my throat in every conversation? If only one character did that, it would have been a quirk and an interesting layer to their character, no matter how strange, but they all do that. The neuroscientists quote medical journals at each other. Wouldn’t they have read them independently if they are so good at their job? Tammany quotes voodoo research… which is even more weird. Why would a mambo read research done into her religion by outsiders anyway?

All this made for a very frustrating and boring read. This book had potential. But it needs a good developmental editor to unearth that potential out of the confusing heap of dirt the story is right now.

PS: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.