Category Archives: Horror

Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan.

Stars: 1 out of 5.

For a short 84 pages novella, Agents of Dreamland sure felt like one long read. Long and pointless.

You are probably not used to such harsh judgements in my reviews, since I usually try to find at least something positive in the books I read. So let me explain why I’m so negative this time.

The story is about the agent of some secret government organization dealing with the unexplained and the paranormal who discovers what at first glance seems like cult mass suicide, but turns out to be the beginning of the end of humanity. Some kind of alien fungus that would destroy humanity and pave the way for a different life form. Sounds like it could be an interesting story, right? I certainly thought so when I read the blurb and picked up the book.

Well, don’t get your hopes up. The story goes nowhere after that. I’m not joking. They discover the bodies of the cultist and one survivor. They take the survivor to a secured facility where she dies in an explosion of alien spores. It’s implied that this is the curtain call for humanity. The End.

Even that little bit of story could have been interesting if the characters were engaging enough to empathize with or the stakes high enough to create tension. Unfortunately, we get neither. In fact, I think that by giving one of her characters the ability to cast her mind both into the past and the future, the author effectively shot herself in the foot and killed her story.

So this character can get “unstuck” from the present and let her mind travel to all the moments she lived in the past or will live in the future. She goes into the future and sees that in the year 2043, human civilization is pretty much extinct, the remaining humans infected and changed beyond recognition by the fungus, and aliens are controlling the skies. She sees all that and chooses not to say a word about it to anybody. But the author includes a detailed description of her little trip into the future before the middle of the book…

That right there killed the story for me. If the end of the world is coming anyway, nothing the Signalman or his colleagues from Albany do has any meaning. There are no stakes anymore. So what’s the point of the story? Any (minimal) investment I still had in it plunged to zero on my “How much do I care about what happens next” meter. And when the novella ended with a non-ending that didn’t resolve anything, I wasn’t really surprised or particularly disappointed.

I came for an interesting horror story he blurb had promised. I got lots of allegories and similes and countless references to obscure black and white movies and the Beatles sprinkled with a bit of mythology. From what I understand, the author tried to write a Lovecraftian story. In my opinion, that attempt failed.

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

Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

 

The end of the world doesn’t necessarily have to come with a zombie outbreak, an alien invasion or a natural disaster that wipes the majority of the population. In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, it starts with a high fever that has a 98% fatality rate in men, 99% in women, and 100% in newborn babies. And while researchers identify the virus causing this, nobody manages to find a cure before the loss of human life is so significant that all governmental structures simply crumble.

 

The survivors are faced with a bleak future for the human race – with every baby born stillborn or dying shortly after birth, most often killing the mother as well, they might well be the last generation on Earth. People react differently to this news, but one thing is certain – it’s not fun or save to be a woman in this brave new world. There are bands of desperate men roaming around the ruins of our civilization for whom a woman is nothing more than a rare commodity and a slave, to be used and sold for other commodities. And a pregnancy might as well be a death sentence.

 

Our protagonist used to work in the OBGYN department in a San Francisco Hospital, but being a midwife is a dying profession as things stand. She survived the fever, but woke up to a world where meeting another human being was often more dangerous than meeting a pack of wolves.

 

This books is written as a mix between a series of diary entries and normal third person exposition. Most of the entries are by our unnamed midwife, though we also get stories from other people she meets along the way. That was a nice touch, because it gives the reader different perspectives into what is happening. Not everyone reacts the same to the seeming end of the world, which is normal, and I appreciated that the readers got to witness this story through several lenses.

 

But the main narrator is, of course, our unnamed midwife, though she isn’t unnamed per se. It’s just that she uses different names during the story, depending on the circumstances. I think by the end of the book, even she doesn’t remember what her real name was…

 

But constant name changes notwithstanding, I really liked her. She is a fighter. She is not one to roll over and give up, just because the situation seems dire and the future even bleaker. She adapts, she changes what she can in herself when she can’t change the external factors, and she presses on.

 

If it’s too dangerous to travel as a woman, she will dress like a man. But unlike a lot of other female protagonists we see, she doesn’t merely cut her hair and dress in bulky clothes, she tries to act, behave and think like a man. She exercises to bulk up. She practices with guns and other weapons until shooting is almost an automatic response.

 

I like just how tough and resourceful she is. How self-reliant. But that doesn’t mean that she is okay with living by herself the rest of her life. One of the problems this book tackles is the slow insanity that grips you when you spend too much time cut out from the rest of the world. Humans are social animals. We need to be able to interact with other humans on a regular basis, even a little, even just to hear somebody else’s voice answering you from time to time. And I understand why our unnamed midwife choses to join a community in the end, no matter how distrustful she’d become of other humans.

 

My review might have made it sound like this book is rather bleak and depressing. It kinda is, since it is a post-apocalyptic novel, after all. However, the overall message is one of hope. Life will find a way, no matter how bleak the circumstances…

 

So all in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who likes the post-ap genre and would like to read something more realistic than the usual zombie fare.

The Girl with all the Gifts by M. R. Carey.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

 

Can I just take a moment to say just how much I loved this book? It is rare to find something new in the overly saturated zombie apocalypse genre, so The Girl with all the Gifts was like a breath of fresh air. I loved the premise, I loved the story and the characters, and I loved the author’s unique take on the whole people turning into zombies trope.

Melanie’s life is a well-oiled routine. Every morning, she waits in her cell to be collected by armed guards and taken to class. She likes her classes. She learns all sorts of things about history and the world outside the Compound, a world she will probably never see, even though she likes to imagine herself exploring it when she lays in her bed during quiet time. Her teachers tell her that she was found wandering out there one day, but she doesn’t remember. They tell her that she is special. They call her “our little genius”, but the guns the guards keep pointed in her direction and the fear in their eyes tell her that there is more to the story than she suspects…

I love zombie apocalypse books, whether they are the “OMG shit just started happening and nobody knows why” genre or the “the world went to hell twenty years ago, how do we pick up the pieces” genre. My only requirement is that I get an interesting story with strong characters and no Deus ex machina in the end. And no gratuitous splatter gore that does nothing to advance the story. And that’s where a lot of books in this genre loose me, because a lot of authors concentrate on the horror of the situation (or the joyful elimination of throng upon throng of shuffling zombies) and forget that a story is first and foremost about people and how they change when faced with horrible situations.

That’s what I loved about this book. Since the world as we know it ended over twenty years ago, humanity has already come to terms with what happened, discovered why it happened and is how trying to recover and maybe find a cure. So even though the book doesn’t have the life or death urgency of the first days of the zombie outbreak books (at least in the beginning), this gives the author a chance to explore the drastic changes such an event would bring to the world and our civilization.

I liked the fact that we know what cause the outbreak. I like the fact that there is a scientific explanation that doesn’t sound too farfetched because it makes this story even more chilling. The hungries are not really zombies in the classical sense – they didn’t die and come back to life, they were overtaken by a parasite instead. So they are still alive, even though the parasite is the one at the wheel. And none of these half-rotting, shuffling nonsense either. The Hungries are fast and once they latch to your scent, they don’t stop until you kill them or they feed on you.

I also liked the overall message of this book that this outbreak isn’t something that can be reversed, that it’s only the next step in the evolution of our planet and of the human species as well. Yes, humans as we know them will perish and the first generation of hungries, but the next generation will be like Melanie -smart, strong and capable of individual thought, even though they will still be parasite carriers. Earth will be different than what we know now, but life will carry on and humans will still walk it.

I am actually really interested in revisiting this world and seeing what became of it say 10-20 years after the end of this book, so I am definitely preordering the next book in this series, The Boy on the Bridge, which comes out in May 2017.

The Emperor’s Railroad (The Dreaming Cities 1) by Guy Haley.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you a little gem in post-apocalyptic genre? This is a relatively short novella (only a little over 100 pages long), but it’s packed full of goodies: huge and very interesting world, a great catastrophe the cause of which is not fully explained, strange beings that might or might not be angels, a mysterious knight, and an engaging narrator. What else would you need for a wonderful book?

Our narrator, Abney, is a 12-year-old boy, and the whole story is told through the prism of his knowledge and perception, even though he tells it as an old man, many years later. And this is important to know, because Abney’s world had not extended past his little town until it got destroyed by the living dead. He is thrown into this vast and dangerous world after a traumatic event and armed only with the stories and beliefs his mother instilled into him.

So to him the Angels are supreme and perfect beings. God is almighty and everything that happened to mankind, from the war that destroyed all the cities of old to the plague of walking dead and even the dragon, is his punishment for the hubris of men of old. And Quinn is a Knight, which to little Abney makes him about just as legendary as the Dreaming Cities and the Angels themselves.

Even though this novella is a story of Abney’s journey through the perilous Kingdom of Virginia to the village of Winfort and the safety of his cousin’s home, it’s also Abney’s journey towards adulthood, complete with disillusionment, injustice and loss. The Angels are not as perfect as he believed them to be. God’s justice isn’t always just. And Knights are not the noble warriors almost larger than life he’d pictured them to be.

I loved this book. It’s a small glance into a rich and complex world, but just because it’s a small story of a little boy traveling a short distance (a mere 50 miles or so) through dangerous country to reach a new town, it doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting. In fact, it manages to introduce this world without resorting to info dumps and leaves the reader with a sense of satisfaction, because Abney’s journey is done, but also with a head full of questions about what the heck happened to make the world this way and what the Dreaming Cities really are.

I can’t wait to pick up the next book in the series because I want to know more about this world. Who are those Angels? Are they really winged beings sent down by God or are they robots, AIs or aliens something like that like Quinn implied? Speaking of Quinn, what promise did he break that he  is seeking penance for? And who is the person he is determined to find in a place that everybody thinks is a dead wasteland? And what are the Knights? From what Abney described, Quinn has a lot more stamina and healing speed than any normal human should have.

A first book in a series did a good job when it managed to tell a compelling and self-sufficient story AND leave you with enough questions to want to pick up the next book. I say good job, Mr.  Haley, because I can’t wait to read the next one

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

Deep in the Hollow by Brandy Nacole.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

 

Apart from a few little gripes about the last part of the story, I really loved this book.

 

Jo is a typical teenager faced with very untypical circumstances. A year ago she witnessed the death of her boyfriend Bryce and the circumstances were less than ordinary. Something attacked them at the overlook and pushed Bryce over the stone wall and into the hollow. Problem is, nobody believes her. In fact, everyone in the little town seems to think that she killed her boyfriend. So Jo turned from the leader of the cheering squad and popular girl into the school pariah. Only Jo isn’t as crazy as everyone thinks, and monsters do exist. And this one isn’t done with her yet…

 

I loved Jo. She has a very distinct voice and is a very interesting and believable character. How do you deal with a tragedy like that when you are barely 18 and struggling with your life as it is? She has PTSD and survivor guilt, and recurring nightmares of the thing that attacked her and Bryce that fateful night. So much so that she’s almost persuaded herself that she is slowly going crazy.

 

And it doesn’t help that the police thinks she’s guilty, and that everyone in school think the same. Even her parents bailed and left town, abandoning her with her older brother. Her brother tries to help, but the big problem is that he doesn’t believe her when she says there’s a monster haunting her dreams and think that it’s all due to depression.

 

How do you cope with that and not break? How do you keep on living when everyone around you would rather wish you slunk away and quietly died somewhere out of sight? Even adults would crack under that pressure. So I really admire Jo for hanging on in there and for finding the courage to do what’s right when the truth comes to light.

 

All these trials have made her cynical, with a rather gloomy outlook at life, but she still possesses a wry sense of humor that gives us a glimpse of the firecracker she used to be before tragedy ripped her life apart.

 

The story itself is suspenseful and interesting as well. I love the way it deals with difficult themes like loss and grief and the need to move on (and the guilt that arises when you are starting to move on). I liked how the author managed to show the stifling atmosphere of a little town where everybody knows everybody and rumors spread at the speed of sound. And where deep dark secrets are kept from generation to generation.

 

SPOILER!!!! READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!!!

 

 

 

 

 

The gripe I had mentioned earlier has to do with the coven that comes into the limelight in the last part of the book. First, it felt like it popped into existence almost out of nowhere. Second, the members of the coven were way too bat shit crazy to be believable. I mean how can they function and appear normal in everyday life when they fly off the handle like it was depicted in the scene on the overlook?

 

But apart from that, it was a very enjoyable read, and I would love to see this book turned into a series.

 

PS. I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a honest review.

The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath by Ishbelle Bee.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

 

I fell in love with this book. Absolutely and totally. But this will also be one of the hardest reviews I’ve had to write so far. Not because the book is bad obviously, since I loved it, but because it’s so different from anything else I’ve read recently. Heck, I don’t even know what genre to put this book into. Gothic? Fairy tale? Horror? New weird? It’s all of that and none of it at the same time. The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath is a genre of its own, that can be summarized by three words: Weird, wicked, wonderful.

 

First of all, this book tells several different stories, some shorter, some longer, but all of them are intertwined and influencing each other.

 

The first story is about Mirror who is and isn’t a little girl. When she was 12, her grandfather locked her inside a big clock painted with ladybirds. When Constable Goliath rescued her out of the clock several months later, she was no longer human, but something else entirely. What, nobody knows, not even her. And Goliath himself is not entirely human either. He is a shapeshifter who can become may other things, like a great big bear or a giant eagle.

 

The second story is about Mr. Loveheart, who used to be an ordinary little boy until the day his aunt poisoned his mother, and Mr. Fingers, the king of the underworld, killed his father and took him into his domain. Now Loveheart has eyes black as tar, wears red hearts on all his clothes and isn’t entirely sure that he still has a heart. He is also pretty sure that he is at least half-mad.

 

When Mirror appears in London, Mr. Fingers sends Loveheart to find her, because he wants to eat her heart and capture the soul she holds inside her. The soul from inside the grandfather clock.

 

This books reads like a fairy tale in parts, but not the sanitized and cheerful version of fairy tales that we got used to see from Disney. No it’s the real deal, the Brothers Grim and Andersen tales where the Little Mermaid sacrifices her life to save her Prince in the end and he never even learns that she loved him.

 

It’s also part horror story, because some really horrible and macabre things happen to all the characters. I mean, the little girl who became Mirror died inside that clock before she became something else. And one of Mr. Fingers other “sons” is the famous Jack the Ripper.

 

I loved the language in which this story is written. It’s simple and clear, but beautiful and poetic at the same time. I could really see, feel and smell everything the author described. And those pictures were strangely beautiful and scary at the same time.

 

This whole book was similar to one of those strangely vivid dreams you have sometimes. Dreams that are so real that they cling to you like smoke tendrils even after you wake up and leave you with the feeling that you had touched a secret world in your sleep.

 

I admit that this kind of book is not for everyone. Some will probably hate it or think it’s too weird for them. But I would definitely recommend it to everyone who used to love fairy tales when they were a child. My opinion: definitely a must read and re-read!

PS. I had received and advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Deep by Nick Cutter.

Stars: 3 out of 5.

 

I am hard-pressed to grade this book, because I loved it… until I didn’t. And that “didn’t” came in the last 1/3 of the book, including the ending.

 

The premise of The Deep is very promising. There is an incurable disease called the GETS that slowly kills people. First you start forgetting little things like where you put your keys or the name of your boyfriend in high school, then you forget more essential things like how to feed yourself, until you forget how to breath or your heart forgets to beat. It’s always lethal and nobody knows what causes it. But there might be hope for humanity. A substance has been discovered deep in the Mariana Trench that might be able to cure the GETS. A group of scientists had been lowered down to study it in a high tech habitat called the Trieste. Only the base station above has lost contact with Trieste several days ago, and then a horribly broken body of one of the scientists surfaced in the bathyscaphe that had been attached to the habitat. Two people are sent down to investigate what happened. They will face more than just crazy scientists and the crushing pressure of the depths.

 

As I said, I started really liking what I was reading. Loved the main characters and the world Nick Cutter built. Can’t say anything bad about the language either. I read the first 2/3 of the book in two days. It took me a whole week to finally bring myself to finish it. But I need to mention that I don’t think it’s because the last third of the book is bad. I think it’s just that I really didn’t agree with the choices the author made and what he made his characters do.

 

Without going into details, because that would be a huge spoiler, but I don’t think anyone would make the choice the protagonist makes in the end, no matter how crazy they become. There is no mistaking that evil thing for his son. Sorry that’s just not plausible.

 

I have two other gripes with this book.

 

The first one is also deeply personal and might not put off other readers. But for me, there were way too many flashbacks in this book. I understand that they are necessary and an important part of the story, and that the reader wouldn’t understand what’s going on without at least some of them. But they are just too long! And they break the narrative, killing the suspense. I mean one chapter we are on board of the positively creepy Trieste and the tension can be cut with a knife… and then we have a whole chapter about the day the protagonist’s son disappeared. Once we come back to the Trieste, the tension is gone, flushed down the drain.

 

My second gripe is how the characters behave. I mean they are both smart people, they both come to the realization that weird s%&t is happening on board of that station, and that they are more susceptible to it when they are alone. So why oh why do they think that separating and wandering off on their own is a good idea? And why did the author use that tired old trope from every bad slasher / horror movie ever? Especially if bad stuff repeatedly happens when they do it, surely after the third time they would have worked out that staying together might be wiser?

 

*Deep breath*

 

So to summarize, it’s a well-written book with an interesting story. Some of the things in it didn’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t work for other readers. So I would say, if you like horror, you should give The Deep a try.

PS. This review is for an advanced copy I got from NetGalley.

Pines by Blake Crouch

Stars: 5 out of 5

Blake Crouch says that Pines was inspired iconic TV series Twin Peaks. He wanted to capture the same eerie atmosphere of a  small town that seems perfectly ordinary on the surface, but where something isn’t quite right. I must say that he succeeded.

Ethan Burke is a federal agent who arrives to the small town of Wayward Pines looking for two fellow agents who have gone missing. Within minutes of his arrival, his car is t-boned by a truck. When he comes to, he is in a meadow in the outskirts of Wayward Pines, with no cell, no ID, no wallet and no firearm. He is badly bruised and has a horrible headache. He remembers the accident, but has no idea how he ended up in that meadow instead of a hospital. He is hurt and confused, and the inhabitants of Wayward Pines, who seem friendly enough, aren’t all that eager to help. And why do all the roads out of town just loop on themselves? And why is there a tall electric fence barring the only exit out of the valley?

I loved how the author managed to make the reader feel Ethan’s confusion. He is hurt, he has blackouts, he can’t remember his home number or even his wife’s cell. At several points in the book, he starts doubting his sanity, and so does the reader. I caught myself wondering if this was just a dream, or a hallucination brought by the accident and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ethan feels that something isn’t quite right, but he can’t put his finger on it. So he tries to contact his superiors back in Seattle, but is given the run around. He tries to get his possessions back, but the hospital staff says the sheriff has them, while the sheriff is sure the EMTs have them, and the EMTs are nowhere to be found…

So the reader struggles with Ethan to understand what is going on and what kind of dark secret hides behind the sunny facades of Wayward Pines. Or maybe there is no secret at all and the local psychologist is right – Ethan is suffering from a mental breakdown.

But then the town itself is positively creepy as well, and Ethan Burke showed this creepiness masterfully. It’s such an idyllic little town with brightly painted Victorian houses and well-manicured lawns, where all the neighbors know each other and everyone is friendly. Like an orchestra playing a perfect melody. Only one of the instruments is slightly off-key. And this discordance keeps reverberating, until the whole melody is ruined.

I loved Ethan as the main protagonist. I loved the fact that he never gave up. That no matter what he was told, he always followed his gut and kept digging until he found out the truth. He was interesting to follow and root for.

I also liked the mystery surrounding the town itself and how the author would slowly uncover more and more details about it. And the more he showed, the creepier it got.

And I also absolutely loved the fact that the ending was NOT what I had expected. The book kept me guessing and turning the pages, and the ending was an absolute shocker.

So the final verdict is – very good book indeed. A must read for fans of Twin Peaks and other creepy mysteries alike.

The Undying by Ethan Reid

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

This review is for the ARC I have received courtesy of NetGalley.

The Undying by Ethan Reid could have been a great book. When I read the blurb, I really looked forward to diving into the book itself. I mean two young American tourists trying to survive an apocalyptic event in Paris, as our civilization falls apart? That ought to be a an interesting read, no? Especially if you add the undying (the author’s version of zombies) into the mix. I love Paris, I love disasters books and I love zombies. So this book was right up my alley.

Unfortunately, my excitement about the premise was quickly dampened by the execution. First of all, the prologue takes place months after the event, and the author tells us right there and then that only Jeanie and the baby will survive. This makes it very difficult to empathize with any characters in the book. I mean why bother caring about Ben, Zou, or Farid if you already know they won’t make it to the end? And even during the episodes when Jeanie is in serious trouble, I wasn’t worried about her, because I knew from the prologue that she would survive. And not being able to care about the characters makes for a very boring read.

The cataclysmic event itself is well described. It was scary to see the familiar topography of Paris transforming into a death-trap for its inhabitants. I also liked the progression of events and how the author slowly plunged our world into Hell. First the light go out, but there is a beautiful Aurora Borealis in the sky, and it’s New Year’s Eve, so nobody pays too much attention to the loss of power, because everyone is too busy celebrating. It’s the next morning, when the skies get shrouded with dust and rocks start falling down, that the chaos really begins. The author built the tension well, with things going progressively from bad to worse, and the appearance of the undying plunging an already scary situation into the realm of cheer terror.

And the undying deserve a special mention. Those “moribund”, which are Ethan Reid’s take on the usual zombie trope, are really scary. Unlike their more mainstream counterparts, they are fast, they are cunning, and they hunt in groups.  In fact, their behavior is similar to a pack of wolves or a pride of lions. Add to that the fact that they can bend shadows around themselves for concealment and that they are very fast learners, and you have a truly terrifying enemy. Most of the memorable moments in the book are tied to the undying, one way or another.  So they deserve the 2.5 stars.

Unfortunately, this building tension is constantly interrupted by Jeanie’s flashbacks to seemingly unrelated events, like the death of her father or the last conversation she had had with him. I understand the need to introduce the readers to her background, but it can be done as a paragraph or two here and there, not a whole chapter thrown in smack in the middle of the action.  By the time I made it through that chapter, all the tension was gone; I didn’t care what happened to the characters anymore.

The author chooses the oddest moments to go into those flashbacks or info dumps. For example, the protagonist and her friends are in the Louvres and they are running out of time. They need to get somewhere safe and underground before the temperatures outside rise to unbearable levels. That moment is full of tension, right? Will they make it? Will the find a place to hunker down?.. Yet the author choses to spend 3 (!) chapters making Jeanie talk to people about what they think happened to cause the disaster. All I wanted to do while I was reading this, was smack the protagonist on the head and yell, “Who cares? You have to get out of here NOW, not speculate on why this happened.”

So when the time runs out and characters start to die, I didn’t feel upset or sorry for them anymore. I felt frustrated with the author, because it felt like the exposition had just been a plot device designed to get rid of some of the characters.

I also couldn’t help but feel that the ending is rushed and rather anticlimactic, like the author ran out of steam and just wanted to wrap up the story really fast.

So The Undying  had sounded like a good book, but turned out a disappointment. But then again, everybody looks for something different in a book, so what I didn’t like, you might love. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this book, but ultimately it’s up to you to make your own choice.