Review: Nightmare Fuel by Nina Nesseth

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Synopsis:

Nightmare Fuel by Nina Nesseth is a pop-science look at fear, how and why horror films get under our skin, and why we keep coming back for more.

Do you like scary movies?
Have you ever wondered why?

Nina Nesseth knows what scares you. She also knows why.

In Nightmare Fuel, Nesseth explores the strange and often unexpected science of fear through the lenses of psychology and physiology. How do horror films get under our skin? What about them keeps us up at night, even days later? And why do we keep coming back for more?

Horror films promise an experience: fear. From monsters that hide in plain sight to tension-building scores, every aspect of a horror film is crafted to make your skin crawl. But how exactly do filmmakers pull this off? The truth is, there’s more to it than just loud noises and creepy images.

With the affection of a true horror fan and the critical analysis of a scientist, Nesseth explains how audiences engage horror with both their brains and bodies, and teases apart the elements that make horror films tick. Nightmare Fuel covers everything from jump scares to creature features, serial killers to the undead, and the fears that stick around to those that fade over time.

With in-depth discussions and spotlight features of some of horror’s most popular films—from classics like The Exorcist to modern hits like Hereditary—and interviews with directors, film editors, composers, and horror academics, Nightmare Fuel is a deep dive into the science of fear, a celebration of the genre, and a survival guide for going to bed after the credits roll.

“An invaluable resource, a history of the horror genre, a love letter to the scary movie—it belongs on any horror reader’s bookshelf.” —Lisa Kröger, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Monster, She Wrote

Review:

I was very excited when I heard the announcement for this nonfiction book. I mean who wouldn’t want to read something about why horror movies scare us? I know I have people around me that ask me why I spend so many hours watching and reading horror, why I like to be scared and watch blood and guts all of the time. I really do not have any of the answers. I was hoping that this could give me some ammunition to the questions, but alas, it is not the case.

Nightmare Fuel is a deep dive into the science of why movies scare people, why people want to be scared, what is happening in our brains when we watch scary movies. Nina Nesseth explores many topics, including the formatting of jump scares, the ways people are scared, and how sound plays an important role in our fear. There are explorations and analysis of several studies that question if violent content makes people violent, why there are things that we see at a young age that scare us our entire lives, and how many psychological studies are flawed. These studies are torn apart and many are slanted toward getting the results that the researchers wanted. A majority of the book seems to be in the defense of horror movies because the research studies against them are usually bogus or skewed. The point is that there is not a scientific reason not to like horror. 

I found the idea of this book more interesting than the book itself. I am not into deep science writing, and sometimes I felt little interest in the depth that Nina Nesseth was going. Even though I appreciate the things that this book does, it really is not a book I would read again. I have recommended this to people who are interested in how the brain works more than how horror works. There are some highlights in the book though. I really enjoyed some of the in depth looks at certain classic films like Jaws and The Thing. I also like the short interviews, particularly the one with John Fawcett, the director of Ginger Snaps, because it is one of my favorite horror movies and it is interesting to get some of his story. There are also a few films mentioned that I need to see or revisit, but the actual takeaways from this discussion are not as useful as I hoped.

I received this as an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

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Synopsis:

From the author of Remainder (the major feature-film adaption of which will be released in 2015) and C (short-listed for the Booker Prize), and winner of the Windham Campbell Prize, a novel that promises to give us the first and last word on the world–modern, postmodern, whatever world you think you are living in.

When we first meet U., our narrator, he is waiting out a delay in the Turin airport. Clicking through corridors of trivia on his laptop he stumbles on information about the Shroud of Turin–and is struck by the degree to which our access to the truth is always mediated by a set of veils or screens, with any world built on those truths inherently unstable. A “corporate ethnographer,” U. is tasked with writing the “Great Report,” an ell-encompassing document that would sum up our era. Yet at every turn, he feels himself overwhelmed by the ubiquity of data, lost in buffer zones, wandering through crowds of apparitions. Madison, the woman he is seeing, is increasingly elusive, much like the particulars in the case of the recent parachutist’s death with which U. is obsessed. Add to that his longstanding obsession with South Pacific cargo cults and his developing, inexplicable interest in oil spills. As he begins to wonder if the Great Report might remain a shapeless, oozing plasma, his senses are startled awake by a dream of an apocalyptic cityscape. In Satin Island, Tom McCarthy captures–as only he can– the way we experience our world, our efforts to find meaning (or just to stay awake) and discern the narratives we think of as our lives.

Review:

I have been intrigued by Tom McCarthy’s books since I read some reviews about his novel C (2010) when it first came out. It received some glowing reviews that heralded it as dense, complex, and unique. I bought a copy, and it has been on my shelf since. For some reason, one of his other books, Satin Island, started showing up lately on Amazon as a book I would probably like. I figured it was his newest book since it was being promoted. I was a little shocked to find that it was the follow up to C and published in 2015. With the book being under 200 pages, Satin Island was a good introduction to an author I have been wanting to read.

The story is narrated by U. He is a corporate anthropologist, which is someone who helps companies understand where they fit into the culture while starting a marketing campaign. I think. Many of the pages of Satin Island turn into paragraphs that go down rabbit holes of U’s thinking, and there are times that by the end of his musings, I am not certain I understand the point he is making. I do know that when he is not working at this job, he collects dossiers on other parallel events, like information on the history of oil spills and statistics on buffering. He gets sucked into a news story about a man who is parachuting and when he pulls the cord to open the parachute, the ropes are cut. U spends a great deal of time gathering articles from around the world about people that have died parachuting. These events are things that he obsesses over, researches heavily, and tries to find patterns. Some of the small things that keep him obsessively focused can be innocuous like watching a manager during a meeting as she plays with one shoe with her other shoe, but there are other things that he cannot stop dwelling on that strains his relationships, like why Madison, the woman he is having a fairly casual relationship with, was in the Torino airport at one time in her past. Many of these things seem insignificant but much of this is what makes U the person that he is. 


Tom McCarthy’s writing is very good, but sometimes I feel like I have been a little outsmarted. Some of his long paragraphs that last a page or two start at point A and meanders toward point B. By the time he gets me to the point, I am lost. I seemed to have a great deal of trouble focusing on some of these journeys, and my mind would wander off the path to other things. This does not mean that I will not read Tom McCarthy’s other books (it might be time to dust off my copy of C), but it means I have a hard time recommending others to read Satin Island without telling them that they are in for a bit of a chore.

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Review: Why Read: Selected Writing 2001-2021 by Will Self

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Synopsis:

From one of the most unusual and distinctive writers working today, dubbed “the most daring and delightful novelist of his generation” by the Guardian, Will Self’s Why Read is a cornucopia of thoughtful and brilliantly witty essays on writing and literature.

Self takes us with him: from the foibles of his typewriter repairman to the irradiated exclusion zone of Chernobyl, to the Australian outback, and to literary forms past and future. With his characteristic intellectual brio, Self aims his inimitable eye at titans of literature like Woolf, Kafka, Orwell, and Conrad. He writes movingly on W.G. Sebald’s childhood in Germany and provocatively describes the elevation of William S. Burroughs’s Junky from shocking pulp novel to beloved cult classic. Self also expands on his regular column in Literary Hub to ask readers, how, what, and ultimately why we should read in an ever-changing world. Whether he is writing on the rise of the bookshelf as an item of furniture in the nineteenth century or on the impossibility of Googling his own name in a world lived online, Self’s trademark intoxicating prose and mordant, energetic humor infuse every piece.

A book that examines how the human stream of consciousness flows into and out of literature, Why Read will satisfy both old and new readers of this icon of contemporary literature.

Review:

Will Self is one of those authors that I have bought his books but have yet to read much of his work. It all started from the hardback cover of Great Apes. I saw it in the store and knew that I had to have a copy. The name Will Self is also aesthetically pleasing, even if, according to some of examples in this collection, it leaves the internet with ammunition to use for when he says something disagreeable. And some of his opinions are disagreeable, especially when it comes to some of his opinions 0on reading. 

In any essay collection that spans twenty years of writing, there are changing opinions. Most of his essays on reading are about digital reading and how it is not as good reading from a screen as it is holding a hardback. He also says early on that if you want to be a serious reader and writer, you have to read and write serious books. He backs down on some of this toward the end of the collection, written in that past few years. The last essay, “Reading for Writers” he states that readers should read whatever they want. He also mentions that readers should read “promiscuously” and how he has several books going at one time. If he reads promiscuously, he chooses to write about white, male writers. It takes the collection 275 pages for him to examine a female writer, Rachel Cusk, in the essay, “On Writing Memoir.” He does mention books by women and marginalized groups in a generic way, but he does not spend the time on any of them. He spends his time discussing Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad, Karl Ove Knausgaard, J.G. Ballard, Norman Mailer, George Orwell, William S. Burroughs, W. G. Sebald, and a sprinkling of many other male authors. I do not know if this is specific to this collection, but there does not seem to be many indicators that the reading life that Will Self proclaims to be important is very diversified. 

I do like many of the essays, even if some of them seemed a bit like a dinosaur yelling at the meteor, but most of them are fairly interesting. Will Self does write with the authority of someone who stands behind his opinions and essays, even if they are not the most popular perspective. I liked reading his essays about writers and famous works, but I did not care as much for some of his personal essays.  He has completely forgettable essays about skyscrapers and shelving units. In any collection that spans this many years, there are going to be some essays that work better than others, and I would say that for me, this ratio is about half and half. Reading this does make me want to find my copy of Great Apes and see if it is more interesting of a book than Why Read because I feel like I am still supposed to read books by Will Self. 

I received this as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

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Review: Inspection by Josh Malerman

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Synopsis:

J is a student at a school deep in a forest far away from the rest of the world.

J is one of only twenty-six students, all of whom think of the school’s enigmatic founder as their father. J’s peers are the only family he has ever had. The students are being trained to be prodigies of art, science, and athletics, and their life at the school is all they know—and all they are allowed to know.

But J suspects that there is something out there, beyond the pines, that the founder does not want him to see, and he’s beginning to ask questions. What is the real purpose of this place? Why can the students never leave? And what secrets is their father hiding from them?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the forest, in a school very much like J’s, a girl named K is asking the same questions. J has never seen a girl, and K has never seen a boy. As K and J work to investigate the secrets of their two strange schools, they come to discover something even more mysterious: each other.

Review:

Inspection is the fourth Josh Malerman book that I have read, and I will say that I did enjoy this novel more than some of his others. The novel starts with a weird premise, the Alphabet Boys are living in a turret in the middle of the Michigan forest without knowledge of certain things beyond the woods, including society and females. There are 24 of the boys, because two have already been spoiled rotten and sent to the Corner (which is a death sentence.) When J starts to ask questions about the structure of his life and what lies beyond the woods, things start to become more dangerous and the clearer his vision becomes the more things spin out of control.  In the novel synopsis, it tells of a second turret, the Letter Girls, 25 girls (with one spoiled rotten) living the opposite existence. Eventually the Alphabet Boys and the Letter Girls will come into contact with one another and their world will stop. 

I did not know anything about this book going into it. I did not read the synopsis. I did not know about the second turret either. Maybe this is what made me enjoy Inspection more than other readers. If I would have read the synopsis, I would not have been so blindsided when the second turret and the second set of children showed up. I liked the way that it was going, with the resident boy’s writer, Warren Bratt, deciding that to recapture his integrity, he is going to blow the top off of the Alphabet Boys lives and their leader, D.A.D. This whole novel felt like a huge unsettling experiment, like the film, Dogtooth, where children are getting gaslighted by adults. Some people find these types of stories disgusting and unethical, the mental abuse being something that they find too disgusting to read and enjoy. I find these stories disturbing but also fascinating, like what kind of adult wants to make a child think in a certain way about the world? Why would someone want this so much that they are willing to build a whole life on lies? I wish there was more pages dedicated to the reasoning behind these experiments, why D.A.D and M.O.M really wanted to run this experiment on children for so long. 


The entire novel was deeply engaging and fascinating for me. I did not find there to be too many parts that dragged the narrative down. I like the way that the society was structured, and how all of the action unfolded. The character and their motivations are clear and their disappointment in one another is disheartening. I felt sorry for the children who are caught up in this novel, and it would be interesting to get a sequel, one that tells how the kids struggle to adapt to life after learning about each other. I would be excited about this novel, but I also am really starting to get a good idea of the nuances of Josh Malerman’s work. I know that I have not read the major one yet (for some reason I keep avoiding Bird Box), but Inspection is my favorite so far.

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Review: Death of a Dancing Queen by Kimberly G. Giarratano

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Synopsis:

After her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Billie Levine revamped her grandfather’s private investigation firm and set up shop in the corner booth of her favorite North Jersey deli hoping the free pickles and flexible hours would allow her to take care of her mom and pay the bills. So when Tommy Russo, a rich kid with a nasty drug habit, offers her a stack of cash to find his missing girlfriend, how can she refuse? At first, Billie thinks this will be easy earnings, but then her missing person’s case turns into a murder investigation and Russo is the detective bureau’s number one suspect.

Suddenly Billie is embroiled in a deadly gang war that’s connected to the decades-old disappearance of a famous cabaret dancer with ties to both an infamous Jewish mob and a skinhead group. Toss in the reappearance of Billie’s hunky ex-boyfriend with his own rap sheet, and she is regretting every decision that got her to this point.

Becoming a P.I. was supposed to solve her problems. But if Billie doesn’t crack this case, the next body the police dredge out of the Hudson River will be hers.

Review:

Billie Levine is a main character torn between her demanding work like and her demanding home life. Living with her brother, grandfather, and mother who has early onset Alzheimer’s, not only is she trying to make sure her mother is safe, she is trying to solve a case of Jasmine, a murdered college girl and true crime podcaster who was doing a series on a local unsolved murder outside of a strip club in 1991. Billie is hired by Tommy Russo, Jasmine’s junkie boyfriend who is also rich enough to give Billie whatever money amount she asks for, as long as she can prove his innocence. 

What follows is a mystery that pits Billie against the local mob, the local skinheads, the local police, and her own family. She gets warned repeatedly that she needs to stop the investigation, by all sides of the story, but her tenacity and clever investigation skills keeps her ahead of those that are trying to scare her or murder her. In the end we get a main character that is strong and smart but also has her flaws. She knows she needs to stop. She knows she needs to be home so her mother does not wander off, that most of the burden of watching her has fallen on her retired grandfather, who deserves to go to the deli and the bar with his friends and day drink because he has earned it, and Billie’s brother, a nurse doing his best to control his bipolar disorder while trying to date and move out of the house. She feels the guilt of given these two more of the burden while she tries to solve the case, but she also knows that she cannot stop the case. The tension between her and the rest of her family is palatable, and we understand Billie has to take care of her mother but she also needs to make money to be able to take care of her mother. This family dynamic added to the danger of the investigation gives Death of a Dancing Queen elements that make this a good mystery thriller.

Kimberly G. Giarratano does not reinvent the genre with this novel, but there are enough good elements in this that I will be more than happy to read another book that involves Billie and her investigations. She is a well-written character and the story has a good plot and good pacing. Some of the twists and reveals seem less organic and more like a one hour Law and Order episode, but as a whole, this is worth spending your time with. This is the first book by Angry Robot’s new crime imprint, Datura Books, and I am excited to see what comes of this new label. Death of a Dancing Queen is a solid, if not a little safe, start.

I received this as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

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Review: Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott

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Synopsis:

In the tradition of modern fairytales like American Gods and Spinning Silver comes a sweeping epic rich in Eastern European folklore–a debut novel about the ancestral hauntings that stalk us, and the uncanny power of story.

The Yaga siblings–Bellatine, a young woodworker, and Isaac, a wayfaring street performer and con artist–have been estranged since childhood, separated both by resentment and by wide miles of American highway. But when they learn that they are to receive a mysterious inheritance, the siblings are reunited–only to discover that their bequest isn’t land or money, but something far stranger: a sentient house on chicken legs.

Thistlefoot, as the house is called, has arrived from the Yagas’ ancestral home in Russia–but not alone. A sinister figure known only as the Longshadow Man has tracked it to American shores, bearing with him violent secrets from the past: fiery memories that have hidden in Isaac and Bellatine’s blood for generations. As the Yaga siblings embark with Thistlefoot on a final cross-country tour of their family’s traveling theater show, the Longshadow Man follows in relentless pursuit, seeding destruction in his wake. Ultimately, time, magic, and legacy must collide–erupting in a powerful conflagration to determine who gets to remember the past and craft a new future.

An enchanted adventure illuminated by Jewish myth and adorned with lyrical prose as tantalizing and sweet as briar berries, Thistlefoot is an immersive modern fantasy saga by a bold new talent.

Review:

The concepts that start Thistlefoot, the debut novel by GennaRose Nethercott, are based on the folklore character Baba Yaga, who lives in the forest in a cabin that stands on chicken legs. In the folklore, she can be friend or foe, her role being ambiguous depending on what is in the mind of the person seeking. This type of legend gives Baba Yaga all kinds of power. The story of Thistlefoot, is the story of Ballentine and Isaac Yaga. It starts with them inheriting the chicken-legged house, brought to America in one giant shipping container. This shipment is also followed by Longshadow Man, who chases them across the eastern half of America, with intentions of destroying them and the house. The huge fantasy adventure story starts with good concepts, but the execution was just average. 

The characters of Isaac and Ballentine are interesting enough. They both possess powers that seem mythical to those around them. Isaac is called the Chameleon King because he can mirror and transform into anyone. Ballentine has the Embering, which brings objects, whether dead or never alive, to life. Even though Isaac is written as a scammer and a charlatan, there is something about him, a charm that makes people like him despite themselves. Ballentine is the opposite. Everyone likes her because she is a good person, trying to do the right thing, trying to live a small existence. They are both part of descendants of Baba Yaga, who’s motivations in every story is never completely clear.

When the the brother and sister meet up to get the house, they could not be more opposite, and by the end of the story, they grow as people because of each other. This is not from a desire to do so. Isaac wants to tour a puppet show with the house, an old routine called The Drowning Fool, simply to make money. Ballentine wants to resist, but he promises to give her the house when they are done with the tour. So her only motivation is the house. The two of them reluctantly go on an adventure together with this walking house on chicken legs. The setup and the uniqueness of these characters and this story gets bogged down in the writing. 

I made it through the 435 pages, but those last 100 were a struggle. I wanted to do anything but finish the novel. It was not because I did not like the story and ideas, but it was because the story slowed to a crawl and then to almost a stop. I had to work harder to get to the end of this book than any book in recent memory. This makes it difficult for me to recommend reading this for other people. If they cut a hundred pages out of the novel, it might be one of the best novels all year. The language and the writing is breathtaking in some spots, but it just drones on for way too long. Even though this ultimately does not exactly work for me, I am interested in what Nethercott writes next, because she is immensely talented. The second half of the book just slows down way too much for it to be enjoyable.

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Review: Festival by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

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Synopsis:

New York Times bestselling horror writers Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon create a music festival to die for in this illustrated novel with artwork by Peter Bergting!

The Valhalla music festival commemorates a long-ago Viking slaughter, but when strange things start to happen it seems the massacre may be far from over. When festival-goers begin to disappear, and musicians find themselves playing mysterious and ancient songs as if possessed, the fans have to figure out what’s going on before the festival site’s haunting past comes back for blood.

Review:

When I opened my Nigh Worms package this month and pulled out the physical copy of Festival by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, I wanted to read it immediately. This illustrated hardback is very appealing to the eye. The cover looks like the cover of a metal album, and the illustrations throughout the text get more and more intense and interesting as the story progresses. I read this as quickly as possible because I had to see how these illustrations fit the story. 

The story itself is about The Valhalla Festival, a festival taking place where locals slaughtered hundreds of Vikings. Of course with any haunted ground story, and the music summons the ghosts to come back for revenge. In the short novella, there are several different perspectives and a dozen characters. This type of overview is good for an idea this ranging (you want more than one perspective in a story about a music festival, a place where thousands of people are gathered) but not so good for a story this short. It does not feel like I get a good understanding of the characters before the action starts to take place, so I was not really attached to any of these characters when the ghost Vikings started killing them. I like the ideas of the story, but the execution feels rushed and average.

But the book is cool and the illustrations are great. I have thought about buying copies for friends because I love the physical book. I would also collect a series of these books, short hardback horror stories with great illustrations. This is a great addition to any horror collectors shelves. 

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Review: The Resting Place by Camilla Sten

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Synopsis:

A spine-chilling, propulsive psychological suspense from international sensation Camilla Sten.

The medical term is prosopagnosia. The average person calls it face blindness—the inability to recognize a familiar person’s face, even the faces of those closest to you.

When Eleanor walked in on the scene of her capriciously cruel grandmother, Vivianne’s, murder, she came face to face with the killer—a maddening expression that means nothing to someone like her. With each passing day, her anxiety mounts. The dark feelings of having brushed by a killer, yet not know who could do this—or if they’d be back—overtakes both her dreams and her waking moments, thwarting her perception of reality.

Then a lawyer calls. Vivianne has left her a house—a looming estate tucked away in the Swedish woods. The place her grandfather died, suddenly. A place that has housed a dark past for over fifty years.

Eleanor. Her steadfast boyfriend, Sebastian. Her reckless aunt, Veronika. The lawyer. All will go to this house of secrets, looking for answers. But as they get closer to bringing the truth to light, they’ll wish they had never come to disturb what rests there.

A heart-thumping, relentless thriller that will shake you to your core, The Resting Place is an unforgettable novel of horror and suspense. 

Review:

Camilla Sten’s last novel The Lost Village was the worst book I had read in a long time, so when I saw that she had a new novel coming out, I knew she deserved another chance. The good new is that The Resting Place is markedly better than The Lost Village. The bad news is that this does not really mean much.

Eleanor has prosopagnosia, a condition where she cannot recognize faces. When her grandmother is killed, she bumps into the killer but she cannot recognize them. A few months later, she learns that she has inherited an estate in the Swedish woods. Eleanor goes with her boyfriend Sebastian, her aunt Veronika, and the lawyer to straighten out the state affairs. The family mysteries start to come into the open and the killer is revealed.

This is better than her last novel but it is still not great. The characters are uninteresting, the tension is not high, the reveals are not surprising, and the only thing that really carries this novel is the setting. They are in a house in the middle of a blizzard, and I am a fan of books where the natural elements are just as dangerous as the people sheltering themselves from them. Even still this setting does not do enough to carry The Resting Place past the point of being a mediocre, pretty generic thriller. The plot is pretty bland but it does not help that the writing is just boring. I do not know if it is the fault of the writer or the translator, but so much of the writing is cliché and poor that it is difficult to stay focused. The most interesting aspect, Elanor having prosopagnosia, is used more as a plot device than something that seriously affects the plot. Eleanor is staying in a house where her boyfriend is really the only person she is close to. She seems very aware of who is who all of time, except for when it is good for the story. I would like someone with prosopagnosia to read this and tell whether or not this is a good representation. My guess would be no. 

I do not plan to read any more of Camilla Sten’s novels for a while. These two have done nothing for me, and there is nothing in her writing that has held my interest to continue to read her works. 

I received this as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange  for an honest review.

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Review: 40 by Alan Heathcock

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Synopsis:

From the award-winning author Alan Heathcock comes an American myth of the future: a vision of civil war, spectacle, and disaster of biblical proportions.

In a future America ravaged by natural disaster, pandemic, and political unrest, a fundamentalist faction emerges. As the Novae Terrae gain power, enticing civilians with bread and circuses, a civil war breaks out between its members and the US government.

Mazzy Goodwin, a young soldier, only wants to find her little sister, Ava Lynn. One day, she wakes in a bomb crater to find wings emerged from her back. Has she died? Been gifted wings by God? Undergone a military experiment?

The world sees a miracle. Mazzy is coaxed into seeing it as an opportunity: to become the angel-like figurehead of the revolution, in return for being reunited with her sister. Her journey leads her to New Los Angeles, where the Novae have set up the headquarters for their propaganda machine–right in the ruins of Hollywood. Aided by friends old and new, she must navigate a web of deceit while staying true to herself.

Told in sharp, haunting prose, as cinematic as it is precise, Alan Heathcock’s 40 is a dizzyingly fantastical novel about the dangers of blind faith, the temptation of spectacle, and the love of family. In a tale by turns mythic and tragic, one heroine must come to terms with the consequences of her decisions–and face the challenges of building a new world.

Review:

Alan Heathcock’s novel 40 is a novel with a huge, sweeping story. The novel starts with Mazzy, an American soldier who wakes up in a bomb crater with wings on her back. She is seen as an angel and becomes a symbol of the movement to Novae Terrae, a religious extremist group who is also working to destroy the government and become the New America. Mazzy gets deep into their organization for one simple reason, they have kidnapped her sister and she wants her back. 40 is filled with climate disaster and a dystopian setting which reminds me a great deal of many of Margaret Atwood’s novels, particularly The Heart Goes Last. Heathcock brings his own spin to this subgenre and it is definitely a great addition.

There are so many elements of 40 that I can focus on and explore. The biblical plot. The dystopian world. The fight between the government and the people. The way that Mazzy as a soldier reacts differently to scenarios because she has a history as a soldier. The way that sometimes Mazzy has to be trusting of whatever people are telling her because she has no other choice, even if the people that surround her have their own agendas and are not the most trustworthy individuals. There are so many different angles that can be discussed and explored. One of the most interesting things to me is not one of the main themes but part of the setup of Novae Terrae against the government. There are not many pages strictly dedicate to this, but it is the major motivation of the entire movement. When Jo Sam and the Novae were cutting off food supplies, using drones to fight the military, and eventually being too clever for the military. These moments make me think about how someone with a little bit of strategy and a great deal of support like Jo Sam can crumble an already weakened structure. This America is not built like the current America. This America has been ravaged by plagues, floods, earthquakes, and other climate change disasters that help the Novae Terrae take advantage. They step in and offer a utopian escape for many who have lost everything already. By being the problem for the government and then being the solution for the citizens, this group has been able to get an upper hand on the entire situation.

I enjoyed 40 and Alan Heathcock’s writing. This novel is fast paced and magnificent, and it can be in a class with all of the other great dystopian novels. It is much different than his story collection Volt, but it is a direction that I am ready to take with him.

I received this as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: A Small Light and Other Stories by Sara Century

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Synopsis:

A mysterious woman stalks a seaside town. An isolated couple inhabit a house full of tropical birds. A rowboat floats down a river toward a witch’s cave. Death wanders an unnamed city during the plague. Sara Century’s debut short story collection carries with it surreal visions inspired by pulp paperbacks, art house films, comic books of all flavors, and classic queer villains. A Small Light & Other Stories gathers tales that hinge on troubled characters with nothing left to lose encountering existential horrors, where everyday problems escalate into insurmountable monsters, and we find ourselves unable to escape dreams long since transformed into nightmares.

“Century’s fiction packs the potency of a nightmare that haunts the mind long after one has woken. She weaves dark poetry out of her character’s relationships and crafts imagery designed to unsettle and inspire awe in equal measure. These stories whisper in your ear in the dark of night, and you will find yourself welcoming their insidious omens with outstretched arms.” – Brendan Vidito (Pornography for the End of the World)

“Sara Century writes with subtle intensity and care. In a genre often extreme, alien, and operatic, her horror stories drop us into the small center of our familiar, vulnerable human core and send ripples spreading outward, enlarging gradually to create a total emotional effect. A Small Light is a book full of dark awakenings.” – Joe Koch (The Wingspan of Severed Hands, Convulsive)

Review:

“Every love story is a ghost story.” – David Foster Wallace

I could not stop thinking about this line from David Foster Wallace while reading the nine stories in Sara Century’s debut short story collection, A Small Light and Other Stories. Every single one of these stories exemplifies this quote. Each story is the interpersonal relationship between women, whether it be mother and daughter, sisters, or, as in most of these stories, girlfriends and wives. The ghosts float through all of these stories. Ghosts of loss. Ghosts of desire. Ghosts of hope. I cannot help but think that the real horror in this collection is the horror of sadness, grief, and longing. This type of horror is the horror that readers always feel deeper than any story about a monster or a serial killer. 

The first few stories did not do much for me. I was not instantly hooked into this collection, but by the time that I read the title story, “A Small Light”, I was starting to understand the theme of the collection and how everything fit together. “A Small Light” is about Ashley and Sandra, spouses who have decided to go on a camping trip. Of course things do not work out as planned. This reads like it can be turned into one of those cool little indie horror movies that are exclusive releases on Shudder, where the horror is slow and methodical but definitely being a menace in the woods. The next story, “Red Lips in a Blue Light” was first published in The New Flesh, the David Cronenberg inspired anthology, and this was when the hooks of this collection really grabbed me. I love how different this is from the rest of the collection, yet it fits into the themes perfectly. The rest of the collection breezes by, each story being as good as the next, and I decided to reread the beginning now that I knew the themes of these stories. I liked the stories the second time better than the first. 


A Small Light and Other Stories has a group of stories that really fit into a nice collection that has some really standout stories. Many of these can be turned into very cool films, and I would be excited to watch every one of them. I will come back to some of these stories, particularly “A Small Light”, “The Hollow Bones” and “Red Lips in a Blue Light” because they are just so good.

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