Review: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

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Buy it here: Signed Copies from author, Bookshop,

Synopsis:

In a ruined, nameless city of the future, a woman named Rachel, who makes her living as a scavenger, finds a creature she names “Borne” entangled in the fur of Mord, a gigantic, despotic bear. Mord once prowled the corridors of the biotech organization known as the Company, which lies at the outskirts of the city, until he was experimented on, grew large, learned to fly and broke free. Driven insane by his torture at the Company, Mord terrorizes the city even as he provides sustenance for scavengers like Rachel.

At first, Borne looks like nothing at all—just a green lump that might be a Company discard. The Company, although severely damaged, is rumoured to still make creatures and send them to distant places that have not yet suffered Collapse.

Borne somehow reminds Rachel of the island nation of her birth, now long lost to rising seas. She feels an attachment she resents; attachments are traps, and in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet when she takes Borne to her subterranean sanctuary, the Balcony Cliffs, Rachel convinces her lover, Wick, not to render Borne down to raw genetic material for the drugs he sells—she cannot break that bond.

Wick is a special kind of supplier, because the drug dealers in the city don’t sell the usual things. They sell tiny creatures that can be swallowed or stuck in the ear, and that release powerful memories of other people’s happier times or pull out forgotten memories from the user’s own mind—or just produce beautiful visions that provide escape from the barren, craterous landscapes of the city.

Against his better judgment, out of affection for Rachel or perhaps some other impulse, Wick respects her decision. Rachel, meanwhile, despite her loyalty to Wick, knows he has kept secrets from her. Searching his apartment, she finds a burnt, unreadable journal titled “Mord,” a cryptic reference to the Magician (a rival drug dealer) and evidence that Wick has planned the layout of the Balcony Cliffs to match the blueprint of the Company building. What is he hiding? Why won’t he tell her about what happened when he worked for the Company?

Review:

I reread Borne by Jeff VanderMeer this week, and I realize that I never wrote a review the first time. I have some fresh thoughts on it, especially since I have read other VanderMeer novels between reads. The basic concept that continues to come up in review of Borne is that it is such a weird book. Rachel and Wick live in an abandoned apartment complex in a city with no name. In the shadows of the city are scavengers, biotech animals, altered kids, and a huge kaiju bear named Mord who is seen as an object to worship by some but an animal to fear by others. All of this has happened under the gaze of The Company, a biotech firm that came to the city, made a bunch of mistakes that they literally threw out the window into a wasteland, and eventually folded. These mistakes live on. Rachel finds a little blob that in the beginning looks like a sea urchin or a vase, depending on how he looks. She names him Borne. Borne grows and grows, and while he is young, he wants to learn things, but after a short period of time, he wants his independence. All of this is mistrusted by Wick and eventually by Rachel as well.

It is simple to call this a weird book and just write it off. There are many things in Borne that are consistent, like the paranoia of Wick and Rachel in a world where nothing is safe. Not only do they have to deal with scavengers and looters, an economy that does not exist beyond bartering for goods, and being hungry and thirsty all of the time, they also have a huge bear flying through the air and destroying things. This constant anxiety and worry makes it easy for Rachel to invite Borne into their little family, even though she does not know where he came from or why he is here. She just knows she has found something to enjoy in a grueling, troublesome life, even if it is no good for her.

VanderMeer thinks a great deal about the world, about humans and cities and how they effect nature and animals. Humans versus nature is a consistent theme in his works, and the world that he builds in Borne is nearly post-human but with the wreckage that humans have left. There is more mention of other animals, plants, water, and nature reclaiming the city (including a huge flying bear) than other humans. Unfortunately with this reclamation of the city with no name by nature, the humans, particularly the Company, have left a huge stamp on everything, regardless of how long ago the Company left, a stamp that will never disappear completely. 

I love Jeff VanderMeer and his writing. I powered through this novel in two days, and by the end, I was just as exhausted as the characters. There are always so many things about the way VanderMeer constructs his worlds that he leaves you with a headful of thoughts. This fits firmly in his growing canon of novels about the ecosystems and humans needing to work harder to preserve them.

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Review: Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin

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Out February 22. Preorder here: Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

Y: The Last Man meets The Girl With All the Gifts in Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt, an explosive post-apocalyptic novel that follows trans women and men on a grotesque journey of survival.

Beth and Fran spend their days traveling the ravaged New England coast, hunting feral men and harvesting their organs in a gruesome effort to ensure they’ll never face the same fate.

Robbie lives by his gun and one hard-learned motto: other people aren’t safe.

After a brutal accident entwines the three of them, this found family of survivors must navigate murderous TERFs, a sociopathic billionaire bunker brat, and awkward relationship dynamics―all while outrunning packs of feral men, and their own demons.

Manhunt is a timely, powerful response to every gender-based apocalypse story that failed to consider the existence of transgender and non-binary people, from a powerful new voice in horror.

Review:

Manhunt starts with a great premise. A virus has infected anyone with testosterone and turns them into murderous, feral zombies. They live in the woods, run in packs, and eat anything they can get their hands on. Fran and Beth, two women who have been friends before their transition, are hunting these men to harvest their adrenal glands and testicles to continue to have the estrogen to keep from turning into one of these monsters themselves. Since all of the men were now animals, women have taken over everything. This includes the TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), who are organized and ruthlessly killing the transwomen of the world. Fran and Beth’s story starts and ends with them just trying to survive in a world where they do not feel welcomed.

It took me a while to connect with these characters. mostly because part one is action with very little character development. Beth and Fran are thrown into the middle of a zombie and TERF attack that does not give them time to breathe. This anxiety is passed along to the reader because the danger and action is nonstop. The second part is when we really start to understand the characters. The book switches stories between Beth, Fran, Robbie, a trans man they find in the woods, and some new characters that are introduced as major secondary characters. Even though there is more character building than world building the the second part, the novel does not feel like it slows down at all. There is still plenty of action, gore, and a large amount of sex. By the time part three starts, we are fully invested in the story and the brewing fight between the TERFs, who are trying to be a new government, and the women who will do anything to fight against their anti-trans ideals. By the time the final showdown starts, with even more action than the first part, we are so attached to the story and the characters that we are totally invested. The final part is brutal, gory, and very much worth the effort it takes to get there.

I am not really the target audience for Manhunt. In fact if I was a character in the novel, I would be one of the feral men eating raw meat and killing any woman or animal that I see. This is okay. I keep thinking about how there are some horror-loving trans kids who need representation, and having two trans women and a trans man as the heroes of a story will honestly make this a LGBTQ+ horror classic. There is a movement in horror to “Make Horror Gay AF” and I fully support stories like these to show that horror is a genre that can be inclusive and for everyone. This is another reason to love Manhunt, just as much as the greatness of the story. The world Gretchen Felker-Martin builds is strong, dangerous, and very unique. I cannot wait to read what Felker-Martin has in store for us next. 

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

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Review: Malinae by Josh Schlossberg

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Buy here: Godless.com, Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

The absentmindedness. The nonsensical ramblings. The blank stares. Ward Ayers, physically disabled and confined to his Jersey Shore home, can only watch in dismay as his beloved wife Malina slips further and further into dementia.

But when Ward catches a glimpse of a strange appendage in place of Malina’s tongue, he fears the woman he’s loved for half a century isn’t succumbing to Alzheimer’s but transforming into something…not quite human. As he tries to make sense of his wife’s disturbing changes, he starts wondering if he’s the one losing his mind.

Until, finally, Ward uncovers the dark force behind Malina’s decline and must plumb the depths of sacrifice and selfishness to reclaim his wife and preserve humanity’s future.

Review:

Horror used to happen mostly to kids. Whether it be teenagers at Camp Crystal Lake or in Derry, Maine, a large majority of horror stories and films are about teenagers. Lately there has been a gathering trend in horror of stories that involves the elderly as the victims and heroes. I am all for it. I love these stories. When I heard the advertisements for Malinae by Josh Schlossberg, I knew it was a must read.

Malinae is about Walt Ayers and his wife, Malina, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Walt is also eighty-six, and his body is not in the best shape anymore. He still spends his days keeping his mind active with an adult coloring book and a steady stream of caregivers that take care of the two of them. One of the caregivers, Celeste, displays some behavior that raises suspicions within Walt, that she is doing some things with Malina that just does not seem right. This makes Walt start to do some sleuthing, and when Walt discovers some weird things going on with his wife and her connection to Celeste, he tries to stop her before it gets out of hand. Of course it gets out of hand.

This is another short novella that does a great amount in a small space. Even though it is not very long, the story is well developed and suspenseful. There are a few times when a large amount of action and plot moves in one page, and then it settles down again to a slower, more suspenseful speed. I like the characters, even though Walt is someone who would irritate me in real life. He is written in a way that makes him seem very demanding to her caretakers and the people around him; he is always ordering people to do things but not acting very appreciative of their help. I know that his caregivers are being paid for their services, it does not seem like Walt is very thankful for the help he receives.

As someone who does direct patient care in hospitals, I can see these two characters because I have taken care of both of them several times. Maybe this is why I enjoy horror stories with elderly characters. Not only do I like that there is a different set of life experiences and thus decision making skills, I also feel like I relate more to the older population than youth these days. Everyone in this novella, especially Walt and Malina, seem very real to me. The writing and storytelling is spot on. 
I really enjoyed Malinae, and the big question that I asked myself while reading it. Is the character going through this because of medical issues or because of outside influences? Trying to figure this out makes a story to admire and recommend.

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Review: The Removed by Brandon Hobson

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Buy it here: Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

Steeped in Cherokee myths and history, a novel about a fractured family reckoning with the tragic death of their son long ago—from National Book Award finalist Brandon Hobson

In the fifteen years since their teenage son, Ray-Ray, was killed in a police shooting, the Echota family has been suspended in private grief. The mother, Maria, increasingly struggles to manage the onset of Alzheimer’s in her husband, Ernest. Their adult daughter, Sonja, leads a life of solitude, punctuated only by spells of dizzying romantic obsession. And their son, Edgar, fled home long ago, turning to drugs to mute his feelings of alienation.

With the family’s annual bonfire approaching—an occasion marking both the Cherokee National Holiday and Ray-Ray’s death, and a rare moment in which they openly talk about his memory—Maria attempts to call the family together from their physical and emotional distances once more. But as the bonfire draws near, each of them feels a strange blurring of the boundary between normal life and the spirit world. Maria and Ernest take in a foster child who seems to almost miraculously keep Ernest’s mental fog at bay. Sonja becomes dangerously fixated on a man named Vin, despite—or perhaps because of—his ties to tragedy in her lifetime and lifetimes before. And in the wake of a suicide attempt, Edgar finds himself in the mysterious Darkening Land: a place between the living and the dead, where old atrocities echo.

Drawing deeply on Cherokee folklore, The Removed seamlessly blends the real and spiritual to excavate the deep reverberations of trauma—a meditation on family, grief, home, and the power of stories on both a personal and ancestral level.

Review:

The Removed centers around tragedy, loss, grief, and the horrible things people to to one another. The Echota family has splintered over the years. Maria is trying to help the community while taking care of her husband who is slowly slipping into the throes of Alzheimer’s, her son Edgar is an addict who has not talked to them after an intervention, her daughter lives down the road and has been following the man who happens to be the son of the police officer who shot and killed her brother Ray-Ray fifteen years ago. Every year the family gathers to have a bonfire in honor of Ray-Ray’s death, but this year, based on how disconnected everyone is, it might not happen.

Filled with Cherokee folklore and tradition, The Removed is a sad, tragic, and gorgeous book. At first, I did not know what to think of it because I really was not connecting with the characters and the story. This started like so many other books about a tragedy happening to a family and we get to see the grief that never goes away. When Wyatt, a boy that Maria and Ernest are giving a temporary foster home for a few days while waiting for a family court hearing, things start to change and come clear. The book is about grief but it is also about the afterlife, spirits guiding you through life based on Cherokee myths, some true and some imagined. The whole novel becomes a spiritual journey for all of the characters. A few of the things start to make more sense. Wyatt’s positive connection to everyone is because he is more that what he seems. Edgar living with a “friend” Jackson in a place that is gray and desolate, a town filled with people who were drug addicts until they got here, might be a town in which everyone has overdosed. In some parts the vagueness lets us draw our own conclusions, but we are strongly guided by the narrative, and by Tsala, the final character in this family, the guide who died during the Trail of Tears but is still trying to help his people. 

The novel becomes more interesting and gorgeous as it goes. I love the ideas that The Removed brings, and there are some parts that are gripping and heartbreaking. There are other parts that really don’t do as well. The Sonja story kind of peters out toward the end, and I think her story is the weakest and the least tied into the rest of the things the family is going through. Overall, I like the family, I like the story, I like the Cherokee myths. I like the blurring between life and the afterlife, present and past, because there are not many differences between the two.

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Review: Deep Dive by Ron Walters

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Pre-order here: Angry Robot, Amazon

Synopsis:

When your reality shatters, what will you do to put it back together again?

Still reeling from the failure of his last project, videogame developer Peter Banuk is working hard to ensure his next game doesn’t meet the same fate. He desperately needs a win, not only to save his struggling company, but to justify the time he’s spent away from his wife and daughters.

So when Peter’s tech-genius partner offers him the chance to beta-test a new state-of-the-art virtual reality headset, he jumps at it. But something goes wrong during the trial, and Peter wakes to find himself trapped in an eerily familiar world where his children no longer exist.

As the lines between the real and virtual worlds begin to blur, Peter is forced to reckon with what truly matters to him. But can he escape his virtual prison before he loses his family forever?

Review:

My favorite way to go into some books is blind. I did not read much about the story except a quick skim of the synopsis, picking out keys words instead of an idea of the story. I did know that this would be good because Deep Dive is being published by Angry Robot and their quality of books has been elite.

 I started the first few pages of the novel and I was hooked. Peter Banuk is trying to save his video game development company from bankruptcy because their last project bombed. His balance between home and work life does not exist, and before he knows it, Peter is going to work on his daughter’s birthday to test an experimental virtual reality headset. The next thing he knows, Peter is waking up in the middle of the night in his truck to a life that does not look familiar at all. The rest of the novel is him trying to figure out what has happened and how he was going to return to his family, while many people are trying to stop him from talking, by any means necessary. While he tries to navigate his new reality, he is also trying to figure out how to get back home to his wife and children. This road is filled with danger, secrets, and things he just does not remember, and the peril that he faces keeps the novel moving at a incredibly high speed.

There are many underrated subgenres of horror, some of them not even considered horror at all. Many might not think of Deep Dive as a horror novel, but there is nothing more frightening than the predicament Peter Banuk finds himself in. Technological horror, waking up from an experiment in a life that is not familiar, without any knowledge of why or how you got there, is a very scary proposition to me. The more advanced technology gets, the more likely it is that one of the pieces will malfunction to disastrous results. Even though many people will not think of this first as a horror novel, this fits in with some of the greatest technological horror stories of all time. I think about The Fly with Jeff Goldblum, Videodrome, and Possessor as films that line up with this subgenre of horror. Needless to say, I get sucked into these stories quickly because they all feel like they could happen in the near near future. 

I see Deep Dive as a great sci-fi novel but also a great horror novel. I only thought I was going to read the first few pages that first day, but ended up reading half of it. I read the other half the second day, and I have been trying to get everyone I know to pre-order copies for themselves. This is definitely a novel that can be used as an example of a good technological thriller, but also good technological horror. This makes this story unique and exciting. I could not put it down until the end.

I received this ARC from Angry Robot and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Waif by Samantha Kolesnik

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Buy Here: Directly from the author, Amazon,

Synopsis:

Angela has everything she thought she ever wanted—a successful husband, a lavish house, and a bottomless fortune.

But the sight of a strange man in a grocery store one night reawakens her dormant sexuality and soon Angela embarks on a dangerous descent into the world of underground pornography and back-alley plastic surgery.

As the stakes get higher, long-buried memories resurface and Angela finds herself enamored with Reena, a fetish film performer. With some help from a queer gang called The Waifs, Angela is forced to make the decision between her unhappy upper-class life and the treacherous world of underground film.

Review:

With Waif, Samantha Kolesnik has let us know that some people can do much more in a 100 page story than others. She writes the story of Angela, a person who is in an abusive marriage. She goes out one night after a fight and sees the man of her dreams, Ben, at the grocery store. She follows him home, and when she finally makes it back to her house, her husband is waiting for her. The conversation that they have at this point is where the plot pivots and becomes one of the greatest, most insane books I have read. Angela and her husband are obviously not healthy individuals, and as their lives spiral into a world of underground plastic surgery, shock porn, and girl gangs, the control they once seemed to have has completely disappeared. They let their obsessions and spite drive them to places where they would have never gone before the night when she met Ben at the grocery store.

I appreciate many books for what they are. I like all kinds of stories and find merit in many types of stories. I love many books and many authors. This is the first time in a very long time that I have read a novella and wished I had written it. It is so close to the way that I want to tell stories and the type of stories I want to write. After I finished Waif, I sat and relished in it for a few days before I started something else. Not only is the story superb, the writing is poetic and gorgeous.

This is definitely a horror novel. There is danger and body horror throughout, but the element that I really latch onto is the literary aspects of it, like the philosophy behind Angela acting the way that she acts and feels the way that she feels. There are some perfect, quotable sentences and passages in this novella. This does not get in the way of the story though; there is not a single moment where you feel like she is too literary, but then you sit and think about how Angela could hear the memories of her mother, and the ghost of her mother’s tears, and you think that her motivation and behavior comes from unresolved issues for a long time ago. These things give Waif so much depth and beauty. For Samantha Kolesnik to do this in such a little space is really remarkable. 

It is rare to think about a body horror novella this way, but Kolesnik has captured all of my love for great writing and fantastic but disturbing stories in a 100 page book. This is a must-read for anyone who likes horror.

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Review: Devil House by John Darnielle

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Preorder it here: Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

Gage Chandler is descended from kings. That’s what his mother always told him.

Now, he is a true crime writer, with one grisly success–and movie adaptation–to his name, along with a series of subsequent lesser efforts that have paid the bills but not much more. But now he is being offered the chance for the big break: To move into the house–what the locals call “The Devil House”–in which a briefly notorious pair of murders occurred, apparently the work of disaffected 1980s teens. He begins his research with diligence and enthusiasm, but soon the story leads him into a puzzle he never expected–back into his own work and what it means, back to the very core of what he does and who he is. 

Review:

John Darnielle is one of my favorite stars to think about. His life has been as wide ranging and unique as his music. He has been a psychiatric nurse, a drug addict, a musician, and a writer. As the Mountain Goats, he has written albums about everything from the work of French historian Pierre Chuvin to an album about professional wrestling. He is known for writing songs that tell stories and his lyrics very literary in nature. It is no surprise that he finds success with writing novels.

People really took notice of Darnielle’s writing when he wrote a 33 ⅓ book on Master of Reality by Black Sabbath. This book stands out in the series because it is not an essay on the album like the rest of the series. Master of Reality is a fictional narrative with the main character in a psychiatric ward trying to get his tape player back so he can listen to Black Sabbath. Darnielle found success with this book, and continued to write books and albums. 

Devil House is his fourth book, and it is his most ambitious. The main character, Gage Chandler, is descended from kings, according to his mother, and he has found success as a true crime writer. He hears about the case of the Devil House murders in 1986, where a realtor and potential buyer are slain inside an abandoned porn shop. The novel splits between this narrative and a retelling of pieces of his first true crime book about the White Witch, a teacher who killed two of her students when they forced their way into her apartment. The threads between these stories are many, and most of Devil House is not about the plot at all. It is about Gage Chandler himself, as a writer, as an artist, as a storyteller, and as a human. 

The book is broken into several different but related sections, and I cannot help but compare this to one of the the structure of a Mountain Goats concept album. The theme is the burdens and responsibilities that Gage has to bear by taking up the stories of others and retelling them through his own lens. Regardless of how neutral he tries to be, there is a perspective that he is conveying to the reader, and this is something that Gage Chandler really has to think about when he is constructing the whole story of the Devil House. In the end, Darnielle has written a novel that is more about big ideas on literature and art than about the actual plot and character. This honestly feels exactly how I expect any John Darnielle novel to feel. He is an artist who loves art and the meanings behind it, but sometimes he is more interested in the feelings that the art gives than the art itself. This is the substance of Devil House; he is telling a story about being an artist through telling the stories of grisly murders. 

I received this ARC from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Beneath the Salton Sea by Michael Paul Gonzalez

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BUY HERE: Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

Every memory is a recording.

Nothing about the Salton Sea is normal. The sand isn’t sand. Just piles and piles of desiccated bones. There are little pockets where life clings on, birds, reptiles, people. It’s an ecosystem of living things that rely on other living things too stubborn to leave. Life forcing itself on death, or maybe the other way around.

Dee and her wife Sharon find this out the hard way after making a quick stop at Salvation Mountain to film some b-roll and see the sights out in the middle of the vast nothing. A bizarre rumor of a “crack in the sky” from one of the locals sends them on the hunt for an abandoned yacht club— where they make a discovery that changes their lives forever, and those close to them as well.

Could you identify a loved one by their whisper?

Beneath the Salton Sea is a cosmic horror technological nightmare transcribing the raw honesty of what makes a family, what breaks them, the difficulties of communication, and the painful joy of memories.

If you knew this was the last thing I’d ever tell you, what would you want me to say?

Review:

I have been fascinated with the Salton Sea since I watched a documentary from 2004, narrated by John Waters, called Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea. In the documentary, they explain how the Salton Sea was a vacation destination in the 50s, a southern California desert Lake Tahoe, and the hot place to be. Due to ecological disaster, the place was abandoned by all tourists, and the only people left are outsiders. The documentary also has footage of Leonard Knight constructing Salvation Mountain, a guy who lives naked in the desert, and several people who say that the lake is just as good as it has always been even though it smelled like rotten eggs and the beach was made of fish bones. Despite seeing the Salton Sea pop up a few more times in the years since I watched this documentary, most notably during the movie Into the Wild, when Emile Hirsh playing Chris McCandless visits Salvation Mountain and the chapter in William T Vollmann’s  huge California book Imperial, I have not really thought about the Salton Sea much more until now.

Fast forward almost fifteen years, Michael Paul Gonzalez is on the Goulish podcast talking about his new book, Beneath the Salton Sea. He talks about a Salton Sea that is still inhabited by outsiders, but there are more of them gathered to create art and a community of people who live away from society. He talks about Slab City, a place where a makeshift society has formed on an old military base, and about how outsider art has taken over everything around the Salton Sea. He sets his new novel in this area, and as soon as he starts talking about it, I am drawn back into the mystique of the area. It is also a perfect place to set a horror story.

The novella is split into three parts, each one happening years apart, but all of them involving the same characters. The first section is from 2008, when Dee and her wife Sharon go to the Salton Sea to explore. They are told that there is a crack in the sky above the Salton Sea. When they go to the old Yacht Club, weird things happen and they barely make it out alive. The second and third parts are family members of these two going to the Salton Sea to find out what happened to them. All three of the sections turn into confusion and chaos, and there is a real disconnect between reality and the things the characters are experiencing. 

This could have really turned out to be a poorly told story, but Michael Paul Gonzalez does a great job leading us through the confusion that his characters are experiencing. He uses technology as a bridge between the dimensions. The writing must be strong and very clear in several sections, and this is what makes his writing feel masterful. He expresses huge ideas and some scenes make no sense whatsoever, but it also allows you to feel the confusion that the characters are feeling. The strength of the writing is the only thing that could pull off this story, and many writers can not do it as well as Michael Paul Gonzalez. 

When I was reading this book, I kept thinking that there was a reason why so many people are drawn to the Salton Sea. This draw is in the location itself. The characters are drawn there because they are looking for someone or something they have lost, but this happens to people in real life as well. The Salton Sea seems to attract people, and I think that this is a good way to explain why so many people choose to live in a dead and decaying area. There is something that the sea holds that they have lost. 

This book can be a challenge to some people because it is deliberately confusing and chaotic. There are gaps in time and dimension and logic, but these are things that make the book compelling. I hope that many people stick through it and read it because it will also make you fall in love with the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea demands it.

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Review: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

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Buy Here: Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

From the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, a gloriously entertaining novel of heists, shakedowns, and rip-offs set in Harlem in the 1960s.

“Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…” To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.

Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time.

Cash is tight, especially with all those installment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweler downtown who doesn’t ask questions, either.

Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa—the “Waldorf of Harlem”—and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do. Now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes.

Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?

Harlem Shuffle’s ingenious story plays out in a beautifully recreated New York City of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.

But mostly, it’s a joy to read, another dazzling novel from the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning Colson Whitehead. 

Review:

Originally appeared at Mystery and Suspense

Colson Whitehead never writes the same book twice. He jumps genres and styles with every new release. From the post-apocalyptic Zone One to the magical realism of Underground Railroad to historical fiction of The Nickel Boys to a nonfiction book where he enters the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas with $10,000 (The Noble Hustle). There is no predicting what he will write next. The only constant is his work. Everything he does, Colson Whitehead does well. 

Whitehead’s latest book, Harlem Shuffle, brings him into the realm of crime fiction. This is structured like a triptych, three sections, each section almost the same length, each section two to three years apart, but each section tied to the one before. The main character, Ray Carney, runs a furniture store on 125th Street in Harlem. He has a family that is growing, an apartment that is too small, and people who always sell him used TVs and jewelry and other property that might not have belonged to them very long before entering the store. This gives Carney a reputation as someone who will move stolen goods, even though he pretends to be on the straight and narrow. In the first section, Carney’s cousin is part of a heist and comes to him to help them move some of the jewels they steal. This job does not happen without hiccups to their plans,  and before he knows it, Carney is much more involved than he ever wanted to be. 

The second and third sections are not related to the first section, but they continue the life of Carney and his business, which becomes more and more lucrative but shady with the passing years. Carney becomes well known as someone who moves stolen merchandise. This means he gets more business, can expand his furniture store, get rid of all of the used furniture and only sell new, while paying off the police and buying a new apartment for his expanding family. He becomes a successful businessman, but in the second and third sections, there is proof that he is only one step away from crime and the criminal element. 

Many of the most famous triptychs in art have a religious theme. In Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead writes about Harlem in a way that almost feels religious, like he has chosen holy ground for the setting of his novel. He writes about the way the neighborhood  changes in the years between the three sections, but even with the changes, reverence still exists. Whitehead shows us that the spirit of Harlem will always be the same, with some honest people doing honest work, but many people doing whatever they can to get by. 

In each section, not only does he revisit different buildings, streets, and businesses and how they have changed, but he also does the same with neighborhood characters. We are updated with many different stages in people’s lives. The strongest example of this is the character Pepper. Pepper is someone who Carney calls whenever he has some work that needs done that might be slightly against the law. Pepper is loyal, reliable, and always willing to help Carney, usually paid in pieces of new furniture.  He feels like more of a staple to the neighborhood than a side character, someone that is Harlem, someone that knows everything about the neighborhood. Pepper feels like the evangelist, always telling Carney the News, whether Good or Bad. Harlem Shuffle does not have any religious overtones, but it does feel like the Harlem in Harlem Shuffle, with all of it’s faults, deserves our respect and reverence. 

Harlem Shuffle is literary pulp fiction. There is not a great amount of mystery, but the tension is high, the characters are all crooked, and even though Carney is a great character, he also brokers stolen merchandise, pays off cops and gang leaders, and keeps it all  from his family. Colson Whitehead still writes in his literary but very readable style. Since the book is broken into three sections, it is very easy to get swept into the story and read the entire section in one sitting. Colson Whitehead is a true American Master, and his novels deserve all of the praise they receive. Harlem Shuffle is just another achievement in an already award-winning career. But if you don’t like this book, try his next. It will be completely different. 

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

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Review: The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories Volume Five edited by Christopher Philippo

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Buy it here: Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – time for more rare ghostly tales of Yuletide terror from Victorian England!

For this fifth Valancourt volume of Christmas ghost stories, editor Christopher Philippo has dug deeper than ever before, delving into the archives of Victorian-era newspapers and magazines from throughout the British Isles to find twenty-one rare texts for the Christmas season – seventeen stories and four poems – most of them never before reprinted.

Featured here are gems by once-popular but now-forgotten 19th-century masters of the supernatural like Amelia Edwards, Barry Pain, and Florence Marryat, alongside contributions by totally obscure authors like James Skipp Borlase, a writer of penny dreadfuls who specialized in lurid Christmas horror stories, and Harry Grattan, who made history by writing the first ghost story recorded by Edison for the phonograph. Also included are an introduction and bonus materials, such as 19th-century news articles and advertisements related to Christmas ghosts.

“I endeavoured to call out; I could not utter a sound. As I gasped and panted, there stole into my nostrils a deadly, terrible, overpowering stench . . . It was the dread odour of decomposing mortality . . . I felt that I must break the spell, or die.” – John Pitman, “Ejected by a Ghost”

“It was a coach made of dead men’s bones . . . Behind the awful vehicle stood two fleshless skeletons in place of footmen, the driver was a horned and tailed fiend, and the six coal–black steeds that he drove had eyes of fire, and snorted flame from their nostrils as they tore madly along.” – James Skipp Borlase, “The Wicked Lady Howard”

Review:

Apparently in the 19th and early 20th century, one of the popular Christmas eve activities was to gather for parties. As the night grew late and the thought of going out into the cold seemed abysmal, people instead congregated around the fire for one more drink and told each other ghost stories. This became such a big part of the Christmas tradition that many newspapers ran contests for the best Christmas ghost stories. These were printed around Christmas so that people have stories to read aloud at these gatherings if they cannot make up a story on their own. Some of these stories have been lost for generations, but Valancourt has collected five volumes of these stories, poems, and snippets.

This collection has highs and lows. In the beginning, the stories do not do much for me. Many of them center around a character who is in love and a tragedy striking their relationship. Many are a ghost story in a sense that a person feels or sees the presence of a person while he or she is crossing over to the afterlife. The second half of the collection seems to have some of the better stories, and a few of them, like “The Dead Hand” by James Skipp Borlase and “The Undying Thing” by Barry Pain are pretty good. Many of the stories are short because they were in newspapers and were meant to be read aloud at parties so you kind of get that feeling from some of them. A few of the longer ones in the second half are much better than the first half. 

One of the things that I really love about this is the short histories of the authors that precedes their stories. Some of the biographies are insane. Here is the biography for Mabel Collins, who writes “A Tale of Mystery”.

An author of more than forty books, MINNA MABEL COLLINS COOK {1851-1927} had learned of Helena Blavatsky’s occult Theosophy religion in 1881, and met Blavatsky herself in 884. The same year, Mabel Collins began writing Light on the Path,  published in 1885, a book she claimed was dictated to her by some mystic source and moreover that it was “written in an astral cipher, and can therefore can only be deciphered by one who reads astrally.” It quickly became a Theosophical classic, and Collins would go on to be co-editor with Blavatsky of Lucifer: A Theosophical Magazine. One of her lovers was Robert Donston Stephenson, one of a number of men suspected of having been Jack the Ripper. She would also become an acquaintance of poet and occultist William Butler Yeats and the notorious Aleister Crowley. (pg. 97).

This is not the only biography in this collection that makes me feel like Victorian society was more interested in the occult and the devil than I ever knew, and the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time feels like something that needs to come back. The idea of ghost stories being a large part of Victorian Christmas culture is actually pretty alluring. If anything, this collection is more valuable as a primer for Victorian history and tradition than it is a collection of memorable stories.

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