The Magic Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg*****

themerryspinsterMallory Ortberg’s feminist horror collection is bound to be the best short story collection of 2018, darkly funny, cleverly conceived and brainier than I realized when I signed on for it. Many thanks go to Henry Holt and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. This title is for sale now.

Ortberg takes well known children’s stories and fairy tales and injects sinister elements into them, sometimes starting with the exact wording of the story, cited in her endnotes, and then changing it a tiny bit at a time. If you don’t know the story quite well, you may not be able to pinpoint the exact place Ortberg goes off script; some of these are Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which are fairly, uh, grim in the first place and not originally intended for small children. She often combines the influence of a second fairy tale, and everything is beautifully documented at the back, just so you can see how she did it.

At first I wondered if I would react badly to this; I am a grandmother of tiny children as well as a retired teacher, and these stories tread on sacred ground. But it’s done with such genius that all I can do is shake my head in admiration.

There are eleven stories. One of my favorites is the title story, in which a woman is held prisoner by a captor that builds her a fabulous library, but tells her that he will decide what she will read. There’s horror for you. There’s a takeoff on The Little Mermaid that left me with half the story highlighted out of admiration. The Thankless Child features a fairy godmother that is more of a mafia figure, like a supernatural, female Godfather.

But perhaps my very favorite is The Rabbit, which is a takeoff on The Velveteen Rabbit. I began this one with a furrowed brow, because the original story is so dear to my heart, a cherished experience held with each of the four babies I bore and raised. But my prior knowledge is actually a useful thing, because with the original more or less committed to memory, I can see where she begins to alter the story. At first she changes just the tiniest things, and then gradually adds more…and in her version, the rabbit loathes the boy and seeks revenge. In the end it is the same story, and yet different enough that it doesn’t offend me as I suspected it might. She started with apples and made bleeding red oranges.

Ortberg has created a masterpiece of feminist fiction replete with some of the best word smithery found in contemporary prose. It can be read at the surface level, just for your amusement—which is guaranteed to all that enjoy gallows humor—or as a scholarly endeavor. I expected this book to be full of darkly ridiculous stories themed around women’s issues. Instead it is even better, both brainy and hilarious, the best surprise of 2018.

Highly recommended to all that appreciate great feminist fiction and enjoy dark humor.

Zero Day, by Ezekiel Boone****

ZeroDayWelcome to the spiderpocalypse. Boone wraps up his creepy, crawly trilogy with engaging characters, great humor, and an ending that is deeply satisfying. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria books for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this honest review. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, February 20, 2018.

The narrative begins with a recap of our characters and what has gone before in Skitter and The Hatching . Whereas I don’t recommend skipping the first and second books, it’s great that Boone brings us up to speed; with such a complex story, the refresher is useful for both new readers and old ones. And holy Moses, as we join President Stephanie Pilgrim, she is faced with an attempted coup. The military divides into camps, and quick thinking is called for. After all, Pilgrim knows there’s only a matter of time before everything goes “kaploowee.”

Boone has several side characters and plot threads that heighten suspense. We revisit the Nazca line where the first terrible eggs were uncovered; we check in on civilian survivors in places across the US; and in my favorite thread, we join the Prophet Bobby Higgs and his followers. It’s so droll and darkly funny that if you can read it without laughing out loud, you are advised to take your pulse to be sure you are still alive.

Ultimately, of course, what we have are spiders, and here Boone saves the best for last. New to the series is the “Hell Spider”, and the descriptions are his most deliciously satisfying yet:

“Realistically, to the Hell Spiders, a human being is just like a burrito, a soft wrapper with a tasty filling.”


Boone’s progressive bent makes good fiction even better. I particularly appreciate his deep and abiding respect for women, which makes him one of the finest male authors of feminist fiction I’ve read. I also wonder whether this might be the first series carried by a major publisher that features a gay married couple whose status is incidental to the story rather than a crisis moment in the plot. Within the genre, I’d bet on it.

Boone keeps his prose accessible, yet it’s not dumbed down. There is no explicit sex here, and I can see this as a title that teens will also enjoy. If I still had a classroom, this series would grace my shelves.

Recommended to all that enjoy a good horror series. 

Smoke City, by Keith Rosson*****

SmokeCityNerds, geeks, and bibliophiles be ready. Marvin Dietz, who in an earlier life was the executioner of Joan of Arc, is leaving Portland, and he’s collected some unlikely traveling companions. Why not join him?  I read this story free and early thanks to Meerkat Press, but it’s worth your nickel to seek it out, because there is nothing else like it. This book is available to the public Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

Mike Vale was once a great painter, and now he has been forced out of his record store by a shifty, corrupt landlord, so he heads south to Los Angeles to attend the funeral of his ex-wife. En route he picks up Dietz, who is hitchhiking, and further along the way Casper stows away in the back. The voice with which their story is told is resonant and the word-smithery makes me shake my head in some places—who writes like this?—and in others I laugh out loud. Here’s a sample from the passage where we meet Casper:

 

‘I want my money,’ Casper said. “My money or my gear. You pick.’
‘Jesus wept,’ the last counterman said before wheeling around on his stool. Then Gary, our mechanic, walked past me and threaded his way through the tables. He laid his hand on the end of the bat… Casper turned and looked at him. What little fight there was deflated out of him like a balloon. Almost lovingly, Gary put him in a headlock.

‘Casper, Duncan sold your meter for a bag of crank days ago. Give it a break. Getting money from him is like getting Thousand Island from a basset hound’s tits, man. You can squeeze all you want, but it ain’t happening.’

 

As the journey continues, somewhere in California, the Smokes appear. They’re the undead, and they appear as if they are made of smoke. They can’t hear live people or see them, but their personal dramas and torments play out for people in the here and now, and they don’t observe the laws and conventions regarding private safety and property, either.  They show up at random times and in random places, causing traffic accidents and other complications. And so we have to wonder if there’s a connection between Marvin, whose many incarnations are recounted to us in his confidential narrative, and these apparitions. The government and the military are at a total loss; the press is enjoying itself, but even the most ambitious journalist recognizes that things have spun out of control.

The plot is complex, and readers must bring their literary skills along for the ride or there’s no point in coming.  It’s a story that takes awhile to develop, but it’s more than worth the slow build. The playful use of language and quixotic spirit of the prose are reminiscent of Michael Chabon at his finest hour.

Highly recommended; get it in hardcover.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly*****

AGameOfGhostsJohn Connolly writes two kinds of books. Some of them are good; some are damned good. This is one of the latter. It’s the fifteenth in the Charlie Parker series, and it marks a turning point; previously a thriller series with mystic overtones, it’s now a stew combining multiple genres. Connelly heats his cauldron and pours in a healthy dose of suspense, mixes in some detective fiction, and blends in horror and fantasy as well, along with a pinch of humor. The overall result is deliciously creepy, the kind of story that stays with me after I’ve read a dozen other less memorable books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

Parker has a haunting past indeed; in the first book of this series, his wife and daughter Jennifer are murdered by a man that has come looking to kill Parker. Our hero sets out to find and kill the man that did it, and he succeeds; yet his thirst for stark, take-no-prisoners justice is not satisfied. Now the father of another daughter, Samantha, that lives with his ex, our current mystery finds Parker in a conversation with the girl’s uncle, who asks hard questions about Parker’s risky behavior. He wants to know why Parker keeps chasing bad guys now that his initial quest has been fulfilled. Why hunt down evil-doers when he might adopt a lifestyle more in line with the best interests of his still-living child? Parker responds,

“I do it because I’m afraid that if I don’t, nobody will. I do it because if I turn away, someone else might suffer the way I have. I do it because it’s an outlet for my anger. I do it for reasons that even I don’t understand. 
“But mostly,” said Parker, “I do it because I like it…
“We can’t leave these people to wander the world unchallenged.”

The premise here is that Parker is sent by FBI agent Ross, who he has agreed to work for under terms mostly his own, in search of Jaycob Ecklund, a man also employed by Ross who has vanished. Once Parker’s search for Ecklund commences we learn that the missing man was a ghostbuster of sorts, a man with a basement full of files on the paranormal. Many others are interested in Ecklund also, and the plot ramps up quickly and doesn’t relent until the last page is done.

The plot here is complex, and Connolly weaves in a host of characters, both living and dead. We have The Brethren, most of whom are alive yet already damned. We have Angel and Louis, a pair of characters that have appeared throughout the series that work with Parker; their darkly amusing banter helps lighten an otherwise almost unbearably intense plot. We have clairvoyants; we have The Brethren; the hollow men; we have a number of murder victims, before, during, and after their deaths; there is the Collector, who is tied to Parker like a falcon, and must always return to him.
And we have organized crime figures Phillip and his Mother, who abduct him in order to find out what Parker does and what he knows, in a civilized way, of course.

“There will be tea.”

Mother is the best villain this reviewer has seen in a long time.

The entire book is brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. And although Connolly’s series is worth reading from the get-go, those that hop in without having read earlier books from this series will be able to follow and enjoy this shapeshifting mindbender of a novel just fine, but those that genuinely believe in ghosts may not want to read it at night.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent novels of suspense.

Skitter, by Ezekiel Boone****

skitter Skitter is the sequel to Boone’s monstrous horror novel, The Hatching. Mutant spiders are on the rampage, fulfilling the worst nightmares of every arachnophobe, and president Stephanie Pilgrim has to decide how to save the USA—if it isn’t too late. I received my copy free and in advance from Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for this honest review; copies will be available to the public May 9, 2017. Don’t miss out.

The first portion of the book is dedicated to bringing the reader up to speed so that those that didn’t read the first book can jump right in. The pacing feels a little slow, and I am thumbing my reader impatiently, wanting to find out what happens next. There is a fair amount of time discovering and discussing cold egg sacks versus warm, throbbing, glowing ones, but the emphasis is there for a reason, and it also makes for a more accessible read to a wider audience. At the 34% mark the ground work is done—so to speak—and the story breaks loose and really flies. The scene in Japan is particularly arresting.

So…imagine a bag of nice, warm spider eggs roughly the size of a bus; think of it as a “giant packet of doom in the corner”. It might hatch at any moment, and although the spiders may kill you, there’s a chance they may not. They spare some people to use as incubators for the next generation to come.

Let me just ask: how is your stomach doing right now? Are you feeling okay?

 

“Somebody gets bitten and then, what, five hours later they’re opening up and spilling out spiders like a bag of frozen peas?”

 

After The Hatching came out, I suddenly began noticing the spiders that came into the bedroom at night. It was uncanny how one turned up right after my spouse had fallen asleep, every single night. The spider would start in a far corner of the room—nothing to worry about here, ma’am, just minding my own business—and then gradually either circle to where it was directly overhead, or make its way to a location above the very center of the king sized bed, start a nice web, and commence to rappel doooown. I had never been that aware of them before, but now they seemed ominous. What the hell? Every night? Before he knew it, my spouse, who is nimbler than I, found himself drafted into spider-bombing the attic.

So yes, there is risk in reading this mesmerizing horror tale, but on the other hand, how can you not?

Ultimately, everything that can go wrong on Earth, does. There are mutant spiders from the South Pacific to Scotland, from Asia to Michigan. Quarantine zones fail. Hospitals fail. Other nations have tried everything, including using nuclear weapons on their own soil. And ultimately the president and her advisers wonder whether it is time to break out the Spanish Protocol.

I won’t tell you more than this; you need the book itself, either to take with you on vacation, or to make you feel better about the fact that you can’t go anywhere this year. Afterward, you’ll look at every little spider web in your living space with suspicion, and you’ll know it’s time for spring cleaning…right away!

Ill Will, by Dan Chaon**

IllWillThe good news is that if you’re looking for something dark, then Chaon is your author. I received a copy free and in advance in exchange for an honest review; thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. This book was released today and is available to the public.

The plot centers around a psychologist, recently widowed, who’s coming unstuck. One of his sons has developed an ugly drug habit right under his distracted father’s nose, but his dad just keeps giving him money and doesn’t ask questions. At the same time, the psychologist’s brother, who was sentenced to two life terms for the murders of their parents, aunt, and uncle, is exonerated when DNA analysis is done.  Simultaneously a patient of Dan’s comes to him with questions about a series of drowning of drunken college boys that he says he believes are linked. At first, Dan assumes these are paranoid ramblings, but over the course of time, the patient begins to assume greater and still greater importance in Dan’s life, until the reader begins to wonder which of the characters is the psychologist and which is the patient.

The quality of the prose is surreal and at times, dreamlike.

Every reader has a threshold for the level of violence he or she can sustain before a book ceases to be deliciously creepy and instead becomes a thing we wish we never read. I knew when I hit the term “snuff film” before the twenty percent mark that I might be in trouble, but it was a passing reference and since I had an obligation to the author and publisher, I brushed it off and kept reading.  I read multiple books at a time, usually half a dozen or so, and I found that this book was the one that I just didn’t want to read. With the publication date upon me, I forced myself through to the end, and have been slightly queasy ever since.

I didn’t have any fun here; it was just too disturbing.

I want to be fair, and so I read carefully in order to see whether there are any clever literary nuances that might improve my rating, and the second star is included here because of some interesting and innovative stylistic tools that are employed. I liked the triple narrative that appears to be taking place simultaneously, and am interested in the business employed with sentence endings that begins with the father and ends with someone else.

The story’s ending is both unpleasant and disappointing, in that it doesn’t present any sort of epiphany or surprise. My reaction to the end of this whole unfortunate thing is, “Oh.”

None of this means that you won’t like this story. There’s a lot of buzz right now about the now discredited belief in Satanic rituals that were in the news during the 1980s, and if this is in your wheelhouse, maybe you’ll like the book. If your tastes run way out on the edge of horror, you might find it more appealing than I do. On the other hand, it won’t make the ending any less anticlimactic.

Recommended to those interested in extreme horror stories and with a bottomless wallet, or that can read it free or cheaply.

The Mercy of the Tide, by Keith Rosson****

themercyofthe The Mercy of the Tide is Keith Rosson’s debut novel, and it’s a strong one. Set in a tiny, depressed town on the Oregon Coast during the Reagan Administration, things start out dark, and they’re about to get a whole lot darker. Thank you, Net Galley and Meerkat Press for the DRC, which I received free of charge for this honest review. This book will be for sale February 21, 2017, and those that love good fiction with a working class perspective will want a copy.

The tiny town of Riptide, Oregon is knee deep in grief. A recent head-on collision claimed the lives of Melissa Finster, mother of Sam and Trina, and June Dobbs, the town’s beloved librarian and wife of Sheriff Dave Dobbs. The blow has left everyone reeling and on edge.

Someone else is missing Melissa too, though he can’t say so. Deputy Nick Hayslip–a Vietnam veteran who has no patience for the madness associated with that category, a vet who figures that you go home when the war is over, you put on your clothes and go to work and therapy is for losers–is coming unstuck. Nobody knows about his past with Melissa, and he finds terrible ways to keep her memory alive.

The teaser for this novel tells us that the story centers around Sam and Trina, and since the author generally writes the teaser, that must be his intention. However, I found Trina to be the weakest element here, and it was the other characters that made this story work for me. Part of this is just pure fickle bad luck for the author; I actually taught deaf kids of the same age as Trina, as well as gifted kids that age; and in one instance, a gifted deaf kid that age. It’s true that the gifts of highly capable children vary widely in scope and range, and that every child is unique, but the vocabulary and abstract concepts Rosson bestows on this kid are just not within the realm of the possible, and so Trina isn’t real to me until later in the book, when things other than her obsession with nuclear holocaust are used in the development of her character.

The most interesting character and unlikely hero here is Hayslip. Also beautifully developed are Sheriff Dodds and Sam’s closest friend, Todd, known familiarly as “Toad”. Alternating points of view from the third person omniscient give us ready access to their thoughts, impulses, and feelings.

An interesting side character is zealous Christian wingnut Joe Lyley, who says in a somewhat uncharacteristic understatement, “These are unlovely times.” I also liked Leon Davies, whose role I will let the reader discover, because it’s such a fun surprise.

The setting is almost an anti-tourist brochure. The Oregon Coast is well known for its wild, rugged beauty, but Rosson chooses to introduce the other reality, that of the many local denizens that endure a hardscrabble working class existence in small, chilly, damp coastal communities that rarely see the sun. The moldering smell of rotting wood, porches and floors with a sponge-like give under foot are dead accurate, although the town of Riptide is fictitious; the recession of the 80’s plunged small beach towns into a depression from which there has never been a moment’s relief.

This is a strong story with a tight, tense climax and a powerful resolution. This darkly delicious novel shows that Rosson is a force to be reckoned with; I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

Little Heaven, by Nick Cutter***

littleheavenLittle Heaven is pure hellfire and horror, the sort of novel that makes a person check the closet at bedtime and leave a light burning in the hallway. I received my copy in advance from Net Galley and Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review. The title is available for purchase now.

This story is set in the present, alternating with events from the past that help us understand what’s happening now. In this sense the story is a bit like All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda, in that part of it takes place in the past and moves its way toward the present. The method is a powerful way to build suspense, but it’s not the only tool in Cutter’s tool chest by a long shot.

Our premise is that Petty, child of Micah and Ellen, has been kidnapped by the Long Walker. Micah has foreseen this event and dreaded it, but he’s been unable to prevent it:

 

“And he’d felt it coming, hadn’t he? Something gathering toward his family—a feeling not unlike the thunder of hooves as a stampede of horses approaches. He might as well have tried to outrun his own skin. You cannot outfox the devil. You may be able to stay his approach if you’re lucky and a little crazy, but in the end, his black eye will ferret you out.”

 

He calls upon two other gun slingers, Ebenezer and Minerva, both of whom shared the same horrific past event as Micah. Each owes him a favor, and he’s calling it in. He wants his daughter back.

There are a lot of twists and turns in the plotting of this story, and you’ll need to bring your full attention to keep track of it.  Ultimately the three find themselves at a cult in the mountains of New Mexico named Little Heaven.

I have never been so conflicted about a book so far into the narrative. On the plus side we have some outstanding word smithery, interesting characters, and some of the best monsters I’ve read in any horror novel. The narrative is fresh, confident and at times jaunty, dropping moments of drollery into unexpected places to help lighten an otherwise dark, dark, dark story. For these factors, I wanted this to be a five star read.

Unfortunately, there’s no denying that there are problems here. There are plot details that are too obvious, to me at least, to just read past, and when these occur, it’s like Toto pulling the curtain away from the wizard’s booth; the Great and Powerful Oz is just human, and at such moments, this is just another book. Examples that occur fairly early on include a character with a full load of morphine successfully racing out of town on the back of a horse; soon after this, another character who’s bleeding profusely decides to tell her life’s story.

Then there’s what is fast becoming a disturbing issue not limited to this author, but which I find unacceptable wherever I find it, and that’s when a character’s bad nature is demonstrated by the writer using ugly racist, sexist, anti-gay, and xenophobic language. When it happens once or twice in a novel, I grimace and move on, but this author finds such a variety of anti-Black slurs to fling at the Afro-British character named Eb and distributes them through so much of the text that an overall sour taste is left behind, and it’s not the sort that comes of reading good fiction. Cutter is skilled enough to use other methods to demonstrate the presence of evil, and he should do so.

Likewise, we don’t need sexist terms or a rape to show us that a character is sexist or that a woman has a traumatic past. Here I point, as I’ve done before, to director Jodie Foster, who said in an interview that she is dumbfounded by the way that so many male directors, when searching for a female character’s motivation, come over and over to the same conclusion: well, she was raped, and that’s why she behaves this way. It was rape, it was rape; she must have been raped! To Cutter and to others I say, stop it.  It’s trite, it’s ugly, and it’s obnoxious. For the same reason that most horror and suspense writers don’t deliver us into a warehouse full of kiddy snuff films and describe them in fine detail, authors should find other ways than hate speech and sexual assault to develop a character or display his or her malevolence.  Let’s not wear this one out any worse than has been done.

In other regards the story shines. The plot overall is complex and woven in a way that neatly brings us back to the problem at hand at the end.  Teenagers that enjoy horror as a genre may especially like this book, given its plethora of gore and the host of skittering critters. In fact, I found myself wondering whether there could be a Little Heaven video game. I’ve never wondered this about a book before, but the monsters are splendid, and so I could see it.

This book was released January 10 and is for sale now. Recommended with the caveats mentioned above.

The Hatching, by Ezekiel Boone****

thehatching I was never afraid of spiders until I read this book. Thanks to Boone’s monstrous, boisterous, hair-raising new novel, I now eye the ceiling for wolf spiders that hunt at night just before I fall asleep…and I usually find one. I received this DRC in advance thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books, in exchange for this honest review. This book goes up for sale July 5, 2016 and frankly, I don’t know how you’re going to wait that long!

Right at the start, something has gone very wrong.  In Peru, a shadow falls upon a group of helpless tourists and devours them with breathtaking speed. Soon thereafter, China tells the world that it has inadvertently nuked one of its own villages. Just an accident; terribly sorry. Please don’t push that button, because we aren’t gunning for you, oh mighty imperialist powers.

When a bizarre package arrives at the laboratory of Melanie Guyer, she immediately tucks its contents into an glass tank where it can be watched in a secure environment. There. See now, that’s sensible. And yet…

Clear on the other side of the continent, the greater Los Angeles area finds itself under quarantine. With a finger to the wind, one soldier in charge of the containment eyes the razor wire and holding pens springing up and decides to make a break for it while he can. He powers the hell through the closed gate, because there’s a time to sacrifice for one’s country, but there’s also a time to save yourself first:

    He took the last few steps to the truck and had his hand on the door handle  when  he  heard the sound.  It was a sort of scraping…and he noticed there was something wrong …with the shadows. Over there, maybe twenty paces away, one of the shadows seemed to be moving a little, pulsing. He watched it, fascinated, and it wasn’t until a thread of black seemed to fall out of the shadow and unspool toward him that he broke from his reverie.

Uh oh.

However, survivalists in Desperation, California aren’t panicked; they’re gloating. All that preparation for doomsday, and now it’s here. Let’s have a party! The doors are sealed against radiation, against spiders, against whatever. The dog has even been trained to go potty on a little piece of Astroturf. They are so ready.

I wasn’t sure I liked this book at first. The moment when the first spider popped out of the first human host, I made a note in my e-reader saying this is just another version of the 1970’s movie Alien, but with spiders. Still, I continued to read.

When the president of the United States asks quite seriously whether zombies are involved, right around the halfway mark, I wanted to throw my kindle across the bedroom. If it had been a library book, I would have slammed it shut and put it in my tote bag to return first thing in the morning. But it wasn’t a library book, it was a DRC, and so I had an obligation, and I gritted my teeth (president. Zombies! My ass,) and continued reading. And I am really glad I did, friends, because it got so much better.

Let’s go back to the movie Alien. For those unacquainted with this cult classic, the story devolves around aliens that seek human hosts. The setting of Alien is a space ship, so they’re a very long way from home and help; yet they are also contained.  And as I read on, I realized that in Boone’s setting—the entire planet—there are so many more possibilities. I hit about the sixty percent mark and had to munch my way through the rest, if you’ll pardon the expression, until the very last page was done.

I found myself pondering the possibility of a sequel.

I nearly tacked on the fifth star, because this was tremendously entertaining, and Boone breaks up the horror with odd places, few and unexpected, that are laugh-out-loud funny. But then I reflected on the fact that I rated every single thing Michael Crichton ever wrote as four stars, and I see this quirky, horrifying, delicious novel as on a par with Crichton. Rather than hustle back and re-rate everything Crichton ever wrote, which would be a bit impulsive, I stuck to the four star standard.

There’s no explicit sex here, but there’s plenty of gore. Those that love good horror and science fiction should snap this book up right away. And if one is looking for a summer read to keep your nerdy teen out of trouble for a hot minute over the summer, this is a good choice for that set also.

But you’ll never see a spider web in quite the same way once you’ve read it!

Huge fun for anyone not already genuinely afraid of spiders.