Book Review – The Coma by Alex Garland

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Psychological Horror / Suspense
Publication Date: July 7th, 2005
Publisher: Faber & Faber

“When we wake, we die.”

Give The Coma a second chance, if at first it seems unclear or confusing. This novel is one of the moody, enigmatic types that likes to be shy with its details on your initial read-through, which gain an eerier significance on a revisit. It’s like an abstract painting in every sense, building up its steady storm of colours with intentions both sinister and serene.

Told through the deterioration of a man, Carl’s, psyche, after he is beaten to the point of unconsciousness on the subway, it’s less a linear story than it is a dreamlike exploration. In the aftermath of supposedly waking up, the pieces of reality that were once there don’t fit cleanly together anymore.

Maybe I’ve made it sound pretentious (a bad habit of mine when it comes to poetic books) but surprisingly, it’s not. Not even remotely. It’s just difficult to put into words. I read this a few years ago and wasn’t quite sure if I enjoyed it or not. I didn’t feel like I’d wasted my time, and remember thinking it was ambitious, but perplexing. I didn’t get it, but it haunted me. Now I think it’s actually a brilliant psychological novella. A philosophy of dream to aspire to, that leaves you with a ravenous need to know, while allowing the reader freedom to come to their own conclusions about what happens.

The Coma kind of hooks you in without your say-so, Garland’s abstract writing always skirting the bare edge of creepiness, like there’s some cosmic, horrifying realization budding under the surface that you know you’re going to have to face.

“I do all this alone. Everything I achieve, I achieve alone, because it’s my head I’m locked into, and I share this space with nobody but myself.”

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Psychological Novels You Should Read

Psychological thriller and its fraternal twin, psychological horror, are hands-down, my favourite genres. It’s the genre I strive to carve my name in, and it’s the one I get the most excited about when seeking new books and movies.
While few and far-between, compared to other genres, the spectrum of dark psychological fiction consistently churns out works of pretty high quality. There are exceptions, of course, but of all the psychological media I’ve watched, read and played, I can’t name ten that were any worse than “mediocre”.

That being said, I believe that the key reason for this, unfortunately, is that the genre is somewhat alienating. You have to be passionate about it to make it, and creating a good psychological work involves an exploration of dark places in the human psyche. Not exactly a fun weekend trip, that. Discovering new works in the genre can be difficult. So, I thought I’d share a handful of diamonds in the rough that I’ve discovered, and loved, in my eternal quest to scour everything the psychological duo have to offer.

The Coma by Alex Garland
Genre: Psychological Suspense
The Coma is like a softer, more sinister Inception, taking place in the mind of a man after he is assaulted on a subway, and wakes in the hospital to find he can no longer hold a grasp on what is real and what isn’t. Everything that was once normal in his life seems out-of-place and has a surreal, stilted tone to it.
I finished this novel over a weekend, and at first wasn’t sure what to make of it, or even if I enjoyed it, but in retrospect, I think it’s excellent. Garland conveys a transfinite reality that can be broken and morphed at will by one person’s subconscious.

Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi
Genre: Psychological Horror
Though its place on the roster shifts now and then, Perfect Blue is one of my favourite novels of all time and will likely remain one forever. It is, as you might have guessed, the basis for the cult horror anime Perfect Blue, but despite that and sharing a title, the film and the book aren’t incredibly similar other than the basic premise, and the creators’ shared disgust with the pop idol industry in Japan, and how those idols are (mis)treated by media and fans alike.
The master of creeps, the unnamed “Darling Rose”, who stalks and attempts to murder the pop singer heroine throughout the novel, is one of my favourite book villains. He is borderline inhuman, yet with an uncanny basis in reality, mirroring the crimes and motives of many real-life celebrity stalkers. Perfect Blue is not for everyone – some may be turned off by the blunt violence and abstract style, but I personally think it’s phenomenal both as a social satire and as a piece of horror. Continue reading “Psychological Novels You Should Read”

Book Review – Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Science Fiction / Mystery
Series: Blue Ant
Publication Date: February 3rd, 2003
Publisher: Penguin

“We have no future because our present is too volatile. We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.”

Pattern Recognition is a capsule from which paranoia gradually blossoms. Earth is a microcosm, really, in the great span of things, but the rapid onset of technology and connection have had the ironic downside of making it feel as small as it is, tightly webbed yet somehow immensely lonely.

Predictable as it might be for me to say it, this novel feels eerily prescient and knowing in a way that goes beyond the author’s imagination. It seems to have anticipated that strange lonely closeness creeping in through our screens. There exists a paradox of clarity and riddle, or perhaps reality and falsehood, in its pages that makes it feel like something you’ve actually just watched unfold.

Gibson’s phenomenal writing does outclass the actual plot, I suppose, but it’s a pretty lofty height the story would have to reach in order to match the way it’s told. The writing in itself is a network of intricacy, the edges of deep, impenetrable mystery just visible as it develops the variables of its equation. Gibson uses the raw delicacy of poetry and yet keeps it secretive, an outstretched hand seeming to offer everything upfront but hiding a labyrinth of tiny microbes you’ll never see working against you.
There are stretches, especially in the beginning, that could easy have been boring if it’d been written by anybody else, but instead feel rather like a brief reprise before the catastrophe sets in. Continue reading “Book Review – Pattern Recognition by William Gibson”

The Best Books of 2019 (So Far)

On this day, more of this year is now dead than alive. Normally I cling to time like a miser clings to pocket change, but I will be happy when this year’s over. Not merely happy, but elated. 2019 has worked its way into the official hall of shame in my memories, slightly higher than middle school but slightly lower than the entirety of 2016. And there’s still five long months to suffer through!

One of the few upsides, however, is that I’ve discovered some truly wonderful books. Most of my reading this year has been average, as usual, with only a handful of ones I would call “bad” reads, and a surprising amount that really stood out. So far, these are the best contenders, in no particular order, for the final countdown I’ll be doing around the end of the year. Be sure to check them out if you can. These are books and authors definitely worth their salt!

The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette
Genre: Mystery / Thriller
Every now and then, the stars align and produce the exact book you desire at the exact moment you want to read it. This is one of those rare occurrences. The Mad and the Bad is an older, and comparatively obscure piece of noir fiction that is at the same time, far different from any noir fiction I’ve ever read – quirky and outlandish yet with an insanely dark sense of humor and irony. I plan on doing a review of this one eventually, so won’t spoil too much. You should just go out and read it, it shouldn’t take more than a few days to finish it.

Stain by A.G. Howard
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Young adult fiction needs more writers like A.G. Howard. Her writing style is unabashed and intelligent, and wickedly contorts the over-used tropes of fairytales into something brilliant. While I thought Howard’s more famous series, Splintered, was phenomenal, Stain shows a stronger sense of mischievous, calculating cunning and maturity in its development that ultimately made for a deeper story.

Smashed by Junji Ito
Genre: Horror / Short Stories
I am a hardcore Junji Ito fanatic, so pretty much any new work of his, even if it’s a stylish reprint of older stories, will automatically make the Top 10 for that year. Smashed got mixed reviews for being, I suppose, more haphazard in tone than his last two horror omnibuses, but as far as enjoyment of the stories goes, I actually liked this one more than both Shiver and Frankenstein. Continue reading “The Best Books of 2019 (So Far)”

Reviews Revisited – I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Horror / Mystery
Series: John Cleaver
Publication Date: March 30th, 2009
Publisher: Tor Books

“Fear is about things you can’t control. The future or the dark, or someone trying to kill you. You don’t get scared of yourself because you always know what you’re going to do.”

Dan Wells’s debut is an unusual witches’ brew of dark humor, cerebral horror and bleak small-town life. The writing has jagged edges in its beginnings, but I have yet to find another series that I love with so little wavering. This is one of those rarities where I feel it was written specifically for me, with everything I knew and didn’t know I sought in a novel.

Me and this series are like connate flowers. However, John Cleaver really schemed and staked his way into my heart, and was cemented as an instant perma-favourite series to me with the second book, Mr. Monster. I Am Not a Serial Killer suffers from initial uneasiness as Wells gets on his feet with the series, and sudden doses of genre whiplash. The first novel pools its arachnoid feet into many genres, but gives off a flighty self-consciousness about taking the leap from a mystery with paranormal aspects into straight-out horror, which it definitely becomes by the second book. This was the only trait it had I didn’t care for, and I still don’t upon revisits, but the unsure tone actually fits when the main character’s chaos of self. John is never sure what he wants to be.

John “It Doesn’t Matter What Other People Think When You’re Right” Cleaver is a bitter, anxious, antisocial teen with hair-trigger violent tendencies that he struggles to keep from unraveling on those who don’t deserve his wrath, whether it be his mother or his friends. He is pulled between crushing loneliness and craving nothing more than being alone, something that reflected painfully when I first read it. His discussions with his therapist, Dr. Neblin, devolve from him not taking them seriously and trying to freak the doctor out, into panic and emotional decay from trying to hold up the façade of being “normal” and never showing anger, out of fear of what he’ll end up doing.

“I’m on the edge, Neblin, I’m off the edge – I’m over the edge and falling to Hell on the other side. […] I’m down in the cracks of the sidewalk,” I said, “in the dirt and in the blood, and the ants are looking up and we’re damning you all, Neblin. I’m down in the cracks and I can’t get out.” Continue reading “Reviews Revisited – I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells”

Book Review – The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel

★★★★ 4 Stars

Series: Louise Rick
Genre: Mystery / Thriller
Publication Date: February 3rd, 2015
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

I’d never heard of this series or author before, and what really coerced me into reading The Forgotten Girls was its setting – the eerie, ethereal rural woodlands of Denmark. How a story can be so enticing when the subject grows so horrifying is a mystery in itself. Blaedel’s writing is meticulous but unsparing in realism. The style is fittingly stark, like a tree stripped of bark to reveal bloodstains.

The plot revolves around a detective, Louise Rick, and her partner investigating the death of a mentally disabled woman thought to have died over a decade ago, and her link to a series of violent assaults in the area. The Forgotten Girls pulses by so fast, I feel like going into more detail about the plot would unintentionally spoil something. It becomes a subtle but hard commentary on a topic that’s often buried, in how the woman and her sister were treated by the asylum they used to live in. It’s especially cruel in the ways which these “mishaps” were covered up, the underbelly of a system that continues to fail people in need.

I appreciate that Blaedel chose not to exploit the abuse and violence in this novel for shock value, considering what it’s about, but also didn’t pull any punches about the reality of it. That’s a hard medium to hit. I didn’t know when I began that The Forgotten Girls was in the middle of an ongoing series, but I never found myself getting confused. The plot about Camilla, I didn’t care about that much. It was sort of ordinary and dragged down the flow, up until when Camilla tries to “infiltrate” the asylum as one of the staff’s relatives. It gets a little more interesting then.

A mystery where the culprit and plot are difficult to guess tend to be the best kind. The unspoken coldness and bitterness between the suspects and victims, which turns out to have more of an overlap than Louise originally thought, lends to a constant doubt. The Forgotten Girls is steeped in a tense chill and haunting melancholy, with an unforgettable ending.

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Book Review – The Umbrella Conspiracy by S.D. Perry

★★★★ 4 Stars

Series: Resident Evil
Genre: Horror / Mystery
Publication Date: October 1st, 1998
Publisher: Pocket Books

Resident Evil is the sole survivor, pun intended, of the clash of survival horror series that began in the late 90s. It’s pretty much the only one of its genre still thriving, like a green-veined heart thumping in a jar of chemicals.
You have to appreciate its longevity, and also the fact that a novel based on a video game with near-diabolical writing is actually pretty solid. I like Resident Evil as much as anyone, but the first game did have the worst dialogue ever, no contest. To the point where it’s more or less a mansion-sized meme. Really.

Thankfully, Perry realized this and toned it down. The characters and plot are decent. The writing is straightforward but intriguing and captures the anxiety of being hunted down that the games execute so well. That panicked mystery of never knowing what you would find behind any door is what made the games scary, even before their imagery had become realistic and terrifying in later entries. I love to picture this feeling in a horror novel, and the way the puzzles in the game are incorporated into the narrative are interesting. Continue reading “Book Review – The Umbrella Conspiracy by S.D. Perry”

Book Review – Last Stop by Peter Lerangis

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Series: Watchers
Genre: Mystery / Science Fiction
Publication Date: November 1st, 1998
Publisher: Scholastic

Trains have mysteriously always had this reputation for being passages into the unknown, whether it be into death, time or another dimension entirely. The metaphor has remained really persistent, and I like a story that utilizes it well.

Last Stop started off alright, with a teenager, David Moore, having visions of his dad while riding the subrail, waiting for him at a station that’s not even there anymore, much less active as he sees it in the vision. This wouldn’t be too strange except that his father’s believed to be dead or insane, and in the vision he seems to be neither.
This is an interesting setup, and midway through the book becomes very engaging, with a conspiracy of alternate versions of the same city linked together. It’s kind of short, so the characterization given is surprisingly developed for how little time there is, especially David and Heather.
I mean, it’s passable but not great. There’s not anyone who strikes me as memorable, it’s more the concept that stands out.

There’s a dreamlike feeling to the gross, dingy urban settings that I liked a lot. The twist ending is crazy and actually catches you off-guard, which is something I appreciate in the day of the predictable cliffhanger. Last Stop feels extremely short, and there’s much more that could be done with all that this idea offers, but for what’s present it’s not bad. There’s apparently a lot of entries in this series, so it could improve.

(Okay. Something I found hilarious that I just have to mention – the father’s name is Alan Moore. In a series called Watchers. Alan Moore… and the Watchers. Hmm. This sounds unintentionally like an off-brand now. Who watches the watchers? I don’t think this was on purpose? But running across it was awesome.)

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Book Review – Dolly by Susan Hill

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Suspense / Horror
Publication Date: October 5th, 2012
Publisher: Profile Books

“All, all of it I remember. Then I relived, my heart pounding again as I stood at the window and through the fog-blanketed darkness heard the sound again. Deep under the earth, inside its cardboard coffin, shrouded with the layers of white paper, the china doll with the jagged, open crevasse in its skull was crying.”

The atmosphere in Dolly is so heavy and intense that it’s almost its own character, perfectly at home in its loneliness. Dolly recalls pieces of Burnett’s The Secret Garden, but twisted. It’s like the marshy underside of the Secret Garden, where you would expect fairytale things to be waiting in the bog.

After the death of his aunt, a man, Edward, recalls his childhood staying at Iyot Lock, her manor house decaying out in the middle of the moor. The house is straight out of a gothic novel and nobody much enjoys being there save for the aunt, and especially not Edward’s cousin, Leonora. He tries to get along with Leonora desperately, but sometimes she just turns into an evil stranger with no warning or transition, and Edward becomes afraid of her. The aunt buys Leonora a baby doll that she breaks, and afterward the doll becomes kind of… vocal, but only late in the night when it’s only Edward there to hear it.

I really appreciate the oddness of the characters. Edward and Leonora have a weird dynamic – they start off like you’d expect they’re going to end up being best of friends. They hate each other on a subtle level from square one, even for the moments they get along. I think that they had always enjoyed seeing each other miserable, and that’s probably why, even though Edward wasn’t insufferable as Leonora was, they are both doomed to be bound to each other through horrible occurrences that they can’t explain to anybody else. Their relationship is surprisingly bleak for being children through most of the story. Continue reading “Book Review – Dolly by Susan Hill”

Book Review – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

★★★★★ 5 Stars

Genre: Suspense / Mystery
Publication Date: August 1938 / December 2007
Publisher: Virago Press

“I believe there is a theory that men and women emerge finer and stronger after suffering, and that to advance in this or any world, you must endure ordeal by fire.”

Rebecca and her mansion of Manderley crawl with unease – unspoken secrets threatening to burst into something horrible. The tension here is thick enough to form its own phantom, a frost blooming on the spine that dares to expose itself. Drawing from the destructive powers of envy and doubt, Rebecca is a testament to atmos, haunting our mind even 80 years after its initial publication.

The protagonist is a young woman who marries a wealthy heir a decade or so older than herself, Maxim de Winter, on something of a whim and goes to live with him at his house of Manderley. Manderley is haunted by not only the memory of his dead wife, Rebecca, but also the living – the disturbed housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who has a poisonous animosity towards the new Mrs. de Winter simply because she is not Rebecca. Rebecca was glamorous, ordered, and the polar opposite of the protagonist in any aspect you can name.
Mrs. Danvers’ twisted, almost romantic obsession with Rebecca becomes an increasing distress the more it breaks into the open. In private, Mrs. Danvers doesn’t bother to hide that she hates the protagonist and even tries to coerce her into suicide at one point.
Everyone at Manderley refuses to confront or discuss anything regarding Rebecca, her “ghost”, in a sense holding them in her vice even after her death. Maxim gets angry with his new wife for trying to connect in some way with Rebecca, and needless to say Mrs. Danvers torments her for failing to be more like Rebecca.

The protagonist famously remains nameless. I was struck off-guard once during the ball scene where someone refers to her costume as being like Caroline, one of the de Winter ancestors’ names, which is about as close as she gets to ever being called a name besides “Mrs. de Winter”. Even her title is a cruel reminder of a woman she feels she will never live up to. The worst is that it’s hinted as the riddle starts to make more sense to the protagonist that maybe Rebecca isn’t someone she should try to be, and was not the angel that Mrs. Danvers and the others saw her as.

Atmosphere is the shadowed soul of horror, and I do hesitate to call this a “horror” novel, but in a sense it truly is more frightening than any entity or demon. For one, it is painfully real and relatable for me. I cringed with… severity during quite a few scenes in this book, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. They are just incredibly unnerving and mirror almost to a T things I have gone through. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. I think anyone who reads it would feel the same dread and start to remember their own.
They say that the inexperienced are at an advantage because of youth, but anyone who’s tried to get their bearings in the world knows this isn’t true. One feels like they have missed out on something that is irretrievable, and I think that despite any appearances, what a person has done is always valued above who they were born or what they seem. This is a double-edged sword. Continue reading “Book Review – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier”

Book Review – Winterwood by Patrick McCabe

★★★★★ 5 Stars

Genre: Psychological Thriller
Publication Date: January 23rd, 2007
Publisher: Bloomsbury

“Here we both lie in the shade of the trees, my partner forever just him and me. How long will we lie here O Lord who can tell? Till the winter snow whitens the high hills of Hell.”

What a man fears with obsession, he eventually becomes. Winterwood is a quiet novel, like the underside of a tomb is quiet. McCabe takes the already unsettling notions of lost childhood trauma, hidden animosity between relatives, and brings the raw, writhing form of these out into the light where it was not meant to be seen. It is uncomfortable and surreal as a true psychological horror needs to be.

Redmond Hatch is a journalist who is driven to madness after an old family acquaintance, who turns out to be a depraved murderer, plants the seed of doubt in his mind that one day Redmond will become the lonely, grotesque sort of man that he ended up in the end.
Winterwood spans his private thoughts over about a decade, from his return to his rural hometown to raising his daughter to living in sordid depression after his wife divorces him. Redmond grows gradually more and more obsessed with this murderer he knew in his childhood and never once suspected, much like nobody else did. He grows obsessed with getting back into his daughter’s good graces, while believing the ghost of a killer’s stalking him. Continue reading “Book Review – Winterwood by Patrick McCabe”

Book Review – Perfect Blue: Awaken From a Dream by Yoshikazu Takeuchi

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Thriller / Horror
Publication Date: April 24th, 2018
Publisher: Seven Seas

“Maybe he was a phantom. Maybe that’s what he was all along – a monster conjured by jealousy and obsession.”

Obsession is where the garden of desire overgrows. What begins a selfish, one-sided love becomes a monstrous weed that eventually, if left unchecked, will suffocate what flowers of sanity remain beneath it.

Awaken From a Dream, like Takeuchi’s book Complete Metamorphosis before it, suggests that the capacity for stalking and fanaticism is not so remote. In fact it may only take an overwhelming loneliness for a long period of time. Obsession is born from a distant closeness, and the media certainly doesn’t help.
Awaken From a Dream doesn’t have quite the disturbing relevancy Metamorphosis did, the short story format strips quite a bit of the character depth. Nevertheless, Takeuchi is something of a master at painting the minds of creeps and innocents. Takeuchi knows well how madness forms and the subtle, sometimes horrible relationships that can form between complete strangers. His style spares no mercy on his characters. In fact it kills a few of them.

There’s a surreal, pitying quality to these stories, as if they were some wretched dying thing remembered from a flitting dream. There’s nothing to be done but watch the whole weird tragedy unfold in your head.
“Wake Me From This Dream” is the best of the three, with heavy echoes of the murder-suicide theme that carried into the first book. Toshihiko is a perverse and disgusting man but he knows this, and in a strange, strange twist finds himself with a stalker much like what he hates in himself.
“Even When I Embrace You” in my opinion is the weaker story, drifting on too long and being unrealistic, but not quite surreal or disturbing enough to stand out either. “Cry Your Tears” on the other hand is incredibly, suddenly violent and stands out stronger than the other two. I think “Cry Your Tears” ended up being my favourite despite some rather… unusual decisions on the characters’ parts, such as not assigning security to a famous singer when she’s being harassed by a psychotic fan.

Even after reading both Awaken From a Dream and Complete Metamorphosis, or perhaps especially after, I’m still not entirely sure who the audience for Takeuchi’s books is supposed to be.
Maybe it is just for those who have wandered into alleys at night, empty save for fluorescent lights, and thought “this is where I’d like to stay forever”. Those who only start to wake at 4 AM and drown their eyes in that hour’s remnants of television. Those who have felt nothing but loneliness in the heart of a crowded city. It’s hard to say.

Book Review – Better the Devil You Know by Bey Deckard

★★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Horror / Paranormal
Publication Date: October 1st, 2015
Publisher: Independent

Wherever the soul lies, I feel mine has been vivisected to shrivel in shame just for being familiar with this novel. I don’t even feel good about writing a review, and I write gruesome stuff for a living.
It’s pretty controversial, being banned from a handful of book outlets, notably Smashwords. Quite ironic, considering Smashwords is known for not rejecting much in any genre.

Better the Devil You Know is a straight-up Alighierian horror dressed up as an erotic romance. A knife-wielding demon in the skin of an unusually flirtatious angel, if you will.
I admire Deckard’s bravery in publishing this book, but am tortured in giving it a good rating. To say it is “disturbed” is an understatement. Calculated and extreme violence abounds.
The reason I think I liked it in spite of its gut-churning details, is because I find novels on the facets of human cruelty to be poignant and more potent than other novels.
A heartwarming book will be kind and remembered fondly now and then, but a heart-crushing book will survive time and not allow you to forget it. This one definitely won’t.

Bey Deckard is a talented writer, especially with characterization. This makes the extreme violence that much more unpleasant because the author builds a sense of sympathy for even the characters you know will die.
Well, except for the protagonist. There is no sympathy for him. I hesitate to call Byron Danielsen a “pro“tagonist, as ending up in an enclosed space with this man is a fate worse than death, but that’s what he is.

Byron is the source of the book’s controversy and discomfort, a serial killer and torturer with no emotional scale in particular. Karma won’t even touch the man with such a hostile, almost alien set of mannerisms and even when he dies and goes to Hell, the devil himself is like:
“Is this even a human being?”

The religious themes when Byron goes to Hell bothered me some. It’s very Inferno-esque, but it’s not that the themes are offensive (though they easily could be, fair warning) but that they’re not handled that well. I think in trying to steer more towards realistic fiction than paranormal, a lot of the underworld-building was handwaved away. Hell is basically like a bunch of office buildings that are perpetually on fire or otherwise buried in stone.

Better the Devil You Know is outrageous and revolting, but also a little tragic. It’s egregiously mislabeled, so much that it seems trolling – I found that it was categorized under “romance” – and is definitely more cut out for someone who like disturbing thrillers. Sure, this is emotionally strong and painful, but it is NOT a love story. Unless you consider demons posing as a man’s victims to torment him romantic.

If Better the Devil looks like something that’s up your alley, go for it. It is in all fairness a well-written and original book, but don’t say I never warned you. Graphic content abounds and I’ll note a trigger warning for torture and dark sexuality.

Book Review – Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

★★★★★ 5 Stars

Genre: Horror / Mystery
Publication Date: April 11th, 2006
Publisher: Anchor

Haunted, the infamous grotesque burlesque – there are no ghosts left skulking behind in this show, only the bitter chill left by the horrific acts of the living.
Gentle and harmless as being on the receiving end of a sober vivisection, this is not an easy book to stomach for a lot of people. It’s a stroll through the internal corridors of horrible people, down to the swampy, mold-lined stomach of the theatre they trap themselves in to get famous or die trying. Haunted is not for the sensitive heart, but it paints the darkness of people uncomfortably well.

A group of writers join a retreat to escape their lives for awhile, but they don’t know it involves being locked in an abandoned theatre. They are given amenities and relative comfort, but it’s not long before the isolation brings out their bad pasts and worse natures. Haunted is a novel split into short stories regaling how each character ended up alone in a rotting old building with just their personal ghosts to prove they were ever alive. Some have murdered people, others wish they had murdered someone because what they’ve been through is worse, but nobody is clean or unbroken.

Five stars is a controversial rating for a controversial book, I suppose. Infamously, parts of this book are known for making people faint or vomit during live readings (“Guts”!), but it’s not like that consistently and the imaginative premise is worth sloughing through a bit of gross details. I don’t feel bad for rating it five stars. I really loved it, enough that it’s etched its way into my favourites. Maybe I saw it with an abnormal eye?

I feel like the difference between loving and loathing it could be as fragile as how disheartened with life you feel at that moment in time, so I can see how someone feeling optimistic or who disliked dark reads would hate Haunted, but I find it kind of beautiful. Beautiful like a dead enigma floating in a dusty old jar – the details make it quite hideous to think about but also it feels valuable to know the story

“Hot Potting”, “Obsolete”, and Mrs. Clark’s saga are all potent stories, but you’ll be more familiar with the notorious “Guts”, or perhaps “Exodus”, which in my opinion tops “Guts” as far as disgust goes. “Speaking Bitterness” will uproot your organs a bit. It makes a point about acceptance and gender that is hard to discuss anyway with fatal bluntness, but it’s horrific and difficult to read.

Most of Haunted‘s staying power is from its frank depiction of human nature at its worst. The visceral stories like “Guts” are one thing, but the psychological, like “Speaking Bitterness” or “Exodus” are the ones that leave a dark impression. I don’t find it a “comedy” like the sadist blurbs for this book seem to. There’s a few uncomfortable laughs seeking the tongue, but it’s definitely a horror drama and a bitter, bitter depiction of social illness as well. The depths to where a person’s selfishness can sink them have no visible bottom, but it’s bad fortune just as often that lands someone in a situation where they are forced to create their ghosts.

Book Review – The Haunting of Saxton Mansion (Book 0) by Roger Hayden

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Mystery / Suspense
Series: The Haunting of Saxton Mansion
Publication Date: November 2nd, 2017
Publisher: Independent

The Haunting of Saxton Mansion has a pretty atmosphere and engaging suspense, but holy goodness, it needs a thorough, surgically precise typo scrub. There are really frequent typos that detract from what otherwise is a promising gothic suspense novel. They’re more malapropisms than misspellings, things that Spell Check alone wouldn’t catch, so I can see how they slipped through. But still, there’s such a number I don’t see how some weren’t noticed. In one instance, it causes an accidental paranormal moment where two men seem to be having a psychic conversation with each other.

If the editing was glossed up, I feel like it would’ve been quite beautiful. It’s still not a poor story underneath its surface flaws. Saxton Mansion has an original premise and it reminds me rather nostalgically of Fear Street.
The plot revolves around a man and his wife who purchase a strange mansion in rural Florida that was a strong but somehow forgotten part of the man’s childhood. It’s slow burning rather than visceral, which works for it, and the twist ending is rewarding. I probably would read the second to see where it takes me, but I really wish they had cleaned up the grammar. It’d do a world of favours to its world of ghosts.

Book Review – Death is a Bloodstained Shadow by B. B. Frank

Death Is A Bloodstained Shadow: The Giallo Cinema Chopping List

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Full Title: Death is a Bloodstained Shadow – The Giallo Cinema Chopping List
Genre: Horror / Nonfiction
Publication Date: November 5th, 2015
Publisher: Videogeddon

If you didn’t know, giallo is a subset of horror-thriller film, set apart by its blend of both psychological and visceral themes. Giallo is considered the grandfather of the slasher film genre and had a significant influence on modern psychological horror. Most giallo are Italian or Spanish, and in fact giallo is just ‘yellow’ in Italian – the genre named after the colour most mystery paperbacks were at the time these movies started to become popular, in the early 70s. Giallo posters tend to be outrageous, beautiful and psychedelic. Vibrant infernal colours abound.

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Death is a Bloodstained Shadow is a pretty solid list – it goes beyond the mainstream Argento and Bava into more obscure gems (or ironically enjoyable grubby rocks, depending on your personal taste), and the poster art is extremely entertaining. Many remind me of pulp book covers from around the same era.

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However, the eBook version could be better and less cramped, and some crucial info is missing. The actors are never listed and there isn’t any DVD information! I know that several of these are likely to be extremely expensive and difficult to find in print, especially outside of Europe. Nonetheless, an engaging look at a much-loved genre (at least by me, anyway.)

One more neat fact and I’ll leave you to be scarred by this artwork – the Dario Argento film Phenomena, known also as a butchered version called Creepers, was the inspiration behind one of the innovating survival horror series, Clock Tower. Dario Argento’s filmography is, in fact, a fantastic place to begin if you want to get into the giallo genre, as they are the easiest to find and for the most part masterpieces of their time.
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Book Review – Fractured by Karin Slaughter

★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Mystery / Thriller
Series: Will Trent
Publication Date: July 29th, 2008
Publisher: Delacorte

Where is the point where obsession meets sickness? Is it when it finally devolves into violence or is it the first time its influence spills into the life of another?

Fractured begins a short while after the events of Triptych, with Agent Trent being assigned to a murder-kidnapping case along with a cop who detests him, Faith Mitchell. Triptych was a brilliant piece of dark fiction, if so dark sunlight drowned in its vicinity. Fractured shares its shadow but is easier to ingest, though at the cost of being half as engaging. A great sequel of course, just not as addictive as its parent.

Fractured carries raw, frail ghosts in its wake that are unafraid to linger after it’s over and done. Everything in Fractured will sound too familiar because you’ve heard something like it happen for real, I guarantee it. You’ll hear something like it right now if you browse through the news. The true disturbance comes from not its morbid nature, but its possibility. It hits mercilessly close to home, but its point is made.
As haunted as I love my books, this series can become a psychological vampire if you don’t take a break between them.

Will is a creative protagonist, unconventional but very real. His relationship with his new partner Faith is the best. It’s a different but welcome take on the eccentric / cynical cop duo. (Faith should replace Angie permanently as a female lead. Please. I know that won’t happen though.)

Flowing from the vein Triptych tapped, this tells through a single strange case how saturated with obsession our culture is, how it thrives on preying on the vulnerable all because of a few bad opportunists. It carries like a virus from an abuser to their victim, to their victim, to their victim…
Fractured is hopeless and hopeful, knowing there are emotions you can go through that can be patched but few that can be whole again once broken.

Book Review – Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

★★★★★ 5 Stars

Genre: Fantasy / Mystery
Series: Throne of Glass
Publication Date: May 7th, 2013
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA

“Adarlan could take their freedom, it could destroy their lives and beat and break and whip them, it could force them into ridiculous contests, but criminal or not, they were still human.”

I’ve come to expect very foul things from an aura built on good hype… but I’m always glad to be proven wrong when good hype is true.
Throne of Glass is outrageously awesome, a theatre of high fantasy politic curtained darkly by a murder mystery and underlying ancient evils, hidden and biding their time in a glass court. A collide of origin and industry, forbidden light and promised darkness.

Celaena Sardothien, trained in the art of assassination since childhood and an infamous criminal, is freed from a desolate prison camp by the Crown Prince, given the chance to compete against other like assassins, killers and thieves for a freedom that wears a doubled face. This freedom promises a world apart from the prison camp, rife with luxury, but will be soured because it will indenture her to the tyrant king of Adarlan.

It’s the actors of a story that convince you to stay and see it through, and I really love the cast of characters. Yes, they are hardly perfect, but “hardly perfect” is welcome to me in a YA book. It’s galaxies better than having a flawless cast, or, God forbid, ones who have a cycling obsession about how ugly they think they are (despite visceral proof otherwise) that eats up 80% of the book. There’s better things to care about here.

Celaena, I believe is my favourite. She brims with hubris and arrogance, the stubborn way of someone who feels they have too much to prove, but Celaena’s got an honest heart and doesn’t give one single damn about social taboos if she wants to do something she likes to do.

I love Chaol and Nehemia, as well. (Although, ‘Chaol’? I ended up pronouncing it something like ‘khaal’, not sure how else it’s supposed to sound. ‘Kah-ol’? ‘Khaile’? Surely not like ‘kale’?)
I don’t want to like Prince Dorian at all. I suppose I do in the end… if I really must. But Dorian is like that awkward unnecessary corner of a love triangle at this point, and I feel like he will just get worse as the series goes. He has all of Celaena’s pomposity without any of the redeeming qualities.

Still, everyone has an invisible face, whether it is an obvious, disturbed, sinister or soft one, it is there just below the surface. The sureness of it changing, but the unpredictability of how or when, I think is what keeps you inside the walls the story has built, perhaps to see it through to the end. Anything could happen, it could be all smoke and atmos or it could explode.

“You could rattle the stars,” she whispered. “You could do anything, if only you dared. And deep down, you know it, too. That’s what scares you most.”

Book Review – The Chateau by Tiffany Reisz

★★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Thriller / Erotica
Series: The Original Sinners
Publication Date: June 5th, 2018
Publisher: 8th Circle Press

Enter decadence through a gilded looking glass…
The Chateau is like rich gâteau and jazz in the hours of the night when all sin is absolved, and a sensual-sinister echo of the Decadent Movement with modern sensibilities. Mostly.

Lieutenant Kingsley Boissonneault is tasked with infiltrating a secretive cult when his commanding officer’s nephew has been drawn into it, whether by will or force he’s not sure. The cult itself seems to Kingsley like a reverse garden of Eden, a haven of open decadence that is his ideal, if he’s honest, but it’s no stranger to a deeper darkness, and he knows there has to be a catch that both the officer’s nephew, himself, and the other men living there have fallen prey to.

It’s not my usual genre, but I liked its colours as both a mystery-thriller and darkest romance – it spares neither blood nor honey. I’m a sucker for the paradox of opulence and torment, and this has it in spades, especially with Kingsley, who could be its posterchild. A flawed and selfish protagonist, oh yes, but a bad protagonist he’s not.
The ice-blue, nightmarish dreams of his one past love are absolutely haunting.

The pace drops to a brisk walk in the second half, but its language is as luxurious as gold always, even when it’s rolling in the worst gutters of relationships. I think that more erotica should be like this – unafraid but intricate. The Chateau is a wink laced with twisted secrets and gleaming with an overdose of paradise. It sticks to your thoughts like sugar.

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Book Review – Whisper by Lynette Noni

★★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Science Fiction / Mystery
Publication Date: May 1st, 2018
Publisher: Pantera Press

Whisper is an organic drama encased in technological dread, a warning but wholly alive voice echoing through a sterile ward. The power of words is a mighty one, and it bears a price to match if words are abused.
It’s a literal interpretation of the potency of language and the tendency for words and actions to fall upon their creator – a young woman, titled only ‘Jane Doe’, is held and experimented on by the government against her will because it’s discovered that she can alter anything in the atmosphere – time, objects, people – with words alone.

It’s a cross of warm, poignant character-building with the brutal nature of scientific politic and the “end justifies the means” mentality. No one ever wants to take the blame for the aftermath of their creation, even if it means violating and erasing the humanity of its victims.

“With my mental image well in hand, I open my mouth and speak for the second time in over two and a half years. The sound I make is barely a whisper, but the power behind it knows no bounds.”

I liked Whisper‘s concept more than its execution, it falls a bit into typical YA form, hinting at so many deeper things but never breaking the surface. You can’t argue that it’s an interesting idea, though, and pretty original.

Quotes

  • “The ground is dissolving under my feet. Surely I must be sinking into an alternate dimension. One where silent girls are befriended by armored knights and bouncing children and swallowed up in dreams so real they bleed life into the very walls, turning the blandness of whites, greys and beiges into rainbows so dazzling that the air itself comes alive with their colors.”
  • “Some memories are buried for a reason, but it’s still hard to keep them at bay. A mother’s loving touch has the power to break through even the most fortified mental defenses.”
  • “That’s just how our minds are programmed – to recognize and match what we say to things we imagine. And that’s why, even though it’s the intent that matters, often our words come automatically with their own pre-attached power.”
  • “Words are too precious to throw around carelessly. Words demand respect. They are beautiful; they are terrible. They are a gift and a curse. I will never forget what they can do. Because words have cost me everything.”

 

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]