What’s in the box?!

Bird Box ★★★★
Josh Malerman
Ecco, 2014

Something is out there . . .

Something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from.

Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remain, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, Malorie has long dreamed of fleeing to a place where her family might be safe. But the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat—blindfolded—with nothing to rely on but Malorie’s wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. And something is following them. But is it man, animal, or monster?

4.5 stars

bird boxWhoah. This is some really good shit. Color me very impressed. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked this one up, but it totally delivered on tension and suspense, a palpable dread, and a suffocating sense of doom.

Just as a launching off point I’m going to throw two pop culture references at you that I couldn’t stop thinking about while reading this book. The first is the music video “Just” by Radiohead. Remember that’s the one where there’s this guy who just lies down in the street for no apparent reason and when this other guy starts screaming for a reason why he’s done this and when the man finally tells him, everyone who is in earshot lies down too, as if whatever he’s said is just too huge and overwhelming for the mind to process that the only human response is to collapse.

The second reference I’m going to throw at you is a Twilight Zone episode from the ’80s called “Need to Know” where everyone starts going insane in this small town and it’s eventually discovered that the source of the problem is not a physical disease, but an idea, a single short phrase, that is being passed from person to person by word of mouth. That horrible phrase is nothing more or less than the purpose and meaning of existence; the moral of the story being — Knowledge we are not ready to receive will drive us mad.

I freaking love that Radiohead video and I was twelve years old when I saw that Twilight Zone episode and it scared the crap out of me (which is Trudi speak for I loved it). So in a lot of ways I was already primed to love this book where a mysterious pandemic plague is causing the “infected” to go on homicidal killing sprees before killing themselves. In the escalating chaos and confusion, the source of the infection is identified as having seen something the human mind cannot fathom, a creature that is so beyond our comprehension we are literally driven mad by it. But who is to know for sure, since no one has survived to confirm what it is that they saw.

Your only defence is to close your eyes, and keep them closed.

Humans hide in houses behind windows that are painted, covered with blankets or boarded up. They dare not venture outside for water or food unless they are blindfolded. If you thought surviving the end of days was tough with all of your faculties and sight, try doing it completely blind and feeling hunted and watched the entire time.

I love survival stories of all kinds: but an apocalypse scenario where the group must survive together is my favorite. And it’s done so well here, I really can’t stress that enough. The way the tension builds gradually as the unknowable threat outside the doors of the safe house becomes more menacing and tangible. How so much is implied rather than relying on big gushy scenes of gore and explicit violence. How the daily trek to the well blindfolded to get fresh water becomes an exercise in exquisite pulse-pounding suspense to unnerve the most steely-nerved of all readers.

Did you hear that? Sssshhhhh. I think it came from behind you. Whatever you do, don’t open your eyes.

Readers who have a perpetual desire for answers and reasons may find the lack of explanation here troubling. I didn’t. I was okay that we really don’t know what the hell is going on and can only guess (and imagine our worst fears). If something like this ever goes down for real we’ll be just as much in the dark as the characters in Bird Box discovering we are as much at the mercy of our ignorance and fear of the unknown as anything that may or may not be hunting us.

One is the loneliest number

The Martian ★★★★
Andy Weir
Crown, 2014

 

This whole book left me stupid happy and deliriously impressed and I spent most of my time declaring:

Jesse would have loved Mark Watney. I love Mark Watney. He’s super smart but not just in a poindexter nerd alert bookish kind of way. Watney’s got some serious problem solving skills; he’s McGyver in a space suit. Give this guy a toothpick, some tinfoil and a ziplock bag and he’ll build you an airplane. But don’t forget the duct tape. Duct tape is awesome and I will be putting in a supply of it in order to survive the zombie apocalypse.

the martianWatney is also a funny, the glass is half-full kind of guy who gets repeatedly knocked on his ass but finds a way to get right back up again. And who doesn’t love a fighter?

The Martian is being referred to as Cast Away in space and that’s pretty accurate as those things go. It’s definitely an adventure survival story (my favorite kind), and just like Tom Hanks, Watney finds himself stranded and completely alone. The only difference is rather than washing up on a deserted island with a plethora of unopened FedEx packages, Watney finds himself abandoned on Mars with….well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

There’s a lot of geeked out science descriptions, but I found most of it to be pretty accessible, even to a softcore sci-fi gal like myself. There’s a real balance and warmth to the story as Watney battles with the unforgiving Mars environment that wants to kill him every time he turns around. It’s thrilling and edge of your seat stuff with lots of laughs built in to break the inexorable tension.

Add author Andy Weir to the growing list of self-published authors who have successfully transitioned to a traditional publishing house. And there will be a movie, and I’m betting it’s going to be freaking epic.

Q&A with Nick Cutter

troop-usRecently I reviewed one of the scariest books I’ve read in a long time, The Troop by Nick Cutter. Today I’m very excited to post a Q&A I shared with the author.

Click here to read an excerpt and to purchase The Troop!

To start Nick, thank you for this interview and congratulations on The Troop’s release. I’m a horror veteran and have loved the genre for years. I thought I’d seen and read everything. You showed me that I had not. Your book scared the crap out of me! But I also loved the characters and found parts of the book very emotional and therefore very rewarding. It’s only February, but I’m calling it already – The Troop is the scariest book I’ll read this year and I will be aggressively recommending it!

Well, thanks for that! It’s a long year ahead and I’m sure a great many fine books will cross your transom, but I’m heartened to hear that you enjoyed it. Certainly it was a blast to write it (as weird and twisted as that may sound …) and hopefully it finds an audience.

Nick Cutter is a pen name (and a very cool sounding one at that). What made you decide to publish The Troop under a pseudonym? Is there an origin story behind the name like Stephen King using Richard Bachman and George Stark in honor of Donald Westlake’s famous alter ego Richard Stark?

nick cutter

Nick Cutter

That was my agent’s idea—I write a different kind/genre of books under my own name, and my agent’s idea was to have some separation between these two “spheres” I guess you could say, or these two different styles of books. We kicked around a few names. We felt that a short, grabby, punchy name might work—hence, Cutter. (other possibilities: Stabber, Hacker, Plucker, Chopper, etc). And Nick is my son’s name. So we’ll see, in the fullness of time, whether he’s really all that happy about his little honorific!

It must have been quite a thrill to have Stephen King blurb your book with such declarative praise. I always thought to be successful with any genre you have to be a fan of it yourself. What are some of the books that have scared you in the past?

Stephen King

Stephen King

Huge thrill to have Mr. King even read it—there’s something so strange about your idol reading something you’ve read; I suppose it would be the equivalent of Michael Jordan showing up at your weekly pickup game and saying, “Hey, that’s a pretty nice jump-shot you’ve got.” Other than King, I love Barker, Straub, a lot of Koontz, and Robert R. McCammon. Ketchum, Lansdale, Blatty, Matheson … the list goes on. Recently, House of Leaves and Benjamin Percy’s last book and Joe Hill’s work are all great. And there’s a great press in Toronto, ChiZine, that puts out plenty of fantastic dark fiction.

Do you have any thoughts that you would like to share about how the genre is faring these days especially in publishing? I was excited to find out you’re Canadian because I feel like there is a real dearth of genre writing in this country, especially in horror.

I tend to agree, although it is kicking along domestically and elsewhere, but I can understand the sense of it not being as important to publishers as it was in its heyday, the 80s and 90s. That’s in great part, I think, because the horror boom during that time kind of killed the Golden Goose—too many shoddy books—and a lot of readers turned away because the quality had really gone down. And now it seems that often the books that get attention are the Zone Ones and Breeds and The Last Werewolf-kind of books: ie, books by literary writers who are “stepping out” to work in the genre. It’s kind of like, “Whoa, Colson Whitehead’s written a zombie book”! And these books aren’t necessarily rigidly within the genre, they’re meta- or meta-ironic or something like that: they kind of announce themselves as ostensibly horror, but not really horror so it’s okay to read it. They’re very often excellent books, but I still get a daytripper whiff off of them: this is the work of a “proper” writer dipping their toe in the horror pool for the illicit thrill of it.

Of course, the irony of the fact that some could say that I am doing the exact same thing does not go unnoticed by me!

You do have a lot of great contemporary horror writers, like Joe Hill and Christopher Golden (who skips around genres, too) and Jonathan Maberry, etc, so it’s not like it’s a dead genre or a dying breed of writer. But I’m not sure how many writers are solely horror writers: they are simply writers who write horror from time to time. Anyway. I could be wrong about a great deal of this, but that’s my sense of things.

How long had you been thinking about The Troop before you finally set pen to paper? Is this a story you’ve wanted to tell for a long time?

In this instance the idea just kind of popped into my head. Fully-fleshed, as they say—then it was up to me to skin all that flesh off. I enjoy writing about child protagonists, so you could say the book had been gestating while I came up with an idea that would allow me to populate the book with kid characters.

For such a grisly, graphic tale of survival did you have any qualms over the age of your protagonists? I can honestly say as a reader I don’t think the story would have packed such an emotional wallop if the story had featured adults facing the same challenges as opposed to children.

I did have qualms, for sure. I was thinking: Even if an editor likes the book, is he or she going to be able to run it up the flagpole at their publisher? Will readers go there with me? So, yeah, I worried but the act of writing a book involves a lot of worry all the time, I’ve found, so I just put that particular worry on the enormous worry-pile and got on with writing the book. I was shocked to discover that not only did one publisher express interest, 4 or 5 ended up making offers on it. So it was one of the only “bidding wars” that I’ve ever been involved in as a writer, and it was for a book that I was almost to scared and ashamed to send to my editor! So thank goodness I found the guts to do that.

And yes, I really do think the book wouldn’t work the same way (if a reader considers it to work at all…) if it’d happened to a bunch of randy teenagers on a weekend screw-fest, or a bunch of hunters looking to bag a moose. Child characters were crucial.

The characterization in The Troop is one of the book’s greatest strengths. I like to say I don’t scare if I don’t care, and you made me care a lot about these boys, especially Newt. Was there ever any doubt in your mind who would die and whether anyone would survive? In other words, did you know from the very beginning how this story would end, or did that come with the writing of it?

Good question. And as you said, that’s pretty much the cardinal rule of horror: if you don’t care about the characters, love or hate, you won’t care what becomes of them. So my editor and I put a lot into those characters—and I mean, listen, as some reviewers have noted, they’re types: The Jock, The Nerd, The Sociopath, The Hair-Trigger Temper, The Straight Man. But in a horror narrative, there’s a certain joy in types, at least when it comes to longtime readers of the genre: you know how these characters are supposed to behave, because you’ve got this enormous backlog of pop culture and genre-specific history that dictates what they’ll do.

And I also liked working with the “fatal flaw”—that is, if you’ve got a jock character who is bossy, well, how will that work against him in the crucible of a novel like The Troop? If you’ve got a crazy person, how will his fatal flaw present itself? How does the Angry Kid’s anger come back to bite him? When you look at the book, you’ll see that these kids—the ones who perish—go because of their fatal flaws, which again are flaws built into the DNA of horror genre characterizations. Their fates are written in that DNA; they’ve got these predetermined vectors that they’re going to go down. So for horror aficionados I hope there’s some grim thrill in seeing how those familiar personality types, and the traits they hold, help push the narrative.

But ultimately, these kids were important to me. I came to care about them (all except Shelley, I guess, though he was a fun creep to write). So even though they were types and they had these roles to play … well, that’s the great thing about being a novelist. In the realm of the book, you’re God. So if you want to save a character, you can. Or if you want to off a character in a spectacular grisly way, you can do that too. So I wasn’t sure how a few of those characters would end up until the very end. And it wasn’t an easy decision, to be honest, but you’re also trying to make a narrative choice that will provoke a reaction in a reader. So we’ll see whether or not I managed that.

Finally, please tell us that there will be another Nick Cutter novel in the future.

Yes! It’s called The Deep. I’m working on edits right now. Set in a research station at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest spot called Challenger Deep, 8 miles under the sea. Some grim shit goes down, I can assure you.

Now that, I can assure you, is the best news I’ve gotten all month. Grim shit? Sign me up!

Who will survive, and what will be left of them?

The Troop ★★★★★
Nick Cutter
Gallery Books
Available February 25, 2014

Find out more here!

troop-usFirst of all, when Stephen King goes out of his way to blurb a book, I pay attention. About The Troop he says:

The Troop scared the hell out of me, and I couldn’t put it down. This is old-school horror at its best. Not for the faint-hearted, but for the rest of us sick puppies, it’s a perfect gift for a winter night.”

I’m a sick puppy! Right away, I perk up like one of those Pointer dogs on the scent. Secondly, the book description refers to The Troop as Lord of the Flies meets The Ruins. Oh yeah! You just pressed two of my book buttons right there. I’m lighting up and going off all over the damn place.

So yeah, Stephen King is not lying or exaggerating. This book IS NOT for the faint-hearted. It’s for the sick puppies — it will make you squirm and gag and cringe and hold on for dear life. It will also creep you the fuck out and make your skin crawl off in self defense. Your skin may never speak to you again actually.

I usually run an image free zone in my reviews, but for this book, I’m hoping a picture speaks a thousand words.

Here are some of the faces this book made me make:

ewwww

donotwanthouse

upset

babyeyes

Get the picture? I’m a horror veteran, and let me tell you, this book scarred me. There are scenes I will NEVER forget. If they invented brain bleach tomorrow, it still couldn’t erase the shock and ewww and WTF? from my mind.

Five stars for totally creeping me out and giving me a raging case of heebie jeebies. I could not put this book down and I will be recommending it to other sick puppies. Plus, I actually CARED about the characters. Newt!!!

***Mild Spoiler Alert***

And perhaps introducing a bonafide animal torturing sociopath into a story that already has such an extreme threat is a bit of overkill, but so what? I admire the author’s commitment to a grab-you-by-the-throat, full-throttle storytelling style.

***End Spoiler***

Nick Cutter is a great pseudonym for a horror writer. Let’s hope we hear more from him in the future.

This review has also been posted to Goodreads.

A free copy was provided by the publisher through NetGalley for an honest review.

You give me fever

The Fever: A Novel ★ ★ ★ ★
Megan Abbott
Little, Brown & Co.
Expected Publication: June 2014

 

the feverNow you’ve listened to my story, here’s the point I have made: Chicks were born to give you fever, be it Fahrenheit or Centigrade

They give you fever – when you kiss them, fever if you live and learn: Fever – till you sizzle, what a lovely way to burn.
“Fever”, Cooley/Davenport

***

Sexual debut. Sometimes it seemed to Deenie that high school was like a long game of And Then There Were None. Every Monday, another girl’s debut.
The Fever, Megan Abbott

Nobody (and I mean nobody) writes the dark and secretive interiors of a teenage girl’s psyche better than Megan Abbott. But make no mistake: while she is writing about teenagers, she is not writing Young Adult. Her books are so far removed from YA Lit it’s not only a different country, but another planet. So if you haven’t had the shocking and titillating pleasure to read her yet and have Ms. Abbott shelved as Young Adult, get her off there post-haste please — asap — I mean immediately.

Seriously, do it.

Go on.

I’ll wait for you.

One of the things I’ve come to love about Abbott the most is that even when I think I’ve figured out how the story is going to go, she always manages to surprise me. And she never cheats. Here, she not only surprised me, she creeped the hell out of me, something I wasn’t expecting at all. The Fever isn’t a horror story, but Jesus damn, there are aspects of the story that are extremely unsettling and creeeeepy. I was reading this into the wee hours of the morning last night, and got to this one part and the little hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention:

She started clearing her throat, and once she started it was like she couldn’t stop. “But most of all it’s here,” she said, clawing at her neck. “It feels like there’s something in my throat. And it’s getting bigger.”

::shiver::

megan abbott

Megan Abbott

I’ve been fangirling for Megan Abbott for awhile now, but with this she’s made me her slave. And she’s so pixie-cute petite you can fit her in your pocket. Looking at her mischievous, Mona Lisa smile you’d never expect her to so eloquently and ruthlessly explore the twisted, perilous, coming-of-age waters of teenage girls, waters that run black and deep. There are monsters that swim in that water, monsters that bite, scar and maim for life.

My only sadness and regret is that I’m finished, and this book isn’t even coming out until June, which means I’ve got a bit of a wait before I get my next Megan Abbott fix. I’m jonesing already. What can I say: she’s made me her junkie bitch.

You can find out more about the author at her website.
She’s also on the Twitter: @meganeabbott

This review has also been posted to Goodreads.

****

A free copy was provided by the publishers through Netgalley for an honest review.

It was not a pleasure to burn

Dream of the Serpent ★ ★ ★ ★
Alan Ryker
DarkFuse, 2014

————————-

dream of the serpentAlan Ryker! Alan Ryker! Alan Ryker!

I’m shouting his name from the rooftops, are you paying attention? This gentleman has got some serious skill people, writing chops to make you quiver and shake.

Dream of the Serpent is only my second Ryker book (the first being The Hoard) but with it he has clinched a spot on my author to watch radar. Color me a smitten kitten.

Burning is the sort of thing that changes you forever. It makes you realize that you’re an animal, that all the rest is pretense.

The prose and pacing is exquisitely rendered here reflecting a maturity and mastery of the craft that is a pleasure to read even when what you are reading is fraught with pain and despair. When I picked up this book I was wholly unprepared to read such a graphic, explicit depiction of a young man’s savage burns and the life he must confront post-fire. It is tragedy at its most gripping and devastating, so poignant and raw and in your face. It’s impossible not to become positively engrossed in Cody’s story and his ultimate fate.

This is not a “horror” story per se, but there is plenty here that is shocking and horrific. It is in its way a love story as well, or at least just what and how much we are willing to sacrifice for those we love. Amongst the punishing bleak detail of excruciating hopelessness, there emerges a twisty, mindfuck tale of second chances that’s mysterious and oh so satisfyingly constructed in its parts.

Bravo Mr. Ryker. Bravo.

A free copy was provided by the publisher through Netgalley for an honest review.

I’ll have what she’s having

Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls ★ ★ ★ ★
Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis
University of Iowa Press, 2013

The First Rule of Fandom: tell no one about fandom

fangasmWell, authors Larsen and Zubernis just blew that rule right out of the water, using the CW Network show Supernatural to drag Fandom (with a capital ‘F’) out of the dark, secret corners of the internet into the blinding sun of mainstream Judy Judgmental awareness. I appreciate their heartfelt efforts here to get to the bottom (heh, bottom) of the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of Fandom — why people do it, who is doing it, and what exactly are they doing when they do it?

This isn’t something that started with Supernatural’s legions of fangirls — goodness no. The clannish tribalism and subversive subculture of fanning has been around for a looong time (just ask the Kirk/Spock shippers), but Supernatural does present the perfect opportunity for two brave women to grab the tail of the beast once and for all and showcase the glorious wonders of Fandom — the good, bad and yes, even ugly, realities (because there is definitely more than one, reality that is).

If it weren’t for Supernatural, I probably would have lived the rest of my life utterly clueless that such a thing as Fandom existed. Because really, it takes an extra special push and shove to bring you into its realm. Not just any ole thing is going to open the Fandom door. You grow up, you love bands, you cheer for a sports team, you get movie star crushes, you won’t miss an episode of your favorite TV show. That’s all great. We all beat our chest when we love something. And that’s getting close. But that’s not Fandom.

Fandom is a whole other thing unto itself — an addiction, a compulsion, a consuming force whereby the more you see of it, the more you love it, and the more you love it, the more of it you seek out, willing to look in places that had never once occurred to you before. When you get there, you find out you’re not alone, and that brings its own comfort and validation, yet another heady combo to keep you coming back for more. Because really, the very essence of Fandom is community. This isn’t something you do by yourself. It’s about plugging in, and all the technicolor surround-sound that comes with it — the fanart, the fanfiction, the fanvids — the humor, the drama, the angst, oh so many feels.

So why the big secret? Why the rule of keeping your mouth shut and not talking about it? As the authors very quickly find out, it’s the stigma and the embarrassment and sometimes even the shame for starters. The stereotypes are ruthless and unforgiving of the socially retarded Trekkie living in his mom’s basement, or the squeeing fangirl — intellectually challenged, perhaps mentally unbalanced, and overall just sad. Doesn’t he/she have anything better to do?

So there’s that for starters. One of the things the authors hoped to do with their book is to blow up that stereotype once and for all. To demystify and decloak the average fangirl/fanboy as the person sitting next to you on the bus, the person you work with, maybe even your own sister-in-law. It turns out Supernatural fangirls are moms and lawyers, doctors and librarians, and in the case of the authors themselves, college professors. Regular women with careers and families and responsibilities like everyone else.

But you’ll probably never know it. Anonymity is par for the course in Fandom. No one uses their real name and most of the Fandom’s reach and activity exists under the radar of ‘Real Life’. Rarely do the two intersect and acknowledge each other probably because a lot of what’s going on in Fandom is women stretching and redefining their libidos and what they find sexy. Shocking, I know.

The unchecked, full-on female exploration of just about every kink you can think of (and some you can’t) is in a very tangible way a sexual revolution. Even the acknowledgement that women can and do objectify men is an impulse that sill leaves many women feeling guilty, that we should somehow rise above such baser instincts and needs. Pfft. Get over it already. It’s okay. The world is not going to spin off its axis if you check out some guy’s ass (especially if it belongs to Jensen Ackles).

Go on, take a look, I’m not going to judge you for it.

A delightful surprise upon reading this was discovering how aware most of the Supernatural crew is concerning all the internet shenanigans going on around them and how much of a sense of humor they have about it, even how much some of them relate to and understand the compulsion. Jim Beaver (Bobby Singer) offered up a lot of insight in his interview responses that spoke volumes of his sensitivity, curiosity and respect. Even Jensen Ackles — the super-straight, seemingly good ol’ boy from Texas — concedes that the controversial slash pairing of himself with his co-star Jared Padalecki (otherwise known as J2) is “a hot fantasy”. Series creator Eric Kripke has certainly milked Fandom for inside jokes and meta-material, even including references on the show to Wincest.

Despite its best intentions the book does tend to blather and meander in places, and gets a bit repetitive at times, but this in no way detracted from my overall enjoyment and deep appreciation. Did I find myself in some of these pages? Absolutely. Was I living vicariously through the authors many bumbling, costly adventures as they exhausted their bank accounts in order to be front and center at the big conferences? You bet. Did I cheer when they finally breached the inner sanctum and scored one-on-one interviews with co-stars Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles? Hells yeah. Was I green with envy? Sick with it.

This is a sweet, funny story with a triumphant happy ending despite many trials and doubts. Who doesn’t love one of those every now and then? For the curious and uninitiated, it’s also a small peek into Fandom life. A small peek. If you really want to know, you’re just going to have to go look where it lives. Be careful though, you just might like what you find.

A free copy was provided through Netgalley for an honest review

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