New Nick Cutter book is a mad mélange of literary ingredients

The Acolyte ★★★★
Nick Cutter
Chizine Publications
Available May 5, 2015

The Acolyte (2015), Chizine

The Acolyte (2015), Chizine

Maybe there’s a God above,
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

It’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not someone who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and broken Hallelujah

~ Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen

I don’t know how to describe the mad, dark, mash-up genius contained in the pages of Nick Cutter’s upcoming release The Acolyte — but I’ve found myself in a similar state of speechlessness with other titles released by the incomparable ChiZine Publications. Their motto is Embrace the Odd and embrace it they do with abandon. ChiZine’s book covers alone are enough to send this bibliophile into paroxysms of delight. Here are a few of my favorites:


ChiZine has also recently gotten into the graphic novel game and I adore this cover too:

Let me wrap up the fangirling over cover art to conclude that ChiZine is a wickedly weird and dangerous publishing house ruthlessly seeking out unique voices in speculative fiction. There is nothing safe or sanitized or boring about them. And while I’m not always in the mood to enter into the wacky landscapes they pimp, I’m very grateful that they exist, and very proud that they are Canadian.

Craig Davidson (aka Nick Cutter)

Craig Davidson (aka Nick Cutter)

Nick Cutter (a pseudonym for Craig Davidson) blasted onto the horror scene in 2014 with The Troop — the book Stephen King declared scared the hell out of him. For the record, it scared the hell out of me too. In January, Cutter followed up with an equally gripping and richly written sci-fi horror novel The Deep.

Fans of either or both of those books should not expect the same kind of story in The Acolyte. I’m not surprised it was ChiZine who published it for him because it is an odd, intense mixture of horror, police procedural, dystopia, and noir. It is violent, contemplative, thematic, and disturbing. It’s not a book you ‘enjoy’ or ‘savor’: it is one you endure and survive.

And that’s all I’m going to say about it. Read the plot summary if you want, but it’s not going to help prepare you for what lies in wait in its pages. If you are feeling adventurous and brave, and want a taste of something not so mainstream that will take you off the beaten path into a darker part of the forest, then by all means take The Acolyte home with you.

An advanced reading copy was provided by the publisher for review.

Check out more horror from Nick Cutter:

troop-usthedeepcutter

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Ambiguity is not my friend

The Uninvited ★★
Liz Jensen
Bloomsbury USA, 2013
Available Now

I’m going to tell you two things that made me want to read this book:

1) The cover – I mean, c’mon…how kick-ass creepy is this?

uninvited

2) The first sentence of the book jacket description: “A seven-year-old girl puts a nail gun to her grandmother’s neck and fires.”

Creepy, evil kids doing creepy evil things is usually a win for me. So it was a foregone conclusion that I would dive into this book with abandon.

First of all — it isn’t horror, despite the cover and the book jacket description. It’s more a mash-up of mystery sci-fi with a philosophical bent to it. There are creepy parts, but those are almost incidental to the book’s defined purpose. And what is that purpose?

The writing is great. Liz Jensen knows what to do with words. Hesketh Lock is a remarkable character study of a person living with Asperger’s Syndrome. I’m no expert by any means (and maybe it’s a terribly erroneous portrait), nevertheless I appreciated the attention to detail. I found Hesketh’s way of looking at the world and interacting with it endlessly fascinating.

The book opens with Hesketh being sent to different countries on various continents to investigate cases of industrial sabotage. It’s not entirely clear how these financially devastating actions by valued employees are even related to the other disturbing cases occurring at the same time of children murdering their caregivers. Hence the mystery. But Hesketh is on the case and with his very unusual brain and the aid of Venn diagrams moves closer to the truth with each passing day.

Even up to the three-quarter mark I was still chomping at the bit to uncover what the hell was really going on. I needed to know. Things were going from bad to worse. What could be behind it all? Demons? Aliens? Time-traveling scientists? So many cryptic clues, hinting at something universally “big” in a space-time-evolutionary way.

I was ready for it. I believed in the author. It felt like she had a plan. I trusted her. Even with a mere 10 pages left and no definitive climax or resolution in sight, I was only slightly worried and concerned.

Ever watch an overwrought, existential and confused piece of French cinema replete with embedded themes and imagery and allegory that you were supposed to “get” but didn’t, and then the end title comes up and looks like this:

fin1

And then you shout at the screen and shake your fist: What the bleep?! You fume and even cry real tears. Because you realize no one’s going to tell you the answer. Oh no. You will have to guess, extrapolate, surmise and theorize, with your friends, or worse still, with the obnoxious douche you have to work with every day.

Well piss on that. If that’s what I wanted to spend my time doing I would have gotten my PhD in goddam philosophy. I can tolerate some ambiguity, but by and large I don’t like it. It aggravates me. I’m reading for answers and resolution, not for more questions and uncertainty. Ambiguity stinks. Ambiguity is not my friend. Which is also probably why David Lynch movies make me want to stab somebody, him mostly.

So for a horror novel, that turned out to be a mysterious sci-fi piece that turned out to be an exercise in pointless philosophy showcasing an excruciatingly ambiguous ending — two stars.

This review is also posted to Goodreads.

How many lives could you stand to live?

Life After Life ★★★★★
Kate Atkinson
Reagan Arthur Books, 2013
Available Now

lifeafterlife1An Advanced Reader Copy was provided from the publisher through NetGalley.

I’m pretty sure the idea of being forced to live my life over and over again is something plucked from my worst nightmares, but who among us hasn’t been at least tempted to dream of it occasionally with a wistful sigh. Please, please, please, just one more chance to live the best moments again and when necessary, to make different choices? But I would imagine if any of us were actually tasked to unravel all the “right” and “wrong” choices from our life and to relive the bad with the good, we’d go screaming into the night like raving banshees.

For what is a perfect life? How many kicks at the can would it take for you to answer that question, if it is indeed answerable at all? Change one thing, change everything, change nothing, change all the good, change all the bad. Round and round and round. It’s exhausting just thinking about it. What’s the saying? If I only knew then, what I know now…what? What would you do different? And would different choices always translate into better choices?

Ursula is a normal British girl except she’s pretty certain she’s lived her life before, maybe many, many times. The older she gets, the stronger these feelings of deju vu become, hounding her like ghosts in the night. Her prescience is rarely crystal clear, more like moods or instinct. Do this. Don’t do that. Run away. Run toward. Stay still.

Life After Life starts slow and unassuming. The story is teasing, the pacing a dawdling, scenic walk through the English countryside. But from the very first page I was enthralled and little did I realize what a powerful spell Atkinson was casting on my reader brain. Because as you continue to read, the book picks up gravity and speed and texture. Each life after life reinforces the tender bonds you have been working on with each of the characters. Your acquaintance with them is not one brief life, but many, many lives. Like Ursula we are both cursed and blessed with the long view, the big picture. We come to know all the various permutations of death, cruelty, love and loss. We bear witness through two World Wars and how some forces, no matter how forewarned, are unstoppable, greater even than the hand of time.

(more…)

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Revolution ★★★★
Jennifer Donnelly
Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2010

“Because God loves us,
but the devil takes an interest.” ~Revolution

revolutionI find writing reviews for books I love quite intimidating really. I feel overwhelmed with the task of ever doing a book justice that I want everyone to read. And then there’s always the risk that if you gush too much, it’s going to turn people off, or build their expectations so high that when they do pick the book up they can’t help but be a little disappointed. But perhaps I’m over thinking it too much.

I had never read anything by Jennifer Donnelly before and didn’t know quite what to expect when I picked up Revolution. I thought the cover quite beautiful, and the historical aspect of the story called to me, so I had no qualms about giving it a try. What can I say about a book that totally swept me up in its pages and consumed my every free thought when I wasn’t reading it? The sheer beauty of some of its prose squeezed my heart. Donnelly does such an amazing job writing about music that I swear sometimes I heard the notes wafting up from the page. I’ve never claimed to be a music aficionado of any age or style, I don’t read music, I’ve never taken a music appreciation class – but I listen to music. It has an undeniably important place in my life, as vital as reading, and there is just something so simple and honest about the way Donnelly threads music throughout this novel that left me totally captivated.

Then there’s the story – about a defeated young girl undone by tragedy who has lost her way, and her will to live. Andi is angry at herself, at the world, and the depth of her grief and rage is like a sharp and vicious thing that she carries in her chest. Andi is definitely a young woman spiraling out of control.

I love how this novel unfolds, that it is two stories with two narrators – one contemporary one historical. The detail is so vivid, the sense of place so strong, you walk the streets of Paris and run through the catacombs that haunt the modern city to this day. French Revolutionary history is filled with brutality, intrigue, betrayal, hope and disillusionment. As a novelist, you don’t have to exaggerate any of the historical details, you simply stand out of the way and let the story tell itself. I feel that’s what Donnelly has done here; she’s taken her fictional creation – Alexandrine – and written her into the pages of history. Through Alexandrine’s diary, we get an intimate look at the scale of human barbarity it takes to pull off a Revolution.

Andi becomes consumed with the diary and with Alexandrine’s fate and the fate of the boy King locked in a tower to rot. She can only hope that the diary can give her the peace and understanding she seeks to save her own life. This book is gorgeously textured and layered like an 18th century French painting, or a beautiful piece of composed music. It is also a pulse-pounding page-turning adventure, an enigmatic historical mystery shrouded in intrigue and speculation. It’s a love story about the bonds between parent and child, brother and sister, lovers and friends. What else can I say? Read this book.

Random House has done a sumptuous book trailer for Revolution. Enjoy!

A modern horror classic

Let’s Go Play at the Adams’★★★★★

playby Mendal W. Johnson

“It’s only a game.” Barbara…told herself as she awoke bound and gagged and guarded by solemn thirteen-year old Bobby.

I have no idea where to begin with my review for this book. It definitely ranks as one of the most frightening, disturbing reads of my life. It is not an easy book to finish, but once started I could not put it down. I had to know how it was all going to end. The terror and tension of the last 50 pages just about did my head in. My heart was racing, I was filled with dread. I felt nauseous. I was consumed with rage. I wept. For pity. For the fact that I couldn’t help. For the senseless unapologetic tragedy of it all.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because I think if you’re going to go on this journey, the less you know the better. The nightmare relentlessly unfolds, gradual, yet step by step with tremendous, undeniable, excruciating inevitability. This book is not for everyone. This is grim psychological horror at its best (or worst if you will). Reader beware.

I think children make such convincing agents of evil because in all of their innocence, their moral compass hasn’t been firmly set yet. The boundary which separates right and wrong is easily blurred and with little provocation becomes indistinguishable. Children are still operating on a level of selfishness that leaves little room for genuine empathy. You take all that and make it vulnerable to the psychology of pack mentality, and some horrible things can happen. And do, not just in the pages of fiction, but in real life. Just read the newspaper.

I can’t help but draw comparisons here to Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door (a story which is based on true events). Ketchum’s novel shows just how easily children can become corrupted and led down some dark and dangerous paths to human depravity. All great horror writers know this and the theme shows up again and again in books and on film – Stephen King’s short story “Children of the Corn” and his novella “Apt Pupil” come to mind, as well as William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies. There was also a UK film made a few years ago called Eden Lake which illustrates this theme as effectively as any other movie I’ve seen.

Some of what I felt reading this book, I also felt while watching The Strangers (the home invasion movie starring Liv Tyler). The sheer helplessness and hopelessness to be at the mercy of captors who you cannot reason with, who have no empathy, no guilt, no human mercy that you can hang your hat on. I remember the trailer for that film when Liv Tyler asks “Why?” and her captors respond: “Because you were home”. For me, there’s such a chilling simplicity in that response, that something so horrible and violent can occur for no other reason more complicated than that simple fact.

Let’s Go Play At The Adams’ is one of the genre’s best kept secrets as far as I’m concerned – I only discovered it now at 37. It is also, I dare say, a modern horror classic. And finally, it is a book that promises to stay with you long after the reading is done. You won’t easily shake this one.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning

The Scent of Rain and Lightning★★★★
Nancy Pickard
Ballantine Books, 2010

scentI was browsing in my library’s fiction stacks one day when I came across Nancy Pickard’s The Scent of Rain and Lightning. Let me just say I was smitten from the start as you’ll never meet a bigger sucker for a great cover or even better title. I’ve been cruelly disappointed using this method to ferret out books in the past, but I’ve also stumbled upon some real gems. I grew up in the Maritimes of Canada – Newfoundland to be precise – a craggy, fogged in island rock that’s bathed in the sun’s rays about 15 minutes every year. I’ve since transplanted myself to the Canadian Prairies and oh how I’ve fallen in love with the never-ending blue sky that stretches uninterrupted as far as any ocean, and the rolling flat prairie lying out as far as the eye can see. This is where land and sky come together with dazzling results. A common joke from these parts is you can watch your dog run away for three days.

The cover of this book grabbed my eye because it immediately reminded me of any grid road in southern Saskatchewan on a sunny day (of which there are plenty). The title charmed me – calling up my favorite things. You live through enough prairie storms and it doesn’t take long to realize that rain and lightning do indeed have a scent. At this point, I didn’t even care what the book was about I just knew I wanted to read it. Once I started reading it I was drawn into the landscape (small town Kansas) and to the characters that populated it – strong, rough, country people, hewn from the soil and forged through hard work. At the heart of this story is a murder that happens on a dark and stormy night, with the rain lashing the earth and lightning sundering the sky. A father is shot in cold blood, his wife is also presumed dead even though her body is never recovered. Their little girl – three year old Jody Linder – is left parentless, though not an orphan since her loving grandparents swoop in to raise and protect her, as well as three uncles who would do anything for her – Meryl, Chase and Bobby.

When the book starts, twenty-three years have passed since that horrible night and Jody is a grown woman about to embark on a career as a high school English teacher. She is looking towards the future until her past shows up on her doorstop one morning; it’s her three uncles with the news that the man convicted of killing her parents has been released from prison and is on his way back to Rose. The news is devastating and causes a ripple effect throughout the town’s inhabitants and shakes the Linder family to its very core. Because not everyone believes Billy Crosby is guilty of the crime he was sent to prison for – and now Jody’s life is shattered and everything she ever believed thrown into chaos, for if Crosby didn’t kill her parents, who did?

Once I started this story I couldn’t put it down. Not only did I have to know what the hell really happened that awful night, I became submersed in the lives of the people involved. Pickard has a way of writing that puts you into the story – I could see everything unfold as if it were a movie playing in my mind’s eye, and I love when a book can do that. Let’s just say more than once I could smell the scent of rain and lightning.

The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

The Replacement (2010) ★ ★ ★
Brenna Yovanoff
Razorbill/Penguin Group

Mackie Doyle is not one of us. Though he lives in the small town of Gentry, he comes from a world of tunnels and black murky water, a world of living dead girls ruled by a little tattooed princess. He is a Replacement, left in the crib of a human baby sixteen years ago. Now, because of fatal allergies to iron, blood, and consecrated ground, Mackie is fighting to survive in the human world.

replacementA good friend recommended this book to me a while back, not because she had read it, but because the cover caught her eye and she thought it might be something I would enjoy (cause I’m warped in that special way). So first let me just say I really do love this cover. Even though we’re told we never should, sometimes I just can’t stop myself from judging books this way. That antique “English” pram made me think of Rosemary’s Baby. What did I think of the sharp implements dangling like some kind of demented mobile? I wasn’t really sure … but I was very intrigued and couldn’t wait to see what it was all about.

I had so much fun reading this book. It was such a delight on so many levels. This is not a full on horror story, even though there are definitely horrific moments. Really, it’s a story about finding your place in the world even when you believe you don’t fit in anywhere. Mackie Doyle has never truly felt a part of the human world, always on the outside looking in. Nevertheless, he has a devoted circle of family and friends who love him despite what he is. In fact, they don’t see what he is, they only love him for who he is.

The small cast of characters are wonderfully drawn – especially Mackie’s sister Emma and best friend Roswell. Their love and loyalty know no bounds and prove the awesome power of unconditional acceptance. Mackie may feel like a monster, and at times he may even believe that he is, but this is not what the people closest to him see. They see Mackie for who he really is – kind, gentle, brave, funny and smart – and they’ll do anything to keep him safe and be by his side when the chips are down.

I thought The Lady a truly disturbing and vile invention. The climactic confrontation Mackie has with her is nail-biting stuff. I got chills when she explains that it is human fear itself that sustains her and the human belief in her existence that keeps her living: “I am terror. I draw strength from their fears…I eat their devotion and their abasement.” In a very tangible way, this reminded me of Candyman,  who claims: “I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom! Without these things, I am nothing. So now, I must shed innocent blood”.

If you enjoyed any of the following books, I would highly recommend that you pick up The Replacement. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book. Also John Connelly’s Book of Lost Things. Joseph Delaney’s Last Apprentice series

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