Review: “Darker Things,” Rob Cornell

Pros: Fabulous world-building; intriguing storyline
Rating: 5 out of 5

Rob Cornell’s Darker Things: An Urban Fantasy Thriller (The Lockman Chronicles Book 1) starts off with a bang. Thirteen-year-old girl Jessie shows up on Craig Lockman’s doorstep. In the time it takes him to realize that her face looks rather familiar–and perhaps she might be his daughter–a bunch of vampires show up guns blazing trying to capture him. We quickly see just how kick-ass he is as he evades and fights off foe after foe while trying to keep himself and Jessie free and alive. The two flee, and Lockman slowly realizes he cares about what happens to Jessie, and can’t just leave her behind. Unfortunately, the old enemy who’s determined to capture him seems to be quite desperate, and now that he’s no longer in hiding he’s struggling to stay one step ahead.

Craig’s enemy, Dolan, has a lot of resources to draw upon–not just vampires, but werewolves, ghosts, and more. Apparently all these things are real, but most people aren’t aware of their existence. They come from some sort of other dimension, and a few sensitives in our world know how to summon and control them. One of the more common urban fantasy themes is that in recent years humans became aware of supernaturals and the two have had to start learning to live together–this comes before that step, which is a nice variation on the theme. Also, Lockman’s belief is that supernaturals are inherently evil, and that there is no good magic. While there are some hints that he might be wrong, it’s close enough to true that it, too, makes a nice variation on the usual themes.

Jessie is a bit of a mess, and is more than a little bit of trouble. On the other hand, she’s also got guts, and let’s face it, at age thirteen is really when the emotions tend to run high. Not to mention pretty much any person thrown head-first into the world of the supernatural and automatic weaponry being fired at them is going to have some difficulties. In fact, all of the major characters in here are excellent to read about. Jessie’s mother has some nice depth to her, particularly in some of the differences between how Lockman remembers her and how she is now. Jessie’s stepfather starts out seeming like the stereotype of the nice but kind of cold stepfather, but he turns out to have interest to him as well. Craig joins up with some of his old government agent colleagues and they, too, have changed since he knew them. It also turns out that they’ve been keeping some secrets from him.

There are moments that seem like plot holes at first. For instance, if Craig’s kid could find him, why couldn’t the bad guys find him without having to follow her? These various oddities get sewn up, however, in ways that make sense.

There are definitely some hints that there’s more to the supernaturals than their value as minions. There are bits and pieces of prophecy that crop up, that might have something to do with Lockman and Jessie. Some of the supernaturals might not be as evil as they seem.

Just as a warning, this book gets a bit dark, and although Lockman is kind of a good guy, he also does some pretty dark things.

Not only did I really enjoy this book, but I’m planning on grabbing the next book in the series. I think the series is up to five books now (no idea if that’s meant to be all of them), so I have plenty to look forward to.

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Review: “Six Scary Stories,” ed. Stephen King

Pros: Enjoyable little horror tales
Rating: 5 out of 5

Stephen King agreed to manage a short story contest, and he liked the best six entries so much that he suggested they be turned into an anthology. Hence the appearance of Six Scary Stories.

Elodie Harper’s “Wild Swimming” takes place in Lithuania, where a swimmer wants to explore a local lake. There’s an old village buried underneath it, and her hostess insists swimming there would show disrespect–but of course the woman doesn’t listen.

Manuela Saragosa’s “Eau-de-Eric” is one of my favorites in this volume. Kathy’s husband Eric is dead, but her little girl Ellie just found a teddy bear that smells of his aftershave. Kathy doesn’t want the reminder of her dead husband, but Ellie’s determined to keep hold of the bear. There’s a fantastic sense of inevitability to this one, and Kathy has a surprising amount of depth to her given the short length of the story.

In “The Spots,” by Paul Bassett Davies, a man is set to the task of counting a leopard’s spots by his country’s great Leader. The depiction of this Leader in the little details that emerge is both whimsical and dark.

Michael Button’s “The Unpicking” sees a bunch of kids’ toys trying to figure out what game to play while their child sleeps. This is another favorite, as it has whispers of Ligotti’s fascination with puppets and marionettes in it.

Stuart Johnstone’s “La Mort de L’Amant” shows us a man looking out off of a bridge, and a police officer who comes to make sure he’s okay. I found the ending of this one a bit too abrupt, but it was otherwise quite good.

Finally, Neil Hudson’s “The Bear Trap” presents Calvin, a boy who’s weathering the end of the world at his prepper father’s house. He and his teddy bears are none too happy when a stranger comes looking to take whatever he can get.

I’m not including much detail, as it’s easy to ruin the fun in short horror stories. I’ll just say that these are delightful little nuggets, and for the most part I found them all quite satisfying.

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Review: “Posing for Picasso,” Sam Stone

Pros: Keeps the reader guessing!
Cons: Slow start
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Sam Stone’s Posing for Picasso is a thriller/horror novel that absolutely delighted me. Painter Avgustin Juniper is accused of killing and mutilating his girlfriend and model, Annabel. A lawyer named Cassandra decides to take on his case pro bono, and even Detective Jake Chandler isn’t so sure Juniper is guilty. While the charges are dropped, the mutilations continue. And they’re definitely tied to Juniper in some mysterious way, because they all involve models he’s painted. Meanwhile gallery owner Joy Awen plans to make herself and Juniper some money off of his new notoriety by having a gallery showing of his work. Jake is getting involved with Lauren, who was his psychiatrist when he was dealing with the loss of his wife. Detective Gemma Sarasvati also seems to have something to do with what’s going on, and there’s a parallel thread exploring Picasso’s inspirational muses and some street women who went missing while he was doing his work.

The book seems relatively ordinary at first; the only strangeness is that somehow a person apparently got into Juniper’s apartment and killed Annabel without leaving any trace. As we go through the motions with lawyers and interrogations and gallery openings I wasn’t yet wholly drawn in. Once things start to pick up, however, and we get into the paranormal meat of the story, I became spellbound. There’s a mysterious creature ‘stealing’ parts of women in order to renew itself. And it isn’t the only unusual being out there. Eventually we end up with four major suspects, and the author keeps us guessing right up until the end. Even then she manages to slip some surprises into the narrative that I totally wasn’t expecting. I’m deliberately avoiding talking about the supernatural beings because they’re unveiled so nicely within the narrative that I don’t want to deny you that pleasure if you plan to read the book yourself.

The characters are fantastic and have a surprising amount of depth despite the fact that they each seem a little one-note when they’re first introduced. Juniper seems like the stereotype of the womanizing, charming artist, but he turns out to have a certain lovely naivete and trustingness to him. Cassandra seems like the typical hard-ass lawyer at first, but she comes to develop her own feelings for Juniper. Lauren and Jake make an interesting couple, and each of them is experimenting with getting back into the dating game. Gemma seems like the most straightforward, unfeeling character of them, but if anything she turns out to have some of the most depth.

This is a wonderful thriller, has some delightful horror to it, and has some fantastic paranormal world-building within its pages as well. If you enjoy any of the above, I think you’ll enjoy this book! (Note: explicit sex contained therein.)

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StoryBundle: Fantasy Detectives

New StoryBundle, of fantasy detective stories, up for the next three weeks: As usual, I can’t resist picking it up!

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Review: “Waking Anastasia,” Timothy Reynolds

Pros: Gorgeous story of love and loss
Cons: Some issues (see review); abrupt ending
Rating: 3 out of 5

Timothy Reynolds’s Waking Anastasia is a lovely paranormal romance. Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanova, in 1918, is killed and becomes bound as a ghost to a book, which is found by a Canadian soldier. In the present day, radio station manager Jeremy (Jerry) Powell has inherited the book, and he meets Ana. The two gradually fall in love, but Jerry comes to find out that he is very ill. Thus ensues an absolutely beautiful story of love and loss.

The romance unfolds gradually and is very lovely. (No adult content, in case you’re wondering.) It has something of a fairy-tale feel to it. Ana figures out that she can become solid enough to affect the real world and be seen by people other than Jerry, and she gets to explore the modern world a bit. Jerry’s illness is also handled very well. We get to see him go through the various physical and emotional stages, and it’s quite sad. I loved reading about Ana’s exploration of the modern world as she learns new things from YouTube and takes photographs of everything.

One of the things that impressed me is Reynolds’s grasp of the “show, don’t tell” mantra. He doesn’t have to tell us that Jerry is a bit of a closet nerd–when he’s driving through the US to get from one job to another, the author has Jerry drive slightly out of his way “just so he could say he’d been to Captain James T. Kirk’s home state.” The fact that Jerry named his fighting fish Sushi immediately gives us an idea of what kind of sense of humor he has.

I was having so much fun with this book that I was very disappointed to run into a few annoying issues. First, there’s the stereotypical company flirt at Jerry’s new job, who seriously hits on him, wears skimpy clothing, etc. I guess we’re supposed to not acknowledge the stereotype because she’s also very good at her job? Anyway, after her two male bosses give her a lecture on her behavior and clothing, she suddenly has self-respect and comes to understand that she’s “a person, not a pair of… well, you know.” It’s a bit off-putting. Second, pretty much every single woman falls for Jerry, even his 15-year-old neighbor. I mean, he’s a nice guy, but he’s not all that. He’s definitely a bit of a Mary Sue character. Third, Jerry has problems with his mother for most of the book–actual, legitimate problems–and yet they’re easily (and predictably) solved almost as soon as she knows he’s ill. Fourth, Ana died when she was 16. But the fact of her age is magically okay because she can transform herself to look a few years older? That’s… a little nasty.

Finally, the ending is seriously abrupt. I mean, it reads like the author was up against deadline and didn’t know how to end the story.

I’m really disappointed, because most of the book was very good, but the issues were really annoying ones.

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Review: “The Grimoire of Kensington Market,” Lauren B. Davis

Pros: Wonderful modern-day fairy tale
Cons: Slow start
Rating: 4 out of 5

In Lauren B. Davis’s The Grimoire of Kensington Market, Maggie is the proprietor of the Grimoire, a mysterious bookshop that can only be found by people who are “meant” to find it. The bookshop is constantly rearranging itself as new books come into being and old books vanish from the world. Maggie receives several mysterious messages from her addict brother, Kyle, asking her to come find him. At the same time, the city is rearranging itself. Maggie’s store is getting smaller. “The Forest,” where addicts go to smoke elysium, is taking over the city. Maggie’s afraid that if she goes after Kyle she’ll fall back under elysium’s spell–she hasn’t been free of it all that long–but she can’t leave her brother to his fate. Elysium is a bizarre drug that allows people access to the Silver World, and she’s going to have to go there in order to find where Kyle has gone. Unfortunately, it’s possible that the entire turn of events is a trap devised by Srebrenka, the mysterious elysium dealer, to lure Maggie back.

It seemed odd that in a book with a magical shop that people are either meant or not meant to find, that shop doesn’t play more of a role in the story. At first things are a bit slow; the focus is largely on Maggie’s relationship with Kyle in the past, and that’s pretty depressing. He even stole money from a friend of hers who gave him a job. However, although it isn’t the easiest material to read, this is what builds up Kyle as a believable addict.

Once things headed into fairy-tale territory I got into the story much more easily. Maggie sets out into the Silver World with only her dog and a pair of ravens who seem to be going with her. This is a variant on The Snow Queen, and it’s really nicely told. Maggie of course gets delayed on her way by a seemingly well-intentioned woman. She spends a night at a mysterious hotel. She gets caught by robbers and has to convince one of them to open herself to a wider way of thinking. And always she continues North, toward the cold, mysterious land ruled by a very dark creature.

I very much like the ending, although I won’t give it away. If you enjoy fairy tales and don’t mind a bit of real-world darkness mixed in, this is a great tale to read on a winter’s night.

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Review: “Kingdom of Needle and Bone,” Mira Grant

Pros: Wonderful plot and characters
Cons: Some readers will feel preached at
Rating: 4 out of 5

Mira Grant’s novella Kingdom of Needle and Bone introduces us to eight-year-old Lisa Morris, who has gone to a theme park with her parents. Only, she just fell ill, and has spread that illness to hundreds of other people. The new strain of measles comes to be called Morris’s disease, and it isn’t just highly contagious and virulent. It also causes the immune system to “forget” some other immunities, rendering much of the population of the world effectively unvaccinated. Thus diseases such as mumps and whooping cough make a comeback as well. There are fierce societal arguments about whether vaccinations should be mandatory, and pediatrician Izzy (Lisa’s aunt) decides that if the governments won’t do anything, she will. She finds someone with healthy children and deep pockets who would do anything to keep his children safe, and she sets out to establish quarantined areas for the healthy. The idea isn’t to repopulate the species after the diseases wreak havoc; the idea is merely to keep as many people safe as possible until vaccines and cures are inevitably found. It’s believed that Morris’s disease must be man-made, but no one takes responsibility for it.

A fair amount of time is spent on the various issues surrounding vaccination. In here, politics make unlikely bedfellows as both the anti-vaxxer movement and the pro-choice movement realize they hinge on the issue of bodily autonomy. Izzy feels very strongly that the solution isn’t enforced vaccination: it’s to deny non-vaccinated people access to the society they are endangering, and get as many people as possible to voluntarily go along with vaccination. Unfortunately, Morris’s disease killed plenty of people who had been vaccinated, so the anti-vaxxers have used that to bolster their arguments that vaccinations don’t help.

There’s enough material in here about vaccinations, anti-vaxxers, and so on that it could read as a little preachy, although it’s all done within the context of Izzy and her sisters. And it does bring up interesting questions about bodily autonomy. Her younger sister Brooke was Lisa’s mother, and is a pharmacist. Her middle sister Angela is a rabid proponent of mandatory vaccinations. Before Izzy and Brooke start their quarantine zones plan the book isn’t wholly engaging, but once they do it picks up.

I particularly enjoy the plot toward the end; obviously I don’t want to give it away, so I’ll just say it justified the entire book. I like some of Mira Grant’s other work better than this one, but this still satisfied me and left me wanting to read more of her books!

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Review: “Bird Box,” Josh Malerman

Pros: Amazing tension!
Cons: Highly internal (won’t work for some)
Rating: 5 out of 5

I recently saw some ads for the movie version of Josh Malerman’s Bird Box: A Novel, and they didn’t convince me. But then a friend recommended the book, and so far her recommendations have been great, so I decided to give it a read. I’m glad I listened (thanks Nancy)! Malorie lives in a house where the windows are covered with blankets and the only way she or her two four-year-old children can go out to the well is to blindfold themselves. It’s a little confusing at first. As the narrative weaves back and forth between the present and the past, things gradually become clearer. There’s something loose in the world, and anyone who sees it goes mad. They may or may not harm others, but they very quickly kill themselves. Given how difficult it is to go without looking outside, and how prevalent these… whatever they are… seem to be, the world is soon a very empty place. Pregnant Malorie managed to make her way to a “safehouse” with a handful of people living there who had a few months’ worth of supplies stored up. We go back and forth between present-day Malorie taking a trip down a river in a rowboat with her two children–all blindfolded–and past Malorie leading up to her labor and delivery.

Some of the survival details are kind of elided. It’s probably about the right time for this to happen; so many books have examined the survival part of post-apocalyptic fiction that it’s reasonable to see the details shortened. We see just enough (Malorie figuring out how to drive a car with the windows painted black!) to get the idea of how it was done without needing the day-to-day. It does require a little bit of willing suspension of disbelief, naturally.

I should provide a trigger warning for childhood abuse. What Malorie does in raising her children is arguably entirely necessary, but that doesn’t make it easy to read about. She has to train them from birth in survival in this crazy world. All it could take is a single peek out of a window to ruin everything.

The narrative is in the present tense and is exceedingly internal. Because of this, there will probably be some people who can’t get into it. I wasn’t wholly certain at first, but I quickly got swept up and once I did, I couldn’t put the book down. There’s often a staccato feel to the sentences that completely ratchets up the tension.

I’m still dubious about this as a movie. The most tense parts of the book happen when the characters are blindfolded, and you know there might be something weird out there, but there’s no way of knowing what it is, and you cannot look. Whereas a movie requires the visual. Maybe I’ll watch it at some point just to find out whether they found a way around that.

As a small note, I appreciate the fact that even though there are three women in the house of people, the author never felt the need to pair any of them off with the men. He also completely avoided the rival stereotype that has so annoyed me of late, and which would have been easy to fall into here.

If you’re looking for something totally tense and mind-bending, absolutely give Bird Box a read!

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Review: “Knock Knock,” S.P. Miskowski

Pros: Definitely creepy
Cons: The first half or so is drawn out
Rating: 4 out of 5

Knock Knock is a horror tale told by S.P. Miskowski. Ethel, Beverly, and Marietta are school friends in Skillute, Washington, even though they’re each very different from the other two. On a girlish whim they decide none of them ever wants to get pregnant, and they use a spell from Marietta’s aunt Delphine’s store of them to ensure this never happens. Naturally they cast the spell in the woods where the “part myth, part fireside tale” Miss Knocks is said to cart off children. Of course when Beverly is fourteen she has sex with a boy from school, and ends up pregnant. Eventually, over the course of long, sad lives, each of the girls ends up pregnant exactly once. And when it’s Ethel’s turn, her daughter turns out… wrong. When expecting parents Greg and Lydia move into town, they get swept up in the supernatural events brought on by one very angry ghost.

The portion of the story covering most of the girls’ lives, until Ethel ends up pregnant at age 43, is a bit slow and long. There’s little overtly strange going on during this time–it’s mostly just a depressing look at poor, rural living. Once Connie Sara is born, however, things pick up. The girl is positively psychopathic, and for me it was Ethel’s growing fear of her own baby that finally kicked this story into gear. It was amazing how scary and tense the author made a particular scene in which Connie Sara is crawling from room to room as her mother tries to get away from her. (Trying to describe it makes it sound silly–you’ll have to read it for yourself. It actually works very well.)

I have to stress that there’s a trigger warning for animal abuse and death. Connie Sara is a brutal child, and some of the incidents are tough to read. Also child death. There’s also a very frank and uncomfortable scene of teens having sex for the first time–it isn’t romanticized, which is nice.

The characters in here are interesting and definitely have depth. No one’s entirely likable, but they’re sympathetic enough to hold my interest. There are no truly happy marriages in here; it’s depressing.

Things get a bit surreal toward the end, and a few of the touches there (mysterious fog banks, a car that cuts out and then is fine the next day) are somewhat stereotypical haunting fare. The climax of the story, however, is quite engaging. All in all I recommend this ugly, dark horror tale.

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Review: “Edged Blade,” J.C. Daniels

Pros: Engaging storyline; interesting characters
Cons: Mild issues
Rating: 4 out of 5

Edged Blade (Colbana Files Series Book 4), by J.C. Daniels (Shiloh Walker), features paranormal investigator Kit Colbana. She’s only half-human, and she’s sorta/kinda dating the werecat Alpha. Her best friend Justin, a warrior witch, needs her help to rescue some non-humans (NHs) who’ve been kidnapped for foul purposes. But there’s a pretty big conspiracy going down, and there’s no telling who’ll get hurt by the fallout.

First, the small issues. The beginning seems to ramble a bit. I felt like there was a bit much jealousy going around. And there’s an odd formatting error–I don’t know if it’s exclusive to the Kindle format, which is what I was reading. Essentially, there are a bunch of places where the narrative skips forward in time a bit, but there’s no blank line or marker to denote the skip. Because of that, it’s easy to get temporarily unmoored as you try to figure out where in the narrative you are. Also, I won’t give away the ending, but I will say it kind of left off in the middle of something; I usually prefer for books to stand alone a little more. It left off on a really nice reveal, though, so that at least was satisfying.

Kit has been seriously traumatized by past events. Having read a number of reviews of books with traumatized characters, I know there are some readers who have a “get over it” kind of mentality when reading about such characters. If you need your heroes to get over their fears and traumas so you can enjoy your story, don’t read this series. Personally I think it’s skillfully handled, and it’s nice to see a heroine who genuinely has to struggle with her past yet remains in many ways strong. As both a trigger warning and a recommendation, I’ll note that there’s an intense depiction of someone who has been raped trying to handle sex again, and I think it’s handled extremely well. But again, not everyone will be comfortable reading that material.

As usual Daniels creates interesting characters with plenty of depth to them. The storyline is tense and interesting–NHs are being kidnapped, tortured, and experimented on, and it’s up to Kit and Justin and their allies to find out how, why, and by whom. I love the worldbuilding; the various types of supernatural creatures are intriguing. Kit’s existence itself is an interesting setup: she’s half-human, which in many ways makes her physically inferior to the older vampires and the higher-level shapeshifters, but through determination, a skill at making friends, and her own unique skills and talents, she holds her own. I look forward to reading about more of her adventures.

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