Review: “Problem Child,” Victoria Helen Stone

Rating: 5 out of 5

Victoria Helen Stone’s Problem Child (A Jane Doe Thriller) is a fascinating follow-on to her Jane Doe. In that book, we met Jane, a complete sociopath who had oriented her entire current life around trying to take revenge for her best (only) friend’s death. In the process she gets together with an old boyfriend, adopts a cat, and finds a way to turn her curiosity and self-centeredness into almost-positive qualities. She may not be capable of “normal” love, but she still gets something out of her relationships. In this volume, Jane finds out she has a teenaged niece, Kayla, who may be just like her–another sociopath. But her niece has gone missing, and almost no one in her poor town cares to look for her. It’s also possible she’s been strong-armed into sex-work. Jane is fascinated that there might be another person like her in their family, and sets out to find Kayla.

It’s fascinating to watch Jane go home–we learned some things about her childhood in the previous book, but now we get to see how her parents and even high school teachers respond to her. We also see how obsessive she can get once something altogether random has triggered her curiosity.

There are plenty of books where a strong woman has to go be a detective, but most of those characters are detectives, and they care about the law. Jane is a lawyer and only cares about whether the things she does can get her caught. This makes for a different dynamic than usual and a much less predictable search.

The Jane Doe books do differ from the typical thrillers examining the views of a sociopath. Jane goes well beyond the stereotype, and deviates from it in important respects. She’s impulsive, and virtually incapable of denying herself something she wants unless waiting will get her something better. Sometimes she wants to feel what others feel, or at least to understand better. She isn’t a serial killer (yet?), and she doesn’t have a whole lot of patience for plotting and planning–unless it gets her what she really wants.

There are definitely some similarities between Kayla and Jane, and some interesting differences as well. Don’t mistake Jane’s search for Kayla as indicative of any kind of familial bond. Jane is just satisfying her curiosity, and she really wants to see whether Kayla is capable of the kinds of grander manipulations Jane is.

The pacing is great; this isn’t a high-paced action novel, but there’s definitely some tension. Jane is one of my recent favorite main characters to read about.

Content note for discussions about/memories of molestation and sexual assault.

Posted in Reviews Tagged with: , ,

Short Take: “Seed,” Ania Ahlborn

Rating: 5 out of 5

Ania Ahlborn’s Seed is an excellent horror novel. Jack gets into a car accident with his wife (Aimee) and daughters (Abby, 10, and Charlie, 6) in the car. Just before he swerved hard and rolled the car, he saw something in the darkness: a pair of very familiar reflective eyes. He thought he had escaped the dark shadow that haunted him, but it’s back–and it has plans for Charlie now, just like it did for Jack when he was younger.

This is a fascinating story of an inherited evil, whether it be mental illness or possession by a dark force. It seems to run in Jack’s family, but he has no idea what it really is. This story is a combination of a possession story and an evil child story, with excellent details and backstory.

I did find it difficult to read Jack and Aimee’s domestic arguments; I just hate reading about relationship problems. Jack’s a musician and Aimee doesn’t exactly appreciate how much of his time he spends doing local gigs. Aimee’s mother isn’t fond of Jack at all, and sees him as a millstone around Aimee’s neck. It’s certainly a believable situation–Aimee loves Jack and sure it was fun marrying a musician, but she’s a little tired of being poor and having her husband be gone on a number of evenings after working a long day. All of the characters have depth and dimension, even when they’re only on stage for a few minutes here and there (like Reagan, Jack’s fellow band member, and Aimee’s mom).

There’s some great tension in here. The beginning isn’t too slow (that can happen in some books that delay the good stuff too long), and by the ending, things have gotten really tight. This is my fourth Ania Ahlborn book, and they’ve all been fabulous!

Content note: animal death, child death

“C for Charlie,” Charlie whispered into Jack’s ear.
C for curse, he thought. C for catastrophe. Calamity. Chaos.

Posted in Reviews Tagged with: ,

Review: “Skin,” Kathe Koja

Rating: 4 out of 5

Kathe Koja’s horror novel Skin is quite… something. I’m still not entirely sure what I feel about it.

Tess, a welder, makes sculptures out of metal. Bibi uses the medium of dance for her performances. When Bibi meets Tess, the two women spark an unusual relationship. They end up sharing a home, and, together with Bibi’s other friends, start up a performance art troupe known as the Surgeons. When one of the performers is killed during a performance, everything falls apart. Tess goes down the rabbit hole with her sculptures, while Bibi becomes obsessed with cutting and body modification. But their ultimate obsession is each other.

First, what I wasn’t so fond of. Most of the book is about Tess and Bibi’s relationship, and other relationships that are consequential to that. I personally hate reading about the kind of accusations and anger and misunderstandings that can go into the failure of relationships. For a long time the story is mostly about friction between Tess and Bibi and sometimes the people around them. I read for escapism, and while I don’t need a “happy” story in order to escape, I also don’t want something this grating and depressing.

Toward the end, as Bibi’s modifications and behavior become more and more extreme, and Tess becomes more and more internal, I had an easier time getting into things. This was when it finally started to feel like a real horror novel.

I’m giving it a 4 because regardless of how little I enjoyed some of the content, I can see that the book was extremely well-written. It’s very visual, evocative, and creative. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the subject matter appeals to you or puts you off.

Content note: self-harm, cutting (self and others), scarification, body modification, sex (f/f and m/f).

Posted in Reviews Tagged with: , ,

Review: “The Cipher,” Kathe Koja

Rating: 5 out of 5

I’ve heard Kathe Koja’s horror novels are excellent, but until now I’d never read one. I absolutely loved The Cipher. Nakota and Nicholas are semi-sorta-sometimes a thing (or at least they sleep together, and Nicholas believes he loves Nakota). But what really draws them together is the mysterious hole to nowhere in the storage room downstairs from Nicholas’s flat. Nakota is determined to experiment with it, using bugs and then a mouse. Something happens to all of them–the bugs mutate strangely before dying, and the mouse… well, we just won’t go there. When Nicholas’s hand goes into the hole, a mysterious sore appears on his palm. They’re able to get some footage of what’s down there using a camcorder on a string, and the results are literally mind-bending. Nakota uses the video tape to draw in more and more people, even when there end up being multiple factions of people fighting over access to the hole. As for Nakota herself, she hopes for a more radical transformation courtesy of whatever’s going on in there.

Wow, the characters. Okay. Phew! Nakota is positively repellant. She uses people. She manipulates people. In fact, I daresay she does not bother to interact with anyone unless she is using and manipulating them. She knows Nicholas loves her and uses that to twist him around her little finger. She’s calculatedly vicious. As for Nicholas, he isn’t Mr. Perfect himself. He loves Nakota in his own weird way, mostly by letting her walk all over him. He spends most of his time drunk. If Nakota had been the point of view character, she would have been too unlikable and obnoxious. Nicholas is perfect as the PoV character, because while he’s no angel, he’s better enough to be engaging despite (or maybe because of) his flaws. Both characters constantly grate against one another. It galls Nakota that Nicholas is transforming when she is not. Nearly all of the characters in here are deeply flawed people.

The flow of the narrative–told from Nicholas’s point of view–is somewhat stream-of-consciousness-like. There’s a lot of exploration of Nicholas’s thoughts and ruminations, and yet I wasn’t bored at all once I got into the story. I never felt like we were retreading too much ground, or that there wasn’t a need for it, or that it slowed things down. Nicholas’s thoughts made things more interesting instead of less.

My only (totally minor) objection is that I wanted just a little bit more at the end. I felt like it ended a bit abruptly. The ending was still very good; I just felt it wasn’t quite as amazing as the rest of the book.

Content note: Sex, animal harm/death, suicidality, and the amount of violence and gore you can expect from pretty much any horror novel.

We’re all our worst best friends.

Posted in Reviews Tagged with: , ,

Review: “The Hollow Places,” T. Kingfisher

Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s horror tale The Hollow Places: A Novel kept me stuck to my seat until I finished it! Kara’s Uncle Earl runs the Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy. When Kara gets divorced, Earl suggests she move into the back room and help organize and run the museum. She’s grateful for the opportunity–she has a lot of great memories of the museum, loves her Uncle Earl, and very much does not want to live with her mother. She ends up having a lot of good conversations with the barista next door. When someone apparently punches a hole in the wall of the museum, Kara and Simon realize that the space behind the wall is impossible. There are no studs, pipes, or wires. There’s a concrete hallway with a dead body at one end and a whole other world up the mysterious stairs.

Uncle Earl is a peach of a character. He loves everyone, even if that means having to hold conflicting opinions on things. So many families suck in horror that it’s nice to see one good family relationship. Simon has a couple of odd stories to tell–one of his eyes is different genetically from most of the rest of him (you’ll have to read to find out the excellent story behind that), and sometimes he sees things other people can’t. Simon is gay, but he transcends the obvious stereotypes–he’s just an interesting person and a really good friend to Kara (also known as “Carrot” to Earl and Simon).

There’s a coincidence that keeps happening that Kara and Simon keep missing. This is the first time I’ve read something like this and not been frustrated by it. It’s almost played up as though the author is winking at us and is in on the joke, and I found it funny instead of annoying.

The world that Kara and Simon find their way into is very, very dangerous. There are a bunch of seemingly identical bunkers all over the place. There are willow trees that might not be what they seem. A mysterious “They” can’t be seen, but They like to both eat and play with humans, with horrifying results. (“PRAY THAT THEY ARE HUNGRY”)

The tension builds up in The Hollow Places so smoothly and steadily that I didn’t notice it until my shoulders were up by my ears and I hadn’t blinked in a while. The museum and its odd collection do come into play in some really fun ways, and it’s nice to have a horror story where there’s never any doubt that the male and female leads will not be falling for each other.

“Come on, let’s go back to the coffee shop and I’ll make us Irish coffees and we’ll discuss this like people who don’t die in the first five minutes of a horror movie.”

Posted in Reviews Tagged with: ,

Review: “Saltblood,” T.C. Parker

Rating: 5 out of 5

T.C. Parker’s Saltblood is a curious tale in which ancient superstition and horror smack head-on into a futuristic prison. Now that there’s a company capable of scraping ridiculous amounts of information about any person out there, it’s been given an algorithm: get too many “outrage units” and you get sent to a special prison on an island off of Scotland. Robin has been sent there after participating in a rally–the lack of context behind a photo of her in a rally made her look bad in a way that spurred a lot of online outrage. She arrives at the same time as Jack, who’s an alcoholic. A kind-of warden named Hampton is in charge, and the “guests” (prisoners) lead simple lives in tiny huts with cruddy food. Bill and Carol, who’ve become a couple since arriving, like to greet the newcomers. Chuck Valentine is a TV preacher who denies his own sexuality. Julia designed a memory implant that killed people. Sat is a programmer who knows more about the island than she’s saying. Hampton has at his disposal the sullen Islanders–the natives of the island who’d been reassured when the Vanderhalden company bought the island from the Scottish government that they would all have work.

There’s a wild copper “cage” all around and above the island to keep any kind of signals in or out–kind of like a Faraday cage. The island has caves, beaches, and mysterious standing stones, and the only place the prisoners aren’t allowed to go is the Islanders’ village.

This process of convicting people based on outrage means that, as Chuck points out to Robin, they’re “all celebrities here.” Most of them were convicted in the court of public opinion, and we know how fickle that can be. Incorrect people can be targeted. Photos and videos can be taken out of context. We all screw up now and then, only in the modern world that can go viral and upend your life. The copper cage, the algorithm–there’s a great touch of paranoid near-future sci-fi here. Not only does it exist side-by-side with a disturbing creature haunting the island, but it’s having an interesting effect on that creature. It’s unusual to see those two types of story combined, and Parker does it well!

Conspiracy theories abound. Vanderhalden seems to have its grubby hands in a lot of pies, and various people on the island start to realize that many of them have Vanderhalden in common. When a person is beaten and left for dead, and Robin sees him die, a countdown seems to start. Hampton is lying about what happened to the person and he knows Robin is aware of the truth. It wouldn’t take much for him to get rid of her.

There’s a bit of gore, but not much. I can’t think of any other content warnings that might be needed. I will note, however, that there’s some good lesbian rep in here. I really enjoyed this book and recommend it to readers of any of the genres mentioned!

Posted in Reviews Tagged with: , , , , ,

Review: “The Shuddering,” Ania Ahlborn

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Ania Ahlborn’s The Shuddering might make you a little more leery of entering the woods when it’s snowy about! Ryan Adler (an ambitious adrenaline junky) and his twin sister Jane (a schoolteacher), grew up quite privileged. Jane is reminded of this when her best friend, Lauren (who grew up in a trailer), is awestruck by their not-so-little “cabin” in the woods. This is supposed to be a last gathering of old friends and new as Ryan prepares to move to Europe for his job. Sawyer, who made up a trio of friends with Ryan and Jane in their youth (and who dated Jane in high school) has come with his girlfriend April. One of the reasons Ryan was sure to get Sawyer there was that he hoped to bring Sawyer and Jane back together. He hadn’t anticipated April’s presence. The group starts to hear odd sounds outside, and Ryan’s Husky Oona seems kind of freaked out. Then some creepy critters–who are very, very hungry–show up.

The group of three old friends is interesting. Sawyer definitely doesn’t fit in with Ryan and Jane, but because they all grew up together, they all get along despite that. Unfortunately since they don’t have that shared history with April, they (unconsciously) shut her out. For April’s part, these are not the kinds of people she’s used to spending time with, and she doesn’t handle that entirely well. With the exception of one part of April’s characterization (which is in the spoiler section at the end of this review), I loved the characters. Even a couple of guys trying to get out and plow the snow have a surprising amount of personality.

The critters in this creature feature are tall, gaunt, obviously starving, and disturbingly intelligent in certain ways. It makes for a fascinating game of cat and mice. The author builds up the tension quite beautifully, and I was hooked through the whole thing.

Content note for a little sex and some occasional gore.

SPOILER WARNING: Like many creature-features, this book starts with the deaths of some characters we’ll never hear about again. It’s done unusually well in this book. Even just the brief internal thoughts we get from the characters’ heads turn them into real people you can care about for those moments. I also had a real problem with April’s characterization. She’s made out to be the “crazy girlfriend” stereotype, with only tiny little tidbits to indicate she’s even occasionally a halfway reasonable person. I’m sorry, but when a pregnant woman finds out her fiance/the father of her child is still in love with his high school girlfriend, she has every right to freak out. I ended up feeling like the author was trying to force the reader to dislike April, which I object to. Luckily this was pretty much the only thing I disliked about this book. (Although, the ending is a very familiar trope.) END SPOILERS

Posted in Reviews Tagged with: ,

Review: “We Are Wolves,” various authors

Rating: 5 out of 5

It’s rare that I give a full 5-out-of-5 to a multiple-author anthology, but We are Wolves: A Horror Anthology is worth it. The editors clearly had a vision for the book, nailed it down, and held on tight to it. I loved it so much that after I returned the book to Kindle Unlimited, I bought an actual permanent Kindle copy (not something I usually do, because I rarely re-read books).

The book opens with an early content warning for: assault, abuse, sexual abuse, harm to children, child death, childbirth, bodily harm, and self-harm. (Sexual assault was pretty off-the-page and just referred to as background for the most part.) It’s about many of the struggles women face. The stories (and a couple of poems) are all written by women or nonbinary people, and are about a lot of the horrors that come with being women–and the horrors that can be visited upon the people who hurt them. There are some pure revenge fantasies, so there may be some men who won’t want to read this book! The profits go to charity.

There are wonderful authors in this book–I’m already fond of people like Cynthia Pelayo, Laurel Hightower, Gemma Amor, S.H. Cooper, Hailey Piper, Sara Tantlinger, Sonora Taylor, V. Castro, Red Lagoe, Cassie Daley, Sadie Hartmann, Lilyn George, the Sisters of Slaughter (Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason), and Jessica Guess. Now I’m learning to appreciate Amanda McHugh, Erin Al-Mehairi, Beverly Lee, Eve Harms, J. Danielle Dorn, and Sarah Read as well.

The stories are universally excellent. There were none that I thought didn’t belong. Any problems I had with them were minor–one story had an ending tacked on that I felt detracted from it; one character’s last words were too humorous to go with the dark tone of the rest of the story; one story was just a bit too meta for me even though it was very well-written (entirely personal preference); and one or two pieces confused me a bit (but that’s a fairly common problem in horror stories).

There are some very powerful stories in here. I’m not going to name them, because I don’t really have “favorites” in this volume per se. There are very narrowly-focused stories about individuals’ sorrows. There are stories about universal forces. There’s a story about female horror film archetypes. There are werewolves and wolves. There are witches and absolutely normal people. There are abusive husbands and boyfriends and fathers and brothers. There are sociopaths who are into control and manipulation, and brutes who are into physical violence. There’s a vampire, a few giant lobsters, serial killers, simple sins, vengeful ghosts, and more. Some stories are of supernatural horror, while others are of perfectly mundane horror. Sometimes the supernatural is on the side of good–or at least the side of the protagonist.

I love this book, and I hope you do, too!

Posted in Reviews Tagged with: , ,

Review: “Brother,” Ania Ahlborn

Rating: 5 out of 5

Ania Ahlborn’s horror novel Brother is just fantastic! 19-year-old Michael is quiet and obedient. His abusive older brother Reb is his “best friend.” He was adopted, but at this point he fits into the family pretty well. He butchers the bodies that his mother the serial killer provides: young women who won’t be missed. One day Reb takes him to a record store where his girlfriend Lucy works, and shy Michael is captivated by Lucy’s friend and co-worker, Alice. Reb seems determined to set the two of them up, but how could Michael engage in any kind of “normal” relationship when all he’s ever known is chaos, abuse, and death?

Two time periods unfurl in parallel: the years surrounding Reb’s collection of Michael as though he were a pet, and the present. It really focuses on the disparate ways in which abuse and childhood surroundings shape different people in different ways. Reb is cruel, manipulative, and devious. Michael, on the other hand, is meek, quiet, and obedient. Their sisters, Lauralynn and Misty Dawn, are treated even worse than the boys and have their own ways of trying to cope. It’s easy to see Michael as the victim, bullied and threatened into going along with what his family wants him to do. I mean, if he’s locked in with a corpse until he butchers it, he really doesn’t have much choice, does he? But when he starts to think for himself, it has to leave you wondering, why couldn’t he do this before everything went to hell? There are no easy answers. He’s in an entirely untenable situation.

The characterizations are fantastic. Momma’s a serial killer, Wade (their dad) is an enabler, Reb is psychotic, unpredictable, and clearly a serial-killer-in-training. Misty Dawn just wants to listen to her music and avoid Momma’s wrath; she asks Michael to bring her jewelry from the corpses. Reb and Michael spend much of their time finding suitable victims for Momma, which is a twist on the serial killer genre that I haven’t seen before.

This family is as dysfunctional as it gets, and Michael’s journey through it is absolutely fantastic. There are no easy answers in this horror story.

Content note: Slurs, molestation, graphic animal harm/death, a bit of gore, a touch of necrophilia, and cannibalism.

People were much easier to deal with once they were dead.

Posted in Reviews Tagged with: , ,

February Is Women In Horror Month

Not sure who you ought to read? Here’s a list of books by a bunch of excellent horror authors. All links lead to my reviews of said books, and there are enough books here that you could read one a day for the whole month and still have some left over!

Gemma Amor’s Girl On Fire–a very personalized apocalyptic novel. Her rural horror novel is White Pines. She also has a collection of short stories called Till the Score Is Paid, and a book called Dear Laura that was very well received.

Sara Tantlinger’s To Be Devoured is bloody and beautiful.

Hailey Piper’s The Worm and His Kings, an eerie tale of identity and cosmic horror. Her Benny Rose the Cannibal King is an excellent urban legend/slasher story!

Tananarive Due’s The Between, an intriguing knot of a story about a man who almost died.

Darcy Coates, Parasite is a sci-fi horror story about some nasty aliens.

Red Lagoe gives us this excellent collection of short horror stories: Lucid Screams.

Carol Gore’s Infested is a great rural, monster insect horror novel.

Premee Mohamed’s Beneath the Rising is a borderline horror book, more YA adventure, but a wonderful skein of cosmic horror underlies the whole thing.

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is an excellent collection of short stories.

Angela Archer’s The Ladderman is an odd but intriguing urban legend tale.

S.H. Cooper gives us a short story collection called All That’s Fair, as well as another called The Corpse Garden and From Twisted Roots. She also has a cosmic horror novel, The Festering Ones, that has one of my favorite cosmic horror story endings.

Sara Gran’s Come Closer is a great possession novel.

C.V. Hunt’s Halloween Fiend is a good read at any time of year.

Laurel Hightower’s Crossroads is poignant, heartbreaking, and tragic. Her Whispers In the Dark is eerie!

The anthology Under Her Black Wings brings together short stories from an array of female authors!

Sonora Taylor’s Seeing Things is a wonderful ghost story. She also has some anthologies, such as Wither and Other Stories, Little Paranoias, and The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales. My favorite of her work is Without Condition, a very unusual serial killer tale with overtones of romance.

Jessica Guess’s Cirque Berserk is one of my favorite takes on the classic slasher genre!

Stephanie Rabig’s Playing Possum is an absolutely delightful horror, humor, LGBTQ+ work! How can you go wrong with were-possums?

Kate Alice Marshall’s Rules For Vanishing is a really interesting YA cosmic horror novel!

Deborah Sheldon’s Body Farm Z is a story of a zombie outbreak at a body farm!

Mary SanGiovanni has a ton of excellent horror novels, but you might start with her Kathy Ryan stories, such as the excellent Chills.

T. Kingfisher (who writes beautifully in several genres) brings us The Twisted Ones, a great rural horror novel. The Hollow Places is another wonderful horror read from her.

Gwendolyn Kiste’s The Rust Maidens is slow and bleak.

S.P. Miskowski’s Knock Knock is a part of her excellent Skillute Cycle of small-town horror.

I also recommend Cass Khaw’s “Persons Non Grata” cosmic horror tales: Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet. Very lyrical and amazing!

Ania Ahlborn has written the excellent novels Brother, If You See Her, and The Shuddering.

The multiple-author anthology We Are Wolves–all stories by women and non-binary authors, and all about women–is incredible!

T.C. Parker’s Saltblood is an excellent blend of horror with a near-future sci-fi prison story.

My first Kathe Koja book, The Cipher, is fascinating! I enjoyed it more than Skin, but both were very well-written.

Christine Morgan’s Lakehouse Infernal is more toward the “extreme” horror end of the spectrum than I usually read, but it’s so much fun!

 

Here are a few thrillers for balance, since sometimes I see thrillers lumped in with horror and sometimes I don’t:

Skyla Dawn Cameron’s The Silent Places, in which a woman with a secret past comes face to face with it (heavy theme of domestic abuse).

Ali Seay’s Go Down Hard, in which two serial killers discover they live next door to each other.

Victoria Helen Stone’s Jane Doe, in which we see the lengths a sociopath will go to in order to get her revenge. (Soon I’ll also be posting a review of the excellent sequel, “False Step.”)

Gaby Triana’s Island of Bones is a great haunted house story.

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer is just as intriguing as it sounds!

Darby Kane’s Pretty Little Wife features a non-neurotypical heroine.

 

I hope these give you a few ideas for books you might read–not just in February, but at any time. I know I’ve missed plenty, so if you have more to suggest, add them in the comments!

Posted in Reviews Tagged with: , ,

Archives