Aftertime by Sophie Littlefield

“Awakening in a bleak landscape as scarred as her body, Cass Dollar vaguely recalls surviving something terrible. Having no idea how many weeks have passed, she slowly realizes the horrifying truth: Ruthie has vanished.

And with her, nearly all of civilization.

Where once-lush hills carried cars and commerce, the roads today see only cannibalistic Beaters — people turned hungry for human flesh by a government experiment gone wrong.

In a broken, barren California, Cass will undergo a harrowing quest to get Ruthie back. Few people trust an outsider, let alone a woman who became a zombie and somehow turned back, but she finds help from an enigmatic outlaw, Smoke. Smoke is her savior, and her safety.

For the Beaters are out there.

And the humans grip at survival with their trigger fingers. Especially when they learn that she and Ruthie have become the most feared, and desired, of weapons in a brave new world….”

There is so much that I liked about this novel that it’s tough to figure out where to start.  Littlefield has balanced all of the elements so well that they intermingle and play off of each other in a way that I don’t often see.  Characters, plot, backstory, and setting have all been written with a rare skill and talent.

The setting is designed to please someone like me.  The story takes place in Northern California, and in fact references places that I have visited.  With so few books set in our area, I tend to enjoy the ones that do make Northern California their home.  In this novel, it also adds to the brutality of what happens, because of that very familiarity.  Readers who are not from this area will still enjoy the novel, and they will still feel the horror of what happens, but I think it will have a special poignancy for us residents.

For those who are squeamish, be advised that the novel does contain some scenes that verge on the gruesome.  The zombies (here called Beaters) do not attack indiscriminately; rather, they have learned to drag a victim to their nests and consume them there, often while the poor person is still alive.  The sheer terror and pain involved in these attacks comes through the pages and can be hard to read.  Admittedly, I had to put the book down a few times and walk away because it was very disturbing to me.  I wasn’t grossed out—a book that does that isn’t one that I want to read—but I was upset by the idea of such things happening.  The author doesn’t delve too far into the grotesque, but she gives you just enough to bring across that sense of horror.

The story isn’t one of mere survival, although that’s the level that most inhabitants of the world have been reduced to.  Rather, this story has a goal: Cass needs to get her daughter Ruthie back from those who are holding her.  The fact that the novel has a purpose beyond just “survive the zombies and rebuild society” puts it several notches above other novels in the genre.

The author makes a daring choice with regards to her main character: Cass is a recovering alcoholic who was only weeks sober when society fell apart.  Because of this, readers get to see the world through the eyes of someone who is uniquely unable to deal with it and, at the same time, uniquely poised to cope.  Cass references AA and its philosophies a lot, and it gives a structure to how she functions within this terrible new world.  At times, it’s heartbreaking to watch her struggles, because she tries so hard and suffers so much.

Sophie Littlefield is right up there with Mira Grant as the best zombie novelists on the shelf, and this is not praise that I give out lightly.  Aftertime is a kick in the gut that is nonetheless one of the most fascinating and sobering reads you’ll ever find.  Forget about The Walking Dead—grab this book and prepare to have your world shaken.

This review was originally posted on January 3, 2012.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Omega Days by John L. Campbell

San Francisco, California. Father Xavier Church has spent his life ministering to unfortunate souls, but he has never witnessed horror like this. After he forsakes his vows in the most heartrending of ways, he watches helplessly as a zombie nun takes a bite out of a fellow priest’s face.

University of California, Berkeley. Skye Dennison is moving into her college dorm for the first time, simultaneously excited to be leaving the nest and terrified to be on her own. When her mother and father are eaten alive in front of her, she realizes the terror has just begun.

Alameda, California. Angie West made millions off her family’s reality gun show on the History Channel. But after she is cornered by the swarming undead, her knowledge of heavy artillery is called into play like never before.

Within weeks, the world is overrun by the walking dead. Only the quick and the smart, the strong and the determined, will survive—for now.”

What popped into my mind after finishing this book is a quote that I’ve heard attributed to various people: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” Or words to that effect, anyway. I would categorize this as the quintessential zombie novel, because all of the elements that you’d expect are here: young person turned badass, gun nut with her enclave, a man having crisis of faith, parents and children eating each other’s faces, cats and dogs sleeping together… okay, wait, not that last one, but you get the idea.

Basically, if you can think of a trope or common image associated with zombies, you’ll find it in here. Any gruesome vignette that might cause a reaction can likely be found in these pages. Bouncing baby undead?… got it. Plucky puppy’s last action is to jump into its strangely pale owner’s arms?… check. One sibling dies in another’s arms?… included. I could keep going, but you get the picture. That’s why I said that if you like zombie novels, you’ll like this one. It’s everything the zombie genre contains packed into one volume.

However, don’t expect to find much plot here. This is the kind of book that you read purely for fun and vicarious pleasure. No subtle metaphor for humanity’s downfall here, just hungry dead folks and the living people who run screaming from them. And you know, there’s nothing wrong with that. Not every book needs to change your life and elevate your consciousness; sometimes, you just want a little mental junk food. So, I had fun reading this book even as I recognized that it wasn’t really going anywhere. The characters just ran around and ended up in the same place at the end of the book.

I did find a few instances where the author seems to have violated his own “rules” about zombie behavior. For example, zombie move slowly in shuffling hordes… unless it’s more dramatic for them to run. In another example, zombies lose interest quickly in what they can no longer see… unless it’s more dramatic for a lone man (and his dog) to be trapped for days atop a massive storage container, surrounded by thousands of the living dead. Also, zombies are described as having low motor control… unless it’s dramatic for them to climb several flights of stairs and burst suddenly upon hapless military men. It’s not a big deal if you can just take this book as it is—a fun and fast-moving zombie novel—but it did cause me a few raised eyebrows.

So what if this book doesn’t paint exquisite pictures of humanity’s failings through the medium of zombies as a metaphor for our moral decay? It’s a neat little chomp-fest with tons of gunfire and shambling hordes. Omega Days is a great addition to the zombie genre, and would probably be a good intro to the genre for new readers.

This review was originally posted on July 16, 2014.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Cannibal Kingdom by John L. Campbell

“Deep in an Indonesian jungle, a careless tourist releases an ancient evil that has lain dormant for centuries. Appearing as a virus, completely without symptoms and seemingly benign, Trident quickly infects the world’s population. Silently it waits, counting down to the moment when it will reveal its true, terrifying nature.

It is only weeks before the presidential elections, and Garrison Fox, a decorated Marine and devoted husband and father, is almost assured of a return to the White House for a second term. As the campaign nears its final days, the First Family finds itself scattered across the U.S.

At an Ohio rally and across the globe, Trident suddenly unleashes its horrible power, transforming unsuspecting people into merciless killers driven to feed. When an infected Secret Service turns on him, President Fox is forced to flee across an America plunging deeper into savagery with each passing hour.

In Atlanta, a CDC researcher will work against her own mortality in an effort to stop an extinction-level event. In Pennsylvania, a newly commissioned second lieutenant is hurled into a war for which he was never trained. And moving east toward a secure mountain bunker, President Fox must find a way to save his family, his country and his own life…if he’s not already too late.”

I’ve read Campbell’s Omega Days series, which also features zombies, and mostly enjoyed them.  There were times that I felt the novels were a little scattered or just didn’t quite hit the mark plot-wise, but I’ve kept up with them since they’re set in Northern California and I enjoy reading about places that I’m familiar with.  Seeing that the author had released a stand-alone zombie novel caught my curiosity, plus it got tons of good reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, I decided to give it a shot.  And I guess I’m just not the right audience for this particular book.

For one thing, the editing in this book is sub-par.  I found missing words, misspellings, and even homophone confusion (“principle” and “principal”, more than once).  At one point, a zombie is being autopsied, and the doctor cuts open the scalp and pulls the forward over the face to reach the skull, and yet somehow, the doctor sees the corpse’s eye twitch.  Another issue that I had was with the number of tired tropes the author uses–I’m specifically thinking of a female character on a deserted road who encounters the one psycho that wants to imprison and rape her.  And quite a few characters display tendencies towards the “lawful stupid” alignment, refusing to resist the urge to go roaming alone in zombie-infested territory or believing that it’s amoral to execute someone in the throes of turning into a zombie until they’ve actually turned and bitten someone.

The biggest gripe that I have is, oddly enough, the author’s attempt at a scientific explanation of the Trident virus.  Well, that’s half the problem, since the virus isn’t actually a virus, but the entire book focuses on explaining it like a virus.  And it acts like one, even down to the fact that it appears to be almost entirely similar to ebola.  But it’s not a virus!  Augh, my head… I wish the author had made up his mind.  In my opinion, it’s really tricky to write a book like this one where you attempt to use science, because you can’t half-ass it.  If you’re going to invoke science, you need to go all the way.  Here, the characters can study the virus/curse/thing and watch how it operates in the human body (but not animals, because Reasons), but the world’s top virologists can’t do a thing about it.  And at the end, the solution to stopping the zombies makes absolutely no sense, and there’s not the slightest attempt to justify it.

I hate to say it, but if this book was a movie, it would be made for TV and air Sunday afternoon at 2pm.  Good if you’re bored and have nothing else to do, but not much else.  If you’re an aficionado of zombie fiction, skip this one.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Angry Robot Books, based in England, often bills itself as a purveryor of SF, F, and WTF fiction. It’s that last category that often intrigues me the most. And nothing fits that better than Chuck Wendig’s novel Blackbirds. It’s edgy, in-your-face, and brutal… and it also tells a great story.

“Miriam Black knows when you will die.

Still in her early twenties, she’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. But when Miriam hitches a ride with truck driver Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be gruesomely murdered while he calls her name.

Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.”

This is not a novel that pulls any punches for the sake of readers’ sensibilities. It contains sex, graphic violence, drinking, and enough cursing to make an entire convent of nuns faint dead away. Miriam is one of the most damaged heroines in the genre–she uses casual sex and hard drinking as a buffer against the violent death that she regularly witnesses. Most of the other characters have their own roster of anti-social tendencies as well.

And yet, it’s impossible not to sympathize with–and eventually like–Miriam. There are chapters in the story marked as “interludes”, in which Miriam tells her history to a reporter from a fringe magazine. Weaving together these vignettes with the plotline’s action gives readers a better picture of Miriam than they’d get from just seeing her in action. In the interstichals, she talks dispassionately about her life, answers questions about her feelings, and generally gives readers the chance to peer “behind the curtain”.

Miriam is a well-rounded character, but the others have equally unique voices too. As I already mentioned, most of the cast are not the most savory of characters. Among those, the one that struck me the most was Harriet, a short stocky woman who revels in violence. Her glee at causing pain caused me a few shudders. Contrasting these villainous types is Louie, the rough-around-the-edges trucker who nonetheless shows Miriam the first true kindness that she’s had for a long time.

Knowing how Louie dies, and knowing how long he has, gives the plot an edge of urgency. Of course, readers will wonder if there’s any chance of Miriam stopping his terrible fate, and that’s the question that reverberates throughout the novel: do we actually have choice and free will, or is our future already written? Miriam faces this question repeatedly, both in the “present” of the story and in flashbacks.

All these weighty matters aside, this is a novel that is tough to put down. Wendig sets readers up to want to know more, to want to keep reading and find out what happens next. There’s plenty of action to balance out the reflective moments, and readers won’t be long into the book before they’re cheering for Miriam and boo-ing the bad guys. Blackbirds is tough and gritty, and it isn’t afraid to get in your face with a curse and a puff of cigarette smoke. It’s not for sensitive readers, but this dark fantasy is a stand-out among the novels that equate “bloody” with “edgy”.

This review was originally posted on June 28, 2012.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Twilight Pariah by Jeffrey Ford

“All Maggie, Russell, and Henry wanted out of their last college vacation was to get drunk and play archaeologist in an old house in the woods outside of town. When they excavate the mansion’s outhouse they find way more than they bargained for: a sealed bottle filled with a red liquid, along with the bizarre skeleton of a horned child

Disturbing the skeleton throws each of their lives into a living hell. They feel followed wherever they go, their homes are ransacked by unknown intruders, and people they care about are brutally, horribly dismembered. The three friends awakened something, a creature that will stop at nothing to retrieve its child.”

This is one of those books that’s hard to write about, not because of anything outstandingly good or horribly bad, but because it’s so mundane.  It’s the sheer lack of anything that stands out that defines how I feel about this book.  A bunch of kids (and yes, even though they’re in college, they’re still kids) go to a haunted house, disturb something creepy, do research to find out about it, and eventually stop it in the nick of time.  There’s the Smart Girl, the Strong Guy, the Strong Guy’s Boyfriend, the Professor, and the Stoner.  There’s even a dog, belonging to the Smart Girl.  It sounds like the makings of a Scooby Gang of one kind or another.  And for me, really, the characters never progressed much beyond these stereotypes.

And yet, I can’t say that this was a bad book.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, aside from a huge lack of originality.  The story was tight (it’s only novella length); the characters didn’t do anything, well, out of character; and the circumstances of the haunting didn’t contradict themselves.  Looked at purely from a technical perspective, the story is okay.  But this view doesn’t take into account the many questions that I was left with at the end–questions like “How did the horned child’s skeleton stay intact through all the handling?” and “What triggered the entity to go out killing?” (because despite what the story wants you to believe, the mention of killings over the course of decades negates the idea that the skeleton’s exhumation was the key) and “Why did nothing bad happen to anyone close to Maggie since she’s the one carting the skeleton around in her car trunk?”

Something else confused me.  At the end, it seems like Ford is gearing up for one final revelation when Maggie calls everyone together one more time.  Is she actually dead?  Has she uncovered one last piece of evidence?  What is it?  It turns out to be… nothing.  She just wants them to come out and see something she found on an archaeological dig.  It felt like Ford was heading towards one last big explosion of activity, and then he got bored and just ended the story.  I actually wondered if my advance copy was missing some pages.  That’s not a good sign.

So, long story short, the book leaves dangling plot threads, has one-dimensional characters, and serves up nothing new under either heaven or earth.  As I said earlier, there’s nothing wrong with this book, but there’s not really anything right with it either.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

The Remaining by D. J. Molles

“In a steel-and-lead encased bunker a Special Forces soldier waits on his final orders.

On the surface a bacterium has turned 90% of the population into hyper-aggressive predators.

Now Captain Lee Harden must leave the bunker and venture into the wasteland to rekindle a shattered America.”

Okay, the situation with this book is kind of interesting.  If you have an e-reader, you can get this book right now, but if you want print, you have to wait until May.  In fact, you can download the first four books by this author right now, but print is not to be found.  Not yet, anyway.  So, if you’re a print person, should you grab this when it finally shows up?

Well, that’s a hard call for me to make.  The answer is mostly a “yes”.  There’s no shortage of action in this novel.  Zombies are rampaging across the country.  Hordes of them converge on our intrepid hero, Lee Hardin, who often has minimal weaponry and little more than his brains to help him through dangerous situations.  He perseveres in his mission to rebuild society one little group of people at a time, valiantly braving danger to save the uninfected.

If you’re thinking that this sounds a little campy, you’d be right.  This is not a novel in which things are going to surprise you.  If you’ve seen a B-grade horror flick—or even a Saturday-afternoon action movie—you can see where a lot of this is going to go.  But, as everyone knows, sometimes those kinds of movies (or books) can be just what you want.  Not every story has to challenge and enlighten in order to entertain.

On the other hand, by following some of the tropes, Molles has perhaps unintentionally set up Hardin as something of a dunderhead.  He makes mistakes that even I, inexperienced at combat as I am, know are things that you really shouldn’t do.  There are also some elements that are so typical that I had to shake my head.  On the first page, not only do we meet Hardin, we meet his dog Tango.  The minute I saw that dog, I thought “Poor puppy, you’re just here to die, aren’t you?”  I won’t confirm if that’s the case or not, but you can probably read between the lines of this review and figure it out for yourself.

I enjoyed The Remaining for what it was: a quick, breezy action story, heavy on fighting and terribly injured bodies wandering around, light on any plot beyond “Run around and try to survive”.  I’m not sure if I’m going to go on to the next book or not, but it’s pretty inexpensive for an e-book, so I may just give it a try.

This review was originally posted on February 14, 2014.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland

“Angel Crawford is a loser.

Living with her alcoholic deadbeat dad in the swamps of southern Louisiana, she’s a high school dropout with a pill habit and a criminal record who’s been fired from more crap jobs than she can count. Now on probation for a felony, it seems that Angel will never pull herself out of the downward spiral her life has taken.

That is, until the day she wakes up in the ER after overdosing on painkillers. Angel remembers being in an horrible car crash, but she doesn’t have a mark on her. To add to the weirdness, she receives an anonymous letter telling her there’s a job waiting for her at the parish morgue—and that it’s an offer she doesn’t dare refuse.

Before she knows it she’s dealing with a huge crush on a certain hunky deputy and a brand new addiction: an overpowering craving for brains. Plus, her morgue is filling up with the victims of a serial killer who decapitates his prey—just when she’s hungriest!

Angel’s going to have to grow up fast if she wants to keep this job and stay in one piece. Because if she doesn’t, she’s dead meat.

Literally.”

It’s getting more popular to write a zombie novel that is from the point of view of the zombie.  Most of the ones that I’ve seen thus far have gone the somber route, using the zombie’s condition to reflect on the ills of society and such things.  And while there is some of that in Rowland’s novel—Angel has multiple issues, not the least of which are drug addiction and an abusive father—the author mostly attempts to keep the tone light.  Admittedly, the humor can be a bit morbid at times—Angel’s frustration at bodies showing up at the morgue without their brains is both nauseating and comical—but gallows humor does work, especially in a story of this kind.

And speaking of “nauseating”, readers should be forewarned that there are some fairly graphic scenes in this book.  Angel works as a morgue tech, and of course there’s the whole “eating brains” issue, so parts of this novel are not for the squeamish.  Personally, although I found the concept interesting, I waited a bit before reading this novel, because it’s not a good idea for me to read gross stuff when I’m stressed!  However, brains and blood aside, the icky scenes aren’t lingered over and so shouldn’t cause too much distress.

I liked Angel as a character.  She doesn’t deny or try to gloss over her issues, and it takes the entire book for her to really start making changes in her life.  Rowland portrays Angel as a young woman on the very edge of losing everything—health, sanity, even her life—and having to pull herself back from the brink.  She may be named Angel, but she’s no angel!  She’s a down to earth young person with very real problems, but she never flings around an overabundance of angst.  Rowland found just the right balance between a bad kid and one trying to turn things around.

I wasn’t quite as enamored of the murder mystery that interweaves through Angel’s storyline.  I’m not sure why, but I think it was because I got the sense that Angel’s community wasn’t all that large, and a small community shouldn’t have quite as many deaths (and unusual deaths) as you see.  But this is a small quibble in an otherwise well-written novel.  Everything ties together in the end, and if Rowland doesn’t write any more about these characters, the book still comes to a satisfactory end.

My Life as a White Trash Zombie isn’t your normal tale of the undead.  It’s sharp and fresh, with a fast-talking and savvy heroine who practically grows up before your eyes.  If you’re looking for something funny and a bit off the beaten track, then this novel is for you.

This review was originally posted on August 29, 2011.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

World War Z by Max Brooks

“The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. “World War Z” is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War.

Most of all, the book captures with haunting immediacy the human dimension of this epochal event. Facing the often raw and vivid nature of these personal accounts requires a degree of courage on the part of the reader, but the effort is invaluable because, as Mr. Brooks says in his introduction, “By excluding the human factor, aren’t we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn’t the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as ‘the living dead’?”

I’m not sure how I made it this far without reading Brooks’s zombie opus, but somehow I did.  Part of this was fueled by my husband reading it and not liking it.  What I eventually found out, though, is that his dislike stemmed mostly from the fact that the book wasn’t what he expected it to be.  While I’m not sure what his expectations were, I completely understand that preconceived notions can ruin a book.  In my case, I was impressed with the author’s handling of what can be an overused trope—a world plagued by the living dead.

I don’t know whether this is correct or not, but I’ve been referring to the format used in this book as that of the modern epistolary novel.  Rather than a series of letters, you instead get interview transcripts and reports of things happening after the fact.  In this case, Brooks steps into his novel as the collector of untold stories from the time of the zombie apocalypse’s first waves.  The tales span the globe, include accounts from doctors and politicians and “regular” people, and cover events both small and large.

For me, it was this global perspective that was so fascinating.  I think that just about every other novel that I’ve read about zombie uprisings has tended to focus locally.  In other words, its scope is limited to a main character or two and those in their immediate area.  Brooks avoids this in two distinct ways: first, he doesn’t assume that civilization would experience a sudden and complete collapse; and two, his account is written ten years after the official end of the zombie war, when the story collector has had a chance to canvas the world for vignettes.

It’s also clear that the author put thought not only into the effects of zombies on populations, but also on geopolitical views.  The Palestinian wall, the high profile attack at (and defeat at) Yonkers as a lesson in the use of weapons on zombies, the apartheid-esque Redeker plan—it truly makes this story take on the widest possible context.  I wonder if the author pulled out a Risk board and played through various scenarios.

Digging deeper, there’s a lot of commentary on human nature, government’s stagnating bureaucracy, man’s helplessness in the face of panic as well as man’s resistance in rising above it, and the divides among different peoples and countries that prevent us from really moving on together as a species.  I could do some detailed breakdowns of these themes, but I honestly think that it’s better for readers to come to them by themselves.  It seems likely that individual readers will take away slightly different messages and points of interest, so I’d rather not pollute the well, so to speak.

I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read this book, as I’m sure it would have informed my views on other zombie novels.  Don’t be put off by the walking dead—World War Z has a lot to say about humanity that has nothing to do with chowing down on brains.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library Davis branch.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

The Family Plot by Cherie Priest

the-family-plot“Chuck Dutton built Music City Salvage with patience and expertise, stripping historic properties and reselling their bones. Inventory is running low, so he’s thrilled when Augusta Withrow appears in his office offering salvage rights to her entire property. This could be a gold mine, so he assigns his daughter Dahlia to personally oversee the project.

The crew finds a handful of surprises right away. Firstly, the place is in unexpectedly good shape. And then there’s the cemetery, about thirty fallen and overgrown graves dating to the early 1900s, Augusta insists that the cemetery is just a fake, a Halloween prank, so the city gives the go-ahead, the bulldozer revs up, and it turns up human remains. Augusta says she doesn’t know whose body it is or how many others might be present and refuses to answer any more questions. Then she stops answering the phone.

But Dahlia’s concerns about the corpse and Augusta’s disappearance are overshadowed when she begins to realize that she and her crew are not alone, and they’re not welcome at the Withrow estate. They have no idea how much danger they’re in, but they’re starting to get an idea. On the crew’s third night in the house, a storm shuts down the only road to the property. The power goes out. Cell signals are iffy. There’s nowhere to go and no one Dahlia can call for help, even if anyone would believe that she and her crew are being stalked by a murderous phantom. Something at the Withrow mansion is angry and lost, and this is its last chance to raise hell before the house is gone forever. And it seems to be seeking permanent company.”

I’m glad that Priest has returned to the Southern Gothic horror genre, which is where she started many years ago.  While I liked her steampunk novels, her skill at evoking a creepy atmosphere is, I think, best served in the culture-heavy, moss-draped landscape of the South.  It lets her stretch her descriptive muscles while fitting her story into a place that already carries the tinge of the supernatural.  And a haunted house story suits this setting wonderfully as well–houses back East are older, and were often inhabited by several generations of the same family, thus increasing the chance of the kind of tragedies that are believed to produce hauntings.

The author capitalizes on this belief, but she does so in an interesting way.  The hapless victims who are in the house are antique hunters, tasked with finding and stripping anything of value from the house before it’s destroyed.  This gives them the perfect excuse to be going to every room in the house and poking into things that normally wouldn’t be disturbed.  For me, this meant that Priest avoided having her readers yelling at the book because the characters are being stupid, because these characters have an actual reason to be where they are.  Money is a great motivator to ignore weird things going bump in the night.

I have a little issue with the pacing of the novel.  It moves very slowly for the majority of the book and then speeds up dramatically at the end.  I’m also not sure how I feel about the last page of the book.  On the one hand, it seems like a fairly classic horror ending, but on the other hand, I’m not sure it fits with the way that the rest of the novel plays out.  When I read that page, I actually went back and re-read it because I was wondering if I’d missed something.  Granted, I don’t read much spooky stuff, so this may be just my own reading biases working against me.

Overall, this was an enjoyable book.  It avoids anything truly grotesque or frightening and opts instead for a more subtle, slow-burn kind of creepiness.  I might even go back and re-read it, just to see if my impressions of the novel are the same on a second read-through.  For those looking for a few shivers without too many screams, this is a good book for you.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

the-female-of-the-species“Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. When her older sister, Anna, was murdered three years ago and the killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best. The language of violence.

While her crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people, even in her small hometown. She relegates herself to the shadows, a girl who goes unseen in plain sight, unremarkable in the high school hallways.

But Jack Fisher sees her. He’s the guy all other guys want to be: the star athlete gunning for valedictorian with the prom queen on his arm. Guilt over the role he played the night Anna’s body was discovered hasn’t let him forget Alex over the years, and now her green eyes amid a constellation of freckles have his attention. He doesn’t want to only see Alex Craft; he wants to know her.

So does Peekay, the preacher’s kid, a girl whose identity is entangled with her dad’s job, though that does not stop her from knowing the taste of beer or missing the touch of her ex-boyfriend. When Peekay and Alex start working together at the animal shelter, a friendship forms and Alex’s protective nature extends to more than just the dogs and cats they care for.

Circumstances bring Alex, Jack, and Peekay together as their senior year unfolds. While partying one night, Alex’s darker nature breaks out, setting the teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever.”

There are a few different levels to this novel, and McGinnis blends them together surprisingly well.  First, it’s a fairly straightforward young adult novel about identity.  Alex struggles to separate herself from the common perception of “the girl with the murdered sister”.  Peekay is juggling being a preacher’s daughter and having a somewhat normal teenage life.  Jack wants to move beyond his image as an athletic playboy.

But, as you can probably guess from the synopsis, there’s an element of horror in this tale.  Anna’s death, as well as a couple of others that happen, are given just enough details to get your imagination going, but not enough to gross you out.  And of course, since our main character is obviously involved in at least one of those murders, the author has her hands full keeping Alex somewhat sympathetic–which she does, believe it or not.

There was another level that I saw in this book, and it’s one that caught me off guard a little bit.  It’s about the perception of people in general, and women in particular, when they don’t conform to perceived societal standards.  Further, it touches a bit on what happens when a woman dares to step into the territory claimed by men, as shown by the scene where a man asks Alex what she’s doing, and her response is along the lines of “The same as you… whatever I want.”  It’s chilling for a number of reasons.

Now add into all of this a twist ending that I didn’t see coming, and you have a book that fits perfectly into the Halloween season.  This book grabbed me from beginning to end, and I definitely suggest checking it out.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

1 2