Book Reviews: September 2021 (Spooky) Reads

It’s never too early (or late) for horror reads. While I’d wish to revisit the genre in film too, my October schedule sadly doesn’t permit a special series of movie reviews this year. Life, uh, gets in the way. And so I have to take a hiatus from here to focus on work, a fiction writing project, and hopefully, a few stories for Brimstone Tales. That said, I’ll return near Samhain, hopefully with a list for the spooky season if nothing else. Till then!

Near the Bone (Christina Henry, 2021)

Near the Bone Novel

A strange cry shattered the still air. It wasn’t quite a bear’s roar, or a mountain lion’s call, or an eagle’s screech, but a nerve-shattering combination of all three, mixed with another sound—something almost, but not quite, human. Only then did Mattie realize that they’d heard no sounds since the call of the crows William had shooed away from the dead fox—that is nothing, except their own voices.

For as long as Mattie could remember, she had lived with William on the mountains together. He got angry at her often and everything was her fault, even the fearsome creature in the woods and the hunters that had come after it.

Near the Bone takes on a familiar narrative that is nevertheless well told with depth. The horror/thriller is essentially a story about monsters, though there’s more than a kind. One terrorises in plain sight and the other, lurks in the shadows. Known and unknown, both prove horrifying.

Be warned that its intensity goes beyond beastly carnage; the emotional violence that Mattie comes to face is startling. But her growing courage has us invested in her battle against endless dread as we root strongly for the vulnerable protagonist and her newfound friends – amid their dwindling hopes of survival.

The Ghost Tree (Christina Henry, 2020)

Ghost Tree Novel

The trees all stood in their usual places and the wind rustled their branches like always and her feet were firmly planted on the ground and her stomach wasn’t even queasy any longer. But still—there had been something. A feeling that made her skin prickle and her left eye twitch and cold sweat pool at the base on her spine.

Every year in Smith’s Hollows, a girl goes missing. But no one seems to notice at all. Except for Lauren. Her sudden visions tell her a rather different story about her hometown that she once thought she knew.

An atmospheric pageturner, The Ghost Tree grips the reader from the get-go with its tantalising dark secrets. Teen troubles may bog down the pacing just a little, but the plot never slows for long with monsters lurking close by, even when unspoken about.

Christina Henry is brilliant at creating people we care about. Even better characterised than the memorable residents is the town they live in, its rich history waiting to be unveiled. The witchy finale segues into fantasy territory that somehow complements the creepy horror elements hitherto.

Misfits (Hunter Shea, 2020)

Misfits Novel

Chris ran all the way home. His legs gave way the moment his feet touched upon the dead front lawn, too exhausted to cry out for help, his brain a buzzing hive of bees, unable to comprehend the horror that he’d narrowly escaped but would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Beware the monsters of Dracula Drive. The urban legend of the murderous Melon Heads soon proves true for five teenagers. Set on using the monstrous tribe to avenge their friend’s brutal rape, they instead enrage one by breaking unspoken rules and unleash something worse than they ever imagined.

Hunter Shea’s Misfits is essentially a slasher/creature feature, heavily inspired by the mutant terror of The Hills Have Eyes. Gore is a guarantee as the body count grows rapidly. Set in the 90s, the set dressing is nostalgic albeit almost excessive, with dozens of shoehorned grunge references.

It is a fun quick read. There is however little else to draw one in, given how one-dimensional the villains seemed. Apart from an uncomfortable starting point of sexual assault, the story also suffered dull main characters that was difficult to connect with.

The Other People (C.J. Tudor, 2020)

The Other People Novel

There was only one problem with hatred, Gabe thought. And it wasn’t that it would eat you up or destroy you. That was bullshit. Hatred could fuel you through the worst of times. Grief, despair, terror. Live and forgiveness might keep you warm, but hatred would power your rocket all the way to the moon.

No, the problem was that, eventually, hatred burned itself out.

This book is a great read on its own, but Richard Armitage delivers an excellent audio narration that is 100% worth the time.

When the police told Gabe that the bodies of his wife and daughter had been found, he knew part of that couldn’t be true. He was certain that he had seen Izzy in the rear window of a stranger’s car that very night. For three years, he searched for his daughter. Then, one night, he found the very car, not quite empty and sunken in a lake.

Centring on every parent’s worst nightmare, The Other People‘s premise is already terrifying on its own. But the riveting thriller teases something even more sinister beyond the surface of the child’s disappearance. The story brims with tension, revealing a link to the titular mysterious group that seemingly deals in death. A tinge of the supernatural adds intrigue.

Above all, it is the characterisation that is outstanding. Author C. J. Tudor writes beautifully, bringing out the complex emotions in each layered protagonist, who deserve sympathy despite their past mistakes. In spite of one too many coincidences (which is more a genre flaw than hers), she pulls together satisfying answers to the brilliant mystery of many threads. One does beg the question, when is C. J. Tudor getting the Netflix deal that Harlan Coben got?

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