The Midnight Road: Chapter 3

Be sure to check out Chapter 1 and Chapter 2!

 

 

Lutz twisted the steering wheel violently, and the ponderous car screeched its resistance to such treatment, fishtailing wildly across the road in long, snaking arcs before he was able to get control.

Heart hammering from the near miss, the Sheriff pointed the car at the shallow gravel shoulder and pulled over. His hands were clutching the steering wheel in a white-knuckle grip, and it took a moment of effort to release them. He killed the engine and for a long moment the only sound was the quiet ticking of the engine as it cooled. Ahead of this curve, the trees would open on side at the beginning of the McGuire farm.

“Sorry about that guys,” he finally managed to say. Officer Clarkson was looking at him with pure astonishment, as if he had just seen a mountain lion in the farmlands of Iowa. In the rearview mirror, Billy met his gaze with a dark look as the two officers unclipped their seatbelts and stepped out into the humid summer night.

Immediately, something felt off, and the flesh on Lutz’ arms crawled. He motioned for Clarkson to join him, and released Billy from his cage in the backseat. Crossing to the trunk, Lutz pulled out the rifle and handed it to Deputy Clarkson. He grabbed the shotgun and two high-beam flashlights before closing the trunk. With a nod of understanding, he passed the shotgun and one of the flashlights to Billy Hudson.

All of the boys and most of the girls in this region learned to shoot before they were ten years old. Knowledge of firearms and firearm safety was deeply ingrained in a community where almost everyone’s deep freezers were stocked full of fresh venison every autumn. Lutz felt no hesitation about handing the shotgun over to the younger man. The kid had sense, even if he was overly fond of drag racing.

His driver’s side door was still open; Lutz reached in to turn off the headlights and then thought twice. The dim light was all they had beside the heavy Maglite he now carried opposite his service pistol. He left the cruiser’s lights running, closed the door to the car with a heavy thud, and the three of them turned to survey their surroundings.

That odd feeling was still creeping up the back of Lutz’ neck, but it was Billy who was able to give voice to his unease. “All the bugs are quiet,” the young man whispered. Lutz listened carefully and realized he was right.

This was high summer, the air was thick and humid and it should have been filled with the chirps of insects. The nightly concerto of katydids, cicadas, and crickets was usually enough to drive a man half-mad but here there wasn’t so much as the buzz of a mosquito. The only sound was the quiet tapping of the men’s boots as they began walking north towards Bud McGuire’s home.

The light from the headlights didn’t failed to penetrate the gloom ahead, and Lutz clicked on the high powered Maglite. Next to him, Billy shouldered the shotgun, his smaller flashlight pressed with one hand under the barrel. Deputy Clarkson was at the ready with the long Winchester rifle at his shoulder. Normally used when a deputy needed to put down a wounded animal on the side of the highway, Lutz was immensely grateful just now for it’s solidly reliable presence.

Lutz swept the flashlight in slow, careful strokes from one edge of the road to another. “Where did you say you saw this arm now, son?” he asked Billy.

“Umm…a little farther ahead, I think,” Billy’s voice came from his right. “Maybe another three hundred feet or so.”

Lutz continued methodically sweeping his flashlight from side to side. At the edge of the beam he could make out the burned rubber made by tires suddenly skidding across the road. The tracks continued up the road, fading away into the darkness.

The men were now far enough away from the relative safety of the car that it’s dim headlights could no longer assist in penetrating the gloom ahead. The beams from the two flashlights seemed to grow smaller and fainter as the walked in loose formation up the road.

Abruptly, the burnt rubber skids made by Billy’s tires came to an end about six feet in front of them. The three men all stopped together, staring dumbfoundedly ahead. In the beam of Billy’s flashlight, on the edge of the road as it faded into scrub grass, was the arm of a human female. It had been torn crudely at the elbow, and bloody strings of meat hung from one end. The other end was wearing a thin gold wedding band around the ring finger. The nails were chipped and embedded with dirt.

All the blood in his body seemed rush to his head, and Lutz could feel his heartbeat pounding sickeningly in his temples. Deputy Clarkson gave a violent heave and turned to vomit quietly into the ditch on the other side of the highway. Lutz squatted down on his haunches near the severed arm, and reached for the ballpoint pen he kept in his shirt pocket. Turning his head to take one more breath of unfouled air, he used the pen to lift one of the strips of flesh away from the wound. It had been almost shredded, and for one horrifying instant the image of Lutz’ late wife’s venison jerky came to his mind. Sour bile rose in his throat, and he fought against the urge to puke.

What animal could do this to a person? What animal would bother?

To his knowledge, there had never been a reports of bear in this area, and any wolves had been killed off generations ago. Coyotes would take a chicken or a duck once in awhile, but Lutz couldn’t recall a single instance of them going after a small child, let alone a grown woman. Besides, these weren’t the teeth or claw marks of a coyote. Whatever had done this had had much longer teeth.

A sudden snap from the forest on his left.

Lutz’ blood turned to ice in his veins. Clarkson heard it too. His rifle was back at his shoulder in an instant and he took a hesitant step towards the looming blackness. Next to him, Billy Hudson was utterly rigid, his fingers deathly white around the grip of the shotgun.

Another snap in the darkness. Had that one been closer?

He quickly swung the beam of the flashlight away from the grisly scene on the road, in the direction of the woods. It illuminated skeletal pine trees and waist-high thornbushes. The light shone eerily on the narrow trunks of the pines. With their ladders of broken branches, the trees became rows of menacing spears waiting to impale unwary travelers. The unnatural silence of the woods was oppressive.

Lutz peered into the darkness, willing the shadows to separate into shapes. He focused on the edges of the light, where it faded into a thick and impenetrable blackness. He thought he could see shapes in the dark, looming patches of shadow that were somehow blacker than the night. A hulking figure dancing just out of his field of vision.

But nothing came charging at them from out of the woods, and after a long moment Lutz relaxed his posture. Telling himself unconvincingly that it had been a deer, Lutz turned back to Billy. They now had evidence of a death, but not necessarily evidence of a crime. There was still work to be done before they could all go back home. “Did you say there were more bodies?” he asked.

Billy hesitated for a long moment and then replied, “Yes. Maybe? I don’t know. Just… just come see for yourselves.”

Clarkson looked bewildered by the answer, but rolled his eyes and shrugged, “Let’s get this done, Sheriff. This place gives me the fucking creeps.”

Hearing his deputy admit his apprehension somehow served to boost Lutz’ own confidence. The forest was now at his back, and he felt watchful eyes on them but he shook off his nerves. Nodding affirmation at Billy, he confirmed, “Let’s get this the fuck over with and go home.”

Leaving the lone, pitiful arm on the side of the highway, the men now began skirting the edge of the cornfield that bordered Bud McGuire’s home. The corn, which should have towered over them at a full height of sixteen feet, was sickly-looking and scrawny. This actually offered Lutz some comfort, the weakened stalks of the malnourished crops made it easier for the beam of his Maglite to pierce the fields.

Looming ahead, set back nearly a quarter mile from the edge of the highway, was the McGuire house. At first, it looked much the same as when Lutz had paid his visit eight years previously, but the disrepair of the home became increasingly apparent as they turned onto the loose gravel driveway.

At the start of the path was a rust-eaten mailbox, leaning precariously on its weathered wooden post. The McGuire’s had obviously failed to keep up with their correspondence. He wondered idly how Bud took care of things like electricity and plumbing if bills never came to their house.

The main house must have been truly lovely in some bygone age. It’s frame was a clean and crisp Colonial, with gabled windows and a large wrap-around porch. But the clean lines were obscured by a sagging roof and missing shutters. The porch was also drooping, with a dilapidated wicker couch sitting neglected to one corner. What must once have been cheerful white paint and blue trimming was now gray and peeling in great strips from the wood. The whole house had an air of exhaustion, like a once-proud old horse that no longer had the energy to hold its head up in the traces.

The front door was hanging open by one twisted hinge.

As the men approached Lutz held up one hand curled into a fist as a signal to hold position.His earlier jitters had cleared away, replaced by the curiously detached feeling he always felt when was approaching a crime scene that sure to be unpleasant. Normally it was a high school kid who partied too hard and wrapped his car around a tree. Or a trucker who came  home drunk and decided to put his wife in the morgue. After thirty years in the sheriff’s department, Lutz was no stranger to the violence inherent in men.

It wasn’t a man that tore off that child’s arm, though.

As if to confirm this chilling thought, Lutz shone his flashlight on the broken door of the house. Scratched deep into the wood, deep enough that the door was nearly splintered into pieces, were four parallel gouges running from the top of the doorframe to the bottom corner in one long, unbroken arc. The aluminium doorknob was twisted out of shape and hung uselessly to one side.

Beyond the door lay only more blackness.

***

Click here for Chapter 4!

The Midnight Road: Chapter 1

 

AUGUST, 1986

When Billy Hudson came screeching into the sheriff’s department on the night of August eighth, his cherry red Firebird came within a hairsbreadth of sideswiping the prized Cadillac belonging to Sheriff Andrew Lutz.

When he heard the squealing of tires, Sheriff Lutz looked up from the outdated magazine he had been absentmindedly thumbing through. He saw the fender of Billy’s Pontiac come swinging towards the driver’s side door of his Caddy, and was out of his desk and halfway through the station in one swift, fluid motion.

What the blazing hell was Billy thinking, Lutz thought with a look at his scuffed metal watch. It was barely minutes into Saturday morning, and Lutz’s first inclination was that the young man had been drinking. What kind of drunk driver willingly drives himself into police custody?

Before the wheels of the the Firebird had come to a full stop, the driver’s side door swung open and Billy Hudson tumbled out, falling to his knees before stumbling back to his feet.

“They’re dead!” Billy shouted breathlessly as he struggled for balance. “The McGuire’s, I think they’re all dead!”

Lutz’s mouth was already open to chastise Billy for nearly smashing in the door of his Cadillac, but at Billy’s words his jaws snapped shut with an audible click. Lutz took note of the scene before him.

He had been sheriff of Richmond County for more than ten years, having won reelection twice after Sheriff Bradley retired back in ‘75. In a county with forty thousand inhabitants spread over four hundred square miles, he spent most of his time on the highways, and so was well acquainted with Billy Hudson and his group of gearheads. Billy was a polite kid, always respectful, but that wasn’t always the case with the young people of the town.

The local teenage boys were entirely obsessed with their cars, and could often be found on one lonely country road or another late at night, drinking and drag racing and having a generally wild time. They weren’t bad kids necessarily, there just wasn’t much else to do in an area that was almost entirely given over to corn and soybean fields. At least once a month, Lutz or one of his deputies would have to go out and disperse the group once they got too rowdy and began blasting the speakers on their stereos loud enough to wake the long-suffering farmers in the area.

With a sinking heart, Lutz thought he knew what might have happened. “Which one of you hit them? Where is the accident?” he reached for the walkie-talkie at his hip, but Billy shook his head vehemently, “No one hit them sheriff. We weren’t racing tonight. Stu Lennox is in deep shit with his Daddy for wrecking his brand new Ford and –”

“Get to the point, Billy!” Lutz growed.

“Sorry, sir,” Billy’s began talking so quickly his words tripped over one another as they raced to get out, and he had to take a deep breath before continuing. “No one was racing tonight, Sheriff. I was out with Molly Greene, she lives over in Oakville. We went to the drive-in, and I took her home. On the way back I wanted to — I decided to take old Highway 99. I like how peaceful it is out there at night.”

Wanted to disturb the peace by revving up the Pontiac away from the troopers on the state highway is more like it. Sheriff Lutz thought but didn’t voice aloud.

“Anyway, I was over by the McGuire place, you know that big patch of woods out by that farm? I was driving out there and I– I thought I saw something cross the road. Like a dark shadow, bigger than a bear. Scared the shit out of me. I nearly lost control of the car.”

“There aren’t any bears around here son.” the sheriff replied skeptically, “Sure it wasn’t a deer?”

“It wasn’t no damn deer, sir. It moved like a cat, but it was hunched and sloping like a bear. I only saw it for a second, but it definitely wasn’t any deer I ever seen. It was taller than the roof of my car!”

What nonsense was this? Lutz ran a hand through his dark, thinning hair and looked down. It was then that he noticed the blood spattering Billy’s dusty workboots and the hems of his jeans.

Backing slowly away from the young man, Lutz edged his right hand ever so closer to the revolver holstered at his hip. He began eyeing the red Pontiac for dents and scratches, assuming this story of an animal was nothing more than misdirection. Finding none, he turned carefully back to the young man, maintaining a distance of ten feet.

“Okay, Billy. You’ve got about twelve seconds to start making sense before we start to have a problem. Why are you saying that the McGuire’s are dead? Whose blood is on your shoes, son?”

 

“I was trying to tell you, Sheriff. I was driving out on old Highway 99, and I saw this big hulking shape cross the road. I don’t know what it was sir, honest. But it spooked me bad enough that I damn near skidded out. When I finally got the car stopped on the shoulder, I looked around, but whatever it was had disappeared into that patch of forest next to the McGuire plot.

“I figured the same as you, sir, “ Billy continued, “Thought I was just seeing things late at night. But then in my headlights, I could see some kinda liquid on the road. Like oil…except when I looked again it wasn’t oil. It was blood.”

“Is it possible this animal or whatever you saw could have been wounded?” the sheriff asked.

“That’s the first thing I thought too, sheriff, and I hopped out of the car and grabbed my Winchester rifle out of the trunk. Figured I could at least put the poor creature out of its misery. But when I got closer to the blood on the road — when I got closer, I–” Billy started stuttering, and it was as if all the strength in his legs gave out. He sank almost gracefully to his knees, his oil-stained blue jeans sinking into the soft grass of the station’s lawn.

“Out with it, son. What did you see?” Lutz asked. He was trying to be patient but it was also imperative that they get to the scene of any crime as fast as possible.

Billy took a deep, shaking breath. “An arm, sir. On the side of the road, just beyond my headlight, was a lady’s arm. Ripped off at the elbow. It was still wearing – still wearing a wedding band.” At this Billy started shaking so badly the sheriff thought he might be on the verge of having a seizure.

He looked around for a moment, baffled at the turn of events his previously peaceful evening had taken. Then he squatted down on his haunches next to the trembling young man. Out of habit, Lutz sniffed the air around Billy Hudson’s head, almost hoping for the tell-tale whiff of whiskey or gin. But there was nothing.

Lutz turned and walked back into the sheriff’s department. “Clarkson!” he bellowed for his senior deputy. A moment later, Henry Clarkson’s head popped out of his small office, “Sheriff?”

Thank goodness it was Clarkson on duty tonight. Clarkson was a calm and capable officer, excellent in tense situations. The only African-American on the force, Henry Clarkson had a booming voice and a deep barrel chest that could be used to great effect on unruly suspects, but he also possessed a logical mind that ticked through every possible scenario before taking any action. Thank God it isn’t Miller, Lutz thought again, this time in relief that it wasn’t his younger, jumpier deputy sharing the station tonight.

“Is the cruiser gassed up? Good. Grab the rifle and the shotgun and get some flashlights as well. We’re going out to Highway 99; something may have happened over at Bud McGuire’s place.”

An additional benefit, Clarkson followed orders without peppering him with dozens of questions. The deputy nodded shortly, and turned to do as asked. In the meantime, Lutz went back outside and squatted down next to Billy Hudson, who was still kneeling on the lawn, his head in his hands. Lutz’ mouth had a sour taste and he longed for a cigarette.

 

“It’s okay, Billy. You did good, son. It’s okay. Just breathe,” Andrew Lutz murmured this litany over and over, remembering as he did the way his own father used a similar technique to calm skittish horses. Sure enough, after a minute or two Billy Hudson’s breathing began to slow, and the rigid tension along his spine relaxed. Billy took one or two more slow, rattling breaths and looked up at the sheriff.

“After I found the arm, I went into the house,” he said with grim resolve. “I – I can’t explain it, sir. But something — horrible happened in there. I’d like to go home now please, if that’s okay.”

Sheriff Lutz wanted to tell Billy Hudson that he could go home, have a hot shower and a stiff drink, it was not meant to be. “Sorry, Billy. We need you to show us exactly where all of this happened. There aren’t any lights out there, we’ll drive right past it in the dark.”

A flicker passed over Billy’s face, like he was choking back tears, but his jaw tightened and he just gave a short, hopeless nod.

Lutz called his junior deputy at home, rousing him out of a deep sleep with orders to haul his ass over and man the station while the two senior men went to check on the McGuire’s.

Then the three of them piled into the sheriff’s cruiser and headed north to Highway 99.

 

****

Chapter 2

Book Review: Tiger Lily by Jodie Lynn Anderson

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Review 2.29

Before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feather in her hair…

Fifteen-year-old Tiger Lily doesn’t believe in love stories or happy endings. Then she meets the alluring teenage Peter Pan in the forbidden woods of Neverland and immediately falls under his spell. [Source]

The world of YA fantasy is largely dominated by romances that are painfully trite. Too often the relationships in these books can be boiled down to a collection of tropes. We have the obligatory love triangle, the dangerous stranger with a secret softness, and my personal favorite, “the heroine predictably falls in love with the first man who is described in any detail whatsoever”. Even my some of my favorite authors of the genre, like Sarah J. Maas, fall entirely into this pitfall.

For a book that is marketed towards the under 16 crowd, Tiger Lily, the short novel by Jodie Lynn Anderson tells a very mature story. Not in the sexual sense, but in the way it approaches its characters. Tiger Lily is a fierce, competent warrior who knows the risks and the threat inherit in her choices and makes them with calm certainty. For all her ferocity, Anderson captures the vulnerability of Tiger Lily with all the insecurities and passions of youth.

Peter Pan has been portrayed by boys and girls, men and women of all ages for nearly one hundred years. J. M. Barrie’s original source material left so much of Peter’s true motivations up to interpretation, which in my opinion is part of the enduring magic of the story. Here Anderson has made him a complex and romantic boy on the very cusp of manhood; older than in most iterations, Peter is meant to be around seventeen. And while there are no overtly explicit scenes, Peter Pan has always carried sexual undertones and Anderson does not shy away from the sensuality of the story and its characters.

If I had to describe Tiger Lily in one word, it would be enchanting. Every once in awhile there comes a novel that so truly encapsulates the feeling of first love and first heartbreak that it sweeps its reader away on a river of shared experience. The emotional power of Tiger Lily took me completely by surprise, before I even knew what was happening I was lost in Neverland.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Tiger Lily here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Note: By far, the best film adaptation of Peter Pan is the 2003 version, starring Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, and Jason Isaacs. It is the only one to adequately capture the magic in a similar way to this novel.

 

Book Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

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Review 2.27

 

One night three years ago, the Tanner sisters disappeared: fifteen-year-old Cass and seventeen-year-old Emma. Three years later, Cass returns, without her sister Emma. Her story is one of kidnapping and betrayal, of a mysterious island where the two were held. But to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Abby Winter, something doesn’t add up. Looking deep within this dysfunctional family Dr. Winter uncovers a life where boundaries were violated and a narcissistic parent held sway. And where one sister’s return might just be the beginning of the crime. [Source]

Emma in the Night is one of those purely innocuous novels that is perfect for a long airport layover. Between its relatively slim pages is a story that is fast-paced, entertaining, and entirely forgettable. I finished this book three days ago, and I had to read the Goodreads synopsis to remember much of the plot.

Describing this novel by Wendy Walker as forgettable sounds harsh, but it isn’t meant as such. Sometimes it’s nice to sit down a read a book that doesn’t require your full concentration. It does; however, make writing a review more difficult because there isn’t much to say beyond, “Yeah I read that.”

The dysfunctional family relationship between mother and daughter is at the heart of Emma in the Night. Walker explores the concepts of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder as they relate to the bonds between the women of the Tanner family. We are told about the psychological strain of growing up in a household ruled over by a manipulative and controlling parent, and how that often triggers a cycle of mental illness and abuse.

I liked that Walker resisted the urge to split her timeline, instead keeping the story in the present tense and delivering important exposition via conversations between Cass and the police. While this does create a distance between the reader and the protagonist, it also avoids the cliche of having constant flashbacks which add nothing to the overall narrative. When the final twist came, as final twists inevitably do in the thriller genre, it didn’t feel like a cheat. Which is high praise from a reader who is thoroughly fed up with unnecessary plot twists.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Emma in the Night here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Wendy Walker’s debut novel, All is Not Forgotten, was reviewed for this website by none other than my momma! Check it out here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Agony House by Cherie Priest

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Review 2.26

 

Denise Farber has just moved back to New Orleans with her mom and step-dad. They left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and have finally returned, wagering the last of their family’s money on fixing up an old, rundown house and converting it to a bed and breakfast.Nothing seems to work around the place, which doesn’t seem too weird to Denise. The unexplained noises are a little more out of the ordinary, but again, nothing too unusual. But when floors collapse, deadly objects rain down, and she hears creepy voices, it’s clear to Denise that something more sinister lurks hidden here.Answers may lie in an old comic book Denise finds concealed in the attic: the lost, final project of a famous artist who disappeared in the 1950s. Denise isn’t budging from her new home, so she must unravel the mystery-on the pages and off-if she and her family are to survive. [Source]

 

Graphic novels are among my very favorite type of book, and when I heard about The Agony House, set in a derelict New Orleans house in a community still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, I got excited. It turns out that Cherie Priest’s novel isn’t a traditional paneled graphic novel; instead, the primary narrative is written in standard prose, following Denise as she had her family attempt to unravel the riddle surrounding their new home. Nestled at random intervals throughout the novel are snippets of a mysterious comic book which may provide clues as to the identity of the spirit haunting the house on Argonne Street.

I really, really wanted to like this book. It has everything going for it: spooky house, plucky heroine, the cultural heritage of New Orleans. Not to mention the artwork by Tara O’Connor which I thought would offer a unique parallel to the main plot.

Unfortunately, The Agony House can’t decide what kind of book it wants to be. It is part mystery novel, part ghost story. It is part teenage adventure story, part cultural admonition on gender inclusivity. In general I find that when a book scatters itself over several genres, it ultimately spreads too thin and ends up as none of them. Such was the case with Priest’s book. The supposedly complex “mystery” at the center of the plot is oddly disjointed, long sections would pass where no one seemed to be working to solve it.

The pages of paneled comic book within the novel were also a bit of a let-down. After finishing The Agony House, I went through and read only the blue-tinted illustrations to see whether or not they made a cohesive story on their own. The answer was no; the illustrated sections offer nothing conducive to the overall plot. I started the book looking forward to these portions, but ended up just disappointed and confused.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find The Agony House here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Asylum by Madeleine Roux

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Review 2.23

 

For sixteen-year-old Dan Crawford, New Hampshire College Prep is more than a summer program—it’s a lifeline. An outcast at his high school, Dan is excited to finally make some friends in his last summer before college. But when he arrives at the program, Dan learns that his dorm for the summer used to be a sanatorium, more commonly known as an asylum. And not just any asylum—a last resort for the criminally insane.

As Dan and his new friends, Abby and Jordan, explore the hidden recesses of their creepy summer home, they soon discover it’s no coincidence that the three of them ended up here. Because the asylum holds the key to a terrifying past. And there are some secrets that refuse to stay buried. [Source]

To be honest, I was less than thrilled when I picked this book up from the library to find that it was in the “Teen” section. I generally enjoy YA horror, but the creepy-ass cover art that originally piqued my interest had gotten my hopes up for a full-on scare fest. YA horror is somewhat limited by the constraints of its genre, and I immediately knew that this wasn’t going to be the spine-tingler I had envisioned.

My initial disappointment was at least somewhat soothed by the unique visual style of Asylum. Interspersed within the narrative are photographs allegedly taken from inside former mental institutions. This adds an immersive element to the story and ups the spook factor a bit. There is something inherently sinister about black-and-white photos of abandoned buildings, and this gave the novel a much-needed boost of creepiness.

The big difference between horror novels intended for adults, and horror novels geared towards “young adults” (an annoyingly vague term that could refer to anyone between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five) is that YA writers and their publishers seem insistent on adding an unnecessary “romantic” angle. Personally, I believe that teenagers are capable of accepting a story that does not involve awkward kissing or endless mooning over awkward kissing, but hey what do I know.

What I do know is that this persistent romantic subplot trope can work well in fantasy or science fiction, but it doesn’t translate to horror. When Daniel, the protagonist of Asylum, is wandering the decrepit remains of an abandoned surgical theater in the middle of the night, I doubt very much that he would be daydreaming about a pretty classmate.

Asylum is what it is, and it would probably be a fun read for someone in junior high school. I was just hoping for a little more Winchester brothers and a little less Scooby Gang.

My rating: 3/5

You can find Asylum here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (Folk of the Air #1)

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Review 2.22

Jude was seven when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.

As Jude becomes more deeply embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, she discovers her own capacity for trickery and bloodshed. But as betrayal threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself. [Source]

 

I first heard about Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince last year, and had been meaning to check it out for ages, but wanted to finish Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series before embarking on another journey into YA fantasy. I’m really glad I finally got around to reading it; I was almost surprised by how much I liked this novel. It manages to avoid a lot of the more glaring tropes that have become disappointingly commonplace in YA fantasy.

The Cruel Prince immediately pulls away from the cluttered pack with its heroine. Jude is a mortal who has grown up in constant fear and danger; she dreams of becoming a knight in order to gain a stable position in the Faerie court. The best thing, she isn’t an archer. I am so tired of women being assigned the bow again and again as their weapon of choice; it’s become a tired and overused cliche. But Jude fights with sword, dagger, and crossbow. And poison. And subterfuge. She never stoops quite low enough to enter “antihero” territory, and her motives are generally honorable, but her actions are decidedly less so, which made for a refreshing change of pace.

The world of the Fae has been described in detail by countless authors, and the immortal lands are limited only by the creative limits of the writer. Is it a dreadful and haunted land of twisted and depraved individuals, like in Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call? Or is it an eternal land of beauty and impossibly gorgeous men, like A Court of Thrones and Roses? Holly Black has taken aspects from both interpretations; her Faerie Court is beautiful and deadly, where immortals live a life of luxury but humans are often bewitched and enslaved. It is also filled with one of the most diverse group of Faeries I can recall. Their skin is in every shade from cerulean to sienna; they have horns or tails or goat’s hooves in place of feet. I particularly liked the figure of Jude’s stepmother, whose cold demeanor covers hidden secrets.

I also enjoyed that Black stayed away from yet another overused cliche; Jude is not motivated by romantic love. She isn’t pining after a lost love, or sacrificing herself to save a lover. She also is not driven by any kind of familial duty. Her relationship with her sisters is largely unexplored, something I hope is remedied in the recently released sequel.

Jude is motivated purely by ambition.

She wants to become a knight simply because she wants to be acknowledged as the best. She has been powerless her entire life, and when the opportunity for power presents itself, she seizes it without hesitation.

Ambition is a heady thing, and I will be interested to see where Jude’s ambition leads her.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Cruel Prince here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow by Alyssa Palombo (2019)

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Review. 2.21

Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is deeply ingrained in the American psyche; two hundred years after it’s publication and I doubt there are many grade school children who are not at least passingly familiar with the story of Ichabod Crane and his ill-fated midnight ride. The tale has been told and retold in so many different iterations that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that nowhere in Irving’s original source material was the ghost of the Headless Horseman actually witnessed. The reason for the sudden disappearance of the luckless schoolmaster is left open to interpretation. Did he slink away in shame after his proposal for the hand of the beautiful Katrina van Tassel was denied by her father? Was he only after her wealth the entire time, venturing to the next village in search of a more hapless heiress? Or, as the townspeople whisper to themselves, was he taken to the depths of hell by the Headless Horseman, who is said to haunt the woods around Sleepy Hollow?

All of these questions and more are answered in this historical romance novel by Alyssa Palombo. Set in the very early days of the American republic, just a few years after the defeat of the British soldiers, Palombo does a wonderful job of setting her scene. She captures the revolutionary attitude of New England with her heroine, Katrina Van Tassel. No longer the mostly nonverbal plot device of Irving’s story, here Katrina holds the same optimistic attitude and hopeful fervor that would have defined the young nation under Washington’s presidency. Palombo paints a romantic but realistic view of New England life. The community of Sleepy Hollow represents a community that is extraordinarily close-knit, and for a good reason. Any group of people that did not come together during the long New England winters would not have lasted long.

The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel has the setting. And it has the characters, with its outspoken and forward-thinking heroine. Palombo also takes a bit of narrative license with Ichabod Crane, making him less of a painfully awkward but still capturing his shy, gentle spirit and nerdy appearance. When the current TV series Sleepy Hollow depicts him as dreamy beardy eye candy:

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it’s a nice message to send that a man can be attractive due to a generosity of spirit, or a creative imagination rather than just a chiseled jawline.

Anyway, Palombo gets all of these really great characters together in this really great setting and then…

She doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.

For nearly two hundred of it’s three hundred and fifty page running length, we are treated to chapter after chapter of Katrina pining after Ichabod. She yearns. She craves. She longs from afar. Sometimes there are snatched moments of joy and pleasure with her beloved, but these moments are fleeting and then it’s quickly back to pining.

Another fifty or so pages is dedicated to Katrina attempting to use “witchcraft” as she seeks out answers to the mystery behind Ichabod’s disappearance. I put witchcraft in quotes because she mostly consults tarot cards, or stares into fires after drinking some herbal tea. The reveal of the eponymous “spellbook” was such a disappointment that I actually groaned aloud.

On an unrelated note, the tagline for this book is nonsense. Love is a thing even death won’t erase? What does that even mean? No shit Sherlock. We don’t just stop loving someone the moment they die. But that is an issue for the publishers of this novel, not the novel itself.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Lost Man by Jane Harper (2019)

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Review 2.19

Two brothers meet at the border of their vast cattle properties under the unrelenting sun of outback Queensland, in this stunning new standalone novel from New York Times bestseller Jane Harper

They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old, no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron. The Bright family’s quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish. Something had been troubling Cameron. Did he lose hope and walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects… [Source]

About ten years ago, I found myself on a cattle station in northern Queensland. The exact details of my many misadventures over the course of my four month stay could fill a book, and I won’t go into them at this time. Suffice to say when Jane Harper describes the Australian outback as a brutal, unforgiving environment, I know from experience that she is absolutely correct. And I was only a twelve-hour drive from Brisbane, which doesn’t even count as “outback”.

The impossibly arid climate of Western Australia is the primary antagonist of The Lost Man. The merciless sun, which can kill a grown man in less than a day, shines on bare rock and scrub grass. Poisonous snakes lurk in the shrubs. The nearest neighbor might be three hours away. The isolation of this environment is a character unto itself as well.

In this harsh world live three brothers. The middle brother, Cameron, manages the family cattle station with his wife Ilse. Bud, the youngest, helps his brother but also resents him for keeping him from pursuing larger ambitions. The eldest, Nathan, lives alone on his own property, a recluse who hides from society after being ostracized for a long-ago sin.

I read and reviewed Jane Harper’s Force of Nature last year, and I remember feeling almost relieved that it didn’t suck. I had a bad run of luck with the mystery/thriller genre for awhile, and I remember her novel as a light of  hope in the darkness of trite foreshadowing and clumsy backstory. One thing that Harper improves upon with The Lost Man is keeping her narrative perspective to one character. In Force of Nature, each chapter was narrated by a different women of the group, which led to none of them getting enough attention. Here, Nathan has our focus from page one. We feel his intense loneliness and the fear of rejection that has caused him to huddle, like a turtle within its shell, on his meager acres.

The only thing I would say in critique of this novel is that Harper may have forgotten that if you limit your narrative to a single perspective, you need to ensure that your protagonist is there to verify important events. One character’s descent from decent person to violent manipulator rang strangely false, almost as if there was a section detailing more of this behavior that was somehow missing.

That said, Harper does manage to avoid what I call the “plot-twist ripple effect”, in which a book’s climax contains multiple sudden reveals simply for the sake of shock value, and which make very little sense when viewing the book as a whole. This is just another reason while I will continue to keep Jane Harper on my look-out list, where so many thriller authors fall by the wayside.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Lost Man here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski (1986)

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Review 2.16

 

A Door into Ocean is the novel upon which the author’s reputation as an important SF writer principally rests. A ground-breaking work both of feminist SF and of world-building hard SF, it concerns the Sharers of Shora, a nation of women on a distant moon in the far future who are pacifists, highly advanced in biological sciences, and who reproduce by parthenogenesis–there are no males–and tells of the conflicts that erupt when a neighboring civilization decides to develop their ocean world, and send in an army. [Source]

Unlike many genres, science fiction and fantasy writers often face the uphill task of world building. If the story is set anywhere other than the planet Earth, and concerns any characters that aren’t human, it’s the author’s arduous task to make this place have weight and meaning in our imaginations.

This can be a difficult balancing act, because instead of jumping right into the plot, science fiction first requires that the reader understand the “rules” of this particular universe. I say this because some critics (including some in my book club) became frustrated by A Door into Ocean due to its rather slow exposition. And it does take more than fifty pages for the planet of Shora to even make an appearance. First, Slonczewski has to establish the two worlds.

A Door into Ocean will draw inevitable and accurate comparison to novels such as Dances with Wolves, or films like Avatar and Disney’s Pocahontas. Often called the “white savior” trope, these stories all share a basic narrative structure. An outsider from a more “advanced” culture will come to a world populated by “savages”. Over time the outsider will become more and more drawn to the natural and pure ways of the natives, and in the process will betray his own people, who are often ruthless, violent, and mercenary. This is not a criticism. There are only so many stories to be told in the world; what separates good novels from the merely mediocre is the author’s ability to bring an old story to life in a new and interesting way.

Joan Slonczewski succeeds in this area by making her novel a sort of philosophical thought experiment on the nature of pacifism. Populated solely by women and daughters, the ocean world of Shora has been left untouched for millennia. The “Sharers” have a disorganized, almost anarchist society that has no concept of obedience, and therefore no concept of resistance. As the invading “malefreaks” attempt to impose martial law on the planet, the questions remains if the Sharers will remain true to their nonviolent history, turn to a violent future, or be wiped off the face of Shora entirely.

Even though it takes awhile to get there,  the planet of Shora is a fascinating and dangerous place. It is no idyllic paradise, and the dangers faced by the Sharers by their own natural environment gives the narrative a surge in excitement once it finally sets down on the ocean world.

The thing I love about good science fiction is the interesting discussions it can spark. I’ll enjoy chewing over the ideas presented by A Door into Ocean for the next couple of days to see what I uncover.

My rating: 4/5

You can find A Door into Ocean here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!