Ok, so the thing is: I have read a lot of books since late September, which is the last time I shared an installment of Stacked. And I typically try to be very diligent about having an ongoing draft where I either immediately write a review, or at least some notes or impressions after having finished a book. That way, I do it a little bit at a time as the months go by, and eventually, I have a blog post full of book reviews.
This time around…I did not do that. And I don’t remember a lot of the details and finer points of these books and stories. So I will do my best, but some of these may end up being one-sentence reviews. I’m sorry! I’ll do better next time. MAYBE!
Always the First To Die by R.J. Jacobs As a horror fan and a Floridian who has been experiencing hurricanes for most of my life, I found the overall atmosphere for Always the First to Die –a murder mystery homage to horror movies, taking place in the dilapidated decay of a crumbling old hotel in the Florida keys–to be exceptionally thrilling. And overall, I thought it was a pretty solid story, with the widowed Lexi frantically racing down to the Keys, where she swore she would never return, to retrieve her teenage daughter, Quinn, in the aftermath of a hurricane. With a teenager’s disregard for danger and consequences, Quinn had lied to her mother in order to visit and spend time with her estranged horror movie-director grandfather… and possibly participate in the filming of a sequel to his most famous horror (and possibly cursed!) film …because she knew Lexi would never agree to any of it. But now mysterious and terrifying things are happening, which may be tied to a mysterious and terrifying event from the past –and you may discover enough clues in this fast-paced, duel-timeline story to put two and two together and figure out the mystery. But even if you don’t, I think you’ll have a good time with it. And bonus points if you’re reading it after you’ve lost power in the bad weather and wild winds and rains of an early autumn Florida hurricane…which, serendipitously enough, I was! (This review copy was provided by Netgalley)
What Moves The Dead by T. Kingfisher I never thought I’d declare a reimagining of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher “a hoot,” but here we are. I adored this clever, charming, grotesquerie of a book, and it had one of the most enjoyable and interesting main characters I’ve spent time with in ages. Retired officer Alex Easton rushes to the ancestral home of their old friends Roderick and Madeline Usher after receiving a disturbing letter, to find the mansion and surrounding grounds in an appalling state of moldy, wormy decay. Both Roderick and Madeline are dreadfully, inexplicably unwell, and even the doctor living under their roof can’t pinpoint the cause. What follows is an eerie and frequently fairly gross romp of Alex trying to get to the bottom of what’s eating at their dear old friends, and even though I hesitate to call this book “funny,”–it actually is because Alex is such a jolly person with a big personality and quite frankly I want a whole series of their adventures.
The Cabin At The End Of The World by Paul Tremblay. I actually hollered WHAT THE HELL when I finished this book. I guess I only read it because I saw that the book had been adapted for film, and I’m kind of a snob about seeing a horror films based on a novel, before reading the novel. So I thought, ok, better read this. If you’ve seen the movie trailer then you know the drill: two dads and their daughter are staying at an isolated cabin and a small gang of fanatical strangers break in, hold them hostage and tell them they’ve got to make some important decisions to prevent the end of the world. That’s more or less all there is to the book. I don’t mind an ambiguous ending, but this one was incredibly frustrating. I gotta hand it to Paul Tremblay, though. He really went there. He did the thing you’re not supposed to (expected to? allowed to?) do in these sorts of stories. Bold move, sir. But I still hated the ending.
Spells For Forgetting by Adrienne Young. I think if I had realized how large a part the romance element played in this story, I might not have picked it up or given it a chance. Unsolved murder and ancestral magic in a rather secluded and superstitious community? Absolutely here for it. Angsty romance and unresolved issues between the two main characters, one of whom is just really awful and childish and annoying? Not so much. That said, and to be fair, there were aspects of the book that I really enjoyed: the rich immersion in such an atmospheric, autumnal little town, and I always love the idea of magic and lore passed down through the generations. Taken as a whole, though, considering the characters and the overall story, Spells for Forgetting just didn’t do it for me. (This review copy was provided by Netgalley)
Tell Me I’m Worthless by Allison Rumfitt As much time as I have spent thinking about Tell Me I’m Worthless since I finished reading the book, I’ll admit–I am still not sure what it is, exactly, that I think of it. A haunted house story where the house is a metaphor for England and a particularly English kind of fascism, a horror novel that centers queer and trans characters, and body horror screaming with the physical and psychic violence and trauma that is enacted on Othered bodies, this is a dark, and intense, and deeply unpleasant book. And you should probably read it.
The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz was such an over-the-top treat. The book opens with Alex, a young writer struggling with both the helplessness and impotence of not having written a word in over a year and the fact that she’s lost her best friend, Wren, in a falling out and is feeling hurt and confused by the break. These separate miseries collide in an event early on, where Alex must attend a book launch party for a successful friend–and where she is sure to run into Wren. The night is not entirely a bust, though, because it sets into motion Alex receiving an invite to an exclusive writing retreat held by infamous horror author Roza Vallo at her massive, remote home in the Adirondacks. This could be the impetus Alex needs to unlock her creativity–but there’s a complication. Wren’s going to be there, too. This is the theme for one of my very favorite horror subgenres: artist goes off to create in relative isolation; weird shit happens. And weird shit, it does happen! Between Roza’a unorthodox methods and demands, the almost punitive deadlines the authors are required to meet, the eerie house and its unsettling atmosphere, and even the various attendees of the retreat who may be harboring secrets, tensions are ramped up, everyone’s pushing themselves to their limits, and the slightest accidental remark or mistake may send someone over the edge…but is anything in this house accidental? Or has everything been carefully orchestrated from the very beginning?
Beware the Woman by Megan Abbott I read Beware the Woman in the course of a day. I began in the morning, intrigued by what was meant to be an idyllic trip for Jacy, newly married and pregnant, to visit her husband’s family for the first time. I hung on to every word, as what was a seemingly normal experience of a woman attempting to relax on vacation and get to know her father-in-law–something that should be a pretty mundane, although hopefully nice experience– felt so weirdly off-kilter from the very beginning and slowly became more and more disturbing and steeped in dread. Early into their trip, Jacy’s pregnancy develops complications, and though her regular doctor assures her in a long-distance phone call that these things are a typical occurrence, the town doctor and her father-in-law (who seem suspiciously in cahoots), are treating it very differently. Jacy begins to feel trapped and housebound, she feels increasingly scrutinized and judged–not just in the present moment, but in her past as well, pieces of which are being revealed without her consent. Even her husband seems to be changing in his controlling behaviors and overprotective attitude toward her. I stayed up late into the night, on the edge of my seat, devouring the story so that I could finally learn what was driving the characters and what the mystery was, so in that sense, it was an incredibly compelling story. Once all is revealed, though, I look back and realize that I still don’t know what was driving any of the characters. Not a single one. People are acting in these strange and bewildering ways and doing these concerning things, and I don’t think we ever get a satisfying reason for any of it. For all that build-up, I wanted to be able to attach some reasoning to these people’s actions, and that aspect of the story just wasn’t there for me at all. (This review copy was provided by Netgalley)
All These Subtle Deceits by C.S. Humble This was like Exorcist meets noir detective story, with an on-call, excommunicated exorcist battling demons of his own, etc. I did not love this story or the character relaying it to us. There was a line in the book about some woman’s $300 dye job. First…$300? If she’s lucky. Secondly, “…dye job”? Tell me a man wrote this without telling me a man wrote this, right?
The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton. In a breathless story exploring the dangers of devotion in our favorite sort of dark academic setting, we come to know high-school junior Laura, who, young and vulnerable and full of grand ideas, is obsessed with the very idea of St. Dunstan’s private school and the sorts of experiences she expects to have there, and has convinced her parents to send her to the wind-swept academy. Once there, she becomes fixated upon the intense, fanatical, and quite vicious overachiever Virginia, who leads the school choir and seems to have all of the choir’s members on a short leash. Inducted into the fold–both the choir itself and the circle of “friends” that encompass it– Laura’s world becomes increasingly smaller, wrapped up in the passions and melodramas and rituals of the group, who all bow in deference to Virginia–a leader who is more feared than loved, and who is becoming increasingly more vindictive and unstable. I loved this book and thought that the author captured so well the angst, insecurity, hysteria, and devastation that fuels the days of a teenager without making it feel like an actual YA novel. (Nothing wrong with a YA novel, they’re just not my favorite.)
The Me You Love In The Dark by Skottie Young (Author), Jorge Corona (Artist) Ro seeks solitude, artistic inspiration, and a change in environment to revitalize her practice and retreats for a time from city life to isolated small-town life. The old, creepy house she’s renting provides unexpected companionship that swiftly becomes possessive and terrifying. The art was moody and compelling, but the pacing moved too quickly, and the story could have used a much more sensitive hand.
The Turnout by Megan Abbott . Megan Abbott’s books are a bit hit or miss for me (see Beware the Woman, above), but much to my surprise, I utterly inhaled this story of family secrets and disturbing, propulsive ballerina sister-darkness.
Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter. I read my first Karin Slaughter book last autumn, and I was immediately hooked by the wry, nasty, hot-messiness of her stories. In a Karen Slaughter story, people’s lives are fucked up well before their lives are actually in jeopardy. Andy is in her early 30s and is feeling like a loser, having moved back in with her mom and working a part-time, go-nowhere job after art school in New York doesn’t pan out for her. And then: at lunch in a local diner, a shocking moment of violence erupts in an active-shooter nightmare, ending with her mother, her salt of the earth, pillar of the community mother–cooly, casually, killing the gunman. Chaos ensues from there, and Andy learns that her mother has a past, her life as she thought it was is ending and never, in fact, even existed, and that she’s going to have to get her shit together quickly and be just as ruthless and brutal as the woman–now a stranger– who raised her, if she is to figure out how to survive on her own.
Comfort Me With Apples by Cathrynne M. Valente. Strangely, it would be easy to say too much about this brief book (which I think would have been better served as a short story.) I feel that even the vaguest synopsis will give away what the author is trying to do here, but even so, if you’re even marginally on the ball, you will have figured it out in the first few chapters. Sophia is living what, on the surface, appears to be a charmed life in the utopian gated community of Arcadia Gardens. She has a beautiful home, a husband whom she adores, and the most delightful neighbors. Still, something is off, something is being kept from her right from the beginning. Even if Sophia doesn’t yet realize it, we immediately do. And with one small, peculiar discovery, her curiosity is piqued, and her entire world begins to unravel. It’s funny, I thought I wasn’t a big fan of Comfort Me With Apples, but I have found myself turning it over in my head on more than one occasion. I wonder what it was about this story that spoke to me. Let me know if it speaks to you.
The Last Housewife by Ashley Winstead So…do you recall that article on The Cut sometime back in early 2022 about the Sarah Lawrence students who were groomed by a dorm mate’s father into his abusive sex cult? I think there’s been a couple of documentaries on it that have either been released or are in the works. Anyway, imagine if the author of In My Dreams I Hold A Knife used that sensational tidbit of news as fodder for a story of her own. I mean, I don’t know that’s what she did, but if you are in any way familiar with the Sarah Lawrence story, I think it will immediately come to mind as you are reading The Last Housewife.
Girl Forgotten by Karin Slaughter. Andy from Pieces of Her became a U.S. Marshall! Her first assignment comes about via her family’s pulling of strings because it is related to stuff or things that happened in the first book. More cults, more abuse, more women in peril. The pacing was weird on this one. I don’t think I was a huge fan of it.
56 Days by Catherine Howard. There are folks out there that apparently don’t want the real-world problems of the global pandemic intruding in on their gruesome murder stories. I hear that was one of the issues that people had with The Glass Onion movie? It’s part of our present reality, and it’s going to be part of our history, and as humans in this world who are living in and experiencing this world… we can’t pretend that these moments never existed… I mean, of course, it’s going to appear in the fictional media we consume. Get real, people. Anyway, in 56 Days, a couple meets up at the start of the pandemic, and, taking advantage of the weird reality they find themselves living in, they decide to move in together as sort of a trial run. By the end of the book –or rather the beginning, as the book opens at the ending– someone is dead. And with plot twists and no one being who they appear to be, we can safely assume the corpse has nothing to do with the Covid virus.
The Tenth Girl by Sara Faring. This book is probably not going to be what you expect. It’s certainly not what I expected…although along the way, I thought I was starting to piece things together. Turns out I had the gist of it, but I had the shape of things all wrong. I don’t even know what I mean by that. You’ll see for yourself, I think. Mavi, fleeing the violent military regime that destroyed her family, seeks asylum in a rare teaching opportunity at a creepy Argentinian finishing school full of tragic history, curses, and an intensely gothic atmosphere. Don’t get used to the spooky atmosphere or the era in which the story takes place (sometime in the 1970s), and don’t get too hung up on what you assume to be the story, either. I think this is the sort of book where you’ve got to be flexible and switch gears and not be too attached to the story you think you’re reading or the genre you believe it to occupy. Ok, I have said enough! I’ll be curious to know what you think about this one.
The Children on the Hill and The Drowning Kind by Jennifer McMahon. I recall enjoying both of these stories to varying degrees but not being quite satisfied with the endings. In The Children on the Hill we spend time between Violet and her brother and their somewhat odd living arrangement with their grandmother, who is a renowned doctor at an innovative mental illness treatment facility in the country, the Hillside Inn. A traumatized young girl, Iris, comes to live with them, and in unraveling the mystery of Iris’ situation, Violet unearths terrible secrets about the Inn, her family, and herself. Many years later, Lizzy Shelley is a monster and cryptid hunter with a reality TV show and podcast to her name; young girls are disappearing around the country, and in the pattern that emerges, Lizzy senses that the predator may be linked to her own past, her family, and the Inn. With The Drowning Kind, I honestly don’t even remember. There is an old family home with a haunted swimming pool that grants wishes …at a price. As the story opens, Jax learns that her twin sister Lexie has drowned in the pool, and in going home to deal with the estate, she discovers that Lexie had been digging into the history of the property and had uncovered some dark secrets.
The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James I can’t recall why I even picked this book up, but maybe it’s because a lot of BookTubers had mentioned it. Now that I am searching my memory, I think several of them had said The Book of Cold Cases would be good for someone who is just starting to explore their interest in mysteries and thrillers. It does have that sort of feel to it in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s not really graphic or violent or twisty or terribly complex–it’s a bit of a light read, I suppose. Shea is an office worker by day and runs a true crime blog in her off-hours, a fixation borne no doubt from her attempted abduction as a child, which resulted in an event that still haunts her. She gets a rare opportunity to interview Beth Greer, a mysterious local woman acquitted of two cold case slayings, and in the repeated meetings at Beth’s mansion, Shea gets the sense that–aside from the fact that she’s alone with a possible murderer– something is desperately wrong in the house. There’s both a supernatural element to this story as well as a romantic subplot, and to be honest, I wasn’t in love with any of it.
White Horse by Erica T. Werth. I think I loved the idea of this haunted-bracelet-as-portal story of a woman uncovering and confronting her past more than I did the actual story itself. I was constantly cheering for the main character, Kari, an urban Indian of Apache and Chickasaw descent and lover of Megadeth and Stephen King–she was so vividly written that she jumped off the page, and I felt her goading me to keep picking up the book and giving it another go. I loved her personal journey as she navigated the creepy things that were happening to her and the history that she was investigating, but still..something about the story didn’t click with me. A lot of people loved this book, though, so this is probably just a me-thing.
Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six by Lisa Unger. Now quite the opposite of Kari in White Horse, I was not cheering for any of the characters in this book. I thought they were all varying degrees of awful. Hannah’s brother appears to be a successful tech bro, and if you’ve read those three words and already decided he’s a piece of shit, you’re right. He’s gathered some of his nearest and dearest for a remote getaway in a luxurious, isolated cabin that has all of the best amenities that you could imagine– because he can afford it, and he thinks that they all deserve it. Because, of course he does. If you’re expecting a wintry sort of atmosphere which I think most might from the title, it’s not that–this is a cabin in Florida, and a hurricane is on the radar. The rental host is weirdly stalkery, their not-entirely-friendly personal chef shares that the property has a creepy backstory, and this friend-group of guests have secrets and darknesses of their own–and then one of them disappears. This is a book with a twist that I thought was intriguing if it had been explored in another way, in another book, and maybe in an entirely different genre. But in this particular story, it fell flat for me.
Such Sharp Teeth by Rachel Harrison and Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder. I don’t want to say anything at all about these last two books on my list. Except they’re both feminist horror (though Nightbitch felt a bit more like literary fiction), they’re both darkly humorous in the different author’s voices… and they’re both lycanthropy related. AND they are both in my top three favorites of 2022. Actually, I loved them so much, they tie for no. 2. What is number one? I reviewed it a few months back, but I have been crowing about it ever since to anyone who will listen: Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth.
In 2023, I think these Stacked roundups will be a little bit different in that I will not be reviewing every single book I read. And that is because I plan to read 200 books! Which is…a lot of books …to be talking and writing and thinking about, and that’s way too much work! So the plan is that I will still be doing these quarterly/seasonal collections of reviews, but they will probably just consist of the highlights and standouts. We’ll see. I’ll figure it out when we get there!
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