Saturday, May 4, 2024

What I Read In April

 Oh April...  you flew by so fast I hadn't realized how few books I had read. I only got through 8 but in this case, let's call it quality over quantity! I got my hands on 3 titles that I've been waiting to find, either used or at a reasonable price for kindle, and man oh  man, they certainly did not disappoint. 

Some really good books filled my brain last month. Let's see which ones they were: 

Shark Heart by Emily Habeck

This is one of those books that I picked up at a used bookstore, intrigued by the cover but then became completely enthralled by the description. When I brought it home, I started seeing it pop up on #bookstagram, and got nervous... usually big buzz books and I don't get along so well.

Also, I need to go on record and confess how much I hate... HATE... tear jerkers. Especially when I don't see the thing that will jerk those tears coming. There I was, reading on the couch last night, thoroughly enjoying the uniqueness of the book when BLAM! This sneaky little sucker suddenly tugged on my heart strings without any warning! So of course I have to give it 5 stars, LOL.

Shark Heart is grief fiction at its... ahem... heart. In it, Wren and Lewis fall in love and get married. Their happiness is short lived when they discover that Lewis has a rare genetic disorder and is quite quickly mutating into a shark. The book follows the couple as they prepare to face the inevitable.

It's not your run of the mill love story, but more of a cracking of the ribs, a peeling back of the meat and muscle, to get to the heart of marriage and motherhood and what it means, and takes, to be human, especially when your body begins to transform into something that's not. And the biggest lesson of all... sometimes, when you let go of the thing you love most, it might not be able to find its way back to you... even if it wanted to.

A stunning debut. And one that I'm glad I stumbled on, even if it did make me misty eyed for a hot second there.

The Skinless Man Counts to 5 and other tales of the Macabre by Paul Jessup

To say that Underland Press specializes in publishing books that swim on the fringes of genre, both literary and weird, is a bit of an understatement. The Skinless Man Counts to Five And Other Tales of the Macabre is a testament to that. Within its pages, readers will find ghosts and monsters, aliens and elves, card games with deadly consequences, and other fear inducing horrors.

Some of the standout stories, in both idea and execution, include The House at the End of the World, which involves a young girl in a new town with creepy mask wearing residents; Glass Coffin Girls, about a girl who takes over every inch of her boyfriend's apartment; When Max Was Hungry Again, about a spell that's supposed to increase hunger but sometimes to a detrimental effect; This Hunted World, where shapeshifting wolves stalk a man and his kid; and Fake Plastic Trees, where a strange parasitic infection crosses over from gorillas to humans.

This was my first time reading Jessup's work and while there were some truly stunning stories, I found the majority of the collection to be rather uneven and frustrating, feeling more like an anthology than a single authored collection. Some of the stories were difficult to follow, others felt like they were rushed and needed more than a handful of pages to become more fully fleshed out. But those that were good were just so damn good!

If you end up picking this one up, I'd love to hear which stories you connected with the most. There's definitely something in here for everyone.

The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

I had been waiting to get my hands on this one for quite a while and finally happened to catch a used copy being sold on PangoBooks! Fungal fiction for the win... again!

This book was worth the wait. In it, a group of men have been surviving in a remote area on their own after a plague kills off all of the women. One day, while visiting his mother's grave, Nathan discovers mushrooms blooming all over the graveyard, directly over the women's remains. After plucking one of the fruiting bodies to show the resident doctor, he somehow finds himself underground and face to face with a woman shaped fungal creature. After overcoming his initial fears, he makes his way back to camp, bringing the thing along, introducing it to the group as The Beauty.

What are these hybrid beings and are they as gentle as they seem? Nathan informs them that there are more where it came from, enough for each of them and the men find themselves both terrified and mystified by what comes next in this strange post-pandy world.

The book is grotesquely tender as it plays around with gender roles and body horror. I devoured it in practically one sitting and my only complaint is that it wasn't longer!

(this copy also included another novelette called Peace, Pipe which was also amazing, about someone who was kept in quarantine on spaceship, who befriends another lifeform when they realize they can hear each other through the wall that separates them. Oh my god it was sooo good Almost reminded me a bit of Project Hail Mary and the relationship Ryland and Rocky cultivated!!)

In the Valley of the Headless Men by LP Hernandez

More grief fiction for the win and this one gets all the stars!

Joseph's suffered a lot of loss in his life. His mother's recent passing, an absent father, a stillborn son that resulted in a failed relationship, and a fresh divorce. While he and his half brother Oscar sort through their mother's belongings, he comes across a letter from his father that prompts them to book a trip to Nahanni in an effort to get some closure from the things that haunt them most.

Gillian, Joseph's ex girlfriend, invites herself along on this strange and impromptu journey into the mysterious national park, best known for rumors of giants and prehistoric creatures hidden in its forests. Within hours of arrival, they can feel something is extremely off about the place, and things only get odder for the threesome the deeper into the park they travel.

Think Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach Trilogy (Tetralogy?!) and you'll have an idea of what our intrepid adventurers are about to uncover in this vast and liminal space. Equal parts psychological terror and cosmic horror, it's incredibly atmospheric and LP just continued to crank up the weirdness, relentlessly testing our characters perception of reality, and I was there for every second of it.

Mosaic by Catherine McCarthy

oooh I've been wanting to read this for so long and a big thank you to the publisher for sending a copy my way. It arrived just in time for me to bring it along for a work trip. I read it in the airport and on the plane and you guys, it was sooo good!

It reads so quickly, the pacing is perfect, and it's got just the right amount of wtf energy floating throughout its pages. If you like creepy abandoned church reconstruction stories, this one needs to be on your radar. It's got slow burn horror movie vibes from the get-go!

Robin gets hired on to assist with the restoration of a stained glass window in an old decrepit church that's nestled deep in a remote wooded area. Though the job feels weird and there's next to nothing online in regards to the church itself, once she visits the site she can't imagine not seeing it through. Even once she begins to uncover what the image in the stained glass window was....

You ever read a book where you know the main character is getting themselves caught up in something they are going to regret and you're all "no giiirrllll, stop trying to rationalize things and get out there before bad shit starts to happen" and then the bad stuff starts to happen and you're all "see... ok, now you're going to get out there, right..." and they still don't?!

Yes. That.
Get this book. Thank me later.

The Vile Thing We Created by Robert P Ottone

Another airplane read while traveling for work and it was such good company.

The Vile Thing We Created is a slow burn horror novel about a couple who decide to have a baby when they realize their friends are all moving ahead without them. It's a dark and twisted spin on the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses".

As a mother, there's nothing worse than thinking there is something wrong with your baby. From the onset of her pregnancy, Lola knows something's not right. The way she feels, the way the baby feels inside her... but the doctors do their doctorly duties and assure her that everything's perfectly normal. Yet once little Jones is born, the fear fails to subside. Quite honestly, for Lola and Ian, his entry into the world only serves to rattle them more. And those strange visions and hallucinations of glowing eyes in the woods that Lola kept seeing while pregnant seem to grow in intensity as Jones grows.

What are you supposed to do when you fear your own child? Who do you go to for help? And how do you not sound crazy when you finally do?

Ottone hits the psychological horror nail right on the head with this one! He perfectly peppered in the in-law dynamics, the overwhelming sense of FOMO the main characters struggled with, and the history of the small town Ian grew up -combined, those elements continued to feed the book's oppressive atmosphere.

The only real complaint I had was some of the odd conversational nuances between the characters. Ian referring to his wife Lola as "kid" all the time was one that kept pulling me out of the page. It felt less like a term of endearment and more like a verbal putdown.

If you're looking for a good "what the hell came out of my coochie" read, this one is it!!! Parental nightmares for the win!

The Deading by Nicholas Belardes

oh man I really wanted to like this one. My gut was telling me to DNF it over and over again and I kept ignoring it, hoping it would get better, but nope. It didn't. And that really sucks because, in theory, it had the potential to be really good...

It's part eco horror, part oceanic horror, part cosmic horror, part social horror. and part pandy fiction, so at face value it has all the ingredients of something I would love but it just couldn't seem to pull it off.

An oyster farm is the site of the snail bite that sets the whole thing off - a woman gets bit, if bit is the right word, and she basically becomes comatose while more and more of the things crawl on and into her. Her boss attempts to save her and gets bit as well. She vanishes into the water while he becomes something else entirely. Like a patient zero or super boss kind of thing. And then within no time, it spreads to the townspeople who begin deading... seizing, foaming at the mouth, falling down dead on to the ground, only to stand back up a few minutes later and go back to their lives as if nothing happened. The sea town quickly quarantined by the government, who begin to monitor them with drones, and the residents begin breaking themselves off into two groups - those who dead, now referred to as Risers, and those who don't, the uninfected. And those who don't... are beginning to fear for their lives.

Sounds so good right?! God I wish it was. It meandered a lot, there were whole entire sections that focused on birding (I mean, the cover, which is gorgeous btw, even has one on it) but it felt very loose and disconnected and didn't spend a lot of time on the actual deading. What caused it? Where did the virus, if it is a virus, come from? Why do those who are infected keep deading and rising? Where do they "go" when they die each time? Why doesn't the government actually go in and test or check on them? Why... why... why???


For the social horror part, think Jose Saramago's Blindness and Seeing but not nearly as good.

Goldilocks by Laura Lam

The hubby pulled this one down off the shelf, based solely on the title, for me to read next when he realized I was between books.

Funnily enough, the last one he blindly chose for me was also a space novel.

This was an arc copy I had received but hadn't gotten around to and oooh maaaan was it riddled with grammar issues! It was kind of painful to read, though I have to assume most of the missing words, double words, and half sentences were corrected by the time it went to print.

Goldilocks was a bit slow to start, finding its pace somewhere around the hundred page mark. It was cute, but nothing to... ahem... message home about.

Earth is dying, men are trying to keep women out of the workplace, and five female astronauts have had enough. They steal a spaceship intent on heading to a newly discovered planet with the hopes of terraforming it and making it the utopia they've all dreamed about. Only, once in orbit, the crew discover their captain has some nefarious plans in place that they don't necessarily agree with, and shit starts going sideways fast.

It's a pandemic-slash-eco sci fi novel at heart, with a smattering of familial drama, and yet beyond the dark and depressing storyline, there's also a little bit of light... the hope for humanity, the opportunity to save the world, the chance to start over again... you know, all the stuff that makes you keep reading.

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