If you spend any time following horror writers or reviewers on social media, you will have heard of The Horror Hypothesis. Donnie Goodman has built his brand across all social media platforms and that’s how I stumbled upon his first publication – an anthology of short stories titled, The Razorblades in My Head.
Goodman’s inaugural release packs a strong punch that spans multiple sub-genres. While some stories struck me as homages to the author’s influences, Third Grade, Magic in the Hat, and Stargazing; Others stood out as wholly and uniquely the author’s own voice emerging, The Stranger in the Squared Circle, The Old Bay King, and Toasted.
The standout stories for me were The Old Bay King, a tale about crabbers who stumble across an abandoned boat; The Stranger in the Squared Circle, a wrestler finds himself headlining with a star he’s never heard of; Toasted, flash fiction about a talking toaster; Teddy, the story of a paranormal cremator; and Hourglass, a horror comedy tale about a botched sacrifice.
While some of the stories didn’t feel quite fleshed out enough for my taste, this collection overall is highly readable and a whole lot of fun. If you’re looking for a multi-genre, single author anthology, I recommend giving The Razorblades in My Head a read. I can’t wait to see what Goodman puts out next!
A blend of crime noir and extreme violence by Kristopher Triana
Readers of this blog will know that I am a huge Kristopher Triana fan. It doesn’t matter what genre he writes in, he always knocks it out of the park and leaves his own unique flavor behind. And the Devil Cried is no exception to that remark. This novel is as dark and gritty as crime fiction gets. It’s written in first person and our protagonist, Jackie, is the most detestable human being imaginable.
The story begins as Jackie is being let out of prison and set up for the illusion of a straight life by crime boss, Pino. He has an apartment, a job in a deli, and begins working small jobs for Pino on the side. It’s not long before Pino needs Jackie for a job that’s right in his wheelhouse because Jackie is known for doing the jobs that no one else will – jobs that involve women and children.
Jackie is one of the most detestable, unlikable, and vile characters you are going to come across in any genre. He is a complete sociopath. His actions are reprehensible and dare I say, triggering.
I’m not a proponent of trigger warnings in general. Simply put, what triggers me may not trigger you and in this genre it’s difficult to pinpoint all of the triggering subject matter. I know this is an unpopular opinion, but that’s how I feel about it. That being said, if you have a problem with extreme violence and/or abuse, this may not be the book for you and I would be happy to recommend another Triana book to start with.
While I loved the novel, I personally struggled with the abuse of Natalie. She is the counter girl at the deli where Jackie works. He chooses her to be his, for lack of a better word, beard. She represents the normal, straight life he maintains on the surface while still living a dirty, sleazy life just underneath. The mental, physical, and emotional abuse was borderline too much for me. As a victim of emotionally and mental abuse, I wanted a redemption for Natalie that never really happened.
And the Devil Cried is the first release from new publisher, Stygian Sky Media. SSM is the child of Death’s Head Press head-honcho, Jarod Barbee, and acclaimed author, Jeremy Wagner.
If you ask me, this was a great pick to launch the new press and I will be looking forward to future releases from both SSM and Kristopher Triana.
The Book of the Most Precious Substance is the latest release from Sara Gran. For those in the horror community, she is arguably best know for her possession novel, Come Closer. It deserves its own post, but for now let me assure you that it is one of the best modern novels of possession.
Her new novel, while completely different from her take on the demonic, still has its roots in the occult. Former novelist Lily Albrecht has become a rare book dealer out of necessity. It’s not what she wanted to do with her life, but she found she’s quite good at it and is able to support her husband, Abel, and his caregiver with her sales. One day at a book sale in New York, another dealer approaches her with an opportunity to make six figures if they can find a book for a buyer. He reveals the name, The Precious Substance, they make a deal, and he’s found dead the next day.
Lily needs the money and enlists the help of another dealer, Lucas, in order to find out about the book, how to find the buyer, and how to get their hands on it. Together they discover the book is considered the oldest and most powerful occult book on sex magic to ever exist. Only five, hand-written copies exist in the world. The quest and obsession with the book takes Lily and Lucas across the country and across Europe as they attempt to put their hands on a copy.
This book ticked a lot of boxes for me and I found it to be absolutely unputdownable. The underworld of rare book buying? Yes, please. The obsession to find a book that can grant you what you desire most in the world, if you’re only willing to perform the book’s five acts? More, please. The sordid, passionate lives of book people? Absolutely!
If you’re looking for a fast-paced, sex-filled, literary thriller – look no further and pick up this book right now. Highly recommended!
I recently fell down the rabbit hole when I discovered actor Josh Brolin’s Instagram page. I knew he was an actor, but what I didn’t realize is that he is also an avid reader and an immensely talented writer. During my fall, I discovered an article from a while ago that listed some of his recommended reading and The Executioner’s Song caught my eye. I’d not heard of it and I’ve never read Mailer, so I figured I would give it a go. I’m so pleased that I did.
The first thing you may notice about this novel is that it is a beast. At 1109 pages, plus a foreword, it’s a commitment. What I can promise you is the same thing that Dave Eggers’ promises in his foreword – this is the fastest 1100 pages that you will ever read.
The book follows Gary Gilmore on his journey as he is released from prison and his subsequent nine months as he travels down the road that leads him to murdering two people and being executed by the state of Utah. During the 1970s, Gilmore was a household name across the country. He was the first man to be executed after a 10-year moratorium on the death penalty in the United States. It sparked a nation-wide conversations on vengeance and morality.
I went into this book blind and I highly suggest you do as well. It’s a far more powerful read if you don’t have any preconceived notions about Gary or any of the people in his life. While this book is technically classified as a novel, it has been written as true to the facts as it could be. Based upon hundreds of interviews, letters, court transcripts, newspaper articles, and other documents, Mailer paints every player in this story as a well-rounded and important person. It’s important to remember that these are real people, with real problems, and morality is not black-or-white. Wherever you may fall on the death penalty or America’s criminal justice system, this book will make you question your opinions and ideals. It’s a powerful read that leaves you with a burning desire to discuss it.
This is a quintessential read for anyone who considers themselves a true crime reader or for anyone who thinks they have an unshakable opinion about our criminal justice system in the United States. Highly, highly recommended.
2020…. What a year! It was definitely a year like no other, that’s for sure. While there were many, many, many negatives, there were also a few positives.
I am celebrating my second year running Tattered Covers & Broken Spines. My little blog has slowly grown with followers and I am so grateful to each and every one of you who follow and support me!
Despite everything, I still managed to read 60 books last year. Unfortunately, I am very behind in writing reviews for all of them. One of my 2021 goals is to catch up on reviews so that I can share and promote all of these wonderful books with you!
Let’s move on to my Top 5, er… Top 6, shall we? I went back and forth on this and decided to go with 6 picks since my favorite read of the year wasn’t exactly horror. Without further ado, here we go!
My #1 read for 2020 was Betty by Tiffany McDaniel.
Betty is not exactly horror, but it does contain some horrific elements that will make it appealing to horror readers and fans of Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, Stuart O’Nan, and the like. Truly, this is not a book to miss. It’s a hard read and may be triggering to some readers, but at the same time it is beautiful and empowering. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark – I still need to write a review for this title, but it is an amazing blend of cosmic horror, dark fantasy, and historical fiction. The Ku Klux Klan is thriving in Georgia as it is led by monsters – both human and inhuman. Standing in their way are three powerful women – Maryse, Sadie, and Chef. This novella is timely, powerful, and an absolute must-read.
Chatting about the new podcast and a vintage YA book review
3.5/5 Star Review
Christopher Pike and L.J. Smith were my two absolute favorite YA horror writers in the mid-90’s. I couldn’t get enough of them and I waited impatiently for each new book to come out. They are the two authors whose work I have held on to since my middle school days. While I have reread a few of L.J. Smith’s series, I have been wanting to revisit my Pike collection for a long time and kept putting it on the back-burner – until now. Enter The Pike Cast!
Bear with me for one more bit of nostalgia before I get into the actual review of Die Softly… Once upon a time, in the early days of dial-up internet, there used to be an online Pike community called The Midnight Club. There was a website, but most of the communication was on ICQ and a listserv. It was so exciting to communicate with Pike fans from all over! Long before Facebook and Pike himself posting occasional updates there, he communicated with Scott and Shannon from The Midnight Club and we were able to get exclusive bits of news! (Fun fact – Pike’s long-awaited Execution of Innocence was dedicated to them!) You may be asking why I am bringing this up, aside from a trip down Pike memory lane. Simple – The Pike Cast has a Patreon and when you support the show for as little as $3/month, you get access to their private community on Discord. The community feels exactly like The Midnight Club used to feel – a warm, welcoming place for like-minded folks to discuss Christopher Pike. There are different channels for different chats and it is just a fun place to spend a little time every day. If you’re a fan, I highly recommend joining the group!
Ok! On to the review of the actual book – Die Softly by Christopher Pike. This will contain mild spoilers.
“Why did you two bake those cookies?” Herb asked.
“For money for drugs. I thought that was obvious?”
“I suppose. Did they have cocaine in them?”
“Just a tiny bit. Gave them a special flavor….”
The thing about Christopher Pike books was that they were always more mature than the other YA books out around that time. Reading them always felt like you were getting away with something. His teenagers drank, did drugs, had sex – they did things real teenagers did. That’s what I remember thinking at the time when I first started reading them.
I’m revisiting Die Softly about 25 years after reading it for the first time. Holy hell, friends! The amount of cocaine consumption in this book is insane! I’m sure that I understood it was an illegal drug when I first read this book, but reading it as an adult? Whoo boy! These cheerleaders have a serious habit! Fueled by the money from illicit school bake sales and a little B&E, Alexa and Lisa live a high-risk lifestyle. They bend boys to their will and make them into their personal slaves by addicting them to cocaine and sex. They are just trying to pass the time until they graduate high school and move out to L.A. where they dream of being famous. The All-American Dream, amiright?
Enter Herb, the self-proclaimed nerdy guy who will never get the girl. His passion is for photography and he just wants to get a few snapshots of the cheerleading squad naked in the showers after practice. After Lisa ends up dead and Herb develops the photos, he realizes he caught more on film than he ever bargained for!
The whole of Die Softy takes place over a couple of days and it is absolutely bonkers. It’s a whodunit fueled with cocaine, no sleep, drinking and driving, drinking and shooting, illegal weapons, and lots of teenagers getting murdered. Who even are these teenagers?! While Die Softly is certainly not one of Pike’s better books, it is so over-the-top that you can’t help but to appreciate it for what it is and chuckle at the absurdity of it.
There are some descriptions in here that are certainly signs of the times. Die Softy was first published in 1991 and it shows. We have an all white cast with the pretty popular girls holding all the power. Sammie, one of Herb’s best friends is an overweight girl who, “… didn’t have a body, her body had her. Somewhere inside, hidden beneath the rolls of fat, was the real Sammie.” Yikes. This description coming from the POV of her best friend – double yikes. Unfortunately though, that was typical in YA from this time period.
Overall, this is not one of Pike’s better books. It is notable, again, because it is so over-the-top, but it is also one of his few books with no supernatural element. It’s worth a read, but if you have never read Pike before I would not recommend this one as a jumping off point.
Next up – Whisper of Death! (A title that is a great jumping off point!)
A staggering coming-of-age novel by Tiffany McDaniel
5/5 Star Review
I rate many of the books I read with four and five star reviews – With a finite amount of time, I generally only dive into books that I really think I am going to enjoy. I’m lucky that they are usually as good as I expect them to be. These books are rated based on their own merits and I do not necessarily compare one 5-star read to another. Every once in a great while though, a book will come along that blows me out of the water and delivers a solid punch to my gut – Betty is one of those books. Simply put, this is really a 10-star read and has bumped itself up into my top 5 reads of all time.
I finished reading this book yesterday morning and I have been struggling with what I want to say in this review ever since. Betty is both a coming-of-age tale and a family drama told through the eyes of Betty, the youngest daughter in a poor family living in rural Ohio.
“A girl comes of age against the knife. She must learn to bear its blade. To be cut. To bleed. To scar over and still, somehow, be beautiful and with good enough knees to take the sponge to the kitchen floor every Saturday.”
So begins the story of Betty Carpenter, a girl born of a white woman and a Cherokee man. She is the youngest girl and the only one of her six living siblings that strongly resembles her father. The majority of the novel takes place during the 1960’s in the fictional, southern Ohio town of Breathed and follows Betty from the time she is seven until she is eighteen. Betty has been raised on the stories of her father’s people and the strength she inherits from powerful Cherokee women; likewise, she has been raised on the stories of her mother’s people and the the abuse her mother suffered at the hands of her family. The dichotomy of these truths allows Betty to see the horrors that are happening within her own family and surroundings.
While Betty encapsulates the sense of time and place with McDaniel’s understanding of certain rural truths: mental illness was not a topic to be discussed and women being inferior to men, chief among them; She presents these truths in a manner that allows us to recognize that time has not erased these problems. The curtains may have changed, but they still cover the same old dirty windows.
It should be said that Betty is not a horror novel, but rather a literary novel with horrific elements. It is beautiful, tragic, and gritty enough to surpass the works of Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, or Stuart O’Nan. McDaniel handles topics of discrimination, racism, sexism, abuse, incest, and cruelty with a deft hand. She commands attention with her lyrical prose, vivid imagery, and powerful use of metaphors; she paints over all this with a watercolor layer of magical realism that both softens and hardens truths at their edges.
Betty is a tough read, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. There were moments where I had to walk away for a little while and come back to the book the next day. The reality that Betty endures would have broken me – she is a far stronger woman than I am. Having said that, the moments of beauty and strength are more powerful than the enduring tragedy of the Carpenter family. There are passages and images in my mind that will stay with me forever. If you read one book this year, please, read Betty.
Betty was released on August 18th through Random House. Click the image above to order through from my bookshop.org affiliates shop or click here to order a 1st edition hardcover with a signed bookplate from Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. Betty is, in part, biographical – how much is fact and how much is fiction in unknown. Click here to visit Tiffany McDaniel’s website to view some photographs of the Carpenter family – Betty is the author’s mother.
I was given a digital copy of this book for review consideration from the author. I have since pre-ordered a signed copy of my own from Lemuria Books and plan on moving her first novel, The Summer that Melted Everything to the top of my TBR pile. Tiffany McDaniel has cemented herself as a must-buy author for me.
“The first time Chris buried a part of herself by her son’s roadside cross, it was an accident.”
Crossroads asks the question, How far would you go to bring back someone you love? Chris is a mother still grieving the untimely death of her twenty-two year old son two years prior. He was killed in a car crash and the place she feels closest to him is not his grave, but his roadside cross placed near the spot where he died.
As this is a novella, I hesitate to say anything more about the story. I went into the book mostly blind and I think it is the way that it should be experienced. At its heart, Crossroads is a ghost story tackling demons that are both real and imagined. It is an exploration of a mother’s love and loss. It is heart-breaking.
Not since Westlake Soul has a book left me so utterly and completely gutted. I am not a mother and cannot imagine what the loss of a child must feel like. I am, however, a human who has experienced the loss of loved ones and friends and know the ache that grief leaves in your gut – that feeling of emptiness and wanting to do anything to fill it with the light of the one who is gone. It’s not the same, but if you’ve experienced a loss, you will be able to relate and understand the horror imbued in this story.
This novella will break you, but that’s okay. It’s absolutely worth it in order to experience this tale. Hightower’s writing is poignant and powerful. She is an extraordinary talent and I can’t wait to read more from her!
Crossroads released from Off Limits Press on August 10, 2020. Click here to order the paperback directly from Off Limits or click the cover image above to order the book from my bookshop.org affiliates page.
It’s worth a mention that Crossroadswas the title launching the debut of Off Limits Press. Off Limits is a female-owned independent publisher focused on horror fiction. Support women in horror by pre-ordering titles straight from their site!
A supernatural novel of heavy metal and small town secrets by Brandon McNulty
4/5 Star Review
What’s a guitarist to do when her hand gets crushed mere days before the show that could make her career? Why, head back to her home town and swap it out for a new one, of course!
Ash Hudson, guitarist for the heavy metal band, Bad Parts, finds herself in a horrific situation after an attack in a parking lot leaves her with a crushed hand. While this turn of events could be career-ending for most people, Ash knows a secret about her home town that could save her. Hiding her injury from her band mates, Ash returns to her childhood home to meet with Snare, a demon that lives in the local creek who can swap broken body parts for working ones. There are two catches:
1. Once you trade, you can never leave town.
2. You can’t trade for a part that’s already in use by someone else, until they die.
Bad Parts was a fun read – it’s fast-paced and has a pretty unique concept that fits great into the small town secrets/small town horror trope. I don’t want to say much more about the plot because I don’t want to give anything away. However, I will add if you are a reader who needs to be able to relate to a character, or have likable characters in order to enjoy the story – this may not be the book for you. This novel has a cast of prominent characters and a bevy of ancillary characters and all but two were completely unlikable. They are selfish, detestable, and utterly human.
I did have one small issue with the story – and that was the timeline. Without revealing any spoilers, the plot involves a tight time frame in which so much happens in such a very finite amount of time that it seems unrealistic. I had to forget the timeline to make it work in my head. Once I let that go, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. If you are looking for a fun, horror beach read – Bad Parts is a winner!
I received a copy of this book from the author for review consideration.
An anthology of vacation horror edited by Samantha Kolesnik
5/5 Star Review
I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a dumpster fire of epic proportions. It’s almost the middle of summer and instead of traveling and lounging at the beach, we are staying close to home and masking up whenever venturing out is necessary. Does it stink? Absolutely! Want to feel a little better about it? Read this book.
Worst Laid Plans is a collection of 14 tales of vacations gone horribly awry. While not every story is specifically a summer trip – all of them have a distinct summery vibe. This anthology runs the gamut from aliens to monsters; from body horror to the supernatural; from grief to human nature at its worst. There is something in this collection for nearly everyone. It’s also worth a mention that Sadie Hartmann, Mother Horror herself, wrote a fantastic forward for this anthology!
If you have read my reviews before, multi-author anthologies are rarely a complete win for me. This was absolutely not the case with Worst Laid Plans. While there were a few tales missed the mark for me, there wasn’t one in here that I would rate less than 3 stars. My top picks were just so fantastic that I still feel good about giving this collection a full 5 star rating. Without further ado – let me share my top 5 from this collection:
Unkindly Girls by Hailey Piper – This was my absolute favorite story from this collection. Morgan is a teenage girl on vacation with her over-protective father. Every summer they go on vacation to a different beach, never the same one twice. This year is different because Morgan has found out a truth about her father. Without giving anything away, there is a scene in which Morgan is swimming in the ocean with two girls she’s just met and the imagery of it absolutely blew me away.
Taylor Family Vacation ’93 by Jeremy Herbert – Daniel Taylor, CPA, has taken his wife and young son on an Orlando vacation to visit the theme parks. Every morning he wakes up to see that his camcorder has recorded seconds of extra footage – a little more each time and it appears that someone is watching them with their own camera. As a side note, I’m a central Florida girl and Herbert completely nailed the Kissimmee and Orlando area, right down to the tourist traps and old motels.
In the Water by Mark Wheaton – Two American girls, Candice and Jenn are currently vacationing at a resort in Thailand. A major storm moves in and the resort goes into lock-down. Not wanting to disappoint their guests, the hotel opens the bar and turns the downstairs area into a hurricane party. It is here that Jenn and Candice meet up with a brother and sister they met in Goa and the night takes a turn for the worse. I really enjoyed the format of this story – some was told in real time from the girls’perspectives and some was told from the detectives investigating the aftermath.
Peelings by Kenzie Jennings – Beth, her twin daughters, and her abusive husband, Marc, take a family vacation to the Disney parks in Orlando. Beth is unhappy, she gets a terrible sunburn on the first day and Marc berates her for not being careful. Her daughters take the cues from their father and are horrible to Beth as well. As her burn begins to peel, she finds parts of herself transforming and discovers that Disney truly is the happiest place on earth.
The Penanggalan by Scott Cole – An unnamed protagonist and his partner, Maddie, change their vacation plans last minute when Maddie finds unbelievably cheap airline tickets to Panang. During the plane ride, our main character finds a little booklet in the seat pocket in front of him called, “A Field Guide to Supernatural Entities in Southeast Asia.” He becomes inexplicably drawn to a vampiric creature called a Penanggalan. This tale had some serious Junji Ito vibes and I was there for it!
It was so hard to narrow these stories down to select the top 5. I have two honorable mentions that I would also like to mention here: The Cucuy of Cancun by V. Castro and Deep in the Heart by Waylon Jordan. Castro brings a new twist on El Cucuy while Jordan tells a coming-of-age tale replete with cave monsters.
It’s been some time since I have stumbled onto a multi-author anthology collection that left me so thrilled. I honestly can’t recommend this one enough and it is so perfect for summer! Definitely one to check out.
I received a copy of this title for review consideration.