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.
“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 horrific western novella of cosmic proportions by John Boden
4/5 Star Review
I have to start this review with a confession: I received a copy of this book for review from the author last fall and it slipped through the cracks. I’m embarrassed by the amount of time that it took me to get to this wonderful little book. Do yourself a favor when you pick this one up – Don’t let it sit on your TBR pile. Read it immediately and read it slowly. Savor it.
This was my first read from John Boden and I was impressed. Boden commands the English language and manipulates it into gorgeous metaphors that paint the landscape of this novella. As you read, you want to meditate on the images that are being drawn in your mind. The world of this tale is just so rich and so brutal that it demands your complete attention.
Levi is a man who is no longer a man. He has been warped by the ancient evil that has invaded his mind. Jones is a man on a quest to find himself, as well at the man who killed his mother. Keaton is a man on the run from crimes he did not commit. Jubal is a boy whose parents are dead and has been left to care for his twin sisters. Walk the Darkness Down is the story of how these four come together and their ultimate showdown.
One tidbit about this novella that I will share with you is to pay attention to the names of the people and the towns, hell – even the horse. If you are familiar with folks in the horror community, you will see a lot of cameos and mentions throughout. They are fun little Easter eggs to find. It takes nothing away from the story if you don’t notice them, so don’t let this deter you from picking up this book.
If a violent and gory western imbued with cosmic horror sounds like your cup of tea – I highly recommend this read!
If you follow the horror community on Bookstagram or Twitter, you may have noticed a surge in the horror western sub-genre. If you don’t and are looking for more new books in this vein, check out Death’s Head Press. They have just started releasing titles for their Splatter Western line: The Magpie Coffin by Wile E. Young and Hunger on the Chisholm Trail by by M. Ennenbach.
I’m wrapping up reviews for books read in the last week of April and you know what that means – we are less than halfway to Halloween! Over on the Spine Breakers YouTube channel, Sue and Megan have been hosting Halfaweenathon 2020. You can find the the original video and the reading challenges here.
I read Halloween Fiend for challenges #1 – Read a book with black or orange on the cover and #4 – Read a book with a spooky word in the title. I was running out of time so I had to combine challenges for this book!
Halloween Fiend is a quick and spooky little read. The novella follows the story of Barry as All Hallow’s Eve looms closer and closer in the town of Strang. It’s a town with a long-held secret – it plays victim to a dark creature that the townsfolk have come to simply call Halloween. Every night, small sacrifices, treats, must be left out for Halloween so that it can be kept at bay. Barry is tired of it all and wants out, but it is not quite so simple as that…
Hunt has created an eerie mythos surrounding Halloween and the town of Strang. It’s a little similar to Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’ but a with a more cult-like attitude toward it all. Halloween Fiend is a very atmospheric read; You can smell fall in the crisp air as you pass through the town square and likewise taste the stale smoke on the back of your tongue that comes from decades of smoking inside a closed house.
I had two minor complaints about Halloween Fiend – neither major enough to keep me from recommending this title, but worth a mention. The first is that the main character, Barry, is too generic. I often forgot that I was supposed to be reading from the perspective of a middle-aged man. It’s not necessarily pivotal to the plot, so it is easy to overlook. My second is that I found some of the plot points to be a little too vague. I am all about ambiguity in horror – I quite love it, actually. There were just one or two explanations that I would have liked to have been more forthcoming in the story.
Overall, this was a fun read! If you are looking for a quick little tale to get you in the spirit of Halloween then this is definitely one to pick up.
Have you ever wondered what an episode of Scooby Doo would look like if it was written by H.P. Lovecraft? Minus all of the racism and bigotry, of course? Well, look no further because that’s exactly what Mira Grant has done with this tightly written novella.
Our protagonist, Harlowe Upton-Jones, was raised by her paternal grandparents and foster family after her mother and father were murdered by a mysterious cult. During her formulative teen years, Harlowe, her foster brother, Kevin, and their two best friends, Addison and Andy, started solving mysteries in town and became rather well-known around the Chicago area. The problem? Teenagers don’t stay teenagers forever and the real world has real costs, like liability insurance, and there is not a lot of money in mystery solving. While the rest of the group is ready to move on from their former fame, Harlowe is still trying to keep the band together and proposes one last case: The Mystery of Spendrift House. A seemingly unsolvable mystery with a big payout.
In the Shadow of Spindrift House is a fun mix of cosmic horror, haunted house shenanigans, mystery, and unrequited love. It’s a big story for a small book. Grant makes it work, but I would be a liar if I said I didn’t want more of this tale – it would have made an excellent full-length novel.
One of my favorite things about Spindrift House is the atmosphere that surrounds it. Grant writes it as if it were another character in the story. The house is a living, breathing being and the foggy, wet New England air is the cloak that it wraps itself in. It’s just perfect!
In the Shadow of Spindrift House was published as a deluxe edition hardcover from Subterranean Press as well as an affordable ebook edition.
A surreal novella by Samanta Schweblin and translated by Megan McDowell
4/5 Star Review
It’s nearly the end of September and I am wrapping up the month-long anniversary celebration for The Ladies of Horror Fiction. This lovely team celebrated their first full year of spotlighting the amazing ladies of horror! There was a read-a-thon taking place for the entire month and it featured five different reading challenges – check out this link for the details!
I read Fever Dream for Challenge #3 – Read a Book by a POC (Person of Color). This is my third “official” pick for the read-a-thon.
Fever Dream is a hallucinatory tale of a woman called Amanda who is dying in a rural clinic. At her side sits a young boy called David who pushes her to tell the story of how she arrived there.
I hesitate to say much more about the plot as this is only a novella and it is easy to give too much of the story away. Schweblin is originally from Argentina and paints that landscape clearly in a short amount of time. The tale is set in the country – an area that is still heavily reliant on traditional healers rather than modern medicine.
My only complaint, and it is minimal, is that I felt this story needed to be a little bit longer, needed a little bit more time to cook. There are ambiguous endings and there are endings that just don’t quite feel complete – this felt like the latter to me.
Overall, I quite enjoyed this cautionary tale of modern evils and the plight of those who are only beginning to understand them and their consequences. The novella is a gorgeous blend of surrealism, hallucinations, confusion, unreliable characters, and magic. This is a great little book which should be devoured in one sitting and I recommend this to those who enjoy a healthy mix of magical realism and horror.
For those of you who’ve read some of my reviews, you will have likely noticed that I am brief – both with the description of the book and my thoughts on it. I prefer writing in this format as these are the types of reviews that I like to read. I enjoy going into books relatively blind, without the opinions of others clouding my perspectives on the story. With that being said, it is difficult for me to review Stirring the Sheets without going into the plot to tell you why this wasn’t a full 5 Star read for me. If you’ve not yet read this novella, proceed at your own risk – thar be spoilers ahead!
Emmett, an elderly mortician, has unexpectedly lost his wife of 49 years in a terrible car accident. It’s been a year, and to his neighbors and co-workers, Emmett seems to be doing well. Except he really isn’t. He hasn’t slept in his bed since his wife died so as not to disturb the impression her body left in the sheets. He sleeps on the couch, surrounded by her photos; he will not eat food offered to him by the kind widow on his street because he thinks of it as cheating; in short, Emmett is a man still wrought with grief. One day, Emmett is sent to pick up a body that looks so much like his wife when she was younger, that he decides to bring her home.
Lutzke understands emotions – he is exceptionally skilled at conveying them in a way that really packs a punch. You feel every bit of Emmett’s grief in this story. It broke my heart to see him lean over the side of their bed where his wife slept to look at the impression left in the sheets and to smell her pillow. I have known loss and Lutzke gets it.
The story loses me when Emmett decides to bring the body of the woman home. He has been established as a man who respects the dead and the grieving, he considers this skill a service to his community. He takes meticulous care for the dead and the grounds of the funeral home. The mere fact that he would embalm a body without the permission of the family, steal it, take it home, and then cremate it earlier than he normally would have to cover it up – it is so mind-boggling wrong that I can’t get behind it. Everything we know about Emmett does not support this.
It should be said that there is nothing overtly sexual about the night Emmett spends with the dead woman. He wants the last night with his wife that he never got to have. This act is his catharsis. In the morning he is ashamed of what he has done and is finally able to begin the process of healing and moving on with his life.
This was a polarizing read for me. The story ran the gamut from 2 to 5 stars. I ultimately decided on the 4/5 Star rating due to how much this novella made me think about the story, human behavior, grief, and how I would handle losing a spouse of 49 years. I read this book weeks ago, but haven’t really been able to articulate my thoughts and feelings until now.
If you have read this, please comment! I would love to hear other perspectives on this book – whether you agree with me or not. This was a complicated read for me and I would love to have a discussion about it.
UPDATE – Full Brutal won the Splatterpunk Award for Best Novel!
It’s Saturday, August 17th 2019 which means it’s KillerCon time in Austin, Texas. It also means that the 2nd Annual Splatterpunk Awards will be taking place tonight, honoring the best splatterpunk and extreme horror works of 2018. What better time to highlight one of the top up-and-coming novelists of our new generation of horror?
Full Brutal has been nominated for a Splatterpunk Award in the Best Novel categoy. Published in June 2018 from Grindhouse Press, Full Brutal tells the story of Kim White, all-American cheerleader and all-around It girl. She is pretty, she is popular, she is wealthy with a barely-present father – she is truly living the high school dream. At least that is what everyone thinks. In reality, Kim has had enough – she is sick to death of it all. After a conversation with her friend, Amy, she reluctantly decides to lose her virginity. Amy tells her it is a life-changing event, that she will gain a whole new perspective on life… And boy, does she ever! Kim quickly decides that a high school boy will never do and aims to seduce her sex education teacher, Mr. Blakley. What starts off as a little bit “Heathers” with a heaping side of “The Crush,” Full Brutal descends into an insane tale of lust, cannibalism, bullying, rape, and necrophilia.
Full Brutal was a 5/5 Star read for me. It is an absolute nonstop whirlwind of chaos and brutality. I couldn’t put it down and I couldn’t look away because I had to know what Kim was going to do next. If you are looking for an all-out gore fest – this is the book for you!
What happens when you take a former jock hoping to reclaim some of his faded stardom; a former cheerleader attempting to relive her glory days; a former bad boy looking to shirk his old reputation; a good girl – still a good girl – trying to assuage her guilt; and a former gym coach hoping to get his due from a school that has, in his mind, slighted him for decades? You get “The Breakfast Club” – blended with a substantial dose of supernatural revenge.
I feel like any more of a description would start to give away the plot – so I will stop there. The Detained was a 4/5 Star read filled with a solid cast of characters and a healthy measure of violence. The tale evolves quickly, without feeling rushed, and organically weaves enough backstory in to bring the reader up to speed and without pulling away from the main plot. In this era of commonplace school violence and bullying, it is a very timely read.
The last novel that I am going to feature in this post is Body Art, published in December 2016 by Blood Bound Books. I happen to have a signed copy of this book, and as the inscription says, “… now grab some lube and a barf bag, It’s time to film!” You may want to go ahead and lay down some plastic sheeting and don a poncho as well for this one. With Body Art, Triana has successfully written one of the most depraved novels that I have read to date. I mean this in the most complimentary way, of course! I am proud to say that it takes a lot to get under my skin and there were a few scenes in this book that got there.
Kandi Hart is an aging porn star who doesn’t want to disappear into the annals of AVN history. Rutger Malone is a director who wants to make artistic films again. Harold is a mortician who takes a special sort of pride in his work. Toby is a high school football star who’s looking for love in the wild and crazy Jessica, who just wants Toby to treat her like a porn star and take her to Nashville with him when he leaves for school. All of these characters are brought together by a sequence of events coated in a supernatural dust that ups the ante at every turn.
If you like extreme horror, and I am talking really extreme, horrifically gore-filled, then Body Art is definitely for you. Whatever depraved sexual act that you can imagine, I guarantee that Triana tops it in his novel. If you have a strong will and a strong stomach – I can’t recommend this book enough! 5/5 Star read!
For those fans of Body Art, or extreme horror in general, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not mention Body Art: The Coloring Book published in March 2019 by Blood Bound Books.
The 35 coloring pages were drawn by horror pulp artist, CorlenScope and inspired by scenes from the novel.
If you have ever wanted to take adult coloring books to a new level – now is your chance!
It is worth mentioning that I will feature Kristopher Triana on another upcoming spotlight post. If extreme horror is not your cup of tea, Triana writes tamer fare. His short story collection, Growing Dark, is a brilliant collection of modern horror. His novel, The Ruin Season, is a Southern noir akin to the works of Daniel Woodrell. His most recent, Shepherd of the Black Sheep, I have yet to read but you can bet a review will come once I have!
This year has been full of new-to-me authors discovered through Twitter and BookTube. Sour Candy by Kealan Patrick Burke is another one of those finds. Many of his books are spoken of highly, including Sour Candy, but I chose this one solely based on its cover – it’s gorgeous!
One of the first things that I love to do when I buy a new book is to read the first sentence – it often will determine where the book ends up on my TBR pile. Sour Candy made it to the top of the heap: “Four months to the day he first encountered the boy at Walmart, the last of Phil Pendleton’s teeth fell out.” Tell me that doesn’t drag you right in?!
I don’t really want to say too much about the plot, as this is only a novella, but the story is essentially this: Phil Pendleton is a childless divorcé whose life is forever changed after accepting a piece of sour candy from a child at Walmart.
I went in expecting this to be solely creepy kid horror, but was absolutely delighted to discover the strong cosmic horror elements contained within. Although, don’t get me wrong – there is definitely enough of the creepy kid element to go around! Burke manages to craft a complete, spooky story with a well-developed plot and characters in only 75 pages – quite a feat! This is the type of novella that keeps bringing me back to the medium. Highly recommended!!
Of Foster Homes and Flies is the first title that I have read from Chad Lutzke and it will certainly become the first of many. I have been collecting Mr. Lutzke’s titles here and there after seeing so many positive reviews of his work from BookTubers and on Twitter. I bought this title as an ebook, but finally took the leap into Lutzke Land this past week when I won a giveaway for the audio version.
This novella is a Southern Gothic coming-of-age tale set in the sweltering heat of an early New Orleans summer. Denny is a 12-year-old boy preparing for his end of the school year spelling bee. He lives alone with his abusive, alcoholic mother and wakes one morning to discover that she’s died during the night. Denny decides not to report her death until after the spelling bee and this is the story of the days leading up to it.
I know this sounds dark, and it is – but it is also filled with so much hope. Denny, for all his understanding of his mother, her abuse, and her addiction, still has an endearing naivety that he holds on to. Of Foster Homes and Flies is extremely well-written and the story and characters are so very well-developed for a novella. I found Lutzke’s writing akin to Daniel Woodrell’s, but far more optimistic.
I highly recommend this title for any fan of coming-of-age horror, Southern Gothics, or horror with heart.