Four-Star Books Read in 2016: Fantasy and Horror


Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages: Wakulla Springs, in the deep jungle of the Florida panhandle, is the deepest submerged freshwater cave system in the world. In its unfathomable depths, a variety of curious creatures have left a record of their coming, of their struggle to survive, and of their eventual end. And that's just the local human beings over the last seventy-five years. Then there are the prehistoric creatures...and, just maybe, something else.
Ranging from the late 1930s to the present day, "Wakulla Springs" is a tour de force of the human, the strange, and the miraculous.

Beautiful, whimsical, bittersweet and lovely. Tarzan, and old Hollywood, and racism and segregation, and slapstick and unlikely connections. I love Ellen Klages' writing beyond all reason. I guess now I have to check out Andy Duncan too.

Touch by Claire North: Kepler had never meant to die this way — viciously beaten to death by a stinking vagrant in a dark back alley. But when reaching out to the murderer for salvation in those last dying moments, a sudden switch takes place.
Now Kepler is looking out through the eyes of the killer himself, staring down at a broken and ruined body lying in the dirt of the alley.
Instead of dying, Kepler has gained the ability to roam from one body to another, to jump into another person’s skin and see through their eyes, live their life -- be it for a few minutes, a few months or a lifetime.
Kepler means these host bodies no harm — and even comes to cherish them intimately like lovers. But when one host, Josephine Cebula, is brutally assassinated, Kepler embarks on a mission to seek the truth — and avenge Josephine’s death.

I was reading this and thinking that it's quite remarkable that the three books I've read by this author follow a fairly predictable pattern - a person has a unique characteristic such as living successive lifetimes, being forgotten by everyone as soon as they leave their sight, and in this case being able to transfer consciousness into any body they touch - they don't seem derivative or formulaic. That changed a bit in the second half of this book, and I had the same feeling that I did while reading The Sudden Appearance of Hope that the narrative structure needed to be tightened a little and got mushy in the middle; I still found it readable, though, and appreciated the musing on how the character's difference changes how s/he experiences the world and relationships. Some of it was quite beautiful. I'll be interested to see what North does next - has she run out of odd quirks to saddle characters with, or will the next book be about a telepathic time-traveller?

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis: " I wonder", said Hermes, "what it would be like if animals had human intelligence."
" I'll wager a year's servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence."
And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto vet­erinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old 'dog' ways, and those who embrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.
André Alexis's contemporary take on the apologue offers an utterly compelling and affecting look at the beauty and perils of human consciousness. By turns meditative and devastating, charming and strange, Fifteen Dogs shows you can teach an old genre new tricks.

I didn't really enjoy the other André Alexis book I read, so I approached this (book-club read) with some trepidation. It was very different from the other book; I wouldn't say it's perfect, but considering how ambitious a project it is I was fairly impressed. It was interesting seeing how the author wove human consciousness in with dog psychology. It's very sad, and does nothing to counter the sense that gods, if they exist, are basically sociopaths who fuck with human (and canine) lives at will. 


The Death House by Sarah Pinborough: Toby's life was perfectly normal... until it was unravelled by something as simple as a blood test.
Taken from his family, Toby now lives in the Death House: an out-of-time existence far from the modern world, where he, and the others who live there, are studied by Matron and her team of nurses. They're looking for any sign of sickness. Any sign of their wards changing. Any sign that it's time to take them to the sanatorium.
No one returns from the sanatorium.
Withdrawn from his house-mates and living in his memories of the past, Toby spends his days fighting his fear. But then a new arrival in the house shatters the fragile peace, and everything changes.
Because everybody dies. It's how you choose to live that counts.

This wasn't entirely what I was expecting given what I've read of this author's previous work, but in the end I found it really affecting. The story of the Defective gene and the reason the Death House exists is really only a framework for the human drama to play out within - sort of a Lord of the Flies thing - so if you go in wanting that story you might be disappointed. I felt like the actual story was ample consolation, though. The potent adolescent hormonal storm of fear, anger, uncertainty and love is realistic and affecting. Like all really good horror, this is equally or more sad than frightening.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders: Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn't expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one's peers and families.
But now they're both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who's working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention into the changing global climate. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world's magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world's ever-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together--to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.
A deeply magical, darkly funny examination of life, love, and the apocalypse.

Enjoyed it, but finding reviewing it a slippery task. Of three or four sci-fi/fantasy books I was waiting to read, this is probably my favourite. I liked the interplay between science and magic and the relationship between the two main characters. The behaviour of Patricia's parents and sister and Laurence's parents was a little over the top cruel and horrible for me and didn't sit quite right even in that universe. The world-making is solid and the huge egos in both the science and magic worlds are entertaining and ring very true. This was just a really great, slightly different story and I think I'll probably re-read it at least once.


End of Watch (Bill Hodges Trilogy #3) by Stephen King: The spectacular finale to the New York Times bestselling trilogy that began with Mr. Mercedes (winner of the Edgar Award) and Finders Keepers—In End of Watch, the diabolical “Mercedes Killer” drives his enemies to suicide, and if Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney don’t figure out a way to stop him, they’ll be victims themselves.
In Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, something has awakened. Something evil. Brady Hartsfield, perpetrator of the Mercedes Massacre, where eight people were killed and many more were badly injured, has been in the clinic for five years, in a vegetative state. According to his doctors, anything approaching a complete recovery is unlikely. But behind the drool and stare, Brady is awake, and in possession of deadly new powers that allow him to wreak unimaginable havoc without ever leaving his hospital room.
Retired police detective Bill Hodges, the unlikely hero of Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, now runs an investigation agency with his partner, Holly Gibney—the woman who delivered the blow to Hartsfield’s head that put him on the brain injury ward. When Bill and Holly are called to a suicide scene with ties to the Mercedes Massacre, they find themselves pulled into their most dangerous case yet, one that will put their lives at risk, as well as those of Bill’s heroic young friend Jerome Robinson and his teenage sister, Barbara. Brady Hartsfield is back, and planning revenge not just on Hodges and his friends, but on an entire city.
In End of Watch, Stephen King brings the Hodges trilogy to a sublimely terrifying conclusion, combining the detective fiction of Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers with the heart-pounding, supernatural suspense that has been his bestselling trademark. The result is an unnerving look at human vulnerability and chilling suspense. No one does it better than King.

Three and a half, partly for King nostalgia probably. A mostly satisfying ending to the trilogy, although most of the book seemed focused on details and logistics, rather than the generating of fear. The relationship between Hodges and his teammates is lovely, and I guess didn't really need a lot more dwelling on. It's just not one of the most impactful of King's books that I've read.

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough: A new killer is stalking the streets of London’s East End. Though newspapers have dubbed him ‘the Torso Killer’, this murderer’s work is overshadowed by the hysteria surrounding Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel crimes.
The victims are women too, but their dismembered bodies, wrapped in rags and tied up with string, are pulled out of the Thames – and the heads are missing. The murderer likes to keep them.
Mayhem is a masterwork of narrative suspense: a supernatural thriller set in a shadowy, gaslit London, where monsters stalk the cobbled streets and hide in plain sight.

The very first time I read Sarah Pinborough I found her voice dark, different and compelling. She doesn't rely on shock or gross-outs for horror, but on creating a tense, close atmosphere with sympathetic characters who don't read as cannon fodder. This is a series, which I will be following.

Little Sister Death by William Gay: David Binder is a young, successful writer living in Chicago and suffering from writer’s block. He stares at the blank page, and the blank page stares back—until inspiration strikes in the form of a ghost story that captivated him as a child.
With his pregnant wife and young daughter in tow, he sets out to explore the myth of Virginia Beale, Faery Queen of the Haunted Dell. But as his investigation takes him deeper and deeper into the legacy of blood and violence that casts its shadow over the old Beale farm, Binder finds himself obsessed with a force that’s as wicked as it is seductive.
A stirring literary rendition of Tennessee’s famed Curse of the Bell Witch, Little Sister Death skillfully toes the line between Southern Gothic and horror, and further cements William Gay’s legacy as not only one of the South’s finest writers, but among the best that American literature has to offer.

I never really thought I was into Southern Gothic as a genre, but the toe-dipping I've done this year has been immensely satisfying. This was unlike most of the horror I read, but the sense of place and time was very effective. The burn was slow, but hot. 

The Fireman by Joe Hill: From the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of NOS4A2 and Heart-Shaped Box comes a chilling novel about a worldwide pandemic of spontaneous combustion that threatens to reduce civilization to ashes and a band of improbable heroes who battle to save it, led by one powerful and enigmatic man known as the Fireman.
The fireman is coming. Stay cool.
No one knows exactly when it began or where it originated. A terrifying new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one: Boston, Detroit, Seattle. The doctors call it Draco Incendia Trychophyton. To everyone else it’s Dragonscale, a highly contagious, deadly spore that marks its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks across their bodies—before causing them to burst into flames. Millions are infected; blazes erupt everywhere. There is no antidote. No one is safe.
Harper Grayson, a compassionate, dedicated nurse as pragmatic as Mary Poppins, treated hundreds of infected patients before her hospital burned to the ground. Now she’s discovered the telltale gold-flecked marks on her skin. When the outbreak first began, she and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact: they would take matters into their own hands if they became infected. To Jakob’s dismay, Harper wants to live—at least until the fetus she is carrying comes to term. At the hospital, she witnessed infected mothers give birth to healthy babies and believes hers will be fine too. . . if she can live long enough to deliver the child.
Convinced that his do-gooding wife has made him sick, Jakob becomes unhinged, and eventually abandons her as their placid New England community collapses in terror. The chaos gives rise to ruthless Cremation Squads—armed, self-appointed posses roaming the streets and woods to exterminate those who they believe carry the spore. But Harper isn’t as alone as she fears: a mysterious and compelling stranger she briefly met at the hospital, a man in a dirty yellow fire fighter’s jacket, carrying a hooked iron bar, straddles the abyss between insanity and death. Known as The Fireman, he strolls the ruins of New Hampshire, a madman afflicted with Dragonscale who has learned to control the fire within himself, using it as a shield to protect the hunted . . . and as a weapon to avenge the wronged.
In the desperate season to come, as the world burns out of control, Harper must learn the Fireman’s secrets before her life—and that of her unborn child—goes up in smoke.

This was a great story, although I remain a bit baffled by why Hill seems to be intentionally falling into the footsteps of his famous father, after early work that was still horror but very much his own voice. Does he just find it amusing? Is it actually on purpose? The repetition of song lyrics, the selfish character named Harold and numerous other names from characters from The Stand, the civilization-ending disease? Anyway. This was good in its own right and didn't read as derivative, although I think I still prefer his earlier novels.


StephLove said…
I haven't read any Joe Hill since Heart-Shaped Box, partly because some of those stories were too much for me.

It seems I've read at least two books with the premise of Touch, or something close to it, both by King.

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