Books Read in 2022: Four-Star Mystery and Horror

 I was brushing my teeth last night and I thought "in my post, did I ask them how they store their Christmas ornaments? Or did I say decorations". I meant to fix it before bed, but I did not. Thank-you for all your replies - I meant to ask about ornaments. We have a medium-good system now consisting of a couple of big Rubbermaid tubs, a few paper boxes with lids, and then bigger boxes of smaller boxes for ornaments. I just can't figure out how to do the ornaments in any kind of organized fashion. 

Angus got home again today, after three days in Nashville with almost no sleep and an overnight in Elmira. He wandered upstairs and said "Where's Eve?" I said "uh, back at school". He said "Oh. Shit. Right." I expect he'll be going to bed for about twenty hours. 

First day back at school was good, although I was tired and my brain was rusty. Fortunately everybody seemed in the same boat. AND, I got to tell my grade six class that, in an unprecedented event in my librarian career, every single person brought their books back - on the first day after break, no less. Actually, when I first ran the report, there was only Rahil who had two books out and I felt terrible for him, and then he walked up with his books that just hadn't made it into the bin and I almost threw my arms in the air. Also, the boy who screamed at me and called me an idiot a few weeks ago (he was going through something, I didn't take it personally) came and apologized to me today and then got me to help him play a joke on his friends.

We have gotten a real tree since the kids were little. This year Matt was away for work the first week of December, and by the time he got to our regular place there were nothing but a few needles on the ground. He went to another place, and when he first put up our tree it was the skinniest, saddest, most uneven tree imaginable. I was actually quite sad for a few days, and he felt bad, not that it was remotely his fault. I thought we might look for a prelit artificial tree after Christmas, since the kids aren't here to help pick it out anymore and I LOVE my friend Zarah's (HI ZARAH) tree with the lights that toggle between light and coloured.

But then the branches settled for a few days, and we lit it and decorated it, and we put presents all around us, and it turned out that it wasn't such a bad little tree after all. And now it's January and we are a prone-to-procrastination couple, so three guesses how it's all working out. 

Four-Star Mystery/Thriller

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka: synopsis from Goodreads: Who Are You When No One Is Watching? When a beloved high schooler named Lucinda Hayes is found murdered, no one in her sleepy Colorado suburb is untouched—not the boy who loved her too much; not the girl who wanted her perfect life; not the officer assigned to investigate her murder. In the aftermath of the tragedy, these three indelible characters—Cameron, Jade, and Russ—must each confront their darkest secrets in an effort to find solace, the truth, or both. In crystalline prose, Danya Kukafka offers a brilliant exploration of identity and of the razor-sharp line between love and obsession, between watching and seeing, between truth and memory. Compulsively readable and powerfully moving, Girl in Snow offers an unforgettable reading experience and introduces a singular new talent in Danya Kukafka.

-"It made him sad to watch her dance because she looked so fragile and so expressive and so happy and so fragmented, all at once. Mom looked like herself when she danced: he had always thought so". For a change, I actually liked a book more than a lot of Goodreads reviewers. This wasn't a plot-driven mystery - it was more like literary fiction with an incidental murder at the centre. I really enjoy books where the stories of different people intersect in unforeseen ways when it's done well, and I felt like this one was. Maybe the people who didn't like it were looking for more of a straightforward mystery. 

The Accomplice by Lisa Lutz: synopsis from Goodreads: Everyone has the same questions about best friends Owen and Luna: What binds them together so tightly? Why weren't they ever a couple? And why do people around them keep turning up dead? In this riveting novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Passenger, every answer raises a new, more chilling question. Owen Mann is charming, privileged, and chronically dissatisfied. Luna Grey is secretive, cautious, and pragmatic. Despite their differences, they begin forming a bond the moment they meet in college. Their names soon become indivisible--Owen and Luna, Luna and Owen--and stay that way even after an unexplained death rocks their social circle. Years later, they're still best friends when Luna finds Owen's wife brutally murdered. The police investigation sheds some light on long-hidden secrets, but it can't penetrate the wall of mystery that surrounds Owen. To get to the heart of what happened and why, Luna has to dig up the one secret she's spent her whole life burying. The Accomplice examines the bonds of shared history, what it costs to break them, and what happens when you start wondering if you ever truly knew the only person who truly knows you.

"But the question What are you thinking always got under Luna's skin. It seemed that whenever she was asked that question, she was thinking something so private and shameful that she couldn't possibly ever share. Caught unaware, she always responded with cheap lies."

"Is that what happens when you get older? You get more and more excited by smaller and smaller things?"

Three and a half? I have read this author before, but I confused her without another author I have read before (this happens more often than it should), so I was a little off-balance until I figured that out. It maybe strained credulity slightly that so many of the characters were so quirky, but then I suppose people who have odd childhoods and are a little non-mainstream would attract others of a similar bent. I was fairly engaged throughout, and unsure where the story line was going. The fact that the point of view of both the various suspects and the police was represented - and everyone else, actually - was kind of different, and done successfully in my opinion. I didn't find the solution entirely satisfying but it wasn't terrible. I feel like I sound kind of meh about the whole thing, which I think represented my mood at the time of reading more than how I felt about the book.

Perfect Little Children by Sophie Hannah: synopsis from Goodreads: All Beth has to do is drive her son to his Under-14s away match, watch him play, and bring him home. Just because she knows her ex-best friend lives near the football ground, that doesn't mean she has to drive past her house and try to catch a glimpse of her. Why would Beth do that, and risk dredging up painful memories? She hasn't seen Flora for twelve years. She doesn't want to see her today, or ever again. But she can't resist. She parks outside the open gates of Newnham House, watches from across the road as Flora and her children Thomas and Emily step out of the car. Except... There's something terribly wrong. Flora looks the same, only older. As Beth would have expected. It's the children. Twelve years ago, Thomas and Emily were five and three years old. Today, they look precisely as they did then. They are still five and three. They are Thomas and Emily without a doubt - Hilary hears Flora call them by their names - but they haven't changed at all. They are no taller, no older... Why haven't they grown?

Sophie Hannah relies on intricate plots that revolve around a sparking incident that sets up a seemingly impossible scenario and then a series of events that explains it. This happens with varying degrees of success (in my opinion, obviously). I found this to be one of the more successful attempts. A lot of the coincidences and explanations strain credulity, but that's not a deal-breaker to me as long as there is internal logic. One of the things that worked for me here is that I am completely like Beth as far as not being able to let something go when I feel like I might be able to get a better explanation for it. I've driven out of my way. I've sent weird emails. I've asked ten more questions than I needed to for no reason other than I just wanted to be sure of what had happened and why. And cases where I never found out the answer haunt me to this day.
I also realized with this book that I have to read more and more carefully as I approach the last quarter or so, and for that reason I think I could recount most of the action, whereas with previous books I sometimes enjoyed them but then couldn't remember what exactly had happened a few weeks later. I think I've also realized that, as much as I've sometimes enjoyed the police squad,  I'm glad it wasn't in this one.

The Night Shift by Alex Finlay: synopsis from Goodreads: It’s New Year’s Eve 1999. Y2K is expected to end in chaos: planes falling from the sky, elevators plunging to earth, world markets collapsing. A digital apocalypse. None of that happens. But at a Blockbuster Video in Linden, New Jersey, four teenage girls working the night shift are attacked. Only one survives. Police quickly identify a suspect who flees and is never seen again. Fifteen years later, in the same town, four teenage employees working late at an ice cream store are attacked, and again only one makes it out alive. Both surviving victims recall the killer speaking only a few final words... “Goodnight, pretty girl.” In the aftermath, three lives intersect: the survivor of the Blockbuster massacre who’s forced to relive her tragedy; the brother of the original suspect, who’s convinced the police have it wrong; and the FBI agent, who’s determined to solve both cases. On a collision course toward the truth, all three lives will forever be changed, and not everyone will make it out alive.

I got a review copy of this from Netgalley. I didn't love it quite as much as Every Last Fear, but that was just an exceptional read for me and this was still very good. The plot is satisfyingly complex, but it's the characters and the exploration of trauma and redemption that elevates Finlay's books beyond straight genre fiction. The juxtaposition of Keller's charmingly stable home life and ridiculously wholesome husband (how lovely to have representation of a female FBI agent who isn't a self-destructive alcoholic) with the devastated crime victims is used to good effect. I will read anything this author puts out.

Midnight Riot (Rivers of London #1) by Ben Aaronovitch: synopsis from Goodreads: Probationary Constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London’s Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he’ll face is a paper cut. But Peter’s prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. Peter’s ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny. Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and a long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic. 

-Sometimes I wonder whether if I'd been the one that went for coffee and not Leslie May my life would have been much less interesting and certainly much less dangerous. Could it have been anyone, or was it destiny? When I'm considering this I find it helpful to quote the wisdom of my father, who once told me, 'Who knows why the fuck anything happens?'"

Zarah gave me this book not this past summer but the summer before when she came for her yearly visit. I had every intention of reading it - she had talked about the series and it sounded interesting - but I have a bad habit of keeping the ten-ebook-limit from the public library on my ipad at all times, and naturally I feel like I have to read those books first, and I keep the many, many actual books at home as a bulwark against, I don't know, an extended power outage or electronic pulse that kills all our tech forever? 

So then, a couple of weeks before her next visit, I naturally panicked and tried to find the book, and couldn't. Then finally did (I had put it sensibly on a book shelf, how could I be expected to find it there?) and read it, and called myself an idiot for waiting so long, and... loaded up the next several ebooks from the library onto my ipad, thereby ignoring all the other actual books, and so on ad infinitum. This series is so much fun. Peter Grant's voice hits the sweet spot for me - smart, really funny but not dumb, just self-deprecating enough. Honestly, the whole Rivers of London thing was a bit of a confusing mess in the first book I thought, but I just went with it and it sort of makes more sense as it goes along. I love the world-building and the explanations of how magic works. 

Moon Over Soho (Rivers of London #2) by Ben Aaronovitch: synopsis from Goodreads: The song. That’s what apprentice wizard and London Metropolitan Police Constable Peter Grant first notices when summoned to the local morgue to view the corpse of Cyrus Wilkinson, part-time jazz drummer and full-time accountant, who dropped dead of a heart attack while playing a gig at Soho’s 606 Club. He, along with Scottish pathologist Dr. Abdul Haqq Walid, hears the distinct notes of an old jazz standard emanating from the body—a sure sign that something about the man’s death was not as normal as it might first have seemed, since only something supernatural leaves such an imprint. Body and SoulThey’re also what Peter will risk, as he investigates a pattern of similar deaths in and around Soho. With the help of his superior officer, Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the last practicing Newtonian wizard in England, and the questionable assistance of voluptuous but old-fashioned jazz groupie Simone Fitzwilliam, Peter will uncover a deadly magical menace—one that leads right to his own doorstep, with an unexpected connection to the squandered promise of a young jazz musician: a talented trumpet player named Richard "Lord" Grant—otherwise known as Peter’s dear old dad. 

-"You didn't need to be a copper to see that this was where the yoofs of Brightlingsea came to hang out in that difficult gap between the age of criminal responsibility and that of legal drinking."

-"'You can't die of jazz,' said Dr. Walid. 'Can you?' I thought of Fats Navarro, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker who, when he died, was mistaken by a coroner for a man twice his real age. 'You know,' I said, 'I think you'll find you can.'"

The second book only deepens the appeal of this series. I loved the references to Peter's family, and both the main plot and the sub-plot involving one of Peter's colleagues are really affecting. 

Whispers Underground (Rivers of London #3) by Ben Aaronovitch: synopsis from Goodreads: In Tufnell Park, North London, a set of railway tracks run under a school playground, leading to and from King's Cross. Wet, filthy, dangerous. Lovely place. And one Sunday before Christmas, Abigail Kamara, one of my endless brood of cousins, dragged me and my long-suffering colleague Lesley May down there to look for a ghost. We found one. And that was that, I thought come Monday. First case of the day: Person Unknown has been stabbed to death on the tracks at Baker Street Underground. Magic may have been involved. Sure enough, the weapon turns out to be saturated in the tell-tale traces left by magic. But Person Unknown turns out to be the son of a US senator, so before you can say "international incident", FBI agent Kimberley Reynolds and her firmly held religious beliefs are on my case. And down in the dark, in the Tube tunnels of London, along with the buried rivers and remnants of Victorian sewer systems, I'm hearing some really strange things..

-"'Excuse me,' I said in my best policeman voice. 'Could I have a word?' They actually teach you how to do the voice at Hendon. The aim is to achieve a tone that cuts through whatever fog of alcohol, belligerence, or randomized guilt the member of the public is floating in."

-"So just chalk it up to pixie dust or quantum entanglement, which was the same thing as pixie dust except with the word 'quantum' in it."

I'm not sure I've ever read this many books in a series in this short a time. I'm definitely not done with police procedurals that include magic. A couple of new characters come into play here that are fantastic. I should mention that it took me a few books before I looked up whether Ben Aaronovitch was black - I mean, was it a little naive of me to think that a guy whose last name is Aaronovitch might be black? Perhaps it was. Given the thinking around Own Voices books and cultural appropriation right now, it did give me pause. I did a little reading about it and found some black people who have given Aaronovitch and these books their stamp of approval, like here,  but is that just the "I have black friends" cop-out? I don't know. Peter is mixed-race, to be clear. Also to be clear, I believe that the 'rule' was never that that authors can only write characters identical to themselves, just that white people writing non-white characters shouldn't be privileged over Own Voices authors, and that writers should listen to the communities they write about. 

Foxglove Summer (Rivers of London #5) by Ben Aaronovitch: synopsis from Goodreads: In the fifth of his bestselling series Ben Aaronovitch takes Peter Grant out of whatever comfort zone he might have found and takes him out of London - to a small village in Herefordshire where the local police are reluctant to admit that there might be a supernatural element to the disappearance of some local children. But while you can take the London copper out of London you can't take the London out of the copper. Travelling west with Beverley Brook, Peter soon finds himself caught up in a deep mystery and having to tackle local cops and local gods. And what's more all the shops are closed by 4pm .

-"If you're a professional criminal, this is where you lie smoothly and give a false name. If you're just an amateur then you either hesitate before lying or tell me that I have no right to ask. If you're just a bog-standard member of the public then you'll probably tell me your name unless you're feeling guilty, stroppy or terminally posh."

A character I love is back, a character I love is still not back (sob), a new magical element is introduced, and the setting is completely different and very well-rendered. Another hit. 

The Children On the Hill by Jennifer McMahon: synopsis from Goodreads: A genre-defying new novel, inspired by Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein, which brilliantly explores the eerie mysteries of childhood and the evils perpetrated by the monsters among us. 1978: at her renowned treatment center in picturesque Vermont, the brilliant psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hildreth, is acclaimed for her compassionate work with the mentally ill. But when she's home with her cherished grandchildren, Vi and Eric, she’s just Gran—teaching them how to take care of their pets, preparing them home-cooked meals, providing them with care and attention and love. Then one day Gran brings home a child to stay with the family. Iris—silent, hollow-eyed, skittish, and feral—does not behave like a normal girl. Still, Violet is thrilled to have a new playmate. She and Eric invite Iris to join their Monster Club, where they catalogue all kinds of monsters and dream up ways to defeat them. Before long, Iris begins to come out of her shell. She and Vi and Eric do everything together: ride their bicycles, go to the drive-in, meet at their clubhouse in secret to hunt monsters. Because, as Vi explains, monsters are everywhere. 2019: Lizzy Shelley, the host of the popular podcast Monsters Among Us, is traveling to Vermont, where a young girl has been abducted, and a monster sighting has the town in an uproar. She’s determined to hunt it down, because Lizzy knows better than anyone that monsters are real—and one of them is her very own sister. The Children on the Hill takes us on a breathless journey to face the primal fears that lurk within us all.

-"Each time she went into Gran's gigantic library or the little brick Fayeville Public Library in town, Vi let the God of Books help her choose what she'd read next. He spoke in a thin, papery voice, as she ran her fingers along the spines of the books until he said, This one. And she had to read the whole thing, even if it didn't truly interest her. Because she'd learned that, even in the dullest book, a secret message was inside, written just for her. The trick was learning how to find it. But Frankenstein felt like the whole thing had been written just for her. It made her feel all electric and charged up."

I had thought I was finished with this author - more because several of her books were very similar than because I didn't like them (look at Goodreads for the covers of Promise Not to Tell, The One I Left Behind, and Don't Breathe a Word). But there's a podcast in it, and we all know I have kind of a thing going with reading books about podcasts instead of listening to podcasts, and this sounded intriguing. It was. I think the earlier part was so good mostly because of the word-perfect freshness of Violet's voice, and the fact that she was wise beyond her years, but still innocent without being naive. I don't always love modern takes on classics, but I loved the musing throughout on what makes a monster. The present-day interludes were really good, and the resolution was perfect. 

The Appeal by Janice Hallett: synopsis from Goodreads: The Fairway Players, a local theatre group, is in the midst of rehearsals when tragedy strikes the family of director Martin Hayward and his wife Helen, the play’s star. Their young granddaughter has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and with an experimental treatment costing a tremendous sum, their castmates rally to raise the money to give her a chance at survival. But not everybody is convinced of the experimental treatment’s efficacy—or of the good intentions of those involved. As tension grows within the community, things come to a shocking head at the explosive dress rehearsal. The next day, a dead body is found, and soon, an arrest is made. In the run-up to the trial, two young lawyers sift through the material—emails, messages, letters—with a growing suspicion that the killer may be hiding in plain sight. The evidence is all there, between the lines, waiting to be uncovered.

An impulse borrow from the express ebooks that went right. This was great fun. From the first few pages I was impressed at how the form (epistolary novel for the 21st century - emails and texts as well as letters) managed to capture very distinct voices for the many and varied characters. I read about three sentences of one of the main character's first emails and already had a clear sense of what kind of person she was. The sense of a small town and a close-knit community with a hierarchy of 'in-crowd' members and hangers-on is so well drawn. The legal case framing was effective and the fact that we never hear directly from Sam and Kel, when so much of the correspondence is about them, is somehow perfection. The form makes the pace fast but leaves room for many humorous and quirky details, as well as a rich and humming sub-text. There would almost have been too much going on if this was written as a straight novel. I found it hugely enjoyable.

The Lost Man by Jane Harper: Synopsis from Goodreads: Two brothers meet at the border of their vast cattle properties under the unrelenting sun of outback Queensland. They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old, no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron. The Bright family’s quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish. Something had been troubling Cameron. Did he lose hope and walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects…Dark, suspenseful, and deeply atmospheric, The Lost Man is the highly anticipated next book from the bestselling and award-winning Jane Harper, author of The Dry and Force of Nature.

-"They lived in a land of extremes in more ways than one. People were either completely fine, or very not. There was little middle ground."

-"Nathan could see Xander's city softness exposed like a layer of new skin. His edges had been gently rounded by nuanced debate and foreign coffee and morning news. They had not been chipped away and sanded down to a hard callus. Xander thought before he spoke, and he weighed up the consequences of his actions before he did anything. Mostly, Nathan thought, that was no bad thing. But it depended where you were."

Man, when this author is good (usually) she is really, really good. Again, the setting is almost uncomfortably vivid - you keep feeling like you need water and sunscreen. The description of the initial death almost made me feel panicky. I remember visiting Morocco and thinking it was one of the few places I'd ever been that really felt different from most of the other places. Living in the Australian Outback sounds like that. Besides the amazing setting, the characters are so complex and flawed and beautifully drawn, and the family dynamics are so realistic. Harper is easily one of my favourite thriller writers at this point.

Four-Star Horror

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt: Synopsis from Goodreads: The English language debut of the bestselling Dutch novel, Hex, from Thomas Olde Heuvelt--a Hugo and World Fantasy award nominated talent to watch. Whoever is born here, is doomed to stay 'til death. Whoever settles, never leaves. Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a seventeenth century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Muzzled, she walks the streets and enters homes at will. She stands next to children's bed for nights on end. Everybody knows that her eyes may never be opened or the consequences will be too terrible to bear. The elders of Black Spring have virtually quarantined the town by using high-tech surveillance to prevent their curse from spreading. Frustrated with being kept in lockdown, the town's teenagers decide to break their strict regulations and go viral with the haunting. But, in so doing, they send the town spiraling into dark, medieval practices of the distant past. This chilling novel heralds the arrival of an exciting new voice in mainstream horror and dark fantasy. 

The way this book came into my possession was extremely cool. I had read about it, but my library didn't have it and I didn't really want to pay for it without knowing how good it was going to be. During lockdown, my husband found a new walking trail, and we went on it as a family one day. It comes out in a neighbourhood a little ways away from us, and walking through the neighbourhood we came upon a super cute Little Free Library. We opened it, and front and centre was a copy of Hex.

Is it even possible to review a horror book without referring to Stephen King? I've been finding it difficult. King himself called this "brilliant and totally original" and mostly I concur. The witch figure is freaking scary, and the juxtaposition of the ancient witch's curse with modern technology used to contain and manage it is inspired. I did care deeply for the central family, and the way it all started to go horribly wrong was realistic and all too foreseeable. The part leading up to the end got a bit out of control for me, but that's just a personal preference, and the ending itself was pretty perfectly chilling. I got a kick out of the afterword in which the author volunteers that the English ending differs from the original and counsels the reader to 'bribe a Dutch person' if they want to know exactly how. (From what I gather on Reddit, it's not that much different).

This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno: Synopsis from Goodreads: It was Vera's idea to buy the Itza. The "world's most advanced smart speaker!" didn't interest Thiago, but Vera thought it would be a bit of fun for them amidst all the strange occurrences happening in the condo. It made things worse. The cold spots and scratching in the walls were weird enough, but peculiar packages started showing up at the house—who ordered industrial lye? Then there was the eerie music at odd hours, Thiago waking up to Itza projecting light shows in an empty room. It was funny and strange right up until Vera was killed, and Thiago's world became unbearable. Pundits and politicians all looking to turn his wife's death into a symbol for their own agendas. A barrage of texts from her well-meaning friends about letting go and moving on. Waking to the sound of Itza talking softly to someone in the living room... The only thing left to do was get far away from Chicago. Away from everything and everyone. A secluded cabin in Colorado seemed like the perfect place to hole up with his crushing grief. But soon Thiago realizes there is no escape—not from his guilt, not from his simmering rage, and not from the evil hunting him, feeding on his grief, determined to make its way into this world. A bold, original horror novel about grief, loneliness and the oppressive intimacy of technology, This Thing Between Us marks the arrival of a spectacular new talent.

-”At the funeral your boss collapsed into my arms. ‘I just want to know,’ he said, sobbing into my neck. ‘I just want a sign or something. That she’s okay.’ That’s how I knew to disregard that feeling. If he wanted it, then it wasn’t anything special. If friends of friends could go out and get small tattoos in remembrance of you, then it wasn’t anything special. The more I tried to get at what was vital about you, what I could hold on to and say, This is still you, the more I felt like I was grabbing at the tiny black spots that pop in and out of existence after a hard sneeze.”

-" You believed that once a person died the party was over, so you’d just be sitting in an empty space, in a self-imposed slumber. But then I’d die expecting to find you, spending all my time traversing an afterlife landscape that I make up as I go along, searching, when all I’d want would be to sit in that darkness with you, blind and mute and floating in the ink like a womb.

I’m afraid I’ll die wrong. The sperm that swims down the wrong fallopian tube.

I don’t want it to be that what I believe is what matters most. I want the truth, without a brain to skew it, without eyes to filter it”.

I'll just be straight with you, this was extremely weird and I'm not sure I ever understood exactly what happened. But it was the opposite of formulaic, and the descriptions of grief were ferociously, painfully evocative and accurate. There are enough bewildered questions on Goodreads that I am confident that I am not alone. Sometimes I enjoy the ride enough that I don't even care if I end up somewhere inexplicable.

Whitesands by Johann Thorsson: Synopsis from Goodreads: THE BREAKOUT SUPERNATURAL THRILLER FROM ICELANDIC WRITER JOHANN THORSSON. Detective John Dark’s daughter has been missing for two years. In his frantic and unfruitful search for her two years ago, John Dark overreached and was reprimanded and demoted. Now suddenly back into the homicide department, Dark is put on a chilling case – a man who killed his wife in their locked house and then dressed the body up to resemble a deer, but claims to remember none of it. A few days later an impossibly similar case crops up connecting the suspects to a prep school and a thirty year old missing persons’ case. Just as he is getting back into his old groove, a new lead in his daughter’s disappearance pops up and threatens to derail his career again. Time is running out and John Dark needs to solve the case before more people are killed, and while there is still hope to find his daughter. In the style of True Detective and Silence of the Lambs, WHITESANDS is a thrilling supernatural crime novel.

An author who tries to insert supernatural horror into an otherwise-realistic police procedural has to tread a really fine line to avoid tipping over into cheesiness or melodrama. I feel like Thorsson achieved the necessary balance. I picked up the book after following the author, who seems very gracious, on Twitter, and really enjoyed the story. Looking forward to the next book.

Such a Pretty Smile by Kristi DeMeester: Synopsis from Goodreads: A biting novel from an electrifying new voice, Such a Pretty Smile is a heart-stopping tour-de-force about powerful women, angry men, and all the ways in which girls fight against the forces that try to silence them. There’s something out there that’s killing. Known only as The Cur, he leaves no traces, save for the torn bodies of girls, on the verge of becoming women, who are known as trouble-makers; those who refuse to conform, to know their place. Girls who don’t know when to shut up. 2019: Thirteen-year-old Lila Sawyer has secrets she can’t share with anyone. Not the school psychologist she’s seeing. Not her father, who has a new wife, and a new baby. And not her mother—the infamous Caroline Sawyer, a unique artist whose eerie sculptures, made from bent twigs and crimped leaves, have made her a local celebrity. But soon Lila feels haunted from within, terrorized by a delicious evil that shows her how to find her voice—until she is punished for using it. 2004: Caroline Sawyer hears dogs everywhere. Snarling, barking, teeth snapping that no one else seems to notice. At first, she blames the phantom sounds on her insomnia and her acute stress in caring for her ailing father. But then the delusions begin to take shape—both in her waking hours, and in the violent, visceral sculptures she creates while in a trance-like state. Her fiancé is convinced she needs help. Her new psychiatrist waves her “problem” away with pills. But Caroline’s past is a dark cellar, filled with repressed memories and a lurking horror that the men around her can’t understand. As past demons become a present threat, both Caroline and Lila must chase the source of this unrelenting, oppressive power to its malignant core. Brilliantly paced, unsettling to the bone, and unapologetically fierce, Such a Pretty Smile is a powerful allegory for what it can mean to be a woman, and an untamed rallying cry for anyone ever told to sit down, shut up, and smile pretty.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that there are so many books about female sexuality and/or involving the relationships between mothers and daughters that AREN'T horror books. Transformations involving blood! The ability to create life! All the stuff we're supposed to keep hidden! This is stellar feminist horror, involving the caregiving burden that falls on women, the question of whether female rage is justified or indicative of mental illness, the terror and exhilaration of female friendship - and, oh, there's a serial kiler. Just as there are books I didn't like that much that are probably good, I starred this a bit higher than I actually enjoyed reading it, because I really admired the interweaving of horror and social commentary, but it was also the kind of book that many people describe as a 'fever dream', and I could have used a bit more clarity. I'll probably revisit at some point. 

Sundial by Catriona Ward: Synopsis from Goodreads: Sundial is a new, twisty psychological horror novel from Catriona Ward, internationally bestselling author of The Last House on Needless StreetYou can't escape what's in your blood... All Rob wanted was a normal life. She almost got it, too: a husband, two kids, a nice house in the suburbs. But Rob fears for her oldest daughter, Callie, who collects tiny bones and whispers to imaginary friends. Rob sees a darkness in Callie, one that reminds her too much of the family she left behind.

She decides to take Callie back to her childhood home, to Sundial, deep in the Mojave Desert. And there she will have to make a terrible choice. Callie is worried about her mother. Rob has begun to look at her strangely, and speaks of past secrets. And Callie fears that only one of them will leave Sundial alive… The mother and daughter embark on a dark, desert journey to the past in the hopes of redeeming their future.

This author has become an automatic read for me. More mother-and-daughter stuff, and some father-and-daughter and stuff too, and some of that, what do you call it, like, some maybe-smart, maybe-crazy man doing experiments on young people who are just eager to bask in his presence? Okay, that's probably not really selling it, but that kind of thing always interests me. There's also some sister stuff. And some isolated-children stuff and how they grow up, and why one of them has a lousy cheating bastard husband and a weird daughter who plays with bones. I'm sorry, I've had a really long day and I really want to get this post done tonight. It is smart, literate horror, unlike this review.

Beast in the Basement by Jason Arnopp: Synopsis from Goodreads: "You can only live in a world of make-believe for so long, before reality comes calling. It always does." In a big house in the English countryside, a reclusive and increasingly unstable author toils over a book which will close the best-selling trilogy of Jade Nexus fantasy novels. Speculation and rumour are rife among hardcore Jade Nexus fans that their heroine will die at the hotly-anticipated novel’s conclusion - a possibility against which they have begun to loudly protest via social media as the release date nears. How do you deal with such intense pressure? How do you cope with distractions to your work such as a violent intruder, panicked messages from your agent and a potential love interest moving into the cottage across the field? And far worse than any of those problems... what do you do about the Beast in your basement?

Arnopp's Ghoster was a crazy inventive book and I had no idea where it was actually going. This is a more straightforward, classically creepy story that also worked really well. I'm always interested in reading about the artistic process of writers (especially when it's not a middle-aged man with writer's block who takes it out on a woman). 

Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw: Synopsis from Goodreads: Cassandra Khaw's Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a gorgeously creepy haunted house tale, steeped in Japanese folklore and full of devastating twists. A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company. It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends. But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart. And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.

I'll be shocked if this isn't eventually made into a movie. Atmosphere to burn, an absolutely harrowing backstory, and a twisted friendship dynamic that is sort of horrific all on its own. 

The Piper by Lynn Hightower: Synopsis from Goodreads: In this bone-chilling tale of terror from Shamus Award-winning thriller writer Lynn Hightower, a devoted mother must confront the paranormal forces that have cursed her family. When Olivia James receives a phone call just after midnight, she recognizes her brother’s voice. But there’s a problem: her brother has been dead for the past nine weeks. Moving back to her old childhood home in Tennessee--the place where her brother has just died--her young daughter Teddy seems troubled, telling her mother that she’s being visited by a menacing ghost. When another tragic death occurs and her daughter disappears, Olivia must confront the demonic force that has cursed her family.

I've read a bunch of Lynn Hightower's mystery fiction and really liked it - I had to check that this was the same author. This is horror in the vein of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, Faustian-bargain, which I am always here for, with good characters and story-telling.

Hide by Kiersten White: Synopsis from Goodreads: The challenge: spend a week hiding in an abandoned amusement park and don't get caught. The prize: enough money to change everything. Even though everyone is desperate to win--to seize their dream futures or escape their haunting pasts--Mack feels sure that she can beat her competitors. All she has to do is hide, and she's an expert at that. It's the reason she's alive, and her family isn't. But as the people around her begin disappearing one by one, Mack realizes this competition is more sinister than even she imagined, and that together might be the only way to survive. Fourteen competitors. Seven days. Everywhere to hide, but nowhere to run. Come out, come out, wherever you are. A high-stakes hide-and-seek competition turns deadly in this dark supernatural thriller from New York Times bestselling author Kiersten White.

-(from the acknowledgements): "Finally, to everyone who still insists they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps: For fuck's sake, look up the origin of the saying."

Another good example of socially conscious horror, with the commentary actually adding a dimension to the story - being homeless makes Mack more vulnerable to exploitation, but also gives her valuable skills when fighting to win a contest and then fighting to keep her life. I really loved the story here too, though. The prose isn't show-offy, and there are almost too many characters to keep them straight, but the narrative energy is terrific, the setting is vivid and the relationships are very convincing. I'm not much for reality TV, but this embodies all the stuff I would find interesting about Survivor if I watched Survivor, or The Amazing Race - people having to decide whether they should form an alliance or go it alone, people who betray others regretfully and those who do it gleefully, and do nice people really finish last? Mack is a wonderful character, and this was one of my favourite reads of the year. Plus I love the cover.


Allison said…
If you google "ornament box" you get options of bigger boxes with dividers to make small compartments. I bought one of these many years ago and love it.
StephLove said…
We have that exact kind of ornament box, actually three of them.

I was going to list the books from the review that piqued my interest, but there are too many.
Nicole said…
Oooh the Accomplice is on my holds list - you are the third person to mention it!
I have the kind of prelit tree that goes between coloured and white lights, and I love it. It has a setting where it can twinkle AND oscillate between the lights.
Suzanne said…
I love Sophis Hannah with all my heart so I am delighted to see her here, and that you enjoyed this one. I also enjoyed The Accomplice and Hide. I think I started the Jennifer McMahon one on audio, and hadn't done any sort of prep work in terms of knowing that it would be kind of supernatural, so I turned it off with a quickness. (I am not opposed to the supernatural per se, it just surprised me when I thought it would be more of a generic thriller.)

The Lost Man is, I think, my favorite Jane Harper so far. You are so right about the setting being SO vivid and making your throat feel parched and your skin feel sunburned. What an incredible location for that mystery. I loved it.

As for ornaments, I think I did mention them briefly in a previous comment. But we have a single large plastic bin for ornaments and they are just... stuffed in there. Some of them came in boxes and so we box those up, but most of them I just wrap in tissue paper or growing-limper-by-the-year sheets of bubble wrap, and hope for the best.
Ernie said…
I made a list of mystery books that I want to check out based on your recommendations. Mini is taking a lit class and gets extra credit for reading something outside the class. She isn't into sci-fi either, but I will suggest she check out one of these mysteries. I loved that one book made you thirsty and in need of sunscreen. That's pretty amazing.

I laughed that you guys are procrastinators, so three guesses . . . ha.

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