The Regrets: A Novel by Amy Bonnaffons

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“You’re insufficiently dead,” he said.

“I’m what?”

“Insufficiently dead. You lack rupture with your life. You have no exit narrative.”

This is a playful story about being dead and being alive. It’s just a state, really. Thomas Barrett has been trapped in nothingness due to some… mistake. He is insufficiently dead according to his visit to ‘the office’ and for the time being will exist in a state most will never have the chance to experience. Returned to earth with the living for a window of three months, he has rules that if he doesn’t follow will incur ‘regrets’. He’s best to forget the heaviness of his other life, and just enjoy his time in the new one, as much as a person who doesn’t actually exist can. He must learn to let go of the past, the old life, that is for all intents and purposes extinguished.

Thomas first notices the girl at a coffee shop, captivated by her. He decides a ‘harmless crush from afar’ won’t incur regrets, nor harm anyone. Something about the girl with her dark hair, glasses, how she “doled out her attention” pulls him in. Unbeknownst to him, she doesn’t fully exist either, but her error is loneliness and not death.  The reader is introduced to Rachel who first notices Thomas at the bus stop, who seems to have some strange energy about him and, she notices, wears the same outfit every single day. Free of romantic entanglements for a year, she works as a reference librarian enjoying the fantasy of love and how it should be more than it’s actual crushing reality.  A daydreamer, who has ‘fallen in love with her own dreams’, the object of her fantasy is now the electric man at the bus stop. Catching sight of him fuels her desire that seems to ‘encompass the world’. Will it last? Or will her bubble burst? Despite her best efforts to ignore her wild attraction, a meeting takes place and so begins one strange romance between a man and woman who compliment one another in an impossible love story.

There is so much about himself he must keep hidden and not for the usual reasons men remain mum. He truly is not at liberty to tell her, but when his body begins to betray him revelations are impossible to avoid. Being with Rachel feeds the wish for Thomas to be more present, but it is a race against time. Rachel herself seems to be disappearing more in Thomas who is much like a daydream and nightmares haunt her sleep… love as mystery. But what will become of Rachel, is it possible she too could be on some strange edge of existence?

I enjoyed this novel, it’s a romance but the life vs death theme, the exploration of individual separateness and all that entails, made it a bit more meaty. Thomas may be insufficiently dead, but is Rachel insufficiently alive? Are many of us?  Delightful.

Publication Date: February 4, 2020

Little, Brown and Company

 

Lights Along The Interstate: A Novella by Adam Fike

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Of all of it, day in and day out, this was the part of it that got to Warren the most. He called it the not having.

Life, everything about it, what we chose and where it takes us, whether our souls be muddied or clean someone is flipping a coin somewhere on the paths we chose to walk.  I sometimes hate the idea of punishment, where is the struggle for those who are never pushed to breaking, who have every opportunity, who haven’t truly had to go without, knowing choices aren’t all black and white. Let’s face it, you can go with your heart, your gut and life can turn foul anyway, it can break those who have no one in their corner and yet just be a simple lesson for those who have the cushion of wealth in their life. How would that really play out, do those with everything in life against them get extra points? Do those with everything in their favor lose points? Balance, ideally is a beautiful concept but life certainly isn’t spinning in balance, sometimes evil wins… here at least forces are at work. The bus is coming… where are the people going? What has their life amounted to? Can the devil get bored, tired of being ‘the bad guy?’  Can he fall in love?

Jesus and the Devil betting on people, it keeps things entertaining, and Jesus has his faith in his flock. The Devil just thinks Jesus is a meddler! A Reverend who can see the deceased,  a little girl who loses everything while at recess and has to learn to be a stranger in a house for orphaned children, wondering how her life changed so abruptly, a boy who knows all to well the horror of ‘not having’, a wife betrayed to the grave. Who will make it, who will ‘earn’ their way? What about a woman seduced by the thunder of a bike? Then there are pennies, and not all pennies fall from heaven. Evil can enter the mind, if we let it. Some work with the dead and others are the dead but we’re all headed to the good place or the bad, depending on how we lived our lives.

This was a fun little novella, it all comes together at the end of the road. Do we all “get an A for effort?” I sure hope so because being good isn’t always easy, nor rewarding but the alternative…

Published December 2018  Available Now!

 

 

The Invited: A Novel by Jennifer McMahon

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She came to believe that some objects were like that boomerang- they went out, then found their way right back where they started from. 

Having grown up with a builder father Helen got her first taste of working on a house the summer before first grade, coming to the job site with her daddy. From there, she spent her weekends and summers learning his skills. Now, it’s her turn and she is caught up in her husband Nate’s enthusiasm to build their dream house, in the country. Trading their teaching jobs for the peace of forty-four acres in the woods of Vermont, it seems happiness is on the horizon until the land, and its brutal history, begins to speak. The land must have wanted them, seeking out the perfect place, they stumble upon a wooded area with a bog. It was ‘meant to be’.  Land reputed to be haunted, if you believe in such things. Braving the rumors, they set up home in the old mobile home that was left behind by the previous owner. It couldn’t be more perfect, land that is exactly what they dreamed up, a place to stay while building… then night falls and nature gets noisy. The gnawing, breaking branches, the screaming, surely it’s just the animals, nature? Then Helen learns about Hattie Breckenridge, the witch that once lived at the edge of the bog! Is she the reason why everything is going wrong, for the strange things that feel like a haunting? Ridiculous to believe a woman from the 1900’s could curse land, it’s silly fantasy! Who believes in witches anyway?

The animals aren’t the only ones unhappy with their presence. There is local girl Olive, who watches them from her perch in an old maple tree. It can’t be, this destroys all her plans! “They’re ruining everything.” Flatlanders! Just what she doesn’t need, an obstacle in searching for the treasure that old Hattie left behind. She concocts a plan to chase them off, but she may not be the only being that is interfering. Olive’s story is tangled up in Helen and Nate’s, and ghosts aren’t as terrifying as the things living people have done. What is the true story behind Hattie? Was she truly an evil?

It’s not ghosts that terrify, its human beings and all their ugliness. People are haunted by more than apparitions, it’s the dark history that has tainted the soil. What makes a witch? Gifts can be curses when people decide to turn on you and a brutal tragedy of the past can echo for decades. This novel is more a heartbreaking story involving family, lies, deception and vengeance. Revenge is a slippery devil, what seems like a path to right wrongs, seek justice often takes more than one bargained for.

The Invited is a character driven novel, it didn’t come off as scary for me, but it is a well written story. McMahon always writes interesting characters who are neither ‘pure’ nor ‘evil’ but whose actions define them in the end. It’s all about choices, and how heinous acts can give birth to fury, leading to repercussions a long time coming. A solid novel.

Publication Date: April 30, 2019

Doubleday Books

 

Dracul:A Novel by Dacre Stoker, J.D. Barker

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“Why are you hiding, Nanna Ellen? You’re frightening me!”

The peculiarities of Ellen Crone, oh yes, is the perfect place to start this creepy novel. Written from the notes, missing pages, remnants of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, there is an eerie intimacy in this prequel, sharing the inspiration behind his dark creation. It seems fitting that Stoker’s great grand-nephew carries on his legacy, co-authored by J.D. Barker (a horror and thriller fiction writer himself). That is turned out so good  is simply an early Halloween treat for your bucket.

We begin with Bram, a sickly ill-fated child (how gothic) until a peculiar Nanny ‘monster, wraith, friend’ (sounds about right if you think about Nannies of bygone days) cures him. Spending miserably sad, mounting days from his attic room wondering if it’s to be his last, with his older sister Matilda for company, watching life outside his window. There from the time of his birth, lending her strength to his being and disappearing for days at a time always returning restored again (cheeks flush with color, life) his nanny (Nana Ellen) is a force.  Ellen of the changing eye color and strange mysteries is it imagination that brother and sister let run wild, or is she something ‘other’? Is it just his illness, playing games with his mind? Feeling her, but not seeing her when at his worst? Curing him when leaches fail him? The cure, that strange beastly overpowering… did she truly save or change him?

interrupting these journal entries, Bram of the present is being stalked by a presence on the other side of the door, trapped in a room, engulfed by the awful stench of this monster, wondering if he’ll ever leave alive. Back to the past, brother and sister snooping through Ellen’s room, when they aren’t watching her strange nightly encounters, looking for evidence of something. Being children, they know not what but why is there a box of dirt, with a body impression, as if someone sleeps there in her room? Why isn’t her bed as clean as their own? Well, the ‘help’ is often busy and exhausted, is it so bizarre to be a messy nanny? Shoo, children, what does your Ma care so long as Ellen watches out for you and the house is clean?

Naturally they don’t give in, they continue to hunt, stalk their Nanny who disappears into mist. Maybe their feet just aren’t as fast? Are they really chasing her? Is he dreaming? Bram wakes with an itch. Could siblings share the same dream, or is it the sinister games of Ellen? If there was nothing unholy about her, nothing monstrous, why has she left in the night, without a word, leaving nothing of herself behind?

The monster means to seduce him into opening the door. After all, he owes it his very life, he wouldn’t have reached adulthood without it. Come on, open the door! Let’s get to the bottom of this!

They will find Ellen again, and discover the origins of her monstrous heart. What is great about this prequel is the knowledge shared about Stoker’s childhood, life. There is folklore and I love folklore but I wish there was more heart pounding terror. What you will find is the undead, plagues, murders and a strange love for the very thing he fears.  It  is a solid read and perfect for fans of Dracula, and old horror stories. We’re to believe that Stoker encountered the very sort of ‘evil’ he wrote about. It is part horror, thriller, mystery and Stoker family history, fictionalized (or is it) mwwwwaaaaa…

Available Now

Penguin Group

G.P. Putnam’s Sons

 

The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel A Story of Sleepy Hollow by Alyssa Palombo

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It was in early summer of my eighteenth year that my destiny arrived, and despite my fancy for premonitions he took me quite by surprise.

This is the story of Katrina Van Tassel, who falls in love with the Sleepy Hollow’s new school master Ichabod Crane. Katrina is delighted when she learns of Mr. Crane’s love for music, and that her father has engaged his services of singing lessons, for her. So begins a love affair that can only lead to doom and gloom with a legendary headless horseman running amok.

Then there is Brom Van Brunt (oh how I love these old names)  nicknamed ‘Brom Bones’ for his large frame,  the town’s beloved favored son,  and bully (when he isn’t leaving sighing women in his wake) who is sure Katrina is his destiny. They are all hung up on their destiny here! Brom is adamant Katrina will be his, has known this since childhood as they were once a tight trio including her best friend Charlotte (of strange gifts). They spent their youth inventing their own mischief until he turned sour, cruel to Charlotte for something she did (which is his fault, really). Now he seems to spend most of his time sniffing around Katrina and informing her that she will ‘come around’ to loving him, to being his wife. It’s only a matter of time, and a lot of harassment. He may have been her first kiss, but she’ll be damned if he’s her last.

Even the most progressive parents weren’t likely to welcome a terrible match for their child. Her father certainly isn’t going to support his daughter’s love for someone like Ichabod, well read and musical talents aside, wealth speaks louder than character when it comes to your precious, privileged child. Is Brom so awful? I mean, really Katrina, the whole town loves him, he is popular and handsome, full of brawn and… well he looks good on paper and that’s what mattered then. Alliances aren’t often made between the pillars of society and the penniless, better the promise of Brom or someone of his ilk. Maybe Charlotte can use her ‘magical talents’, reading tarot cards to see if there is even a slim chance of happiness and a future as Mrs. Crane. Charlotte does seem to have her uses.

Charlotte spends much of the novel giving warnings, or herbs to solve other inconveniences for Katrina. She has ‘feelings’, some of us may just call this intuition, others a wild imagination, depends on who you ask. Katrina isn’t immune to visions herself, in her nightmares of the headless horseman she keeps seeing ominous warnings but he isn’t real!!!! Something is brewing, but is her love for Ichabod truly doomed? Not even the terror of a legend can keep the lusty lovers out of the woods, and each other’s arms.

Circumstances push her to conform to society and it’s demands when Ichabod seems to have disappeared on All Hallows Eve, life becomes its own special hell. Will she ever be reunited with her lover? Or will she have to go to extreme measures to keep herself, and maybe someone else, safe?

It does have a pinch of feminism with Katrina, whose spirit won’t be tamed, who wants to love where she will and thwarts society, maybe even has to resort to manipulations here and there. Herbs as a safeguard against unwanted pregnancy isn’t something new, though it was forbidden (such witchery), even when she is reduced to accepting the turn her life takes, she still tries to hold some sway over her own destiny. My only beef was, I expected more terror beyond the occasional nightmare. Though to be fair, human beings are ugly enough themselves without a headless horseman lurking about and they don’t fail to be so here. I wished for more magic and spells, I mean love can be a spell I suppose or a curse. No? With Spellbook is in the title, I admit I was holding out for witches and spells, all sorts of spooky but I have high demands.

It was fun to visit Spooky Hollow again but came off more as a romance. More seduction than nightmare. Charlotte’s reputation is dangerously ruined by Brom early on, no one takes kindly to any whispers of evil, dangerous accusations, couldn’t the novel have backed up these threats with more than her seeing into the future? Too bad she couldn’t conjure some spell against Brom, but take heart, he seems hellbent on defeating himself half the time.  If you like romance with an old spooky legend thrown in, this will be perfect for you. Just in time for pumpkin patches, and headless men, out in October.

Publication Date: October 2, 2018

St. Martin’s Press

St. Griffin

The House in the Hills by Rowan Hanlon

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The house stood out but it didn’t brag. It stood back from the street and wowed passersby with its unintentional difference but didn’t necessarily invite them in. While not standoffish it didn’t really care one way or another if you liked it or not.

This novel wasn’t what I expected. The house of Marc and Harmony’s dream is more nightmare than fairytale. From the beginning it doesn’t bode well, it’s cheap for a reason but once Harmony is cajoled by Marc to give the home a chance, she is wooed by the beauty within, such as the perfect kitchen that fits the needs of her life as a food blogger. Like most folks, if an ‘amazing’ house is super cheap you know there is a catch, either an infestation of rodents, insects or ghosts! All joking aside, this house has inhabitants of the paranormal sort. Marc admits, maybe just maybe it’s cheap because… someone died. But hey, people truly do die every day and we have to die somewhere right? But what if the ‘death’ wasn’t some natural passing from old age or illness in bed but possibly domestic in nature?

Oh and did he mention, the guest house on the property comes with a tenant? Just what a young couple needs! A pretty young actress, Darcy Flynn. Upon meeting them, she eyes Marc and asks “Who’s this tall drink of water?” But don’t worry, she promises Harmony she won’t sleep with him. Really, very big of her!

Don’t feel too bad, our Harmony has her shameful guilty secrets too. Things begin to happen, Harmony starts hearing and then seeing apparitions, and questions her sanity? Marc thinks it’s just her nerves, in that patronizing way of his, shrugs her off. Of course, maybe there is even more to the ‘domestic’ story than he lets on. Strange in this day and age Harmony didn’t look into the house from the start. But she starts to piece things together and Marc just has that ‘hey ok, maybe I didn’t tell you everything’ attitude.

The character who gives the novel some life is her elderly neighbor Josephine, another southerner like Harmony (who hails from Tennessee). Two peas in a pod!  Josephine is a self-described big mouth and far more interesting than the young and beautiful characters that should be center of the novel. She is more interesting than the ghosts too, in fact I wish the story was all Josephine. Why are people always trying to shut little old folks up when they are trying to give us all the dirt on our evil homes? Seriously, let them talk- you might just learn something!

Marc, half the time you just want to throttle him. Everything is a secret with him, no harm done right? Guilt by omission doesn’t count, right? Lawdy lawdy! What if it could cost you your life?

I think for me I have read really horrifying stories that are hard to compare to. I got to the point where I didn’t care if they were in danger or not. Marc and Harmony were equally screwed up and self-centered, their marriage was more terrifying a prospect than any earthbound souls tormenting them. It’s a fast read, again Josephine is salvation for a story that would have otherwise remained flat. It was okay but not as haunting as I wanted.

Available now

Reverberator Books

Hag:A Novel Kathleen Kaufman

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You will see the places where time touches other paths; you will see all the what-ifs and possibilities. You will know things that others do not, and they might fear you for it.

Hag tells the story of a bloodline of women that hail from a Cailleach (a divine Hag of Scottish roots). Many generations come to pass, some in hiding from their abilities, others with the power to heal or harm. The common thread is the fear others feel, damning them for their powers, haunted by superstitions, marking them as evil. It spans the old world, and America as each daughter is meant to learn the old ways, as the Cailleach is a watcher of sorts from her cave, waiting for another to take her place.  Some daughters throughout the story embrace their inheritance, while others run from it, but there is no corner of the world far enough.

The women are timeless, and much wiser than the people, regardless of the era their story takes place.  The novel begins with  six-year-old Alice, playing in the Glasgow rain in her red rain boots. Already she has the gift of foresight, and understands there are paths in life that change the outcome of the future. Maybe she won’t grow up to run the shop, selling herbal tinctures, as her mother did before the war. These red rain boots have other plans for her, and her future is waiting in Colorado, the United States. So opens her path. As she comes of age, with the gift of knowing, she lives a life of desire and passion for a while, knowing it can’t last, finding herself caught up with a dangerous man, Tiburon in Venezuela, another story, another path she has to close. Then there is Paul, deceptions and his family blaming her for everything, as seems to be the way for all the women of her bloodline. There are many examples of just how intuitive and wise she is, from her days as a teacher to her love for Tiburon.

Throughout the chapters about Alice, there are the stories of her many ancestors and their gifts. I particularly enjoyed Catriona’s tale during the Spiritualists movement, how mesmerized she is by ‘the Russian Woman’ during a time when so much chicanery was taking place, and much of high society itself was bamboozled. It’s an authentic part of the novel, considering all the theater the fraudulent clairvoyants took great lengths to create. She should have heeded her mother’s warning. But there are other great powerful women in the line, weaved into the story, just as interesting. Muriel for instance,  who learns upon the heath that her moods  are tied to manifestations, that with her mind emptied she can control nature, to an extent. Gifted with herbal knowledge, she too has her patrons in neighbors, who come to her when in desperate need but also whisper about her. As people are want to do, they may appeal to the women in the line when it suits them, and yet turn on them with suspicion, mistrust and hatred dependant on any event that demands a target for their woes. Rather than your typical witches in the mainstream these days, Kaufman paints old world witchery that comes off as much more genuine.  While there is love, Hag isn’t a romance novel where one’s gifts lead to happy endings with suitors. It is more often that the blood flowing through each character dooms them, in a sense.

Time doesn’t really flow in a straight line, it is more circuitous as is evident in this tale. There is a child, Coira and soon a long-awaited homecoming.

Perfect if you enjoy folklore and witches.

Publication Date: October 2, 2018

Turner