Book Reviews

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Emily Carroll’s illustrated book Through the Woods came into my life just at the right time. Well, any time would be great, but I’m particularly interested in the uncanny and what spooks us for a few projects I’m working on.

through the woods cover

Besides the engrossing illustrations, Carroll captures the straightforwardness of language that, even though it might appear simple, is in fact hiding the monster that waits beneath our beds ready to pull us by the leg. This book has teeth; large, gnashing teeth ready to eat the characters up.

There are five complete stories in the book and like many of the Grimm fairy tales before it, concern themselves with children protagonist and/or the invasion of the home from an uncanny force. The English name “fairy tales” always seems misleading. In German, these types of stories are labeled Kinder-und Hausmärchen, or children and house stories/tales. Not as fanciful sounding, but more correct.

The stories in Through the Woods do not have happy endings and have not been Disneyfied. It is hard to pick a favorite, but perhaps, if I had a huntsman’s axe pointed at my head, I would choose “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold.” A young wife joins her husband at his expansive home and is haunted by knocking coming through the walls. It’s a bit of a mix of Edgar Allan Poe and Rebecca.

Even though Carroll clearly has a style, she gives each story its own unique look and color scheme. They do not blend together, but reflect well on the story (in words) being told.

It was fortuitous that I finished this book and then the following night–with the lights turned off, of course–that I watched the film Stoker. I’ve been meaning to see it ever since it was released, but I have only now watched it. It clearly was inspired by Hitchcock films and Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. An uncanny presence (who doesn’t eat food) comes into the home. The film utilizes style, and the layering of images and scenes, overlapping events allude to a sinister unease. I enjoyed the film. Although, I absolutely did not like the final scene. Has anyone else seen this movie? I think the song used over that bit was totally ill-fit and knocked me out of sync with the rest of the film.

Anywho, it was an interesting pairing. I’m glad I finally read Through the Woods. It made 2014 a more interesting publishing year than it was.

This book is best read at night before you go to sleep with only a single nightlight or book light. One of the stories is available on the author’s website, along with further stories not collected in the book.

through the woods 1


Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Perhaps, I am in the minority, but 2014 didn’t smack me as a great year for novels. There were a few that were personal favorites (most notably The Fever), but there were far more disappointments. I am a bit bummed that I let Julie Schumacher’s novel Dear Committee Members wait till four months after publication, but I am so happy that I finally read it and at an addicting speed, no less.

dear committee members


This novel will be especially appreciated by those who have swam through the sludge that is academic bureaucracy (and also anyone seeking out employment where references are required). The book is told entirely in the form of Letters of Recommendation, or LOR, written by a technophobic, vain and unpleasant professor of creative writing and literature at a university in Minnesota. The novel has all the components to steal my heart.*

Professor Jason Fitger has written over 1,300 LOR, a process that seems to be the primary reason for not penning a new book in more than half a decade (I’m not even sure when he would have to time to teach the classes he mentions). The letters he writes are funny, revealing, self-involved, and entirely inappropriate for so many reasons. Readers will love this book, but especially those who have had to deal with the ridiculous requirement of LOR.

Not only is Professor Fitger penning LOR for academic programs, colleagues’ promotions, etc., but also for his students who are applying for employment at RV parks, produce factories, and technology firms.

dear committee members excerpt

Over the school year, Fitger is one of the lone professors who has remained behind in the building housing the English department, which is undergoing vast (and crumbling) renovations. As a former English major, I feel it’s my duty to note the parallel between the department’s physical shambles and the never-ending breakdown of relationships Fitger has in his own life: his ex-wife and former girlfriend have formed a sort of alliance against him, former colleagues deny requests for assistance, and the majority of everyone else is aware of his membership in the pompous ass club.

The novel is, in short, hilarious. It is attuned to what is happening to liberal arts departments, the shunting aside of any course of study that is not part of STEM. It is also a fine critique to the obscene behavior universities deploy so they do not have to pay professor much of anything (employing mostly underpaid and overworked adjuncts, so as to refrain from paying out benefits and salaries).

Shall I dare to say that Dear Committee Members is genius? I shall. (It’s entirely unfortunate how this term–along, with epic, awesome, unbelievable-is splashed upon every article headline these days, but I will refrain from further curmudgeonry, lest I sound too much like Professor Fitger).  I really loved this book and in fact, I finished it in a single day.


*I am a sucker for epistolary novels; I’m looking at you, Dracula.

Storytelling Through Crime: “People Who Eat Darkness”

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been knee-deep in books that can be labelled in the true crime genre. I’m generally not an aficionado of murder as entertainment (the sensationalize plots, bad acting, and terrible cop lingo of police procedurals on television, which make me want to gag with a spoon).  Yet, what has drawn me to a few of these titles has been more about the storytelling and craftsmanship. For me, it’s less about the gruesome, vial acts that have occurred, but more how the writer chooses to unfold them.

This began with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which discusses a mid-19th Century crime and the subsequent investigation during the early days of organized police deduction. I carried on with John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down, whose voice and point of view is very crucial to the storytelling. Safran is an Australian who goes to Mississippi in the aftermath of an odd crime. In the mysterypod podcast, John Safran discusses his approach to writing his book and how it was not as clear cut as one would have hoped.

My ears perked up when he told the host that he didn’t consider himself a journalist but a storyteller. Safran, too, has a six-part podcast that is worth a listen. It’s titled True Crime and he discusses with famous true crime writers the approach they’ve taken when writing such books. In episode 4, he chats with Joe McGinniss who wrote the magnum opus of crime books, Fatal Vision, which in itself is a master class in how to unravel information through a timeline.
people who eat darknessI hope to wind down from crime books soon (honestly, my threshold for debauchery and violence is being tested). I’ve just finished Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat DarknessIn one word, it was stunning. It was stunning in the complexity of the world it created (Roppongi, a Tokyo district known for its night life), the people who lurk through it, and the “characters” (I use this word as a replacement for the actual real people portrayed). The people are complicated; like Safran’s book, nothing is quite so clear as we would like it to be and like Fatal Vision, answers are not satisfactorily answered like in an Agatha Christie novel.

The crime is brutal and inhuman. If a reader can move past that and read the book for its storytelling, a writer can learn a lot from Parry and the others listed above. They have all moved past the sensationalism of the crime itself and focus on the people, the order of invents, and the style of their writing.

Because I’m currently working on short stories that toe the lines of horror, the uncanny, suspense, and unnerving, when to reveal or withhold are very important. Letting go of too much at one time can undermined the atmosphere and story.

I have a few more on my docket, but these, like The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, are from events of years past. There is something about reading about contemporary crimes (let’s say last sixty or so years) that make these books particularly uncomfortable.

True crime can be a hard subject; I found In Cold Blood to be highly difficult to read when I read it six or seven years ago and I’m at my breaking point when it comes to anything Jack the Ripper related. Sometimes, cloaking true events in the guise of a novel can make it a little bit easier to deal with as is the case of the completely gripping The Murder Farm.

Does anyone else read these kinds of books? And if so, what do you make of them? Are they guilty pleasure imbibed in when you’re at an airport bookstore or go to reads when they’re published? It’s definitely been an interesting foray into non-fiction for a while. A different kind of reading experience for sure.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes


Wowzer. I’ve never read Lauren Beukes work before. I’ve been a bit disappointed in myself that I wasn’t able to squeeze The Shining Girls into my reading schedule when it was initially released, but after finishing up Broken Monsters, I will certainly have to get it in the new year.

I must admit that I was intrigued by Broken Monsters when I first read the synopsis; it had a very True Detective quality about it (minus the Lone Star beer and interrogation room philosophizing).

Detroit. Present day. The lifeless body of a missing eleven-year-old boy has been found. However, the upper part of his body has been fused to the lower half of a deer. This heinous crime is just part of the ruined remains of Detroit, a city which has obviously seen better days. Most people are gone and the buildings that remain are all broken.

The central point of the novel is the crime (and the subsequent murders carried out by a serial killer). The novel is constructed by alternating short chapters from various characters’ points of view: Detective Gabi Versado, her fifteen-year-old daughter Layla who seems to be moonlighting as Chris Hansen on To Catch a Predator, the washed up journalist Jonno who moves to Detroit in hopes of utilizing the internet for his big break, among others.

At first, I was unsure how all of the POVs related, but as the narrative progressed, their stories intertwined until they all start to overlap into each others’ lives. Besides Detective Versado, once her daughter’s narrative started to roll, I found myself loving her spunky, take-no-prisoners attitude.

About halfway through, I thought that Broken Monsters would be another run-of-the-mill cop drama (there was even grumpy police lingo and macho doughnut grubbing detectives). I would like to believe that Beukes was just turning around our perceptions of genre fiction.

The final pièce de résistance was a complete loopy, wild ride. I was properly anxious–dare I say uncomfortable. It was successfully treading into horror territory. I had that feeling of I must know what’s gonna happen. I must finish!

So, I’ve broken my ban on acquiring any more books for the next two months until I finish up my stack of galleys and the two books designated as my own “winter big reads” and checked out The Shining Girls from the library. I couldn’t help it! Has anyone else read it or Broken Monsters?

I found an interesting short video where Lauren Beukes talks about violence against women and they way it is often fictitiously portrayed.



The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

I was hoping to review this book before Halloween in case anyone was interested in an off the beaten path sort of read, but, alas, like many hopes, it had to be altered, changed, and delayed. Regardless, I hope everyone was able to squeeze in a ghostly story or two, or perhaps, a movie that makes you hear bumps in the night. Sadly, I was taken with a stupid cold on Friday (no doubt, from all of my traveling and little sleeping) and also, Halloween isn’t really noticed at all here in Berlin. But enough of that and more of the supernatural…

supernatural enhancements

The Supernatural Enhancements is a send-up to classic ghost stories and haunted houses; it’s also a cousin to the once popular “locked door” mysteries. The novel is a combination of fragments–epistles, notes, recorded conversations, video, etc.–and the majority, if not all, of the action takes place within the uneasy walls of Axton House, a large estate in Point Bless, Virginia. After the untimely deaths of the previous owners (the most recent taking a swan dive out of the window), a second cousin twice removed from Europe only identified as A. shows up after the house is bequeathed to him. He is accompanied by a mute Irish teenager named Niamh, who hastily scrawls her thoughts and exclamations onto a notepad, which is presented throughout the pieced together narrative (however, I must admit, these two characters had me rolling my eyes at the beginning, because they were dangerously close to being too cool hipster types; this feeling didn’t completely pass, either).

The novel has a humor about it. The author and the story are well aware of the history of haunted house novels before it and is curiously investigating it in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way.

A: I…I’ve been having some rough nights.
Strückner: Waking up screaming?
A: A couple times.
Strückner: Going to the bathroom in the middle of the night and seeing things?
A: Okay, okay, I see the pattern.

As A. and Niamh continue to live in the house, hoping to identify why the previous owner offed himself, strange occurrences take place and a bigger mystery becomes apparent. I must admit that somewhere in the middle, the once quick and addicting page-turning did become a little tedious. The Supernatural Enhancements would have been served better by tighter editing. There were continuous pages of nothing–meaning, video and audio recording transcripts that offered absolutely no propulsion to the story. Also, the ending did become a bit confusing. Proverbially, I lost the plot. In a way, Cantero was trying to tie up loose ends, but it really didn’t explain the engaging pages he had going for the majority of the book.

Regardless, I would still recommend The Supernatural Enhancements. I’m truly a sucker for epistolary/fragment novels (re: Dracula). Has anyone else read this book? Perhaps, you’ve made better sense of the ending!

In the Year 2889 by Jules Verne

2889 cover

I must admit that I originally began reading this short story based solely on its title and that said title’s similarity to the song, “In the Year 2525.” When I began reading, the preface notified the reader that this Jules Verne story was in fact not written by the great Nineteenth century French science fiction/fantasy author, but by his l’enfant terrible son, Michel, who occasionally wrote fiction but published it under his famous father’s name.

The prose is not entirely eloquent, but the intrigue is found in how Michel describes his version of the future. At times, it is both amusing and oddly prophetic. Like me, I’m sure anyone fond of The Jetsons will enjoy the pneumatic tubes which people travel by or the flying cars that line up at your window (or the very George Jetson automatic dressing machine you just step into).

In the Year 2889” focuses on Mr. Fritz Napoleon Smith, an extremely wealthy newspaper magnate (apparently, in the distant future, newspapers are money makers with thousands of employees). He owns the Earth Chronicle that has 80,000,000 subscribers,

“Smith’s wealth went on growing, till now it reaches the almost unimaginable figure of $10,000,000,000.”

I wonder if the younger Verne would be disappointed in the state of newspapers in the year 2014. However, the newspapers of 2889 aren’t read: “Instead of being printed, the Earth Chronicle is every morning spoken to subscribers, who, in interesting conversations with reporters, statesmen, and scientists, learn the news of the day.”


Michel Verne uses what I assume is exacting technical language to give a futuristic feel to 2889. Besides being delivered by tubes and flying cars, there is a Skype of the future, which Mr. Smith uses quite frequently to speak with his wife when she’s away (“the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires”–this is how I assume Skype works). The above image is an artist’s interpretation of their shared meal, even though he is in Centropolis (one must imagine this is what NYC is going by in the future) and she is in France.

There is an oddness to it all, however, in that phonographs are often used in 2889. Every subscriber of the Earth Chronicle has one. It’s so endearingly antiquated as it’s mashed into the future.

The story might not have the same pizzazz of an authentic Jules Verne story, but the imagination is there. It’s pretty marvelous to read what Michel Verne was coming up with in 1889. “In the Year 2889” is definitely worth a read and especially so, because it’s free in the public domain.

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit by Graham Joyce

This summer has seen a light sampling of haunting reads. Ghost stories are no longer dedicated to autumn/October release dates and this is something I’m entirely happy about. With that said, however, I was a smidge disappointed by the prolific Graham Joyce’s The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit.

electric suit

The novel is being promoted as one that taps into a more supernatural motivation, but taking the back burner would be a whopping understatement. Though, the writing itself is quite strong and clean, any notion of a “ghost” or an “electric blue suit” is wholly reduced in favor of more mundane plot points.

The book begins engaging enough and gets the story going quickly. David Barwise is a young college student who goes to work at a shabby seaside resort during his summer break. He’s drawn to the town because it is the same place that his father disappeared from fifteen years prior when David was only three years old. His mother and step-father are mighty worried and question him on his decision to go there. When David arrives he sees a man and a young boy on the shore. This, of course, brings up memories off his lost father.

David is much different than the rest of the employees who are entertainers–ventriloquists, stage performers, dancing girls–and the rest who make sure the holiday resort runs smoothly.

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit has all the pieces that should make it a stand-out work. Joyce positions the mysterious intrigue right at the beginning, but some how it gets lost. I think of this book has being in quarters: the first quarter whets our whistle; we must know about this man and boy on the shore.

“The man’s suit is blue and it darts with watery phosphorescence. The suit is beautiful, alive, quivering like the scales of fish.”

The man appears to him in his waking life and even in his dreams and nightmares. Joyce further goes on to set the novel in 1976, the hottest summer in recent memory, and makes the setting even more bizarre by having swarms of ladybugs engulf the town like a plague.

The second and third quarters are where we have a problem. There is too much concern with the minutiae of running a seaside holiday resort; the characters, as well, are little more than lightly stenciled versions of people. They seem fuzzy in my imagination and are never truly realized even though there is a sense that the author wants them to stand out.

The final portion is slightly more interesting. Questions are inevitably answered and mysteries are flattened out leaving them resolved. It all seemed as if it suffered from too little, too late syndrome.

Perhaps, I’m being too harsh on this novel, but I had such high hopes. It might be more suited for a casual reader sitting poolside who’s one or two mojitos in already. I haven’t read any other novels by Graham Joyce, but I’m under the impression that he’s highly regarded by fantasy enthusiasts and he’s won the O. Henry Award. Has anyone read his other books?

Jackaby by William Ritter

Jackaby by William Ritter

The year is 1892 and Abigail Rook, a young English woman struck by wanderlust sets sail to the New England town of New Fiddleham. Abigail is bored by what is expected of a young lady in the nineteenth century and would rather be digging up a dinosaur than moping around an English garden. When she arrives stateside, Abigail is in search of a job and lodgings when she sees a notice inquiring after an investigative assistant (“strong stomach preferred”). The placer of the ad is none other than Mr. R.F. Jackaby, a strange man who is part Sherlock Holmes, part Doctor Who, and part himself. He is an independent investigator who sees the extraordinary around every corner. When a series of murders begin to take place, Jackaby and Abigail are quick to start an independent investigation that differs greatly from the police’s own.

Debut novelist, William Ritter, has created an exquisite first novel that never becomes dull. It’s less about the killings and more about the peculiar personality of Jackaby. The solutions to problems can’t be what we expect. No, it must be a banshee or some other folklore creature. Abigail stumbles through her first case and is warned of the impending doom that might befall her by joining the odd detective (a former assistant has supposedly been changed into a duck, who still resides in Jackaby’s house).

Abigail is a droll narrator who finds the immense humor in the queer detective and her passion for a good adventure was entirely enjoyable. She makes the reader want to dash off with the strange man as they search for supernatural critters and serial killers.

Although, targeted for young readers, I was happy that I toed the line for this title. With the over-saturation of books targeting young readers (young adult, middle grade, what have you), it’s hard for one to stand out and Jackaby certainly does. The sentences are light and fly by. Ritter has respect for his readers and there is a refreshing literary quality about the book. The best books for children are ones that are also enjoyed by adults.

I couldn’t help but be stunned by the color blue that washes over this cover. I am a huge fan of cover art and I think this one is top-notch. Though, generally not a reader of books targeted for young readers, the synopsis and subsequently, the author’s excellent writing were enough to make me rave here about it. So go read it!

Jackaby will be released by Algonquin Books on September 16th.


The Fallen by Dale Bailey

Back in May, I reviewed an excellent novella by writer Dale Bailey titled, “The End of the End of Everything.” Until now, it had been the only work I had read by the author, but I was delighted to hear that his novels were being republished. The Fallen is Bailey’s debut novel from 2002.

the fallen

Saul’s Run, West Virginia is a small town that is an eerily perfect place to live except every few years when a slew of unlikely deaths and violent crimes flare up like a bout of flu and then ultimately recede again for another number of years. Otherwise, people live till old ages and the security of the residents is completely at ease. Henry Sleep returns to the Run, as it is known to the locals, after a decade’s long absence after hearing news of the apparent suicide death of his father, the local holy man. Henry is skeptical of the death and as he has further run-ins with the other locals and a new face, his apprehension grows tremendously.

The Fallen is classic horror that I couldn’t help but associate with Stephen King. Although, this novel felt tremendously different from his recent novella, Bailey still focused on a place with an unnatural presence growing around it, ready to suffocate the characters till the final pages.

The idea of evil lurking in unexpected places was prime in The Fallen, giving it that earlier King feeling. Recurring shared dreams of being caught in a labyrinth are highlighted throughout leaving the reader ever-curious about how this all ties together.

Bailey structures the novel with sections and chapters that jump between present and past years when the Run’s tranquil life is upended by dastardly crimes and unexpected deaths, which gives a feeling of unknown dread. When weaved together, this plot construct can be both confusing and intriguing with the former purposefully disorienting to leave the reader feeling off-kilter as Henry further investigates his father’s odd death and the evil forces of the town.

Admittedly, the novel did feel a little uneven. The beginning was incredibly engaging as past years’ portions were looped with Henry’s present return. The middle slightly stagnated in a way that it might not have if Bailey was writing this today with several novels already in his oeuvre. The ending’s action is full tilt as Henry and his friends learn what is causing the intermittent horrors of Saul’s Run.

The Fallen and Dale Bailey’s other novels are being republished by Open Road Media. Check ’em out and take special note of his novella that I previously mentioned, which is available from

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The Quick by Lauren Owen

At the very beginning of Lauren Owen’s debut novel, The Quick, the reader is introduced to a very secretive and mysterious men’s club called the Aegolius. The number of initiates is kept to a minimum and a story is told than even when the Prince of Wales requested membership, he was turned away because the number had already been reached.

It’s the latter part of the nineteenth century and James, a young man right out of university, goes to London to try his hand at writing a play. He becomes roommates and later intimates with another previous acquaintance from Oxford. When the two men go out for a walk one night, dastardly misfortunes befall them and when James goes missing, his sister, Charlotte, arrives from Yorkshire to find her brother, which leads her to the doors of the enigmatic Aegolius club.

the quick

What initially drew me to The Quick was promise of a Gothic inspired novel set in the seedy corners of Victorian London. The book does begin this way and even has elements of such novels as it includes diary entries and other similar epistles.

However, about halfway through, something inexplicable happens–the novel becomes dreadfully dull and doesn’t pick up at all. Once James disappears, a never-ending slew of new characters are introduced. At first, I tried to keep them straight and then realized that none of them was particularly important. The narrative is thick and slow; every movement of every character is detailed for pages. If I never read about a character sitting down and sipping tea again, that day would be too soon.

I fear that Owen’s editors let her down immensely. The only conciliation is that her publisher masterfully worked up a publicity frenzy by not revealing a key plot point and adding a sense of “plot twist” around it. They also mustered up some top notch writers to blurb it. Sadly, about half of readers have ingested the proverbial Kool-Aid and rave about it on Goodreads, while the other half have the good sense to agree with me.

The writing is solid and decent. Yet, the author builds no discernible mood or landscape. This has been a huge reading letdown, which has added to my sparse posts here as this book was long and took up far too much of my time. Normally, I would’ve put the book down, but I was certain something would be a saving grace. Sadly, this was just a complete bomb.