Review: Bent Heavens – Horrific, Depressing, and Super Compelling

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Title: Bent Heavens
Author:
Daniel Kraus
Publisher:
Henry Holt and Co.

Genre(s): “YA” Horror, Contemporary
Subject(s): Alien abduction, torture

Release Date:
Feb 25th, 2020
Page Count: 304 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

 

 

Liv Fleming’s father went missing more than two years ago, not long after he claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Liv has long accepted that he’s dead, though that doesn’t mean she has given up their traditions. Every Sunday, she and her lifelong friend Doug Monk trudge through the woods to check the traps Lee left behind, traps he set to catch the aliens he so desperately believed were after him.

But Liv is done with childhood fantasies. Done pretending she believes her father’s absurd theories. Done going through the motions for Doug’s sake. However, on the very day she chooses to destroy the traps, she discovers in one of them a creature so inhuman it can only be one thing. In that moment, she’s faced with a painful realization: her dad was telling the truth. And no one believed him.

Now, she and Doug have a choice to make. They can turn the alien over to the authorities…or they can take matters into their own hands.

CW: Depictions of physical torture, mutilation, (spoiler: human experimentation, body horror)

 

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Okay, listen.

This isn’t a nice book.

In fact, it’s a pretty damn depressing book.

It’s a book that roams the dark and shadowy place that Mufasa warns about. Nothing good can come of chasing it but death and singing hyenas.

Which is why I’m here, on my knees, asking you to chase read it.

Contradiction, thy name is Bent Heavens.

This is my third Daniel Kraus read (well, two and three-quarters–I still have to finish Zebulon Finch) and here’s what I’ve gathered about the guy so far: when you leaf through the pages of Dictionary: Daniel Kraus Edition, you’d find burnt holes under the entries “comfortable,” “pleasant,” and “simple.” Kraus doesn’t do soft. He doesn’t do pretty. Interpersonal horrors and intimate darkness–darkness made almost beautiful by its closeness–are spaces in which he thrives (which is why he works well with Guillermo del Toro, I suppose). He has a knack for taking discomfort and instinctual revulsion and turning them into compelling art.

Calling this book “art” might be an arguable point for some, but it is definitely compelling.

The first half is pretty slow, focused on the psychological ramifications of having a father who went missing and returned, telling everyone he’d been taken and experimented on by aliens, and then promptly disappeared again. It’s a stripped-down, realistic take of your typical abduction plotline; less of flashing lights and crop circles, and more of the abductee’s obsessions and fears and the toll they have on his family. It sets up the lonely and insulated environment for the main character quite well.

The second half is where things get truly heavy.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: this story has alien torture. Not as graphic as I’d thought it would be, but still pretty graphic. One of the characters quotes and takes inspiration from George W. Bush’s policies on torture of al Qaeda prisoners, and they become the springboard for everything that follows. And there’s a lot that follows: an exploration of prisoner/prison guard psychology; the ease with which people dehumanize and justify their dehumanization. What happens when tragedy meets anger in an echo chamber, Kraus asks, and then proceeds to muddy waters by slipping weariness into the mix. And more so than the anger, the latter is what really stuck with me. Atrocities you commit because you’ve been ground down and you’re exhausted and it’s easier to let someone else’s rage fuel you than to scrounge up your own and realize you’re not that angry–at least, not enough to brutalize. No. Much easier to give someone else the reins and follow.

I think passivity is a difficult trait to portray, as you’re fighting against reader expectations of what a protagonist should be, with popular media teaching us to love active characters and scoff at the inactive ones, but the author does a brilliant job of it. There are scenes that ride the edge of suffocation and frustration, and I would’ve hated them if they weren’t written so honestly. At the same time, I hated them because they were written so honestly.

The prose is the biggest complaint I have. I wish Kraus had used the first-person POV; it’s where he works best, and it would fits the narrative better, making the introspective scenes more, well, introspective. But maybe that’s exactly why he didn’t use it. Because he wanted a buffer between the readers and everything that happens with the characters. A deep dive into Liv’s emotions might have been too raw. Regardless, the third person POV combined with Kraus’ style–surplus descriptions and use of adjectives–has the unfortunate side effect of making things comically overdramatic at the wrong moments. And while the dialogue is mostly fine, sometimes it gets a little cringey:

“You’re a barrel of monkeys today.”
“I didn’t ask for this ride.”
“Will you take ten chill pills?”

My second complaint isn’t really a complaint, just another rendition of Why the Hell Is This Marketed As YA. I’ve looked at Kraus’s books in the past and thought, “I’m not sure what age group this belongs to,” and that feeling is doubled here. It’s very mature, despite the high school characters, and the themes would feel more at home in an adult horror/thriller.

If nothing else, though, I recommend it for the ending because it’s probably the most bonkers thing I’ve read in a while. I’d call it entertaining if I didn’t feel bad about finding it entertaining. Horrifically delightful? Delightfully horrific? It’s like watching a train plummet straight into a ravine, and then seeing a land kraken erupt out of nowhere and bash the locomotive to pieces. And you can only laugh at the chaos inbetween whispers of “What the fuck.”

So yeah. Not a nice book.

It’s twisted and claustrophobic and heartbreaking and–

And I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

So, come on, Simba. Take a walk on the dark side.

 

(Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review)

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Review: Wilder Girls – A Strangely Beautiful and Flawed Gem (Minus that Ending)

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Title: Wilder Girls
Author: Rory Power
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Release Date: July 9th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi
Subjects and Themes: Friendships, LGBTQIAP+ (f/f), Body Horror
Page Count: 368 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. Since the Tox hit and pulled Hetty’s life out from under her.

It started slow. First the teachers died one by one. Then it began to infect the students, turning their bodies strange and foreign. Now, cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for themselves on their island home, the girls don’t dare wander outside the school’s fence, where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure they were promised as the Tox seeps into everything.

But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. And when she does, Hetty learns that there’s more to their story, to their life at Raxter, than she could have ever thought true.

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This is another one of those books that make me wish I didn’t have a rating system. Ones that send me into reviewer crisis mode because they’re impossible to pin down with a number.

Just keep this in mind when you get to my rant at the end: I do recommend the book. I love what it represents–girls loving girls, girls willing to fight for girls–and I love that it tries to do something different. And when it comes to art (or anything, really), shoot for the stars, even if the landing is a bit of a disaster.

Prose and atmosphere-wise, I loved it. The setting is vividly drawn, and the descriptions of the Tox and the way changes the girls, and the feelings and emotions orbiting that change, are done brilliantly. Terrible and grisly, for sure, but also infused with an uncomfortable kind of beauty.

The main characters are a bit of a hit and miss. Power describes the girls’ relationships beautifully, and I really appreciate that she took the time to explore intense friendships and romantic love and the idea that there’s room for both in your life. I also love the fact that all of these characters are allowed to be selfish and mean–not because they’re terrible people but because their circumstances aren’t kind and there’s only so much kindness you can dredge up when it feels like your life is teetering on a knife’s edge. Forever give me all the flawed female characters who aren’t always nice.

The thing is, while I was invested in the feelings that the three girls have for each other, I wasn’t invested in them as characters. I think there are two main reasons for that. One being that they’re all more or less defined by their love, and not by any strong individual characteristics that I can hook onto. And the second being that their character development doesn’t happen gradually and smoothly, but in staccato bursts. For example, one of them would say something that would trigger a sudden shift in their opinion of the other person. (spoiler): Or when Hetty goes from freaking out about killing someone in self-defense to murdering someone else in cold blood, and the latter doesn’t seem to affect her in the slightest. It can be quite jarring.

The plot and prose were engaging enough for me to shove those negatives to the side, though. And I say that as a big proponent of “characters over worldbuildng/plot.” Like, if tomorrow you tie me to a chair and tell me that the only books I can read for the rest of my life are the ones with high plot concepts but weak character building, I wouldn’t be unhappy with something like this–unsettling and horrific and strangely beautiful for it.

…And I really wish I can end this review here. I really do.

But I got to talk about that ending.

 

That Ending

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This is where things go off the rails for me. And I’m trying to purge it from my brain because just thinking about it ruins the experience I had with the rest of the book. From Hetty’s actions and how it wraps things up with the other characters, to the very sudden, very shoddy explanation for the Tox, the ending is the equivalent of strolling along a creek, tripping on a rock, twisting my ankle, and landing face-first into water that’s filled with piranhas–painfully unexpected, makes zero sense (because piranhas in Canada, what?) and puts an abrupt end to what was turning out to be a nice afternoon walk. It tried to go with a scientific route, in which case the explanation should have been doled out in small pieces over the course of the story instead of just dumping it onto your lap at the end. It’s almost as if the author wasn’t sure how to close things off, so she just went with an explanation that’s popular and topical (spoiler: climate change), and it feels so incredibly tacked-on. I’d rather have had no explanation than the ones we got. As for the ending it gives to the characters, it’s one with zero emotional payoff.

The story would have benefited so much from at least 50 more pages of content and I’m truly baffled as to why this is the endpoint the author decided on.

My initial point still stands, though. I do think this is a book worth your interest and perusal. Just…know that it may not wrap up in a way that you were hoping for.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Reviews: Contagion & Immunity by Erin Bowman – Biological Space Horror and Maple Walnut Ice Cream

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Title: Contagion (Contagion 1)
Author: Erin Bowman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 24th, 2018
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi, Thriller, Horror
Subjects and Themes: Microbiology, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 432 (hardback)

Rating: 7.5/10

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After receiving a distress call from a drill team on a distant planet, a skeleton crew is sent into deep space to perform a standard search-and-rescue mission.

When they arrive, they find the planet littered with the remains of the project—including its members’ dead bodies. As they try to piece together what could have possibly decimated an entire project, they discover that some things are best left buried—and some monsters are only too ready to awaken.

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This is one of those “I liked it! The end!” books, so the review is going to be obscenely short.

Contagion offers something I desperately want to see more of in sci-fi: biological space horror. Bowman combines the fear of outer space with that of alien biological entities–all the more scary because they’re microscopic–and creates a entertaining, claustrophobic tale with breakneck pacing and moments that are genuinely creepy.

It also boasts a fairly large cast and multiple PoVs, with an intern named Thea being the central character. I loved the fact that Thea’s not a leader–not your typical confident SFF hero with a smart tongue. She’s introverted yet resourceful and, being the youngest of the crew, feels she has something to prove. Some of the other characters aren’t as developed as she is, but Bowman gives you just enough information to keep you interested in their well-being (or demise).

I do wish the effect of the contagion was less…mundane than what it turned out to be. Something a little more visceral and insidious. Because after the reveal of the “monsters” (space zombies, essentially) a lot of the initial horror was lost. But I enjoyed the atmosphere and tension leading up to that moment so much that I’m mostly willing to forgive it.

And…that’s all you need to know, really. Go read it. You’ll have fun.

And, hey, Netflix? Get on it. I needed a movie adaptation yesterday.

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Title:
Immunity (Contagion 2)
Author: Erin Bowman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 2nd, 2019
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi
Subjects and Themes: Microbiology, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 448 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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Thea, Coen, and Nova have escaped from Achlys, only to find themselves imprisoned on a ship they thought was their ticket to safety. Now the nightmare they thought they’d left behind is about to be unleashed as an act of political warfare, putting the entire galaxy at risk.

To prevent an interstellar catastrophe, they’ll have to harness the evil of the deadly Achlys contagion and deploy the only weapons they have left: themselves.

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Immunity is a completely different beast to Contagion in terms of genre and plot focus. So much that I got mental whiplash reading them back-to-back.

Here, the biological horror slips away into space politics and human-on-human horror. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I was hoping we’d get to explore more of the contagion, and instead it’s relegated to the role of a side charactera chess piece in the conflict between the Radicals and the Union–and in the process some of what made Contagion interesting.

I don’t want to rag on an author for choosing to take a story in a completely different direction from what I was expecting because it’s ultimately their creative vision, but I can’t say I’m not nursing a spot of disappointment. It’s like going to an ice cream shop and asking for Strawberry Cheesecake but getting Maple Walnut instead. I have nothing against Maple Walnut; it’s still a great flavour and life is too short to be prejudiced against any flavour of ice cream (except Bubblegum which is a devil’s concoction and not in a sinfully good way). But it’s no Strawberry Cheesecake, is it?

That being said, I still had fun with it. The characters are bigger focus in this sequel and we get to learn more about the three characters and see their relationship develop into something more solid. A new member also joins the cast: a medic-in-training named Amber who surprised me in the best way. Give me all the soft characters who seem meek at first glance but reveal themselves to have nerves of steel. And there’s no denying Bowman is a great storyteller. She knows how to balance action with intrigue and quiet character moments, and the ending wraps everything up neatly.

Overall, this is a fun, addictive duology that I recommend to anyone with an interest in microbiology and space thriller/horror, and doesn’t mind a bit of genre-swapping.

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Thank you to Wunderkind PR for providing the review copies. All opinions are my own.

Review: Alice Isn’t Dead (A Novel) – A Road Trip Like No Other

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Title: Alice Isn’t Dead: A Novel
Author: Joseph Fink
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Release Date: October 30th, 2018
Genre(s): Horror, Mystery
Subjects and Themes: Road Trip, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 7/10

Add to goodreads

 

 

 

Keisha Taylor lived a quiet life with her wife, Alice, until the day that Alice disappeared. After months of searching, presuming she was dead, Keisha held a funeral, mourned, and gradually tried to get on with her life. But that was before Keisha started to see her wife, again and again, in the background of news reports from all over America. Alice isn’t dead, and she is showing up at every major tragedy and accident in the country.

Following a line of clues, Keisha takes a job as a long-haul truck driver and begins searching for Alice. She eventually stumbles on an otherworldly conflict being waged in the quiet corners of our nation’s highway system—uncovering a conspiracy that goes way beyond one missing woman.

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“This isn’t a story. It’s a road trip.”

For those who don’t know, the original Alice Isn’t Dead is a three-part narrative podcast created by Joseph Fink–one of the brains behind Welcome to Night Vale–that follows a truck driver named Keisha in her search for her not-dead wife. While Fink calls the novel a “complete reimagining,” the two are actually pretty much identical–same characters, same plot, same weirdness. The only main difference is that the novel is told in third person, losing the intimacy of the podcast but gaining extra details.

Alice Isn’t Dead is surreal horror (there’s people-eating non-people, government secrets, cryptic people being cryptic) with its atmosphere driven almost entirely by the U.S. landscape. I mean, road trips have something of a surreal and fantastical quality to them. Like the wall of billboards and power lines that seem to stretch on forever. Like the small abandoned towns you pass through at night and you swear you see something dark and unreal from the corner of your eye. Fink captures that feeling perfectly and with such brevity.

Fink has a very distinct writing voice that’s hard to describe. In short it’s weird. But it’s a comfortable kind of weird. You get the sense that he’s not saying these things for the sake of being weird, but because his mind occupies this space between the dream world and the waking world and he just needs to let it all out.

It’s also an inclusive kind of weird. The writing isn’t someone boasting about how deep and unique their imagination is, but an eager kid tugging at your hand and whispering, “Come on. I want to show you something.”

Why did the chicken cross the road?
Because the dead return, because light reverses, because the sky is a gap, because it’s a shout, because light reverses, because the dead return, because footsteps in the basement, because footsteps on the roof, because the sky is a shout, because it’s a gap, because the grass doesn’t grow, or grows too much, or grows wrong, because the dead return, because the dead return.

While Fink excels with the strange and the occult, I think his biggest strength lies in capturing the minute complexities of people and their relationships–in this case, that of a married couple. While the first half is focused on the mysteries of cross-country serial murders, the latter half is dedicated to Keisha and Alice and untangling the whole “you made me think you were dead” knot. It’s wonderful stuff.

I did find the structure of the story a little too rigid, though. One chapter corresponds to one episode, and so each chapter feels very self-contained and the transition between one to the next kind of choppy. It reads very much like a podcast-to-book adaptation, and if you’re looking for that, then great. I personally wanted something more loose and…novel-y.

If this is your first foray into the mind of Joseph Fink, then welcome. Buckle in. Half the time you’ll be sitting there thinking “WTF,” and the other half you’ll be sitting there thinking “WTF” with a huge grin on your face.

(Oh, and go listen to the podcast)

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss. All opinions are my own.