Book Review: Black Heart Boys’ Choir by Curtis M. Lawson

black heart

Title: Black Heart Boys’ Choir

Author: Curtis M. Lawson

Release date: September 8, 2019

I remember pre-ordering this and being excited to read it. Like so many others, my TBR is insane, but now I wish I would’ve dove in right away. I’ve read a few of Lawson’s releases, but frankly, this is a completely different level. How this book wasn’t nominated for a ton of dark fiction/speculative fiction awards is beyond me and truthfully, it’s frustrating when you see a book this stunning seemingly slip through and not get the recognition is deserves.

The story is brutal, the characters are flawed, real and relatable. You know these kids, you went to school with these kids. We were all one of these, whether the outcasts, the glee club or the jock group. And ultimately, this story feels completely bonkers but also completely realistic and topical.

What I liked: The story follows former rich kid, Lucien as he finds himself in public school. His father was a renowned classical musician, who took his life and as a result, his schooling was no longer being paid for.

He feels abandoned. By his father, his drug-addicted mother, and his former school. He’s angry. Time and time again, the adults have failed him.

It’s this anger that ultimately drives him throughout the actions within the book. 

He’s made a friend, someone who shares his interests. But it’s not until Lucien discovers an unfinished piece of music his father was composing with another musician that his anger is joined by obsession.

Lawson does a truly amazing job of crafting an all-too-real high school. You can practically smell the B.O. and Axe body spray. It’s been almost 25 years since I graduated from Nakusp Secondary School, but reading this brought me back to when I was walking the hallway – as a bully, a jock, an outcast and a loner. High school for so many of us was a strange and odd time in our lives, and because of this you can really understand the ‘why’ of Lucien’s plight.

I really loved how over the course of the novel you can see Lucien’s transition. Almost like Gollum finding his precious and while those dream like occurrences at first can feel odd and out of place, his experiences with the black unicorn were truly phenomenal.

The ending to this may come off as extreme, but really, was there any other ending? Was this going to have a different conclusion? I don’t think so and Lawson finished it off perfectly and exactly how it should’ve ended.

What I didn’t like: It’s odd, because I thought this novel was perfect, but I wished we would’ve had a bit more push back from J.C. and Asher when things really take a turn, especially with Leo. I won’t say more, spoilers and all, but they just seemed to accept that obsession of the Madrigal and go with it.

Why you should buy this: This is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and one of the best books featuring music that I’ve ever read. I’ve heard varying opinions on S.T. Joshi, but his foreword was spot on when he stated that you’ll feel the music while reading, which seems impossible but is actual fact. You could feel the hum and vibration throughout. 

Lawson has done such an amazing job, more of you absolutely need to read this outstanding piece of dark fiction. Curtis has something truly special here and I’m angry and sad and ashamed that I didn’t get to this sooner to sing it’s praises and that this book hasn’t had its praises sung from the mountain tops. This book will leave you wrecked. Sad. Angry. Frustrated. Everything you want a book to make you feel.

Outstanding work. Outstanding.

5/5

Book review: My Sister April by Kyra R. Torres

my sister april

Title: My Sister April

Author: Kyra R. Torres

Release date: July 20, 2021

What an unexpected delight!

Kyra and myself connected some time ago on Twitter and through this, we’ve interacted a bunch and I’ve always loved how supportive she is towards so many in the Indie community. When she announced the release of this, I snagged a copy and dove in, not even reading the synopsis.

What I liked: The story is a quick, snappy piece of dark fiction that centers around two sisters, left at the family farm for the night while her parents go out for a date. They leave the girls with one last word of advice – leave the pigs alone.

Torres does a great job of telling us exactly what is going to happen while still building a ton of tension and anxiety.

This is a short story, and from what I gather it’ll be included in an upcoming collection, but even within these small parameters, Kyra gives us a lot to take in and digest.

I really enjoyed that we could see the siblings relationship and how they knew what needed to be done, even when the words from their parents rattled around their brains.

What I didn’t like: In such a short story, it’s tough to really fault anything, but I will say – I did wish this was longer. Of course, it’s a short story, so it was purposefully written that way, but this is one that Torres can absolutely expand upon in the future if they so desire.

Why you should buy this: If you’re looking for a really dark, engaging story that will make you squirm and beg characters not to do something, that you know full well they will be, then look no further. This was a blast and I’ll definitely be checking out more of Kyra’s work in the future.

4/5

Book Review: Glass House by John Palisano

glass house

Title: Glass House

Author: John Palisano

Release date: June 22, 2021

One of the first people who really took the time to encourage me when I started out trying to navigate the dark fiction world was John Palisano. John was super supportive and has always wanted to see me succeed, which for someone who was just getting involved was such a kindness.

On my end – I’ve definitely failed in reading as much of John’s work as I should’ve by now. I have a few of his releases, but have only read ‘Night of 1000 Beasts,’ which had some great moments that have stayed with me since.

Now, with ‘Glass House’ announced, I jumped on snagging it and dove in as soon as I could.

Wow, what an experience.

What I liked: From 2007-2014 there was a TV show on Showtime called Californication. It followed the down-and-out exploits of Hank Moody, an alcoholic, drug-addicted, sex-addicted writer, struggling to navigate his world as a best-selling author who wants to remain doted to the love of his life and their daughter. The main character was played masterfully by David Duchovny and while I loved the show and consider it one of my personal favorites of all time, the one negative I often had was the frequent lack of introspection that we would get from Moody.

Why do I start with all of this?

‘Glass House’ to me at least, read like finding Hank Moody’s journal and reading about how his life had spiraled apart after the show. How our main character had everything at one point – wife, house, seven figure bank account and a loving son, to now be renting a room in his girlfriends house, late on rent, struggling to co-parent with his wife and her new guy and working occasionally as a house sitter to make ends meet.

Palisano has delivered a stunning novella that ran the gamut of emotions. Using both prose and poetry (and song lyrics) to showcase this characters sad downward trajectory.

One thing I loved was how this house that our character has been at many times before, now seems to be this key, that has unlocked the deepest darkest memories and seems to amplify how they have truly effected our character. with them unlocked, Palisano deftly weaves a story that is chaotic and claustrophobic while also being impactful and intropsective.

What I didn’t like:  It’s an odd thing, because I LOVED this book, but there were a few moments throughout where I maybe didn’t get the full meaning of certain parts. I think this was purposeful, especially with the usage of poetry and lyrics, but I did find a few places where I had to re-read it to try and make sure I understood the meaning of what was happening.

Why you should buy this: This novella was truly stunning. A dark, memoir-esque piece that was both visceral and haunting. Palisano has truly crafted an engaging story that packed a wallop. I really loved how dark this went but at the same time we get to see someone trying to find the light.

Really well done, and something that’ll be staying with me for a long, long time.

5/5

Book Review: Underworld Dreams by Daniel Braum

underworld

Title: Underworld Dreams

Author: Daniel Braum

Release date: September 13, 2020

I’d seen this collection shared frequently and people raved about Braum’s stories when it was released back in September. I’ve been struggling lately to really dive into short story collections, as I’m a bit burned out on them to be honest. I’ve read a lot of them over the last few years.

The combination of the cover, the reviews and people asking if I’d read it, finally swayed me to take a crack at this and I’m glad I did.

What I liked: Braum has a simple, eerie style of writing. A style that tells you, the reader, that something is off, something is coming or will happen, but you never fully known when or to what extent.

The stories within are all sublime. Difficult subject matter written in a way that is easy to read, easy to digest.

The standouts for me were;

Tommy’s Shadow – a story of a high school musician who stumbles upon an odd man in a place nobody is supposed to go into. This was dark, bleak and the finale was karma done right.

How to Stay Afloat When Drowning – a story of aquatic inhabitants making themselves known to those who live on land. This was truly unsettling and you know something’s off right from the start.

Cloudland Earthbound – a story about a man hired to deal with an unseen force preventing a tunnel construction site. I loved this portal horror story. This was completely unexpected and I loved that it went where it went.

My favorite of them all though, was Goodnight Kookaburra. This was a story of a man on vacation/work trip in Australia who meets some people, only to have a truly odd encounter. This was a truly trippy story that left me unnerved.

What I didn’t like: As with every collection, each story will be individual to each reader. I found the second half of the book just as strong as the first half, which says something to Braum’s writing prowess. At times collections can feel like the second half is filled with word count padding, but not in this case.

Why you should buy this: Braum has delivered a really well paced and balanced collection with ‘Underworld Dreams.’ This reminded me of the recent collection from Adam Light that I read, where it shows the author is willing to tackle a number of subjects and tackles them really well. If you’re looking for a solid collection of dark fiction, you can’t go wrong here.

4/5

Book Review: The Coliseum by Patrick Lestewka

11276617

Title: The Coliseum

Author: Patrick Lestewka

Release date: March 25, 2011

It’s interesting to write a review of a novella, written by a single author, but having to compare that author with two other authors. In this case, it’s unique, because all three of these authors are the same person.

‘The Coliseum’ is a 2011, extreme-horror release by Patrick Lestewka, aka Nick Cutter, aka Craig Davidson. Davidson had a number of extreme releases under the Lestewka pseudonym between 2000 and 2011 and rumor even has it that there is a release under the Lestewka moniker that Davidson himself deemed “too extreme” and vowed to never let it see the light of day. Under the Cutter banner, Davidson has released a number of more “commercial extreme horror” novels. Think ‘The Troop’ and ‘The Deep.’ And as himself, he has released some highly successful books that range from insightful memoir to supernatural, coming-of-age.

I’d previously read ‘The Preserve’ under the Lestewka banner and was intrigued by the synopsis of ‘The Coliseum.’ Open a prison in Northern Canada where anything goes and the prisoners are left to fend for themselves.

What I liked: What is advertised is exactly what you get. A bunch of the worst-of-the-worst criminals in Canadian history get selected to be shipped to this revolutionary type of prison and left to their own devices. Food is dropped in daily, but it’s survival of the fittest and quickly rival factions are formed.

I enjoyed the way Lestewka decided to minimize the ‘ethical’ aspect of it and just state that the prison was pushed ahead and opened. That is the beauty of fiction at times, you can bend and shape the real life narrative to suit the story needed to be told.

The groups are interesting and the main players are all the worst of the worst. You never truly get to latch on with a specific person though, as you know nobody is making it out of this place in one piece.

I was also intrigued with the ‘biggest baddest’ character that was hunkered in the basement. While this played on the familiar trope of “there’s always a bigger threat coming,” it worked well to create an unease that no matter what happened on the main level wouldn’t ultimately matter if the thing in the basement decided to make themselves known.

What I didn’t like: I mean, I knew what I was signing up for, but this often was just extreme for extreme sake and a number of the gruesome deaths became repetitive. The story itself is set up specifically just to try and kill people as extremely as possible, but a tiny, small, smidgeon of character depth would have been fantastic.

Why you should buy this: There’s obviously a section of the horror world that gravitates towards the extreme aspect, so for them, this was tailor-made. If you’re wanting a bit more character depth and resolution, you will not find any.

If you’re looking for a fun, quick read about a converted hockey arena that now houses the horrible, look no further.

3/5

Book Review: The Warren by Brian Evenson

warren

Title: The Warren

Author: Brian Evenson

Release date: September 20, 2016

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect going into this.

Shamefully, I have yet to read Brian Evenson, even though I have a bunch of his work. When I started reading, I knew I’d be reading a claustrophobic, creepy sci-fi read, but that was about the extent of it. Boy, was this unsettling.

What I liked: ‘The Warren’ is a tough book to review, because the crux of the dread and creep and the pull all occur because of things that come throughout and things that get discovered. Because of that, I can’t discuss a lot of what happens – as I’d spoil everything.

What I can say, is that the book follows X. A bipedal inhabitant of the Warren, an underground habitat, X believes himself to be a person, even though he isn’t one. Then one day, he discovers another individual exists, living outside of the Warren, and when this occurs, it triggers a number of questions and events.

This really reminded me of Michael Griffin’s ‘Armageddon House’ but also the movie ‘Moon.’ Where the reader has to try and connect dots, fill in outer descriptive aspects and follow along blindly as we race towards an ending.

What I didn’t like: I will say, there were points along the way that I found myself confused and had to go back and re-read, especially when a few things happened and I wasn’t sure of POV etc.

Why you should buy this: This reads like a lot of classic science-fiction, where a singular pull of story carries you along and  it’s not overly reliant on explosions and alien encounters (not that I don’t love those!). Evenson delivers a truly masterful story that felt heavy reading it and ultimately left me wanting more, but knowing full well what the outcome would be.

4/5

Book Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

beneath the sugar sky

Title: Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children #3)

Author: Seanan McGuire

Release date: January 9, 2018

And so it was, Steve arrived at book three in the fantastic Wayward Children series, unsure of what to expect. Where book one and two were fantastic, he’d heard rumblings that book three takes a turn into the land of Nonsense. Steve, our reader, writing this review in third person apparently like some sort of giant knob, was a touch leery. Why you may ask, kind reader of this review?

Steve had heard it described as McGuire’s take on ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ and while this may shock some of you (please do sit down if you’re standing), he’s not overly fond of that story. It may be that the nonsensical portion of the story creates chaos in his rational loving brain (which is why he often struggles with reading Bizarro fiction).

Anyways, enough of that – and the third person ridiculousness! – I dove in, wondering how I’d fair.

What I liked: The story picks up on a day a girl drops into the lake before Cora and Nadya. This new girl, naked and sharing a story that makes Cora and Nadya know they need to help, is Rini. It turns out that Rini is the daughter of Sumi, a previous student and character in the series and they must find a way to turn back the clock so that Sumi is alive in Rini’s world so that Rini will exist.

Armed with that knowledge, Kade and Christopher get involved and off they go, desperately searching for Sumi’s soul.

It’s an interesting story, one that creates the potential for ripples to effect them elsewhere due to the time travel aspect that occurs, as well as various characters coming and going.

McGuire always is a master at creating a lot with a little. On the other end of the spectrum than say, George R.R. Martin, when it comes to descriptions of places and food, Seanan still paints a vast picture, even with the scantest of details. It allows the story to hum along and the characters to cover a lot of ground.

I really enjoyed the ‘real’ narratives throughout, especially Cora’s fight with people perceiving her as a ‘fat girl’ when really she is very athletic and is fighting a metabolism that doesn’t work as well as it should. McGuire philosophizes throughout and it works within the nature of these characters.

What I didn’t like: As mentioned, I’m not a fan of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and when they go to Rini’s world, we’re transported to a world that is very much that, with it even featuring the Queen of Cakes. I didn’t mind the setting but when it is set in a world with no normal rules, it just made for an odd reading experience at times for me.

Why you should buy this: Three books into this series and it’s obvious McGuire is creating a modern classic portal fantasy series. The characters are all really well done and the settings are vibrant and incredibly intriguing. And come on, I think this series may have the most gorgeous covers ever created.

‘Beneath the Sugar Sky’ may not have been my favorite of the three so far, but I still really enjoyed it and look forward to seeing what the next chapter, and world, this series brings.

4/5

Book Review: Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

exit strategy

Title: Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries #4)

Author: Martha Wells

Release Date: October 2, 2018

Murderbot is back in the fourth installment of Martha Wells loved ‘The Murderbot Diaries Series.’ After the first three books in the series, I was intrigued with where our SecUnit was going to end up following the end of the third book. Knowing I still have two more to go after this, as well as more announced, there was always the worry about plot running thin, but ‘Exit Strategy’ ramps up the action as Murderbot goes in search of Dr. Mensah.

What I liked: With GrayCris Corporation seemingly holding Dr. Mensah hostage, the book revolves around Murderbot trying to come to terms with the reality that they care. This has been a plot point that began in book one and travels with our augmented killing machine through the next two, but it is in Book Four that they really face this truth and try to figure out how to accept it.

Wells continues to infuse a lot of snark and sarcasm in our main character, who would rather be watching downloaded TV series than actually interacting with humans, but it’s within this sarcasm that Murderbot has a lot of their revelations. When they make a snarky comment and then realize that they didn’t actually mean it and wished they could take it back. The evolution of our SecUnit has been the most enjoyable aspect for me reading the first four books so far.

The majority of the story focuses around rescuing Dr. Mensah, and because of this we get A LOT of action sequences, which were all really well done. I’ve found that Wells ability to craft these scenes without overly describing them is masterful and her use of numbering events or bullet pointing actions really lets the ready know everything that is going on, especially as the story is told through Murderbots POV.

What I didn’t like: I think I would’ve liked to know a bit more about the events that resulted in Dr. Mensah being captured. Ping-Lee describes it and we get some hints about it, and maybe we learn more in the next few books (especially as Book Five is a full blown novel), but I felt like there was a piece missing.

Why you should buy this: Look, if you’ve made it through the first three books, you’ll want to keep going. Well Book Three was a bit of a tiny dip, this one ramps right back up and was a rampaging blast as Murderbot goes in search of the one human they realize they really do care about.

This was a ton of fun!

4/5

Book Review: These Ghosts Bleed by Christy Aldridge

these ghosts

Title: These Ghosts Bleed

Author: Christy Aldridge

Release date: June 8, 2021

Well then.

I did not expect the brutality that awaited within ‘These Ghosts Bleed.’ I’m torn between not saying a single word about it and telling you what to prepare yourself for because JFC Aldridge goes places only Cannibal Corpse lyrics dare venture. There you go. That’s your warning.

Truth be told, Aldridge is a new to me author. It was one of those times when I was scrolling Twitter and a mutual follower had liked her release day post. I loved the cover, LOVED the synopsis and so I promptly snagged a copy for my Kindle. I then apologized to my 1000 Kindle books on my TBR list and bumped this up to the top. Glad I did.

What I liked: Ok, I’m going to share something that I don’t believe is a spoiler, but I want to let people know going in – the start of the book focuses heavily on the aftermath of Anna having committed suicide and her grieving husband trying to figure out how to go on. But not in the normal sense. You see, Allen just may well be the most despicable character I’ve ever read. Narcissistic, abusive, and a womanizer, he views ever woman as a conquest. Being a doctor, some play it off as him just being arrogant, but that is far from the truth.

Aldridge does a fantastic job of making you want to push him down a flight of stairs. When he discovers Anna’s secret computer files that contain her novels she wrote to try and mentally escape from Allen’s abuse and her losing their child during pregnancy, you just know he’s not going to be respectful, but will instead attempt to use it for personal gain.

But as things unravel, Anna hasn’t left. Her ghost still is around and this ghost is not a peaceful spirit. It’s in these scenes, when Anna returns and torments Allen that you almost feel sorry for him. Anna does what she can to make sure he’s not happy and that doesn’t matter if it means hurting those who are with him.

I wish I could say just a bit more about Anna’s torment and what happens in the final quarter of this book, because it is just grotesque and cathartic and will make you squirm and smile. The ending was fantastic and Aldridge did a fantastic job of completing Allen’s downward spiral. His breakdown happens over many, short punchy chapters, but when it finally completes, it is stunning.

What I didn’t like: Gah! I hate this when the one little thing that bothered me is something I can’t actually say. What I will mention, is that one character never really had a resolution and that’s what frustrated me. I wanted to see it, but it never happened. If you’ve read this and want to discuss let me know, otherwise I won’t say anything else.

Why you should buy this: I mean, look at that cover! And the synopsis! And Aldridge can write like nobody’s business. This book snaps along and delivers moments of tenderness and savagery that hook into the reader and pull them along. I had a blast with this one and am so glad I took the chance and snapped it up. At this point, I have this slotted in my ‘Top 10 of the Year’ list, and I think it will take a lot to bump it off.

I hope somebody reading this review does the same, because I can guarantee you, you’ll be happy you did.

5/5

Book Review: Rooted (Volume 2): A Poetry Collection by Cassandra Chaput

58402798._SY475_

Title: Rooted (Volume 2): A Poetry Collection

Author: Cassandra Chaput

Release date: Expected July 5, 2021

I connected with Cassandra a few years back when she was my main sensitive reader for my novel ‘The Stranger.’ From there, I discovered she had a poetry collection out and I dove into it. ‘Rooted: A Poetry Collection’ was fantastic. Empowering and uplifting, I loved how many small affirmations she had throughout.

(You can find my review here: https://stevestredauthor.wordpress.com/2019/03/11/book-review-rooted-a-poetry-collection/)

Now, almost two years later, Cassandra returns with her second collection, and I’m so happy she reached out to see if I’d like to review it. I have it pre-ordered for my Kindle, but she kindly sent me a pdf which I devoured.

What I liked: Cassandra has a way with words. Simple, straight-forward, delicate. Her poetry conveys a novels worth of emotions in sometimes only three sentences.

We open with ‘Stormy Weather,’ which not only starts the collection off with an affirmation, but also connects it to Volume 1 which I really liked.

Throughout, we see Cassandra actively embracing and connecting with her Indigenous heritage and culture. Poems such as ‘Dying Language,’ ‘Métis,’ ‘Heartbeat’ and many others. They are all fantastic snippets of a person fighting between accepting their heritage while trying to find their place in today’s society.

‘Serene’ was one of my personal favorites, a fantastic piece about reconnecting with nature and being one with the land and the elements.

‘Soon’ was a sweet poem about someone waiting patiently to reconnect with the love of their life.

My absolute favorite was ‘Our Time Is Limited.’ A gorgeous poem about living your best life and enjoying what you have and being as happy as you can be. Loved it.

The final poem was ‘Elm Tree’ which was both a touching piece of respecting nature, but also connected with the first poem and the first volume, which I really enjoyed seeing it come full circle.

What I didn’t like: This was such a great collection. With all poetry releases, it’s hard for me to comment on it as this was an author’s lived experience and I’m no scholar or poetry teacher. I can’t critique that Cassandra should’ve used a different rhyming scheme or whatever! The poems all work great and really tie in well with Volume 1 and with each other.

Why you should buy this: While this may only be Cassandra’s second release, I feel like she’ll become a force to be reckoned with in no time at all. She tackles darkness and grief with a smile and so many of her poems are amazing call to actions or empowering moments. Absolutely a joy to read and a collection I think many will love.

5/5