‘The Girl in Red’ – Christina Henry

The Girl in Red was a book I picked up to read as part of the PopSugar 2021 Challenge. I didn’t know anything about the author and I wasn’t sure quite how you could set up a reimagining of a tale as well-known as that of Little Red Riding Hood. Having finished the book today, I can safely say this was a surprise hit.

The story behind this really does feel as if it could be written for our times. We don’t know how or why, but the world within this book has been hit by something known colloquially as the Cough. Those who become infected may show no symptoms, but this airborne virus spreads quickly and can leave people dead within days. They cough up copious amounts of blood, and there appears to be no vaccine available to cure them.

Cordelia, or Red as she prefers to be known, is something of a heroine to admire. She lives with her brother and parents in a rural town. Fascinated by science she has been worried about the things she has heard, and has been making plans for how to survive should the worst happen. Determined not to be forced into a camp (where many seem to think they will be safe) Red has been tramping the woods for days, carrying everything she thinks she will need to keep alive. Admirable for anyone, but given that Red has a prosthetic leg I could not help but admire the fact she was determined to do what was needed to keep alive.

We follow Red as she travels across country, determined to avoid roads and potential threats, in her journey to get to her grandma’s cottage.As she travels we are given flashbacks to explain how she comes to be travelling alone.

There’s no denying this has its gruesome moments. The details of the mutation and how it impacts on people was scary. The things she has obviously gone through to get to this point are not for the faint-hearted. However, there are moments that show how even in the darkest moments we can be hopeful, and there will always be the potential to create a better future.

 

‘The Last Girl’ – Goldy Moldavsky

Thanks to the publishers for granting me access to this via NetGalley prior to its scheduled April 2021 release.

The Last Girl is a must-read for horror fans…a lovingly crafted homage to movies that revel in gore, jump-scares and violence. Even readers like myself (who can only read horror stories during the day and who can conjure up threats from the merest hint of shadows and strange noises) will find themselves sucked into this story.

Even knowing the rules doesn’t always help. Sometimes you are up against something for which it’s hard to be prepared.

Our story focuses on new girl Rachel who’s started at an exclusive school where her mum teaches. She is not naturally sociable, and the trauma of killing a masked invader to her old home is something Rachel does not want to share with anyone. She is befriended by Saundra who is desperate to fill her in on the school gossip, but then Rachel finds herself part of a secret club.

Like Fight Club, the rules around this club are tight. Members cannot associate with one another, and nobody should talk about it. The Mary Shelley Club has a seemingly innocent aim, to gather and share a love of horror movies. Another aspect of the Club is the challenge that each member faces…to scare someone.
Initially, like Rachel, we see the Club as harmless – but there are signs that’s not the case. Before long we have a decidedly more dangerous scenario, and the question is whether Rachel will survive this experience.

Not to be taken too seriously, and not something you’d ever want to experience in reality, but self-aware enough to feel the author was having just as much fun writing it as I did reading it.

 

‘The Lost Village’ – Camilla Sten

Finishing this with the wind whistling in the woods outside my home, I confess to feeling more than a little jittery at the thought of this story.

The Lost Village focuses on a mystery that has puzzled people for years…a village where all 900 inhabitants mysteriously disappeared, leaving no trace of their presence. The only person found when someone later entered the village was a young baby. A grisly scene met the people who rescued the baby – the body of a woman who had been stoned to death in the village square. Of course, people want to know what happened.

In the present day we have filmmaker Alice whose grandmother used to live in the village. She received letters from her family when she first moved, but had no idea what happened to them. She shared stories about village life with Alice, so this is very much a personal journey.

This personal involvement leads to what can best be described as a blinkered passion. Alice has spent years dreaming of making a film about the village and documenting what happened. She manages to track down the daughter of the baby found in the village (this isn’t a spoiler, though this fact isn’t shared with all the cast who journey to the village to shoot material to secure backing for their film).

From the moment they arrive in the village, Alice and her crew sense something eerie about the place. Of course, their unease starts to grow and we’re never quite sure whether the mysterious noises and sightings are products of unsettled minds or something more threatening.

As the story progresses the growing unease is well-captured. When it becomes clear they are trapped in the village it doesn’t bode well. This claustrophobic sensation is increased as Sten cuts into our present story with the narrative of incidents in the village leading up to the disappearance. The threat is real…and once this is clearly established it became (for me) scarier but also enabled me to develop some empathy for the characters who I wasn’t unduly concerned about initially.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for giving me access to this prior to publication.

 

‘Plain Bad Heroines’ – Emily Danforth

I had seen reviews of this on NetGalley, and could not believe the UK release was so long after the US one…so I requested the audiobook on NetGalley, and when I was sent an ARC I jumped straight in.

I listened to the opening with such a sense of anticipation, and found myself captivated but also repulsed by the opening. Our story begins in 1902, with Flo and Clara – two young students of Brookhants School for Girls who have a shared fascination with a scandalous book. Unfortunately, their story ends abruptly, and in ways too horrific to dwell on. I dislike intensely the thought of being stung, so this was a particularly macabre scene with which to open the novel…though the story definitely intrigued me.

I soon found my tendency to read a couple of books at the same time, and my relative unfamiliarity with audiobooks, meant that I soon found myself totally lost by this. The shifting perspectives and chronology is one of the strengths of the story – having now finished it, I am in awe at how cleverly constructed this is – but trying to listen to it in short bursts with gaps in-between was not working out. It got set aside until I knew I could do it justice.

Finding myself with the arduous task of stripping a bathroom, what more excuse could I find but to try and use the time wisely? Back to it…

Second time round – and actually listening to it for hours at a time over two days – meant I found myself immersed in the story from the outset. Listening to/reading the stories surrounding Brookhants School for Girls and its mysterious ‘curse’ was a joy.

In the publicity material we are told that this is a story of parts – queer love story, Gothic horror and Hollywood satire. The focus is on a number of stories tied to Brookhants over time: that of Libby Brookhants and her lover, Alex; poor Flora and Cara and, lastly, Harper Harper and Audrey. The one thing that unites these three stories is the mysterious Brrokhants School for Girls and the scandalous memoir that seems to hold the key to the purported curse.

I don’t want to say too much because Danforth reveals all, and the way she chooses to do this gave me physical chills. I never felt as if I could tell exactly what was happening, and the events unfolding – in whichever timeline we were focused on – were beautifully described. The narrator on the audiobook gave a different perspective on the experience, and this is certainly a book I will have to physically read too.

A huge thank you to the publishers Harper Collins and NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to its release.

 

‘The Only Good Indians’ – Stephen Graham Jones

My first experience of this author, and listening to a book rather than physically reading it. That, I’m sure, impacted on my ability to settle into the story as it is such an unfamiliar way of reading for me.

When I started this I really didn’t know what to expect. I, like many, have heard the rest of the phrase this title is taken from, and the pre-release info makes it clear this is not a book for the faint-hearted. I have little experience of the background of the characters this book focused on, so I was definitely nervous about missing something or doing the author a disservice through my own ignorance.

The book opens with a frankly unsettling scene, resulting in the death of an Indian man outside a bar. There’s mention of elk, and I really did have to go back and listen to the start again as I thought I had misheard something! We then switch our focus to another character, Lewis, who we learn was part of a close-knit group of four young men who did something so awful that even after leaving his reservation he lives with the guilt. We learn this event took place ten years previously, and it’s something to do with the strange and unsettling experiences of him imagining he now sees an elk-headed woman in his front room.

Initially I have to say I found the narrative of this quite hard to follow. We jump from event to event and there’s a muddling of time-frames that left me quite confused and even wondering if I could get through this. I don’t honestly know if this would have been any different reading…and looking at other’s responses to this, perhaps not.

If you’ve decided to pick this up and read it then you’re likely to have done a little research. We know the story focuses on the awful events that took place ten years before our book opens – where Lewis and his three friends venture onto a section of the reservation that is only meant to be accessed by elders and butcher a number of elk. They are punished, and alongside their feelings of guilt they have to contend with the expectations of others because of who they are. Now, ten years on, something has returned to get revenge.

The book was dark. We had graphic descriptions of dogs being mutilated, elk being shot and people being killed. As the book progressed and there was talk of the elk-head woman I wasn’t sure if this was going into supernatural territory or whether some kind of breakdown was being described. During the narrative we switched viewpoints from Lewis to the elk as well as the daughter of one of the men involved in the original event.

Once we were back on the reservation and following Cassidy and Gabe, I was surprised at how funny parts of this book were. Thought I’m no basketball fan, I was completely gripped by the character of Gabe’s daughter who really made this into something more than I was expecting. The final scene, though definitely not one I want to dwell on, was also more uplifting than I was expecting.

Thanks to the publishers, Saga Press, and NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication.

‘Devolution’ – Max Brooks

As the ash and chaos from Mount Rainier’s eruption swirled and finally settled, the story of the Greenloop massacre has passed unnoticed, unexamined… until now. But the journals of resident Kate Holland, recovered from the town’s bloody wreckage, capture a tale too harrowing – and too earth-shattering in its implications – to be forgotten.

Whatever we might think of the legends, it’s impossible not to be fascinated by the stories. I really didn’t quite know where this book would go, but it was a story I was curious to read once I’d heard about it.

The premise is quite straightforward…the author has found journals belonging to Kate Holland, a young woman who moved into Greenloop (a remote hi-tech village) that tells us about the aftermath of a volcanic eruption and the residents’ attempts to survive. She is missing, so nobody knows exactly what happened, but her journals tell us that the group were found by Bigfoot.

Whatever your view of this legend, the idea of an undiscovered animal race is fascinating. Much of our fascination with such a creature comes with our need to work out our place in society and to consider how we could interact with such a group.

What I learnt from this is to be careful what you wish for, and to think carefully about the skills you have before you go and live somewhere so remote. You never know what you’re capable of until you are forced into the position of need.

As we watch Kate, her partner Dan and the other residents come to the realisation that they’re no longer top of the food chain there’s a distinctly menacing feel to this. Gruesome at times, it explores just how far we are prepared to go to survive.

Of course it would have been nice to have a rounded-off story but I liked the way this was done. Scary – absolutely – but very very interesting.

 

‘Contagious’ – Emily Goodwin

At first, I thought this was pretty standard zombie stuff and as the book progressed I found myself getting bored. Nothing really seemed to happen and our characters were stuck in a repetitive cycle (true to form perhaps for life in a pandemic).

Part two shifted our focus and hinted at a bigger picture – though the potential romance love triangle was not appealing – and as we shifted to the end I was starting to get a little more invested in the story/where this might go. Sadly this came right at the end when we had the most frustrating ending ever…I guess it’s meant to make us desperate to read part two but it left me feeling cheated.

The whole zombie thing is not really my interest anyway, and yet there have been great books exploring the idea. This felt, at times, unnecessarily repetitive – there’s only so many zombie attacks you can describe without it getting a bit dull. I wanted to get a little more background to some of the characters, and I’m probably more interested in the bigger picture than their day-to-day survival.

I think this book and your reaction to it will come down to personal taste, and I’d certainly suggest people tried it…though I wouldn’t be shocked if they didn’t bother with the rest of the series.

 

‘Darling Rose Gold’ – Stephanie Wrobel

Patty Watts and Rose Gold Watts…two names you’ll shudder to hear once you’ve ended this. While I felt sympathy for both characters, it’s hard also to not feel appalled by both.

Before you start reading, it’s clear this is a book that’s not afraid to plunge into the darkness. It heads straight for the darkest point you can find, roots around and then burrows deeper. I was expecting something pretty nasty, but as the dots started to join together and I got an inkling of where this might be going I almost feared reading on and having my suspicions confirmed.

Our story hinges on the dysfunctional mother and daughter combination. For years we are told Rose Gold was ill. That she was in and out of hospital, incapable of feeding and struggling to live. That eventually it was discovered her mother was making her ill. It’s no surprise that her mother is then imprisoned for her actions.

What surprised me was that we learn towards the end of Patty’s incarceration she is visited by Rose Gold. We learn they are attempting to restore their relationship, and that upon her release Patty is going to live with Rose and her son. Oddly, in spite of knowing her uncle committed suicide there and her mother was beaten there we are told Rose has bought her mother’s childhood home. There’s something odd going on, but it takes some time to work out just what.

The book alternates between two viewpoints and this is definitely a major part of the novel’s success. Hearing each character’s thoughts means we gain some understanding of their thought processes. We’re privy to their suspicions of each other, and the strange manipulative behaviour each exhibits in this bizarre, wholly dysfunctional relationship. We’re never sure who’s telling the truth, or who’s manipulating who.

By the time we approached the climax of the novel I really was amazed we’d taken this final turn. Chilling and emotionally terrifying behaviour from both characters and I couldn’t help but feel that neither deserved the fate they were dealt. There were no winners in this story, and though both Patty and Rose had their very obvious shortcomings I couldn’t bring myself to despise either of them because they were both, in so many ways, victims.

 

‘The Shadows’ – Alex North

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication, and for the author for scaring me rigid with this foray into darkness that goes way beyond my worst nightmares.

This is, by its nature, a complex tale with a large cast of characters and taking place over many years. It focuses on the discovery of a child’s body, almost decapitated, surrounded by bloody handprints. Two boys are taken into custody having confessed to the murder, and the Detective investigating has a strange feeling about this case.

There are, indeed, links with other events and we quickly switch focus to a lecturer called Paul Adams. I don’t want to give too much away here, but we first meet Paul as a teen when the police take him in for questioning in a murder. A mutual friend has confessed to the murder (a body almost decapitated and surrounded by bloody handprints), and another friend has disappeared. Paul is cleared of any involvement, but he feels guilt for some reason. Of course, we want to know why.

Over time we learn some of the circumstances surrounding this situation. We learn about Paul as a teen and his worries about the influence one of his peer group, Charlie Crabtree, has over others. Charlie is presented as a rather disturbed individual, certainly manipulative, but we’re never sure how much of this is a real fear. However, having never been seen following these tragic events this is a character we’re definitely keen to know more about.

Having returned to his hometown for the first time in years when his mother becomes ill, Paul is a character that I was never wholly certain wouldn’t suddenly be revealed to be completely unreliable. He’s hiding things, and some of these revelations will have you shaking your head in disbelief.

It’s not spoiling anything to say that our questions are answered and a number of mysteries are cleared up. There’s a certain amount of gore and yet my overwhelming feeling at the end was a sense of wistfulness for the many losses that took place through this story.

 

‘Home Before Dark’ – Riley Sager

In spite of the relatively eye-watering price it cost to get my hands on this, it was most definitely worth it. Home Before Dark is a book that depends on you not knowing certain details, but even having finished it I think it could stand up to a repeat reading to look for the clues I missed first time round.

Every house has a story to tell and a secret to share we’re told. Maggie Holt’s life has come to be defined by her parents’ ill-fated decision to buy ‘fixer-upper’ Baneberry Hall when she was a child. The family only lived there for 21 days – and something so awful took place within those walls that they fled one night, never to return.

Everyone in the surrounding area – and many others – seems to know the story of Baneberry Hall as Maggie’s father released a book chronicling their short time there. From the time they look around the property we know there is something odd going on. There are the ubiquitous paranormal hints with strange noises, unexplained atmospheric changes and events that would – with no exceptions – have most people scared…snakes appearing from the kitchen ceiling, record players mysteriously starting to play and repetitive thumping noises. The history of the house doesn’t help – with a number of unexplained deaths and the murder/suicide of the most recent owners.

We don’t learn much of this until some time later. Upon the death of her father, Maggie learns that she has now become the owner of Baneberry Hall and although nobody in her family wants her to return, she is determined to do so. Much as I questioned this, I do understand that with so much of her life defined by this book and the events described within its pages she wants answers. And, boy, does she get them!

I loved the way this book told us about Maggie’s experience in the present but interspersed it with excerpts chronicling the story of her father and mother, and what happened to the family. This was a great way of divulging snippets to help establish what happened while maintaining the tension created.

There are – as you might expect – a number of attempts to throw us off the scent. It was, in hindsight, clear that things were not quite as Maggie had been led to believe but I was open-mouthed as we reached the climactic moments…I can’t wait for others I know to read this and then to be able to discuss it with them.
Highly recommended.