The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires – Grady Hendrix

I was introduced to vampires at an early age. My mom used to take my younger brothers and me to the community centre where they offered Saturday matinees of movies like Count Dracula and Taste the Blood of Dracula starring Christopher Lee. I mean, they’re campy now, but back when I was a kid of 11 and 12, they were scary. Although I probably didn’t understand the sexual component of the thrall as a kid, I knew that vampires were powerful opponents and you wouldn’t want to be running into them in a dark alley. So, I have always loved vampires, but I guess I love the romantic version of them, the beautiful, tortured versus the ugly creepy. David Boreanaz as Angel rather than Gary Oldman as Dracula, if you know what I mean.

The vampire in Grady Hendrix’s novel The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires lands somewhere between Angel and Dracula. He’s charming, handsome and a skilled predator. When he arrives in Old Village, an enclave of Charleston, South Carolina, he causes a stir amongst the women who live there. These are women who are expected to look after the children, the house, the pets, their appearance and not much more.

The novel opens with a funny scene. Patricia, the protagonist, is getting ready to host book club. There are very strict rules about this book club: Marjorie Fretwell chooses thirteen “appropriate” titles from the Western canon, and the members of the book club vote for the eleven they would like to read. Tonight, Patricia is supposed to lead a discussion about Cry, the Beloved Country and that’s a problem because she didn’t manage to read it. Turns out, Patricia is just in the wrong book club and when she and some other women band together to read things like Helter Skelter and Psycho, things turn around for her.

When James Harris shows up in Old Village, though, things become decidedly weird. First, Patricia discovers Mrs. Savage, an old woman from down the street (and James Harris’s aunt), in her alley eating a raccoon, “one gory hand [in] its open belly [scooping] up a fistful of translucent guts.” This scene is an early reminder that this is indeed a horror novel. There are many other totally squicky scenes: rats and bugs and all manner of yuck – which is, gross, yes, but also awesome. Then, Miss Mary, her mother-in-law, who now lives with Patricia and her family, claims she knows James Harris from decades before – although surely that can’t be, and besides, Miss Mary has dementia. Fans of vampire lore will have fun spotting the tropes, and seeing the ways Hendrix has upended them, too.

It takes a while for Patricia to figure out what’s going on and even then it’s unbelievable and impossible and, by then, James Harris has made himself a part of the community. When children start disappearing, though, Patricia is determined to do something about it.

Patricia is a wonderful character. At the beginning, she’s a southern housewife who is unable to assert herself. She gave up her nursing career to marry her psychiatrist husband, who is a jackass, and raise her children, Korey and Blue, and her life is now monotonous; she is a shadow of who she was. James Harris shakes her out of her stupor.

I loved The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. It’s funny, horrifying, nostalgic and smart. If you like horror novels, I can highly recommend this one. I have also read My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which is also excellent.

The Chain – Adrian McKinty

Whether or not you believe the hype surrounding Adrian McKinty’s novel The Chain will depend on what you look for in a book. If the hype is to be believed, The Chain is “a blazing, full-tilt thriller” (Guardian), “a rare thriller that ends up being highly personal” (USA Today) and “psychologically rich” (Entertainment Weekly). The book also won several awards including the International Thriller Writers Best Novel of the Year. So its pedigree precedes it, and I guess that can be both a blessing and a curse.

The Chain tells the story of Rachel O’Neill, divorced mom to 13-year-old Kylie. The last few months have been shitty for Rachel because she’s been battling breast cancer, but things are looking up because her cancer is in remission and she’s going to be starting a new job as a philosophy lecturer at a local community college. Then the unthinkable happens, and her daughter is kidnapped.

It makes no sense for someone to take Kylie; Rachel has no money, but as the kidnappers tell her, it’s not about the money it’s about the chain.

“You’re in The Chain now, Rachel. We both are. And The Chain is going to protect itself. So, first thing is no cops. If you ever talk to a cop, the people who run The Chain will know and they’ll tell me to kill Kylie and pick a different target, and I will. They don’t care about you or your family; all they care about is the security of The Chain.

The way this thing works is someone whose own child has been kidnapped must pay a Bitcoin ransom and kidnap someone else’s child. Once that person has paid the ransom and kidnapped someone else’s child, the first person’s child will be released. And so on and so on aka The Chain. It’s all pretty clever and diabolical, really.

But.

Look, I had zero trouble turning the pages as Rachel and her brother-in-law Pete (ex-military and low-key heroin addict) try to figure out how they are going to comply with The Chain’s demands. As a mom myself, I could understand her panic and her willingness to do whatever was asked of her. Her motivation was clear. Still, I didn’t feel like she or Kylie (as resourceful and brave as she was) or Pete were particularly fleshed out.

Then there’s the people behind The Chain. I mean, I guess it ultimately doesn’t matter what motivated them, because clearly they’re psychos, but when their identities are revealed and the novel’s final confrontation happens it all just felt a little over-the-top cartoon-y to me.

Lots of thriller lovers will (and clearly did) enjoy the way this book is written: straight forward, unembellished prose. Lots of dialogue. Short, choppy sentences. I mean, there’s something to be said for writing this way for this kind of book, something that mimics the breathlessness that the characters must be feeling. If you don’t have to spend any real time with anybody, there’s a lot you can pack into 350 pages, and I feel like that’s what McKinty did. It’s a case of plot over substance.

So, ultimately, this was a so-so read for me. There was a lot of momentum going in, but the final bit of the book just felt contrived and wayyyyy too implausible for me. Because we never really know the characters, it’s hard to really care too much about them. They feel like cardboard cut outs: the plucky kid, the down-on-her-luck-but-determined mom, the has-his-demons-but-is-a-great-guy uncle. If you don’t care too much about writing or nuance or investing emotionally, then The Chain might be the book for you.

Tall Oaks – Chris Whitaker

Earlier this year I read Chris Whitaker’s We Begin at the End, a novel that might not have even been on my radar if it weren’t for Twitter. If you haven’t read it, I can highly recommend it; there are characters in that book you will never forget. A Litsy friend sent me Whitaker’s debut Tall Oaks, which won the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award – no idea what that is, but it sounds impressive.

Tall Oaks begins with the disappearance of three-year-old Harry, stolen from his bed in the dead of night by someone dressed as a clown. His mother, Jess, is devastated by the loss; Harry is her world. She and her husband are separated and now, with Harry gone, she spends her days asking questions and hanging missing posters and her nights drinking and having blind-drunk sex with strangers.

This is the mystery that informs Whitaker’s novel, but it is really only a fraction of what the novel is about – and maybe not the most interesting thing about it anyway. Whitaker’s skill is with creating character, a skill that he uses to full and brilliant effect in We Begin at the End. The town of Tall Oaks (apparently somewhere in the States, although there were things in the book that made it feel sort of British to me) is full of oddball characters and getting to know them is the real pleasure of the novel.

My favourite character is definitely Manny, the seventeen-year-old son of single mom, Elena. Manny reckons himself a gangster and, despite the heat, hangs around wearing a woolen three piece suit, a too-small fedora and black wingtips. He and his best friend, Abe, have decided to offer their “protection” services to the businesses in town and it’s quite comical.

“I’m here to offer you my services. A lot of shit has been going down around here lately. Graffiti, trash cans being turned over, cars being scratched. Real bad for business.”

“We haven’t noticed anything,” Stan said, eyeing the parking lot nervously.

Manny frowned, realizing he had forgotten to tip the crash cans over the previous night. Thalia had asked him to help her build a fort.

Roger and Henrietta are a married couple who have suffered a devastating loss. Jerry, 35, lives with his elderly mother who is dying from a brain tumour. At 6’9″ and almost 500 pounds, with a voice like he’s just sucked on a helium balloon, Jerry is ridiculed and shunned. Jared, a car salesmen, is also hiding something. He bounces from town to town, never settling, that is until he sells Elena a car and something sparks between them. Finally, there’s Jim, the police chief, who never gives up looking for Harry even after the case goes cold.

All of these characters intersect and, I suppose, might be considered suspects in Harry’s disappearance. As the novel went on though, what happened to Harry was less interesting to me than the daily lives of these characters, which is a tribute to Whitaker’s skill at writing characters, even minor ones, that you care about.

This is a novel that examines the private grief people carry (lost children, lost parents, lost relationships), the ways in which small acts of kindness can transform someone’s life and, ultimately, how we can never really know what goes on in anyone else’s life. In that respect, Tall Oaks is less a “crime” novel and more a terrific drama.

Whitaker is a writer worth being on your reading radar.

Later – Stephen King

I was a total SK stan back in the day, and while I no longer read everything he writes, I do still read him. I picked up Later yesterday morning, and didn’t stop reading until I finished the book. Like Joyland, Later is part of the Hard Case Crime series, which reissues classic crime stories for today’s audiences and also allows current writers to try their hand. While not strictly a crime story, Later does nicely slot into this series.

Jamie Conklin sees dead people.

As far as I can remember, I always have. But it’s not like in that movie with Bruce Willis. It can be interesting, it can be scary sometimes (the Central Park dude), it can be a pain in the ass, but mostly it just is

The way this works is that Jamie sees the dead soon after they have died, wearing what they were wearing, and hanging out in a place where they spent a lot of time. Jamie can ask them questions, and the dead must tell him the truth. Eventually, usually within a week, the dead start to drift away from him until they finally disappear forever.

Jamie’s mom, Tia, knows about her son’s strange ability and, more importantly, she believes in it. For a long time, it is their secret, but then she tells her girlfriend, an NYPD officer. That’s when things start to get tricky for Jamie. After the relationship between Tia and Liz goes sideways, Liz has one last favour to ask of Jamie, and it concerns a guy called Thumper. Jamie tells us at the beginning that he thinks “this is a horror story”, and he’s not wrong.

I don’t want to say too much more than that because I don’t want to spoil any of the novel’s myriad pleasures. Jamie is a terrific narrator, and Later is vintage King. The story cracks along, there are plenty of creep-a-licious moments, and a couple of surprises, too. Whenever I do read King, I am reminded of why he is loved by so many. Reading him is like sliding into your most comfortable sweats on a cold winter night. He always delivers a great tale and Later is a worthy addition to your King collection.

The Paper Palace – Miranda Cowley Heller

I read Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut novel The Paper Palace sitting on the porch at my best friend’s “farm.” (I put farm in quotation marks because it’s not a farm anymore, just a peaceful retreat in a beautiful spot at the top of a hill looking over rolling pastures, and the river. It’s magic.) I read for hours because I couldn’t stop. If there’s a list of things I love in books, I’d say The Paper Palace ticks them all.

Elle Bishop, 50, (there’s a thing I loved right there; Elle is 50.) is at her family’s compound in the Back Woods on Cape Cod. She has been coming here her whole life, and it is here where she first met Jonas when he was eight and she was eleven. For the next few summers, Elle and Jonas are inseparable, but then something happens that changes everything, and the two go their separate ways. They meet intermittently, but somehow find their way back into each other’s lives as adults. They are BFFs. Or, at least, that’s the boat they’re trying to float. They’ve managed, until this summer.

The novel takes place over twenty-four hours, but really spans a life time, flipping back and forth between then and now. Elle cherry picks the stories she tells: her mother’s failed marriages, her father’s abandonment, the history of “The Paper Palace” (the name of the place where they summer), her complicated relationship with her older sister, Anna, her friendship with Jonas.

In the here and now, the story begins with a betrayal. It’s not a spoiler to say that Elle and Jonas consummate their relationship; the blurb on the back tells us that much.

I could look at him and nothing else for eternity and be happy. I could listen to him, my eyes closed, feel his breath and his words wash over me, time and time and time again. It is all I want.

What Elle has, though, is a pretty amazing husband, Peter, and three kids. Jonas, too, is married to Gina whose “petite, perfect little bee-sting of a body” makes Elle wonder: “That’s what he wanted?” Elle and Jonas’s shared act is a powder keg with the potential to blow up many lives.

So, those of you who know me or read this blog regularly know that I love angst. LOVE it. Chuck an obstacle in front of people who love each other and I will be swooning before you can say, “hell, yeah!” Wanna stick a literary dagger in my heart? Yes, please. Heller wisely avoids making any of the players villains, which ups the ante for Elle. She’s our narrator; this is her story to tell. And the fact that she has invested in her marriage and it has been a happy one, makes her decision about what to do post-coitus, even more compelling. Then Heller reveals all the details of Elle’s life and the whole concoction is

I truly loved everything about this book. Some people have complained about all the time jumps: didn’t bother me in the least. If I had any complaints it would be 1) there are a lot of names and sometimes I was like “who’s that, again?” and 2) I love you, Reese, and I hope your production company is going to turn this puppy into a limited series *pretty please*, but I hate that your “Reese’s Book Club” sticker is not actually a sticker that I can take off and mars an otherwise gorgeous cover.

That said, The Paper Palace is a beautifully-written, page-turner about a woman who has to make a decision at a point in her life where she’s actually lived a life and has some real skin in the game.

Highly recommended.

Mirrorland – Carole Johnstone

When Cat’s identical twin sister El goes missing, Cat returns to Edinburgh to be with her husband, Ross, while they wait for news. She hasn’t seen or spoken to El or Ross for twelve years, but the reason for their estrangement takes a long time to reveal itself. Don’t worry: you’ll be riveted to the pages of Carole Johnstone’s debut Mirrorland for reasons far beyond why the sisters stopped speaking.

Growing up, El and Cat lived at 36 Westeryk Road, a “gray flat-stoned house with Georgian-bar windows” with their mother and maternal grandfather. Now El and Ross live there, and when Cat arrives she is astounded by how unchanged it is; “the hallway walls are crowded with familiar mounted plates…The tall oak telephone table and grandfather clock are exactly where they used to be as well…The smell is exactly the same….”

This house is filled with old ghosts for Cat. When she re-discovers the papered-over “door to Mirrorland” in the pantry, it unlocks fragments of memories. Mirrorland was

a magic place. Because, whatever else, I can’t deny that. This might once have only been a tradesman’s entrance, a means to a supercilious end; it might now be forgotten – only empty, drafty space and stone – but in between it was something else. Once upon a time, it was rich and full and alive. Gloriously frightening and steadfastly safe. Exciting beyond measure. Hidden. Special. Ours.

Cat and Ross refuse to believe that El is dead. Things get even creepier for Cat when she starts receiving anonymous cards at the house, and then, worse, emails from someone (Cat is convinced it is El; who else could it be?) providing her with clues for a treasure hunt. The clues lead to pages from a diary that El kept, and as Cat discovers them, she also starts to unlock the secrets of what happened in that house when she and El were children.

Mirrorland is like that hall of mirrors in a fun house. The rooms have names like Clown Café, and Donkshop. Then there’s Bedroom 3, a room that even as an adult Cat is afraid to enter because she hears “El shriek in [her] ear, Don’t go in! We can’t ever go in!” The twins’ childhood was filled with stories of pirates and make-believe, and as Cat deals with El’s disappearance, her complicated relationship with Ross, and the sharp edges of her childhood memories, it’s hard to know what is real and what is not.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s well-written, has several excellent twists and Stephen King himself says it’s “plotted with a watchmaker’s precision.” Not gonna argue with the master.

Highly recommended.

The Familiar Dark – Amy Engel

Last year I read Amy Engel’s novel The Roanoke Girls and I really loved it. Her novel The Familiar Dark is equally compelling and I read it in one sitting.

The Familiar Dark opens with a double homicide. When small town cop, Cal, comes to the diner to tell his sister Eve that her daughter, twelve-year-old Junie and her best friend Izzy have been murdered, Eve is bereft. Junie is Eve’s whole world. They are a team; only Cal has ever been invited into their private world.

Cal and Eve’s childhood is something they have worked their whole lives to escape. The siblings were raised “in a double-wide that stank of men and meth burners…strange faces and too much laughter, most of it jagged and mean. All of it nestled in the armpit of the Ozarks.” Their town is a backwater, where everyone knows your business and Eve wonders if the inept sheriff will ever find out who killed her daughter, so she takes her mother, Lynette’s advice: “You find him, Eve. Whoever did this. You find him. And you make him pay.”

Engel travels some pretty dark roads in The Familiar Dark. Although Eve has worked hard to live a different kind of life and raise her daughter away from the negative influences she’d had, including her mother, who she’s mostly avoided for the past decade, her questions necessarily suck her back into the “familiar dark” of her past.

For example, she must confront her former boyfriend (and I use the term loosely) Jimmy Ray, a local meth dealer.

I’d known what he was because I wasn’t blind. But I’d still fallen for the dark hair and green eyes, the lopsided grin, the tiger tattoo curled around his neck. The scent of danger he wore like cologne. When I was with him, I felt like the old Eve, the one who had flirted with disaster and never cared about how much something might hurt.

The Familiar Dark is almost un-put-down-able. Eve’s past has hardened her; Junie was the person who had smoothed out her rough edges. Engel leads the reader and Eve down a dark path, where Eve is forced to ask questions she may not want the answers to. There are some true surprises along the way and the ending is devastating.

Highly recommended.

The Lying Woods – Ashley Elston

Owen Foster has it all going on. He’s a high school senior at an exclusive private school in New Orleans and his parents are loaded. His life has been pretty sweet. That is until his mother shows up one day to tell him that he has to come home to Lake Cane because his father has been accused of stealing from the very company that provided Owen with his privileged life and also, he’s missing.

This is just part of the story in Ashley Elston’s compelling YA mystery The Lying Woods. The second narrative happens twenty years in the past when nineteen-year-old Noah arrives in Lake Cane looking for work at Gus Trudeau’s pecan farm. Noah hasn’t had an easy life, but he’s hoping to turn things around and despite Gus’s warning that he’ll put a bullet in him if he steps out of line, Noah is convinced that he can make something of himself here. When he meets Maggie, he’s sure of it.

Readers will have a great time trying to figure out how these two timelines are related, but the best thing about Elston’s novel is that both stories are interesting all on their own. For Owen, he’s trying to figure out if the things that his father is accused of are true. The company his father ran, Louisiana Frac, employed a lot of people in the small town, and what his father did has left a lot of them without a job, or worse, without their life savings. People are suspicious of Owen’s mother, convinced that she knew what her husband was up to and even has some of the missing money. When Owen has to finish his senior year at the local high school he discovers that he doesn’t really have any friends with the exception, perhaps, of Pippa, his best friend when he was a kid. She, at least, seems willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Noah is the proverbial kid from the wrong side of the tracks. As his relationship with Maggie develops, he is not unaware of the complications their relationship presents. But he is willing to do whatever it takes to make a life with her. But it seems Noah can’t catch a break. I was really rooting for things to go his way, too.

Although this is classified as YA, it actually has a lot to offer adult readers. The writing is as good as any you’d find in an adult mystery; the characters are believable and sympathetic; the mystery is twisty enough to keep you guessing. I haven’t ever read this author before, but I would certainly like to read more.

Bloodline – Jess Lourey

I read Jess Lourey’s Unspeakable Things a few months ago and really enjoyed it so I was looking forward to reading Bloodline. It wasn’t quite the same reading experience, but it was a quick, enjoyable read nonetheless.

Joan Harken, a journalist, moves to Lilydale, Minnesota with her boyfriend, Deck. The impetus for trading big city life for small town living was a recent mugging, which left Joan shaken up and afraid, especially since she’s pregnant. Deck assures Joan that “Lilydale was peaceful, friendly. Everyone knows everyone, looked out for one another, The world outside might scream and swirl like a tornado, but Lilydale floated in a bubble, outside of time, as safe as a smile.”

It won’t take readers very long to figure out that Lilydale has some seriously creepy Stepford-vibes. We’re seeing things through Joan’s eyes – and let’s not forget she’s trained to be observant and ask questions. First there are the people who live on Mill Street, the street where Deck and Joan are to live in Deck’s childhood home. The town Mothers and Fathers give off definite cult-vibes. Then there’s the fact that everyone in Lilydale seems to know her business. As Deck’s father tells her “You have to understand how a small town works. We’re a big family here. You don’t keep secrets from family.”

Well, it turns out, you can keep some secrets and there are a lot of them in Lilydale. Some of those secrets have to do with Paulie Aandeg, a little boy who disappeared from his kindergarten class on his first day. Although it happened decades ago, the child was never found and later his mother’s house burned to the ground and she disappeared, too. When someone claiming to be Paulie turns up in Lilydale, Joan feels like she’s landed on the story of a lifetime. Unfortunately, she discovers, people in Lilydale aren’t all that forthcoming with information. As Joan’s investigation heats up, she feels more and more like people are watching her – not watching out for her as you might reasonably expect in a small town, but literally spying on her. When she starts to feel as though her life and the life of her unborn baby might be in danger, she becomes even more paranoid.

It’s interesting reading a story set in the sixties. Joan’s doctor allows for four cigarettes a day and that reminded me of an old Dr. Spock pregnancy book I found years ago. His recommendation: limit drinking to two cocktails a day and cigarettes to half a pack. Imagine. There are jellied salads, crème de menthe and Peter Pan collars galore.

Bloodline is a super-quick read. It’s straight-forward, page-turning fun.

All the Beautiful Lies – Peter Swanson

Harry Ackerson’s father, Bill, is dead. He’s only just found out and he has to leave college (he’s just about to collect his diploma) and head to Kennewick Village, Maine, where his father lives with his second, much younger wife, Alice.

She was a strange kind of beautiful, her eyes set too far apart, her skin so pale that you could make out the blue veins right near the surface. She reminded Harry of one of those hot alien races from Star Trek, a beautiful female who just happened to have green skin, say, or ridges on her forehead. She was otherworldly. Harry found himself in a state of constant, confused sexual turmoil, guiltily obsessing over Alice.

Harry’s arrival in Maine is fraught. Alice is distraught. Their house, known locally as the Grey Lady, has never been home to Harry. It’s filled with his father’s things. His father owned a rare bookstore in the village, and Alice is hoping Harry will stick around and help John, the store’s lone employee, run the place.

Things get complicated with the arrival of Grace, a young woman Harry’s age who seems to have some connection to his father, and the news that Bill’s death might not be an accident after all. This is the general story line in Peter Swanson’s novel All the Beautiful Lies. Of course, things are a lot more twisty than this.

Alice and her mother moved to Kennewick when she was fourteen. Her mother, Edith, had won a settlement from the Saltonstall Mill for a workplace accident which had nearly killed her. The move is supposed to be a fresh start, but there’s no hitting reset on Edith’s drinking. When Edith meets and marries handsome banker Jake, Alice almost can’t believe her good luck.

Swanson’s novel flips between then (Alice’s story) and now (what exactly happened to Bill), and the way that these two stories coil around each other is one of the novel’s pleasures. When someone else turns up dead, Harry finds himself caught in the a maelstrom of lies. (Whether or not they are beautiful will be up to you to decide.)

This is my second book by Peter Swanson (The Kind Worth Killing) and I am solidly a fan now.