Book Reviews


Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Judas Coyne is an aging rock star, a man without conviction, living an overindulgent lifestyle on upstate New York acreage, surrounded by sycophants who cater to him and solve his problems. He can look back over the landscape of a rock 'n roll lifestyle and see it littered with women, girls mostly. His emotional distance is exemplified by his reference to his groupie girlfriends, not by their given names, but by the states in which he met them.  

Judas has a penchant for collecting the macabre, a snuff film, a cannibal's cookbook, and other strange collectibles. When a dead man's suit with a ghost attached is auctioned online, he can't resist the temptation to own one more piece of the bizarre. He soon learns the spirit is an old man named Craddock McDermott, the stepfather of one of Judas' groupies, a girl he called Florida. Years earlier, she had committed suicide after Judas's affections had waned and he let her go. When the heart-shaped box arrives in his house with the suit inside, it isn't long before the strange settles in. Judas learns quickly that McDermott will not be appeased until he has joined him on a final ride along the 'night road.' His current girlfriend, Georgia, is also in danger. 

As a horror novel, the story is successful on many levels. First, it is frightening. Craddock McDermott is as relentless a vengeful ghost as I have witnessed in recent memory. The story is high energy and visual, owing to the skillful writing and boundless imagination of the author. Judas also undergoes a  wonderful evolution throughout the story and finally utters Georgia's true name (Marybeth) in a touching scene. I was slightly disappointed the author chose to use a trope such as Ouija board to summon Florida's spirit. With all the imaginative things Hill had already conjured in this novel, he could have challenged the reader a bit more. In addition, using the spirit of Judas' dogs, Angus and Bon (a nice AC/DC homage, by the way) as 'familiars' to protect he and Georgia also felt a bit recycled. But overall this one had me hooked and ranks as one of my favorite  horror novels.


Man of the Year by Lou Cove

I planned on reviewing nothing but horror/thriller novels, but I was so completely blown away by Lou Cove's memoir, I couldn't help myself. Don't miss this one! 

Lou Cove’s ‘Man of the Year’ is a beautifully written and evocative memoir of his strange and unlikely 13th year when a California couple casts something of a magic spell over Lou and his family. But young Lou learns that childhood innocence doesn’t last forever and that shooting stars only light the sky for the briefest moment. 

Lou is hovering somewhere between boyhood and the complex world of a teenager when his family moves from New York City to Salem, Massachusetts. His eighth relocation in twelve years and is setting up to be a downer; that is, until his father’s old friend, Howie Gordon and wife Carly, come to stay with them. Howie is handsome and fun-loving, a hippie philosopher who has just become Playgirl’s Mr. November, 1978. Lou sees in Howie everything he is not, and he is drawn in. Howie appoints him campaign manager in his bid to become Playgirl’s Man of the Year; all Lou has to do is help convince the small Massachusetts town’s grizzled sailors, women’s groups, and witches to cast their reluctant votes for the polyester pinup.

If you bought the book based on the story’s unique and oddball premise, it more than delivers the goods, providing laughs and evoking forgotten memories from the 1970s: music, television, comic books, film and pop culture. But the tenor of the narrative takes a turn in the final third of the book, and Cove leads the unsuspecting reader into an emotionally jarring place.

Despite masquerading as a tale about velour jackets, long hair, and adult magazines, this is a story about becoming a man, and what it means to be a man. Cove isn’t afraid to bare his soul in this memoir, presenting a nuanced account of his complex relationship with his hard-working but emotionally-absent father. He longs for a connection that he cannot bridge, filling that void with Howie. They are two very different men, and only one ends up showing Lou how to be a man. Man of the Year is a must-read for anyone who grew up during the magic era of the 1970s, but it’s also a must-read for men. 

Cove’s writing will move the reader in unforeseen ways, tapping the deepest corners of the heart one moment then pulling a surprise laugh through the building melancholy. There’s an honesty to Cove’s recollections, and he doesn’t hold back when revealing his family’s flaws or even those in his own character. It has been said you live several lives while reading, and Cove has made it difficult to climb back into my own after taking me into his.


Horns by Joe Hill

Joe Hill’s horns is a Kafkaesque look at a man who wakes up to find horns growing from his head and believes he may be slowly turning into the devil. Ignatius Perrish is living a nightmare after the brutal rape and murder of his former girlfriend, Merrin Williams. Although he maintains his innocence, the only evidence that could exonerate him (or convict him) was destroyed in a crime lab error. The popular consensus is that he is a murderer, thus he lives his life as a pariah in his small town. The horns reveal the inner dialogue of the people he runs into, they tell him things, the things they want to do to people, what they think about him. Even his family and the people closest to him admit their true beliefs. While people notice Ig’s horns, they forget about them quickly, and forget the things they revealed while under Ig’s hypnotic presence.

What makes this book fascinating is the way Joe Hill pulls off Ig’s transformation. It feels believable that he is turning into the devil. The story flashes forward and back, and follows the lives of Ig and his best friend Lee Tourneau. And while the seemingly good Ig Perrish is slowly evolving into the devil, Lee Tourneau, who works for a politician and appears to represent all this is good, is the personification of evil. The book questions what it means to be the devil. Is it the man with the horns and pitchforks, or is it in the person harboring the thoughts that never escape the lips, but which fester beneath the surface. Joe Hill explores the privately wicked thoughts human beings harbor, and he lays them out for all to see. The revelations are disturbing and reflect the hidden nature of the human condition, polite, generous on the outside, but with different intentions inside. 


Compared to Heart-Shaped box, Horns is a little slower, but Joe Hill has become one of my favorite writers because he doesn’t try to rush things. He provides realistic back story to build emotional connections among characters, drawing you in to their situation and circumstances. His portrayal of small town teenagers and their circumstances is realistic and bleak. He bravely describes thoughts and feelings we’ve all had, but keep hidden away inside. This one is dark and disturbing, but somehowo completely satisfying.


The Catacombs by Jeremy Bates

Jeremy Bates is at the top of his game with The Catacombs, a perfectly paced, gripping tale of horror that hooks the reader from the opening sentence and never lets go. The writing is top notch, and his characters leap off the page in this riveting struggle for survival. The Catacombs is the second in his ‘World’s Scariest Places’ series, where real-life locations are the backdrop for the author’s genre bending novels. 

Will is an American writer living in France, who places himself in a self-imposed exile after the tragic loss of his sister and a break-up with his fiancé. He finds himself involved with a young woman named Daniele, his French language partner and new flame, who also spends her free time with friends exploring the catacombs beneath the city. To the self-proclaimed catophiles, exploring the ruins is an avocation, and they adopt underworld personas to distance themselves from the lives they lead above ground. When Daniele plays Will a video of a woman appearing to meet a grisly end in the catacombs, Will agrees to join her, her brother-in-law, Robert, and friend Pascal on a quest to discover her fate. What they find is beyond their wildest dreams and sparks a struggle for survival that keeps the heart racing with each turn of the page.

I was immediately drawn into this book and the characters, especially Will, whose tragic backstory leaves him having to overcome much to be whole again. The descriptions of the catacombs are often times uncomfortable, evoking visceral reactions to unimaginable conditions, tight spaces, the complete absence of light, and the specter of death around every corner. I found myself trying to skim these passages to shield my mind from the unthinkable, but Bates’ descriptions and compelling prose forced me to slow down and take in every ghastly detail. He peppers the story with research into the catacombs’ history that added richness and texture to the story, but never distracts, as is sometimes common in authors with a less skilled hand. 

In retrospect, I would have liked to have seen perhaps more more conflict between the characters, especially between Will and Pascal, who harbors a not-so-secret desire for Daniele. The underworld location would be the perfect backdrop to add some internal group tension to the mounting external tension. But this is a minor point. Do yourself a favor and pick out one of Bates’ novels. You’ll be a fan for life.


Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine

Stillhouse Lake is the story of Gwen Proctor and her children, Lanny and Connor, who live in a remote part of the south on a lake after a harrowing ordeal. Once they were Gina, Lily and Brady Royal, married to the notorious serial killer Melvin Royal, who tortured and killed young women. Although Gwen was completely unaware of Melvin’s tendencies, the Internet world is unconvinced, believing she was complicit in these crimes. As Gwen and her family continually move from place to place, internet hoards stalk them, track them down, post their new names and locations, and call for retribution against her and her family. Gwen has insulated herself and her children against the outside world, keeping them safe and alone, but protected. Their world opens up on Stillhouse Lake. The family begins to make friends and setting down roots. But when a bodies start turning up in the lake waters, all eyes turn to the wife of Melvin the monster, and Gwen’s world is about to unravel.

Stillhouse Lake is a tense thriller, and Rachel Caine’s skilled hand fills the reader with dread and anticipation with every turn of the page. Once Gwen’s cover is blown and her carefully constructed defenses begin to unravel, the book really picks up speed.  There is a tremendous contrast between the first half of the book, when Gwen had controlled her world with astonishing thought and planning,  and the second half, when her life spirals out of control and the walls begin to close in on her. The pervasive theme of suspicion and mistrust among neighbors, friends and law enforcement evoked the stress and anger old Hitchcock films would instill. Caine introduces just enough characters around the small lake community to get the reader wondering who the killer might be, or whether the narrator could be unreliable. As the novel raced to its conclusion, I found myself cursing the bedside clock as the dawn hours approached but unable to put the book down. Rachel Caine's Stillhouse Lake will draw you in and won't let go until the heart-stopping end.