Thanks to everyone who participated in our book review contest! Our team now has a few more titles added to their to-read lists.
We’d specifically like to congratulate:
Winner: Mekenna Wilson for her review of Bird Box
Runner-Up: Kimberly Wolkens for her review of The Unheimlich Manoeuvre
Runner-Up: Monica Allen for her review of The Reader
Read the winning submissions below and watch for a new contest in April.
Winner: “Bird Box”
If you’re looking to crack open a book that will suck you in from the first page, Bird Box is it. But before I delve into why you should read this book, let’s pause for a moment because I’m sure I know what you’re thinking, and it’s probably something along the lines of, “Really? Bird Box? The overrated Netflix movie that’s planting ideas in the minds of naive teenagers to drive blindfolded?” Please forget everything you’ve heard and seen about the “Bird Box challenge” and the flat, underwhelming movie retelling of this story that fell short of every reader’s expectations. Let’s be honest with ourselves — those of us who watched it probably just wanted to see Miss Congeniality putting her survival skills to the test, and the rest of us watched it because of all the memes. From here, I only request that you abandon your knowledge of the Netflix portrayal.
Bird Box is a masterfully written story of a woman, Malorie, who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and alone amid an apocalyptic event; mysterious creatures plague the earth, but nobody knows what they are, and nobody can look at them without losing their sanity and committing suicide. Not seeing an alternative after her sister’s death, Malorie flees to a safe house mentioned in the recent paper. There, the remnants of society who have successfully avoided seeing these mysterious creatures have hunkered down together. These polar-opposite strangers have different ideas of how to handle the situation and are forced to dwell in close quarters. As controversial ideologies of humanity emerge among the group and the challenge of staying indoors begins to take a mental, emotional, and physical toll on survivors, they must cope with their trying new circumstances, make sacrifices for the good of the house and the human race, learn what they can about the creatures, and decide who can be trusted in this new world.
However, what makes this book so riveting isn’t the plot. While intriguing, the plot merely exists to guide the reader through a journey of psychological horrors and arousing sensory experiences. While many authors depend heavily on imagery, author Josh Malerman forces the reader to forfeit their sense of sight alongside the blindfolded characters and rely merely on descriptive smells, textures, and sounds. While the characters never encounter the creatures face to face, their presence is indicated by the mere smell of rotting flesh. The smell of urine and sweat indicate the hopelessness that resonates in the house. A tortured, snarling scream and bones snapping through skin followed by resounding silence are the precursor sounds to the certain death of loved ones. Malerman even trains the reader to fear the chirping of birds as they alert the household to approaching entities.
While Malerman suggests that the creatures are real and that many of the sounds suspected to be caused by these monsters are legitimate, many of the sounds heard by the characters are false alarms — intentional deceptions used to show that the image itself can be the biggest instigator of fear. He does an incredible job at showing how the unknown and the unseen can be infinitely more terrifying than anything described with words or images. The horror is all left to the imagination, and the questions of “why?” and “what if…” are left open-ended and looming over your head for you to answer yourself, making you a partial author of your own version of the story. Why are these creatures here? Do they mean to harm the human race? What if people found an indirect way to look at them? Does the human mind have a ceiling, and if so, is this finite comprehension the downfall that leads us to madness and suicide? You decide.
At one point, Malerman even allows you to step out into the world and experience these sensory horrors firsthand with two of the characters as they scavenge the desolate suburbs for supplies. In their shoes, you discover the bone-chilling aftermath of death and destruction only through the characters’ sense of touch. The characters break into empty homes blindfolded and stumble across the corpses of not only those affected by the creatures but also those affected by starvation and abandonment. These vivid images tell an entire story of their own.
On top of all this, Malerman poses a compelling question of morality around Malorie’s baby as she contemplates the horror of bringing a child into a fallen world. Is it ethical to raise a baby into the world to live a life not worth living? Is a life without sight even a life at all? Or would it be different never having known sight in the first place? This book explores many philosophical questions of freedom and morality that encourage introspection and cause deep contemplation.
What’s more to me is that many thrillers are dark and lack likable characters. I loved that Malorie was written as such a strong and resilient female protagonist. She was a fierce survivor with a strong moral compass and undying will that’s hard not to love, despite her internal conflict surrounding her child’s upbringing.
This is the first thriller book that has ever given me visceral and physiological reactions. My heart raced. My skin crawled. My arm hairs stood on end. And this was all accomplished in less than 300 pages; though short and sweet, it thrilled me more than pretentiously long books of the same type. This book lit the fire under me to start reading again and rekindled my love of books, especially thrillers.
Runner-Up: A New Favorite Short Story Collection
I first heard of Tracy Fahey’s The Unheimlich Manoeuvre in a review by Jim Mcleod, the head of the Ginger Nuts of Horror site. Tracy’s book was in his list of top horror books read in 2018. I am a HUGE fan of short story collections, and the review alluded that this book contained the type of darkness I like most.
I’m so glad I picked this one up. The book is a perfect mix of ghost stories, revenge stories and stories about loss. Subject matter aside, I love Tracy’s writing style. Something about her tone just resonates with me. Even though the tales are dark and creepy, I still felt a little cozy while reading them because she writes like I think in my head. All stories are well-paced with just enough details to show the scene but not enough to clutter a page. And even though the stories are short, all main characters are well-developed and are easily relatable for the reader.
Per my usual, I’ll summarize the stories without giving too much away. If you like dark stories, I highly recommend at least reading my favorites: Something Nasty in the Woodshed, Papering Over the Cracks, and I Look Like You. I Speak Like You. I Walk Like You.
Coming Back – This story follows a woman as she awakens from a coma and doesn’t remember her past. Can you imagine how disorienting it would be try and make a future without having a past to bank upon? Although on some days, that actually sounds really enticing to me. A very clever story.
Ghost Estate, Phase II – After a traumatic experience, someone is offered a remote place to stay awhile to clear their head. There are two “phases” to the estate – Phase I which is finished and populated, and Phase II which is boarded off and under construction. At first, the Phase II portion seems like a nice place to sneak into for relaxing even further away from people, but things aren’t always what they seem. This story was nice and creepy but didn’t stand out for me like some of the others.
Walking the Borderlines – Lately, I’ve been really into ghosts and ghosts stories, and this story follows two people who have an ability to see and hear people from “the other side.” I don’t want to divulge too much, but I finished the story with a longing to have that ability as well (think of all we could learn from the past!). I wish the story would have had more occurrences with the paranormal, but that may just be me.
- Long Shadows – In a therapy session, Sophie recounts upsetting dreams that haunt her every night. The dreams are pretty creepy, and the ending is terrific.
- The Woman Next Door – Laura is a new mom feeling overwhelmed by the endless responsibilities that came with the new baby. She becomes obsessed with the woman next door, whom she thinks is perfect and beautiful, and finds herself watching her neighbor constantly. Life is not always what it seems, though.
- Tracing the Spectre – A group of people working on a collaborative paranormal investigative project decide to camp out in a haunted castle in Ireland. This turned out to be a perfect little ghost story.
- Papering Over the Cracks – Donna and Mark are a young couple who bought the perfect old Georgian house which belonged to Donna’s late great aunt. While remodeling an attic room, they find a mysterious image underneath the wallpaper. The ending for this one took me by surprise and was sad. I love sad endings.
- Two Faced – This is a clever story about a strained marriage told first in the wife’s point of view, then in the husband’s. This story is not scary but interesting just the same. Makes me wonder how many marriages are really like this.
- Something Nasty in the Woodshed – After reading the title, I tried to predict what was in the woodshed – I was wrong. It was a brilliant story with an ethical dilemma that reads like a great horror movie.
- Sealed – The main character in this story is what I would call agoraphobic. The thought of venturing outside terrifies her. Not a scary story, but it is heartbreaking and it was interesting to me to see life through the eyes of someone with agoraphobia.
- A Lovely Place to Live – A young woman moves into a new community where the residents are very invested in keeping up appearances, and in alarming ways. I love how Tracy made me feel suffocated within the neighborhood, and I don’t even live there!
- I Look Like You. I Speak Like You. I Walk Like You. – I like stories that make me angry because I’m likely to remember them for a long while. Stella lives with an abusive man, which is enough to make me angry, but then there’s more…very moving.
- Looking for Wildgoose Lodge – In this story, the main character recounts the story of a horrific massacre as told by her grandmother. After her grandmother passed away, she decides to search for the place where everything happened. A very touching story, especially for anyone missing a loved one. I’d never heard of the Massacre of Wildgoose Lodge, so I asked Tracy about it and learned it was an actual event (and she has conducted a lot of research about it).
After reading the book, Tracy was gracious enough to chat with me about this collection. One of the things she said stuck with me the most: “With each story I tried to capture a moment when the world pivots and twists, and what was sweet and familiar becomes strange and terrible.” Mission accomplished.
The Unheimlich Manoeuvre is one of my favorite short story collections. While not all of the stories are ones I’d reread, every story is very well crafted. This is a must-read for fans of dark stories.
Runner-Up: “The Reader by Traci Chee”
The Reader by Traci Chee is a YA fantasy, set in the world of Kelanna where everyone is illiterate save a select and secret few. When Sefia’s guardian, Nin, is ripped away from her, Sefia is left with only herself and an odd rectangular object. Slowly, she remembers what her mother taught her and realizes that the object is a book. As she wanders, teaching herself to read and write, Sefia wonders about the Book and why it has the same symbol on it as on the people who took Nin. One day, Sefia saves a scarred boy who may just be the subject of a terrible prophecy. The boy, Archer, joins her in her quest to find Nin and learn more about the organization that took her. Along the way they join the crew of Captain Reed, the most legendary pirate captain alive, and discover the sinister plot the organization has for all of Kelanna.
The Reader is a wonderful ode to reading. It explores what it means to be a reader while being set in a fantastical world ripped straight from the pages of the YA novel it is. At times, this book is extremely meta, discussing the act of reading itself and having the reader read parts of the Book as Sefia reads it. It has secret messages hidden throughout in the decorations on the pages because “you ought to read deeply.” You don’t have to decode these hidden messages on the first time around, but they make the reader an active participant throughout the events of the novel. This book is full of twists and turns with interesting characters in all of the storylines. If you love reading, then this is definitely one for you.