Book Review: “Closer Than You Think” by Lee Maguire

41053893Dr. Bryce Davidson is a well-respected psychologist who is struggling through a divorce. When a new patient shows up in the hospital he is working at, things take a sinister turn as he begins to receive threatening messages and “gifts” from an unknown stalker.

Closer Than You Think (A Broken Minds Thriller) is the debut novel from author Lee Maguire.

Closer is a tense thriller that weaves an interesting narrative from start to finish. Since it is written in first-person POV, we’re along for the ride with Dr. Davidson as he tries to unravel the mystery of his threatening and enigmatic stalker. He’s a sensitive and likable guy, but not without faults. As tension rises, his paranoia and anxiety begin to take their toll. Even a nightly stroll with Max, his beloved basset hound, becomes an exercise in fear.

Maguire does a great job of keeping the reader guessing. As the story progressed, I was pulled into Dr. Davidson’s thoughts. While he checked potential suspects “off the list”, it became harder and harder to determine what was reality, or some sort of paranoid delusion. The added cast of characters including his co-workers and creepy apartment groundskeeper are well fleshed out, and make for a believable mystery for Bryce to weave his way through.

I also need to comment on the accurate use of psychology and healthcare terms. Maguire’s own experience in the field and research really shined through in the prose.

While Closer Than You Think leads to a satisfying conclusion (no spoilers!) I have to say there were a few parts where the story dragged a bit. I also caught a few more grammar and spelling errors than I would have liked, but nothing so egregious that I was pulled out of the story.

Overall I can recommend Closer Than You Think as a strong debut offering, to anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers or the cat-and-mouse tension of a tale involving stalkers.

What I Liked:

  • Likable and engaging protagonist.
  • Complex, but follow-able, plot
  • Good use of tension, paranoia

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Story dragged a bit in places
  • Book could have used another line-editing pass

 

Note: A review copy of Closer Than You Think was generously provided by TCK Publishing in exchange for an honest review. Check them out on Facebook and Twitter

 

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Book of The Year 2018

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Holy cow, how did I almost forget to hand out my Book of The Year award?

Last year went to John Langan’s incredible folk-horror tale, The Fisherman.

Let’s all hope Netflix turns it into a movie like they did with Malerman’s excellent Bird Box

OK, so onto this year’s book. It’s a doozy with one hell of a long title.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

(Yeah, I totally cut & pasted that)

This book. Oh this book.

So it’s technically a re-issue, but holy cow. This (set of two) books garnered me not just a Book of The Year, but also a personal “Favorite New Horror Author” award. It’s that good.

Ligotti’s work is just mind-bending. It’s also literary AF. So unlike The Fisherman and Bird Box I can totally recommend this to people who don’t traditionally like horror. Just don’t expect an easy read. It’s anything but.

As I said in my review earlier this year, this book is a straight-up challenge to get through. It takes time, focus, and lots of re-reading individual passages to unwrap the horrifying packaging of this guy’s ideas. The prose is also flat out beautiful, and makes me envious when I look at it.

Grab yourself a copy and you won’t be disappointed. I’m very excited to have received Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against The Human Race for Christmas, which supposedly inspired a lot of those crazy Matthew McConaughey rants as Rust Cohle in the excellent season 1 of True Detective.

Good times all around.

What was your book of the year? Let everyone know down in the comments. I need to start making my “To Read” list for 2019!

 

Book Review: “Kind Nepenthe” by Matthew V. Brockmeyer

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I haven’t picked up a thriller in a while.

I snagged a copy of Kind Nepenthe after checking out some reviews and having a quick back-and-forth with author Matthew V. Brockmeyer on Twitter. I was interested in the idea of a supernatural horror story that is based in part on true events.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Kind Nepenthe follows the story of Rebecca, a California post-hippy, who lives in a remote Northern California mountain town along with her daughter Megan and boyfriend Calendula. The three of them are roped into running a marijuana growing operation “off the grid” for an unscrupulous drug dealer named Coyote. This particular area is named “Homicide Hill” which is a not-so-subtle reference to some terrible events in its checkered past.

On another part of the mountain, a meth dealer named “Diesel Dan” is trying to straighten his life out while expecting his first grandchild. Circumstances involving his son DJ, and DJ’s girlfriend Katie, make this more difficult than he’d like though.

Throughout the story, there are strands of the supernatural at play. Brockmeyer teases visions and interactions with ghosts, so the characters aren’t sure if the place is haunted or whether they are going crazy from isolation and drugs.

Kind Nepenthe is a slow burn. It’s plot unfolds at a very leisurely pace, and gives you a large amount of backstory for almost the entire cast. While this is great for character development and realism, I can see some readers being put off by the lack of consistent action. The real meat of the conflict is in the third act, but it takes a while to get there. Plus, the first two acts imply a major conflict between the two casts of characters, which ultimately never happens, as the ending veers off into a different and unexpected direction.

Kind Nepenthe is well written tale of horror and suspense, with a very interesting setting. If you enjoyed The Shining or Mr. Splitfoot then you should probably check it out.

What I Liked:

  • Strong character development
  • Interesting setting and backdrop
  • Some well-placed literary horror references

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Pacing could have been better
  • No major conflict between the main characters seemed like a missed opportunity
  • The ending is very quick and relies on Epilogue

Book Review: “Popsickle Heart” by J. Peter W.

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Popsickle Heart is bizarro fiction.

If you’re not familiar with the genre, here is Wikipedia’s definition. It’s important to grasp what bizarro is to give you a frame of reference for this review.

I’ve read numerous bizarro books and stories, and some of my own work has even been classified as “bizarro” by editors. I had seen some buzz about Popsickle Heart on Twitter and decided to check it out. While not without problems, I enjoyed the book.

Like most bizarro books, I’d classify Popsickle Heart as a novella. It’s brief and can be finished in one or two sittings. I enjoy novellas because they tend to strip away a lot of the extra fluff and get right to the point, which is especially important when you’re dealing with strange subject matter. So if you dig short reads, that is already a bonus.

Popsickle Heart is a story about Edgar the clown. He meets a girl, The Wheelchair Spot, and immediately falls for her. When he finds out she has lost her heart, Edgar undertakes a quest to retrieve it. Weirdness ensues.

The surreal suburban/carnival fantasy that J. Peter W. lays out is wonderful. Edgar drives a crappy old ice cream truck, with perpetually peeling paint, around a town full of skinless and eyeless people. Children torment him, demanding ice cream from a van with empty freezers. His home has been assaulted by some kind of weird ooze and a bunch of cigarette smoking toughs that have been hired to box up and move all his belongings with seemingly no explanation. Even his candy peg-legged neighbor Rod doesn’t know anything about it.

Along for this insane ride is Edgar’s sock puppet, Lumbee. Easily my favorite part of the book, Lumbee is a brilliant character. He is angry, brash, and well personified. The dialogue between Edgar and Lumbee is great, and you often forget it is a crazy clown talking to himself…or is it?

Edgar and Lumbee find themselves transported into a parallel dimension of sorts, the Carn-Evil, where cardboard clown cut outs and statue people wage war against each other over cupcake eyeballs. Yes, you just read that correctly.

He meets a mysterious Pink Woman who will lead him further into this realm of strangeness, and ultimately to what he seeks.

I don’t want to go into more plot detail as it would spoil what is a fairly short book, so lets talk a little bit about mechanics.

J. Peter W. does a solid job with characterization in just a few pages. Edgar, Lumbee, and Rod are standouts that probably get the most detail. Some of the other characters a a bit flat, literally and figuratively. His prose is great, and often poetic in some free-flowing sentences. However, I had one major gripe. He repeatedly ended a number of paragraphs with similes and metaphors. Some of the worked, while others were just way too strange and nonsensical, and seemed “weird for the sake of weird” which pulled me out of the story.

I will recommend Popsickle Heart to anyone who enjoys bizarro fiction, or absurdist/surrealist works. It is a quick and fun read, and the relationship between Edgar and Lumbee elevate it beyond its flaws.

What I Liked:

  •  The strange plot, juxtaposing banal suburbs with an insane carnival
  • The existential horror of eyeless children demanding ice cream
  • Lumbee

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Repeated similes and metaphors that fell flat
  • Some characters needed to be fleshed out just a little more
  • The book could have been about 20 pages longer and explored more of the Carn-Evil

Book Review: “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson

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A great book about vampires.

A terrible source for film adaptations.

I recently finished I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. This perennial horror favorite has been on my “to read” list forever. Now that I’ve finally gotten around to it, it ruined one of my favorite Charlton Heston movies.

I Am Legend tells the story of Robert Neville. A California man who is the lone survivor of an apocalyptic extinction event. A terrible plague swept mankind, killing nearly everyone, and turning any survivors into sub-human vampires thirsty for blood.

Neville spends his days searching for basic necessities and repairing damage to his home which is regularly assaulted by mobs of vampires every night.

It’s a short book, and the plot is very straightforward, but deeply poignant in comparison to most scifi/horror. So rather than give anything away, I’ll tell you a few reasons why it is far better than any of the three films that are based on it.

The Last Man on Earth (1964): Vincent Price plays “Robert Morgan”, and while the plot is pretty accurate to the book, the movie is clumsily executed and just not scary. I Am Legend does an excellent job of contrasting Robert Neville’s alcohol-fueled loneliness and tedium with points of action and sheer terror when he faces mobs of the undead. This movie fails on that major point.

The Omega Man (1971): Charlton Heston is a much more ass-kicking and brash Robert Neville. This Neville is a military scientist, and up against “The Family” who are a cult of nocturnal mutants that resent him as the only unharmed survivor of a biological war. The Omega Man gets a lot of the socio-political themes of the book right, and makes the antagonists a reasoning threat with a named leader. Where it falls apart is by adding a bunch of other survivors and losing the themes of madness and isolation too early. This all leads to a “Hollywood” ending that is unsatisfying.

I Am Legend (2007): Ugh. Where to begin. First, it’s in New York, not California. Second, Neville is a genius military scientist, AND indirectly responsible for the plague. In the book, Neville is a factory worker who is an “every man”. He learns by spending time at the local library. The vampires in this are also dumb animals, with no higher reasoning. This totally negates most of the social and existential themes of the book, reducing the story to be about the guilty redemption quest of the protagonist.

Long story short, read I Am Legend. It’s a phenomenal book. Well-written, and way ahead of its time. No wonder so many future works of horror and science fiction tip their hat to it.

What I Liked

  • Creative plot, excellent twist
  • Tight, pragmatic prose. Not too bland, but nothing flowery
  • An every man protagonist you could get behind, even if he was a drunk

What I Didn’t Like

  • A little too short. I wanted to see more of the barren world
  • The subplot with the main villain didn’t end how I’d hoped
  • That I now realize it has never had an adequate movie adaptation