I encountered a great deal of online praise for this series, so that when I had the opportunity to watch it I jumped in eagerly, and with no expectations of any kind, since I knew very little about it. What I found is a small jewel of a story, one that ensnared me completely and led to a quick, compulsive watch.
The story and background have something of a nostalgic feel, thanks to the opening titles that are a clear call-back to the ‘80s – the time period in which the events are set – and to the soundtrack through which we revisit a few hits from those years. Moreover, there is a definite Stephen King vibe to the plot itself, a faint reminiscence of “IT” and “Firestarter”, with some “Carrie” overtones thrown in: which does not mean that the story is derivative, not at all, but rather that it wants to pay homage to the undiscussed master of the genre. And this is just one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.
In the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, young Will Byers disappears without a trace while returning home after a day spent with his friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas. Local police start the search for the boy, but it’s clear that they are not putting all their hearts and energies into it, so that his three friends decide to start looking on their own. Meanwhile, a frightened girl with weird powers manages to escape from a nearby secret government installation and connects with the three friends, who believe she might be able to help them find Will. Something else escaped from the secret facility, however, some formless creature from an alternate dimension, and the missing people’s count starts to go up…
The undeniable truth that characters are everything comes to the fore here in Stranger Things, because each and every one of them gets the chance to shine and to add his or her own contribution to a very satisfying whole: to my surprise, the young kids were the ones who worked best in the economy of the story. From my point of view, television rarely fares well with younger characters, either making them too “old” and adult for their age, or excessively playing on the cuteness factor; here, though, kids are kids, and in a delightful, naïve way that portrays them with accuracy, showing at the same time a richness of imagination that’s typical of that age and that is able to navigate the thin border between reality and fantasy with ease and profound belief.
When we first see them, before Will’s disappearance, they are playing at some board game, dealing with dangerous traps and terrifying fictional monsters with gleeful abandon. Once their friend vanishes and the mysterious Eleven literally lands on their doorstep, they are ready to acknowledge her weird powers with the same easy acceptance of gamers who are being offered a special card to play. This does not mean they walk into danger blindfolded, on the contrary their game-playing seems to have prepared them, both mentally and on a practical level, to face the hazards from unbelievable monsters, and uncomprehending adults, with enviable clarity.
Among the adults, the best performance comes from Joyce, Will’s mother, portrayed by Winona Ryder: the distraught desperation of a mother, ready to believe the unbelievable for the sake of her son, is depicted with amazing craft, never going over the top despite the truly crazy paths she chooses to travel. Close second comes Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour), a man marked by a tragic past and walking the very thin line between duty and the need to do the right thing.
Stranger Things, before the tale of weird horror it is on the surface, is above all a tale about marginalized people having to face extraordinary events: Will and his friends are smaller kids, not exactly geared for physicality, and therefore the butt of cruel jokes and constant hazing from the school bullies; Joyce is a single mother, struggling to make ends meet and therefore looked on with suspicion by the closed society of a small town; Sheriff Hopper has a history of drinking as a coping mechanism against his loss, and does not enjoy the full respect of his deputies – the two best (or rather worst) examples of small-minded members of an inward-facing community. And finally Eleven, a child who was taken from her mother at birth because of her peculiar powers, raised and trained by Doctor Brenner (a very disturbing Matthew Modine) with a cold, practical efficiency that to me represents the true horror of the story, even beyond that of the blood-thirsty monster from the parallel reality.
The eight episodes of the first season of Stranger Things manage to concentrate a great deal of story and character development in such a small time frame, and to make the most of that time with a judicious use of pacing and the levels of tension. While the main events do reach a sort of conclusion, the door is left open for further developments – either in the same setting or a different one – and not all mysteries are solved: a choice I greatly appreciated and one that will keep me on the alert for the arrival of Season Two.
TOP TEN TUESDAY is a meme created at The Broke and The Bookish, with the aim of sharing Top Ten lists of our favorites – mostly book related.
For this last week of the year, the topic is: Top Ten Best Books of 2016
When the time comes to draw up a list like this, I find myself faced with some hard choices, because most of the books I’ve reviewed – and for 2016 they amount to a round 60, which is something of a record for me, given the limited time I can devote to reading – are books I liked quite a bit.
I spoke of reviewed books, rather than simply read, because some of the titles I picked up ended in the DNF pile, and of these I reviewed only a few – those for which I felt a very strong need to share the reasons I didn’t like them, although I managed to soldier on past the 25% mark that for me is the “make or break” point. Which means there are a few more that didn’t even make the list because I could not connect with either story or characters and moved on quite swiftly.
So, of these 60 books, only 3 were abandoned before the end, and I had to pick my favorite 10 out of the remaining 57: as I said, not an easy feat, and that’s the reason I’m not going to list my ten favorite titles in any particular order of preference, but rather in the order I read them. It’s the most Solomonic solution I could come up with…
THE FIFTH HOUSE OF THE HEART, by Ben Tripp
ILLUMINAE, by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff
DREAMER’S POOL, by Juliet Marillier
MORNING STAR, by Pierce Brown
THE LESSER DEAD, by Christopher Buehlman
DARK ASCENSIONS, by M.L. Brennan
THE DRAGON’S PATH, by Daniel Abraham
HOUSE OF SUNS, by Alastair Reynolds
BABYLON’S ASHES, by James S.A. Corey (forthcoming review)
Ok, the count really goes to 11 titles, but I can bend the rules a little if I consider that the books in the October Daye series are all parts of the same whole. Can I?
And what about you? What are your favorite reads for this year?
When a book starts as strongly as this one did, with a story that’s attention-grabbing from page one, the disappointment for its failed promises hurts twice as much: this is what happened to me with The Unnoticeables, whose narrative arc… imploded (for want of a better word) two thirds of the way in.
The story runs on two different time tracks, separated by 36 years: Carey, living in New York in 1977, is a young man reveling in the time’s punk scene, spending his days getting drunk, stoned – or both – and generally causing any kind of mayhem he can think of; Kaitlyn lives in Los Angeles, in 2013, as a part-time stuntwoman, part-time waitress trying, and so far failing, to bring her stunt work to the next level. Both of them are confronted by something that is both inexplicable and terrifying, something that possesses all the markers of a slowly spreading invasion.
The first inkling that something terrible is going on happens when Carey sees a girl he’s interested in being attacked by what looks like a man-shaped oily mass: the thing acts like acid, consuming the unfortunate girl and leaving only bloody remains behind. Moreover, in the area where Carey and his friends prowl, some peculiar individuals start cropping up: they all appear good-looking and attractive, but as soon as one’s eyes leave them, their features blur and no ones seems able to remember what they look like. Worse, whenever these people – dubbed by Carey “the Empty Ones” – manage to attract any given individual, the unfortunates disappear without a trace.
Kaitlyn, on the other hand, suffers from a more close-and-personal confrontation: at a party she meets Marco, former sitcom star and her teenage years’ crush. Accepting a ride back home from the man, she’s first appalled by his reckless driving and uncaring attitude, which make her think Marco is somewhat deranged, then he forces himself on her. More shocking than the sexual assault is its modality: Kaitlyn feels something metallic slide down her throat, and her strength and willpower being drained away. Saved by someone who bodily extracts her from Marco’s car, she makes Carey’s acquaintance: older, probably wiser but still tainted with his old recklessness, he’s living like a borderline homeless, but he has information on the Empty Ones – and is willing to help Kaitlyn trace her friend Jackie who disappeared after that fateful party.
The novel’s chapters alternate between Carey’s past and Kaitlyn’s present with a relentless pace that makes the book a compulsive read while we follow their scary journey of discovery: the two main characters are the best and strongest elements of the story, their voices persuasively true and their dialogue or thoughts evenly balanced between stark, dramatic reality and sarcastic humor. Carey comes across as the best defined one, though: the outrageous style of life he and his friends are pursuing should make them offensive, and yet there is a sort of wild abandon in Carey, tinged with the somewhat lucid awareness of what he is, that managed to endear him to me, and to make me root for him – especially when his rough attachment to his friends comes to the fore, almost belying his devil-may-care attitude.
Once Kaitlyn’s disbelief at her new friend’s revelations evaporates, the two decide to go on the offensive to try and save Jackie, and they pursue Marco’s car in a mad motorcycle dash through the congested traffic of Los Angeles. They follow him to a mansion where a party is in progress, and though realizing that the place must be crawling with Empty Ones like Marco they decide to go in: this is where the story started unraveling and making less and less sense to me. For starters, I could not figure out what the two were trying to accomplish knowing they were vastly outnumbered by people (if one wanted to call them that…) who could not be hurt, harmed or stopped in any way. And then the real madness kicked in…
What had started as a horror story about strange beings preying on unsuspecting humanity, and the slow infiltration of the Empty Ones in various facets of society (the most chilling example being Kaitlyn’s trip to the police station to denounce Marco’s assault), suddenly morphed into something best defined as crazily grotesque: the dangerous environment of the hellish party is only the front for what happens in the closed back rooms, where blood-drenched orgies lead to every kind of imaginable (and unimaginable…) sex perversion, give way to a frenzy of horrific mutilations and killings, all of which with no apparent rhyme or reason, except maybe the author’s penchant for imagining and depicting the most revolting and senseless acts of destruction.
At that point, only the desire for some sort of explanation kept me reading on, despite the appearance of even more gory weirdness in the form of a strange contraption to which the Empty Ones’ victims were being fed, all in the name of a nebulous fight against entropy. Sadly, whatever form of explanation, or clue to understanding the bloody mess this story had turned into, was not enough to save this novel from the downward plunge it had taken in my consideration. I’m not even certain I entirely grasped whatever passed for explanation: the only thing I’m sure about is that I will not pursue this series further.
Right after the great find that was “The Lesser Dead”, I wanted to read more of Christopher Buehlman’s work and settled on this shortish novel set in the era of the Great Depression. Here the main character is former WWI soldier Frank Nichols, still haunted by nightmares about his war experiences: he lost his job as a history teacher after starting an affair with the young wife of a colleague with friends in high places, so that he and Dora – who divorced her husband to follow Frank – seem to find a break in their difficult situation when Frank’s aunt leaves him a small inheritance and the deed to a house in Whitbrow, Georgia. Forsaking the aunt’s warning about selling the house and never setting foot in the place, the two decide to start a new life: Dora will teach at the local school and Frank will write a book about the cruel history of a nearby plantation, owned by one of his ancestors and the theatre of a bloody slave revolt.
Shortly after arriving in Whitbrow, though, the couple starts hearing vague warnings about never walking in the woods across the river – curiously enough, the location of the old plantation – and they are faced with a strange ritual: every two months, the village’s inhabitants release two pigs into the woods, following a tradition that seems almost festive, if it were not for the historical moment’s privations and the need to provide for more urgent needs. It goes without saying that the collective decision to bow to the time’s hardships will unleash an unstoppable chain of terrible events…
What’s fascinating in this novel is that the truly supernatural horror, whose origin is revealed a good way into the story, seems to take almost second place to a different, and more human-related kind of dread. Whitbrow is a stagnant place, not only as a result of the Great Depression (even though its mark is deeply felt), but more as the product of an age-old torpor that has taken possession of the minds and souls of its inhabitants, and that quickly ensnares Frank as well. The drive to write his novel is soon drowned in the daily visits to the local store, where he engages in endless checkers games with the patrons under the guise of gathering background information for his story, but in truth succumbing to the timeless inertia that seems to be the village’s modus vivendi.
Whitbrow’s dullness goes hand in hand with a deeply rooted distrust of strangers, of those who are different: this extends to both out-of-owners (their quick acceptance of Frank due solely to his family ties) and the truly different, like the homeless moving across the land and, of course, black people. There are a few scenes where the animosity toward these “aliens” is shown in no uncertain terms: given the recurrence of this phenomenon in our present times, the unwillingness of some to extend human consideration toward the less fortunate “outsiders”, these pages take on a far more chilling flavor than it was probably intended at the time they were written…
And then there is the closing of the villagers’ minds to anything new, to the possibility of attaining something better in one’s life: Dora’s struggle to keep the children in school when their families prefer to steer them toward field work, is one such example. There is one situation in which she and Frank go to the home of one of her most gifted pupils, in the hope of offering her more advanced schooling, and the scene that Buehlman depicts is both historically accurate and vivid, as they are met with cold indifference and mulish refusal from the girl’s father, and a sort of hopeless compliance from the daughter:
[…] looked up from the chicken she was plucking in the kitchen and peeked through the doorway, but she did not risk a hello. I guess she never knew exactly when to speak in this house, but with her daddy it was good to err in favor of silence.
After these all-too-real evils, the apparition of the true horror seems almost mundane, even though the discovery brings forth an abomination that goes back a long time, something that has always dwelled near the village – ignored and maybe conveniently forgotten. And this is where the story’s magic fell somewhat short for me: from the opening’s chilling preview to the big reveal there is an increasing sense of foreboding that unfortunately loses steam once the proverbial cat (or rather critter) is out of the bag and the carefully crafted buildup flounders in a great deal of anti-climatic exposition that does not fully realize the expectations I nurtured up to that moment.
All in all it was still a good read, but I’m sorry I cannot rate it as high as the previous book I sampled from this author, even though this slight disappointment will not prevent me from exploring further Mr. Buehlman’s work.
I’m very happy to share the news that Australian author Ashley Capes is hosting a giveaway of his novella A WHISPER OF LEAVES on Instafreebie: you will find the download link HERE. The giveaway starts today and will go on until August 25th, so hurry and grab your copy!
The story, in short:
When ESL teacher Riko finds an old journal buried in the forests beneath Mt Fuji, a malevolent, untraceable force begins to threaten her at every turn.
But is it all in her head?
The more she studies the journal for answers, the more questions she uncovers. Worse, no-one takes her fears seriously and her best lead appears to be a belligerent old man, whose only care in the world is raking leaves deep in the forest.
With her grip on reality shaken and friendships strained to breaking point, Riko has to discover the truth about the journal in order to put ghosts of the past to rest, as strange events turn deadly.
If you’re interested, here is my review of the novella, but I urge you to go and read for yourselves this very moody, very peculiar story. Enjoy!
The first time I heard about this author was through reviews of his upcoming new novel The Suicide Motor Club, so I decided to try out his previous works and settled on this one whose main theme – vampires in the very urbanized context of New York city in the late ‘70s – sounded quite promising. Well, it was more than that, a great deal more.
The vampire myth is one of the staples of horror fiction, one that underwent many permutations lately, from the humorous declination of a handful of movies to the angsty, overly romanticized version of a certain well-known saga, but for me the true vampire is the one that remains true to its first incarnation: the blood-drinking monster preying on defenseless humanity, and Christopher Buehlman’s vampires are exactly that – without frills or sparkly glamor.
The action takes place in 1978 New York and the story is told from the point of view of Joey Peacock, who was turned into a vampire in 1933 at the age of fourteen: 45 years later he’s living (if you can use that term with the undead, of course) with a community of his brethren in the abandoned tunnels of New York’s subway system. The group is led by Margaret, formerly a maid in Joey’s household, and she rules them with the iron fist of a queen of old: one of the most fascinating sides of this novel comes exactly from the dynamics of this vampire community and the different personalities of its members, who have somehow retained the characteristics of their lost humanity, integrating them into the changed necessities of their state as vampires.
For example, Joey – despite his decades as a blood predator – still remains the pampered, selfish teenager he was at the time he was turned, and the author’s skill in characterization shines through in the balance he achieves between the wise cunning of the vampire he is and the petty yearnings of the youth he was. There is a scene that drives home this duality and that stayed with me for some time, due to its chilling quality: Buehlman’s vampires have no need to physically subdue their victims, since they can exert some form of hypnosis that renders them docile and accepting, and that’s exactly what Joey does with a whole family, sitting with them in front of the TV, watching some mindless, mind-numbing show, as he feeds from each of them in turn as if from a box of snacks.
There is nothing romantic in these vampires, not in the way they cater to their own needs, nor in the way they live: despite the attempts at decorating their subterranean lairs, still the life they lead closely resembles that of the homeless with whom they share the tunnels. Darkness, dirt and decay are their constant companions, with no concession to glamor whatsoever – except the one they wear to move undisturbed and unnoticed through an oblivious humanity, made even more oblivious by the “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” attitude of the times. This lack of any exotic overtone to Buehlman’s vampires is compounded by the creeping awareness that the undead are not immune from decline, that eternity is tainted by isolation, melancholy or peculiar forms of madness that are as dangerous as their human counterparts, as it happens with Night Fever:
You might guess it’s kinda like cabin fever, and, yeah, that’s close. Night fever is what happens when a vampire can’t take being in the dark anymore. […] It’s a disease of the soul.
The status quo is broken when Joey’s community becomes aware of a group of vampire children who not only prey on humans without the discretion necessary to keep their existence concealed, but also engage in gruesome rituals before killing their victims. Margaret and Co. are compelled to intervene, not out of a sense of compassion toward the murdered humans, but rather because of the threat of discovery, while Joey and his friend Cvetko – and older, scholarly-inclined vampire – also feel a need to protect these children, whose former innocence still seems to flash through their animalistic behavior. And this will lead them on an unexpected path…
What I most enjoyed in this book is the way any expectations I had were twisted beyond recognition, starting with Joey himself: he warns the readers up front that he’s a deceiver, someone who cannot be trusted:
You will be burdened with an unreliable narrator who will disappoint and repel you at every turn.
Still with me?
Too bad for you.
I can’t wait to break your heart.
Despite the warning – or because of it? – the atmosphere drew me in and kept me spellbound until the very last page: part of it is due to Joey’s peculiar narrative style, more like a stream-of-consciousness report than a coherent tale, and part is due to the strong feeling of impending disaster that permeates the air, of looming danger that has no form or substance and yet is there, just out of the corner of one’s eye, unavoidable and at the same time utterly fascinating.
Buehlman dares his readers to go on, to see what’s around the next dark corner, while at the same time he warns them that things are not what they seem, but just like his vampires, once we have opened the book, once we have invited him in, there is not way we can escape the spell. Even when the story seems to have reached its end, before the last chapter named “Coda”, he warns us about proceeding no further, but by that time he has ensnared us so deeply that there is no other way than forward, and on to a shattering surprise.
Well done, viciously well done…
If the police are there to protect citizens from your run-of-the-mill bad guys, what happens when these bad guys are supernatural creatures? No need to invoke the famous Ghostbusters, because SPI exists precisely for this reason. Supernatural Protection and Investigations works to safeguard humans from scary creatures like vampires or ghouls or whatever, and to keep their existence as secret as possible. Makenna “Mac” Fraser has been enrolled by SPI for her rare gift: she is a Seer, someone who can see through any disguise or spell cast by supernaturals to cover their non-human appearance.
Unlike other Urban Fantasy heroines, Mac is not a brooding, ass-kicking lady or someone with a dark, terrible past she’s trying to forget: she’s a rather ordinary person, holding a job as a tabloid reporter investigating the kind of fake monster sightings that the trashy press most enjoys, only to be contacted by SPI because of her peculiar characteristic. She has the quite uncommon ability to see the real monsters under the human mask they wear. She is also quite unprepared for the dangers SPI agents have to face each day and is quite straightforward about it, studiously avoiding to rush in where angels (or better trained operatives) fear to tread. That was the first quality I appreciated in this character, the willingness to admit her own shortcomings and the reluctance to face unknown dangers, even though these are part of her job description: too often in this genre the spunky protagonist finds herself well in over her head and regularly needs saving, while Mac knows her limits and also knows when to take a step back and let her more experienced co-workers take over, with no qualms or inferiority complex whatsoever.
And what interesting co-workers she has! Starting with her partner Ian, a former cop who at first does not look too happy to babysit a rookie, but who quickly changes attitude once he understands that Mac does not intend to be just excess baggage but wants to be trained – as much as her own limits allow – so she can be an effective operative the others can depend on. There are a few dark corners to Ian, some of which we uncover in the course of the story, and he comes across as a decent guy – again avoiding the cliché of the skilled agent looking down on the newbie and putting her through hell just for the sake of it. I also like the partnership and friendship vibes coming off Ian and Mac that might in future evolve into something deeper, but don’t seem in a hurry to do so – another overused trope happily avoided.
Then there are people like Yasha, the Russian werewolf, or Kenji, the computer-savvy Elf, or again Alain Moreau, SPI’s resident lawyer who’s also a vampire (there’s some not-so-understated subtext here, I’m certain…). But the most impressive of them all is Vivienne Sagadraco, the director who, as her name suggests is indeed a dragon. A dragon lady in every sense of the word, to be precise. This diverse and interesting cast animates a quickly developing and fast-paced story that mixes adventure and humor in a successful way, while continuing to raise the stakes until the very end: the kind of book that keeps you glued to its pages and at the same time makes you smile – and sometimes laugh out loud, mostly through Mac’s self-effacing jokes like this one:
There were entirely too many grave markers lurking just below the snow’s surface on that hillside, and my feet were doing a fine job of finding every last one of them. I’d made two face-down snow angels and one outright sprawl.
The story itself focuses on a complex plot to make the world aware of the truth about supernaturals in a most dramatic way, by unleashing the titular Grendels on an unsuspecting crowd on New Year’s Eve: from what we learn, the mythical creature vanquished by Beowulf does indeed exist and is even more dangerous (and prolific!) than its literary ancestor – the scenes concerning the hatching of the Grendel’s eggs make for some of the most terrifying and claustrophobic reading I can remember – and SPI finds its resources taxed to the maximum to contain and eliminate the threat. If you enjoy breathless monster hunts through abandoned subway tunnels or multi-layered plotlines that finally converge into an explosive climax, with the added bonus of a crew of battle-hungry Scandinavian agents who enjoy a good, gory fight just as much as their Viking forebears did, this is indeed the book for you.