Secret Graces by Kathryn Magendie

Virginia Kate Carey is home in her mountains, going through the letters and memories of her past. Her mother, Katie Ivene, left a legacy of broken lives behind her, and Virginia Kate seeks to put the pieces together in this second volume of the Graces Saga.

In Secret Graces, Virginia Kate remembers her youth, her first love, her first marriage, and the promises she made and broke. As a young woman, she swears she won’t make the mistakes of her womenkin, but she can never hush the voices of her past. Her mother and grandmother are in her blood, and her grandmother’s voice whispers through the wind and trees with premonitions and warnings.

Whereas Tender Graces moved with the magical rhythm of a child’s perception, Secret Graces carries a more somber tone. Magendie leads you into the Louisiana nights where love thunders on a storm like the power of a young woman, who is testing the limits of her strength. And in the end, we see the person Virginia Kate has become, a woman of uncommon depth, who knows her needs and is secure in her power over men.

Magendie’s prose is sensual and she illustrates the life-course of a child of an alcoholic with unerring aim. Like Tender Graces, Magendie doesn’t pull her punches; she shows you the mother/daughter relationship in all its ugly glory. Yet even in the moments of the deepest heartache, Magendie never lets you lose hope.

A powerful writer and one to watch is North Carolina’s Kathryn Magendie. She is the storyteller of our lives . . .

My rating:

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Inured to the writerly tricks of most horror novels, it’s rare the Dragon finds a tale so creepy that she jumps at noises in the night. With The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters delivers just such a story.

Dr. Faraday’s mother was once a maid to the Ayres family, and even as a child, Dr. Faraday had loved the Ayres’ family home, Hundreds Hall. In its day, it was a grand manse, but the Ayres family and Hundreds Hall have fallen onto hard times.

Post World War II society is changing, and the old families no longer command the respect or money they once did. Hundreds Hall reflects the decline of the Ayres family with its weed choked yard and crumbling plaster. Mrs. Ayres, her son Roderick, and her daughter Caroline, try to keep the deteriorating estate from falling into collapse, but money and circumstances are against them. Dr. Faraday is called to assist them one day and finds his life slowly intertwined with the fate of Hundreds Hall and its haunted residents.

Waters moves through her story with a languid  pace that is deceiving. While the reader may think nothing of import has transpired, Waters brings every event into sequence, laying the path for an ending that is as surprising as it is haunting.

Waters uses the power of language to evoke one creepy moment after another, building the tension toward a climax that is both astounding and perfectly fulfilling. If you enjoy your novels layered with complexity without cheap tricks, you’ll love The Little Stranger.

Just leave the lights on when you put it down for the night . . .

My rating:

Quarantined by Joe McKinney

Quarantined If you enjoy dystopian novels, Quarantined is for you. Joe McKinney’s gritty prose brings San Antonio to life, or death, as the case may be. A new strain of the bird flu has mutated into the virus H2N2 and is killing San Antonio’s population by the thousands in a modern-day plague. While the World Health Organization (WHO) races to find a vaccine, the Federal Government seals San Antonio behind a wall patrolled by military personnel, who have orders to shoot potential escapees on sight.

Quarantined is about what goes on behind the wall when a WHO doctor is murdered, and San Antonio homicide detective Lily Harris tries to solve the case in an increasingly hostile environment. Between bureaucratic red tape and shrinking food drops, societal norms are breaking down and the black market burgeons.

Harris finds comfort in the presence of her family and steadfast partner. Yet she stands to lose both family and partner if they can’t find their way out of the city and tell the world about an even greater threat to humanity.

McKinney writes with a cutting edge, and he makes his future San Antonio so real, it could be happening today. The true horror of Quarantined is in McKinney’s ability to construct a plausible scenario for the H2N2 virus and the government’s response.

McKinney’s experience as a homicide detective gives Quarantined real bite as he guides the reader through departmental politics, both within WHO and the local police department. He manages to deliver a mystery with a dark bite, and also writes a believable female character with Lily Harris.

McKinney doesn’t have Harris shake off her cop persona and turn into Martha Stewart when she’s with her family. Her tension rides like a demon on her back, and though she loves her family desperately, she’s not always able to prevent herself from hurting them. She’s a woman torn between her duty as an officer to uphold the law and her need to protect her family, even if it means breaking the law.

Good conflict, a tight mystery, and a dark setting make Quarantined a summer read guaranteed to give you a chill.

My rating:

The River Kings’ Road: A Novel of Ithelas by Liane Merciel

rkr_cover Epic fantasy requires a writer to juggle complex plots where characterization often gets lost beneath politics and world-building. It’s rare to find a writer who can deliver intrigue, an exciting world, and well-rounded characters, but Liane Merciel succeeds beautifully with The River Kings’ Road.

Odosse is a young woman with only one wish: to make a good life for her infant son Aubry. Unfortunately, Odosse has neither husband, nor money, nor beauty to ease her way in life. When an Oakharne lord’s son is orphaned, Odosse is thrust into a conflict between the warring kingdoms of Oakharne and Langmyr, all for the sake of an infant not her own.

Merciel skillfully draws the reader into a dark story full of treachery and builds her world of Ithelas with care. In Ithelas, evil walks in the form of maimed witches known as Thorns. The Thorns’ powers can be bought for a price, and one act of violence purchased by Leferic, an Oakharne lord’s youngest son, sets off a chain reaction that soon spins out of his control.

The beauty of The River Kings’ Road rests with Merciel’s skillful portrayal of her characters and their motivations. Each action leads to a reaction so that the characters become intertwined in one another’s survival. Merciel guides the reader through her plot twists with enough sword and sorcery to satisfy the most hardened fan, but she also uses a dark edge that I’m glad to see returning to fantasy.

Merciel doesn’t rely on shock value for her horror. The Thorns’ zombies are unique and well done, and I found the plight of one of Leferic’s henchmen, Albric, to be particularly disturbing. Merciel probes the psyche and shows the reader how easy it is to fall into death and dishonor with one wrong choice.

My rating:

Writers Workshop of Horror edited by Michael Knost

Writers workshop of horror So you want to be a horror writer . . .

Then you must first understand the genre and learn techniques from masters of the craft. The Writers Workshop of Horror places the expertise of some of horror’s finest authors at your fingertips, and Michael Knost has organized an informative collection of essays and interviews about the craft of writing tales of dread.

The Writers Workshop begins with Elizabeth Massie’s excellent piece on “Creating Effective Beginnings” and follows the process of crafting a short story or novel through Brian Yount’s “Ten Submission Flaws That Drive Editors Nuts.”

The essays aren’t dull, because each of the authors imbues his or her own special stamp on subjects ranging from voice to editing. Jeff Strand’s essay on “Adding Humor to Your Horror” was crafted with Strand’s wit, and I found myself enjoying his writing so much, I forgot he was teaching.

I was doubly delighted with both an essay and an interview with Ramsey Campbell. Mr. Campbell writes about rediscovering “awe and supernatural dread” with his essay “The Height of Fear.” Using such masters as Edgar Allan Poe, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, M.R. James, and other great authors, Campbell teaches the student of horror how to utilize prose to evoke sublime terror for the reader.

Michael Knost also interviews Mr. Campbell, giving him the opportunity to expound on the craft of writing horror. If Ramsey Campbell’s dark tales aren’t your speed, check out Gary Frank’s interview with F. Paul Wilson, who gives some nice tips about writing a series.

Tim Deal interviews Tom Piccirilli, who talks about the business of writing, and if you’re a Tom Piccirilli fan, you don’t want to miss Mr. Piccirilli’s essay on “Exploring Personal Themes.”

Lucy A. Snyder conducts an illuminating interview with Clive Barker where Mr. Barker discusses everything from collaborating on screenplays to his personal writing process.

The Writers Workshop was fun for me to read as a fan, because each author’s love of writing shined with his or her essay. While the Writers Workshop is about writing horror, the techniques and advice these ladies and gentlemen impart to the reader are applicable to all genres.

Good writing is good writing, and if you want to know how it’s done, listen to the masters.

My rating:

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington

The Sad Tale The Dragon sits on the fence about this one, my good Wild Things. I simply do not know, so I will render the tale as impartially as I can and let you decide:

Set in 1364, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart follows the adventures of Manfried and Hegel Grossbart, two German grave robbers of dubious morals. They are as physically ugly as their dispositions and leave everyone worse for their passing. They have decided, these Grossbart Brothers, to journey to Gyptland where their grandfather allegedly disappeared while plundering the graves of Egypt’s kings.

In need of supplies for this great undertaking, Manfried and Hegel descend on the home of the turnip farmer Heinrich, who once injured both the Grossbarts when they were young. By page seven, the Brothers Grossbart have attacked Heinrich, murdered his wife and daughter with an ax, burned his two young children alive, and sliced the son’s throat.

This is but the beginning.

One quarter of the way through the novel, the I was hoping someone would come along and kill the Brothers, because I found them so vile. Eventually, I started giggling and glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one saw. Midway through the book, I realized that even should someone come along and kill the Brothers, the Grossbarts would be too stupid to comprehend the meaning of their deaths. Three quarters of the way through the tale, I felt as bludgeoned as one of the Grossbarts’ victims. At page 400, I rediscovered religion and started praying for the end.

That the Dragon didn’t stop reading is a testament to Bullington’s prose, which is as dark as a fairy tale and suits the overall grim mood of the Grossbart story. The journey through the mountains and the encounters with the witches and demons were excellent. Bullington’s characters were well rendered, but there is no humanity in this novel. The world Bullington shows us is so ugly, it’s practically a caricature.

Only in one scene does Bullington give us a brief glimpse into Hegel when the Grossbart kills a young girl, who is mourning another dead child in the street. In a barely perceptible flash, Hegel hesitates as if he regrets the action he must take. Yet he finishes his gruesome task and justifies it as the Virgin’s will.

Neither brother has the least difficulty justifying their acts of violence or hate in this amoral fable. Religion is mocked and manipulated by cardinal, serf, and noble; violence permeates every aspect of life; and no bodily fluids are sacred. The Brothers cruise through Europe wrecking havoc, yet they always emerge emotionally unscathed.

The Brothers’ ability to rationalize their every act to themselves is why I believe the ending wasn’t as satisfying to me as it could have been. There was no catharsis when I was done. However, when I evaluate Bullington’s tale, I’m hard put to find an alternative ending that would have been satisfying to me. Hence my ambivalence about the novel as a whole.

Bullington’s research is impeccable, and his pacing keeps the reader engaged. Be forewarned, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart lives up to the disclaimer on the back of the novel, which cautions that the book contains strong language and scenes of graphic violence. The fight scenes (and there are many) are extremely graphic, and the retching references become so numerous, they’re almost comical by the end.

So I will give my subjective rating; however, I would be most interested to hear what others may have to say about The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart.

My rating:

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places The Dragon loves horror and things that bump the night, but the greatest horror is often revealed in our souls. Gillian Flynn pries into those Dark Places with finesse in this black mystery surrounding a family’s destruction.

When she was seven-years-old, Libby Day survived “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas” by fleeing the carnage in her house to hide in the January snow. Her mother and two sisters were brutally murdered, and Libby, as the sole witness, testified that her brother, Ben, was the killer.

Twenty-five years later, Libby is approached by members of the Kill Club, a secret society obsessed with solving notorious crimes. Members of the Kill Club believe Ben is innocent, but Libby isn’t interested in her brother’s exoneration until she finds herself out of money. For a fee, she offers to be the Club’s liaison and talk with persons of interest who might have been motivated to kill her family.

Gillian Flynn has a direct line to a woman’s black heart and she exhibits great skill as she plunges you into Libby’s tale. There is little that is likable about Libby Day, but somewhere though the pages, she starts to change. Flynn makes the transition so gradual, no word or sentence triggers the moment, but Libby becomes less despicable as she progresses from the destruction of her past toward the truth she once shunned.

Flynn strips away the veneer of polite society to show the people who live beneath everyone’s notice. Here are the farmers and families who were sucked beneath the undertow of predatory bank lending during the 1980’s farm crisis. Flynn shows us that sensationalist headlines often obscure ordinary events surrounding people whose lives simply skid out of control. This is middle America where a good beginning doesn’t equate a happy ending, and a bad beginning can sometimes bloom into a new life.

Dark Places is a riveting tale told with Flynn’s talent for the macabre and caustic wit and is the perfect read for a cold October night.

My rating: