+Horror Library+ Vol. 1 is edgy, cringe-worthy, glorious fiction

What does horror mean to you? Is it the loss of a son or a daughter or loved one to some tragedy? The stranger on the street? The person you thought you could trust, only to learn they’ve betrayed you? The deal you cannot rescind? Is it the monster under the bed? The dark unknown?

Not everyone is afraid of the same thing.

Horror is subjective, our fears deeply personal. Sometimes even irrational.

Eric Guignard

Naturally, you may not be terrified of all the stories served up in the +Horror Library+ series, but you’re virtually guaranteed to cringe from some of the selections. First published by Cutting Block Books and editor R.J. Cavender, the seven-volume series has been re-edited, redesigned, reformatted and reissued under the Dark Moon imprint from two-time Bram Stoker Award winner Eric J. Guignard, who promises to keep the best contemporary indie horror alive with a forthcoming volume.

He was kind enough to send me e-books of each volume in the series to date to review, so let’s dive in!

Volume One

First, know that none of the authors here are household names.

That doesn’t mean they are not talented wordsmiths with vivid, and sometimes twisted imaginations that will make you quiver, gasp, or flinch in fear. A search on Amazon reveals some have gone on to publish additional works and, if you pick up enough horror literature, you are bound to see their names crop up every once in a while on the table of contents pages.

You never know what you’re going to get in a non-themed collection like this – there are thirty stories alone in Volume One — whether it’s a bizarre alien encounter with sluglike beasts or a grisly story of dismemberment and torture.

Fair warning: Some works are exceedingly graphic and tackle any number of taboos from sex to torture, incest to child abuse, and more.

Cavender makes an unusual decision in leading off the book with one of its grisliest, unnerving selections, “Palo Mayombe in Matamoros” by Boyd E. Harris. The story offers one possible, terrifying scenario accounting for the 1,100 random deaths of taxi drivers throughout the world over ten years beginning in 1997 in what’s touted as a piece of creative nonfiction. Harris, who goes on to co-edit a later volume in the +Horror Library+ series, pulls no punches as he graphically depicts the torture and dismemberment of the story’s main character. With no plot to speak of and no escape for the main character, it’s a torture to read.

In fact, if you were not a stalwart reader of horror, you’d close the book here. But in doing so, you would miss much more interesting and haunting stories – and authors — deserving of your time.

As odd as it may be to admit, that’s part of the fun of a collection like this: reading an adventure that challenges your sensibilities or morals, forces you to confront your fears, and dares you to look upon the darker side of humanity.

Just remember, if you don’t like one story, skip on ahead to the next.

The Highlights

Like many anthologies, some stories naturally stand out more than others.

Take, for instance, “Oren’s Axe” by Jed Verity, in which the titular character discovers a grotesque oddity at his doorstep in the dead of night. Wracked by disgust and fear at the sight of the thing, Oren is moved by its plight and surprises the reader by showing his compassion for the thing, first by snipping away a set of sutures over its lips, and second by giving it fresh water to slake its thirst. But as noble as his intentions are, as often happens in the case of horror stories, he is shocked by the thing’s sudden, unexplained outburst of violence toward him.

Or, consider “Little Black Box” by Eric Stark, in which the seemingly innocent appearance of a small black box in place of the daily newspaper heralds a mysterious, inescapable invasion. The fear comes not so much from the boxes themselves – they don’t do anything other than grow in number – but in the unknown origin of the cubes and the stark realization that there is nothing anyone can do to escape them. “Who’s afraid of a little black box?” his lead character asks. Who indeed?

A simple mosquito bite leads to another unforgettable calamity in John Rowlands’ entry, “One Small Bite.” The ensuing outbreak is eerily reminiscent of the current pandemic’s spread. It hits a little too close to home during these harrowed times, but that’s what makes it so powerful.

“The Mattress” by John Peters is another story that will linger long after reaching the end. It’s a modern-day update on an age-old story of a succubus whose unyielding sexual assaults makes a long-lasting impression upon her victims. At the very least, you’ll think twice about ever buying a “slightly” used mattress again.

“Flamenco Amputee” by Paul J. Gitschner offers up a strange audition by prisoners willing to risk life and limb to impress a panel of judges to earn their freedom.

A shadow-like spider skulking around a mother recently risen from the dead is an eerie Creepshow-like tale of love and family sacrifice in Mark E. Deloy’s “Momma’s Shadow.”

Marcus Grimm entertains readers with a cautionary tale when making the deal of a lifetime in “A Hell of a Deal,” while eerie wishmaster Heman Black solves problems in a unique way in “Dark and Stormy Wishes” by Bailey Hunter. And in “The Exterminators,” Sara Joan Berniker reminds readers to read the fine print on their contracts.

A Boy Scout learns sometimes virtuous deeds are not worth that little badge in Curt Mahr’s shocker, “Helping Hand.”

The main character in Kevin Filan’s “The Remembering Country” is forced to recall an incredible secret about the beast within him.

And, in one of my favorites, M. Louise Dixon leaves readers in awe with a tale of giant worms in “Las Brujas Del Rio Verde.”

Sleep with the lights on

Oftentimes, there is little in the way of explanation for what transpires in each story, which is what makes short horror like this so incredibly weird and exciting. The answers are left to the readers’ own imagination.

By the same token, most stories end on a shocking or tragic note. These are not tales where the final girl prevails in the end, nor should they be.

These are tales that will make you go to sleep with the lights on, if you dare sleep at all.

Next time: +Horror Library+ Vol. 2

Screenwriting Twitter is a thing

Screenwriting Twitter is a thing that can be educational, empowering, and oftentimes amusing.

For those uninitiated, screenwriting Twitter is where all the would-be, hopeful, and think-they-are-expert screenwriters, along with a few actual industry folks, hang out when they’re not writing because, well, writing is procrastinating for most and Twitter is the epitome of procrastination.

In any event, on any given day you are likely to find robust debates on all things screenwriting, from copyrighting your work to whether you should share loglines with the rest of the world to how to format your sluglines (bold!). Keep in mind there is a camp of writers who contend there are no rules of screenwriting, that you can do as you like because no one, including Hollywood (which some say isn’t a thing), knows what they want or can agree on how they want it. There are “guidelines” and “conventions” and patterns, but if you trust books like Save the Cat you should be shunned and shamed. That’s because it follows a proven formula of how movies have been made and, heaven forbid, if your story should follow an existing pattern or formula and not think outside of the box (but that’s fodder for another article altogether).

Bottom line, you must take everything you read or hear and ultimately make up your own mind because no one in this industry really knows anything.

Screenwriting Twitter (#screenwriting) is also great for networking and building relationships with other like-minded screenwriters. I’ve followed a few Twitter “regulars” and interacted with some of their tweets, but I haven’t really developed any “friendships” or “connections” yet. These things take time. I did draw the attention of Stage 32 (an online screenwriting site that provides script services, webinars, and pitch meetings with execs – for a fee, of course!) who sent me a nice message saying they’d seen me on Twitter and invited me to contact them to help further my career.  I haven’t taken them up on the “offer” yet. It seems there is money involved and, well, I don’t have any.

I also enjoy Twitter for its occasional fun tweets. You can often find threads about favorite movies, movie tropes, and jokes about screenwriting. It’s somehow comforting to know that others are going through the same feelings of doubt and insecurities about writing as you are and that you can laugh about it.

Additional reading: The power of Twitter for screenwriters

Most of the time, the screenwriting community is supportive and encouraging. Members routinely chime in to help celebrate even the smallest of individual accomplishments, whether that is finishing a first draft of a script, placing in a contest, or, better yet, landing a manager, agent, job in a TV writers’ room, or a spec sale! I’m in this camp because I firmly believe in supporting creatives regardless of where they are in their careers.

That can’t be said of many in the Facebook screenwriting community who can be downright rude, insensitive, and condescending. This group would much rather malign you for your incomplete loglines, your pesky questions about the craft, or your requests for feedback on your work. It’s gotten so bad in a couple of the screenwriting Facebook groups that I’ve quit the groups and have had to block some users. I just don’t have time or patience to put up with haters and “better-than-you-alls.”

That’s not to say that all Facebook screenwriting groups behave that way. The Tennessee Screenwriting Association, of which I am a page administrator, strives to be supportive and always encouraging. We know screenwriters are at various levels of their career and if we can help them out or point them in the right direction to furthering their craft, we’ll happily do that.

I guess what I’m saying is, pick and choose your friends and groups carefully. No one likes a hater, no one likes a know-it-all.

So, enough about that. Time to recap the week:

Writing update

So, last week I had a goal of finishing a spec script based on the TV show What We Do in the Shadows (the new season starts next week on FX!). I’m still not there yet, but I’m closer. Maybe this week will see me cross the finish line.

I also had planned to outline a new comedy pilot, which is a spinoff to my 2019 Austin Film Festival finalist screenplay ZARS: Zombie Apprehension & Relocation Service. I’ve already got the teaser or cold open written (that’s generally what is known as the first scene of the script that serves as a tease to the episode ahead). I also have a couple scenes mapped out, but I still need to come up with the connective tissue that will hold everything together.

Both of those projects will be at the top of my to do list for this week. Then it’s on to my feature script Jerry Lonely and planning/outlining/character work for a mystery novel I’ve got up my sleeve.

Reading update

I finished reading The Good Death by S.D. Sykes and Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger and wrote a book review for BookPage. I’ll let you know when it gets published. In the meantime, my review of Small Favors by Erin A. Craig has been posted on Chapter 16’s website.

Next up is City on Fire by Don Wilson (it doesn’t go on sale until April but I’ve got an ARC!) and Horror Library Vol. 1, a collection of horror short stories newly republished by Dark Moon Books.

And on the comic book front, I’m reading Batman: The Adventures Continue, Season One, which reprints the first eight issues of the comic book series continuation of the Batman animated TV series.

That’s it for this time out. Tune in again next week as I ramble on about something else.

Skipping Killer Nashville conference a difficult choice

Some devious and cunning minds will gather in Franklin (TN) this week for the Killer Nashville writing conference. I wish I could be with them, but this whole Covid pandemic thing has convinced me otherwise.

I’m fully vaccinated (although apparently a third shot is in the cards), and KN organizer Clay Stafford promises the conference and hotel are taking precautions, but I’m not comfortable taking any chances. Heck, I’m still masking up everywhere I go and I’m still using Walmart’s pickup service for my groceries until this all blows over.

Killer Nashville founder Clay Stafford poses with guests Joyce Carol Oates and David Morrell.

Killer Nashville is one of my favorite events every year, which makes missing out so difficult.

The four-day event held each August (this is its 15th gathering after skipping last year because of the pandemic) attracts some of the best authors from across the globe for informative, educational, and entertaining panels on writing mystery, crime, and thrillers across a variety of mediums, including novels, short stories, and screenplays.

Anne Perry

The event is typically headlined by a few best-selling authors. Past guests have included Jeffery Deaver, William Kent Krueger, Joyce Carol Oates, Otto Penzler, Max Allen Collins, Anne Perry, and Janet Evanovich, to name just a few. This year’s conference honors guests Walter Mosley, Lisa Black, and Tennessee’s own J.T. Ellison.

In addition to a nonstop slate of panels presented by attending authors and other guests, the event features an awards banquet for best published and unpublished novel in numerous categories, a mock crime scene to test your deductive skills, and pitch meetings with agents and editors.

But perhaps one of the best aspects of the conference is just meeting and networking with folks. I’ve met numerous authors and am fortunate to call them friends. The writing community at Killer Nashville is just that – a community of writers who genuinely support and encourage each other in all phases of their writing journey.

Clay Stafford

The event, of course, wouldn’t be the success it is without the vision of KN founder Clay Stafford (there’s a great interview with him here) and dedication of his staff. I’ve been fortunate to work alongside each of them over recent years as a book reviewer, Claymore contest reviewer, and volunteer. I even served on a panel one year, which still blows my mind.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference.

Writing Week in Review

My co-writer Jay Wright and I finished some revisions to our crime feature script Kings of Mississippi and submitted it to the Finish Line Screenplay Contest. We got some excellent feedback on our first read through from one of their readers that strengthened some of the emotional elements of the script. Now we wait and see if the revised script makes the quarterfinals cut.

I also tweaked a short horror script I wrote called Kurupira and entered it in the Fresh Blood Selects contest.

My other short horror script Skin, which just narrowly missed the Finals stage in the Nashville Film Festival’s screenwriting competition, failed to even make it to the quarterfinals in The Script Lab’s Free Screenwriting Competition. Sigh. Of course, there were 13,000 entries overall and only the top 1,000 made the first round of cuts. I’m sure Skin must have been right there knocking on the door, though, probably at No. 1001. Yeah.

And I made a little more progress on my spec script episode of What We Do in the Shadows. If you’re familiar with the FX show, you know it’s about a trio of vampires living in Staten Island. In my episode, Nandor and his familiar Guillermo attend a “Vampires Anonymous” meeting, while Laszlo and Nadja go to a Little League baseball game. To coin a phrase, hilarity ensues.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I had planned to start on my feature script Jerry Lonely, but I’m still outlining it. Hopefully, I’ll have all the major plot points worked out and be ready to do the actual writing in September. The title has piqued the interest of several readers who want to know more, but all I will say about it at this point is that I’ve been watching The Godfather movies as prep work.

Which brings me to: My writing calendar.

Every couple of months or so I revise and prioritize my list of ongoing writing projects. I have a list of screenplays (shorts, TV pilots, and features) and other writing projects (shorts stories and novels) that I try to juggle. I try to match it up with upcoming contest or submission deadlines and then go from there.

Often, my plans go to hell, and I find myself having to reconfigure them a couple months later. But at least I’m trying.

I plan to use these weekly blog posts in part to help hold myself accountable to my writing plans by posting updates on my progress each week. My goal in the week ahead is to finish the first draft of the What We Do in the Shadows script and outline a TV pilot script. Check back here next week and I’ll let you know how I did.

What I’m Reading

Last week, I posted about the importance of reading and I’ve been making progress on my to be read pile.

I read the pilot script for the Emmy-nominated Hacks and listened to a streaming panel with the creators and actors, courtesy of Deadline’s Contenders series. There are more than a dozen other panels with the creators and stars of other Emmy-nominated shows on the platform, all free to view online.

I also finished reading a screenplay from one of my fellow Tennessee Screenwriting members and will be sending him some notes after I post this.

Meanwhile, I’m reading Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger, which I should finish by the weekend. I’ll then start on The Good Death by S.D. Sykes. I’m reviewing both books for BookPage.

Until next time…

Read everything, read always

Welcome to another weekly installment of my blog.

Since I updated you on my writing efforts last week, I thought I’d take this week’s space to write about my other passion: reading.

They really go hand in hand, of course. If you’re going to be a great writer, whether it’s a novelist, screenwriter, playwright, or journalist, you need to be well-read. You need to not only keep up on your respective industry’s news and highlights, but you also need to read what others are writing. And, more importantly, you need to study.

“People like to say that the best advice they can give to writers is to read a lot. And that’s true, of course. But you shouldn’t just read literature. You should read life. Read movies, and art, and people. Read everything around you, very critically. Then build your method out of that process.”

— Anthony Veasna So

I know, it sounds like work. But if you’re passionate about it, like I am, then reading is a pleasure.

When I first ventured into screenwriting, I really didn’t know much about the craft at all. I bought a few books about screenwriting to learn about the basics: character arcs, story structure, format, and so on. (The folks over at Script Reader Pro have put together a great list of the 12 Best Screenwriting Books to Read in 2021, if you’re interested. And as if that isn’t enough, they also have a nifty list of the 8 Best Non-Screenwriting Books That Will Help You Become a Better Screenwriter, focusing on such topics as fear of failure, productivity, creativity, motivation, the ego, stress, sleep, inspiration and more.)

Of course, there’s only so much you can get from a book on the craft. To really experience the nuances and intricacies of screenwriting, you must read screenplays. The more you read, the easier it is to recognize how other writers…write. What they do well, how they do what they do.

When I first ventured into the screenwriting game, I enlisted as a script reader for the Nashville Film Festival’s screenwriting competition in 2014. After an introductory session on what to look for in a good screenplay, I was off and running. I think I read over a hundred scripts in my first year! I even got to serve as a judge one year.

The folks at Nashville appreciated me so much, they recommended me as a reader for the Austin Film Festival’s screenwriting competition. I’ve read for them for several years now, although I haven’t read nearly as much over the last two years. For one thing, I’ve been writing more so I’ve had to limit my reading output. And, secondly, I’ve focused more intently on reading screenplays from produced shows and movies. Instead of reading with a mindset of looking for what not to do, I’m reading with an eye toward what screenwriters did to make their scripts sing.

Scott Myers, who writes the daily Go Into the Story blog, has compiled this list of 30 screenplays to read. And if that’s not enough, there’s more here. He even has a seven-part series on How to Read a Screenplay for structure, characters, themes, style, and more.

Reading the scripts for Academy Award nominees and Emmy-nominated scripts has been a new priority for me. These are supposed to be the best of the best scripts, so I try to give each of them a thorough read. Fortunately, there are numerous sites online that make the award-nominated scripts available. Every time I see one listed, I immediately download and save it to my cloud server. (Scripts tend to disappear from the internet after a while, so it’s best to save them when you can.).

I’m currently reading this year’s crop of Emmy-nominated scripts (including the pilot episodes for Ted Lasso, The Queen’s Gambit, Lovecraft Country,  The Crown, and many others) ahead of the awards show in September. I admit, I haven’t seen a lot of the episodes – I’m limited to what’s on Amazon Prime and DirecTV – as there are too many streamers out there. But reading the scripts can be equally as educating and entertaining.

The Script Lab has a great library of screenplays of produced movies you can download and read. And if you want to read what some of the best unproduced screenwriters are writing, you can check out some of the top winning scripts from The Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship.

I’m also always happy to read screenplays from screenwriting peers and provide feedback. The Tennessee Screenwriting Association meets each week to read and critique scripts from members.  I recently read fellow member Elvis Wilson’s Driving Top Down, which is a semifinalist in the Vail Film Festival screenwriting competition, and Bob Giordano’s new script, Southern Draw.

I also recently had the pleasure of reading the hilariously entertaining How to Make it in Hollywood by Christopher O’Bryant and Shia LeBeouf Won the Wrong Mutherf*ckin’ Screenwriting Competition by Kevin Nelson, both of whom I came across on Twitter (I’ll write about networking, another important aspect of the screenwriting game, another time).

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

— Dr. Seuss

If I’m not reading screenplays, I’ve more than likely got my nose in a book. I read and review books regularly for BookPage and Chapter 16 (click the links to see my reviews). I used to get a lot of ARCs (advance reader copies) of books before they hit the shelves, but since the pandemic started the books have largely migrated to electronic versions (which I don’t prefer, although I do have a Kindle and tablet). I favor physical copies, but I make do as best I can. I’ve even been “reading” some audio books for BookPage (another topic for another day).

I’m currently reading a pair of mystery/crime thrillers, Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger and The Good Death by S.D. Sykes. And waiting in the wings, Don Winslow’s City on Fire. (Sadly, Winslow just announced he’s delaying the release of the book until early 2022 because he’s canceling his book appearances this fall due to the pandemic. He was slated to be at this year’s Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, but will hopefully reschedule for next year’s event.)

I’m also making my way through the recently re-issued seven-volume Horror Library series of books from Dark Moon Books, which I’ll be reviewing on this and other sites.

And finally, I scour the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and my e-mail for tips on the craft of writing as well as industry-related news. I’ll pass along links to some of the more interesting and useful articles in future blogs (something I used to do here quite often).

But I’ve rambled long enough. Let me know what you’re reading in the comments!

American Hero: Remembering John Lewis

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Congressman John Lewis, 1940-2020

Note: With the loss of civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis on Friday, I thought it would be appropriate to honor with him with an article I wrote for BookPage in 2016.

By G. Robert Frazier

It is appropriate as we enter Thanksgiving week to express our gratitude to the people who have influenced our lives in one way or another or who have made sacrifices on our behalf so that we may live better.

This past Saturday, I was fortunate to be among hundreds of Nashville-area residents able to give thanks to an American icon, Georgia Congressman John Lewis. (More than a hundred others were unable to get into the packed auditorium at Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School.)

A graduate of American Baptist College and Fisk University, both in Nashville, Rep. Lewis was a leader in the Nashville student-led, nonviolent sit-in movement and the Freedom Rides in the early 1960s. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington and helped lead the Selma to Montgomery March as part of the voting rights movement in 1965.

His account of the events make up the pages of a historical comic book trilogy, March, co-written by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. March: Book One is the citywide Nashville Reads pick for 2017. The third volume in the series just won the National Book Award for young people’s literature and garnered him honors as the Nashville Public Library Foundation’s Literary Award winner for 2016.

Regardless of age, it is a story everyone should read.

“When people tell me nothing has changed, I say come and walk in my shoes,” he told the racially diverse crowd, which greeted him with a standing ovation. “Martin Luther King would be very proud of this audience. You look like the makings of a beloved community.”

Lewis recounted the challenges and incidents of the civil rights movement, including many of his 45 arrests for civil disobedience along the way.

“I didn’t like segregation,” Lewis said. “I didn’t like racial discrimination. I didn’t like riding the broken-down buses to school.”

As a child, he grew up listening to the message of civil rights pioneers like Rosa Parks and King, whom he would eventually meet. “They inspired me to find a way to get in the way, and I got in the way. . . . By sitting down, we were standing up,” he said.

Lewis still sits down when necessary. This past summer he inspired a sit-in on the floor of Congress itself.

“We still have a distance to travel,” he said.

He implored today’s youth to carry on the fight for equality and justice when needed.

“When you see something that is not right, not just, you have a moral obligation to stand up,” he said.

But most importantly, he said, “We must come together as one people. Not just as an American house, but as a world house. . . .  Just love everybody. Love is a better way. Be kind. Never hate. Keep the faith. Never, ever give up.”

He stressed a need to set a path to citizenship, adding that “Pope Francis said we are all immigrants. We all come from some other place.”

Following his lecture, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry presented him with a collection of recently discovered photos and images of his first arrest records in Nashville from 1961, 1962 and 1963.

“I hope these photos remind you of what you have done and the legacy you have left us,” Barry told him, adding, “I thank you for your message of peace, I thank you for your message of love, but most of all I thank you for your message of kindness.”

The photos will go on display in the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library.

“It’s here in this wonderful city where I really grew up,” Lewis said of his return to Nashville. “The first time I got arrested in this city, I felt free. I owe it all to this city. I feel more than lucky—I feel honored and blessed. I came to say thank you.”

No, sir, it is we who are honored and blessed. It is we who say, “Thank you.”

The Last Scoop’s reporter tenacious, razor-sharp

By G. Robert Frazier

I’d love to see Clare Carlson in the White House Briefing Room.

The main character in R.G. Belsky’s new novel, The Last Scoop, she’s tenacious, razor-sharp, asks tough questions, and doesn’t back down from anyone. President Trump would likely try to silence her by claiming she’s “fake news,” but Clare isn’t the type who would take it sitting down. She’d snap back until, a) she loses her White House press credentials or b) sends Trump running back to the Oval Office with his tail between his legs.

The Last Scoop by R.G. Belsky
Oceanview, $26.95, 9781608093571

That’s not to say that Clare doesn’t have more than a few faults.

Her brash style makes more enemies than friends. She’s no good when it comes to sustaining a romantic relationship (she’s been married and divorced numerous times). She can be deceitful when it comes to getting what she wants. And she isn’t above lying to her long-lost daughter, though with good reason.

Journalists are, by nature, supposed to be impartial observers, dedicated to detailing the day’s news in matter of fact, unbiased fashion. But Clare’s first-person narration easily draws readers into her world while showing her real feelings and emotional reactions to events.

In other words, she’s human.

In The Last Scoop, all of the above comes into play as Clare gets caught up in an investigation left unfinished after the death of her mentor, Martin Barlow. Clare feels somewhat guilty about turning her back on Martin since her move to the big city of New York where she is now a TV news editor and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist.

To make amends, at least in her own mind, she takes up Martin’s last story: uncovering a serial killer who has left bodies in his wake for decades. Her nose for news and relentless pursuit of the truth soon finds her butting heads with her boss, the local district attorney, and the FBI.

Belsky, who marks his third novel with Clare as protagonist and fourteenth novel overall, has crafted another a fast-paced mystery. As a former metro editor with the New York Post and managing editor at NBC News, Belsky knows the news biz and it shows clearly.

While I was a bit disappointed to learn the identity of the serial killer – I’ll only say that I feel it’s become a bit of a cliché in the mystery genre in the interest of giving away spoilers — one thing you can be certain of, Clare Carlson is anything but fake news. Here’s hoping Belsky has another scoop or two for Clare to expose in future novels.

Waggoner’s Mouth of the Dark a weird read

Tim Waggoner writes some weird stuff.

Mouth of the Dark

Mouth of the Dark
Tim Waggoner
Flame Tree Press
 240 pages, $14.95
ISBN-13: 978-1787580114

One of his latest, The Mouth of the Dark from Flame Tree Press, is a perfect example of just how weird. What starts as a missing person story quickly morphs into an other-dimensional romp against bizarre creatures and crazed killers. Check logic at the door and suspend your disbelief, because this shit gets crazier by the page. And that’s a good thing, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Waggoner’s story focuses on Jayce Lewis as he pounds the pavement in search of his adult daughter, Emory, who has been missing for eighteen days. No one seems to know anything about her or care, for that matter, further frustrating Jayce and amplifying his sense of desperation. Even his estranged wife isn’t all that concerned. But Jayce presses on, believing if he can find her, he might also be able to reconnect and strengthen their relationship.

Things take a bizarre turn, though, when he encounters a pair of teens more intent on protecting their “meat” than in helping him. Only the timely intervention of a mysterious woman named Nicola, who scares them off with a jar containing “the screams of a hundred dying men” prevents them from carving him up and putting a premature end to his search. Weird, huh?

And that’s just for starters. Things get weirder. Really weirder.

Before long, Nicola leads Jayce into an otherworldly Shadow realm, where its denizens cower in fear from something called the Harvest Man. Jayce should be scared out of his mind, if he hasn’t lost it already. Anyone else would be. But with Nicola’s help, he’s able to navigate the strange realm and confront the Harvest Man, as well as the monster inside him.

Further explanations, which probably wouldn’t make much sense anyway, may ruin the overall plot. Suffice to say, rarely a page passes without some new revolting twist to squirm at. This one’s strictly for fans of hardcore horror and dark fantasy, so be warned. But also rest assured, you’re in the hands of a Bram Stoker Award-winning author. Weird as that may sound.

The Guest Book lifts veil on family’s life of privilege, elitism

Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book is a beautifully written and emotionally captivating novel about one family’s bonds, secrets, and their lifetime of privilege and high society coming to an end.

The Guest Book

The Guest Book
Sarah Blake
Flatiron Books
448 pages, $27.99
ISBN: 9787250110251

Beginning in the mid-30s, the novel follows the lives of socialites Kitty and Ogden Milton and continues with their children and grandchildren to contemporary times. After a horrific tragedy in which Kitty loses one of her young sons, Ogden purchases an exclusive estate on an island off the coast of Maine to reconnect with his wife and reinvigorate their marriage.

His plan works as Kitty ultimately snaps out of her shock and misery and falls in love with their new home. But their elite lifestyle, particularly the racist attitude they thinly hide beneath the surface,  ultimately haunts the family in the ensuing years. Kitty rejects a plea from a Jewish refugee to keep her young son on the island, a Jewish man attracted to one of her daughters draws their scorn, and a black friend is never fully accepted into their midst, as his missing name in the guest book attests.

The novel alternates narratives between Kitty,  her daughter and granddaughter, as each generation develops deep affection for the island getaway and their upscale lifestyle. But as the family’s money begins to run out and rising costs just to maintain the island become overwhelming, the only solution appears to be selling the island. Only Kitty’s granddaughter fights to preserve the family getaway and its family secrets.

Blake’s evocative writing creates a poignant snapshot of a lifestyle of high society, privilege, and elitism slowly being washed away by a changing society, the fight for equality, and decency.

Thanks to Flatiron Books for providing an ARC of this book.  

 

From the frontier to international conspiracies, adventure awaits

From historical adventures to spy thrillers, the characters and situations in these books will leave you thrilled and deeply moved.

Fall Back Down When I Die – Joe Wilkins

Fall Back Down When I Die

Little, Brown
$26.00
ISBN 9780316475358

Twenty-four-year-old Wendell Newman is having a rough go of things when we first meet him in Fall Back Down When I Die, the heart-wrenching debut novel from Pushcart Prize winner Joe Wilkins. Wendell lost his father at an early age, his mother has just died after a long illness that’s left him with overdue medical bills, he owes back taxes on his parents’ property, and he has less than $100 in his bank account. His life is as bleak as the “bruised and dark” mountains of Montana in which he lives.

When a social worker unexpectedly places Wendell’s 7-year-old nephew into his care after the boy’s mother is incarcerated on drug charges, Wendell has good reason to fall further into despair. The boy, Rowdy Burns, is traumatized himself. He won’t speak, is “developmentally delayed,” and he has uncontrollable fits. But Wendell, who remains haunted by his father’s violent death years ago, sees something of himself in his young charge and a chance, perhaps, to give Rowdy the life he couldn’t have.

Wilkins  details the pair’s growing bond and sense of hope with vivid, heartfelt strokes, while ultimately asking if it’s possible to escape the fate—and the land—they were born into.

Read the full review at BookPage

Last Night – Karen Ellis

The Lost Night – Andrea Bartz

Last Night

Mulholland
$27.00
ISBN 9780316505697

The Lost Night

Crown
$27.00
ISBN 9780525574712 

One night can change everything. For better. For worse. Forever.

The characters in two new novels from Karen Ellis and Andrea Bartz experience the immediate and long-term ramifications of ill-spent nights to drastic effect. In Ellis’ novel, Last Night, the distinctly different lives of Titus “Crisp” Crespo and Glynnie Dreyfus intersect in unexpected and unfortunate ways when they attempt to purchase weed from a shady supplier. Meanwhile, Lindsay Bach struggles to piece together the fleeting memories of a tragic night ten years earlier in which a college friend, Edie, committed suicide in Bartz’s The Lost Night. Both novels offer mystery, suspense and unforgettable characters caught up in situations that swiftly spiral beyond their control.

Read the full review of both novels at BookPage.

Never Tell – Lisa Gardner

Never Tell

Dutton
$27.00
ISBN 9781524742089

Flora Dane, the tough-as-nails survivor of a traumatic kidnapping, is back in Never Tell, the twisty new thriller from the always reliable Lisa Gardner.

For the unfamiliar, Flora leapt into readers’ hearts in Gardner’s 2016 bestseller, Find Her. In Never Tell, Flora, though still haunted by the abuse she endured while captive to Jacob Ness for 472 days, is working as a confidential informant for the Boston Police Department. But when businessman Conrad Carter is shot dead at the alleged hands of his wife, Evie, Flora’s past trauma comes racing back.

Gardner gives plenty for readers to ponder as Flora’s ordeal is only part of the myriad mysteries and surprises in store in her latest novel.

Read the full review at BookPage.

Cherokee America – Margaret Verble

Cherokee America

HMH
$27.00
ISBN 9781328494221

Set shortly after the Civil War in 1875, Cherokee America by Margaret Verble revolves around Check Singer and her journey from Tennessee to Cherokee land in Oklahoma. The story also follows her extensive family, including her ailing, bedridden husband, Andrew, and their five children—Connell, Hugh, Clifford, Otter and Paul, ranging from school-aged to grown up—as well as their hired help, assorted friends and neighbors. Check’s mission throughout is simply getting through the day with only a modicum of trouble, but with the ready admission that “trouble breeds trouble.”

Verble ably balances an impressive cast and multiple storylines, taking  time to explore each’s feelings and tribulations, with Check at its grounded center. Readers shouldn’t expect to fly through these pages at breakneck speed, but rather enjoy a more leisurely pace that will leave them wholly immersed in Check’s world.

Read the full review at BookPage.

American Spy – Lauren Wilkinson

American Spy

Random House
$27.00
ISBN 9780812998955

Lauren Wilkinson’s debut novel, American Spy, chronicles the life of a black woman recruited to the CIA during the height of the Cold War. The CIA needs Marie to get close to and undermine Robert Sankara, the revolutionary president of the tiny West African nation of Burkina Faso.

At first, Marie is reluctant to accept the job, but her desire to make something more of her life—and perhaps her despair over the mysterious death of her sister—convinces her otherwise.

Taking on the task becomes more than complicated, however, when she develops a real affection for Sankara, who will eventually father her two boys, thereby causing her to question her loyalty to the U.S. and its policies.

Read the full review at BookPage.

Junction, The Sky Woman shirk alien war stories for old-school sci-fi fun

One look at the science fiction section of your local Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million shows that war is king. After the success of such books as War of the Worlds, Starship Troopers and Star Wars (yeah, it was a book, you know), it’s only natural that every sci-fi book on the market tries to replicate that excitement. Even Star Trek, which is fundamentally supposed to be about discovering “new frontiers and strange civilizations,” has become obsessed with battles between Klingons, Romulans, and the Borg.

Junction

Junction
Daniel M. Bensen
Flame Tree Press
Hardcover: 9781787580961
Trade PB: 9781787580947

So, it was refreshing to read a couple of books recently that attempted to put some of the wonder of sci-fi back onto the written page. Junction by Daniel M. Bensen and The Sky Woman by J.D. Moyer (both from Flame Tree Press) get accolades in that respect.

Junction literally throws its human cast into a strange new world when a wormhole suddenly opens in New Guinea, allowing access to another planet just by stepping through a gateway between worlds. And The Sky Woman pits a woman from an orbiting ring station around earth into the middle of a post-apocalyptic civilization.

Naturally, complications arise in both novels.

In Junction, an international cast, led by Japanese nature show host Daisuke Matsumori, runs into trouble when their plane goes down in the alien landscape miles from their makeshift base. With little food or chance of being rescued, the group must trek through a bizarre world of unnatural creatures to get back to safety. The danger intensifies and the casualties mount up with each new region, or “biome,”  they enter. The story felt a little like that old Jules Verne novel, Mysterious Island, filled with imagination, fantastic creatures, and imaginative feats of survival.

The Sky Woman

The Sky Woman
J.D. Moyer
Flame Tree Press
Hardcover: 9781787580435
Trade PB: 9781787580411

The Sky Woman had a John Carter of Mars feel to it, as our hero is dropped into a land of barbaric tribes, only to learn that it will take more than her advanced technology to escape. Throw in a few giants and a psychic ghostlike phenomenon known as “the gast” and it was easy to get caught up in this adventure.

That said, both novels also had a few shortcomings. Junction seemed to fall into a rut of getting repetitious as the group faced new creatures from one chapter to the next, while The Sky Woman took an unexpected turn midway through the novel by wasting time with more of the ring station dwellers.

But in a sci-fi field where war seems to define the genre, the originality (or old-school familiarity, if you will) of both tales made them enjoyable reading alternatives.

Thanks to Flame Tree Press for providing advance reading copies on both titles.