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What We’re Reading: One Was Lost

2016 June 9
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by Cassidy Foust

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One Was Lost 
by Natalie D. Richards (Sourcebooks Fire, October 2016*)

*I know, I know, this is a very early review. But do you ever read a book and have so many emotions you can’t possibly hold them in?

We all have our go-to genres for “those days”—you know, the ones where you run out of coffee by 9 a.m., or your cat mistakes your favorite sweater for his litterbox. On those days, when you finally get time to relax, you don’t want to challenge yourself. You want to read something that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, the literary equivalent of a steaming mug of hot chocolate. For me, that genre is horror. Romances make me anxious. Coming-of-age stories usually bore me. But give me some good ole slash-n-hack, buckets-of-blood horror, and I’m happy as a clam. (A very macabre clam, to be sure.)

In One Was Lost, seventeen-year-old Sera and her classmates are trekking through the woods on a week-long senior field trip. When a flash flood separates Sera and three other teenagers from the rest of the group, they are left to fend for themselves against the wilderness… and something more. That night, the four teens are drugged, and wake to find words written on each of their wrists: Deceptive. Damaged. DangerousAnd, for our protagonist Sera, Darling. They soon find out that they’re not alone as they think. Someone is stalking them, and they’re out for blood.

From the outset, this book has everything I look for in a stock horror novel. Stock characters fulfilling archetypes (Deceptive. Damaged. Dangerous. Darling. Cabin in the Woods, anyone?). Unnecessarily creepy forests. Red herrings. Richards creates the perfect set-up, staying true enough to tropes of the genre while still keeping it unique enough to hold interest. You already have a sense of what’s going to happen, but the plot is so compelling that you can’t help but watch it fall to pieces.

Richards’ main strength comes in her ability to craft suspense. Hooooooly mackerel did this book fill me with suspense. Not just suspense, either, but straight-up fear. She places bloody event (like a dangling severed finger) after bloody event (creepy dolls dressed like the protagonist) like breadcrumbs, giving just enough space between each new development to lull you into a false sense of security before making you jump out of your seat in terror. I actually had to set down this book mid-read, because I was so spooked I started hyperventilating. I read horror for my “comfort genre,” so this should tell you a lot.

Another fresh and exciting aspect that Richards brought to the stage was our cast of characters. Three of the four main teenagers, including Sera, our protagonist, are people of color. Sera’s dad is a Lebanese immigrant. Jude is a young black boy adopted by a white gay couple who refuses to define his own sexuality. The diversity of the cast was never discussed, and never felt forced. Especially for horror (which is known for including characters of color only to kill them off early/in gruesome ways/unnecessarily), this is a Pretty Cool Thing. Beyond that, while not the world’s most complex characters, they were all far more developed and layered than most horror characters you see—especially ones who, on the surface, appear to only embody genre tropes. Take Sera, for example. She’s a teenage virgin lost in the woods, yes. She’s also a theatre student who hopes to be a famous director. She’s the daughter of a mother who left her father for another man, an event which still charges the ways she interacts with men throughout the entire book. Look at this narration from page 74:

“Dad.” I form the word with my lips, and my throat feels thick. Dark eyes, brown skin, the lilt of his accent that turns my name into a song—did I ever say anything that mattered to him? Did I thank him for staying? After my mom left, he could have gone home to Beirut. Did he want to?

Look at that complexity! The internal conflict! Yes, I read this book because I knew it would scare me, but it was incredibly refreshing to see that there were so many other things going on.

 

I’m fairly picky about my horror endings, so I acknowledge that while the conclusion of this book (including the love story, which pops in and out throughout the narration) didn’t work for me, it might have been totally fine for someone else. To me, the ending of One Was Lost felt forced and a bit lacking, compared to how well-plotted the rest of the novel was. I’m perfectly happy if my horror doesn’t come to a neat and tidy (if bloody) conclusion, if that means that the author doesn’t attempt to force all of the loose ends into a pretty bow. Unfortunately, a “pretty bow” is exactly what Richards ended up making. Without giving too much away, the ending felt rushed, gimmicky, and too unbelievable. I love a good dramatic, grudge-holding villain, don’t get me wrong, but there are some motivations and actions that are so far-fetched they only serve to draw you out of the story, and that’s what happened in One Was Lost.

All qualms aside, however, at the end of the day, this book scared the pants off of me, and that’s all I really needed.

What’s new, horror fans? What books have you read lately that have kept you cowering until the very end?

 

What We’re Reading: The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 3

2016 May 12
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The Wicked + The Divine 
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and Matthew Wilson (Image Comics, February 2016)

If you’ve been sleeping on The Wicked + The Divine, I’m going to have to ask you to take a quick break to hop on Amazon and order the first three volumes stat, because y’all. Y’all. This series.

Do you ever pause in the middle of reading and have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re awake, because there’s no way something could possibly be that good? That’s how I felt reading The Wicked + The Divine.

At this point, I’m assuming you’ve returned from the Amazon homepage and your book-laden package is on its way, so I’ll digress from the smothering love and attempt to continue this review as objectively as possible.

The basic premise of The Wicked + The Divine series is this: every ninety years, twelve gods (taken from mythologies all around the world, with character designs based on modern pop-stars) are reincarnated as teenagers. They live a life of glamor and celebrity for two short years, and then they vanish. In modern-day Britain, the gods are back, but this cycle, it’s different: someone is killing them off one by one and pitting the survivors against each other. When Lucifer (the one and only) is accused of murders she claims to have not committed, seventeen-year-old Laura (a human), is the only one who believes her. Laura’s determination to prove Luci’s innocence sweeps her up into the turmoil of magic and betrayal.

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Laura and Inanna (a god. yes, he’s loosely based off of Prince, in case you were wondering.)

The first thing that, for me, sets this comic apart is the cast of characters. Particularly in recent years, comics have been pushing more and more against the defaults of cis/straight/white/male, and The Wicked + The Divine is no exception. About 85% of the characters are people of color, including Laura, our protagonist, and most of the gods. I can’t think of a single character who is straight. Oh, and did I mention that there’s a trans woman of color who gets her own compelling and well-developed storyline which is not related to her being trans?! Y’ALL.

The characters are edgy. They’re real. Laura smokes and does drugs and lies to her parents. And, bonus, none of the female characters are ever objectified in their designs. Sure, they’re allowed to be sexual, but their agency is made clear: they’re there to be characters, not poorly-designed porn.

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The Morrigan, a terrifying creature. But damn, that character design.

The story is told in rotating perspectives, but it never feels choppy. The authors manage to balance the intricate backstories of each of the gods with fast-paced plot progression. The designs of all of the characters are cohesive while still maintaining their own flair (and, for the gods, a unique color palette that appears whenever we’re visiting their domain). While there are over a dozen characters who you could call the “main” characters, it never feels overwhelming, or like I need to create an Excel document just to keep everyone’s names straight (I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin). I fell in love with each of them  over and over again.

Until, of course, they died. This book does not hold punches. It’s unafraid to kill off protagonists, antagonists, main characters, and fan-favorites. By the time you reach volume three, you’ve been led to love a handful of gods… who then are killed without warning or preamble. We’ve all read a book that felt a little too boring, a little too safe, because you knew the author would never kill off anyone you were supposed to like. The Wicked + The Divine is not that book. I found myself racing through volume after volume, completely unable to predict what would come next or who would be left standing on the final page. Suspense, it turns out, comes at a cost, and that cost is everyone you love.

In this third volume, Laura (who has been our guide since the adventure began) is absent, and the reader is left alone to grapple with this world of gods and monsters, truths and lies. Taking away the “relatable human” trope is a gamble, but it’s a risk that I think earned a high reward. None of the gods are reliable narrators, and without Laura’s instincts to guide us, it becomes a much more intimate reading experience. Who do you choose to trust? Who do you choose to love?

What books have you read lately that break the mold?

Holy Smokes, We’re FIVE!

2016 March 9
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by Wren

5-yearsHoly cannoli, we’re FIVE this month. That’s right, Hazel & Wren has been around for five whopping years. We like to think about growing into this next stage in three ways: first, we want to thank you for being a part of this community, and to ask for your help in reflecting back on the last five years. Which leads us to the next step: looking forward based on your feedback and other ideas that we’ve been fermenting. And finally, we wouldn’t be us if we didn’t celebrate with an adult beverage! Read on for more details…

Step 1: Survey
This is a community for and of writers and readers. In order to keep this community-focused, we need input from you. If you have five minutes to take this survey and offer us your feedback, requests, and ideas, we would be forever grateful to you.

Step 2: New column
We don’t have a name for it yet, but we want to give you the inside scoop on a new column idea we’ve been hatching. Think of it as an epistolary of casual conversations between Hazel & Wren staff and artists on current topics relevant to our world (literary and otherwise) today. It’s similar to the idea behind The Writing Life, but more exploratory and casual in nature, with an emphasis on the act of correspondence itself. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks!

Step 3: Celebrate!
Have a TOAST with (and on) us! That’s right. We’re hosting an informal celebration at Boneshaker Books next Thu, March 17. The festivities will start at 6:00 pm. There will be prizes, good company, literary mischief, snacks, and beverages (adult and otherwise) while supplies last. Please join us for some five-year-old fun!

And so, we close with a humble thank you. Thank you for accepting us into this vibrant literary community, thank you for supporting us through our first five years, and thank you for putting up with our tongue-in-cheek humor. Y’all are oh-so-dear to our coffee-crazed hearts.

Yours in Literary Mischief,
Team Hazel & Wren

What We’re Reading: American Elsewhere

2016 February 25
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What We're Reading

American ElsewhereAmerican Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett (Orbit Books, 2013)

American Elsewhere is an ambitious novel. The story follows a woman named Mona Bright, who inherits a house in the small, strange, hard-to-find-on-a-map town of Wink, New Mexico. Wink, it turns out, grew up around a high-powered research station that may or may not have gotten into some big, bad stuff (spoiler: it did). We experience this strange, prototypical 50s/60s-style town with Mona, but there are also narratives involving Mona’s mysterious mother, the roadhouse just outside of Wink, Mona’s own fraught relationship with her body and the daughter she almost had, and the odd residents of Wink (who keep dying—like you do).

And yet, bubbling away underneath all of that cool, semi-pulpy plot is a really serious question about how America thinks about its own history, specifically these “good old days” when every home looked like something out of Leave It To Beaver, every man had a car in the garage to work on, and every woman knew how to sew and make great lemonade. Today, we can recognize the huge problems of this vision and world (gender being one of the biggest and most troubling), but American Elsewhere asks us to examine not just how terrible Wink’s image of community and society might be; it also suggests we might still be guilty of romanticizing this version of small-town America—one that Bennett really nicely shows is constructed and contrived.

But how to show this 50s/60s America as problematic? Well, aliens turn out to be American Elsewhere’s approach. I won’t spoil the plot intricacies of how this plays out, but Bennett’s sprawling narrative uses aliens (the creepy, unknown, scary kind instead of the little, green humanoid kind) as a way to leverage this idea that the town Mona finds—the town that has perfectly manicured lawns, a friendly diner everyone attends, and folks just bein’ folks—is manufactured and maintained by a group of beings who saw what America wanted to be and are intent on and addicted to keeping that vision alive.

American Elsewhere is, at its core, a detective story. Mona, who used to be a cop, is putting together the pieces of this town, of her mother’s past, and of the murders that keep happening. And this leads to some very cool investigative moments, one of which is perhaps my favorite in the book. Mona has started to hunt around in the abandoned research station located on top/in a mesa, and she finds video of an experiment featuring the man in charge, Dr. Coburn, and, surprisingly, her mother.

Mona watches the film two more times. Then she starts to look at the records around her.

The reports don’t make any sense to her, and since she has no intention of staying here all night she drops them and moves on.

The tapes, though…the tapes and transcripts are worth something.

After about a half hour of gathering material, she starts playing a couple of the recordings and reading the files.

With a bit more arranging, they start to resemble a story.

This kicks off one of the best chunks of the book, featuring found documents, censored agency reports, and cryptic messages that foreshadow/historicize some bad stuff. This, I think, is where the book truly excels; Bennett is so good at letting the reader participate in the discovery process. The stuff about the aliens is foreshadowed early enough and heavily enough that its reveal is almost banal, but the major events that happened at the research station—the events that thrust everything in this book into motion—those take a more delicate approach to tease out, and it’s a process we get to enjoy.

American Elsewhere is big, complicated, and challenging. There are times when the story slows a little, but never for long, and never without a reason. As someone who lives in a small town that desperately tries, at times, to harken back to a place like Wink, this book was both a great read and a personal one.

What ambitious novels have you been reading recently?