Clown in a Cornfield

Oh my gosh I was so excited for this one! I found out about Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare early in the year and have been anxiously awaiting its release. I dived into it as soon as it arrived on my doorstep. So did it meet all expectations? It exceeded them on every level.

WARNING: Spoilers Ahead.

High school senior Quinn has just moved to Kettle Springs with her father, and they’re looking for a fresh start. Quinn quickly begins making friends but also notices the tensions in the town between the adults and the teens. These tensions come to a head at a high school party when a killer clown begins picking off the teens one by one. Unfortunately, for Quinn and her new friends, that clown isn’t acting alone…

One really interesting aspect of Cesare’s book is its reflection of the world today. The political world specifically: the clash between younger progressives and older conservatives. Early in the book, Quinn sees a flier: “Make Kettle Springs Great Again.” The adults and kids of this town are thoroughly squared off, and things get ugly. Murderously ugly. Kettle Springs’ generational clashes make it a violent, admittedly dramatized microcosm of the real world we’re currently living in.

I’ve expressed this to some of you, but I think that there may soon come a time when the powers of law don’t go far enough to keep Kettle Springs the town we know and love,” spouts the Trumpian sheriff. Like Trump, the sheriff also uses the people of his town’s fears and prejudices to get them to go along with his plans. He adds later:

But convincing the town that we needed to cull [the teenagers] was not as hard as you’d think. I mean, we didn’t say it right away like that…You tell people they’re right, tell ’em what they want to hear, you listen…but then the whole time you’re doing that listening, you’re pushing the boundaries forward. Reshaping morality. Drawing a new line in the sand while nobody else is watching, then wiping away the old one. And the whole time you know…You know where it’s all leading.

Granted Trump’s government haven’t dressed up like clowns and actually slaughtered large groups of people, but they are known for silencing those they see as “undesirable” in ways, such as the internment camps for immigrants at the border or in the support of killer cops, that are increasingly deadly.

Trump’s presidency has been a real wake up call for many of us in America. Those of us who are young, or poor, or women, non-binary, gay, those of us who aren’t white: Our government doesn’t care about us. In some cases, it actually wishes us harm. Likewise, the cornfield massacre is a wake up for the teens in this book. As one of of our heroes says:

You know the thing that gets me? How you pretend to care. Even in your insane way, you pretend to care. You’re all so worried about what’s wrong with the kids, when you’re the ones selling us guns, telling us times were better when men were men, pretending that global warming is a hoax, and turning hate into a team sport…

Now none of Cesare’s allegory would work if Clown in a Cornfield wasn’t otherwise solid. And it is. Cesare deftly creates characters the reader cares about; the book’s fast pace doesn’t deter from the buildup of characters that feel real. Outside of our heroine Quinn, I really loved Cole, Rust, and Janet. Cole is a lot more than just the surface “bad boy with a heart of gold.” Rust is a truly wonderful character, also full of unnoticed depth, and he and Cole’s kiss at the end (That wasn’t CPR. That wasn’t CPR at all.) will go down in history as one of my all time favorite book kisses. Janet’s also a compelling character, the queen bee ready to sacrifice her life for her classmates. As for Quinn, well, she’s a magnificent badass.

By the end of the book, Cole is the inheritor of his murderous father’s fortune. The town was unable to kill off its teen population, and the town’s upswing in fortune is in the hands of the youth they tried so hard to silence. Hate doesn’t win in Clown in a Cornfield, and it won’t win in the real world either. Times are changing; the future is ours, and our voices will be heard.

YA Horror I’m Excited For This Month (August 2020)

August is going to be a good month for YA horror, and there are three books coming out at the end of the month that I’m super excited for. I’ve decided to cover them here.

The Companion by Katie Alender

The other orphans say Margot is lucky.

Lucky to survive the horrible accident that killed her family.

Lucky to have her own room because she wakes up screaming every night.

And finally, lucky to be chosen by a prestigious family to live at their remote country estate.

But it wasn’t luck that made the Suttons rescue Margot from her bleak existence at the group home. Margot was handpicked to be a companion to their silent, mysterious daughter, Agatha. At first, helping with Agatha–and getting to know her handsome older brother–seems much better than the group home. But soon, the isolated, gothic house begins playing tricks on Margot’s mind, making her question everything she believes about the Suttons . . . and herself. 

Margot’s bad dreams may have stopped when she came to live with Agatha – but the real nightmare has just begun.

Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare

Quinn Maybrook just wants to make it until graduation. She might not make it to morning.

Quinn and her father moved to tiny, boring Kettle Springs to find a fresh start. But ever since the Baypen Corn Syrup Factory shut down, Kettle Springs has cracked in half. On one side are the adults, who are desperate to make Kettle Springs great again, and on the other are the kids, who want to have fun, make prank videos, and get out of Kettle Springs as quick as they can.

Kettle Springs is caught in a battle between old and new, tradition and progress. It’s a fight that looks like it will destroy the town. Until Frendo, the Baypen mascot, a creepy clown in a pork-pie hat, goes homicidal and decides that the only way for Kettle Springs to grow back is to cull the rotten crop of kids who live there now. 

Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis

Lola Nox is the daughter of a celebrated horror filmmaker – she thinks nothing can scare her. But when her father is brutally attacked in their New York apartment, she’s swiftly packed off to live with a grandmother she’s never met in Harrow Lake, the eerie town where her father’s most iconic horror movie was shot.

The locals are weirdly obsessed with the film that put their town on the map – and there are strange disappearances, which the police seem determined to explain away.

And there’s someone – or something – stalking Lola’s every move.

The more she discovers about the town, the more terrifying it becomes. Because Lola’s got secrets of her own. And if she can’t find a way out of Harrow Lake, they might just be the death of her…

Solstice

Solstice by Lorence Alison is a recently released YA horror novel based on the infamous Fyre Festival debacle of 2017. Alison’s novel takes place at the Solstice festival, a similarly exclusive and expensive festival, which our hero, Adri, discovers to be nothing like what was promised. When food and medical supplies run short and then bodies start turning up, the festival goes from uncomfortable to down right dangerous.

Spoiler alerts for the review below.

Solstice is a pretty fast paced novel. I read it in one day and was never once bored with it. Our main character, Adri, is a likable enough lead, and her best friend Elena also comes across as likable, if somewhat spoiled and naive. Once bodies start popping up and the main mystery kicks off, I was really intrigued, especially because Alison’s novel plays its cards close to its chest for a while, and readers aren’t sure if the deaths are the result of human foul play or something supernatural.

Eventually, the perpetrator is revealed to be a giant monster. At first, it’s hinted that the creature, called Diab, might be some sort of shape-shifter and inherently evil, an idea that had me pretty excited. With a shape-shifter, the possibilities for scares and suspense are really endless. Unfortunately, upon the big reveal, we find that Diab is actually just a giant sea monster. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a giant sea creature as much as the next monster kid, but this revelation is somewhat disappointing compared to my expectations. Not to mention, this monster is so big and ravenous that it eventually eats an entire yacht, but the first couple of victims’ bodies are discovered mostly intact. I understand Alison wrote it that way in order to keep us in suspense as to the monster’s nature, but in retrospect, the fact that there are bodies at all, let alone minimally mangled ones, makes very little sense.

Also, with the reveal of the monster, we also get the reveal of the human big bad, Captain Marx. Marx set the whole sham festival up – knowing there was a monster on the island – in order to get a big insurance payout when the festival failed and people died. Suddenly, I felt like I was in a Scooby Doo episode. Captain Marx even gives us the cartoon’s typical big info dump explanation, stopping just short of referring to our heroes as “meddling kids.” Besides being super cheesy, this all just seems a little far fetched. There have got to be better ways to scam insurance companies than banking on a legendary monster to do your dirty work for you.

Solstice is a fun novel, and I enjoyed reading it. If you can get past how silly it eventually gets, you’ll enjoy it too. It’s a fun, light summer read, if not particularly astounding or memorable.

Summer Horror

Summer is officially here, and, at least where I am, it is hot. So I thought I’d kick off my summer of posts with a list of some summer and sun influenced YA horror novels. Now, I’ve read some of these, but not all of them, and I might have left some good ones off the list, so let me know if you have any opinions or recommendations to share.

Solstice: A Tropical Horror Comedy by Lorence Alison

This one is pretty new, and I’ll be posting a review of it sometime in the next week. Loosely based on the infamous Fyre Festival debacle, Solstice revolves around Adri, who disappoints her parents by running away to attend the much-hyped Solstice Festival with her best friend Elena. They’re disappointed to discover that the festival is a mess and nothing like the ads, but things get worse when a body turns up.

I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan

Lois Duncan’s novel was the basis for one of my favorite 90’s teen horror films. The book is a lot different than the movie, but the basic plot is essentially the same: a group of teens cover up a deadly accident and a year later begin receiving notes with the titular warning. Subsequently, attempts are made on their lives.

The Crossroads by Chris Grabenstein (Middle Grade)

Grabenstein’s novel is the first in a series about a boy named Zack, who moves to an old house in a new town with his father and new stepmother. The series is actually Middle Grade, but I read this one a few years ago and liked it so much, I wanted to include it. In Crossroads, Zack spends his summer facing off against the evil spirit of a man killed years before in a fiery car crash near his house. With the help of his new stepmother and a mysterious young boy, can Zack save himself and everyone else from this malevolent entity?

Camp So-and-So by Mary McCoy

Camp So-and-So concerns a group of girls who plan on spending the summer at a prestigious camp run by a famous philanthropist, but all is not as it seems in this novel from Mary McCoy (Dead to Me). I haven’t actually read this one yet, but it sounds super mysterious. I hope on getting to it this summer, so check back here for a review sometime in the near future.

And finally, if those don’t satisfy you, you can always check the following books by R.L. Stine. I haven’t read them, but Stine can always be counted on for a pulpy good time.

Red Spikes

Hey guys, sorry it’s been a long time since I’ve posted. I’m crazy busy right now. Anyway, the collection reviewed here, Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan is not strictly horror, but it does contain some pretty creepy and occasionally disturbing stories, some of which fit into the genre, so I thought I’d leave the review here (I originally posted it on Goodreads) to tide over until I can publish a new actual horror review again.

This book. It’s not what I expected, and I find it hard to put a rating on it. Some stories I loved; one story I hated (seriously, Monkey’s Paternoster-I wish I had never read it).

Baby Jane was a charming opening to the collection. A boy finds his home invaded by a bear, a pregnant queen, and a little man, all from another world. The story was sweet and whimsical an I adored it.

Baby Jane was unfortunately followed by the unpleasant Monkey’s Paternoster. I wish I could unread it. It was unpleasant and nearly caused me to give up on the whole book.

A Good Heart was a short, sweet, melancholy tale that encouraged me to give the overall collection another chance.

Winkie, about a young girl and a giant, was strange and creepy, and my only real complaint is that it could have gone on longer.

A Feather in the Breast of God features a pet bird that comes back from death to save the daughter of the family that kept him. It’s beautifully sweet (and not nearly as saccharine as it sounds). I teared up a little.

Hero Vale was weird and creepy and hard to describe. Another story that I could have lived in a little bit longer.

Under Hell, Over Heaven features workers in the middle ground between hell and heaven, escorting a soul to hell. It’s mean spirited and gruesome and oddly entrancing. I was left melancholy and slightly disturbed by this forbidding idea of the afterlife.

Mouse Maker started out promising but kind of fizzled by the end.

I was originally not terribly impressed with Forever Upward, but it’s hopeful ending left me smiling. Kind of the opposite of how I felt about Mouse Maker.

Finally, Daughter of Clay, tells of a changeling going to fairy land to trade places with the girl whose life she’s living. It’s a bittersweet appropriate end to the collection.

Ultimately, Red Spikes reminded me of a collection of fairy tales, more Grimm than Disney. Charming and whimsical yet also melancholy and disturbing. It’s a hard book to rate. It’s like a box of dark chocolate, rich and filling but not to everyone’s taste.

Except for Monkey’s Paternoster. Seriously, it’s the worst.

Gothic! Ten Original Dark Tales

Gothic! is a horror (although I use that term loosely here) collection, edited by Deborah Noyes, that I first read when I was back in high school. Like most collections, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, although overall it’s enjoyable, if nothing entirely special.

Joan Aiken (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) contributes the first story, “Lungewater,” which is an old fashioned ghost story. Our narrator is on the way to visit her great-aunt at Christmas when she runs into an elderly man who relates the history of a local legend. It’s nothing particularly original, but it’s comforting in a way that I find old fashioned ghost tales tend to be.

Prolific author, Vivian Vande Velde, contributes the first of my two favorite works in the collection. “Morgan Roehmar’s Boys,” also included in her collection, All Hallows’ Eve, concerns a teenage girl working at a haunted hayride on Halloween. It soon become apparent that there are some very real horrors haunting the attraction, and our protagonist will be lucky to make it through the night.

“Watch and Wake” by M.T. Anderson would probably make more sense if I had previously read his novel, Thirsty, which this story shares a (truly bizarre) world with. It’s a weird little story that I don’t remember particularly liking when I first read it years ago, but I appreciate it a lot more now. I’m definitely more inclined to pick up his novel, which I’d always passed over before.

Neil Gaiman’s “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire” is a parody of gothic romances and horror stories. You know the ones: scantily clad women running away from dark castles on the cover? It’s a fun story, which Gaiman has also turned into comic book form, and I recommend checking out that copy.

“Have No Fear, Crumpot is Here!” by Barry Yourgrau was easily my least favorite story in the collection. Our “hero” (another word I use lightly) is the thoroughly obnoxious and unlikable Walter. I’ve never read anything else by Yourgrau, and after reading this story, I certainly wouldn’t want to.

Caitlin R. Kiernan is a fabulous writer, and while “The Dead and the Moonstruck” isn’t her finest work, it’s still one of the better stories in the collection. There’s a lot of mythology crammed into this short story, so it’s really no surprise that it’s a prequel to some of her other work. The protagonist, Starling Jane, also features in Kiernan’s adult novel, Low Red Moon.

“Stone Tour” is by Janni Lee Simner, an author I am not otherwise familiar with. It’s a brief tale of a young girl searching for something she’s lost. It’s sad and, ultimately, sweet, but it doesn’t really last long enough to leave much of an impression.

Gregory Maguire (Wicked) does not turn in his best work with “The Prank,” a tale of bad choices and family secrets. It’s an interesting read, but doesn’t hold a candle to his fairytale adaptations, and honestly almost seems like it’s written by a totally different writer. It doesn’t help that the main character is absolutely unlikable, although I did feel a little sorry for her by the end.

Celia Rees’s story, “Writing on the Wall” was my other favorite when I first read this collection, and I’m pleased to say I still enjoy it now. I love a good haunted house story, and this one doesn’t disappoint.

Garth Nix contributes the final story, appropriately titled, “Endings.” The story is well written, but it’s so brief as to be inconsequential. I know Nix can do better than this. If you want to see him at his best, check out his YA dark fantasy novel, Sabriel, or his adult short horror story, “Shay Corsham Worsted.”

Overall, it’s an entertaining collection, but nothing that ever left a lasting impression on me. It’s a quick read and probably better for older kids and teens just dipping their toes into the horror genre, rather than seasoned horror fans.

Bad Taste in Boys

Bad Taste in Boys by Carrie Harris is a zombie/infection novel. Our heroine Kate is a senior in high school and a science genius who works as an assistant medic for her high school’s football team. Her longtime crush, Aaron, is the quarterback. Kate becomes suspicious when she finds out her coach has dosed some members of the team with a mysterious, experimental injection. This injection is supposed to be a performance enhancer, but it begins to turn the infected into essentially zombies, mindless and cannibalistic, who can then pass along the disease to those around them. Kate spends the book trying to get to the bottom of the mystery involving the injections and attempting to come up with a cure.

So what did I think of it?

Okay, I want to get the serious stuff out of the way first. I had a big problem with one particular aspect of the book: Kate gets groped by a guy at a party and then mentions she hooked up with him once while drunk and now he thinks she’s easy. Her BFF also still gives her a hard time about the hook up. The same guy proceeds to grope her again and later force a kiss on her. She essentially shrugs off all the encounters. This. Is. Not. Cool. And I think, honestly, my main problem with the whole thing is that the book treats it so lightly. Granted the book was published in 2011 before the Me Too movement forced Americans to really think about and understand the definition of Consent. Still, this kind of brush off in a book aimed at teenagers seems inappropriate. At least, it certainly rubbed me the wrong way, and I had to discuss it before getting into the rest of my review.

On a much less serious note, another big problem I had with the book is that Kate never tells an adult until almost the very end. The zombie disease is clearly dangerous and extremely contagious, but Kate spends most of the book trying to figure the infection out on her own, rather than contacting authorities. She tries to put together the information she knows and pass it along to the team’s official doctor…who specializes in gynecology and acupuncture, not exactly someone who would be expert on infectious diseases. Eventually Kate contacts the health department, but this happens in the last 1/4 of the book. (Needless to say they ignore her at this point, but to be fair she doesn’t try very hard).

Kate also takes her sweet time getting to the bottom of things herself and although privately panicking, never thinks to inform anyone that they might be in danger. She needs to alert the police, the hospitals, the CDC, people who are more capable at handling this than teenagers. She doesn’t even call the police when she stumbles across a dead body, a victim of one of the zombies. At one point, Kate even lets a friend go home with someone she knows to be infected without warning her. In real life, Kate wouldn’t be a hero at the end of all this, she’d be in serious trouble for not letting the authorities handle it.

If it seems from the above paragraphs that I didn’t like this book, I’m sorry. It was actually really enjoyable, and I do plan on checking out the sequel. Kate is, for the most part, a likable narrator and at times her narration is laugh out loud funny. Her love interest is adorable, although he’s not really given much to do, and I also really liked the character of her younger brother, Jonah. I do recommend Bad Taste for those looking for a fun, light read; I just recommend it with the above mentioned caveats.

Non-Review of Undead

I actually started Undead by Kirsty McKay several years ago, but, for some reason I can no longer recall, I got about halfway through and then never finished it. I remembered enjoying the parts I did read, and so a few weeks ago, when I was looking for a good cold weather book, I decided to check this one out from the library and give it another shot. Was it worth the extended wait?

Well…no, because I dnf-ed it again. I don’t know what it is about this book. It’s entertaining. It’s not badly written. It’s snowy horror and I love snowy horror! But, for one reason or another, I just couldn’t get into it. And so I put it down. Again.

One day, Undead, I will finish you. I will give you the attention you deserve, and I will finish you. I will probably even enjoy you. But today, is not that day. Tomorrow probably won’t be either. But eventually, you and I will be friends, and I’ll follow your snowy zombies all the way to the sequel.

One day.

The Shadowing: Hunted

The Shadowing: Hunted by Adam Slater is a spooky little book, perfect for curling up with on a cold winter’s night. At less than 200 pages, it’s also a short read and with its fast pace, a quick one.

Hunted is about a boy named Callum, who can see ghosts. He’s been able to see them all his life, although he’s never told anyone. The ghosts are spooky but boring; they don’t ever seem to see Callum. Callum lives with his Gran in a little cottage on the other side of woods from his small town. His mum died several years before, and he’s never met his dad, so when he starts seeing other creatures, besides the usual ghosts, he doesn’t know who to turn to. A demon is after Callum, and he’ll have to figure out, quickly, who to trust if he’s going to have any hope of defeating it.

Hunted is the first book in a trilogy, and I am already eager to read the next two books. Although this one could have used a little more depth to its characters, I otherwise appreciated the way Slater immediately plunges readers into the action of the story. The demon on Callum’s trail is legitimately creepy and the murders it commits gruesome. The stakes are set high from the very beginning, and I can imagine the books will only get more thrilling as Callum’s story progresses. I highly recommend this to readers looking for fast-paced thrills and chills. The second book is already sitting on my shelf, so I’ll let you know if it holds up to this one.

Nightmare City

Nightmare City by Andrew Klavan is…not great, if I’m being completely honest. I had high expectations for it; the plot sounded really interesting. Here’s an excerpt from the back cover: “The streets of his town are suddenly empty and silent. A strange fog has drifted in from the sea and hangs over everything. And something is moving in that fog. Something evil. Something hungry. Closing in on Tom.”

Sounds pretty cool right? Unfortunately it’s an interesting idea marred by its execution.

The first problem is the writing. While, based on subject matter and marketing, the book is clearly aimed at teens, the actual writing feels more like it’s aimed at younger children. A lot of the sentences are short, often fragmented. For example, “Tom sat up in bed, tossing the comforter aside. He shook his head to clear it. Weird call. Weird noise. Woke him up out of that great dream too. What was it? Oh yeah, he remembered: heaven.”

There’s also a lot of telling, rather than showing, which can doom a book. We’re told that Tom’s “blue eyes shone out intense, smart, steely and unwavering. His features were narrow and sharp, serious and purposeful…anyone else who looked at him recognized a young man who knew how to go after what he wanted, a young man who could not easily be turned away.” But we’re not shown it. If anything, throughout the book Tom comes across the opposite of all of the above; he’s self-conscious, awkward, and more than a little dense.

Klaven also often feels the need to define things he’s not sure his readers will get, like the definition of “malevolence,” or, more distractingly, during a hospital scene, what scrubs are. This would not be so out of place in a book for younger readers, but it’s kind of insulting to teens to treat them like they need so much explanation.

Then there’s the somewhat heavy handed Christianity aspect. I’m sure there are readers who may not be bothered by that, may even appreciate it, but to me, it came across as distracting and cliche. I was able to overlook it at first, but as it became more overt, it became harder to see past. Especially when Tom talks to Lisa, who discusses with Tom the nature of heaven and gives him advice based on Biblical quotes. She also leaves him with her cross necklace for protection, reminding him that God is with him. Again, I recognize that this will not bother some readers, but I was a little thrown off by my horror novel veering into “Inspirational Fiction” territory. That’s partially my fault though; if I had looked into the author a little more I would have seen that he is also the author of some more overtly Christian works.

Another problem I had is the depiction of women. Calling the female characters weak is an understatement. Lisa is okay; she starts out marginally interesting, although she kind of devolves into a stereotypical “good Christian girl” as the book goes on. Meanwhile, Marie is mostly described by her looks. Tom has supposedly been crushing on her for years, but the book doesn’t really explain why except that she is really pretty. That she eventually turns out to be villainous is telegraphed from the beginning. Between Lisa and Marie, you have the pure good girl and the duplicitous temptress. I am more than a little tired of women being reduced to one or the other in fiction, especially fiction written by men.

Finally, the book is pretty predictable. I don’t want to give anything away, but seasoned readers will probably guess what direction this book is going pretty quickly. That direction also doesn’t happen to be particularly scary, which is a letdown for a book with such a creepy premise.

I read Nightmare City pretty quickly, and I wasn’t ever really bored by it (although certain parts got repetitive), so I’m not going to say you shouldn’t read it. Just be aware of what you’re getting into before opening the cover and maybe you won’t feel as let down as I was. There is probably an audience for this book. It just wasn’t me.