Arriving just in time for Novella Month, with a diverse and LGBTQ cast of characters, is debut-author Dalena Storm’s The Hungry Ghost, a chilling tale of love, lust, and desire and the often blurred line between them.
In The Hungry Ghost, a woman named Sam is caught between her alcoholic (and rather pathetic) ex-husband Peter; her young and determined would-be paramour, Madeline; and her own trepidations over letting anyone else inside her heart (or her newly-earned freedom, for that matter, being only six months out from a divorce). She’s been stretched too thin for too long, caught between obligations to her family, lovers, and work that are painfully familiar. The details of Sam’s life are vague and inconsequential, but it’s her condition that’s all too common. Who hasn’t felt bossed around, pushed around, and heaped upon when all they really want is space to breathe? Who hasn’t been faced with the uncomfortable position of having to navigate expectations thrown upon them by someone else—most particularly those who’ve claimed to love us—when they haven’t even fully come to terms with themselves? There is something insidious about that context--a darkness that lingers on the edges of your mind worrying over not only whether we are “good enough?” but “good enough to be desired?” and hints that the consequences of such desire may be more destructive than simply being enough.
There is a nagging loneliness that permeates the pages of The Hungry Ghost, beginning in its first chapter as Sam dresses for a date with Madeline and persists in every page of what is a quick, paper cut-like read--sharp, stinging, and unrelenting. When an accident puts Sam in a coma, she is pushed out of her own body by a hungry ghost, a mainstay in Tibetan Buddhism (Storm has a degree in Asian Studies) that represents beings who are driven by intense emotional needs in an animalistic way. Sam, meanwhile, finds a new emotional and physical security in the body of a newly-born kitten in a pet shop helmed by an African American orphan-turned-business owner with a big dose of magical predisposition and a tendency to name his cats after music’s greats—Macy Grey, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson. Those who ‘love’ Sam—Peter, Madeline, and her mother, Bianca—are forced to face the garish reality that the woman who Sam has become is not the woman they desperately wanted her to be—a realization as literal as it could be figurative, while Sam has to learn to let go of…well, everything. It’s a fight for Sam’s humanity in possibly the most disturbing way possible.
With her limited role in her own story, as a protagonist Sam is something of a stand-in for each of us—a mirror reflection that gives us an opportunity to get outside of our own heads and come to terms with the weight of the world around us. At turns chilling and always-haunting, The Hungry Ghost is an essay on modern love and the dark side of desire that gives us the chance to reconsider the balance between our own needs and desire—whether it is “them” who are the hungry ghosts, or if, instead, it is us.
Coming from Black Spot Books 6.11.19 (learn more).
If you’re looking for a new young adult sci-fi adventure to fall in love with this Valentine’s Day, might I suggest Apocalypse Five--the first in the Archive of the Fives series, upcoming from author Stacey Rourke, which is set to be published by Black Spot Books on February 12th 2019.
Like a swift punch to the gut, Apocalypse Five starts off with the sudden burst of energy of a rocket ship—literally—as readers are plunged headfirst into the jarring and unpredictable reality of Earth’s future (spoiler alert: don’t get too attached to anyone you meet in the first chapter).
Stationed aboard the AT-1-NS space station, the A-5—highly trained and deadly—are little more than children forced into a militarised combat life. Per 17-year old team-leader Detroit, nameless cadets begin their training as soon as they’re old enough to “stand without wobbling,” foregoing (unwittingly) a life of human emotion and connection. Instead, they are forced into virtual simulations to practice saving Earth—which is now populated with humanoid things while what’s left of humanity’s chosen people live a glamorous, synthetic existence in space. Only the best soldiers are chosen to become part of the mock-celebrity elite A-5 team, but it’s not all pomp and circumstance here; it’s a high-stakes game where a game over on the grid is a brutal death sentence with all the gore and pain you’d expect in a proper sci-fi combat scenario.
When team-leader Detroit—a kickass, sharp-tongued, and totally self-aware lady of color—is sent on a solo mission that’s a little too real to be a simulation, she finds all she has come to believe—or, rather, has been brainwashed into believing—might not be true after all. Of course, as these things go, when she and the rest of her team—including love-interest Houston, ginger twins Juneau and Reno, and probably the most teenage-angsty, dread/mohawked dude ever, Augusta—take their concerns to the political and military leader of their universe, Chancellor Washington, he does what a classic sci-fi villain always does: prove them correct. The A-5 find themselves in a run-or-die situation as they head back to Earth—only this time it’s not the simulated one that they’ve been training to “protect”, but the real one, and they’re not there to protect Earth, they’re there to save it…from them. With their feet firmly on the scorched and battle-drained dirt of the real world, the A-5 quickly discover the depth of the lies programmed into their psyche and the consequences of what their specialised “training” has done to the very actually-human people of Earth, who are now little more than resource mills—from foodstuffs to children—for the AT-1-NS regime. It’s impossible to tell the rest of the plot without spoilers, so you’re going to have to check this one out for yourself. (There are androids, and really cool bracelet weapons, and some rather chuckle-worthy nods to current pop culture, too.)
There are some tropey genre-mainstays in this new series that fit it firmly within the ranks of a typical YA SFF—a good bit of eye-batting between Detroit and Houston, fashionable spacesuits and an obsession with fancy outfits, laser guns with dubious technology, and a head-honcho bad guy(s)—but Apocalypse Five also includes unexpected and refreshing elements that make it a breath of fresh air in genre saturated with cheesy love triangles and fickle white girls trying to play badass (yeah, I said it, fight me).
This isn’t just a story about kids who fight back against a power-hungry regime, but one that embeds a critical social message at its heart. While Detroit and her team are busy fighting Washington and the fury released from the Fortress at their insurgency while trying to save the people of earth—including a newborn baby who is, like all cadets, intended to be fed to the ranks of the soldiers-to-come aboard the AT-1-NS—what Rourke is really writing is so much more than just another dystopian book. With a cast of strong, empowered women—from Olympia (the ill-fated original leader of the A5), Detroit and Juneau; to the leaders of the Air Walkers and the Floaters (two of the three tribes of Earth introduced in the first book); to new mother Remi and enduring baby Adalyn, this story is a call for women to stand up against oppression, to find our own power, and for everyone to take up arms and fight to save what’s left of our humanity in a world that would sooner see us turn on each other rather than unite as one.
Apocalypse Five is a fresh breath into a genre thick with same-as-always stories with a tale ripe with classic dystopian elements and soft science fiction, as well as a healthy dose of female empowerment, diversity, and the social critique that we’ve been waiting for.
Coming from Black Spot Books 2.12.19 (learn more).
With Thanksgiving (finally) behind us, it's time to settle into the end of the year and get cozy with a good book (or six). I usually take December off from writing to catch up on some reading, and while others are enjoying heart-warming holiday romances I am - as usual - erring on a bit more of the darker side. Be it a Yuletide fantasy, a dark romp with Krampus, a little holiday irreverence, or some holiday screams, here is what I am reading (and in some cases rereading) this December.
The Winter Riddle by Sam Hooker
I've been looking forward to this one all year. An antisocial winter witch teams up with a less than jolly Santa? Yes, please. It also helps that it's written by my friend and fellow author, the always brilliant and ceaselessly hilarious Sam Hooker, responsible for the Terribly Serious Darkness books. Review to come. Get your copy.
Krampus: The Yule Lord by Brom
I love the myth of Krampus, and what I heard of this book last year when my husband read snippets of it aloud (between his fits of laughter), so decided to give it a go myself this year. If you're looking to pitch Santa back up to the North Pole, or otherwise want to terrify your kids, consider Krampus. Review to come. Get your copy.
Hark! The Herald Angels Scream by Christopher Golden
I'm a big fan of short story anthologies, and bought this when it released in October. As noted by the anthology's editor, there is darkness at the heart of the season, and we've long been telling ghost stories about it. I cannot wait to dig into this. Review to come. Get your copy.
A Christmas Blizzard by Garrison Keillor
What's better than a slow-burning holiday tragedy penned by a curmudgeonly author? Nothing. This is one of those stories I read every year - a wonderful farce delivered only as a storyteller as masterful as Garrison Keillor could spin. (#protip: Listen to a few back episodes of A Prairie Home Companion so you can get your narration voice straight before cracking this one open). Get your copy.
Skipping Christmas by John Grisham
Another annual read, this story speaks to my inner Luther Krank--someone who is over the holiday insanity and just wants to go relax on a beach somewhere. The book that inspired the film Christmas with the Kranks, if you've ever just gotten sick of holiday madness, this one will make you giggle and still manage to give your Grinchy heart a little boost, too. Get your copy.
Old Christmas by Washington Irving
Stay in your lane, Charles Dickens, and leave Olde English Christmas to Washington Irving, the author who brought us The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. If you've not read this true Christmas classic, it's time to leave Scrooge to count his coins and read this oft-forgotten classic instead. (#protip: Get the illustrated version.) Get your copy.
My lifelong love affair with Anne Rice and her Vampire Chronicles is rather well-documented.
After two books of alternating points of view--Prince Lestat (2014) and Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis (2016)-- Rice, and Lestat, are back in the newly released Blood Communion. In a first person narrative flouting more dialogue than previous books in the series, the eleventh installment in Rice’s Vampire Chronicles sees the charmingly insufferable vampire continuing more or less the same path he’s been on for the past few centuries: seeking a beautiful respite and fame for his unquenchable ego, and comforting himself with insincere self-flagellation every step of the way. Indeed, told completely from the perspective of The Brat Prince himself, Blood Communion is exactly the sort of epicurean tale you might expect from the vampire who simultaneously laments each of his numerous mistakes while continually ignoring any wisdom that might prevent him from making his next.
It is Lestat de Lioncourt in all his pompous, velvet-cloaked, self-indulgent glory, and we love him—and Rice—for it.
For those of us loyal People of the Page who have tired of worrying how, if, or (for-the-freaking-love-of-Akasha) when Amel’s consciousness might be extracted from Lestat or about the motives of the replimoids (in fact, there is mercifully little mentioned about Kapetria or Amel until the final few pages), this is the story we have been waiting for. Once again, the ever self-absorbed and easily besmitten vampire romances himself through his own panderings, all the way from a superficial infatuation with newcomer Dmitri Fontayne (or Mitka, as he prefers), a former lover of none other than Pandora, who beguiles Lestat with his fragile hands, impressive wardrobe, and well-furnished home (sound familiar?), to the quickly dispatched Baudwin. This latter is ultimately ended by his maker, a newly introduced ancient Gundesanth (Santh), who, as it turns out was a member of the Queen’s blood priesthood and companion of Nebamun (known now as Gregory). Alas, it wouldn’t be fitting for a new addition in the Vampire Chronicles if it didn’t introduce and subsequently forget new characters at lightning speed.
"[blood communion] is Lestat de Lioncourt in all his pompous, velvet-cloaked, self-indulgent glory, and we love him—and Rice—for it."
In an installment that is most reminiscent of The Vampire Lestat (1985), Rice’s latest, lushly-written addition to the Chronicles acts as a sort of bookend to the series Louis kicked off, returning us back to the mortal days of Lestat. It is, also, perhaps the most unabashed love letter from Rice in all her glorious descriptions of Lestat. We revisit some of the most impactful, character-shaping moments of his personal history—Claudia's death, the conversion of Gabrielle, the tryst with Memnoch, et cetera—and see the culmination of these moments arrived as Lestat finally achieves the proper nobility he has desired since his mortal days in his family’s crumbling castle in France.
Though the novel lags in the beginning and feels somewhat rushed toward the end, there are moments of intense action and violence in Blood Communion, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Queen of the Damned. Two such scenes of note involve the ill-fated Rhoshamandes (yes, finally) and his beloved Benedict. It is Lestat himself who cheaply head butts and then rips the former’s head from his ancient body, subsequently ingesting and then vomiting back Rhosh’s eyes. The second gruesome death of note (although it happens prior to Rhosh’s) is when poor Benedict terminates his own immortality (shortly after delivering Lestat an actual throne) in a gory exit that makes the stage scene of the young French woman in the Théâtre des Vampires look positively G-rated.
Of course, Rhosh’s eventual demise has been long awaited, and Lestat honors though does not participate in Benedict’s. However, if you’ve ever expected The Brat Prince to actually face consequences—from condemning poor Claudia to short-lived immortality, to destroying the Théâtre des Vampires (something over which Armand is still deliciously bitter), to teaming up (albeit-temporarily) with the blood queen Akasha, to continually and incessantly ignoring the insight and caution of Louis, Armand, Marius or any of the other blood drinkers Lestat clams to love yet never actually shows any affection—or to perhaps grow into the maturity of a centuries-old vampire, it isn’t happening here. Not even and perhaps especially not know that he enjoys the role of crowned Prince, a position he ceaselessly wrings his hands over (and which is constantly reinforced by vampires who, after Akasha, might know better!). Instead, any maturity we might find in Lestat is tempered by his own grandiose musings as he comforts himself with his progress in establishing the court, hosts decadent balls and ceremonies, restores his ancestral home—Chateau de Lioncourt—and the surrounding village, considers and then bestows the Dark Gift to his lead architect, and still manages to come out of yet another challenge to his dominance not only the winner, but somehow improved. He is, for better or worse, the same bratty blond vampire he has always been—just maybe a little less repentant about it.
But then so are the rest of the vampires. The always-dramatic Armand. The ever-inconsolable Louis. The incessantly-brooding Marius. Gabrielle, who remains as elusive and temporal as Pandora. But perhaps therein is Rice’s subtle nod to a simple truth—the suggestion that despite all its flaws and all its imperfections, that no matter how long removed from the realm of the living, no matter how well preserved in velvet and beautiful immortality, the human condition persists within us all.
Blood Communion is the necessary next step of the Court as we have come to know and love them, and it is Lestat de Lioncourt as we simply can’t live without him.
All hail Prince Lestat!