Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman

RATING: TASTED

Josh Malerman seems to be the king of sensory horror. He wrote Bird Box, the novel that was adapted into the Netflix film featuring Sandra Bullock, mass suicides, and blindfolds. I didn’t read the book, but I found Bird Box to be a good horror movie; you never find out what the beings are that compel hoards of people to commit suicide, and this unknown is a huge piece in what makes it so scary. It evokes a fear of the unknown, as well as making viewers watch their nightmares unfold. The sensory horror element in this story (the mysterious beings) are a catalyst for the events in the movie, not the main event in the story, and that is what makes it okay that you never find out that information. In Black Mad Wheel, the blindfolds would have been earplugs, as the sensory element is hearing, instead of sight. I found Black Mad Wheel to be a very similar story in some aspects; it has a lot of the elements that Bird Box does, it uses the same storytelling method, and the author doesn’t give you all of the information in order to form your own speculations and opinions. Although overall it was a pretty thrilling story, it didn’t really hit the target in the end with the horror, and I thought the ending was severely lacking.  

Both stories are told in a flashback sort of way – one chapter is told in the present, and the next flashes back to the beginning of the story, and it’s told in this alternating fashion as both timelines build up to the major plot points of the book, where the timelines become one and the story finishes out. This isn’t my favorite storytelling method. It does lend to the fear aspect of the book, definitely, as you can see what the aftermath is and you piece together and form theories on how the earlier story got to that point, but I just do not enjoy the jumping around very much. It can disintegrate the cohesiveness of the story if the author can’t execute this method perfectly, and I’m not sure Malerman had perfected the method when he wrote this story.

Black Mad Wheel is the story of a rock band who was recruited by the Army to go to Africa in search of a mysterious sound in the middle of the desert. This band, The Danes, was an Army band during WWII, and was recruited because they were previously in the Army and were believed to have some extra expertise on sound. The sound, as it turns out, makes you violently ill from hearing it. It can disable weapons and break every bone in a man’s body.  Whether the Army wants to harness the sound, or just get rid of it, The Danes’ mission is simply to find the source. This premise is very unique, much like Bird Box was, and I was really excited to read the novel. But in the end, the story was pretty deflated and I felt like it was completely wasted.

My biggest complaint is that the premise of the novel wasn’t explored NEARLY enough, and so the conclusion was incredibly lacking in any real resolution. I feel like Malerman had a great idea when he created Bird Box, and given that we have five senses, he probably felt like he could go somewhere with that, and thus Black Mad Wheel was born. The idea is fantastic, it’s original, and it had so much potential, but there are so many questions that he left unanswered, so many avenues he left unexplored, that the ending was a supreme let down. The bulk of the story was the lead up to and the aftermath of this mission, which was enough sensory horror to instill you with the sense of fear of the unknown, but when it came to the point of the mission, Malerman didn’t answer ANY questions on what the sound was, where it came from, what it really did. I get that this was so the reader could draw their own conclusions based on the information they were given, but he gives so little information, and some conflicting information, that it’s really hard to draw those conclusions. The sound was a catalyst for the story, but it was also an ENTIRE plot point for the story, and by not delivering on that front, it leaves you feeling unsatisfied in the end. Like I said earlier, with Bird Box, this is admissible, since it’s not the entire point of the story, it’s simply the catalyst for the story. But the sound in this story IS the story. And it’s as if Malerman half-concocted this idea and couldn’t figure out how to explain it at all, so he explained what he could come up with, and just settled for letting the reader do all the heavy lifting. I do feel like the story itself was good, the premise was good, and it was an engaging read. But it’s like Malerman made this amazing chocolate cake, and then finished it by topping it with nacho cheese sauce. Yes, the cake was really good, but the topping ruins the entire thing. It’s so incredibly frustrating that the buildup was so good, just to have such a hard let down.

Another aspect I wasn’t big on was the romance in the novel. It really had no place in this story. It was haphazardly thrown together at the end, with no buildup, and I just couldn’t get over this fact. It was superfluous to the story, it added no depth, no character development, and it didn’t enrich the story, so I don’t understand why it was written in. This is just a small piece of the story, so it’s not enough to ruin the entire thing, but it is something that irks me. Along with this, there was really no character development. I get that with a horror novel, this isn’t a huge thing, since the point of the story is the scary, but the main character didn’t really seem to have any depth. He didn’t have a personality, he didn’t seem to have any goals, no real relationships even with his bandmates, and a boring character doesn’t make you feel too tied to the story.

The redeeming quality of the book was the captivating quality of the story. I was hooked for a majority of it, and the premise is thoroughly creepy enough to keep you engaged. I enjoyed taking part in the journey the main character and his band were on, I was rooting for him in the hospital, I was afraid of what was going to happen to him. I was emotionally invested in the story, and that makes a book good to read. The ending of a book can make or break it, though, and it really broke the story for me. It was thoroughly unsatisfying and left me with so many questions, that it made it unenjoyable in the end.

Overall, I think I’d give this 3/5 stars. It wasn’t awful, but it didn’t inspire me to read any more of Malerman’s work. Hopefully if he writes another sensory horror, maybe on smell or touch, it will have much better exploration of the main plot points, and depending on how well reviewed it is, I might give it a shot.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

RATING: DEVOURED

My favorite thing to do when I travel is to visit local independent bookstores. Sometimes I grab a book to commemorate my visit, and sometimes I just like to browse and take in the personality of the book store. When I visited London in 2017, I passed a bookstore called Waterstones and of course, I wanted to go in and take a look around. Waterstones seems to be the British equivalent of a Barnes & Noble, but it was a bookstore I’d never heard of, and I ended up finding the subject of this review in there. It’s been three years since I bought it and I finally sat down and read this beautiful novel.

Since I found this book in London, I expected it to be set in the UK, or at least Europe. However, the entire story is set in the US and features a nearly all American cast, save a linguist from Quebec and a geneticist from Greece. You read through a series of interviews conducted by an unnamed interviewer, case reports, news articles, and journal entries as if you are actually reading the case file on the project in question. It gives you that feeling that you are reading an actual, non-fiction file of something that really occurred. The journal entries and articles are few and far between, with the meat of the story being told through interviews, but these give you key information and perspectives that wouldn’t otherwise be revealed.

The project is this: a giant, glowing metal hand of an impossible makeup of metals is found in a field accompanied by a set of symbols that cannot be translated. None of this can be dated (although scientists believe it has been buried for over 3,000 years), and it seems to be of alien origin. We follow the four main players on the team as they attempt to figure out the makeup of the hand, make sense of the symbols, discover the origin of the hand, and locate more body parts that may be scattered over Earth. All headed by Dr. Rose Franklin, the physicist who originally found the hand as a child.

I loved the premise of the book; it’s why I bought the book in the first place. When I began the book, there were so many potential story lines I could think of and so many endings. I had a million guesses on what I would events I would be reading about, and I was right about none of them. I find this incredibly satisfying because any avid reader can tell you that once you’ve read so many books, story lines become pretty predictable. Sometimes the predictability can be satisfying, but most of the times it’s tiring to read stories that you already know the ending to. I thoroughly enjoyed the way the story is written as well. The interviews were the perfect way to instill that feeling that maybe you are reading something that truly happened. It’s almost like the book equivalent of the Blair Witch Project. The fact that the interviewer is never named, and you can never tell what their motives are just lends to the unpredictability of the story.

I can’t complain about the ending either. The ending of the actual story (via interviews) isn’t anything special, but the Epilogue is just amazing. It ends in a cliffhanger that leaves you wanting more. Neuvel delivered, too. I found out that Sleeping Giants is the first installment in the Themis Files trilogy, and you can bet that the next chance I get, I will be grabbing up the final two books and devouring them as well.

An interesting part of this story is the Greek mythology aspect of it. The name of the trilogy comes from the Greek Titaness of the same name. Themis (pronounced theme-iss) is the Titaness of divine law – you can often see her outside of court houses, holding a sword in one hand and scales in the other. And when I looked her up, I found myself falling down a Wikipedia rabbit hole about the Titans and who they were. And this is the essence of Sleeping Giants; I found so many parallels between the two stories. I love finding things like this in my research about books, and especially finding out what aspects of a story are tied to aspects of other stories, or to true events. It’s a way to keep the book alive after you’ve finished it.

My only complaint about this book would be the apex of the story – it just didn’t do it for me. The rest of the story and the writing more than made up for this, but I just didn’t like that the main climax of the story was kind of a let down. The buildup to this point was great – you’re clinging on to this book and wondering what on Earth could possibly happen next, and then it happens, and it’s just mediocre. I’m really interested in finding out what the meat and bones of the next story in the series will be. I’ve read the synopsis and it sounds like it will definitely be action packed, and the story sounds like the logical next step in the story, so we will see.

If I gave this a star rating, I’d say it was 4/5 stars. I really loved the premise, it’s pretty unique. I enjoyed all the Greek mythology Easter eggs that were thrown in – I hope he really explores this in the rest of the series.  And even though the climax of the story wasn’t the greatest, I think the rest of the story more than made up for that. I devoured this book so quickly because it was so easy to get into and it didn’t take a lot of reading to get to the good parts of the story. Neuvel had me hooked from the beginning, and hopefully he will have me hooked through the conclusion of the trilogy.

Bright Side by Kim Holden

RATING: TASTED

I love a good, devastating book. Those books that bring you to tears every other chapter, the ones that break your heart, the ones that you can’t stop thinking about after it ends, wondering if the characters will be okay. I LOVE a good book that just ruins you. I get in the mood to read them quite a lot, and I’ve read many books like this, Bright Side included. But I hated Bright Side with a passion.

Another flight attendant recommended this book to me because I was saying I really needed a good “ruin me” book. If I had solely read the synopsis, I definitely wouldn’t have known what I was in for; it’s pretty short, it doesn’t give the meat of the story away, and it’s hard to tell exactly what kind of story lies within (the makings of a well written synopsis). The fact that the book was recommended and the way it was recommended made it really easy to guess what the ending would be before the halfway mark, though. I won’t lie, the book absolutely ruined me, I bawled my eyes out at least twice, and had tears more often than that. But this book got on my last nerve. And the reason lies SOLELY in the main character and how she was written.

The main character, Kate, is a college freshman attending school halfway across the country from home and her best friend and family. As you make your way through the story, you learn all the different tough things she’s been through, and she still carries on. She frequently describes herself as this nearly perfect person, in a “humble” way. She has the perfect body, she has the perfect personality. Everyone loves her, everyone is in love with her. She makes friends incredibly fast, and she turns everyone’s lives around. She’s dealt with all this crap, and she is still graceful, hopeful, optimistic, and she always “looks on the bright side”.

WE GET IT. YOU’RE PERFECT. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU.

And I was so sick of it by the time I was a quarter of the way through the book. I honestly don’t know what kept me reading. It might have just been the principle of having started it and needing to finish it. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with writing a character who has integrity, who is genuinely a good person, who can remain optimistic in hard times. Those people exist in the real world, I know some of those people. They’re a joy to know and love. I get that Kate might be a device to illustrate the “bad things happen to good people” trope, or the author was projecting her ideal personality onto the main character. Maybe both. But it is so INCREDIBLY tiring to read constantly about this person who is so perfect, believes she is so perfect and won’t stop mentioning it, but nobody thinks that she’s vain or tiresome. It’s not realistic. And it gives the main character NO ROOM for character development. Where can you go if you’ve already peaked, at age 19? Definitely not up.

It also KILLS me that the main character has these amazing “friends” that she does all these amazing things for. She gets beat up to try and break up a fight involving a friend. She gets her other friend to go to therapy and this is life changing. She sets up another friend with a girl he barely knows and somehow they are a match made in heaven. She does all these selfless things for her friends, but her friends have NO DYNAMIC because they aren’t given a chance to illustrate who they are and how they add to HER life. They are completely one dimensional, and the only purpose they serve in the book is to further the agenda of writing the main character up as this angelic, saint-like person who is incredibly selfless and amazing. How come her friends couldn’t play a more active role? Save her for once? Give them some purpose and some meaning, Holden. My goodness. Her friends had such potential to be amazing and really add some depth to the story and the author really just phoned it in on them.

I was incredibly surprised to log into goodreads and look this book up to see it had an average rating of 4.3/5 stars. It made me think maybe I was being too cynical about the main character being too perfect. I mean, that’s what books are for right? For ideal characters who can live their lives to the fullest? But I just can’t push away the fact that the purpose of a story is development. That’s what separates a story from a diary, or a list of things that happen in chronological order. And this just completely lacked in character development through the whole thing. For everyone. Except maybe her best friend Gus, but his character development is still pretty one dimensional. Just because something happens to a character, doesn’t mean it’s automatically character development. As for the story – it was decent once you got past the irritating main character. It was enough to keep me entertained, although I can’t tell if it was like watching a train wreck, or if it was genuine entertainment. The story was pretty predictable by about halfway through, and there was only one little plot point that I actually didn’t see coming. The whole book was one big cliché, though. If there was a rating less than tasted while still having ate the entire thing, this book would have it.

If I had to give it a number rating, I would give Bright Side 2/5 stars because it was decent enough to at least read it through to the end. But like I’ve repeatedly said, it got on my very last nerve.

Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

RATING: DEVOURED

This title caught my attention in a Books A Million store in the mall on one of my frequent trips during long Baltimore layovers.  Stephen Chbosky is known for his only other work, Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is one of my favorites, and which also has a fantastic movie adaptation.  Of course, I was interested in finding out what brought him out of seeming retirement 20 years after his original work, and hopefully reading another hit. 

I was incredibly surprised to read the synopsis and find that this work was a polar opposite from Perks.  It is categorized as horror and thriller, while Perks is a young adult coming-of-age novel. Here’s the original synopsis:

“A young boy is haunted by a voice in his head in this acclaimed epic of literary horror from the author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Christopher is seven years old. Christopher is the new kid in town. Christopher has an imaginary friend.
We can swallow our fear or let our fear swallow us.
Single mother Kate Reese is on the run. Determined to improve life for her and her son, Christopher, she flees an abusive relationship in the middle of the night with her child. Together, they find themselves drawn to the tight-knit community of Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. It’s as far off the beaten track as they can get. Just one highway in, one highway out.
At first, it seems like the perfect place to finally settle down. Then Christopher vanishes. For six long days, no one can find him. Until Christopher emerges from the woods at the edge of town, unharmed but not unchanged. He returns with a voice in his head only he can hear, with a mission only he can complete: Build a treehouse in the woods by Christmas, or his mother and everyone in the town will never be the same again.”

This synopsis is a fantastic one. It gives you the impression that this is going to be an eerie book, but it gives almost nothing away and really doesn’t prepare you for the story you are about to read and become a part of.  The story itself was incredibly well thought out, which compared to the last “horror” novel I read, improved my horror reading experience greatly. 

I have a problem with horror novels in that the ones I pick out are not all that scary. Yes, they have that eerie element to them you won’t find in a drama or a love story, but they’re not scary. Obviously, it’s a lot harder for novels to be scary than for movies to be scary, because they have to be scary in a different way, but it’s definitely possible. The scariest book I read gave me nightmares for a week (House by Frank E. Peretti and Ted Dekker). I recently read Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman (the same author who wrote Bird Box), and I was thoroughly unimpressed by the work as a whole. I’ll probably write a review about this in another post but my main complaint was that the entire premise of the story, what the element of horror was in the book, was not explored or explained enough to really instill that eerie, chilling feeling you’re supposed to get. The feeling of something creeping in the shadows of your home that makes you uneasy after reading horror.  Malerman came up with this amazing premise that had so much promise, and he did not deliver because he tried to use the shock factor, and then he left too many questions about it unanswered, and too many elements were unexplained. It’s really hard to be scared when you don’t know why something is scary.

Chbosky’s story was different.  He came up with this amazing horror premise and he delivered the scary on every front. The psychological aspect was chilling. The suspense had me HOOKED from chapter 6 and I could not put it down. The characters and horror elements had me freaking out for this 7-year-old kid. The book is over 700 pages long, so it takes a really long time to piece together what is happening, but it isn’t predictable, and the whole idea is explained enough to satisfy that need to make sense of the story and really grasp why this is scary. I made some guesses on who the characters were, who the bad guys were, and what was going to happen, and came to find out most of my guesses were wrong by the end of the book. This is extremely satisfying to me because I have reached my threshold of reading thrillers that have predictable story lines and endings. 

Another aspect of the book that I found interesting were the constant biblical allegories. The main character is a child who is growing up in the catholic church. One of the main supporting characters is a 17-year-old girl who has grown up a devout catholic. There are so many parallels, especially in the last quarter of the book, that you can draw between the bible & bible stories and the story that is happening.  The book came with a reading group guide of discussion questions and this even comprises two questions. 

I did have mixed feelings about this book, however. I’m unsure how I feel about how long the book was. I don’t think that it could’ve been condensed or that any events could have been left out, but I do think that it had so much happening over such a great length (I think I read over 350 pages that took place over the course of 24 hours in the story and it was just one long, drawn out escapade). It kept my attention the entire time, which of course is better than 350 pages that you have to keep putting down, but it also works in the way that it can dull your senses to what is “scary” to read the scary things over and over again, and it functions more like a thriller at that point. 

*The next two paragraphs may be considered spoilers*

My next complaint was that Chbosky used weird capitalization for the last third or quarter of the book, with no seeming reason or rhyme to it. In a couple places, I found a somewhat “hidden” meaning to the capitalization, and I’ve read a few reviews and found another reason for some of the capitals, but the majority of the capitalization is pretty senseless. It doesn’t spell out any secret messages (no word has seven “E”s in a row) like certain parts of the book may suggest.

My only other complaint with the book is that it is almost contradictory in the end. We find out the intent of some of the characters is completely opposite from what you are led to believe in the beginning, even though all of the evidence was pointing in a different direction. Of course, Chbosky explains this away (which is great instead of just leaving you to make your own conclusions), but then I started replaying everything that had happened, and the events in the beginning just don’t make sense in that fashion. When you take the explanation of why the “villain” in the beginning was acting the villain when in the end it is explained that they were attempting to help the protagonist, the explanation doesn’t fully explain all of the actions. It’s a minor detail but it has been nagging at my brain since I finished the book.

*End potential spoilers*

All in all, I would probably give this book 4.5/5 stars. It was an extremely good read, and I could not put it down. It has the scary elements of a horror novel, the psychological elements of a thriller, and it has plenty of suspense. It’s not a predictable read, and the premise is pretty unique. When I explained the story to my boyfriend, he noted that it sounded “Stranger Things”-esque in that the main protagonist and his friends are children, and the premise is somewhat similar to Stranger Things. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a good, creepy horror novel that might fry your brain a little bit, will keep you guessing, and make you look for hidden messages and meanings everywhere in the book.