Review: Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant

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Rolling in the Deep
By Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rolling in the Deep is, essentially, a found-footage horror movie committed to print. The Imagine Network, best-known for its chintzy monster movies and sci-fi programming, is taking a hit in the ratings. Faster than you can say Sharknado, they decide to break into the "hyper-reality" game with a documentary that's every bit as fictional as it is factual. Loaded up with a team of scientists, interns, and a mermaid performance troupe, the Atargatis cruises to the Mariana Trench to debunk or confirm the world's most enduring sea tale - are mermaid's real?

The story is broken down into five sections, each prefaced with a transcript from a documentary about the Atargatis and its missing crew, warning viewers about the footage they are about see...err, read. Whatever. Roughly the first three-quarters of the book are devoted to the various passengers, mostly the ship's captain, the documentary film crew, and the scientists. This is a quick, breezy read, paced well enough to hit the approximate run-time of a longer found-footage flick.

The downside to this, though, is that readers are not given much time to really get to know the people aboard the Atargatis or to really get into anybody's head. Thanks to the rules of found footage stories and the various documentarian notes coming up at regular intermissions, we know perfectly well that the fate of these men and women are sealed. Unfortunately, we're not given an opportunity to really get attached to any of these people, despite the slow burn toward the big finish. But that finish itself? Oh boy, does it ever get going; the mayhem really kicks things up a notch.

Besides the violent, frenetic climax, the thing I most appreciated about Rolling in the Deep was Mira Grant's focus on the science. She's an author who can take mythological premises like mermaids, or horror staples like zombies in her Newsflesh series, and give them enough scientific credibility to make it plausible. Here, we get plenty of discussion of how mermaids would be evolutionarily credible in light of things we already know about deep sea life (the use of bioluminescence and symbiosis in attracting prey, for instance). Personally, I love Grant's knack for taking what might otherwise be little more than a riff on B-movie horror tropes and elevating them with scientific rigor, grounding all that face-ripping, throat-tearing goodness in a measured bit of reality. By the time the monsters make their grand entrance, we're all but primed to accept their existence and welcome them into the world with arms spread wide.

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Review: Extinction War (The Extinction Cycle #7) by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

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Extinction War (The Extinction Cycle)
$7.48
By Nicholas Sansbury Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In case the threat of the monstrous Variants and the pending extinction of the human race wasn't enough, Nicholas Sansbury Smith adds in some extra tension with the possibility of another civil war. Rogue, fanatical soldier Andrew Wood and his Resistance of Tyranny (ROT, an acronym that feels a bit too on-the-nose for this vicious homegrown squadron of terrorists) are attempting to undermine President Ringgold by unleashing the infectious Hemorrhage Virus bioweapon upon the nation's Safe Zone Territories, while executing some grand-scale revenge against the members of Ghost Team. The bulk of Ghost Team's Delta operators, however, are waging war against the Variants in France and seeking to save Europe.

Smith weaves a strong sci-fi-military-horror narrative using multiple plot threads and presenting shifting viewpoints from a handful of characters. Opening with a battle for survival, Wounded Warrior Reed Beckham fights his way through a Safe Zone now overrun with horrors, catapulting the story from one violent and dangerous encounter to the next. Extinction War hits the ground running, hardly pausing to allow readers or the book's characters a chance to catch their breath. This is a guns-ablazing, pedal to the metal post-apocalyptic actioneer that speeds its way through the end of the world.

While there's plenty of alpha male mayhem, it's Smith's presentation of the women that I enjoy the most. They're not only smart and capable characters in position of power, but function as a necessary counterbalance to the horrors of this world, oftentimes inhabiting the roles of humanity's saviors. Both Dr. Kate Lovato and President Ringgold are tough go-getters, but they're also determined to fix the egregious and deliberate actions made by men. Men created the Hemorrhage Virus and destroyed humanity, but it's ultimately up to the women to save the world while a lot of the men run assist. Cool beans.

Extinction War looks to be the big finish to The Extinction Cycle series, and Smith ties up the dangling plot threads pretty nicely. Not all of the characters we've grown to love and admire over the course of seven novels make it through unscathed, but the story resolves itself in a satisfactory way. Smith, of course, has kept his bases covered should his publisher and fans demand a book eight. Never count out Team Ghost, after all. But if this is indeed the series finale, it goes out on a good note. I really wouldn't mind this being the last book though, and am savoring the idea of the survivors finally having a chance to unwind and relax for a bit. They've more than earned a rest.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.]

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Review: DC House of Horror #1

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DC House of Horror (2017) #1
By Keith Giffen, Brian Keene, Nick Cutter, Weston Ochse, Mary SanGiovanni, Bryan Smith, Edward Lee, Wrath White, Ronald Malfi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading five less-than-stellar Halloween-centric anthologies over the last few weeks, plus a hugely disappointing and long-awaited epic novel, I was feeling a bit burnt out on anthologies and prose in general. The time had come to catch up on some comics in the hopes of breaking out of my reading slump, and the title that most appealed to me just so happened to be -- wait for it! -- another anthology. But, fuck it. This is a comic book anthology, and only 80 pages at that (i.e. a quick read, plus a different format). I had high hopes going in, and this thing fucking delivered, giving me exactly what I had wanted in the wake of lingering disappointment and failure from previous anthologies.

Working from plots by Keith Giffen, eight horror authors have assembled to script, and in some cases completely flip the script on, DC's most famous characters, putting them through the filter of various horror genre staples. We've got psychotic killers, ghosts, a slam-bang creature feature, and more in these eerie comics and tales to astonish.

BUMP IN THE NIGHT by Edward Lee
Edward Lee kicks off this anthology in grand fashion, delivering a Superman story that’s quite a far cry from the traditional big blue Boy Scout mainstay of DC lore. Howard Porter’s art serves this alien invasion story pretty well. It’s a bit rough looking and nicely suited for the dark night ahead at the Kent farm. This was a perfect way to open up this House of Horrors, and also serves as a nice warning to readers that these stories will most definitely not be your typical takes on DC Comics superhero icons.
5/5 stars

MAN'S WORLD by Mary SanGiovanni
Mary SanGiovanni scripts a magnificent and powerful Wonder Woman in a violent story of possession. It’s quick and dirty, and I loved the heck out of it. 'Nuff said.
5/5 stars

CRAZY FOR YOU by Bryan Smith & Brian Keene
Bryan Smith and Brian Keene pen a fun ol’ story of snapped sanity and a whole lotta murder. Bryan Smith needs to write more Harley Quinn, be it in-continuity or more horror, I don’t care, just get him to do more with this psycho gal. Kyle Baker’s art is a bit more roughly sketched than I usually care for, though, but I think it serves the story nicely, giving illustration to a man's frenetic mind. Good, good stuff right here.
4/5 stars

LAST LAUGH by Nick Cutter
Nick Cutter writing a Vincent Price-like Batman? Oh sweet baby Jesus, fuck yes. Here, Cutter tackles the psychology of a man dressed like a bat, perpetually chasing a crazy killer clown. Rags Morales does a great job illustrating this descent into madness, and I dug the little touches he and colorist Lovern Kindzierski added to show the differences between the characters viewpoints.
4/5 stars

BLACKEST DAY by Brian Keene
Brian Keene blazes hell with the Justice League as they square off against an apocalyptic outbreak on Earth while trapped in their Watchtower moon base. It’s a fun, fast-paced story with plenty of carnage. Scott Kolins does a good job with the art duties, and there’s a good amount of guts spilled under his pencils. I've also got a particular hankering from some Keene-written Constantine now, because how awesome would that be? (The answer, by the way, is very. Hint, hint, DC Comics!)
4/5 stars

STRAY ARROW by Ronald Malfi
In the DC Rebirth, Green Arrow is a self-described Social Justice Warrior. Under Malfi's hand, he's a cold blood pscyho killer, in a city that drives its inhabitants insane. I had expected so much more from this pairing between author and superhero, and I think it could have been a lot better if the story’s femme fatale had gotten more room for development. The premise is dynamite, and I wish there had been more room to deliver on some of the story elements it hints at. Still, it's worth it for the wildly different spin on these familiar faces.
3/5 stars

UNMASKED by Wrath James White
Holy shit, y'all. A serial killer and a giant monster are tearing apart Gotham in Wrath James White’s story. From the story's opening narration about a victim who has been degloved, I knew I was going to be right at home here. There’s a lot of craziness jammed into a handful of pages, and artist Tom Raney really knocks it out of the park with his delivery of the script's biggest shocker scene. God damn, I loved this one!
5/5 stars

THE POSSESSION OF BILLY BATSON by Weston Ochse
Words have power and, in Weston Ochse’s script, one word in particular haunts Billy Batson. Howard Chaykin depicts 1970s New York and a punk-rocker-styled Batson with flair, keeping the story’s keyword in both the background, and front and center. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of depth to the story and it ends pretty abruptly. I must admit, though, I am not very familiar with the character in question here, which may have hindered my enjoyment a bit. The saving grace for me was the period-setting and how well rendered it was by Chaykin.
3/5 stars

Although I didn't flat-out love every story in DC House of Horror #1, I found all of them to make for a fun reading, and the ones that I loved, I loved deeply. Keene and Company put some truly wonderful and unexpected twists on DC Comics staples, bringing in oodles of darkness, morbidity, and depravity (or at least as much DC has allowed them to get away with. I would absolutely love to see House of Horror continue as a Mature Readers or Vertigo title.). For sheer entertainment value alone, and the consistency of goods delivered throughout,, this one gets a five-star from me. This is the most flat-out fun read of October.

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Review: Halloween Carnival Volume 5 [Edited by Brian James Freeman]

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Halloween Carnival Volume 5
By Richard Chizmar, Lisa Tuttle, Norman Prentiss, Kevin Quigley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Editor Brian James Freeman serves up a final batch of Halloween-themed stories in this fifth volume of the Halloween Carnival series.

Whether or not these stories are more tricks than treats, or vice versa, is up to the reader. I will say that while I have enjoyed a number of the stories over the series run, I have not been a fan of the series overall. There were several tales I just did not like, and I would have appreciated a more balanced structure in these volumes.

As with prior installments, nearly fifty percent of the book is devoted to a single story (here it's PORK PIE HAT by Peter Straub), prefaced with a smattering of shorter stories. Here's what you get:

DEVIL'S NIGHT by Richard Chizmar
My first intro to Chizmar’s writing was his collaboration with Stephen King for Gwendy’s Button Box, but this short story really sealed the deal for me. Chizmar can write, man! Although set on Devil’s Night, this story of murder is purely human and very well crafted.
4/5 stars

THE LAST DARE by Lisa Tuttle
This second story is an ultra-weak attempt at telling a tale about a box and the children who go missing when confronted with it. It’s short, but also dull and takes forever to get nowhere.
1/5 stars

THE HALLOWEEN BLEED by Norman Prentiss
Norman Prentiss delivers a hell of a short story with a perfectly good Halloween twist. No details from me on this one, except to say that it's effective, creepy, and mysterious. It's also part of a series of short stories involving the mysterious Dr. Sibley, which means I've got some digging to do in order to find the rest of these stories and learn more about Sibley and his various encounters.
4/5 stars

SWING by Kevin Quigley
I know I read this one, but I'll be damned if I can tell you anything about it two days later... I have zero, and I do mean zero, recollection of it. Nothing. Not a single damn thing. Here's my notes from my Goodreads progress update:

Swing carried with an interesting premise, and while it was well written and had a few evocative scenes, it didn’t quite strike a proper chord with me. Maybe if it had been longer and given more room for the characters to breathe and develop it could have been really exceptional.

I'm going to skip rating this one. It seems I dug elements of it in the immediate post-reading, but whatever those were they weren't quite as evocative I had thought at the time.

No rating.

PORK PIE HAT by Peter Straub
Taking up the bulk of this anthology is a long short story from Peter Straub. It's well told and jazz fans will likely find a lot to enjoy here. I liked the story for what it was and dug the conversational nature of its delivery. Although it is set on Halloween and maybe involves some minor supernatural elements, as well as Hat's superstitions surrounding the holiday, it lacked the strong Halloween flavor I had been looking for. It's a good read, but it's not a good Halloween read with its lack of scares and chills. (Sadly, that's been a fairly common theme across this series as a whole...)
3/5 stars

After reading these five Halloween Carnival books back-to-back, I can pretty safely say I'm burn out on anthologies for a while. I can also pretty safely say that I did not get the Halloween scares I had wanted, and that this series, taken a whole, was pretty much a dud. Some good stories here and there, but I doubt I'll ever be returning for another trip through this particular carnival.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.]

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Review: The Store by Bentley Little [audiobook]

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The Store
By Bentley Little
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My original THE STORE audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.

In the very late 1990s/early 2000s, I worked at a local big-box retail store for several years while attending college. Employees had to attend pointless, monthly bull sessions, apparently to remind us on a regular basis of how awesome this particular retail chain was and why it should be oh so meaningful to us meagerly paid employees. At one point, my department manager notified me that the higher-ups were preparing to fire me because I was putting in too many hours at school and not enough on the sales floor, trying to con customers into up-selling their CD purchases with overpriced protection plans. If I hadn’t already mentally checked out on that loathsome job, threatening to fire me for going to school was certainly the clincher.

Maybe it’s because of those years of personal dissatisfaction busting my hump for The Man that I was so able to completely relate to Bentley Little’s The Store. I dug the heck out of this book, and nearly all of it was totally on-point for me.

The small town of Juniper, Arizona is about to receive its first high-end, discount retail store – think Walmart and you’d be on the right track. While jogging past the soon-to-be-demolished, and once protected, land, Bill notices dead animals on the lot. (As one character states later, “The Store is built on blood!”) To say that’s merely the beginning of The Store’s impact on Juniper is to woefully undersell this retailer’s impact. Soon enough, the town’s small business owners are in a fight not just for their livelihoods, but for their very lives. The Store sweeps over Juniper like locusts, destroying everything – and everyone – in its path. And that’s just for starters!

The Store is very much a work of social horror, and it has an important message at its core regarding the nature of consumerism and capitalism and highly powerful and influential corporatism versus government. While there are supernatural elements at play throughout, the most frightening aspects of the story are the ones that are absolutely real. It’s positively sinister to watch how The Store corrupts Juniper and its inhabitants, its many various tentacles reaching into the community to sow both paranoia and complicity. The cult-like nature of The Store’s employees, the manager’s fervent dedication to the retail outlet, and the bullying nature of a mega-wealthy retail giant and its corporate lobbying against a small-town local government are all disquietingly familiar. Although some of these horrors operate on a metaphorical level, they still resound a little too close for comfort.

Despite some scenes of violence and one unsettling and graphic sex scene, The Store is a work of quiet horror, and Little ensnares readers with a heavy, dark atmosphere and a highly unsettling tone exacerbated by small-town politics and plenty of personal conflicts. David Stifel excels at narrating Little’s writing, luring listeners in with his friendly, relatable tone, even as a sense of creeping dread mounts. He has a quiet approach that works perfectly in tandem with the material he is reading, giving the listening experience a personable intimacy. As a combined force, Little and Stifel certainly sank their hooks in deep for me, and I was appropriately wowed by both.

The Store was my first experience with Bentley Little’s work, and while it’s not entirely perfect (although I found it to be a little too long, I wish a bit more focus had been paid on fleshing out some of the supernatural elements) it was certainly highly satisfying. Little is now an author whose work I’ll be checking out more of in the future.

[Audiobook provided for review by the audiobookreviewer.com]

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Review: Halloween Carnival Volume 4 [Edited by Brian James Freeman]

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Halloween Carnival Volume 4
By Kealan Patrick Burke, Ray Garton, Bev Vincent, C.A. Suleiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Volume 4 of the Halloween Carnival series edited by Brian Freeman follows the same basic pattern as previous entries - five authors, five stories, all revolving around the Halloween holiday. Presented here are the following:

THE MANNEQUIN CHALLENGE by Kealan Patrick Burke
I can relate to Theo, Burke's central character and the office outcast attending his job's Halloween party when he’d rather be at home. I’m not sure I’d behave the same way, though, if confronted by a roomful of frozen, mannequin-like party-goers. The story itself is strange, with no explanations as to why and how, but it’s a fun little distraction. It's WTF quotient is very high, and, as with with every one of his works I've read, Burke proves to be a hell of writer even if this particular story wasn't one of my favorites.
3/5 stars

ACROSS THE TRACKS by Ray Garton
Ray Garton’s an author I’ve been wanting to try, and this story was a solid intro to his writing. A group of bullied kids in search of candy stumble upon a very strange Halloween party. The depiction of bullying and cruelty among children struck a particular chord with me. I had to deal with my share of bullies in school, and I found the ordeals this particular pack of teens face to ring true. While I never had to deal with torments like the ones depicted here, I found the kids and their situation very familiar and relatable. This one hit all the right notes for me, and I’ll be reading more of Garton’s work for sure.
4/5 stars

THE HALLOWEEN TREE by Bev Vincent
I couldn’t get into The Halloween Tree, unfortunately. It was a little too one-note, and not very exciting or scary. It’s another story following some kids trick or treating and facing their fears, but it pales in comparison to Garton’s story, and there’s just not much happening with either the plot or the characters.
2/5 stars

PUMPKIN EATER by C. A. Suleiman
What do you when you love Halloween, but your partner does not? This story of spousal dissatisfaction, was enjoyable, but there's not any real surprises packed into its short page count. It's entirely predictable, but Suleiman's characters sure made it all pretty darn entertaining.
3/5 stars

WHEN THE LEAVES FALL by Paul Melniczek
Haverville is a strange town, but everyone knows not to trespass on farmer Graver's land. Leave it to two kids to defy that small nugget of common knowledge on Halloween, though. What they discover will change their lives forever! WHEN THE LEAVES FALL was a pretty dry note to end this anthology on, and slightly more than half of this book's page count are dedicated to this particular story. It's slow and plodding, and asks way more questions than it can, or is even willing to, answer, but the biggest problem is how dull it all is. Even for a (longer) short story, I still found it a slog to get through.
2/5 stars

Having read now four of the five Halloween Carnival books back-to-back, I feel like I'm getting burned out on anthologies, and this series in particular. But there's only one more entry to go, and I'm determined to finish these. So, onto Volume 5...

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.]

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Review: Halloween Carnival Volume 3 [Edited by Brian James Freeman]

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Halloween Carnival Volume 3
By Kelley Armstrong, Kate Maruyama, Michael McBride, Taylor Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with volumes one and two, Halloween Carnival Volume 3 collects five short stories centered around, as the title would imply, Halloween. Here's what's what:

THE WAY LOST by Kelley Armstrong
Kelly Armstrong kicks this anthology off on a strong note. Every Halloween, a child in Franklin goes missing. I've only read a few short stories by Armstrong, all of which I've enjoyed immensely, and she does a great job setting a particular mood here, and ends the story on a high note - and a very creepy one at that!
5/5 stars

LA CALAVERA by Kate Maruyama
DNF. Got about halfway through it and found myself severely bored by what felt more like a romance story than Halloween horror. No scares, no tension, no point. Moving on...
No rating

THE DEVIL'S DUE by Michael McBride
I'm not going to lie - one of the reasons I was interested in this series of Halloween Carnival books was because of McBride's involvement in this volume (Kealan Patrick Burke, Norman Prentiss, and Richard Chizmar were some more great reasons to invest some time in this series). I've become a big fan of McBride's work in short order over the last couple years, and this story reminded me a little bit of his Snowblind novellas (always good). Here, McBride delivers a fantastic tale of a small town that, every Halloween, offers up one its children in sacrifice. There's lots of chills and suspense in this one!
5/5 stars

A THOUSAND ROOMS OF DARKNESS by Taylor Grant
This story might have the catchiest title in this anthology. Thankfully, the story isn’t half-bad either. Grant sends up some pretty wild swerves in the finale, and it took me a bit to reorient myself to sudden changes. Overall, it was pretty solidly done and kept me hooked throughout.
4/5 stars

THE LAST NIGHT OF OCTOBER by Greg Chapman
Every Halloween, there's a knock on Gerald's door from a Trick or Treater unlike any of the other neighborhood kids. Now wheelchair bound and infirm, Gerald tries to shoo away his nurse before sunset, but the two quickly find themselves entrenched and in a struggle for survival. Chapman dishes out a really effective ghost story and I dug the heck out of this one! Good stuff all around.
4/5 stars

Halloween Carnival Volume 3 was probably the most consistent and on-point in terms of quality from this series thus far. I found myself enjoying the stories quite a lot more than in Volume 2, and the anthology keeps a pretty high standard of stories and talent for the majority of its page-count.

Now on to Volume 4!

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.]

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Review: Halloween Carnival Volume 2 [Edited By Brian James Freeman]

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Halloween Carnival Volume 2
By Glen Hirshberg, Lee Thomas, Holly Newstein, Del James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Brian James Freeman continues to set loose a handful of authors to explore some Halloween horrors in Halloween Carnival Volume 2. As with the prior volume, there are five authors with five stories, all centered around the best holiday on the calendar, although some of these tales are more strongly pumpkin spiced than others...

MR. DARK'S CARNIVAL by Glen Hirshberg
Hirshberg kicks off the volume with a wonderfully written short story filled with the rich lore of Mr. Dark's Carnival, as presented to us via a college historian who lives for Halloween. His favorite holiday, unfortunately, is tainted by the sudden suicide of a former PhD student who had previously been collaborating with him. I loved Hirshberg's prose, but couldn't completely buy into the twist ending and abrupt finish to this one.
4/5 stars

THE FACTS IN THE CASE OF MY SISTER by Lee Thomas
Halloween lingers deeply in the background of Thomas's short story, and the only ghouls to be found here are of the awful human variety. While it lacked that certain Halloweenish flavor, the story itself is damn good and involves a brother reminiscing about better times while his sister lays in her death bed. Although they've had a severe falling out and hadn't spoken to each out in years, he may be responsible for her current state of affairs, even if unknowingly. I dug this little powerhouse of a short story.
4/5 stars

MISCHIEF NIGHT by Holly Newstein
After two solid shorts, I guess it was time for this anthology to slow down a bit. Unfortunately, I didn't find Newstein's story to be anything special. While it's not bad, it's not wonderful either and it felt fairly contrived. It’s set on the night before Halloween, and involves an inadvertent home invasion after a prank-playing kid seeks shelter. It’s kinda bland, and like the prior story, with its lack of overt supernatural influences, it just doesn’t scream Halloween to me...
3/5 stars

THE GHOST MAKER by Del James
A low-life hitman gets invited to a Halloween party and frets about his costume. That’s seriously it, and it takes a long time before we even get to that part--long enough that I had to double-check and make sure I had opened the right Kindle book and was still reading a Halloween anthology. While there's some good one-liners, the story is instantly forgettable and the Halloween aspect feels like a poorly tacked-on afterthought.
1/5 stars

THE PUMPKIN BOY by Al Sarrantonio
After several stories disappointingly lacking in the Halloween spirit, Sarrantonio makes up for it in spades with his pumpkin-headed boy Frankenstein. There's kidnappings, a possible serial killer on the loose, urban legends, Halloween carnivals, and a nifty little culprit behind all these shenanigans affecting Orangefield. Thank goodness somebody remembered to bring the Halloween spirit with them!
4/5 stars

While this second entry in the Carnival series is significantly weaker than the prior installment, there's at least a few saving graces. My main complaint is that I just didn't get a strong enough sense of Halloween throughout, and some of the authors do little more than pay meagre lip service to the holiday.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.]

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