I have lots of fond memories of reading middle-grade horror books as a kid. There’s just something so fun about those stories. These authors get to play around with scary ideas but can’t go too far with them. It’s like sitting around a campfire and hearing a scary story – it’s not necessarily scary, but it’s kind of creepy and it stays with you for a while after you’ve read it. The best children’s horror books are like that – Coraline, Goosebumps, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, etc. It’s with this context that I approached They Threw Us Away. I am a fan of Daniel Kraus’s work; he’s written some of my favorite books over the last few years and I was very excited to see what he’d do with a story aimed at a younger audience. In some ways, he did exactly what I expected him to do, delivering a story that mixes scarier elements with more adventure-filled ones. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of the book and I think it’s gonna be a big hit with its target audience. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)
(NOTE: There may be minor spoilers for They Threw Us Away. You have been warned. Additionally, I was given an ARC by the publisher in exchange for a fair review.)
They Threw Us Away (written by Daniel Kraus, illustrated by Rovina Cai) Buddy wakes up in the middle of a garbage dump, filled with a certain awareness: he’s a teddy bear; he spent time at a Store waiting for his future to begin; and he is meant for the loving arms of a child. Now he knows one more thing: Something has gone terribly wrong.
Soon he finds other discarded teddies―Horace, Sugar, Sunny, and Reginald. Though they aren’t sure how their luck soured, they all agree that they need to get back to the Store if they’re ever to fulfill their destinies. So, they embark on a perilous trek across the dump and into the outer world. With ravenous rats, screeching gulls, and a menacing world in front of them, the teddies will need to overcome insurmountable challenges to find their way home.
Zombies are one of my favorite horror story “monsters.” There’s something so haunting about a threat that is basically humanity but slightly… off. Zombies don’t have a motive; there’s no reason why they do the things they do. They simply operate off a basic needs-based system. They’re the very definition of id: they need to feed and they need to feed now. There’s something scary about a foe that looks exactly like us but cannot be reasoned with or stopped. But, all that aside, the most interesting thing about zombies is the way the stories that feature them force us to take a good look at ourselves. A common theme in most zombie stories is how the plague turns humanity into the real monsters. It’s one of my favorite tropes of the genre and something I love to see various storytellers sink their teeth into. Nobody was better at this than George A. Romero. His films pioneered the modern zombie genre by focusing their lenses on the intimate human stories rather than the epic, action-packed survival stories we might see today. Romero seemed most interested in how individual people react to zombies rather than what, specifically, caused them or how they might be defeated. It’s what made his films interesting and it’s what makes his novel, The Living Dead (completed by Daniel Kraus after Romero’s passing), interesting. The novel is more epic in scale than any of Romero’s films but feels no less intimate than the best of his work. It’s a brilliant achievement in the career of a man who had many brilliant achievements and it’s quite possibly one of the best zombie novels I’ve ever read. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)
(Mild spoilers for the novel follow!)
The Living Dead by George A. Romero and Daniel Kraus Set in the present day, The Living Dead is an entirely new tale, the story of the zombie plague as George A. Romero wanted to tell it. It begins with one body. A pair of medical examiners find themselves battling a dead man who won’t stay dead. It spreads quickly. In a Midwestern trailer park, a Black teenage girl and a Muslim immigrant battle newly-risen friends and family. On a US aircraft carrier, living sailors hide from dead ones while a fanatic makes a new religion out of death. At a cable news station, a surviving anchor keeps broadcasting while his undead colleagues try to devour him. In DC, an autistic federal employee charts the outbreak, preserving data for a future that may never come.
Everywhere, people are targeted by both the living and the dead. We think we know how this story ends. We. Are. Wrong.
I don’t normally review YA novels for the sheer fact that they so rarely appeal to me. I’m not a huge fan of a lot of the typical fare they cover (teenage drama, lots of romance, etc) so I tend to stay away from them. But I’ve read some of Daniel Kraus’ previous work, the most recent being his adaptation of The Shape of Water, and really enjoyed it. So, when I saw that he had a new book coming out and read the book’s synopsis, I was definitely intrigued. It sounded like the kind of thing that might be right up my alley (being an avid lover of Science Fiction and Horror), so it seemed like a fun book to look into. Having now finished it, I can say that it was a good decision on my part. It’s a really well-written story that does its damndest to defy the normal constraints of its genre. I really enjoyed it and I think it’ll be a good read for a number of different audiences – including, but not limited to, the YA crowd. (Mild spoilers may follow.)
Bent Heavens by Daniel Kraus
Liv Fleming’s father went missing more than two years ago, not long after he claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Liv has long accepted that he’s dead, though that doesn’t mean she has given up their traditions. Every Sunday, she and her lifelong friend Doug Monk trudge through the woods to check the traps Lee left behind, traps he set to catch the aliens he so desperately believed were after him.
But Liv is done with childhood fantasies. Done pretending she believes her father’s absurd theories. Done going through the motions for Doug’s sake. However, on the very day she chooses to destroy the traps, she discovers in one of them a creature so inhuman it can only be one thing. In that moment, she’s faced with a painful realization: her dad was telling the truth. And no one believed him.
Now, she and Doug have a choice to make. They can turn the alien over to the authorities…or they can take matters into their own hands.