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A book review by Richard Martin

Welcome to Rick’s Read-Along. A new series presented by Horror Oasis where I visit an author’s entire back catalogue and encourage you, the reader, to read along with me.  I will publish my thoughts on each book every two weeks, while also announcing the next book I’ll be reading. Every author selected will be someone whose back catalogue is readily available and is somebody we feel our readers will enjoy discovering along with us. I hope that you’ll all join me in sharing your thoughts.

The first author in the series will be Gemma Amor. Gemma is a Bram Stoker Award-nominated writer whose books include Dear Laura, Cruel Works of Nature, White Pines, Girl on Fire and These Wounds We Make, all of which Gemma has self-published, as well as producing her own unique and beautiful cover art. Not content with conquering the world of indie horror, Gemma is also a successful podcast writer, contributing to the No Sleep and Shadows at the Door Podcast as well as co-creating the female-centric comedy-horror audio drama, Calling Darkness. Visit her website.

Gemma Amor is an author I have heard many wonderful things about, dating back to her 2019 Bram Stoker Award nomination for the book I have selected to begin my journey with: Dear Laura. This series of articles marks my first time reading her work and I’m looking forward to sharing this experience with you all and, hopefully, hearing what you all thought of the books. As these articles are intended to encourage people to read these books along with me there will obviously be spoilers ahead, although I will strive to keep them minor and avoid spoiling major reveals or twists along the way for those who haven’t read it yet.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect with Dear Laura. The distinctive, hand-painted cover art gives little away but certainly piques your interest with an intriguingly vague but suggestively disturbing depiction of somebody (presumable the titular Laura) holding a tooth in her hand. The official description on the back of the book hints at a dark, psychological horror book:

Every year, on her birthday, Laura gets a letter from a stranger. That stranger claims to know the whereabouts of her missing friend, Bobby, but there’s a catch; he’ll only tell her what he knows in exchange for something… personal.

So begins Laura’s sordid relationship with her new penpal, built on a foundation of quid pro quo. Her quest for closure will push her to bizarre acts of humiliation and harm, yet no matter how hard she tries, she cannot escape her correspondent’s demands. The letters keep coming, and as time passes, they have a profound effect on Laura.

At a decidedly brisk 119 pages, it is incredible how epic this book feels. When we first meet Laura she is thirteen years old and by the time we get to the final page, she is an old woman who has lived a difficult but eventful life. We follow Laura as she grows older and we get insights into how the life she has lived has impacted her and what a toll these things have taken on her mental health. The focus of Dear Laura is very much how Laura deals with the shocking events of the book, and less so the events themselves.

The book opens on Laura as a middle-aged woman as she undertakes a trek through a forest on her way to a currently unknown (to us) destination. It’s immediately clear this is no pleasure hike, but rather the culmination of a mission that has dominated Laura’s life to this point. Amor paints a vivid picture of somebody tortured by her past and willing to go to extremes to see things through to the end.

When the book switches to Laura as a young teenager, we are prepared for something bad to happen from the get-go. Being prewarned does little to take the sting out of the kidnap and presumed murder of her best friend and new boyfriend Bobby, as Amor makes the wise choice of focusing on the aftermath and not the act itself so that when the kidnapping is described, we already feel for Laura as we know what a defining moment this is for her. Still, it sets up an intriguing mystery that permeates the entire book, and one that troubles Laura throughout. Why did Bobby get in the van? Does he know the person who took him? Why was he smiling and why did he seem strangely excited to be talking to this person? These are questions that demand an answer and serve to keep the reader hooked while simultaneously justifying Laura’s lifelong obsession with Bobby and his kidnapper.

Where Dear Laura really begins to stand out is what happens next. Had the story been solely about Laura coming to terms emotionally with the tragedy of Bobby going missing, it would have made for an interesting read, albeit one that has been done before. The story takes an unusual left turn, however, by having the kidnapper begin to write letters to Laura. His first basically confesses to Bobby’s murder and instigates a game whereby he will reveal where his body is in exchange for seemingly small favours from Laura. The letter comes as Laura is in the midst of mourning. She has recently attended a service for Bobby, had a tense encounter with his grieving mother, and is barely able to eat or leave her bed. So, when a chance at some semblance of closure is offered, Laura understandably takes it. The ‘favours’ (the first being to leave him a pair of her used underwear) seem like a small price to pay to a girl going through such a distressing event and the willingness with which she bows to this mans wishes, and the hope that this inspires in her makes the request all the more insidious.

The letters continue and the clues to Bobby’s whereabouts keep coming, but seem to offer Laura no real insight into what happened to him. Laura actually meets the kidnapper, unbeknown to her at first, but soon she realizes that she is playing a game she has no control over and decides to stop playing. By now Laura is a young adult and, with the benefit of perspective and distance, makes the decision to finally go to the police about what she knows about Bobby and the kidnapper. This attempt is thwarted in a shocking and violent way, which finally clues us (and Laura) into how closely she is being watched. One of the books most powerful and upsetting scenes is the letter which she receives after this failed attempt to alert the authorities about this man, and the contents of this letter seal Laura’s eventual fate.

As the book progresses and Laura marries and has a child of her own, there is some small ray of hope offered in what has so far been an unflinching hard and bleak story. The fact that the story has been switching at regular intervals to present-day Laura on a pilgrimage through a dangerous wilderness to confront the kidnapper tarnishes this hope somewhat, as we have known from (literally) page one where this journey would lead her. It makes the potential happiness that Laura could have found all the more tragic when we’ve known all along it isn’t something she’s able to embrace and what would be a happy event in any other book becomes just another twist of the knife in Dear Laura.

I won’t spoil the ending here, for those of you who may not have read the book yet, but I will say that the answers to questions that have been on our minds since the start and have tortured Laura for almost thirty years, may not come in the form that we want them to, but they absolutely stay true to the book’s overall themes of control and obsession They may not be entirely satisfying answers, but they are the ones that the book needed. 

Dear Laura was a difficult read. Amor sticks uncomfortably close to real life and while the events of the book feel big, they are all the more harrowing for their disturbing plausibility. It was interesting to see how Laura develops as a character and upsetting to see how some universal truths do not seem to change for her throughout. It is a very engaging book, fast-paced and unrelenting, and certainly kept me enthralled throughout, as I ended up reading it in one sitting. It’s also one of those rare books that will no doubt stay with me. Its content may be challenging but, then, a lot of the truly great horror books usually are.

Please join me back here in 2 weeks, when we will be reading Gemma’s first short story collection, Cruel Works of Nature. Hope to see you all then!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Author

Gemma Amor is the Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of DEAR LAURA, CRUEL WORKS OF NATURE, TILL THE SCORE IS PAID and WHITE PINES. She is also a podcaster, illustrator and voice actor, and is based in Bristol, in the U.K. Follow Gemma on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Amazon.
Richard Martin started reading horror books at a young age, starting with R L Stine’s ‘Goosebumps’ and ‘Point Horror’ series. He traumatized himself at the age of twelve when he read Stephen King’s ‘IT’, and never looked back. He is currently based in the UK, where he lives with his partner and an inappropriate amount of books. Follow Richard on Instagram, Twitter and Goodreads.

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