Book Review: Asylum by Madeleine Roux

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Review 2.21

 

For sixteen-year-old Dan Crawford, New Hampshire College Prep is more than a summer program—it’s a lifeline. An outcast at his high school, Dan is excited to finally make some friends in his last summer before college. But when he arrives at the program, Dan learns that his dorm for the summer used to be a sanatorium, more commonly known as an asylum. And not just any asylum—a last resort for the criminally insane.

As Dan and his new friends, Abby and Jordan, explore the hidden recesses of their creepy summer home, they soon discover it’s no coincidence that the three of them ended up here. Because the asylum holds the key to a terrifying past. And there are some secrets that refuse to stay buried. [Source]

To be honest, I was less than thrilled when I picked this book up from the library to find that it was in the “Teen” section. I generally enjoy YA horror, but the creepy-ass cover art that had originally piqued my interest had gotten my hopes up for a full-on scare fest. YA horror is somewhat limited by the constraints of its genre, and I immediately knew that this wasn’t going to be the spine-tingler I had envisioned.

My initial disappointment was at least somewhat soothed by the unique visual style of Asylum. Interspersed within the narrative are photographs allegedly taken from inside former mental institutions. This added an immersive element to the story and upped the spook factor a bit. There is something inherently sinister about black-and-white photos of abandoned buildings, and this gave the novel a much-needed boost of creepiness.

The big difference between horror novels intended for adults, and horror novels geared towards “young adults” (an annoyingly vague term that could refer to anyone between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five) is that YA writers and their publishers seem insistent on adding an unnecessary “romantic” angle. Personally, I believe that teenagers are capable of accepting a story that does not involve awkward kissing or endless mooning over awkward kissing, but hey what do I know.

What I do know is that this persistent romantic subplot trope can work well in fantasy or science fiction, but it doesn’t translate to horror. When Daniel, the protagonist of Asylum, is wandering the decrepit remains of an abandoned surgical theater in the middle of the night, I doubt very much that he would be daydreaming about a pretty classmate.

Asylum is what it is, and it would probably be a fun read for someone in junior high school. I was just hoping for a little more Winchester brothers and a little less Scooby Gang.

My rating: 3/5

You can find Asylum here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (Folk of the Air #1)

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Review 2.21

Jude was seven when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.

As Jude becomes more deeply embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, she discovers her own capacity for trickery and bloodshed. But as betrayal threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself. [Source]

 

I first heard about Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince last year, and had been meaning to check it out for ages, but wanted to finish Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series before embarking on another journey into YA fantasy. I’m really glad I finally got around to reading it; I was almost surprised by how much I liked this novel. It manages to avoid a lot of the more glaring tropes that have become disappointingly commonplace in YA fantasy.

The Cruel Prince immediately pulls away from the cluttered pack with its heroine. Jude is a mortal who has grown up in constant fear and danger; she dreams of becoming a knight in order to gain a stable position in the Faerie court. The best thing, she isn’t an archer. I am so tired of women being assigned the bow again and again as their weapon of choice; it’s become a tired and overused cliche. But Jude fights with sword, dagger, and crossbow. And poison. And subterfuge. She never stoops quite low enough to enter “antihero” territory, and her motives are generally honorable, but her actions are decidedly less so, which made for a refreshing change of pace.

The world of the Fae has been described in detail by countless authors, and the immortal lands are limited only by the creative limits of the writer. Is it a dreadful and haunted land of twisted and depraved individuals, like in Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call? Or is it an eternal land of beauty and impossibly gorgeous men, like A Court of Thrones and Roses? Holly Black has taken aspects from both interpretations; her Faerie Court is beautiful and deadly, where immortals live a life of luxury but humans are often bewitched and enslaved. It is also filled with one of the most diverse group of Faeries I can recall. Their skin is in every shade from cerulean to sienna; they have horns or tails or goat’s hooves in place of feet. I particularly liked the figure of Jude’s stepmother, whose cold demeanor covers hidden secrets.

I also enjoyed that Black stayed away from yet another overused cliche; Jude is not motivated by romantic love. She isn’t pining after a lost love, or sacrificing herself to save a lover. She also is not driven by any kind of familial duty. Her relationship with her sisters is largely unexplored, something I hope is remedied in the recently released sequel.

Jude is motivated purely by ambition.

She wants to become a knight simply because she wants to be acknowledged as the best. She has been powerless her entire life, and when the opportunity for power presents itself, she seizes it without hesitation.

Ambition is a heady thing, and I will be interested to see where Jude’s ambition leads her.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Cruel Prince here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow by Alyssa Palombo (2019)

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Review. 2.20

Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is deeply ingrained in the American psyche; two hundred years after it’s publication and I doubt there are many grade school children who are not at least passingly familiar with the story of Ichabod Crane and his ill-fated midnight ride. The tale has been told and retold in so many different iterations that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that nowhere in Irving’s original source material was the ghost of the Headless Horseman actually witnessed. The reason for the sudden disappearance of the luckless schoolmaster is left open to interpretation. Did he slink away in shame after his proposal for the hand of the beautiful Katrina van Tassel was denied by her father? Was he only after her wealth the entire time, venturing to the next village in search of a more hapless heiress? Or, as the townspeople whisper to themselves, was he taken to the depths of hell by the Headless Horseman, who is said to haunt the woods around Sleepy Hollow?

All of these questions and more are answered in this historical romance novel by Alyssa Palombo. Set in the very early days of the American republic, just a few years after the defeat of the British soldiers, Palombo does a wonderful job of setting her scene. She captures the revolutionary attitude of New England with her heroine, Katrina Van Tassel. No longer the mostly nonverbal plot device of Irving’s story, here Katrina holds the same optimistic attitude and hopeful fervor that would have defined the young nation under Washington’s presidency. Palombo paints a romantic but realistic view of New England life. The community of Sleepy Hollow represents a community that is extraordinarily close-knit, and for a good reason. Any group of people that did not come together during the long New England winters would not have lasted long.

The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel has the setting. And it has the characters, with its outspoken and forward-thinking heroine. Palombo also takes a bit of narrative license with Ichabod Crane, making him less of a painfully awkward but still capturing his shy, gentle spirit and nerdy appearance. When the current TV series Sleepy Hollow depicts him as dreamy beardy eye candy:

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it’s a nice message to send that a man can be attractive due to a generosity of spirit, or a creative imagination rather than just a chiseled jawline.

Anyway, Palombo gets all of these really great characters together in this really great setting and then…

She doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.

For nearly two hundred of it’s three hundred and fifty page running length, we are treated to chapter after chapter of Katrina pining after Ichabod. She yearns. She craves. She longs from afar. Sometimes there are snatched moments of joy and pleasure with her beloved, but these moments are fleeting and then it’s quickly back to pining.

Another fifty or so pages is dedicated to Katrina attempting to use “witchcraft” as she seeks out answers to the mystery behind Ichabod’s disappearance. I put witchcraft in quotes because she mostly consults tarot cards, or stares into fires after drinking some herbal tea. The reveal of the eponymous “spellbook” was such a disappointment that I actually groaned aloud.

On an unrelated note, the tagline for this book is nonsense. Love is a thing even death won’t erase? What does that even mean? No shit Sherlock. We don’t just stop loving someone the moment they die. But that is an issue for the publishers of this novel, not the novel itself.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: This House is Haunted by John Boyne (2013)

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Review 2.19

 

After the death of her father, twenty-one year old Eliza Crane accepts a job as governess to the children of Gaudlin Hall. Upon her arrival at the train station, an invisible pair of hands seize her coat and attempt to push her onto the tracks; she is only saved by the unknowing interference of a local resident. This is only to be the first of many such assaults as Eliza enters Gaudlin Hall to find an oppressive and violent spirit, intent on preventing anyone besides the two children to remain within the walls of the manor.

John Boyne is probably best well known for his award winning novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, about two children on opposite sides of a concentration camp fence. Most of his work focuses on historical fiction, and Boyne sticks to his roots with This House is Haunted, adding a supernatural twist. This novel is an homage to the Gothic novels of the Bronte sisters or Rebecca du Maurier.

All of the elements at play for a classic haunted house tale are present in This House is Haunted. Our protagonist, Eliza, is a recently orphaned young woman who accepts a position as a governess to the children of a lonely manor home. Upon her arrival, she finds that the townsfolk speak of the manor, called Gaudlin Hall, in hushed whispers. The children seem to have been left all alone, and no one will tell Eliza the fate of their parents. The children themselves, particularly twelve year old Isabella, speak in riddles and ominous statements. And all of this is in the early few pages, before the supernatural forces that surround Gaudlin Hall make themselves known with a ferocity seldom seen in ghost stories.

Like I said, all of these elements needed for a wonderfully spooky tale are accounted for in This House is Haunted. And yet, it failed to illicit even the smallest shiver down my spine.

Perhaps it was Eliza herself that was somehow lackluster. Her primary characteristic seems to be that she is homely. She is very, very insistent on this fact, constantly lamenting her ugly features which have denied her the prospect of ever becoming married. Because as we all know, only the most beautiful women in history have ever been able to catch a man. Other than plain, Eliza isn’t much else. She is merely a prop that serves the dual purpose of delivering exposition and being attacked by spirits at regular intervals.

Or perhaps it was the lack of descriptive details regarding the manor house itself. Haunted house stories are only as creepy as their setting. There needs to be slow, creeping fog and corridors that seemingly go on forever. There needs to be crumbling walls and menacing portraits and all of the other deliciously atmospheric particulars that raise gooseflesh on the arms and make you reconsider a creak in the night. Some of those details honestly may have been present within the pages of This House is Haunted, but they got lost in the shuffle. I did enjoy one midpoint reveal that winked a tribute to Charlotte Bronte. But sadly, Eliza Crane is no Jane Eyre.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find This House is Haunted here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Rescue Cat Wednesday! 13/03/19

While reading is my oldest love, I am also very passionate about animals. I volunteer twice a week with a wonderful Toronto-based charity called Action Volunteers for Animals. They rescue homeless cats from all around Ontario, as well as run Trap-Neuter-Release programs to help control the population of homeless cats. Every week, I plan to post pictures of some of the delightful kitties currently staying with us at the local adoption facility.

If you or anyone you know is interested in adopting a rescue cat, you can find out more at actionvolunteersforanimals.com

After a few weeks off we are back with another installment of Rescue Cat Wednesday! One of the reasons I haven’t posted pictures of our wonderful shelter kitties is that we simply don’t have very many right now. AVA together with PetsMart had a hugely successful adoption weekend in February, with thirteen cats finding their forever homes from just our location in Scarborough!

When we don’t have very many cats in the adoption center, this gives us a lot of time to socialize and work with the cats that we do have. Since most of the cats that come to our shelter are rescues from the streets or cat colonies, they don’t always have a lot of trust or confidence around people.

 

Kennedy

Using gentle words, interactive play, and occasional bribery with treats, the volunteers at AVA are always working to help our cats become more comfortable around humans. Sometimes this takes just a few days, sometimes it can take months! For example, shy Kennedy has been with us since October, and only last week was a fellow volunteer able to pet him and scratch under his chin. This is a huge step for Kennedy!

 

Spencer

Kennedy is bonded with Spencer, who is a lovely, gentle cat who wants everyone to be happy. He got used to being around people very quickly, and loves to be petted and scratched behind his ears.

 

Buddy and Sweetie are two more cats that need a little patience and a lot of love. They were found in a nearby trailer park as half-grown kittens. Because they started out life on their own, they can be defensive around people, but they love to play, and this has been a great way of encouraging these two eight month old cats to become more comfortable around people. They are a bonded pair, so they will go to their forever home together!

You can see more photos of our wonderful rescue cats, learn more about AVA, and become involved as a volunteer by visiting actionvolunteersforanimals.com

 

Book Review: The Lost Man by Jane Harper (2019)

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Review 2.18

Two brothers meet at the border of their vast cattle properties under the unrelenting sun of outback Queensland, in this stunning new standalone novel from New York Times bestseller Jane Harper

They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old, no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron. The Bright family’s quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish. Something had been troubling Cameron. Did he lose hope and walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects… [Source]

About ten years ago, I found myself on a cattle station in northern Queensland. The exact details of my many misadventures over the course of my four month stay could fill a book, and I won’t go into them at this time. Suffice to say when Jane Harper describes the Australian outback as a brutal, unforgiving environment, I know from experience that she is absolutely correct. And I was only a twelve-hour drive from Brisbane, which doesn’t even count as “outback”.

The impossibly arid climate of Western Australia is the primary antagonist of The Lost Man. The merciless sun, which can kill a grown man in less than a day, shines on bare rock and scrub grass. Poisonous snakes lurk in the shrubs. The nearest neighbor might be three hours away. The isolation of this environment is a character unto itself as well.

In this harsh world live three brothers. The middle brother, Cameron, manages the family cattle station with his wife Ilse. Bud, the youngest, helps his brother but also resents him for keeping him from pursuing larger ambitions. The eldest, Nathan, lives alone on his own property, a recluse who hides from society after being ostracized for a long-ago sin.

I read and reviewed Jane Harper’s Force of Nature last year, and I remember feeling almost relieved that it didn’t suck. I had a bad run of luck with the mystery/thriller genre for awhile, and I remember her novel as a light of  hope in the darkness of trite foreshadowing and clumsy backstory. One thing that Harper improves upon with The Lost Man is keeping her narrative perspective to one character. In Force of Nature, each chapter was narrated by a different women of the group, which led to none of them getting enough attention. Here, Nathan has our focus from page one. We feel his intense loneliness and the fear of rejection that has caused him to huddle, like a turtle within its shell, on his meager acres.

The only thing I would say in critique of this novel is that Harper may have forgotten that if you limit your narrative to a single perspective, you need to ensure that your protagonist is there to verify important events. One character’s descent from decent person to violent manipulator rang strangely false, almost as if there was a section detailing more of this behavior that was somehow missing.

That said, Harper does manage to avoid what I call the “plot-twist ripple effect”, in which a book’s climax contains multiple sudden reveals simply for the sake of shock value, and which make very little sense when viewing the book as a whole. This is just another reason while I will continue to keep Jane Harper on my look-out list, where so many thriller authors fall by the wayside.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Lost Man here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal (2017)

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Review 2.17

 

What separates your mind from an animal’s? Maybe you think it’s your ability to design tools, your sense of self, or your grasp of past and future—all traits that have helped us define ourselves as the planet’s preeminent species. But in recent decades, these claims have eroded, or even been disproven outright, by a revolution in the study of animal cognition. Take the way octopuses use coconut shells as tools; elephants that classify humans by age, gender, and language; or Ayumu, the young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University whose flash memory puts that of humans to shame. Based on research involving crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, wasps, bats, whales, and of course chimpanzees and bonobos, Frans de Waal explores both the scope and the depth of animal intelligence. He offers a firsthand account of how science has stood traditional behaviorism on its head by revealing how smart animals really are, and how we’ve underestimated their abilities for too long. [Source]

Last year I read Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist, which asked whether or not animals are capable of demonstrating selflessness and empathy towards themselves and towards us. I wasn’t a huge fan of that book, partially because anyone who has spent even a small amount of time observing the animal world will tell you that the answer is a resounding “Duh”.

I was unaware at the time that there is a surprising amount of resistance to the idea of altruism in the animal kingdom. For decades the idea of true animal awareness was laughed out of universities and scientific journals. Man, it seems, needs to maintain a moral superiority over morality itself.

In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, de Waal begins by lambasting his fellow scientists in a highly informative and highly enjoyable tirade against modern testing methods. He lists study after study designed to test the difference in cognitive abilities between toddlers and apes that failed, not due a fault of intelligence on behalf of the ape, but by unfair testing standards. For example, toddlers were tested while sitting on their mothers lap in a warm and comfortable environment, with scientists there to reassure them. The apes were alone in a steel cage, with no explanation of the test or comfort from the testers. Until recent years it was considered unprofessional even to give personal names to the “test subjects”.

De Waal is a passionate advocate for animal rights. After thoroughly beating his colleagues about the head in the first part of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he then begins giving case study after case study of animals that not only rivaled our own intelligence, but often surpassed it.

My favorite thing about this book is that it is not ape-centric. We have long ago learned to recognize a thinking mind behind the eyes of a chimpanzee, an orangutan, or a gorilla. But what about a crow? Any pet owner will gush about how smart their dog is, but is can their intelligence be measured using any kind of objective scale that we understand? Cats, elephants, dolphins, and monkeys all get their place in this book, as well as less “traditionally” intelligent animal such as cuttlefish. I loved the section on the octopus, which is my favorite animal to show off to my science students.

in The Bonobo and the Atheist, I felt that de Waal struggled to stay on topic. He would give a few interesting anecdotes about the animal world, and then pause for a discussion on medieval art, or the rise of atheism. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is more tightly edited, and jumps merrily from subject to subject while maintaining the central theme that animals are capable of more than we ever thought possible.

I love animals. I love learning interesting things about animals. If you love learning interesting things about animals, you will enjoy this book.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Sean Runnette and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

Guest Review: Letter to My Daughter by George Bishop (2010)

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by Elizabeth Schlueter

 

After yet another terrible argument, fifteen year old Elizabeth slams the front door, having to get away from her mother who obviously has no clue what it’s like to be a teenager. Her mother, Laura, begins to pen a letter to her daughter, explaining that she does indeed know what it’s like to be fifteen years old. Laura’s letter details many of the questions that her daughter has quizzed her about over the years. Why did you get that tattoo? Was Daddy your first love?

As day fades to evening and evening well into the night, Laura focuses all her pent-up tension on writing an open and honest letter about being fifteen. She remembers her first time, being the outsider at school and losing her first love in an unpopular war. Paragraphs become pages and pages become chapters as Laura anxiously awaits and prays for Elizabeth’s safe return.

I enjoyed this novel. As a mom, our children pepper us with questions about our past, some we are hesitant to truthfully answer, and some questions that will remain secret. This novel made me reflect on my own child-rearing. How much should we really tell our children? Is it possible to be too open and honest about your own past? There are some moments and memories that we cling to and want to be just ours, not willing to share with anyone.

The author did a surprisingly good job of narrating from a mother’s point of view, but perhaps that is not all that difficult as a father. Raising children regardless of sex, the job itself is very similar, only the details may differ.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Letter to My Daughter here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)

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Review 2.17

 

On December 26, 2004, an earthquake of record proportions struck off the coast of Indonesia, triggering a series of tsunamis that swept through the Indian Ocean, ultimately killing more than 200,000 people in fourteen countries.

Two hundred thousand people.

Our brains aren’t quite capable of making sense of it. Two hundred thousand is simply a very large number, and our minds try to view it as such. It’s difficult to imagine two hundred thousand individual voices, with hopes and families and dreams and fears, being simultaneously snuffed out by a wall of water on a cloudless day.

Wave tells one of those stories. On the day of the tsunamis, Sonali Deraniyagala lost both her parents, her husband, and both her sons to the wave. She herself was swept two miles inland after being separated from her family. In her memoir, Deraniyagala gives voice to the pain, confusion, and grief that she has felt since the wave, and asks whether or not it’s possible to truly recover from such a loss.

I will say this for the author, she is brutally, unflinching honest. The rawness of her pain was almost unbearable to listen to, and I don’t know if I would have been able to get through a print copy of the book. Wave is a swirling maelstrom of grief. Deraniyagala is frank about her contemplation of suicide, her descent into binge drinking, her wish for madness to relieve her of the continued burden of life. Given the circumstances, one could expect little different. This was a book that made me want to hug my husband a little closer at night. I paused on one occasion to call my mom. Wave works as a reminder to never take our happiness for granted.

This is not a story of grief and healing in the wake of loss, it is an outpouring of grief from a woman who has been struck by unfathomable sorrow. It’s difficult to criticize a book like this without looking like an asshole. After all, this person is baring her soul to the world, who am I to deign even to reply? That said, Deraniyagala was difficult to connect with. She is self-centered and self-absorbed. At no point does Deraniyagala ever extend her grief to include any of the other two hundred thousand people who died that day. She never bothers to thank the friends and family who rallied to support her. She doesn’t seem to recognize that not everyone who suffered that day could then take the next seven years to recover, grieve, travel, and go whale-watching.

Deraniyagala mentions that actually, at some point in Wave. The enormity of her loss is simply too great, and people react defensively when faced with such uncomprehending sadness. Listening to Wave was difficult and imperfect and gut-wrenchingly painful, and that is what makes stories like this so important.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Wave here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Hannah Curtis and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Thrift Store Finds! 05/03/19

I FOUND IT.

I thought this book was some kind of weird Canadian urban legend, but last Friday there it was, a dusty paperback sitting innocuously in a stack of equally dusty paperbacks.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present:

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Bear.

The 1976 classic Canadian novel of a woman who develops sexual feelings for a wild grizzly.

Bear

Seriously.

Okay, now I don’t normally get this excited when I find random erotic novels in thrift shops. If that were the case I’d be in a constant state of over-stimulation.

Bear is special.

I first heard about Bear many years ago on a blog called 11points, which sadly is no longer active so I can’t find the original link. The article was entitled “Eleven of the Weirdest Romantic Novel Sub-Genres” or something like that; and nestled somewhere in between werewolf romances and Abe Lincoln erotica was a little novel called Bear.

Fast forward to 2016; I was scrolling the Overdrive website for the Toronto Public Library and there it was again.

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Listed under “Proud to be Canadian”

Bear.

It even has a wait list!

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Allow me if you will to give you a brief excerpt from this great novel. Warning: NSFW

“She cradled his big, furry, asymmetrical balls in her hands, she played with them, slipping them gently inside their cases as he licked. His prick did not come out of its long cartilaginous sheath. Never mind, she thought, I’m not asking for anything. I’m not obliged to anybody. I don’t care if I can’t turn you on, I just love you.” (Engel, 130)

Pardon me for a moment, I’m going to go scrub my hands for typing that.

As undeniably weird and wrong as it is, only in Canada would you see something like this on a list of public library recommendations. Because instead of responding to things like Bear with righteous fury or moral indignation, Canada leans into its weirdness.

It embraces books like Bear and announces to the world, “Yup, we’re the country with that grizzly-fucker novel. What about it?” Canada accepts its own wackiness, and that’s one of the things I love about living here.

So here’s to you Bear. Let your freak flag fly.

Happy reading everyone!