Book Review: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake (2011)

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Review #101

For a high-schooler, Cas Lockwood has an unusual after-school job. He tracks down and kills ghosts, like his father before him. Folklore and rumors have brought Cas, his mother, and their ghost-detecting cat to Thunder Bay, Ontario to hunt down a spirit known as Anna Dressed in Blood.

I found the exposition and rising action of Anna Dressed in Blood to be wonderfully fun and creepy. Cas operates a bit like a one-man Winchester brother, roaming from small town to small town across North America in pursuit of evil spirits and malicious ghosts. Instead of a cool and competent older brother, Cas instead travels with his mother, who insists on cleaning his demon-killing knife after he returns home every evening from battling the undead.

Cas also evokes a memory of Buffy, in that he is often accompanied by his faithful Scooby Gang. There’s the newly hatched witch, the beautiful but down-to- earth popular girl, her testosterone-driven boyfriend, and the wise teacher who shows them the way. Despite all this, Anna Dressed in Blood managed to avoid feeling like a tired re-tread of old themes, but was often fresh and funny. Unlike some novels I have reviewed for this site, Kendare Blake understands how teenagers speak and act amongst themselves, which gives this novel a grounding in reality as a comfortable jumping-off point into the paranormal.

I went into this book expecting a ghost story, and I guess that’s what I got. The Supernatural vibe dies off after the first hundred pages or so, and is replaced by a rather generic “catch the monster” second act which plays it pretty much by-the-numbers. I enjoyed the overall writing style, but ultimately it failed to as expected. Namely, to scare me.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Anna Dressed in Blood here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (2018)

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Review #100

In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Kate Morton has been on my shortlist of favorite authors since I first discovered The Forgotten Garden way back in 2011. All of her novels merge historical fiction with mystery, often spanning decades and generations. Morton stays true to form with her latest novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, and manages to throw in a few surprises along the way.

Morton loves writing about crumbling English manor homes and her settings often serve as characters unto themselves. The majority of The Clockmaker’s Daughter takes place in isolated and empty Birchwood Manor, but far from the gloomy, neglected halls that characterized Morton’s The Distant Hours, Birchwood is haunted by a ghost of a different sort. The presence which roams the halls of Birchwood Manor is filled with curiosity and kindness for the occasional visitors that come to her home, which has been turned into a museum and historical site. When a new visitor by the name of Elodie Winslow turns up looking for answers that lead back to a long ago summer when a group of artists descended upon the manor, the spirit of Birchwood Manor realizes that secrets are about to be uncovered that have been buried for centuries.

The wonderful thing about Kate Morton’s writing is that it flows so smoothly from time period to time period. The bulk of the narrative follows a group of young artists who venture into the country for a summer of nature and inspiration. The technological and social changes that embody Victorian England are present here; it was interesting to read about the introduction of photography, which would bring about major changes to the art world as the popularity of portraiture faded.

The rest of the novel is set in the present day. It is partly narrated by Elodie, a young archivist who stumbles upon a sketchbook that has been hidden away for decades. The spirit of Birchwood Manor has its own voice as well, detailing the events that have occurred in the house in the long years since its arrival. This is the first novel by Morton to contain a solid supernatural element. There were whispers of fairies and magic in some of her previous works, but the ghost in The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a defined presence with real wishes and desires.

If I had a critique of this novel, it would be the title. While one of the main characters is the daughter of a clockmaker, that fact has no real bearing on the overall storyline. Too many novels are “The _____’s Daughter” or “The _____’s Wife”. It is often is used in fiction to give a different perspective on historical events; however, it is unnecessary in this case. Instead it serves to undermine a strong female character by forcing her to be named only under the title of a male who is not even terribly relevant to the plot. It just felt lazy.

Overall, this was another highly enjoyable novel by a woman who remains at the top of my list for favorite authors. My only disappointment is that I have to settle in for a long wait until her next novel.

My Rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Clockmaker’s Daughter here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Gone by Michael Grant (2008)

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Review #99

Sam watches as his science teacher suddenly blinks out of existence in the middle of a lecture. He soon finds out that all of the teachers and upperclassman have also vanished, leaving everyone under the age of fifteen alone in their small California community. At the same time, an impassable barrier appears in a ten mile radius around the town. Within days the bullies are running the show, threatening anyone who opposes them with violence.

It was finally my turn to pick a book for book club! The theme was “superpowers” and I dug around on Goodreads and Pinterest for a few hours trying to find the perfect book. I finally chose Michael Grant’s Gone based on the fact that it had a 3.8 rating on Goodreads and I had heard about it before on a list of best YA science fiction. When I finally settled in with my Kobo and began to read…

Dud. I had picked a big fat dud.

Here are just a few of the notes I jotted down while reading this book:

  • “Twenty pages. The word “brah” used at least once per page.”
  • “Was written specifically in the hopes of becoming a show on the CW.”
  • “Why is Quinn so racist towards Mexicans? Why is everyone okay with it?”
  • “Trying for LOTF. Failing miserably.”
  • “Please stop saying “brah””
  • “Grant writes teenager characters as if he read about them once in National Geographic.”
  • “They’re not very nice to the autistic kid, either.”
  • “STOP SAYING “BRAH””

 

My rating: 1/5. Points for feminist characters and very diverse cast in general. And the kid who went to work at McDonalds was kind of adorable.

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

Happy reading everyone!

P.S. Next review will be #100 be sure to check it out!!

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Terror by Dan Simmons (2007)

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Review #98

In 1845, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror departed from England with one hundred and twenty-nine men on a three-year expedition to finally discover the illusive Northwest Passage. The leader, Captain John Franklin, had previously served on three Arctic expeditions, and was the commanding officer on two. Laden down with years worth of food, oil, and coal, the two ships were the pinnacle of British shipbuilding technology.

Both ships became trapped in the ice near King William Island in the winter of 1846. They never moved again. There were no survivors.

Dan Simmons blends historical fiction and horror to recreate the final years of the doomed Franklin expedition, and adds in a supernatural twist. The endless dark and freezing cold of the pack ice is home to a creature of terrifying size and intelligence that is stalking the men in the endless night of Arctic winter.

Simmons treats the environment surrounding Terror as a living thing, constantly growling and shifting to create sudden upthrusts and hidden crevices.  The polar region is one of the most unforgiving places on the Earth, and it is immediately apparent that Franklin and his crew are out of their depths. The ever-moving ice remains implacable in the face of their modern British inventions. After months pass trapped in ice, a summer passes without an escape route emerging. Food rations begin to run low, and mutterings of mutiny can be heard belowdecks. The beast on the ice quickly becomes the least of their worries.

My only negative issue with The Terror is its length. Nearly seven hundred pages is a long time to read about ice. Simmons occasionally becomes repetitive; there are only so many ways to detail a group of people with sinking morale and empty bellies. I enjoyed his use of multiple perspectives, but some of the voices didn’t serve a purpose in furthering the overall plot.

I find myself liking The Terror more in retrospect than I did while actually reading it. I found the length and some of the more meandering narratives a bit frustrating at the time, but I keep finding myself thinking about the fate of the HMS Terror and the horrible conditions that these sailors found themselves unable to escape. This will be a novel that I’ll remember on cold winter nights.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Terror here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Girl With All the Gifts (2014)

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Review #97

Melanie is a very special girl. She is the smartest in her class, and is always trying to please her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau. Melanie is always very careful to follow the rules. Every day when the soldiers come to her cell, she makes sure to sit very carefully as they strap her arms and legs onto a wheelchair and cover her face with a plastic mask. As one soldier aims his gun steadily at her face, she jokes and says she doesn’t bite. No one laughs. No one laughs much anymore; not with the hungries prowling around outside of the army base where Melanie lives.

Then she gets to attend class with Miss Justineau and the other children, all of whom are bound into their own wheelchairs. Miss Justineau says Melanie is a genius. Melanie loves to tell Miss Justineau about all the wonderful things she’ll see and do after she grows up. She doesn’t understand why this always makes her beloved teacher look so very sad.

Of all the ghosts, ghouls, and monsters that can be found in horror novels and movies, zombies tend to be very hit or miss. The majority of zombie fiction is overly gory, with soulless villains that cannot think or feel or be understood and are therefore not terribly interesting. The ones that transcend the genre, novels like Mira Grant’s Feed or Max Brooks’ World War Z, choose to focus less on the walking dead and more on the people who are struggling to survive in a world where they are no longer the apex predators. The Girl With All the Gifts, like the aforementioned books, tells a very human story in the middle of an inhuman world. It combines the hard medical science of Grant with the intensely personal stories of Brooks to create something unique and fantastic.

This is a novel in which each of the characters has their own struggles and victories, flaws and strengths. The young schoolteacher finds herself doubting her own judgement when it comes to the fate of her students. The scarred and surly army sergeant is forced to confront his long-held biases about the world he lives in. Even the mad-scientist, who has sacrificed her own moral compass in her desperate journey to find answers, is relatable. By focusing on a small group of compelling individuals, author M. R. Carey is able to make the zombie apocalypse a more personal story.

As the leading protagonist, Melanie is a triumph. She is young and naive, hopeful and eager and engaging. She is smart and resourceful, but at the same time she’s a scared little girl who is struggling to understand the world around her. Carey walks a tight edge and risks making Melanie a little too perfect, but in the end she is just as fallible as everyone else and her motivations are often alien to the adults around her.

I won’t say too much about the overall plot, as experiencing it for the first time was half the fun. Melanie and the others are living on a protected army base approximately sometime after the majority of the population as succumbed to the “zombie” pandemic. The stumbling, rotting, and forever hungry remnants of the human race aren’t reanimated corpses, but are instead the victims of a type of fungal infection. The scientific explanation behind the hungries was one of my favorite aspects of this novel, as I had heard of this terrifying phenomenon taking place in the animal world and could readily imagine the destruction it could cause if it ever found a way to infect mammals.

I’ve been rather disappointed by thrillers lately, but The Girl With All the Gifts went a long way towards restoring my faith. This novel is exciting, suspenseful, and tightly written. It never lags for a second once the plot is set in motion. And it tells a story about what it truly means to be human, and humane, in a world where humanity has become endangered.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Girl With All the Gifts here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

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Review #96

When Louise Marshall receives a friend request on Facebook from Maria Weston, she is surprised to say the least. When they were in high school together, Louise wasn’t too kind to Maria. In fact, she was a bit of a bully. So why would Maria be reaching out after twenty-seven years? Plus there’s the fact that Maria is dead. Isn’t she?

My most recent post was entitled I’m Breaking Up With the Modern Thriller Genre. I explained how the recent trend towards unnecessary plot twists, shoddy characterization, and clumsy foreshadowing has killed my enjoyment of recently popular thriller novels. Friend Request by Laura Marshall was the book that broke this reader’s patience.

In this novel are the same tired cliches and overused stereotypes that have made the thriller genre an exercise in frustration. There are the obligatory flashbacks that serve no true purpose except to drum up a false sense of suspense. In this case, we visit Louise and Maria as they go through their senior year of high school in 1989. Instead of giving us a window into this time period which may have been fun or added relevant details to the overall plot, instead we just have Louise continually torn between her desire to be part of the popular crowd and her budding friendship with the new girl at school. There’s potential here for an insightful look at the long-term affects of teenage bullying, but Marshall never really connects the dots.

We also have multiple plot twists which serve no real purpose and fail to offer any surprises. When I think of novels such as Ender’s Game, Fight Club or any of Tana French’s Dublin Murder series, the thing that stands out is that all of the elements of the pre-twist narrative fall into place once the twist is revealed. If you go back and re-read any of these novels, you can logically and rationally follow the plot with the knowledge of the twist already in place. However, the plot twist in Friend Request is a cheat. It’s utterly out of left field and literally made me face-palm once I realized that this was what Marshall had spent so much time and effort building towards. I love a good plot twist but they need to make sense within the larger story, and the one in this novel fell completely flat.

I may have liked this book more if I hadn’t experienced a recent run of similar faux-thriller novels which can all be boiled down to “white woman with quirky but interesting career is somehow surprised when the past comes back to haunt her”. My frustration with Friend Request is ultimately due to my overall frustration with the current state of the thriller genre itself. I’ve decided to take a break and focus on a few other genres for awhile. Perhaps with some time I will be able to come back and appreciate this novel on its own merit.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Friend Request here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager (2017)

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Review #95

Ten years ago, Quincy Carpenter and a group of fellow college students ventured into the Pennsylvania woods for a party weekend at an isolated cabin. Forty-eight hours later, Quincy stumbled out of the forest, covered in blood and screaming that her friends had all been murdered. She was the sole survivor.

Now, Quincy has a loving fiance and a successful baking blog. She feels that she has finally managed to shed the image of the “final girl” that the media tried so hard to pin on her. But when a fellow survivor turns up dead and another appears on her doorstep, Quincy finds herself reliving the painful memories she has worked so hard to forget.

I reviewed another of author Riley Sager’s works earlier for this website, and thought that he relied too heavily on unnecessary plot twists and clumsy foreshadowing. For the bulk of Final Girls, Sager manages to avoid the ridiculous plot twists and focuses on a more character-driven story. Quinn is a relatively sympathetic character, although she does ramble on a bit too heavily about the same three subjects: Xanax, baking, and her fiance. I much preferred the enigmatic Sam Boyd, a fellow “Final Girl” who shows up at Quinn’s home and immediately makes herself at home. In my mind, she was Eliza Dushku’s character Faith from Buffy. We want to like her, but we are never sure whether or not we can trust her.

Sager’s use of flashbacks continues to be a thorn in my side. The sections that take place in 1989 are utterly useless. They do nothing to advance the overall plot, and they are far too short and deliberately vague to make us care for the fate of Quinn’s doomed friends. Just as in The Last Time I Lied, these sections felt clunky and heavy-handed. Sager relies too much on continuously stating “that one terrible thing that happened”, as if by repeating himself it will serve to drum up an atmosphere of suspense. Instead it just began to feel tedious.

I think I’m going to start avoiding the “popular” thrillers that crop up like daisies every year. Obviously there are a great deal of people who love them, or they would not constantly be popping on on my radar. However, I seem to forget that these novels are nearly always going to rely on the cliched tropes and nonsensical plot twist endings that have come to define the modern interpretation of the genre. I am tired of finding myself perpetually disappointed.

The ending for Final Girls in particular, was utterly ridiculous.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Final Girls here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

 

Book Review: Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix (2014)

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Review #94

Odd things have been happening at the Orsk store at night. Merchandise is being destroyed. Disturbing graffiti turns up in the restrooms. A foul smelling substance is being smeared across the furniture displays. Hoping to avoid being fired for lackluster performance, Amy volunteers along with two other employees to stay overnight in the Orsk store in order to unravel the mystery of the phantom vandal.

The idea of a horror novel set in one of the most banal of locations (a knockoff IKEA store) in one of the most banal of regions (Cleveland, Ohio) tickled my fancy right from the start. The first half of Horrorstör has a joyful time poking fun at big-box consumer culture, including excerpts from the Orsk catalogue, the Orsk employee handbook, and a map of the Cleveland store. Amy’s boss quotes from the Orsk customer service guide as if it is the Holy Bible. Basically, all of the characters in Horrorstör are walking caricatures, including protagonist Amy as the disgruntled slacker who believes she has settled for a job that is unworthy of her talents. Author Grady Hendrix drops bread crumbs of spooky happenings once in awhile, but dedicates the first hundred or so pages of the novel to roasting the retail environment and those who dwell within its overly lit halls.

The second half of Horrorstör takes a sharp turn into a paranormal ghost story. Turns out the executive bigwigs at the Orsk corporate office didn’t pay close enough attention when they paid bottom dollar for their newest store. They built their Cleveland location on the grounds of a former prison which was ruled by a sadistic and cruel warden. Now the spirits of the warden as well as the disgruntled inmates are roaming the Bright and Shining Path of the Orsk store. Only they’re looking for blood rather than bookcases.

Both sections of Horrorstör work on their own, but I’m not sure they work together. The beginning has a wry, tongue-in-cheek tone that is utterly lost once the main ghost story begins to pick up pace. Hendrix spends a bit too much time playing with his setup, and fails to build up any suspense in the early pages. The second half of the novel is a series of claustrophobic and tense chase scenes that include quite a bit of uncomfortable physical horror. But because we didn’t spend that much time getting to know the characters as anything other than caricatures, we’re never terribly invested in their fates.

Overall, I liked Horrorstör better in concept than in execution. The comedy and horror work against one another as opposed to in harmony, and the juxtaposition was too sudden and jarring.

My rating: 3/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: You by Caroline Kepnes

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Review #93

When a beautiful young aspiring writer enters his bookshop, Joe Goldberg is immediately enthralled. He realizes they are destined to be together so he does what seems natural to him, he invades her life. By finding out where she lives, entering her apartment uninvited, and stealing her phone, Joe manages to insert himself in her life almost seamlessly. His obsession grows as the young woman begins to trust and even love him. Increasingly possessive, Joe becomes determined to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of his happiness, even if means killing people to do so.

First things first, this book was amazing. It is one of those novels that pulls you in from the very first page and then you can’t function normally in the real world until you finish it. It’s one of those novels where you sacrifice sleeping at night so you can read a few more chapters. If I were a smoker, this would be the kind of book that would have me chain-smoking out of pure nervous energy as I flipped the pages as quickly as possible.

You is non-stop tension from beginning to end. The narrator is a psychopath with delusions of grandeur. Joe truly believes that entering a strange woman’s apartment and masturbating on her bed is a perfectly natural way of expressing his adoration for her. Anything that he sees as a hindrance to their “love” is a threat that must be removed without hesitation or remorse. He is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Author Caroline Kepnes makes the bold choice to write her novel using the second-hand voice. I typically find this style of narration to be tedious and annoying, but here it gives us a look into Joe’s mind in a way that first or third hand perspective would not have done. It is a chilling, cold, reptilian brain that is all the more nerve-wracking because on the outside Joe would seem like a perfectly normal guy who works in a bookshop. But under the surface he is calculating and manipulative. Since we only see the female character through Joe’s eyes, she is basically a hyper-sexualized depiction of feminine perfection.

It’s almost sick how compelling Joe’s character is. I felt a little demented myself after spending so much time in his head. And even though you can probably guess the ending from the first chapter of the book, it got there in an entirely different way than I had originally anticipated.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is twisted and dark and brutal. It may be triggering for survivors of rape or sexual assault. It will definitely make you think twice before striking up a conversation with a stranger.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find the sequel.

My rating: 5/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl (2018)

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Review #92

 

Beatrice and her friends were a tightly knit group at their prestigious Rhode Island boarding school, until a tragedy struck which left Beatrice’s boyfriend dead at the bottom of a quarry. Jim’s death was ruled as a suicide, but Beatrice never quite believed that could be true. Years later, she attempts to reconnect with her friends at Wincroft, the seaside mansion where she spent so many happier days. After an awkward evening with too much alcohol, a man appears at the door. For Beatrice and her friends, time has become stuck. They will continue to repeat the same day over and over until a decision is made. Only one of them will get a second attempt at life.

Marisha Pessl’s Night Film will definitely make the list of my favorite books I’ve read this year. It was so incredibly unique and creative, and it kept me guessing the whole time without feeling gimmicky. Neverworld Wake is a very different kind of novel; it is oddly repetitive and stale at times, and the characters lack the complexity that I felt so compelling in Pessl’s other novel.

I can’t say too much about the plot without giving away some important spoilers, suffice to say that it involves a kind of purgatory that Beatrice and her friends find themselves trapped in. Too much of the novel is devoted to Beatrice idly following her friends around as they devote themselves to whatever distractions entertain a person who is stuck in limbo. If her explorations contributed anything to the plot, or if they advanced the characterization of the other men and women, this would have been less tedious. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for most of the novel, and the characters remain flat and lifeless caricatures. I felt a lack of curiosity towards the fate of Beatrice and her friends, mostly I just wanted them to do something other than bitching at one another.

This novel is geared more towards a YA audience than Pessl’s previous works, and that may have contributed to the lackluster narrative. Where Night Film was filled with sex and murder and danger and suspense, Neverworld Wake avoids all of the above and suffers a bit for it. Not that sex and murder are intrinsically necessarily for a good suspense novel, but the adult themes do serve to heighten the tension.

On a positive note, I admired the controlled way that Pessl unravels her plot. She leaves small clues like bread crumbs scattered throughout her narrative, and only after finishing the novel can you follow them backward to a full understanding. Pessl avoids the smug “Have you figured it out yet?” foreshadowing that characterizes too many YA thrillers. This puts it in a higher echelon than comparable novels such as We Were Liars or The Last Time I Lied.

I hope that Marisha Pessl does not intend transition to YA permanently. Not that she doesn’t have the talent for the genre, but because it is a rare and delightful thing to find a thriller that keeps its fangs.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Neverworld Wake here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!