Book Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter (2013)

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Review #62

Once a year, Scoutmaster Tim leads a troop of boys on a weekend expedition to small, uninhabited Falstaff Island, off the coast of Prince Edward Island in Canada. This year begins in a similar manner, the boys arrive and scare each other with ghost stories around a bonfire. But when a mysterious stranger turns up, pale, emaciated and desperately hungry, Tim and the boys are soon dealing with a nightmare unlike anything they could have imagined.

I had been sitting on this book for a few months, with the aim of scaring myself silly while in the forests of the Bruce Peninsula on a camping trip. I was hoping for a claustrophobic, lost in the woods against an unknown enemy kind of thriller. The Troop ended up being quite different from my expectations.

This is a novel that is dying for a longer exposition. The introduction of the mysterious stranger, which sets the plot in motion, happens a mere twenty pages into the book. This leaves almost no time for characterization or suspense to build, and instead the Scoutmaster and his troop of adolescent boys are reduced to the barest of placeholders. There’s Kent the idiotic bully. Newton the nerd. Ephraim, who has severe anger management problems. Shelley, the moon-faced sociopath. And Max, the only “normal” one out of the bunch. The boys never stray far from these one-sentence descriptions, which means that I as a reader never grew to care about any of their fates. I found myself wishing that author Nick Cutter had dedicated fifty or so pages at the beginning of The Troop to setting the scene a little more.

Cutter also seems to be one of those horror writers who equivocate loads of gory details with true suspense. There are numerous and graphic descriptions of bodies being broken open, innards exposed, spines being twisted, etc. The problem is that it never really leaves much of an impression. A truly great scary novel makes you feel as if you are right there experiencing the horrors. The Troop felt more like watching a particularly gruesome medical documentary on the Discovery Channel. It was distantly interesting, but that’s about it. Giving that these gross things are happening to a group of children, this theoretically should have upped the fear factor, but due to the aforementioned lack of characterization it still fell flat.

Overall, I was disappointed in this novel. I had been hoping for something along the lines of Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, which built a creeping sense of dread by building the character’s fear along with the readers’. Instead I was left with a rather icky but ultimately dull venture into the Canadian wilderness.

My rating: 2/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman (2018)

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Review #49

 

When she discovers that she is pregnant, fifteen year old Maggie Hughes finds herself trapped by the expectations of her parents and the rigid Catholicism of her small Quebec town. She is forced to give up her baby to an orphanage, thereby surrendering all legal rights to her infant daughter, Elodie. When the the French-Canadian government seeks to funnel more money into the Catholic church by turning all Quebec orphanages into mental asylums, Elodie is labeled as mentally deficient and is effectively committed to a life of brutality and neglect.

I had no idea going into this novel that it was historical fiction, and I became increasingly horrified as I learned that the events described in The Home for Unwanted Girls are based in reality. In the 1950’s the provincial government, led by staunch Catholic governor Maurice Duplessis, was highly reliant on the Church for most of its social welfare programs. Upon discovering that more federal funds were being allocated towards the care of mental patients than towards orphans, his reaction was to reassign all orphanages in Quebec as insane asylums. The children, who were already considered an unwanted burden on society due to the fact that the majority of them were born out of wedlock, were falsely labeled as suffering from mental illnesses. They were no longer allowed to go to school, and there were widespread reports of physical, mental, and sexual abuse by the doctors and nuns running the mental asylums. These practices were discovered in the 1960’s, but the Catholic Church has never admitted or apologized for its actions. (Wiki)

Author Joanna Goodman, a native of Montreal, does not shy away from the dark history surrounding this time period. The situation of Maggie and her daughter is one of incarceration. Maggie is trapped by the social structures of the time period, she is never asked if she wants to keep her child and she is denied all legal rights to her daughter after she is born. The child, Elodie, is a victim of a terrible crime. As she grows older and begins to question the system that does not seem to care for her or any of the other motherless children, she is met with violence, lies, and derision. The nuns see Elodie as a product of sin, and treat her as such. Modern supporters of the Catholic Church will have a difficult time reading this novel.

As heart-wrenching as the passages from Elodie’s perspective were, I wish there had been more of them. Of the approximately four hundred pages, I would estimate that only one hundred or so were devoted to telling Elodie’s story. The rest are given over to her mother, Maggie, as she attempts to reconcile her past with her future. This is not to say that Maggie’s story is not compelling, it just feels that a book entitled The Home for Unwanted Girls would spend more time with the girl who is told she is unwanted.

Good historical fiction can be just as useful as a nonfiction history book in teaching us about a specific time and place. Joanna Goodman’s novel did just that, it sparked my curiosity and encouraged me to learn more about the the “asylum orphanages” of Quebec. I later spoke with a friend of mine, a Canadian Catholic whose ancestors came from French Canada, if he had ever heard of the events described in this novel. He had absolutely no idea. Perhaps this time period is being left out of the history books, in which case, The Home for Unwanted Girls is certainly an eye opener.

Sometimes it feels as though nearly all historical fiction novels are centered around either the second World War or the British monarchy. It was a refreshing change of pace to encounter a story set in a time period that I was unfamiliar with. I definitely came away from Joanna Goodman’s novel feeling as thought I’d learned about something important.

My rating: 4/5

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

Happy reading everyone!