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 vs Film: The Shining

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Fittingly enough for October, I spent a last weekend at a cabin in the woods. And while there were more loons and squirrels than ghosts and ghouls, I took the opportunity to re-read one of my all-time favorite horror novels, The Shining by Stephen King. It is considered by many to be one of his best works, which is saying a lot considering he is one of the most popular and prolific authors still writing today.

While King’s The Shining has definitely earned its place in the higher echelons of the horror genre, I have never quite understood the esteem given to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of the novel. While I was re-reading the book over the weekend, it only served to remind me how utterly superior it is to the movie version.

In no specific order, here are my thoughts on The Shining novel version the film. Spoilers abound for both.

1.) The film is horribly miscast. I might be in the unpopular opinion crowd here but I absolutely hate Jack Nicholson’s interpretation of Jack Torrance. He plays Jack as a mentally unstable semi-psychopath straight from the beginning. The novel version of Jack is a flawed individual who loves his family and is eventually worn down by the dark forces of the Overlook. Nicholson instead chose to glower and menace from the very first scene, and spends the entire running length of the film chewing the scenery.

Shelley Duvall, as Wendy Torrance, is almost unbearable to watch. She is meek and whiny and shrill. Book Wendy is certainly submissive to her husband, but she fights for the safety of her son and it is her fierce love that has kept her family together. Wendy fights her own demons throughout the course of King’s novel, but she is never reduced to a mewling puddle on the floor.

2.) Kubrick basically tortured Shelley Duvall throughout the course of filming. It could be that part of my dislike for Shelley Duvall in Kubrick’s film is the fact that he put her through such psychological strain that she would frequently collapse from mental exhaustion. She was kept isolated from much of the cast and made to perform takes hundreds of times all while Kubrick was screaming at her. Apparently the stress was so great that her hair began to fall out. Kubrick’s interpretation of Wendy Torrance is utterly misogynistic. She is just there to make stupid decisions and scream a lot.

3.) Jack Torrance is supposed to be an imperfect but dedicated husband and father. In my opinion, one reason why Stephen King’s work is so difficult to translate onto film is that so much of the tension takes place in the minds of his characters. The reader spends so much time sharing headspace with the Torrance family that we grow to understand and appreciate their various strengths and flaws. So when I’m reading The Shining, I identify with Jack’s struggle with alcoholism as much as I respect his fervent desire to better himself for his wife and son. The reader feels that mixture of guilt, pain, sadness, and love. But because the battle for the soul of Jack Torrance takes place within the mind of Jack Torrance, it’s difficult to convey without resorting to voice-over narration which would have been equally ineffective. So instead, we’re left with Jack Nicholson who tried to convey that inner turmoil by acting like an overly toothy nutjob.

4.) Points must be given for setting and cinematography. I personally do not believe Stanley Kubrick deserves his place in the higher rankings of film directors. However, I will say that he was capable of delivering some truly stunning visuals. Horror films in the last decade rely too heavily on quick edits, jump scares, and screechy music to ramp up suspense. Kubrick understands the creepiness of the long shot, and his use of twisty hallways, looming staircases, and the general grandeur of the hotel set are all gorgeous to look at. His use of bright, primary colors contrasted with the gloominess of other set pieces is another reason why this film is mentioned so often in conversations about amazing visual effects.

5) THE ENDING Stephen King himself has tried to distance himself from Kubrick’s film, citing many of the same reasons I’ve mentioned in this post. Nicholson’s Jack Torrance has almost no character arc whatsoever, and even the final sacrifice of “book” Jack is left out of the film. In the novel, Jack Torrance manages to fight off the evil spirits that have consumed him long enough to say goodbye to his son and allow him a chance to escape. He then smashes his own face in with a roque mallet, destroying himself but saving his son. In the film, Jack Nicholson’s character basically becomes Michael Myers, a maniac with an axe who gleefully attempts to murder his entire family. In the end, he gets lost in a hedge maze and freezes to death.

Where’s the sacrifice? Where are the last words of a broken man to his son? It’s as if Kubrick didn’t see Jack Torrance as a person with a conscience of his own, but merely as an empty receptacle for the evil spirits that inhabited the Overlook. So the ending consists of one drawn-out chase scene, complete with an idiotic woman who runs up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. Even in 1980 this was beginning to become a cliche. Kubrick had the opportunity to show his audiences a truly unique monster, the monster that lives within all of us waiting for the chance to take over. Instead, we were given yet another soulless psychopath. What a shame.

What are your thoughts? Are there any other film to book comparisons you’d like to see? Let me know in the comments!

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!

Book Review: Journey Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino (1999)

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Review #91

When a local pawnbroker turns up murdered in an abandoned building in 1973, Detective Sasagaki begins a hunt for his killer. He eventually links two young people that seem to be connected with the crime. One is the sullen, brooding son of the murdered man, the other is the beautiful and captivating daughter of the prime suspect. The story of these individuals spans the course of twenty years as Detective Sasagaki pursues his murder suspect to the point of overwhelming obsession.

The cover states that author Keigo Higashino is the “Japanese Stieg Larrson”, and I did find a lot of similarity to Larrson’s Millenium trilogy. Journey Under the Midnight Sun occasionally suffers from too many characters, to the point where I had difficulty remembering who a specific character was and what was their place in the overall plot. Also similar to Larrson, too many of these characters have very similar surnames which added to my initial confusion.

The two central characters are Yukiho and Ryo, young children at the beginning of the novel whose lives are shaped by their relationship to one another. Yukiho seems to be blessed with preternatural beauty and grace. After the events that set the main plot into motion, we follow Yukiho through her expensive prep school, into marriage, and eventually life as a successful business woman. Wherever Yukiho goes, men fall in love with her and women envy her. As she moves through life, a series of unfortunate events seem to occur to those who would deny Yukiho the things she desires.

Ryo is the maladjusted son of the murdered pawnbroker. Unlike Yukiho, who was able to attend a prestigious school and university, Ryo is instead sent to the local public school. He discovers an interest in the emerging world of computer technology, and finds himself working alongside a group of people who steal video games and sell them on the black market. As Ryo sinks deeper into a dark world of crime and isolation, secrets from his past threaten to consume him.

The setting, which begins in the early 1970’s and spans nearly twenty years, is a fascinating look at the changes that occurred in Japanese society as it was swept up in the technological revolution and became a powerhouse in the computer and video game industries. The rise of Tokyo real estate prices, the beginning of the digital black market, and the loss of “traditional” class and gender roles all paint the portrait of a rapidly changing world where people could either change with the times or risk become obsolete.

This novel was a twisty-turny rollercoaster ride of a thriller. Despite the overabundance of supporting characters, they all have an important role to play and once I got them puzzled out they sprang to life with motivations and desires of their own. Journey Under the Midnight Sun is the written equivalent of film noir complete with chain-smoking detectives, alluring femme fatales, wide-eyed innocents, and devastating betrayals.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Journey Under the Midnight Sun here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James (2018)

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Review #90

Vermont, 1950 Idlewild Hall is where parents send their daughters once they had deemed lost causes. Whether illegitimate, rebellious, or simply inconvenient, the girls all find themselves at Idlewild. Four girls find themselves bonding after being unceremoniously dropped at the school and form a tight friendship, until one of them vanishes without a trace.

Vermont, 2014 Twenty years after her older sister was found murdered on the now-abandoned grounds of Idlewild Hall journalist Fiona Sheridan returns to her hometown in rural Vermont to cover the story of the school’s restoration. Confronted with memories she has worked so hard to bury, Fiona becomes determined to uncover the mystery of her sister’s death.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that split perspective narratives are difficult to do well because one of the narratives will almost always end up being more compelling. In The Broken Girls, the chapters set in 1950 move at a faster clip and have a stronger voice. Even though these chapters vary between the four girls who reside at Idlewild, they still manage to accomplish more character development than the chapters written from Fiona’s point of view.

The problem is that Fiona spends an inordinate amount of time repeating herself about how broken up she is over her sister’s death, and lamenting that she and her police officer boyfriend may not be meant for one another. Not until the final seventy pages or so does Fiona’s narrative begin to pick up momentum and by that point the tension is lost.

The Broken Girls is billed as a paranormal suspense, but seems to be lacking both paranormal and suspense. The “ghost” story is glaringly underutilized; at no point does the spirit of Idlewild present any kind of threat or intrigue.

Author Simone St. James does get points for her creepy, Gothic atmosphere, I could almost feel the chilly and crumbling halls of the neglected school. I also greatly enjoyed the way that St. James depicts life as a girl in 1950 feel like a prison. That the girls of Idlewild consistently rebel against the tight strictures imposed by the adults around them made me silently cheer for their victory.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Broken Girls here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage (2018)

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What would you do if you find yourself unable to love your child? What if your child didn’t love you? Eight-year old Hanna is sweet and precocious for her father, even if she is unwilling to speak. But for her mother Suzette, Hanna is a manipulative and destructive child who seems hell-bent on destroying the relationship between her parents. As Suzette becomes increasingly strained by Hanna’s behavior, Hanna’s tricks become more sophisticated when she decides that she may have to remove her mother from the picture altogether.

I read a lot, and I mean a lot of horror novels, but this debut novel by author Zoje Stage scared the pants off me. The premise is entirely ridiculous and utterly silly but it’s crafted within enough care to keep the level of suspense heightened until the very end.

The split narrative varies between mother and daughter so that the reader comes to sympathize with both characters. It would be easy to write off Hanna as a deranged child psychopath like Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son, but that would be too easy. Instead we can understand Hanna’s skewed viewpoint and how she has somehow come to view her mother as the enemy. She is never depicted as a “demon child” so much as a confused and disturbed little girl. We can also understand how Suzette has reached a breaking point when it comes to parenting a increasingly difficult child.

There is a hint of Rosemary’s Baby in Suzette’s relationship with her husband. He is too often absent, and since Hanna puts on her best face for her Daddy, inclined to side with her. As the father, Alex is the least developed character and too often plays the role of biased mediator. There are many instances where he says that his wife is “over-reacting” and that there daughter is simply “under stimulated” at home. This is a fairly lazy plot device in 2018 when most parents are more involved in their children’s upbringing.

This book is sure to be controversial with the mommy crowd, particularly the ending. As a currently childless woman, I found the ideas presented in Baby Teeth to be simultaneously disturbing and highly entertaining. It was certainly a compelling read from beginning to end.

My rating: 4/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Gods of Howl Mountain (2018)

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Review #86

 

After losing a leg fighting in the Korean War, Rory Docherty returns to the isolated mountain of his birth and continues running bootleg whiskey and trying to out-maneuver the federal agents who are determined to crack down on illegal alcohol. His grandmother Maybelline spends her days mixing potions and herbal remedies for the local townspeople. When Rory meets the daughter of a snake-charming preacher, he finds himself falling in love. But Maybelline Docherty is against the match for reasons that she refuses to admit.

Taylor Brown has a wonderfully descriptive writing style that draws his readers into the world of his creation. The isolated people who live in the hills of Appalachia exist in a society that refuses to conform to modernity even today. In the days following the Korean War, many of the mountain people had little to do with outsiders and instead lived, loved, and died without ever venturing into the larger world. Brown describes the wild and untamed nature of the mountains with a deft hand. His use of metaphor and imagery describe a harshly dangerous world that only a strong and hardy few would chose to live in.

Unfortunately, the characters that Brown places into this beautiful and well-defined world have all the intensity and vigor of a brown paper sack. I felt very little towards Rory because his thoughts, dreams, and desires are never clearly defined. We know he is haunted by memories of the Korean War because Brown tells us he is. But I never felt his pain or his fear. We know he becomes entranced by the preacher’s daughter because the words are written, but I never felt that spark of passion that accompanies the first days of love. His rivalry with a fellow bootlegger and his relationship towards his mentally ill mother are equally uneven.

If you asked me to summarize Gods of Howl Mountain, it would take me a few minutes to remember anything significant about the plot. It simply didn’t leave much of an impression. I do remember a feeling of relief when I finally finished the book.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Gods of Howl Mountain here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Mermaid by Christina Henry (2018)

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Review #85

Once upon a time there was a mermaid who was curious about the lives of men. One day she swam too close to shore, and was trapped in a net by a fisherman. Moved by her alien beauty, the fisherman released the mermaid back into the sea. But the mermaid, entranced by the loneliness in the eyes of the fisherman, used an ancient magic to give herself legs and join the fisherman on land. He named her Amelia and together they lived a long and happy life, until the day came when the fisherman went out to sea and didn’t come back. Isolated in her small cabin on a cliffside, Amelia spends her days watching the sea and missing the fisherman. Many years pass, until another man comes into her life. A man by the name of P.T. Barnum.

Christina Henry has published several revisionist fairy tales, included Lost Boy which I reviewed earlier this year. I would describe her latest novel, The Mermaid, as a re-imagining of the classic story of a mermaid who dreams of life on land. The plot of The Mermaid bares almost zero resemblance to the original Danish fairy tale, choosing instead to follow its own path to 19th century New York City.

The opening of The Mermaid reads very much like a classic fairy tale, with very little dialogue and an omniscient narrator who constructs a sweet and believable love story between a mermaid and a fisherman. The rest of the novel switches to a more modern narrative with the mermaid Amelia as its heroine, a creature who is older and stranger than anyone around her realizes. Christina Henry does a wonderful job of portraying Amelia has inhuman but not inhumane. She has difficulty identifying with those around her but is filled with empathy for the everyday struggles of the people she encounters in New York.

If The Mermaid is lacking anything, it’s a solid antagonist. Because Henry has grounded her story away from its Danish roots, Amelia never makes a deal with a vengeful sea witch. There is no pressing time limit for her to win her true love and remain human. The nearest thing to a villain is P.T. Barnum as the immoral collector of freaks and oddities, but even he is presented as distasteful and greedy rather than actively monstrous.

So far I have enjoyed both of Christina Henry’s novels. I love the imaginative way she transports her readers to another time and place. Her writing is captivating and begs to be read. I’ll keep my eyes open for her next fairy tale interpretation.

My rating: 4/5

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

Happy reading everyone!