Book Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl (2013)

Image result for night film marisha pessl Review #69

Beautiful and talented Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in New York City, apparently having thrown herself off the building. Investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects that her death may not have been a suicide, and instead may be connected to her father, an enigmatic and reclusive director of cult-horror films. As Scott probes deeper into the Cordova family, he is drawn into a twisted and dangerous world that threatens his very sanity.

I absolutely love the way that author Marisha Pessl interspaces the main narrative with news articles, webpages, photographs, medical reports, and other things that Scott uncovers during his search for clues about Ashley Cordova’s life. It makes the story seem so much more visceral when a character is describing a dark web that revolves around the enigmatic director, only to follow it with screenshots of the webpage itself.

Night Film unfolds like series of Russian nesting dolls, with every clue that Scott uncovers raising more questions than it answers. Reading this novel felt like walking down an endless corridor lines with doors where every door only opens onto another corridor. It is a testament to Pessl’s writing style that she manages to keep her reader completely in the loop the entire time. She avoids the “gotcha” twist that too often defines the thriller genre, and instead chooses a slow and subtle approach to building tension.

I’m hesitant to explain much of the plot, since exploring and unraveling the mystery that is Ashley Cordova was such a fun experience. Early on, we are introduced to Ashley’s father, generally just referred to as Cordova, a mysterious director who produces films so terrifying that several of them have been banned. Underground screenings draw an eclectic crowd that worships Cordova for having awoken them to a higher state of understanding. As an avid fan of the horror genre, that only film that I could even partially equate with Cordova’s work would be Lars Von Triers’ Antichrist, also known as “The One Starring Willem Dafoe’s Penis”. That’s the only horror film I’ve seen in the past few years that made me feel truly uncomfortable. In Night Film, the movies made by Cordova are described in broad strokes, giving them an eerie, detached feeling that adds to the overall unease of the novel.

I read a lot of horror novels, some of them good, most of them mediocre. I would definitely place Night Film in the former category, as I was glued to the pages throughout the duration of the book.

My rating: 4.5/5

Note: As much as I adore my eReader, Night Film is a book better appreciated in print rather than digital.

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

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay (2016)

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Review #63

Late one night Elizabeth Sanderson receives devastating news. Her fourteen year old son Tommy has gone missing while out with friends in the woods of a local park. As the days go by with no news and no clues as to where Tommy may have gone, Elizabeth begins experiencing odd occurrences around her home. She comes to believe that the ghost of her son may be trying to communicate with her, to help solve the mystery of his disappearance.

This was yet another book that I had been waiting to read until I was on my annual camping trip. I had heard good things about author Paul Tremblay and had hopes of a creepy suspenseful ghost story to read in the woods. However, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock turned out to be more of a look at how different family members deal with grief, with a few strange happenings once in awhile. It isn’t really a “ghost” story in the classic sense of the word.

The main narrative focuses on Elizabeth and her eleven-year old daughter Kate as they navigate the increasingly fruitless attempts to find Tommy. The different ways that they deal with the frustrations, fear, and desperation come out in wildly varying ways. Elizabeth believes that she may or may not have received a vision from Tommy’s spirit, and becomes increasingly sure of that her son will not be found alive. Grace begins searching through Tommy’s things in an effort to understand the events leading up to his disappearance, and finds some disturbing sketches and diary entries made by her brother in his final days.

The second, lesser part of the plot is from the perspective of Tommy and his friends in the week before he goes missing. The boys roam the woods freely on their bicycles, eventually meeting a stranger who tells them a folktale involving a devil trapped in the rocky hills of the park. Their lives begin to spin out of control, and they attempt to form a plan that will rid them of the menace that has begun to stalk them.

This novel has an intriguing premise but ultimately fails to deliver. Too much of  the narrative is given over to Elizabeth staring at the phone, or off into space. The character of Grace is more compelling, but she is given little to do except go to places her mother tells her not to and listen to angsty music from the ’90s. I kept waiting for Devil’s Rock to pick up the pace and ramp up the tension but it never quite managed. The final act is also delivered in a very odd way that actually served to distance me further from Tommy and Elizabeth’s story.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find The Disappearance at Devil’s Rock here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

I seem to experiencing a pattern of disappointing horror novels lately. Any suggestions?

 

 

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!

Ten Amazing Books to Take on a Camping Trip

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I absolutely love camping. Every year I await the chance to get away from all the noise and crowds of the city and just drive into the middle of nowhere for a week. My husband and I are avid campers who are both from “indoor” families. Growing up, my mother’s idea of camping would have been a night at the Motel 8. I think part of that may have been because we already lived in the country, where open space, fresh air, and solitude were readily available. As much as I adore living in the Toronto area, I feel more at home in the country.

My husband and I generally go camping rather early in the season, around the end of June. This means that the temperatures average in the low twenties (70*F). For comparison, today it was 33* (93*F) in my Midwestern hometown.  There are numerous benefits to camping at the start of summer in Canada. First of all, schools are still in session so we don’t have to deal with hoards of families crowding the area. We’re both teachers, so our vacations generally mean trying to avoid small children as much as possible. Also, the insects haven’t had the chance to truly come out in force. And my remarkably Day-Glo pale skin has a better chance of avoiding a blistering sunburn. There are a myriad of benefits to camping in cool weather.

Nevertheless, it does have its drawbacks, mainly in that it isn’t exactly bathing suit season yet. This year we are headed to the Bruce Peninsula, near Lake Huron. If you’ve ever wondered how Jack Dawson felt when he went into the waters with the Titanic, take a quick dip in Lake Huron in June. Due to the cooler temperatures, recreational swimming isn’t really an option. Instead, we spend our time kayaking, naming the squirrels that invade our campsite, drinking beer, and reading.

The reading is what has most likely brought you to this post. As I would hate to become one of those horrid cooking blogs which feel the need to bore you with two thousand words of personal nonsense before giving you what you came for, let’s get to the books!

I’ve put together a list of ten books that would be perfect for reading around a campfire or while relaxing in a tent on a rainy day. The first five are all horror novels, because being scared in the woods is fun for everyone. The next five are more family-friendly, in case you don’t want your children waking up at three in the morning because a stick cracked in the darkness and they’re certain it was a beast from the depths of hell.

1) The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

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Nine year old Trisha is separated from her family while hiking in the woods of northern New England. Lost for days, dehydrated and scared, Trisha relies on her small radio for solace, tuning into the Boston Red Sox and her hero, pitcher Tom Gordon. But hunger and insects aren’t Trisha’s only problems. Something is stalking the small girl as she wanders through the forest. Something hungry and unnatural.

No list of horror novels is complete without at least one addition from Stephen King . This book is short (for King), atmospheric, and draws on the readers’ fear of the small noises that seem huge when you’re alone in the dark woods.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Keep on the path!

2) The Ritual by Adam Nevill

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A group of four middle-aged men reunite for a hiking trip in the wilds of northern Sweden. When they attempt to take a shortcut through a patch of untouched forest, they find more than they bargained for.

This novel was on my list of favorite books that I read last year. It is a masterpiece of suspense and dread as the four men realize that their formerly fit bodies are beginning to betray them, and they are unable to outrun that which is hunting them.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: If you see a creepy cabin in the middle of the woods, keep walking!

3) The Ruins by Scott Smith

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Hoping to find a lost friend in the jungles of Mexico, four friends stumble upon an ancient ruin and a creeping horror instead. As they become increasingly hungry and panicked, paranoia and hysteria begin to set in.

This novel is also a really great horror film by the same name. It is a creepy combination of psychological and physical horror. What is more dangerous, the jungle or each other?

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Don’t touch unidentified plants! 

4) Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

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Five short stories centered around the woods and the horrors within, combined with truly disturbing illustrations.

I wrote a review for this graphic novel just a few weeks ago, and I still can’t get it out of my head. The haunting prose and unsettling drawings come together to create a really creepy reading experience.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Curiosity killed the camper!

5) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

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A collection of short folktakes from around the world. This is still a favorite with older and braver children, and continues to send shivers up the spine of many an adult. Make sure you get an edition with the original artwork by Stephen Gammell, as they are an integral part of this reading experience!

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Close your eyes and hope for the best.

 

6) A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

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The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine, and is a bucket-list item for any avid hiker. Bill Bryson is not an avid hiker, yet he and an equally unfit companion set off to complete the AT in the course of one summer. Bryson details the ecology and history of the area as well as his encounters with the local people and wildlife.

Not so long ago, the Appalachian Trail was a relatively unknown area of the United States, favored only by experienced backpackers and campers. From what I hear, it is now overridden by idiot hipsters who think a hiking GPS makes them an expert. This book is a fun expedition through the woods from someone who knows the does not belong there.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: A sense of humor is essential.

7) Hatchet by Gary Paulson

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This ever-popular children’s novella centers on a boy named Brian who finds himself stranded in the wilderness of Northern Canada after his bush-plane crashes. Armed with only a small hatchet, Brian must find a way to survive until he can be rescued.

Hatchet has been a hit with people of all ages for more than thirty years because we as readers identify so strongly with Brian. His early cluelessness and mistakes are the results of a boy growing up away from nature, as so many of us do. This would be a fun novel to read with children.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Never give up.

8) The Call of the Wild by Jack London

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Buck the dog is kidnapped from his easygoing life in Santa Clara and forced into work as a sled dog in the unforgiving winter of the Yukon. Faced with constant danger from the climate, the wildlife, and the cruelty of both his fellow dogs and man, Buck must struggle to survive and reclaim his position as master.

Another book that is very popular with young readers, The Call of the Wild is an enduring story of survival and spirit. Because the main character is a dog, he is easy to root for and we celebrate Buck’s victories as much as we weep for his setbacks.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Be kind to animals.

9) Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Laura Ingalls and her family live in a small wood cabin in the forests of Wisconsin in the mid 18th century. This book describes the struggle and successes of the Ingalls family as they work hard to make a life for themselves in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

Eternally beloved author Laura Ingalls Wilder as captured the imaginations of generations of children with her Little House books. They are a good reminder of how much the world has changed, and yet how many things remain the same.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Your family is there to love and protect you.

10) The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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In the dense forests of medieval Russia, a small village is buried in snow for eight months out of the year. Vasilisa Petrovna grows up wild in the woods, giving offerings to the various sprites and spirits that inhabit the wilderness. When a Catholic priest begins to interfere with village life, Vasilisa must make a choice that will affect her entire future.

I reviewed this novel earlier in the year and I absolutely adored it. A dark fairy tale with religious undertones, The Bear and the Nightingale features a wonderful protagonist who never behaves quite as expected.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: When in doubt, trust your instincts.

Well there you have it, folks! I hope that you enjoy some of these books on your next venture into the forests. Whether you are looking for a scare or for more tame entertainment, you can’t go wrong with a good book! I’ll be on hiatus next week while I am on a camping trip. I hope to return with more recommendations for our readers who love the woods.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: The Outsider by Stephen King (2018)

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Review #56

When an eleven year old boy is found mutilated and murdered in a local park, the cops know who their man is. Respected teacher and baseball coach Terry Maitland was spotted with the victim getting into the back of a windowless van. He was later seen leaving the park covered in blood. His fingerprints are found on the body. Terry Maitland is immediately arrested in front of a crowd of thousands and brought into police custody. There’s only one problem. Terry has an ironclad alibi. He was out of town on the day of the murder, with fingerprints, eyewitnesses, and video evidence to support his claim. Now, Detective Ralph Anderson must race to uncover the mystery of the man who was in two places at once.

In the past few years, Stephen King has moved away from the strictly “horror” novels that defined his early works and made him a household name. While The Outsider certainly contains supernatural and horror elements, it is first and foremost a mystery. In fact, for the first three hundred pages or so the plot focuses solely on the detectives as they build their case against Coach Terry Maitland, and on Maitland as he struggles to prove that he is innocent of the horrible murder he’s been accused of committing. Only after the tension has been heightened to a screaming pitch do things take a turn for the paranormal.

King is widely regarded as the modern master of the horror novel, far outstripping any other horror novelist in terms of both skill and popularity. This is, in my opinion, because he understands what makes people tick. Instead of focusing his attention on supernatural creatures or strange occurrences, King looks at how people respond and react to the abnormal. His protagonists are fully realized, flawed, and ultimately very human. King also understands that it is often the darkness inside of man, rather than any kind of outward evil, that has the most capacity for harm. The Overlook is just a hotel, it is only by exploiting the turmoil of Jack Torrance that it is capable of wreaking violence on the people residing in it. Christine was just a rusty old car until Arnie Cunningham began fueling it with his unhappiness. King has always demonstrated an innate understanding of people and their fears, and he twists and exploits those fears in his novels.

In The Outsider, Detective Ralph Anderson is enraged and disgusted as mounting evidence points to a respected member of the community having assaulted and murdered a child. Terry Maitland, after all, coached Anderson’s own son. His righteous indignation takes a hit, however; when Maitland behaves equally outraged and indignant. Maitland’s fear and confusion are palpable as he sees community turn against him and begin screaming for his blood. The reader can empathize with both of these men, and the suspense mounts as it appears that they are both justified in their actions. There is irrefutable evidence that Terry Maitland murdered Frankie Peterson. But there is also incontrovertible proof that he was one hundred miles away when Frankie was killed. The wives of both these men act as sounding boards for the frustrations of their husbands, particularly Jeannie Anderson, who consoles Ralph as he begins to question whether or not he’s made a horrific mistake.

There is a strange time-warp going on with King’s writing here. Many of his books are centered in the past, particularly in the 1950’s and ’60’s, and King seems most at home in these decades. Setting The Outsider in the present day, King sometimes seems to have a very tenuous grasp on modern technology. There are several passages that mention iPads, smartphones, and various popular apps, but it almost feels as if they were crammed in as an afterthought rather than as a natural part of the plot. At no point does anyone seem aware that their phones are capable of doing things unrelated to making phone calls. There are also some odd references that do not fit in with the ages of the characters. At one point man in his fifties remembers a dirty version of “Shave and a Haircut” from when he was a teenager. However, in 2018 a fifty year old man would have been a teenager in the late 1970’s, and would probably have been more familiar with disco or heavy metal than jingles from the 1930’s. Another woman muses about John Lennon’s death, which would have taken place when she was still in diapers. None of this detracts in the slightest from the overall enjoyment of The Outsider, but it was obvious enough to make me smirk once in awhile.

Ultimately, this is a novel about the powers of good and evil. As with so many of his books, he also delves into the difficulties faced by the rational mind when presented with something that is utterly irrational. As always, King’s writing style, his mastery of characterization, and his ability to understand what truly scares us make this book compulsively readable. There are two types of seven-hundred pages novels. Those that fly by in a blink and those that never seem to end. The Outsider certainly belongs in the former category.

While this novel will probably not join The Shining, IT, and Firestarter on my list of favorite Stephen King novels, I thoroughly enjoyed it. At the end of the day, I would rather read an “average” effort by King than any other horror writer at their best.

 

 

Book Review: The Invasion (The Call #2) by Peadar O’Guilin (2018)

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Review #54

Warning: Contains spoilers for Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call.

Shortly after the life-altering events of The Call, Anto and Nessa are looking forward to relaxing away from the survival school and beginning their lives together. Nessa is on the bus to meet Anto when she is abruptly arrested and accused of collaborating with the Sidhe. If found guilty, her punishment will be eternal exile back to the nightmare of the Grey Lands. Meanwhile, Anto tries to search for Nessa but finds himself fighting alongside a group of soldiers as they desperately try to fend off attacks by the Sidhe and their legions of mutilated monsters.

I read and reviewed The Call a few months ago, and I really enjoyed it. Much like vampires have been defanged and werewolves declawed in their modern interpretations, so have the Fae been stripped of the mischief and malice that made them a force to be feared in ancient Ireland. A native of County Kildare, Peadar O’Guilin restores the “fairy folk” to their proper place as cruel and mysterious beings who were banished by the kings of Ireland to a bleak and desolate world. I felt that the first novel did an excellent job of establishing a world where the Sidhe have found a way to drag children into their realm to torture and twist them into living weapons. It was an unsettling and suspenseful novel that made me eager to learn more about Irish mythology.

The Invasion picks up shortly after the events of The Call, as Nessa and Anto try to adjust to a world that has left them very changed. Anto finds that his arm, mutated by the Sidhe, seems to have a mind of its own that is bent towards violence. Nessa’s new control over fire lands her in hot water when she is accused of treason by the corrupt remnants of the Irish government. Many new characters are introduced, but sadly they are not given a lot to do. The Professor, for example is said to be a convicted murderer who has been given reprieve due to her expertise on the Sidhe. I would like to have spent more time fleshing out her backstory, but she is only given a few short chapters. A few of the supporting characters from The Call make an appearance, but none make a terribly strong impression.

If The Call was about setting up a convincing world and introducing the people in it, then The Invasion is more about action. Nessa and Anto aren’t really given the opportunity to grow as individuals, which I had been looking forward to once they were away from the dangers of the survival school. The various battles and engagements depicted in this novel are lopsided. A story like this is only as compelling as its villain, and here the Sidhe fall strangely flat. Seen as a large and blurred army, their individual menace has been diminished.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy the second installment of O’Guilin’s series as much as the first. It had some really interesting aspects, but it lacked the suspense and sense of dread that the Grey Lands delivered the first time around.

My rating: 3/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll (2014)

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Review #53

 

This graphic novel consists of five eerie short stories, all centered in some way around the woods and the terrors that lie within. Written and illustrated by Emily Carroll, she invites us to take a walk through the woods, but beware of what we may find in the darkness.

I have a strange love affair with the macabre. From the time I was very young, I’ve been drawn to the dark and scary things in life. I’m well versed in the world of horror films, novels, and podcasts, but Through the Woods represents my first foray into the world of horror-themed graphic novels. Needless to say, I’ve been thoroughly hooked. I’m already on the prowl for more graphic novels like this one.

Part of what makes Emily Carroll’s collection of short stories so mesmerizing is that she uses very simple language to convey a sense of dread and suspense. I always feel that horror writers have a tendency to go into too much detail about their various dreadful creatures. This bogs the narrative down and doesn’t leave enough room for that feeling of unease to creep in. Carroll takes inspiration from the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Shirley Jackson. She keeps her sentences short and to the point, allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps, understanding that a person will always draw the conclusion which they fear the most.

Then there are the illustrations. While the narrative structure of the story was haunting in a subtle and lyrical way, the pictures are genuinely unsettling. I found myself staring at each individual panel for long moments, trying to soak in every single aspect. As a newcomer to the horror genre of graphic novels, I was surprised by how powerful the graphics were at provoking a reaction. I would not have pictured the events of Through the Woods in the same way that there are depicted in Carroll’s illustrations. Reading these stories in graphic novel form was like crawling inside of someone else’s brain for a few hours. The brain of a brilliant and disturbing individual.

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Source

 

If you’re a fan of the horror genre, I would absolutely recommend this book. I am already sad that I had to return it to the library, as I wanted the chance to re-read it and look more closely at the illustrated panels. In the future, I’m going to keep my eye out for more graphic novels like this one.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Through the Woods here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Call by Peadar O’Guilin (2016)

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Review #31

 

The country of Ireland has dropped off the map. All planes in Irish airspace suddenly crashed, and all the boats sank. A thick fog obscured the views of nearby Scotland, and all television, radio, and internet signals were lost. Then the children begin disappearing, returning exactly three minutes later, horribly mutilated. The Sidh, otherwise known as the fairy folk, have found a way back into our world after being banished centuries ago. Now, they are out for revenge.  Twenty-five years later, survival schools have popped up all over Ireland, where the dwindling population of children learn the skills they will need to survive once they too are Called.

Fifteen year old Tessa is one of the students at one of these colleges, but neither her classmates nor her professors have high hopes for her survival. Tessa’s legs are twisted and useless after a childhood encounter with polio, and the Sidh have little sympathy for a crippled child. This makes Tessa even more determined to buck the odds and live to see her eighteenth birthday. She maintains a stony distance from the other students, except for Anto, a determined pacifist who has also been given slim odds for staying alive against the Sidh.

This novel by author Peadar O’Guilin pulls you in from the first chapter and refuses to let go. This is one of those books where you find yourself debating how much sleep you actually need per night. Thankfully it’s also relatively short, so only one or two sleepless, page-turning nights will be required.

The menace of the fairies known as the Sidh comes from their implacability. They cannot be bargained with. They feel neither pity nor sympathy for the bewildered children who find themselves transported into their realm. They take a sinister kind of glee in finding new and inventive tortures for their helpless victims. And even those who do end up surviving the Grey Land are changed forever in one way or another. The lingering effects of constant fear permeate the pages of The Call, until we understand the hopelessness  that creeps into a person’s soul once they realize the true cost of survival.

Ireland is a country that continues to have respect for its own ancient legends. When I visited Ireland a few years ago there were several mentions of fairy rings and fairy roads. This could have been all a shtick put on for gullible tourists, but at the same time you can still find articles blaming the fairies for all manner of things. If there were ever a place where the veil between the fairy realm and our own is the thinnest, it could be argued that this place would be Ireland.

This was a suspenseful and tightly written novel that kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. It was disturbing without being overly gory, so would be appropriate for an older teen audience as well as being spooky fun for adults. Extra points for the amazingly creepy cover art.

My rating: 4.5/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman (2014)

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Review #22

 

Something out there is driving people insane. If you catch a glimpse of it, you are suddenly filled with the need for terrible violence. This is the world now, where everyone lives behind blackout curtains and blindfolds, fearful of their own ability to see. Malorie and her two young children flee their house in hopes of a safer place, but it is not an easy journey. Twenty miles downriver, blindfolded with nothing but their ears to save them from the elements and the mysterious creatures that cause madness.

When I read books for this website, I tend to keep notes. I’ll jot down recurring themes, interesting characters, or quotes that I want to incorporate into my review. While reading Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, I didn’t take a single note. The story pulled me in completely from page one, and I read it straight through in a couple of days. At no point was I willing to break the web of suspense in order to write down quotes or thoughts. Bird Box completely enthralled me from beginning to end.

The idea of not being able to rely on your sight is not a new one, but Malerman takes the concept to a new level by using the mysterious “creatures” that can drive a person to madness with just one look. Whenever our characters have to venture outside, be it to get water or to search for food, they must do it blindfolded. These scenes are the most suspenseful in the novel, and I could feel my pulse racing as they stumble blindly through streets littered with debris and corpses.

There is also a human element to Bird Box that keeps the proceedings from becoming repetitive. You know how if there is a sign on a bench saying “Wet Paint”, there’s always going to be that one person who has to touch the bench to make sure it’s true? Picture that scenario, but instead of just getting paint in their finger, they run the risk of violent death for themselves and their companions. The people that Malorie eventually finds herself with try hard to work together, but at the end of the day clashing personalities and different ideas on leadership will ultimately lead to friction. How the housemates deal with this increasing friction in a stressful environment is a major theme of the book.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to fans of the horror/thriller genre. I really enjoyed the experience.

My rating: 4/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

I Re-read a Bunch of Goosebumps Books and You Should Too!

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When I was young, I didn’t have many friends. My family moved around a lot, and I lived in four states before I was ten years old. I was always the new kid at school, and it didn’t help that I was awkward as hell. So I spent a lot of time in my childhood reading. My favorite place in any town was either the library or Barnes and Noble. To this day, I find the smell of old books to be incredibly comforting. Around eight years old, one of my absolute favorite books was R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. I was a horror fanatic from a very early age, and I gobbled up these short little books like candy. I had a huge collection of them which I prized greatly.

Fast-forward a few years, and I am heading off to university. I left all of my things, including my well-stocked bookcase, at my parent’s house. However, a few months later they decided to move again. They boxed up all my things and put them in the basement of their new house.

The basement flooded that year. Most of my childhood toys, clothes, and other mementos were ruined. Including all my books. It was devastating.

I open with this story not to depress you but to explain why now, as an adult, I am working to collect the entire Goosebumps series. It’s become a bit of a passion project, because as a lonely, socially awkward child, my books were my refuge.

Last week I took a trip to the local thrift shop and stumbled across a gold mine. Nearly twenty-five of the original Goosebumps books were sitting on the shelves, waiting for me. I bought them all and walked home with them shoved into a backpack. My husband, whose feelings towards my book hoarding can best be described as amused confusion, asked if I actually planned on reading any of them.

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So I did. I sat down and read twenty-five Goosebumps books over the course of five days. None of them will count towards my goal of reading one hundred books this year, but I’m ahead of schedule and wanted a break.

While I was reading, a made a few notes as to why I think these books were so popular for children in the ’90s. And why they can still be a good entry into chapter books for kids today.

  1. They’re scary but not too scary. I have always been obsessed with the horror genre. Books, movies, comics, anything. Goosebumps was probably my first foray into books that could be considered “scary”. And to a second or third grader, they are pretty creepy. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, basically any classic monster has its place in Stine’s universe. He has an innate sense of how to chill his young readers without scarring them for life. His characters aren’t always brave, either. Sometimes they turn tail and run, just like we would. But at the end of the day, no one in the Goosebumps novels is ever in mortal danger. In Stine’s Fear Street series, which was written for an older audience, the characters often die. But the Goosebumps books are wonderfully innocent in that regard.
  2. For a child, the characters are someone to look up to. One thing that I never noticed as a kid was that every single main character in the Goosebumps books is twelve years old. Every single one. This was not an attempt to appeal to twelve year olds. By the time I was twelve I had long since moved on to Stephen King. No, R. L. Stine understood that children around seven to nine years old look up to and admire the “big” kids. Twelve is the perfect age for adventures. They’re not quite teenagers, but have more freedom than younger kids. They have the problem-solving skills that would generally allow them to behave properly in a scary environment. But they aren’t so old that they are preoccupied by the trials and tribulations of puberty.
  3. Their problems were our problems. Not the ghosts and werewolves. But a major running theme of the Goosebumps books deals with bullies. And annoying siblings. Unfair teachers and parents who don’t believe their children. Getting grounded. Being embarrassed in front of your classmates. All of the things that seemed to fill up the whole world when you were a kid. Everyone remembers the desperate unfairness of being a kid and having little power to change your circumstances. I was surprised by how strongly I responded to these children being bullied by their peers or older siblings. I think it would resonate just as much with today’s kids. Especially since the bullies or mean siblings always seem to get their comeuppance.
  4. The books are very predictable. This is important when you’re trying to encourage young children to read. Especially if you are also trying to scare them, but not too much. There are a few things that happen in every single book. At some point, one of the characters will say, “What could go wrong?” There will be a very scary sequence that turns out to be a nightmare. There will always be a heavy use of foreshadowing. And nearly every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger. As an adult, the cliff-hanger chapter comes across as terribly lazy. But for a child, it’s key. It keeps them reading. Keeps them engaged and turning the pages.

In the end, I had a blast reveling in childhood nostalgia with the Goosebumps books this week. I’m going to continue trolling my local Salvation Army with the hopes of eventually completing my collection. I’m looking forward to reading them one day to my own children. Hopefully we can all be scared together.

Happy reading everyone!