Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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Review #102

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains of North America.

Everyone loves a good post-apocalyptic novel! Station Eleven has been on my to-read list for over a year and I finally got a chance to read it after finishing my 100th book review last week.

The first thing I enjoyed about this novel was that Emily St. John Mandel has taken pains to ground her apocalypse firmly in the real world. This is not The Walking Dead where gasoline never goes bad and everyone has perfectly tweezed eyebrows. The merry troupe of the Traveling Symphony is unwashed and their horse-drawn caravan is worn. Young people are growing up hearing about extinct and mythic wonders such as electricity and internet.

The added element of the twisting, meandering timeline works well in Station Eleven, giving the scenes set in the past a dreamy, nostalgic feel. Since the main plot revolves around a character who dies in the first chapter, we view him from a multitude of perspectives. The people whose lives the actor touched weave together and interlock throughout the novel.

In a way, this was the most loving post-apocalyptic novel I’ve ever read. Not necessarily in the romantic sense, but in the way that Mandel paints such a sentimental portrait of everyday items. Characters often glance longingly at light switches, air conditioners, and iPhones and I found myself appreciating all the many small conveniences that my small apartment affords me.

Most end-of-the-world novels have some sort of all-powerful antagonist that has driven humanity to the brink of extinction. Nuclear weapons, zombies, aliens have all played this role in the past. Station Eleven felt very different because it lacked a primary villain. The closest thing to a looming threat would be a cult of religious fanatics lead by a power-hungry prophet, but even they lack any real sense of menace. Almost as if the events of Stephen King’s The Stand had occurred without the dueling battling between Good and Evil. As if Randall Flagg had never walked the Earth and instead the lonely remnants of a barren new world live by one simple motivation. Survival is insufficient.

My rating: 4/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

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 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: 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: There’s Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins (2017)

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Review #80

 

Makani Young is struggling to adjust to life in Osborne, Nebraska. After a life spent growing up on the beaches of her native Hawaii, the small football-obsessed town is incredibly dull. Makani is relieved to be away from the dark past that haunted her back home. She’s making new friends and possibly even a boyfriend. But when her fellow classmates begin turning up dead in a series of increasingly gruesome murders, she wonders if her past hasn’t come back to haunt her.

The first twenty or so pages of this novel are brilliant. A teenage girl home alone begins to notice that random objects in her house appears to have been moved ever so slightly. She attempts to ignore her growing sense of fear and goes about her evening, but keeps feeling as though someone is watching her from the windows. When she least expects it, the killer strikes. It is a fun and tense homage to the campy openings of horror films such as Scream or Urban Legend.

It is then followed by nearly one hundred pages of a book that more closely resembles a late ’90’s teen rom-com. Author Stephanie Perkins previous works were romance novels with titles like Anna and the French Kiss. This is her first foray into the thriller genre, and it is easy to tell that she had difficulty putting aside her romantic inclinations. The relationship between Makani and Ollie is sweet and genuine, but altogether tedious when the more interesting parts of the novel focus on a deranged killer as he stalks teenagers and dismembers them in creative ways. The juxtaposition of the romance and slasher genres doesn’t quite mesh and often feels like two entirely different books that got accidentally squashed together.

Perkins also makes the interesting choice to reveal the identity of her killer halfway through the plot. Not just to the reader, the characters actually see him and identify him to the police a little past the midway point in the novel. This took away a lot of the suspense that had been building up. If the big question is “Who is the insane killer?” then answering that question with more than one hundred pages left to go drains away the energy. It also led to a messy and somewhat confusing climax.

Overall, I can admire that Perkins attempted to break out of her comfort zone and offer her readers something entirely different. I would like to see another thriller novel from her, just to see whether or not the suspense aspects of the plot have managed to supersede the romantic elements.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find There’s Someone In Your House here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather (2016)

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Review #79

Samantha Mather has always known that she’s a distant descendant of Cotton Mather, one of the main instigators in the Salem Witch Trials, but it never seemed to matter when she lived in New York City. But now, with her father in a coma and medical bills running high, Sam and her stepmother Vivian are moving to Salem to live in her deceased grandmother’s house. When she begins attending the local high school, Sam realizes that there is still a lot of resentment towards the Mather name in the town. Soon the trials of high school begin to feel more and more like a modern day witch hunt. And it doesn’t help that her new house seems to be haunted.

This novel was written by Adriana Mather, who truly is a descendant of the Mather family whose roots go back fourteen generations to the early Puritans of New England. The present-day Mather has said that she wrote How to Hang a Witch to draw parallels between the infamous witch trials of 1692 and modern day bullying.

While reading this novel I was strongly reminded of a post I wrote earlier this year about the enduring popularity of R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps books. This book ticks several of the criteria that I listed for a children’s scary chapter book. The protagonist is the new kid in town. She is treated unfairly by the majority of the her peers for no apparent reason, but it immediately befriended by others for no reason. At around fifteen, the characters in How to Hang a Witch are older than in Stine’s books, so there are some curse words thrown in as well as a few halfhearted and determinedly chaste romantic scenes.

There’s also the extreme lack of adult support, which is where Adriana Mather’s bullying allegory falls flat. Sam’s teachers are downright cruel to her, which worked for Stine because it could have possibly flown under the radar back in the ’90’s. In today’s world, if a teacher treated their students with the outright disdain that Sam is treated, it would be trending on Buzzfeed by the end of the day and the teacher would be out on their ass. Instead, a fellow student hangs Sam in effigy and the teacher doesn’t bat an eye. It’s entirely unrealistic and really took away from my enjoyment of this novel.

Furthermore, I’m not sure that the author has ever spoken to a teenager. The dialogue is very clunky and contains slang that spans the past fifteen years. Witches are an enduring part of supernatural lore because of their mystery and power. For hundreds of years they have struck fear and superstition into the hearts of humanity. Here, they are reduced to a group of snarky young girls who wear too much eyeliner. It was a bit unfortunate, really.

At the end of the day, this novel was just a little bit too far on “young” side of the Young Adult spectrum for my taste. I’m sure it would be very enjoyable for someone in seventh or eighth grade, and might even help them to learn about a very interesting time in American history.

My rating: 2/5

You can find How to Hang a Witch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl (2013)

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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?