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 Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy #2) by Katherine Arden (2017)

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Review #36

 

Orphaned and ostracized by her community after her encounter with the Bear, Vasilisa Petrovna flees her village. She is now faced with the only two options available to a Russian maiden, allowing her sister to arrange a marriage to a strange noblemen or retiring to a convent. Scorning either, Vasilisa dresses as a boy in the hopes of traveling outside of Russia and seeing the world. But a chance encounter with a group of bandits in the forest finds her in the service of the Crown Prince of Moscow. Now she must carefully guard her secret even as a larger threat begins to loom over the kingdom.

I reviewed the first installment in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, last month and absolutely loved it. Author Katherine Arden created a stunning world of deep winter and deep magic. The heroine Vasilisa was a lovely mixture of vulnerability and defiance. Overall, I was enchanted by the world that Arden wrote and eagerly awaited the second novel in her Winternight trilogy. I was definitely not disappointed.

While The Bear and the Nightingale was a dark and lyrical fairy tale, The Girl in the Tower is a little more plot-driven. Vasilisa Petrovna exits the cold and cloistered village of her childhood and bursts into the wider world with equal parts determination and naivety. This is a girl who considers a tiny mountain town to be a “city” because it has wooden walls. You can imagine her surprise when she is finally presented to the city of Moscow. There are numerous action sequences in this novel, all of which unfold in a straightforward and easy to follow manner. Too many fantasy and fairy tales rely heavily on deux ex machina and surprise plot twists. Katherine Arden avoids all of this.

But Arden also does not stray far what made Nightingale so enchanting. The numerous Russian spirits still play a major role in the proceedings, as do ghosts, frost demons, and one very opinionated horse. Together they form a world that I was excited to revisit and reluctant to leave.

Also, major props go to illustrator Robert Hunt for yet another gorgeous cover design.

My rating: 5/5

You can find The Girl in the Tower here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco (2017)

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Review #34

 

When her brother is killed by an evil monster, Tea surprises herself and her entire village by resurrecting him from the dead. All of her sisters have some magic, but Tea now finds herself destined to be a bone witch, a necromancer. Feared and shunned by her community, Tea travels to Kion, where she can gain the training that she desperately needs if she hopes to control her powers. She quickly learns that her Dark gifts come with a heavy price.

I’ve read the first two novels by author Rin Chupeco. The Girl in the Well and The Suffering are both excellently crafted horror novels that left me very excited to read her next book. With a title like The Bone Witch, I assumed that Chupeco’s third book would be yet another foray into the world of horror. Instead, I found myself submerged in high fantasy, where magic has a concrete and useful place in society and those who can control the elements are celebrated.

The bulk of The Bone Witch could just as easily be titled Memoirs of a Magical Geisha. For nearly two hundred pages the reader is treated to numerous descriptions of the dwellings of the magical asha, the clothes they wear, the training they undergo, and the parties they attend. Instead of any meaningful use of magic, there are the mundane problems of political alliances, rivalry between competing asha, and annual dance performances. This is all very useful in setting up the fantasy world that the asha inhabit, but it does wear a little thin towards the end.

Each chapter of the novel is preceded by a short flash-forward, where Tea has been banished to a lonely cave by the sea. She reveals early on that she is raising an army of dark spirits to enact revenge upon those who have wronged her. However, the book ends before the two segments of time intersect. The reader is left trying to figure out why Tea has been banished and exactly who she is so keen to take revenge on. It felt a little like a bait-and-switch to spent two hundred pages reading about her training in the village of the Willows, only to have the novel end before anything meaningful has taken place.

I assume all of this will be resolved in the recently released sequel, but there is a different between ending a novel on a cliff-hanger and ending a novel in the middle of the rising action. Ending the narrative with a cliff-hanger leaves the reader hungry to find out what is going to happen next. Ending a novel midway through the rising action leaves the reader frustrated and annoyed. I definitely found myself in the latter category.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Bone Witch 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: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)

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Review #27

 

In a series of letters, sixteen year old “wallflower” Charlie writes about the slow, stumbling, and sometimes scary transition from adolescence to adulthood. His letters detail important milestones such as first dates, making friends, doing drugs, and attending screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Constantly second-guessing himself and filled with confusion and anxiety, Charlie observes the world around him with a perspective vastly different from the average teenage boy.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of those books that I’ve been hearing about for years, but never actually got around to reading. The first twenty pages or so were a bit confusing. I struggled a bit settling in to this novel because I was trying to hard to figure it out. The first question I had was, “Who is Charlie writing these letters to?” This question could have spoiled my enjoyment of the book, but thankfully I was able to put it out of my mind and allow myself to become emerged in Charlie’s adolescent world.

It is impossible to read this novel without drawing parallels to one’s own teenage years, and I think that is part of the brilliance of Chbosky’s story. There is something about Charlie’s desperate longing make friends and fit in that resonates with everyone. Even if you never had a teenage experience with drugs, or alcohol, or death, there is an underlying current running through this novel that resonates with the awkward teenager in all of us. In this way, Chbosky evokes empathy within his readers without ever resorting to emotional manipulation.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a simple story told in a complex and compelling manner. There is a timelessness to the novel, it deals with the same issues that have plagued adolescents for centuries. I felt by turns thrilled, depressed, manic, and confused as I took a journey with Charlie into the heart of darkness that is the teenage psyche.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Perks of Being a Wallflower here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

 

Book Review: How to Stop Time by Matt Haig (2018)

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Review #26

 

Tom Hazard is old, but you would never know it. He is old like trees are old, or sea turtles. To be more precise, Tom is four hundred and thirty nine years old but he doesn’t look a day over forty-one. He suffers from a rare condition that causes his body to age very slowly, and as such he is filled with memories that span centuries. Tom’s life has been determined for years by the mysterious Albatross Society which is comprised of people with the same condition. The Albatross Society has only one rule. Never fall in love…

On the surface, How To Stop Time is a wildly irreverent novel which bounds gleefully through the centuries. It delights in juxtaposing great historical figures with modern day language. At one point, the protagonist mentions that Shakespeare wouldn’t have gotten any right swipes on Tinder. Tom Hazard seems constantly excited by modern sanitation systems in cities. As he states at one point, “You used to live in stink. People never used to wash. People used to think baths were bad for them.”

At the same time, the underlying subject matter isn’t afraid to get serious. Immortality has long been a fascination for humanity, but Tom points out some of the serious drawbacks to living for centuries. He is plagued by headaches as his brain struggles to comprehend four hundred years worth of memories. He has watched the decay and death of every single person he has ever known. He has watched as generation upon generation of people refuse to learn from the mistakes of the past.

There is a curious combination of romanticism and cynicism present in this novel. Despite all the struggles and strife and bad smells that Tom has experienced, in his heart he still has hope for the bumbling people surrounding him. It is somehow a very innocent story, despite a few examples of foul language it would be very appropriate for a YA audience. I found myself reading most of this book with a smile on my face.

My rating: 4/5

You can find How to Stop Time here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant (2017)

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Review #18

 

Thalassophobia: an intense fear of the sea and what lurks beneath.

After her older sister is lost at sea while filming a monster-hunting style show on mermaids, Tory Stewart agrees to ship out with the crew of the Melusine as they travel to the oceans around the Mariana trench. The goal is to dive to the depths of the Challenger Deep to seek out the mermaids that legends say still dwell in the waters. Hopefully they’ll be able to solve the mystery of what happened to the first vessel. Once there, the group of scientists finds out that looking for monsters and finding them are two very different things.

Mira Grant is one of my favorite authors. Her Newsflesh trilogy, about the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, is utterly brilliant. The Parasitology trilogy, about sentient tapeworms taking control of their human hosts, is equally well written. So when I found out that Grant was releasing a stand-alone novel, I was thrilled. My excitement grew when I found out that the plot was going to be centered around the deep ocean.

Being in the deep sea makes me intensely uncomfortable. This might be due to the fact that I grew up in a landlocked state and never saw the sea until I was seventeen. I’m great on boats, and I’m perfectly happy in shallow water. I’ve even tried scuba-diving twice. But the moment that I can no longer see the seabed my heart rate instantly goes through the roof. It’s the same with lakes as well, and it’s a pretty straightforward fear. I don’t know what’s down there. Even worse, I understand enough of marine biology to know what’s down there, and I want no part of it. I went into Mira Grant’s Into The Drowning Deep knowing (and hoping) that it might scare me. Boy was I right.

In the year 2022, humans have polluted the Earth to the point of a mass die-off of both land and marine life. Grant does not try to hide her strong environmental message. Leave the orcas alone, stop dumping things into the oceans and the air. Or don’t be surprised when drought, famine, and fires sweep the planet. The hubris of mankind has brought us low in Grant’s novel, and the main characters are scientists who are just trying to mitigate the damage.

This is a science fiction novel with a strong horror theme. There is one amazing scene where Heather, a young scientist, is taking a personal submersible into the chasm of the Challenger Deep. As the blackness and the pressure mounts, the tension rises to a screaming pitch. It is claustrophobic to the point of being physically uncomfortable. What Heather finds at the bottom of her journey sets in motion the rest of the novel’s action.

The basic plot centers around one simple question. What if the mermaids of our mythology looked, not like this:

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beautiful, nubile, pageant queens of the sea. And more like this:

 

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deep sea nightmare fodder?

Grant’s “mermaids” are carnivorous, intelligent, and, utterly in their element both in and out of the water. The scientists on board the Melusine are so egotistically wrapped up in their new discovery that they never stop to think that the “mermaids” chose to be discovered at the proper moment. Of course, not until it is too late.

One of my favorite things about all of Mira Grant’s books is that she has a very pure idea of science fiction. There is actual science present, but it is accessible to the layman. I always come away from one of her novels feeling as though I’ve learned something; in this case about the Mariana Trench, the Challenger Deep, why the ship is named the Melusine, and more. Her main characters tend to be female, and even better, females in STEM. I love the idea of young women reading this novel and having their imaginations sparked by the pursuit and discovery and danger inherent in the exploration of our world.

I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone who loves suspense, the sea, and the thrill of scientific discovery. I would not, however; recommend it for a trip to the beach. Or on a cruise. Don’t even take it in the bath.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Into the Drowning Deep here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

P.S. there is a short prequel novel entitled Rolling in the Deep, which centers around the crew of the first crew. I haven’t been able to find it at my library yet, but if I ever find it I’ll let you know what I think!

 

Book Review: The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson (2018)

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Review #17

 

Somewhere in the near future humanity has been decimated by the combination of nuclear winter and a fatal flu pandemic. Deep in the wilds of the Yukon, Lynn and her family have been forced to learn how to survive in this harsh new environment. Their fragile existence is shattered when a mysterious lone figure shows up at their cabin, bringing with him the shadows of the world they left behind.

This is author Tyrell Johnson’s debut, and he does an excellent job of drawing us in to the cold snows of Canadian winter. The opening chapters are like a post-apocalyptic Little House on the Prairie. We meet Lynn McBride as she is hunting, and are later introduced to the rest of her small family, all of whom work hard to pull their weight in the harsh Northern climate.

As a heroine, Lynn is vulnerable enough that we believe when she is in danger, while also being resourceful enough to hold her own against both her enemies and the elements. She is yet another example of the “bow-and-arrow” girl that has become so popular in YA literature. I get the appeal of the bow-and-arrow girl. The weapon has the feminine undertones of Diana the Huntress while still being effective at bringing home food. It also doesn’t carry with it the negative connotations associated with firearms. The bow is the “sexy” way to hunt. Just once, I would love to see a YA heroine who hunts using a boomerang. Or a blowgun.

There were parts of the novel when I wondered if Lynn was initially written to be much younger than the twenty-three year old that appears in the book. Maybe Johnson re-wrote her character to be older when he decided to make her sexually active? It was more of a curiosity, and didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. There are aspects of The Wolves of Winter to entertain both older teens and adults.

This would be a great novel to read while sitting inside sipping a mug of hot chocolate while a blizzard rages outside.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Wolves of Winter here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber (2017)

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Review #9

 

Having spent her entire life on the island of Trisda and under the thumb of her bullying father, Scarlett Dragna has dreamed for years of Caraval. A yearly game run by an enigmatic man known only as Legend, Caraval entices participants with the prize of a single magical wish. With the help of a renegade sailor, Scarlett and her sister Tella escape their island and arrive at Legend’s magical island. But Scarlett quickly learns that nothing in Caraval is what is seems, and the consequences could be deadly.

The last two books I read for this blog were both about horribly dysfunctional families and the lasting scars they leave on their children. Having been through the emotional wringer, I wanted my next book to be something a little lighter. I chose Caraval because its cover is gorgeous and I knew it was YA fantasy. Turns out I might have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction.

Caraval is a fantasy that exists in a vacuum. The novel opens on the “Conquered Isles” in “Year 50 of the Elantine Dynasty”. Yet we are never told why these Isles were conquered, or by whom. What is the Elantine Dynasty, and what happened fifty years ago to set it in place? A lot of the place names are derived from Spanish such as the hotel La Serpentiene and the Castillo Maldito. Even the name of Scarlett’s home island, Trisda, comes from triste, the Spanish word for sadness. So we’re on Earth? In the past or the future? None of these questions are addressed which made it increasingly difficult to envision this world as a place that has weight and meaning.

Caraval is also a fantasy that exists without any meaningful character description. The only thing we know to be true of Scarlett is that she loves her sister. This is repeated twice a page, lest we should forget. When the generic love interest is introduced, we are subjected to the familiar “I hate him but he’s so intriguing”. Which of course changes without warning to “I cannot live without him”.

Then there are descriptions such as this:

“He tasted like midnight and wind, and shades of rich brown and light blue. Colors that made her feel safe and guarded.”

What does that even mean? What the hell does midnight taste like? But that’s not the only example:

“The world tasted like lies and ashes when Scarlett woke.”

“Every touch created colors she had never seen. Colors as soft as velvet and as sharp as sparks that turned into stars.”

“She remembered thinking falling for him would be like falling in love with darkness, but now she imagined he was more like a starry night: the constellations were always there, constant, magnificent guides against the ever-present black.” 

None of that makes a bit of sense, and it kept pulling me out of the novel because I had to roll my eyes. I can get on board with a bit of purple prose, but when you use it at the expense of actual character development it becomes tedious.

The biggest problem was that, at the end of the day, this book was not written for me. It was written for thirteen year old me. Thirteen year old me would have bathed in all of those overly romantic descriptions. She would have reveled in the countless descriptions of gorgeous ball gowns. She would have relished the oh-so passionate and yet determinedly chaste romance between Scarlett and Julian. This book was written for thirteen year old me. Thirty year old me is just too savvy (cynical?) to fall for it.

In the immortal words of Agent Murtaugh, I’m getting too old for this shit.

My rating: 2/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan (1973/2010)

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Review #2

 

I found this book on a Buzzfeed list and my immediate reaction was “What! That’s a book!?” The slasher film of the same name was one of my favorites when I was a teenager. I immediately wait-listed it at my local library and it came in just in time to be my second book of the new year.

Before I can even begin reviewing, I have to explain something about this novel. It was originally published in 1973. The movie came out in 1999. Then, the book was re-edited and re-released in 2010. This was apparently to update the novel for modern audiences. because it would seem that modern teens just cannot envision a world without their precious technology. So there are now references to texting, Google, and web-chats. I was so incredibly confused when I started reading this book, because I knew the film came out in ’99 when the internet was in its infancy and texting was most definitely not a thing. I had to stop and dig around just to prove to myself that I wasn’t crazy.

The novel focuses on four high-school aged teenagers who try to cover up a terrible crime, only to find it haunting their steps a year later. When threatening messages begin turning up at their houses, they realize that their past has returned to take revenge. Sound familiar? That’s the basic plot of the film. However, that’s where the similarities end. The ice-pick wielding fisherman is nowhere to be seen. The person killed in the opening scene is not a young man named Ben. Spoilers? Not really. The movie is twenty-years old. Come on.

I really wish I had managed to obtain the original copy of this book. It is glaringly evident that random changes have been wedged in wherever the publishers and Lois Duncan thought they could fit. We have vague descriptions of texting and webcasts, but it’s then followed by a conversation about whether or not it’s okay for a married woman to work. It’s 2010 technology squished together with the dumb machismo of the early 1970s. One character keeps mentioning that he is a veteran from Iraq when it’s almost painfully obvious that he is describing the Vietnam War.

I don’t know why the publishers thought it would be a good idea to “update” this novel. It seems like a mixture of a cash-grab and a “those young folks will never understand a world without iPhones!” Heads up, young people are way smarter than you think. They are perfectly capable of putting their imaginations into an historical context. It’s a little condescending that anyone would feel the need to shoehorn in a Google reference here and there just to make their book feel “relevant”

My rating: 2/5 for the 2010 revision. I’ll update if I ever get my hands on the original version.

You can find I Know What You Did Last Summer here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.