A Quick Update: Current Reads and Spooky Books for Autum

Hello, faithful followers and readers of this blog (and also people who just stumbled onto this page by accident). I have been so good with posting regularly this year, but after two crazy reading months, I have hit… not quite a slump, but definitely a time where I’m going a little easier on myself.

Lately, I had a lot of other things to do that put my reading plans in the background. Friends got married, others celebrated their birthdays, I went on a trip to Paris and Disneyland (it was amazing!), my sister got engaged and I will be her maid of honor (yay!) – so there has just been a lot on my plate. All of these things are wonderful and I don’t regret spending my time with friends and family but that’s why I haven’t been posting as regularly lately. I haven’t stopped reading altogether of course. Here’s what I’ve been up to plus some more books I want to start soon.

Current reads

Unfortunately, two of my current reads are books with a massive hype, and so far, neither can quite live up to what was promised. The first was one of my most anticipated publications of the year, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. I loved, loved, loved her Hugo-winning short story and I really like Alix’s online presence in general. The way her book was hyped once it hit the shelves made me expect a new favorite. The language is gorgeous, no doubt, but I can’t help feeling like I see through it, if you know what I mean. There are beautiful descriptions, lush prose, but every pretty line I read, I keep thinking: I see what the author is trying to do. It’s still beautiful but it just doesn’t feel as organic as, say, Cat Valente’s style. The plot itself is also a bit of a disappointment. Of course I knew we wouldn’t actually step through ten thousand doors with the protagonist, but the plot and the characters all feel kind of distant to me. I have put the book aside for now and I hope I’ll enjoy it more when I go back to it.

The second overhyped book – for which I still have hope, however – is Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. This is another book where people seem to love the idea of the plot more than the actual thing. I admit “lesbian necromancers in space” does sound pretty awesome! Last week, I hit the 40% mark and FINALLY, the plot is kicking off. The entire first third of the book was thin world building and no plot to speak of. What kept me going was the protagonist Gideon, who was fun to follow from the start. Now that I can finally see what the story might actually be about, I am quite eager to keep reading. I hope all the reviewers were right and the story gets going in the second half.

My third book is quite nice so far, but also not as gripping as I’d like. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow reads way more like a YA book than I expected. I don’t know if I just missed the info that it was a YA book or if it’s simply the writing style, but while I like the protagonist and the plot so far, I haven’t been hooked yet. The plot seems quite simplistic but I think it could turn out to be a lot of fun. I definitely enjoy the setting and the fact that this book involves mythology you don’t see too often. Greek, Norse, and Egyptian gods are well-represented in SFF fiction, but Aztec or Native American myths aren’t something I’ve come across that often.

For the 2019 Retellings Reading Challenge I am reading Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust and this is also pretty good but missing something to totally grab me and make me want to drop everything to go read. It’s a Snow White retelling, all the main characters are women so far, and there is a kind of magic involved that makes me very curious where the tale is going. The evil stepmother doesn’t seem quite evil (manipulative, sure, but her reasons are understandable) and Snow White appears to be developing a crush on a female friend. I am having a lot of fun with this retelling so far and I look forward to finding out if poisoned apples make an appearance.

And, because it was recommended to me in the comments, I finally started reading The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This also fits into my 2019 Retellings Challenge for the prompt “read a book longer than 500 pages” – at over 900 pages, it’s a chunky tome!
I had no idea I was in the right mood for it, but this is the book I’m currently enjoying the most, even though the plot is slow-moving so far. I just really enjoy the atmosphere and the conflict between old faith and Christianity. I also believe I’ve never a King Arthur retelling… ever. So the book has that going for it as well. The fact that it’s misty outside and this goes perfectly well with the book is just an added bonus. 🙂

 

A Spooky Mini-TBR

Because it’s October and today is particularly foggy here in Vienna, I want to read something spooky before the month is over. With the books listed above I technically have enough on my plate, but I so want to read these two creepy books:

Shirley Jackson – The Lottery and Other Stories
I loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle to pieces! And The Haunting of Hill House gave me serious nightmares. While it may not be great for my sleep, I have heard that “The Lottery” is supposed to be the best thing Jackson has ever written. So even if I don’t read the entire collection, I definitely want to tackle that story.

Helen Oyeyemi – White is for Witching
It’s right there in the title. Helen Oyeyemi has a particular writing style that I just enjoy. I’m sure she isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but there’s no denying that she is a master of creating atmosphere, so I can’t wait to see how she tells a haunted house story with witches.

 

And once October is over, I move straight into the Triwizard Tournament Readathon! I cannot wait to see which prompts I have to fulfill and whether I stick to my TBR.

Reading the Lodestars: Not-A-Hugo for Best YA Novel

I’m still reading the nominated works for this year’s Hugo Awards. It’s just that challenges and readathons took preference recently. I won’t be able to finish all the books I intended to read in time but then again, I knew that going in. I have read all of the Lodestar nominees except for one. My top spot was clear very early on and hasn’t changed after catching up on the other nominees.

The Nominees for the Lodestar Award

  1. Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road
  2. Holly Black – The Cruel Prince
  3. Justina Ireland – Dread Nation
  4. Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone
  5. Peadar O’Guilín – The Invasion
  6. Dhonielle Clayton – The Belles

My top pick by a large margin is Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. It’s a very special kind of book that takes the reader on a journey both literally with its protagonist and figuratively, while reading. Although it’s a quiet book that focuses on character growth, there’s always something happening. I grew to love Tess fiercely and I also found myself caring for the people she met on her journey. Hartman’s world building is intriguing and as someone who hasn’t read the Seraphina books, made me want to go out and read everything she’s written. The writing is beautiful, the message is amazing, this was really a wonderful book that I can’t recommend enough.

The only bookI had already read when the nominees were announced was The Cruel Prince by Holly Black. I liked that book, especially the way its characters were definitely not black or white, and the world building and complex political intrigues felt like Holly Black trusted her young readers to be smart enough to get it – I always appreciate authors who write YA as if their readers had a brain. 🙂 The only thing it was missing was a plot that could hook me throughout. It was a good book and I’ll continue the series, it just felt like this book mostly set up everything for the rest of the series. That ending, however, had one of the most twisty twists that truly surprised me. And because it’s a book that I have kept thinking about ever since reading it (right when it came out), it gets the second place on my ballot.

The next two books may yet switch places on my ballot because they were both good but not great, they both had certain things really going for them, but others that I felt needed a lot more work. For the moment, my number three is Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation. When I think about this book, the first thing that comes to mind is the voice of its wonderful protagonist. She’s a cheeky one, I love how she tells her story, and that made the entire book a joy, even when the plot kind of meandered. Which is also the novel’s biggest flaw. Former slaves, now sort-of-freed (but not really because people are assholes), are trained to fight against the zombie hordes that started rising up during the Civil War. The plot starts one way and made me expect certain things, but then stayed kind of put and focused on a small side quest. I assume, the bigger plot will be the story of the entire series and I’ll probably read the second part to see if I’m right.

My number four is probably lots of people’s number one. Whether it was the massive hype that biased my expectations or the gorgeous cover (I won’t pretend I’m immune), Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone was a bit of a letdown. It was truly a fun ride, a great adventure story with some interesting world building and particularly cool magic, but the story was just so predictable. As soon as the group arrived at a new place, I knew where it was going. And inevitably, the plot did go that way. The same goes for the romances. They were very obvious from the start and while that’s not a bad thing (because they were very well done), I was hoping for something a little more original. With all the rave reviews out there, I thought this would have a plot twist or two, would surprise me. But except for the very ending, I kind of knew the entire story before it happened. It was fun enough, however, for me to continue the series.

The only book I didn’t get to yet, but hopefully will before voting ends, is The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilín. I did read the first part of this duology, so I have some idea of the author’s style and world building. I liked The Call well enough. Mostly, it kept me reading for the sheer horror of what’s happening in this version of Ireland. Sometime during your teenage years, you will be whisked away to the Grey Land (a dark sort of Fairyland) where you’ll have to survive for 24 hours – only a few minutes in our world – or be killed by the fairies hunting you. Even the people who do come back alive are changed, physically and psychologically. It was a thrilling book that could have used a few more pages spent on character development, in my opinion.

My least favorite of the bunch was The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton. Here, the supposed plot twists were even more obvious than in Adeyemi’s novel. But it also didn’t have much else going for it. The writing itself was okay, it was a quick read, but I thought the villain was over-the-top, and the story didn’t manage to get me interested. My biggest pet peeve was probably the world building because I’m generally willing to suspend my disbelief (I read mostly fantasy, so obviously) but this world just didn’t make sense. Sure, the protagonist is a Belle and so only sees a certain part of her world that has to do exclusively with beauty and appearance and royalty. But nowhere is it mentioned how this society would even work and I kept asking myself very often where food comes from, how poor people live, and so on. It was not a bad book but it wasn’t a very good one either.

So this is the current state of my Lodestar ballot. Depending on how good The Invasion is, places may change yet. The last category I’m tackling (and won’t finish) is the Best Series nominees. There will be one series of which I haven’t read a single book, but with the others, I have at least read one book or novella. I honestly don’t think that’s enough to form a proper opinion on the entire series, but  it’s the only thing I have to go on. And I have the suspicion that if The Laundry Files or the October Daye series don’t win this year, they will be back next year. At least I’ll have a head start for then.

Fairy Hunger Games: Peadar O’Guilin – The Call

As premises go, this one’s got me hooked immediately. An alternate Ireland where all teenagers eventually receive The Call – which means they are transported to the Grey Land, the fairy realm if you like. Except the fairies there are bloodthirsty, horrible creatures, who hunt the humans down, torture them, turn them into strange creatures, and generally have a good laugh at their suffering. So yeah, that premise reminded me a lot of how I felt when I first heard about The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. Now all that was left to do for this book was stick the execution.

THE CALL
by Peadar O’Guilin

Published by: Scholastic, 2016
eBook: 320 pages
Series: Grey Land #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: On her tenth birthday Nessa overhears an argument in her parents’ bedroom.

3 minutes and 4 seconds. The length of time every teenager is ‘Called’, from the moment they vanish to the moment they reappear. 9 out of 10 children return dead. Even the survivors are changed. The nation must survive. Nessa, Megan and Anto are at a training school – to give them some chance to fight back. Their enemy is brutal and unforgiving. But Nessa is determined to come back alive. Determined to prove that her polio-twisted legs won’t get her killed. But her enemies don’t just live in the Grey Land. There are people closer to home who will go to any length to see her, and the nation, fail…

Nessa has known about The Call for a while. She goes to school – which, considering the situation Ireland has been in for the last decades, isn’t like regular school. Nor does it have the charms of Hogwarts. The kids there are taught to fight, to run, to track and keep from being followed. The methods are sometimes brutal, like leaving first years naked in the woods in the middle of the night, terrified and with no idea what’s going on. But nothing could be as bad as what’s actually going to happen to these kids. For when they receive The Call, when they are transported to the Grey Land, naked and with no supplies, they will need all the skills they can gather to survive. They may only have to last 24 hours in the Grey land, but a mere one in ten manages to come back alive. And even then, they are usually changed severely. If not physically, then definitely psychologically. The survivors are celebrated but they rarely join in the happiness.

With an idea like that, you know you’re in for something grim, maybe even gorey. The chances of survival are slim but Nessa has the additional challenge of misformed legs from the polio she had as a child. She makes up for her lack of speed with strength, especially in her arms. And although she realises that the fact that she just can’t run like the other kids makes her even less likely to survive, she works around that. By making herself crutches from tree branches, and by using the expertly! What Nessa also does to survive the inevitable Call is close herself off from all feelings. That may be quite sensible and mature, but it also made her a very hard character to like. Through her POV, we know that although she fights against them, she does have feelings for her best friend Megan and for Anto, one of the boys in her school. But the way she acts is cold and so I had a hard time identifying with her as the protagonist.

The story is told through multiple POVs, sometimes recurring, sometimes a character we only meet once. I found this added much needed layers to some of the side characters, but the one who stood out the most was Conor, the school bully. He likes to think of himself as a king, and his cronies are the Knights of his Round Table. He looks down on Nessa – calling her Clip! Clop! – and others who show any kind of physical weakness in his eyes.

If you expect this book to be mostly about Nessa surviving the Grey Land, think again. The bulk of the story takes place at school, showing the reader what life there is like, what kind of punishment the kids face if they misbehave (it’s called The Cage… you can imagine it’s not nice) and what their lessons look like. Some of Nessa’s school mates receive the Call during this story and when they do, we jump into their point of view and live through that nightmare with them. And trust me, it’s always a nightmare!

But I also had a big problem with these trips to the Grey Land. The kids are only gone from the real world for three minutes and four seconds, but there, they have to last an entire 24 hours. We, as the readers, go with them to the Grey Land and while many of them die there, there are survivors. And in no way did I believe for a second that the plot we got to read could have stretched out an entire day. Sure, there are passages where we’re told the teenager in question is running for a long time. But not 20 hours long! The chapters are very short which makes for a thrilling, entertaining read, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to actually buy that the time certain characters spent in the Grey Land were 24 hours.

The second big plot point happens in the real world. Strange things happen at school and in the surrounding woods, a different school is wiped out entirely, which suggests the work of Sidhe spies. So in addition to Nessa’s already cold personality, she can’t know whom to trust or who might be a fairy in disguise, trying to kill all the teenagers before they even make it to the Grey Land and have a chance to come back.

I found the plot as such really interesting and I loved the idea – dark as it is – of the Call itself. There are some truly gruesome things that happen to teenagers, both the ones that return alive and the ones who only come back as corpses. The Grey Land and the mythology that goes with it was also intriguing and I look forward to learning more about it in the second book. But I couldn’t help but feel that this story could have used another 100 pages for character development. While Nessa’s class mates all have names and some get one characteristic, they all remain quite bland, like cardboard cutouts. Even Nessa herself doesn’t feel like a real fleshed-out person. So when bad things happen to these kids, I was shocked and felt they were tragic, but more in a bystander kind of way. Like when you hear someone had a terrible accident and you feel for them, but in a distant way. What I wanted was to care enough for the characters that I would really, really feel it when one of them dies. That didn’t happen.

As this was also one of the quickest reads and there wasn’t a single boring moment, I can recommend the book. Just don’t expect a lot of depth. But I will check out the sequel (which is also the last part) to see if I’ll finally get that character development and if a satisfying conclusion can be found in the war between the humans of Ireland and the Sidhe.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

Reading the Hugos: Short Story

This seems to be a really good year for me when it comes to keeping up and catching up on books I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The fact that the Hugo nominees are stellar this year doesn’t hurt. While I’m currently making my way through the novelette nominees, I’m already done with the short stories and I’m pretty sure I’ve settled on the way I’m going to rank them on my ballot.

The nominees for Best Short Story

  1. Alix E. Harrow – A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Pratctical Compendium of Portal Fantasies
  2. T. Kingfisher – The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society
  3. Sarah Gailey – STET
  4. Sarah Pinsker – The Court Magician
  5. Brooke Bolander – The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat
  6. P. Djèlí Clark – The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

The only short story I had read before the nominee were announced also turned out to be my favorite – if only by a small margin. Alix E. Harrow‘s tale of a witch who works at a library (where else?) and who tries to improve the life of a young boy by putting just the right book in front of him when he seems to need it was moving and beautifully written. It made me remember those early reading days when I first discovered The Neverending Story or got Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as a present. Books have the power to change lives and Harrow uses that knowledge to weave a wonderful tale with just the right amount of magic.

My second favorite – and no surprise to me – was T. Kingfisher‘s tale of a group of  magical beings gathering to tell their woeful tales of a human girl who didn’t behave like she should. We all know when a handsome elf comes your way and makes you fall in love with him, the human should do the pining once he’s gone. But pesky Rose MacGregor won’t have any of it but flips fairy tale tropes on their head. This story was hilarious, refreshing, and features one of Kingfisher’s trademark practical heroines. I adored every single line, some of which made me laugh out loud.

Sarah Gailey’s STET is probably the shortest of the nominated stories but those few pages pack a punch! The story’s form is almost as interesting as its content, written as an academic paper handed in for review. The actual story comes to life in the footnotes (I love footnotes!). Whether this wins or not, I urge you all to read it. On just a few pages, this story made me gasp, think, sent me through so many emotions… Even though it’s not in my top spot, I’d be happy if it took home the Hugo.

Sarah Pinsker’s story was a strange one. I loved the atmosphere it created right from the get go, when a young boy, desperate to learn magic, is recruited to be the Court Magician – a job that takes much more than sleight of hand card tricks. The deeper this new Court Magician sinks into his job, the darker this story becomes. I really enjoyed it, sinister as it was, but while the ending definitely works, I felt there was something missing. So it’s only number 4 in my list.

Brooke Bolander wrote an impressive novelette (also nominated and currently on my number one ballot spot) but while this story was fun and cleverly written, it didn’t resonate with me as much as the others. You get what it says on the tin. The story of three raptor sisters, a stupid prince, a clever princess, some carnage, and a big adventure. I can’t say much more than I liked the story but didn’t love it.

The only story I really didn’t enjoy was P. Djèlí Clark‘s tale. I see what he was trying to do, telling a tale for each of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington, but few of those tales were interesting to me, some of them were quite boring, and there wasn’t any payoff at the end of the story. I look forward to reading his nominated novella but this short story just didn’t do it for me.

Much like the nominees for Best Novel, this is a ballot filled with dramatically different stories, which makes it all the harder to choose a favorite. All of these tales are well written, so my judgement is based much more on personal enjoyment and taste than on quality. Had I read them at a different time in my life, in a different mood, I might have ranked them differently, but for now, I’m happy with my choice. I’d be really happy for either of my top 3 to win the award, but I also wouldn’t mind for my numbers 4 or 5 to take it home. A ballot with only a single undeserving story (according to my personal tastes, I know lots of people love Clark’s story!) is definitely a great one.

I’ll continue to read the nominees and let you know what I think of them. I’m almost done with the novels (one and a half books to go, yay!),  the Lodestar finalists (3 books to go), and the novelettes – 5 to go, but they are quick reads, so you’ll probably hear about them next.

Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House

It’s October and that means creepy books. And what better way to deprive myself of some sleep than picking up a Shirley Jackson book? Horror movies don’t do much for me anymore, even the ones that try to avoid all the old tropes. But books? Put a well-written scary book in my hands and I’ll jump at every shadow in my bedroom and suspect the fridge noises of being a monster intruder, trying to eat my soul or something. This was scary, okay. I actually got really scared at night. I’ll tell you the embarrassing details below.

haunting of hill houseTHE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
by Shirley Jackson

Published by: Penguin Classics 2013 (1959),
Ebook: 246 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

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Ah, Shirley Jackson! After watching all the horror movies out there, and expecting every jump scare, every evil horror twist, there are still things that make me scared enough to keep me from sleeping. The Haunting of Hill House has all the trappings of a haunted house story, fully furnished with strange noises in the night, writing on the wall, cold spots, and doors that seem to close themselves. But in Shirley Jackson’s hands the haunted house truly comes to life and shows us many more layers of horror than we expected.

Dr. Montague wishes to examine Hill House for supernatural activities. He invites, for that purpose, three other people. Luke, the future heir of Hill House, Theodora, a quirky, self-absorbed young woman, and Eleanor, shy and mysterious and with no confidence in herself. Throwing these four in an old creepy house together was a stroke of genius. The focus is definitely on the two women, with Eleanor being sort of the protagonist. I found the relationship between her and Theo both fascinating and terrifying. What starts as an instantaneous BFF vibe, with Theo declaring that they must be sisters because they get along so well, turns slowly into a darker thing. Friendship turns into admiration, which turns to jealousy, envy, disgust even. What made it so fascinating was that all these emotions were completely relatable in the beginning. It only gets strange when you realise you can’t be sure what’s true and what isn’t.

There is no first person narrator, so we’re not in any one person’s mind. But Eleanor is definitely the character we follow most closely. She is scared of Hill House from the get go, and for good reason. I shouldn’t have been as creeped out as I was. After all, this is your average, things-that-go-bump haunted house. But for some reason, I always managed to read the pleasant, daylight chapters during the day. At night, before bed, when I had some time to really get into the book, it was always night in the story as well. And we all know that’s when shit goes down. And shit did go down. A strange knocking on a door wouldn’t even merit an eye roll in a horror movie, but when you’re reading about it, and about the characters’ reactions, there’s no way to skip. You can’t close your eyes because when you open them again, you’re still at the same scary spot – you have to work through it.

I managed to read only scary bits three nights in a row – the last night I woke up my partner and made him hold my hand because I was convinced the shadows in our bedroom were moving strangely… yeah I know. But a book that can do that to me, a grown woman who absolutely does not believe in monsters under the bed or ghosts or whatever, that must be a great book. It really, really got to me. The descriptions of the scary parts were amazing, but what made it even better (or worse) was the psychological layer.

Without spoiling, something isn’t quite right with the characters. It might be the house, it might be insanity, it may be an unreliable narrator… I don’t know. The not knowing but constant suspecting, guessing, and trying to reason made this even more compelling. While Luke and Dr. Montague remained pale background characters, Theo and Eleanor are a riddle, each on her own and as a pair. Their behavior, especially in light of the mysterious events, is erratic at times and really bitchy at others. Eleanor’s past is another thing of interest. We don’t learn too much about it, but my imagination filled in the blanks with all sorts of horrors. Seriously, this is one of those cases where an active imagination is not your friend…

Despite the lack of sleep I am really glad I read this book. Shirley Jackson is a master storyteller! I don’t even mind her ambiguous, open-ish endings because with this book it’s the journey that counts.  You don’t work your way to a great reveal or twist, it’s about enjoying every page along the way. And although this book messed with my mind, I did enjoy the experience. If you’re looking for a good read for Halloween, pick this one up.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Christina Henry – Alice

I love Alice in Wonderland. Seeing its familiar characters used in different ways sounded really good. The only adaptation/retelling I’ve read so far was the less-than-stellar Looking Glass Wars. Christina Henry started out her horror version of Alice’s crazy adventures really well, only to lose steam along the way.

aliceALICE
by Christina Henry

Published by: Penguin, 2015
Ebook: 304 pages
Series: Alice #1
My rating: 5,5/10

First sentence: If she moved her head all the way up against the wall and tilted it to the left she could just see the edge of the moon through the bars.

In a warren of crumbling buildings and desperate people called the Old City, there stands a hospital with cinderblock walls which echo the screams of the poor souls inside.
In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place. Just a tea party long ago, and long ears, and blood…
Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape, tumbling out of the hole that imprisoned her, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago.
Only something else has escaped with her. Something dark. Something powerful.
And to find the truth, she will have to track this beast to the very heart of the Old City, where the rabbit waits for his Alice.

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Alice lives in a mental asylum with only her neighbour Hatcher for company, whom she talks to through a little mouse hole in the wall. When the asylum burns down, however, and the two escape into the city, their memories of a life prior to being locked up come back and reveal all the horrors of who they really are.

Christina Henry has a lot of talent for building up tension. Alice and Hatcher are both suffering amnesia in the beginning of the book, but snippets come back to them, leaving the reader intrigued (and shocked!) about their past. Alice’s story is not that hard to guess but its initial horror almost drowns in the filthy pit of evil that is the Old City and the inhabitants we meet along the journey to come.

This version of Wonderland – or this secondary world based on Wonderland – is separated into  New City and  Old City. New City is where rich people live, where Alice grew up and was declared insane and locked away. Old City is the dirty underbelly, where – and here’s a big, gigantic problem with this book – every single man is a rapist, murderer, thief, cannibal, torturer or some other terrible thing. Seriously, not a single person is just a normal human being. As for the ones who don’t get a chance to be evil, they are victims of the very men desribed above. In fact, Christina Henry’s focus (obsession?) on rape and torture goes so far that any shock value these scenes should have had, flies right out the window. Whenever Alice and Hatcher reach a new place, I came to expect it to be (A) littered with bodies, or (B) full of naked girls being raped or bought or sold or kept as slaves. Also – it’s only ever girls. Nobody trades with young men, apparently.

So yeah, I get it, this is meant to be a dark story. But the amount of blood, gore, and disgusting torture devices was just too much. If there is nothing to contrast the horror, and no time spent on showing some variety in the Old City’s inhabitants, then I’m left with the impression that it was put in there as gratuitous shock-material. None of it, however, holds any power because it is so obviously put in there only to be shocking. The plot would have worked much better if some of the evil gang lords of Old City weren’t so very evil, and so very obvious about it. They are not characters, they are stand-ins. Little bosses before you reach the end boss. With the one exception of Cheshire, all the baddies Alice and Hatcher have to defeat are so evil that our heroes don’t have to have any qualms or remorse about brutally murdering them. Why bother with questions of morality when everything is so wonderfully black and white. I do have to say that Cheshire was a ray of light in that you can’t ever be sure if he is good or evil, on Alice’s side or on that of some underground boss – or simply working for his own gain. He’s one of the reasons I kept on reading.

The second reason is Hatcher. As you may guess from the name, this is the Mad Hatter, named Hatcher because of his favored weapon. He was a multi-layered character with a sad past, fighting with bouts of insanity, battling against his hunger for killing. In Hatcher, Christina Henry actually shows off some of her talent. Unfortunately, she didn’t grant Alice that favor…

Another problem with this book was the pacing. It starts out so good! Thrown into the dark, I wanted to find out how this Wonderland works, who is who, where characters were hiding or what new role they have taken on. Christina Henry scatters her references beautifully, some very obvious, others more hidden, and it was a joy to discover them.  But what kept me reading was the threat of the Jabberwocky as well as an interest in Hatcher and his memories. There is so much build-up to every single revelation or boss fight (I’m just calling it that now) – and then the author just lets us down.

Alice and Hatcher travel a lot and their journeys from place A to place B take quite a while. The good thing is, this time is spent showing us more of their characters (mostly Hatcher), the bad thing is – if you make me read 50 pages of travelogue (interrupted by attempted rape and consecutive murder), then at least make the big fight worthwile. But every single time they reach a destination, they face their current opponent and you’d expect an intricately choreographed fight scene – or at least a clever bit of magic – then everything is over before you know it. Unspectacular, uninteresting, unoriginal.

Which all leads back to Alice being Alice. The fact that all the female characters in this book are either sex slaves, caged up, tortured, or dead, is bad enough. But the protagonist is the most passive creature in this story. Alice is dragged along by Hatcher (who is much more interesting, simply by merit of doing stuff), follows other people, does as she is told, and when she finally does act, it is by accident. Only in two scenes – I counted – does she do anything pro-active. And these scenes, you guessed it, take about three sentences to be over. Whoop-dee-do!

And then there comes the final, climactic moment of catharsis – when Alice gets to face her own torturer – and she STILL doesn’t do anything. After that, it’s time to meet the end boss and, hopefully defeat him. That’s the whole point of this story, after all. But the climax is no climax at all, the final fight isn’t a fight (not even a struggle), and the ending is as predictable as uninteresting.

I am really sad that a book that started out with so much potential drifted off into gratuitous grimdark territory, losing sight of its story and just going for gore and blood. I may give Christina Henry a second chance with the next book in this series but if that’s a mess as well, my patience is over. The only reason I finished this one is because Hatcher was an excellent character and the references to Alice in Wonderland were actually very well done.

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Meh! Great beginning turned very sour.

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Second opinions:

Sarah Lotz – The Three

My readers have spoken and I have listened. When I posted my Halloween to-read list last week, I had several recommendations but The Three won in the end because creepy kids are hard to top. And since this novel is set on several continents, I thought it would be quite refreshing as well as terrifying. So despite really, really wanting to read another Shirley Jackson, I dove straight into The Three and must send a big Thank You to the commenters who recommended it.

threeTHE THREE
by Sarah Lotz

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014
Ebook: 480 pages
Series: The Three #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Come on, come on, come on…

They’re here … The boy. The boy watch the boy watch the dead people oh Lordy there’s so many … They’re coming for me now. We’re all going soon. All of us. Pastor Len warn them that the boy he’s not to­­–
The last words of Pamela May Donald (1961 – 2012)
Black Thursday. The day that will never be forgotten. The day that four passenger planes crash, at almost exactly the same moment, at four different points around the globe.
There are only four survivors. Three are children, who emerge from the wreckage seemingly unhurt. But they are not unchanged.
And the fourth is Pamela May Donald, who lives just long enough to record a voice message on her phone.
A message that will change the world.
The message is a warning.

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Four planes crash almost at the exact same time in four different places in the world, killing numerous people. The world suspects terrorism – after all, how can this be a coincidence? But what is even stranger is that three of these four crashes were survived by one child each. Hiro in Japan, Bobby in the USA, and Jess from the UK – all are approximately the same age, all are almost unscathed (compared to what happened to the people who didn’t survive, at least). Now, that is a fantastic set-up for a horror novel, in part because it can go in so many different directions. The plane crashes could be supernatural, the children could be possessed, or aliens, or harbingers of the end of the world. Or it could all just be one evil, horrible coincidence.

Sarah Lotz chose to tell this story as a sort of oral history. The Three is told as a fictional non-fiction book, set after the events of Black Thursday, collecting newspaper articles, transcribed interviews, witness acounts, blog posts, chat histories, and more. This format lends itself really well to the story and the short chapters make it even harder to put the book down. Those 500 pages just fly by, as you watch the world turn insane.three

So… creepy kids. They really are creepy, mostly because they completely fail to deliver what horror movies have taught us to expect from creepy kids. They don’t suddenly stand behind you with a big knife, they don’t speak dead languages or with a demon’s voice – in fact, they behave almost normally most of the time. Considering the trauma that they have lived through, one could say they are handling it pretty well. What makes them so utterly scary is that there are moments where their personality shifts ever so slightly, moments when they say just one line that is a tiny bit off, when they don’t feel like children. It’s perfect if you like shivers down your spine.

But far more terrifying than three little children could ever be is the collective reaction of humanity to the events of Black Thursday. I was most shocked by the religious nuts, people claiming to want to save others, yet clearly out for their own gain, and following their delusions to scary lengths. Compared to them, the people who say aliens did it seem almost acceptable (mostly because not so many end up following them).
At first, the conspiracy blogs, the crazy preachers, the Three’s worried relations don’t have much influence in the wider world, but that changes quickly. As a pastor convinces a famous, celebrity priest that the Three are omens for the end of the world, they become convinced that there must be a fourth child, another survivor from the crash in South Africa. And, like mindless minions, people flock to South Africa and go looking for a child that may very well not exist. That is the stuff nightmares are made of.

My favorite story line is hard to pick, but I do have a soft spot for the Japanese survivor, Hiro, and his remaining family. Not only are there robots involved (which, come one, robots are just cool), but this was the story with the most humanity to it. It features troubled young people, living their lives surrounded by the insanity of suddenly having a celebrity in their midst. And their lives were hard enough to begin with, even without papparazzi and conspiracies and being afraid of assassins.

The scariest child, to me, was Jess. But this impression was probably colored by her uncle who acts as narrator through his recorded messages. Which leads me again to the way the story is told. The medium – or media, rather – turn this into a surprisingly quick read, more a thriller than a non-fiction book, but there’s still room for all the different voices to come through. After a few chapters, every character becomes recognisable through their voice alone, without even needing names or places mentioned as anchors. It’s always clear who’s telling the story at any given moment and that makes it much easier to empathise with people  – or despise them, in certain cases…

The Three is a horror thriller that turns the creepy children trope on its head and, without answering many questions, delivers the best ending I could have hoped for! I highly doubt I can wait until Halloween next year to read the sequel, Day Four. I also doubt I’ll ever be flying again without remembering that opening chapter, the most terrifying part of the entire book. Shirley Jackson and Sarah Lotz – you have seriously sweetened my Halloween this year. You know, in a spine-tingly way.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Top Ten Tuesday – Halloweeny stuff

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is a Halloween freebie. Instead of going for creepy recommendations of books I’ve read, I am going to post my top ten scary books on my TBR that I’ve been wanting to read for ages but haven’t yet. I hope the guilty conscience helps me get onto these…

  1. Sarah Lotz – The Three
  2. Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House
  3. David Wong – John Dies at the End
  4. Helen Oyeyemi – White is for Witching
  5. Frances Hardinge – Cuckoo Song
  6. Mercedes M. Yardley – Pretty Little Dead Girls
  7. Lisa Goldstein – The Uncertain Places
  8. Mark Z. Danielewski – House of Leaves
  9. Robert Jackson Bennett – American Elsewhere
  10. Bram Stoker – Dracula

Some of these books I’ve started, some I’m reading right now (House of Leaves has been next to my bed for over a year but it takes a lot of concentration which I don’t have in the evenings), but all of them are must reads for me. I’ve been putting them off for far too long.

I’m already very behind on most of my challenges for the year so there’s no time to catch up on all of these, but I plan to squeeze one creepy book from this list into next week. You know, because Halloween.

R.I.P. Review: Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle

RIP XI had planned to finally read a Shirley Jackson book for years, but every time I thought of it I wanted to save it for October. You know, for when I need Halloween reads. Then I ended up forgetting… but not this year! I finally picked this up and loved it so much that I won’t wait for October to read the next one.

we have always lived in the castleWE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE
by Shirley Jackson

Published by: Penguin, 2006 (first published 1962)
Paperback: 224 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance.

Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiousity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.

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Wow! Just wow. Let me tell you how this went down. I curled up on the couch and decided to try the first chapter of this little book here. I stayed up very, very late (despite having to get up early for work the next day) to read as far as I possibly could. In the very first chapter, Shirley Jackson builds up so much atmosphere, such an air of mystery and paranoia, that I couldn’t have put the book down. I just didn’t have the willpower.

Mary Katherine – called Merricat by her sister – goes on one of her two weekly trips to the town, to pick up groceries. Merricat, her older sister Constance, and their uncle Julian live in a big house a bit outside the city. The story is told by Merricat, which was a stroke of genius on the author’s part and makes the book all the more intriguing to read. Very little is known about the Blackwood family, only that most of them have died, and that the remaining sisters and uncle are shunned by the town people. Merricat follows strict rituals to get through her days. In fact, she almost seems to live in her own little dream world at times. She makes up games for her trips to town, she plans how to furnish her house on the moon where she wants to live with her sister…. she’s not a very trustworthy narrator, to say the least.

In the second chapter, the bomb drops. I realise the blurb already gives this away, but I had bought this book so many years ago that I had completely forgotten that. So the Blackwood family was murdered. Poisened with arsenic in the sugar bowl. During one fateful dinner, all the family members who had used the “sugar” started dying, leaving only Constance and Merricat, as well as uncle Julian, who has only eaten a little bit of “sugar” and survived, although he is now in a wheelchair and suffers from a befuddled memory.

The question that haunted me (until I figured it out, at least) was who really killed the Blackwoods and why. Constance was suspected – as she prepared the dinner – but eventually acquitted of the charge. Could it all have been an unfortunate accident? Merricat’s narration, as I mentioned, can not always be trusted. Sometimes, she goes off on tangents and focuses more on her own little games, such as burying objects in their garden or chanting words for protecting the house, so the reader can never be sure if she leaves important clues out, if she simply doesn’t remember, or if she is knowingly deceiving us. Either way, it makes for a super thrilling read!

Apart from the mystery, I was also impressed by the characterisation. On less than 250 pages, Shirley Jackson brought these two sisters to vibrant life. Their rituals, their conversations, it all makes perfect sense. They are fully-formed human beings who have been through a tragedy and, naturally, live lives very different from the other townspeople. I also sympathised with uncle Julian, whose main purpose is to chronicle the events of that fateful night, to get his memories in order, to find all the facts and solve the mystery.

I admit that the big twist was not all that difficult to guess, but at that point, it didn’t matter. When I figured out who killed the Blackwoods, I was already too deep in the story, I cared too much about the characters – plus, a new threat to their strange yet ordered lives appears early on in the book, and Merricat has to do everything in her power to protect her sister and their home.

For such a short book, there is a surprising amount of layers to uncover. I was amazed. Without being able to put my finger on a reason, the writing felt so fluid that there never seemed to be a good spot to put the book down. Even after my most burning question was answered, I still always needed to know what happens next. I found myself actually caring about Merricat’s weird buried objects and needed them to remain intact and in their place. The sense of paranoia, even madness, totally takes over and makes reading this almost like a dream. It doesn’t have to make sense to feel real and important.

So Shirley Jackson will now be my go-to author for October or any other time I feel like a creepy book with depth and great writing. I’ll say it again: Wow!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Second opinions:

Nalo Hopkinson – Falling in Love with Hominids

Look, I would read anything by Nalo Hopkinson, but that cover is STUNNING! The colors, that woman, her hair, the sketchy art. I want to print a poster of this and put it on my wall. No wonder I jumped at the chance of a review copy. After reading the content – yeah, yeah, I know that’s the important bit – I am once again reminded of Hopkinson’s ability to write amazingly diverse stories, and at the same time a bit worried that her best work is her older stuff…

falling in love with hominidsFALLING IN LOVE WITH HOMINIDS
by Nalo Hopkinson

Published by: Tachyon Publications, 11 August 2015
Ebook: 240 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I didn’t used to like people much.

Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, The Salt Roads, Sister Mine) is an internationally-beloved storyteller. Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as having “an imagination that most of us would kill for,” her Afro-Caribbean, Canadian, and American influences shine in truly unique stories that are filled with striking imagery, unlikely beauty, and delightful strangeness.
In this long-awaited collection, Hopkinson continues to expand the boundaries of culture and imagination. Whether she is retelling The Tempest as a new Caribbean myth, filling a shopping mall with unfulfilled ghosts, or herding chickens that occasionally breathe fire, Hopkinson continues to create bold fiction that transcends boundaries and borders.

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Falling in Love With Hominids  was pure delight. I read few short story collections but when I do – despite other plans – I tend to read them like a novel. I don’t read one story, wait a few days, then read the next. I read story after story after story until it’s time to sleep or go to work or, you know, all that other grown-up stuff that gets in the way of reading. This makes it difficult to review single stories because they blur together in my memory, some I don’t remember very well at all, but others stand out.

The collection’s first story “The Easthound” is such a standout story. It first appeared in an anthology called After: Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Tales and that is exactly the kind of story it is. A group of children and young adults fight for survival in a world infested with what I first assumed to be zombies. Hopkinson is more original than that and the focus of the story is not that survival but much more presonal. It reminded me of the YA novel This is Not a Test which attempted to do in 300 pages what Nalo Hopkinson managed much better in one little short story.

My favorite story of the collection was the hilarious, whimsical “Emily Breakfast”. Emily Breakfast is a missing chicken – yes, really. Cranston, a young man goes to pick up fresh eggs for breakfast and notices one of the three chickens is missing. He and his wonderful cat Rose of Sharon go and search for Emily Breakfast. The plot is really simple, but what made this so entertaining was the almost sneaky world-building and the wonderful tone of voice. Yes, a man searching for his missing chicken really can be super entertaining and smart and funny. Oh, this was so funny. I particularly loved Rose of Sharon, who is so very clearly a cat and at the same time definitely not from this world.

Another tale that stuck in my memory is Hopkinson’s take on Shakespeare’s Tempest. In “Shift”, we follow Caliban and Ariel as one tries to lead a free life and the other, while driven by the same motive of freedom, looks to have him imprisoned again. This read like a folktale, or a dream. The distinct voices, the characterisation, the language – everything about this story was magical.

While writing this, I just remembered the heartbreaking “Old Habits”, a ghost story about the people who died in a shopping mall. Not only do they have to come to terms with being dead and having lost their sense of smell, taste, and touch, they also have to relive their death every day, as it occurred. The ending wasn’t really surprising but the journey there was heartbreaking.

The reason I mentioned Hopkinson’s older work being better is that the only previously unpublished story in the collection, “Flying Lessons”, was disappointing, and so short it felt like she had to put it in just to give us something new. I also greatly preferred her older novel Midnight Robber to the Nebula winning Sister Mine. Now that small gripe is out of the way, let me say that I adored almost all of the stories featured here, especially because they are so different in theme and style. Although Nalo Hopkinson mentions in the foreword that the only connecting tissue between these stories is, well, her being their author, I disagree. As varied as the collection is, I believe its stories are also connected by their diversity. Almost all characters are people of color, there were at least three stories featuring queer couples, and several characters with disabilities. Hopkinson also puts a distinct flavor of Caribbean myth in everything she writes and I can’t get enough of it.

Regardless of their publication dates, I preferred the stories featured in the first half of this collection. For some reason, the last few stories just didn’t work for me, perhaps with the exception of Hopkinson’s foray into Bordertown. I had heard about this shared universe before, although I don’t know any of the characters or world-building it’s based on. “Ours is the Prettiest” is Hopkinson’s contribution to Welcome to Bordertown and I believe it speaks for her that I enjoyed the story immensely, despite not knowing Bordertown and its inhabitants. This story served up an interesting twist that had more to do with character than, say, a shocking plot element. Well done, indeed!

Despite the few stories that I didn’t find very memorable and others that I simply disliked – Hopkinson’s twist on Bluebeard could have been executed better and wasn’t very original – the collection overall was just wonderful. Whether she explores strange plants, runaway chickens, shopping mall ghosts, or my favorite story from Unnatural Creatures, “The Smile on the Face”, Hopkinson is one of the most intriguing voices in fantasy and I intend to keep reading whatever she publishes.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Second opinions: