A Story For Every SFF Mood: Marjorie Liu – The Tangleroot Palace

If you know Marjorie Liu through her acclaimed graphic novel series Monstress and you happen to like said graphic novel series, then this collection is a treat you don’t want to miss. I went into it with no particular expectations – I admit the Sana Takeda cover is what made me request a review copy and I don’t regret a thing. This collection has something for everyone, there are science fiction stories, secondary world fantasies, military stories, a post apocalyptic tale, and a retold fairy tale. It is seriously good, you guys!
Thanks to Tachyon Publications for providing an e-ARC of this collection. It is much appreciated, especially since it turned out to be such a great book. 😉

tangleroot palaceTHE TANGLEROOT PALACE
by Marjorie Liu

Published: Tachyon Publications, 15th June 2021
eBook: 256 pages
Collection
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: The funeral was in a bad place, but Martha Bromes never did much care about such things, and so she put her husband into a hole at Cutter’s, and we as her family had to march up the long stone track into the hills to find the damn spot, because the only decent bits of earth in all that place were far deep in the forest, high into the darkness.

New York Times bestseller and Hugo, British Fantasy, Romantic Times, and Eisner award-winning author of the graphic novel, Monstress, Marjorie Liu leads you deep into the heart of the tangled woods. In her long-awaited debut story collection, dark, lush, and spellbinding short fiction you will find unexpected detours, dangerous magic, and even more dangerous women.

Briar, bodyguard for a body-stealing sorceress, discovers her love for Rose, whose true soul emerges only once a week. An apprentice witch seeks her freedom through betrayal, the bones of the innocent, and a meticulously-plotted spell. In a world powered by crystal skulls, a warrior returns to save China from invasion by her jealous ex. A princess runs away from an arranged marriage, finding family in a strange troupe of traveling actors at the border of the kingdom’s deep, dark woods.

Concluding with a gorgeous full-length novella, Marjorie Liu’s first short fiction collection is an unflinching sojourn into her thorny tales of love, revenge, and new beginnings.


It’s a given with any short fiction collection that some stories will appeal more to certain readers than others, and this was the case with The Tangleroot Palace as well. But I have to say right away that there was only one story that didn’t work for me whereas all the others were at least very good. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know what to expect that I was so very impressed with this collection but I think it’s just the fact that Marjorie Liu is incredibly talented and this book gives a taste of all the things she’s capable of.
She easily goes from horror to fairy tale to post-apocalyptic paranormal, and why not throw in some superhero-inspired story, a handful of zobies and a defiant princess in there. All of these stories have been published before elsewhere but I highly recommend this collection, even if you’ve read one or two of its tales before.

Sympathy for the Bones (4/5 stars)

The opening story took me completely by surprise and proceded to knock my socks off. Although it’s really not long, from the very beginning, there is this dark atmosphere, this feeling that there is more underneath the surface. It’s about a young girl who has lost her parents a while ago and now lives with and is sort of apprenticed to a witch woman. This woman sews dolls which she uses to hurt or kill people, depending on what the job demands. But there are rules to this magic which are fun to learn about. And there is also a lot more to our protagonist than first meets the eye. I loved this story so much!

Briar and Rose (3.5/5 stars)

This was the only story I had read previously in the anthology The Starlit Wood although I didn’t remember any details. It’s a spin on Sleeping Beauty, one that puts women center stage, and not only in the role of the villain. The two eponymous protagonists are great characters that defy stereotypes and although the ending wasn’t as surprising or epic as I would have liked, it’s a great story that incorporates some of the darker aspects of the original tale without drifting off into grimdark territory.

Call Her Savage (2/5 stars)

This is the story that didn’t work for me, mostly because I found it confusing and felt its plot just didn’t fit into this short format. There is a whole lot of world building here but, unfortunately, by the time I had figured everything out enough to understand what was going on, the story was over. Not knowing for a long time who the characters are, what war they are fighting in, who is allied to whom, didn’t help. It’s possible I missed some clues early on, but I just felt lost for the majority of the story. When I did start to enjoy it, I had reached the end.

The Last Dignity of Man (4.5/5 stars)

Gaaah, I loved this so much! It’s about a man named Alexander Lutheran who is the genius billionaire owner of a tech company and thus identifies with Lex Luthor of Superman fame a little too much. The company’s latest experiment is creating worms that eat waste, to be put into the sewers and literally deal with the shit the city can’t handle. I don’t want to tell you any more about this story because it is so very excellent, you should enjoy it for yourselves. But let’s just say there are layers to it. On the one hand, there is the plot with the worms which is super cool. But on the other hand, it’s about Alexander’s inner life, his personal struggles, about morality and power, about love and true friendship. I just adored this!

Where the Heart Lives (4/5 stars)

This was a lovely, atmospheric ghost story turned fairy tale. It’s about people who are outsiders because they are different from the others, it’s about a girl finding a new family away from a home that doesn’t want her. It’s got some of the greatest romantic tension I’ve read in a story this short. And it turns out, it’s a sort of prequel to Liu’s series of paranormal Dirk & Steele novels which I didn’t know about but am now very interested in. Despite those covers.

After the Blood (3.5/5 stars)

This one started out a bit confusing because it seems to take place in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies/vampires. The Amish are now the most powerful people in America (or at least the ones that survived the easiest because they can do without techonlogy, they know how to farm, and so on) and this is the story of a young woman with a strange gift and a large amount of cats, trying to make a life for herself. Her and two male protagonists, one of which is decidedly not human anymore, are made to feel more than unwelcome in their home. To me, this felt like a great beginning to a novel. It has a creepy, mysterious atmosphere, you want to find out what is going on, how the protagonists came to be who and where they are, and what happens next. As a story on its own, it worked okay, but I honestly would have loved to read a full novel where this was just one chapter.

Tangelroot Palace (4.5/5 stars)

The final piece of this collection is a novella that is part feminist fairy tale, part love story, and part the perfect story for my younger self. Sally is a princess but she prefers planting flowers to needlepoint. She doesn’t care that she smells of manure, she has no interest in being lady-like, she’d rather be useful. However, when her father the king finds himself in the precarious situation of almost losing his kingdom, an alliance with the feared Warlord is in order. And what better way than marrying off your only daughter to the reputed brute?
Sally is having none of it and promptly runs away on a quest to the Tangleroot Forest, a dangerous, mysterious, and feared forest that none dare enter. It is said to return people changed or not at all. But Sally’s mother – before she died – went into that forest, so there must be answers to Sally’s problems in there.
I loved every part of this story. The plucky princess, the dangerous, creepy feeling of Tangleroot, the mystery behind its magic, and especially the friendship and love story that happens along the way.

Overall, this is an excellent collection that convinced me that I have to read more by Marjorie M. Liu. The way she writes romance especially vibed with me. Understated without any cheesy declarations, the feelings between her characters usually come across through glances or gestures, through people saving each other’s lives, or making sacrifices for the person they love. It also helps that many of these tales have this fairy tale feeling to them, whether they specifically retell a certain tale – as “Briar and Rose” does – or are simply set in a world with magic in it, like in Tangleroot Palace.

I was also impressed with the writing itself. Liu can do fairy tale-esque really well, but her more horror/gothic style stories also conveyed atmosphere so easily, it felt like I was in these creepy places, seeing the knarled trees, hearing those ravens caw. The only critique I have is that some stories don’t give enough information at the start to be fully enjoyed. It takes a few pages to understand the world we’re in and by that time, the story is almost over. In a novel, it’s okay to throw your readers straight into the action and let them figure out the background information later. A short story simply doesn’t offer enough time to fill in all the blanks in time to enjoy the rest of the story. But that’s really a minor point and it only happened in a couple of stories. All things considered, I would put this collection into any SFF fan’s hands.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Gloriously sinister and wonderful: Alexis Henderson – The Year of the Witching

This is one of those books that managed to keep showing up on social media  without a big marketing campaign. I didn’t see this advertised a lot but people kept talking about it and all of them seemed to love the book. So, in time for witchy season, I decided to pick this up as well. I tend to like books that generate their own buzz because of their quality rather than books that are talked about because the publishers shove them in your face wherever you go. So I wasn’t exactly surprised when this turned out to be a really good, witchy book that thoroughly entertained me.

THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING
by Alexis Henderson

Published: Ace, 2020
Hardcover: 368 pages
Audiobook: 11 hours 37 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: She was born breech, in the deep of night. 

A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.

In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.
But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.
Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.

Immanuelle lives in Bethel, a rigid society ruled by the Prophet. Being a mixed-raced illegitimate child, Immanuelle has learned to keep her head down, adhere to the rules, and not dream too big. Through her eyes, we are introduced to this rather dystopian place of strict religion and basically no rights for women. In fact, men can marry several women, yet for a woman the greatest achievement she can hope for is becoming the Prophet’s wife… or rather one of his wives. Immanuelle has no such dreams. She just wants to live quietly with her remaining family and take care of her sheep.

When one day, one of her sheep runs away, she finds herself in the Darkwood, face to face with what can only be a witch! The four fabled witches who were defeated by the very first Prophet give Immanuelle a gift – her mother’s journal, which tells of terrible curses. “Blood, Blight, Darkness, Slaughter” – a line so often repeated, yet so well used in this story that it still gives me goosebumps as I write this. I won’t spoil how these curses manifest or even if they do but if you’re a reluctant reader of horror, let me assure you that while bad things happen, the worst of it is not supernatural. There are no jump scares (yes, that is totally possible in a book) and what really shocked me were things done by humans to other humans, no witchcraft needed.

I’m always fascinated by the differences between books that are called (or marketed as) feminist and books (usually older ones) that put male characters front and center and can be called sexist (I don’t want a big discussion here. Product of their time, blahblah, such books exist and the reasons don’t matter). Because this is clearly a feminist work, the women in this story are their own people, some happy with their life of submission, others not so much. But that doesn’t mean that there are no male characters or, indeed, that all male characters are bad or only there to be handsome love interests. No, the men in this story come in equally varied shapes and sizes and not just because the plot demands it. They were who they were before this story started – it’s just that now Immanuelle interacts with them and we get to see these men for who they are. That’s not the experience I’ve had with those “classic” fantasy novels with hardly any female characters in them. Other than queen, wife, whore, or witch, there isn’t much for a woman to be in those tales. And so I enjoyed this book all the more because it has lots of fantastic female characters and it also gives the men distinct personalities without reducing them to the standards that female characters were held to for so long.

The reason I’m even pondering this is Ezra, the Prophet’s son and heir who will one day become the new Prophet of Bethel and hold all the power. I came into this story with my own biases and expectations, so I immediately thought Ezra would be a spoiled brat who thinks humans are disposable playthings, women especially. But from the very beginning, he is… not. It took only a few chapters for me to utterly love this boy and the way he treats Immanuelle – not as an outcast, not as someone else’s mistake, not as someone to be avoided or feared, but simply as another person who’s doing her best. Their friendship was by far my favorite thing in this whole book, and because this book has many great things to offer, that’s saying something.

Through Immanuelle’s mother Miriam’s journal, Immanuelle learns more and more about the past and accidentally also more about witchcraft and the dark powers at work in her world. I really enjoyed the magic system – if it can be called that – and the way Immanuelle researches how to lift the curses and save her home. I really shouldn’t call it magic system because although there are certain signs that can be used and words that can be spoken, magic in this book is a wild thing, something that can’t really be controlled, something that just is. Immanuelle is also deeply aware that by even researching these things, she is committing sins herself. But she’s willing to sacrifice her own soul for the good of her people because that’s just who Immanuelle is. The people who disregard her, look down on her for her skin color or things her mother did, for her father who was burned on the pyre… she wants to save them nonetheless because she knows they are as stuck in this society as she is.

I picked this book up because it goes well with the Halloween season and I wasn’t disappointed at all. But as mentioned above, the true horror does not lie in a curse where all water suddenly turns to blood, but rather in the people holding power and how they decide to use it. It won’t come as a surprise to learn certain truths about the Prophet, the witches, and the wider world that are unsettling to Immanuelle. But although some things are a bit predictable (don’t worry, others aren’t) I can’t recall a moment in this book when I didn’t feel completely entertained, happily reading along and hoping for Immanuelle and Ezra to not only find a way to lift this curse but also to find a place in this world where they can just be happy.

The Year of the Witching is Alexis Henderson’s debut novel, so I have to say a few words about how amazing that is. Not that debut novels are always bad or incompetent, but many debut novelists make rookie mistakes, like overdrawn characters, or plot threads that you know should be working but somehow don’t. Not so in this book. The villains shift around, you can never be quite sure whom to trust, there’s so much to explore and discover that the story never gets boring, and it’s all carried by an amazing protagonist who is a Good Person but also clearly tired of being treated the way she is and watching other women treated only slightly better.
I will be on the lookout for Henderson’s next book. If she manages to deliver another beautiful slow burn friendship/romance like she did here, I’ll already be happy. But I suspect, just like in this book, she’ll have way more than that in store for us.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!

A Haunted House Story Done Right: Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Mexican Gothic

Okay, here’s the thing. I’ve only read one book by Silvia Moreno-Garcia before and while I found it sweet and nice, it definitely wasn’t what the hype had made me expect. I found the tone to be much more YA than adult fantasy (although I am fairly alone in this opinion) and so I approached her newest novel with some trepidation. The hype is massive yet again, so I was all the more worried that me reading this book would lead to disappointment. Spoiler: No need to worry because this was GREAT!

53152636. sx318 sy475 MEXICAN GOTHIC
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published: DelRey, 2020
eBook: 304 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: The parties at the Tuñons’ house always ended unquestionably late, and since the hosts enjoyed costume parties in particular, it was not unusual to see Chinas Poblanas with their folkloric skirts and ribbons in their hair arrive in the company of a harlequin or a cowboy.

An isolated mansion. A chillingly charismatic aristocrat. And a brave socialite drawn to expose their treacherous secrets. . . .
From the author of Gods of Jade and Shadow comes a novel set in glamorous 1950s Mexico.
After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, NoemĂ­ Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find – her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and NoemĂ­ knows little about the region.
Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.
Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.
And NoemĂ­, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

The first thing I noticed about this book, and the first thing that made me fall in love with it, was the narrative tone and the protagonist. Set in 1950 in Mexico, we follow young socialite NoemĂ­ Taboada as she is leaving a fancy dress party and charms her date with her wit and flirtiness. I immediately adored her! The writing made me think of Jane Austen for some reason, but with less overdrawn characters and, of course, a completely different time and cultural setting. So this book was off to a fantastic start, and that’s despite my unintentional but existing prejudice because of all the hype.

As the synopsis promises, NoemĂ­ receives a disturbing letter from her cousin Catalina, asking for help. Although she isn’t happy about leaving her carefree life and missing social gatherings, NoemĂ­ packs her bags and goes to High Place, where her cousin lives with her husband Virgil and his family. Immediately after arriving, NoemĂ­ knows something isn’t right. It’s not just that the entire family are cold and unfriendly, the house in disrepair, and the rules ridiculous. Catalina herself appears to be ill, but it’s not simply a cold. Her mind seems confused, she’s hearing voices, and the Doyle family won’t let NoemĂ­ visit her much.

I won’t go into the details of the weird things that happen in High Place, NoemĂ­’s strange dreams, or the rumors she hears about the Doyle family. This is a haunted house story that may or may not include supernatural elements, and it does exactly what it should. It builds up this atmosphere of unease, it makes you look for clues to what’s going on, it makes you live alongside NoemĂ­ and question everything and everyone. I loved how the house and its inhabitants are described, how local legends and rumors and stories get woven into NoemĂ­’s experience in High Place, and how strange everyone is behaving. NoemĂ­’s only potential ally is Francis, the quiet, pale young man who at least talks to her like a normal person.

It’s difficult to talk about this book without spoiling anything. I will say that one aspect of the mystery was quite obvious to me but the bigger secrets, while hinted at, weren’t so easily guessed. I had my suspicions the entire time but then Moreno-Garcia adds a little twist and all my ideas suddenly don’t make sense anymore. I don’t know about you guys but I love it when I think I’ve got something figured out that then turns out to be wrong. Not every author has the ability to achieve that, to mislead their readers in such a way that the twists at the end still feel satisfying. But Silvia Moreno-Garcia hit the mark. She gave us just enough clues to figure some things out for ourselves, while surprising us with the whole terrifying story at the end.

Other reviews have mentioned that this book is rather slow but I have to disagree. Sure, the setting is rather narrow – mostly NoemĂ­ stays at High Place with occasional visits to the local village – but there’s always something happening. Whether it’s NoemĂ­’s terrible nightmares, the utterly strange behaviour of the Doyle family and their servants, or her brief talks with Catalina, I never felt bored for one second. Unlike what I’d heard about this book before, it’s definitely not just dinner conversations and descriptions of the house, if only for the reason that the Doyle family spends dinner in silence. Like I said, they are weird…

The one thing that can make or break a horror story for me is the protagonist. I don’t just mean that I want to like them, but I absolutely need the protagonist to be Not Stupid. And NoemĂ­ was more than that. She is clever and cautious when she needs to be, without turning into a Mary Sue. In fact, she is well aware of her own character flaws, and that makes her even more likable. But most importantly, she knows what kind of story she has stumbled into but she reacts like most people would. She kind of thinks she’s in a haunted house but she also doesn’t believe in ghosts and keeps searching for a scientific reason behind what’s going on. Whenever she uncovers something new, she collects her thoughts first, she tries to formulate a plan. I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed her as a character and especially as the heroine in this gothic tale.

While it’s not the main focus of the book, I also enjoyed how Moreno-Garcia managed to weave a bit of history in the story. The Doyle family came to Mexico from England where they bought a silver mine and exploited many workers for their own financial gain. Howard Doyle, the ancient patriarch of the family, also has a thing for eugenics and doesn’t miss a chance to let NoemĂ­ know just what he thinks about classifying people into good and bad, based on their appearance or bloodline. You can imagine that it was pretty easy to despise the man but this topic wasn’t just thrown into the story to make clear that Howard is a despicable human being. It’s all part of the bigger tale.

Another thing that pleasantly surprised me was NoemĂ­’s relationship with Francis. It doesn’t take long for the reader – or NoemĂ­, for that matter – to realize that Francis is rather taken with her. But NoemĂ­ usually flirts with attractive men, men who can keep up with her wit, who know how to flirt and be charming. Francis is none of that and yet, the two form a sort of friendship that gave me all the warm feelings I could want. This relationship was also a chance for NoemĂ­ to grow as a person, to not pick her friends or suitors by appearance or superficial charm only, but by deeper values.

At the end, things come together beautifully. Well, if you can call it beautiful when talking about a horror novel that describes some truly disturbing things. But you know what I mean. All the elements fall into place to paint a larger picture that makes perfect sense. The clues were there all along, you just have to piece them together in the right way. And for anyone who feels that this book is a bit slow, you can expect a lot to happen at the end! When I was reading the last few chapters, my boyfriend suddenly asked “is the book exciting?” because, apparently, I had that look on my face. Utter concentration mixed with shock mixed with disgust – so the ending was really, really good! 🙂

I’m so glad that the hype hasn’t ruined this book for me. In fact, I’m jumping on the hype train and looking forward to all the other books by Silvia Moreno-Garcia I have on my TBR. Her range already impresses me after having read only two of her novels. If she can jump from genre to genre like this, then I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

 

Gothic Style Fairy Tales: Kathleen Jennings – Flyaway

Thanks to Tor and NetGalley for granting me an eARC of this book. I’ve been looking forward to it since I first heard about it because I know Kathleen Jennings as an amazing illustrator of equally amazing books. Naturally, I needed to know if her writing was as great as her illustrating. This is like folktales meet Australian Gothic and it turns out I’m really into that.

FLYAWAY
by Kathleen Jennings

Published: Tor, July 28th 2020
Ebook: 176 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

Opening line: Once, somewhere between the Coral Sea and the Indian Ocean but on the way to nowhere, there was a district called-oh, let’s call it Inglewell.

In a small Western Queensland town, a reserved young woman receives a note from one of her vanished brothers—a note that makes her question her memories of their disappearance and her father’s departure.
A beguiling story that proves that gothic delights and uncanny family horror can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun, Flyaway introduces readers to Bettina Scott, whose search for the truth throws her into tales of eerie dogs, vanished schools, cursed monsters, and enchanted bottles.
In these pages Jennings assures you that gothic delights, uncanny family horror, and strange, unsettling prose can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun.
Holly Black describes as “half mystery, half fairy tale, all exquisitely rendered and full of teeth.” Flyaway enchants you with the sly, beautiful darkness of Karen Russell and a world utterly its own.

After an entirely too long, too dense, and too flowery opening chapter, this book has many great things to offer. We meet Bettina Scott, a prim young lady of nineteen who mostly steers away from other people and has her mother’s voice in her head, reminding her to behave like a lady. I got major Shirley Jackson vibes in those first chapters because while Bettina is our protagonist, we can’t be sure if she is entirely trustworthy. Or all there, really. Things get going when a mysterious letter arrives, addressed to Bettina, but using her former nickname, Tink. It slowly turns out that her two brothers have left and her father has gone missing a while ago. He may be dead or just disappeared, but so far, Bettina didn’t feel the need to investigate or even ask questions. Because that’s not ladylike, now is it?

But, as there would be no story if things were different, she and two people who behave like they used to be Bettina’s friends, take on a journey to find out what happened. To Bettina’s dad, to her brothers, and to their own missing or mysterious family members. Trish and Gary seem to know a lot more about Bettina than she does herself and it takes the entire book for that haze over Bettina’s mind to slowly lift. I’m not saying any more than that because spoilers.

What you get in Flyaway is not only a mystery, but also lots of folktales. Because the town of Inglewell is populated by many strange characters, all of whom have a past, all of whom have relatives who have seen strange things, who tell old tales of demon dogs, bone horses, the megarrity! And don’t think that these interspersed tales are just window dressing either. Each little fairy tale-like glimpse we get feeds into the larger narrative and paints the picture of a place filled with myth and wonder and things that go bump in the night. Needless to say, as a fairy tale lover, I soaked up each and every one of those tales and was all too delighted to see how they all fit together at the end.

There are enough hints throughout the story to help you figure out certain things for yourself before they are revealed. But Jennings wrote this book cleverly enough for some things to only make sense at the very end, for all the puzzle pieces to fit. She is also a master of atmosphere. Although I thought her introductory chapter was simply too much, I loved what she did with the rest of the book. Inglewell felt alive, filled with secrets and old stories told during long nights, ancient rivalries and superstition. For a novella-sized story, that’s quite a feat!

I’m sure there are things that could be improved here, but please don’t let the first chapter keep you from reading this book. I, for my part, will be keeping both eyes open for whatever Jennings decides to publish next. She is not just a great illustrator but definitely also a fantastic writer!

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Great!

Twisty, Creepy, Wonderful: T. Kingfisher – The Twisted Ones

I love T. Kingfisher’s books so much. When I saw that she had published a horror novel – quite the departure from her fairy tale retellings I’d read so far  – I knew I had to try it. I just couldn’t believe that one author can write (and draw!) graphic novels, write fantastic retellings, and manage a good horror story as well. I’m very glad I was wrong because T. Kingfisher can do it all.

THE TWISTED ONES
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Saga Press, 2019
Ebook: 400 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First line: I am going to try to start at the beginning, even though Iknow you won’t believe me.

When a young woman clears out her deceased grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina, she finds long-hidden secrets about a strange colony of beings in the woods.
When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?
Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more—Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants
until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.
Alone in the woods with her dog, Mouse finds herself face to face with a series of impossible terrors—because sometimes the things that go bump in the night are real, and they’re looking for you. And if she doesn’t face them head on, she might not survive to tell the tale.
From Hugo Award–winning author Ursula Vernon, writing as T. Kingfisher.

When Mouse’s father calls her and asks if she can clean out her late grandmother’s house so they can sell it, of course she agrees. Because that’s what you do for family. But she’s not happy about the task, especially once she finds out that her grandmother (who hated everyone, most of all her own kin) was a hoarder. From stacks of old newspaper over a creepy doll collection, there is a lot to clean up and throw away. At least Mouse has her beloved, if not very smart, coonhound Bongo with her.

Mouse’s first person narration is exactly what I expected from a Kingfisher book. She is practical, relatable, and good-hearted. And most importantly of all – she’s not an idiot. Things may start out harmless enough but Mouse soon realizes that Something Is Wrong and that she may have entered horror movie territory. And she reacts sensibly. She’s neither too trusting, nor too suspicious. That’s why I love T. Kingfisher’s protagonists so much. They are smart enough to see what kind of story they have stumbled into and they try to figure things out but they don’t do idiotic shit like “let’s split up” or fall for obvious tricks.

The horror elements of this novel work on several different layers. There is the base line horror of Mouse being stuck in her grandmother’s creepy house, full of old stuff, porcelain dolls, and – more interestingly – her stepgrandfather’s journal. Now Mouse is well aware that he had dementia and his scribbles should not necessarily be taken at face value, but the weird ramblings in that journal added another layer of creeping suspense to the novel. And then there are the things in the woods… which is all I’m going to say about that because, come on, you should be as creeped out as I was!

I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.

For me, a good horror story hinges on a handful of things. Number one is the protagonists’ behaviour. I already said Mouse is a fantastic heroine whose actions are always understandable and sensible. Number two is a slow build-up of fear or suspense. The writing style of The Twisted Ones is rather humorous because that’s just how Mouse deals with things, so it shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. But maybe Mouse’s ability to laugh at herself or see the bizarre things around her through a funny lens only increased the contrast to the horrible things that happen in this story. To give you a taste of how well it worked, let me tell you a little story.
I was going to bed after reading a few chapters of The Twisted Ones and when I stood in the doorframe of my bedroom, I saw something! It was tall and had a super round “head” with weird things growing out of it. For a fraction of a second, my heart stopped, I drew in a breath to scream, and then I remembered that it was my lampshade… I switched on the light and – surprise – my bedroom was my bedroom. There was no scary creature standing in the middle of it and I had a good laugh at myself. So although not every frightening scene in this book actually scared me while reading, apparently the book did push some of my buttons and got me on edge. Because, let’s face it, I’m a grown woman who got scared by her own furniture…

Without saying anything about the big threat in this story, I’d still like to mention how well I thought it was built up. I went into this with my horror movie glasses on – so I suspected every single character of being secretly in league with Evil, I expected every room Mouse explored in that old house to hold terrible secrets, and I tried guessing what her stepgrandfather’s diary would reveal and how Mouse would get out of it all alive. I was wrong on most counts, but  I loved how T. Kingfisher toyed with those expectations, clearly playing up some elements to make us think we know where the story is going even though she had completely different plans. Until the end, it was never quite clear which strange detail would turn out to be a real clue to finding out the truth. Once the antagonist (if you want to call it that) is revealed, the creep factor went down a lot – but that’s always the case with me. As long as I don’t know what’s going on, as long as I have no idea what the heroine’s fighting, I am terrified. Once it’s clear what we’re up against and maybe I even have an idea about how to fight it, it becomes more of an adventure story to me than a horror one.

If I had read older science fiction and fantasy more widely, I might have recognized certain aspects of this story. Kingfisher reveals her inspiration for this novel in the author’s note at the end. Having read it, I think I may even be glad I didn’t know the inspiration for The Twisted Ones because it may have made this book less exciting. But I won’t deny that I am now very interested in checking out the source material, if you want to call it that. I love when stories inspire other stories, especially if they turn out as great as this one.

I also quite liked the ending, even though it leaves quite a few questions unanswered. But it really fit with the narrative as a whole. I don’t think revealing all the secrets and answering all the questions would have been a good choice for this story. If there’s magic involved, it’s fine to keep things vague. The whole point of magic is, in my opinion, that it can’t be explained nor fully understood. The Twisted Ones wraps up in a believable and satisfying manner and it also lets us know that certain horrors never leave you, even if you’ve survived terrible things.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

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’GuilĂ­n – 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’GuilĂ­n. 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. DjĂšlĂ­ 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. DjĂšlĂ­ 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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