Cruel Winter

Cruel Winter

Cover image for Cruel Winter
Cover image for Cruel Winter

I hesitated to read this book (despite it being shoved into my hands by someone I like a whole heck of a lot) because I’m a wimp, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Yet, despite its horror designation, it reads more like a kid’s adventure movie from the 80s, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself not scared at all (okay, except for like, one part).

“Jack Harding and his friends feel sorry for the new kid in town. His name is Ronnie Winter, and he’s a bit of a weirdo. So when the local bullies try to beat him up, Jack and his friends step in to protect Ronnie — and that’s their first mistake. Because Ronnie Winter is not like any other kid they’ve ever known. He lives at the old Steadman place, in the big creepy mansion that used to be a mental hospital. And his young, beautiful mother has a strange way of making Jack promise to be Ronnie’s friend…forever.

The closer Jack and his friends get to Ronnie, the colder it gets. The town is plunged into a wave of brutal snowstorms — and plagued by a series of gruesome murders. And as the grisly death toll mounts, Jack realizes that Ronnie is surrounded by something far more powerful than a mother’s love — he’s guarded by a force of unspeakable evil that will torture and destroy everything in its path…” —Goodreads

This book is pulpy in a big way. It’s mostly cheese, with a little suspense and some decent character development thrown in. It’s pleasant in the way reading sometimes should be: it allows you to switch your brain off and just become engrossed in a silly story. I was told that the book’s intended audience is young adults, but nothing I’ve found online suggests that. I think it’s just a not-very-scary first attempt at horror. Mostly it reminds me of every episode of Scooby-Doo: about things that are scary in theory, but this particular execution is not.

Do you know that trick that authors have of giving a juvenile voice to a third person narrator? We see that in this novel, and I wonder if that’s what renders this less scary than it might be otherwise. The novel is about children, and for most of the novel, the narrator describes the thoughts and actions of children. They’re not very imaginative kids, and the novel is set in a time that seems quaint compared to what we’re living now. Some of the expletives the kids use made me laugh out loud, and it’s cute because they think they’re really tough. That bully though…he’s something else.

The plot did what it was intended to do: kept me engrossed and entertained. I’ve trained myself out of the bad habit of trying to guess what’s going to happen next so I couldn’t tell you if you’ll be able to guess what comes. In all honesty, there don’t seem to be many plot twists. Just a series of events that follow one another. That’s not a criticism, however. We’ve become used to plot twists in recent years, but there was a time when we could read books without them. Try it! It’s not so bad.

A more practiced author, I think, would have given us a little more in the way of character development. Jack is the most fleshed-out, followed by Cassie. Ronnie and the rest of the gang seem a little flat, though they fulfill their purpose well. I enjoyed Emma as a character, and I would have liked to see more of her, though her storyline and ultimately heroic dénouement, despite being almost entirely separate from the rest of the story, was nonetheless entertaining.

This book belongs more in the category of speculative, urban fantasy, rather than horror. Regardless of where you shelve it, definitely save this title for a pool day or a day at the beach, when you need one eye on the page but you can save most of your brain for other activities. It’s a funny, quick read if you want something that doesn’t demand much more from you than simply allowing yourself to be entertained.

A Madness So Discreet

A Madness So Discreet

Cover image for A Madness So Discreet
Cover image for A Madness So Discreet

Where has this book been?! The title seems familiar to me, but I cannot remember if it received any hype, or if I just remember seeing it hit the shelves and fizzle. It deserves more hype than it got, in my opinion, but these days it seems only paranormal romance and fantasy books get any hype at all. In any case, I tore through this one–couldn’t put it down.

“Grace Mae is already familiar with madness when family secrets and the bulge in her belly send her to an insane asylum, but it is in the darkness that she finds a new lease on life. When a visiting doctor interested in criminal psychology recognizes Grace’s brilliant mind beneath her rage, he recruits her as his assistant. Continuing to operate under the cloak of madness at crime scenes allows her to gather clues from bystanders who believe her less than human. Now comfortable in an ethical asylum, Grace finds friends and hope. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who will bring her shaky sanity and the demons in her past dangerously close to the surface.” —Indiebound.org

First, this novel is dark. Really dark. Especially in the beginning. We all know that insane asylums in the 1800s were not happy places to be, and that inconvenient people, especially women, could be remanded to their custody for anything from a fainting spell to infidelity. I assume that this author, having done her research well, did not invent any of the “treatments” inflicted upon our protagonist, Grace. To read the beginning of this novel felt a bit like rubbernecking–you know you shouldn’t look, but you can’t look away.

Grace struggles with the abuse she suffered, first at the hands of her family, and then at the hands of the people who are supposed to rehabilitate her (for an illness she doesn’t have). She is a powerful character with a hold on her emotions that borders on too strong. When she is removed from the clutches of the asylum, the reader hopes that perhaps her life will become a little lighter and brighter. In a way this is true, but in others, those rosy dreams can never be. Her life has already contained too much trauma to leave her completely happy. However, in her new life, she at least has purpose and friends, and the reader can’t help but enjoy her turn in fortune.

For cast of characters, this novel wins a lot of points. From the quirky voice who accompanies her in the dark at the asylum, to the doctor who rescues her, to her irrepressible half-mad friends, to the looming, terrible presence of this novel’s villains, each character is well-formed and wholly believable.

I also really enjoyed this novel for the sheer pleasure of reading about a subject I’d never encountered before. Asylums of this period hold a lot of interest simply for the bizarre way people approached psychology at this point–all the weird pseudoscience swirling around. It’s doubly interesting because it also explores the new fields of criminal psychology and, to a certain degree, forensics. I’ve only read one book about the actual history of early murder (especially serial murder) investigations, and the bumbling about of early investigators and stumped police would be amusing if it weren’t life or death for the people involved.

To wrap this up, this is a great novel. I’d recommend it to any fans of historical fiction, great female characters, and dark, twisted stories in which you’re not sure what’s right and wrong. It’s been out for a few years, and it definitely deserves more attention than it got.

Three Anticipated Reads

Three Anticipated Reads

The Young Elites
The Young Elites

The first of my three highly anticipated reads is The Young Elites by Marie Lu. Unlike many of you (probably), this was my first of her novels. I haven’t read Legend or any of that series. I was really excited to read this one, though, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was good YA.

“Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a ‘malfetto,’ an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars–they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.
Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.
‘It is my turn to use. My turn to hurt.'”

This is a good work of young adult fiction. It had great characters. Some were a little formulaic, but I enjoyed others immensely. Also, I feel like maybe Marie Lu has read the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey. Sometimes it felt like she took some details straight from there. It’s a great adventure and pretty dramatic, with some really unforeseen twists and surprises. I’d give it a 4 out of 5 stars because it’s close to perfect, but not quite.

Slade House
Slade House

Slade House by David Mitchell was the perfect mix of suspenseful, creepy, and beautiful. I truly am amazed by his writing and I highly recommend his work to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I have several more of his older titles still to read and I’m glad I still have some of his stories left to read. I digress.

“‘Keep your eyes peeled for a small black iron door.’ 

Down the road from a working-class British pub, along the brick wall of a narrow alley, if the conditions are exactly right, you’ll find the entrance to Slade House. A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. Every nine years, the house’s residents–an odd brother and sister–extend a unique invitation to someone who’s different or lonely: a precocious teenager, a recently divorced policeman, a shy college student. But what really goes on inside Slade House? For those who find out, it’s already too late. . . .

Spanning five decades, from the last days of the 1970s to the present, leaping genres, and barreling toward an astonishing conclusion, this intricately woven novel will pull you into a reality-warping new vision of the haunted house story as only David Mitchell could imagine it.”Indiebound

This novel was shorter and smaller than I expected, a very light hardcover easily held with one hand. I devoured this book in a day. I could barely put it down. I read it while I cooked, I read it while I ate, I read it outside with my coffee, I read it in the bathtub, and I ignored my family to read it. David Mitchell once again has created a story that completely absorbs its reader and leaves them scrambling for more. Beautiful prose, engaging story: 5/5 stars for darling Mr. Mitchell’s latest.

Bats of the Republic
Bats of the Republic

Bats of the Republic is an illuminated novel of adventure, featuring hand-drawn maps and natural history illustrations, subversive pamphlets and science-fictional diagrams, and even a nineteenth-century novel-within-a-novel an intrigue wrapped in innovative design.

In 1843, fragile naturalist Zadock Thomas must leave his beloved in Chicago to deliver a secret letter to an infamous general on the front lines of the war over Texas. The fate of the volatile republic, along with Zadock’s future, depends on his mission.When a cloud of bats leads him off the trail, he happens upon something impossible…

Three hundred years later, the world has collapsed and the remnants of humanity cling to a strange society of paranoia. Zeke Thomas has inherited a sealed envelope from his grandfather, an esteemed senator.When that letter goes missing, Zeke engages a fomenting rebellion that could free him if it doesn’t destroy his relationship, his family legacy, and the entire republic first.

As their stories overlap and history itself begins to unravel, a war in time erupts between a lost civilization, a forgotten future, and the chaos of the wild. Bats of the Republic is a masterful novel of adventure and science fiction, of elliptical history and dystopian struggle, and, at its riveting core, of love.”

I was very excited to read Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson, but I think perhaps it was written for people much smarter and more artistic than I am. Visually the novel is very beautiful and stimulating, with sketches, handwritten letters, maps, diagrams, and other media besides written words that really brought the story to life. I really liked to concept of this novel. However, something about it felt disjointed to me, and the reading was not as enjoyable as I’d hoped it would be. It built and built to what promised to be a brilliant ending, but to me the ending felt gimmicky and not as big as it was made out to be. I know plenty of people who loved this book, but sadly it was a somewhat disappointing read for me.

 

Two Books Read Simultaneously (Because One Scared Me And I Couldn’t Read It After Dark)

Two Books Read Simultaneously (Because One Scared Me And I Couldn’t Read It After Dark)

I have mentioned in a previous post that I am very suggestible. Even the hint of something scary is enough to set my mind whirring into all sorts of horrifying possibilities. So when I tried to read Night Film by Marisha Pessl, I was spooked pretty much constantly.

Night Film
Night Film

“On a damp October night, beautiful young Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Though her death is ruled a suicide, veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova—a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years. For McGrath, another death connected to this seemingly cursed family dynasty seems more than just a coincidence. Though much has been written about Cordova’s dark and unsettling films, very little is known about the man himself. Driven by revenge, curiosity, and a need for the truth, McGrath, with the aid of two strangers, is drawn deeper and deeper into Cordova’s eerie, hypnotic world. The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time, he might lose even more. Night Film, the gorgeously written, spellbinding new novel by the dazzlingly inventive Marisha Pessl, will hold you in suspense until you turn the final page.”–Indiebound

This book is supposedly a thriller, but I would argue it’s slightly scarier than that, although what do I know about true horror? I can’t read it. Books like this are difficult to talk about without giving too much away, so I will just say a few things about it. First, I liked the characters a lot, especially McGrath’s two “sidekicks.” Each main character, even the deceased girl, Ashley, is nuanced and detailed in a way that few authors achieve without seeming to show significant effort. McGrath, though unlikable, is an excellent, flawed protagonist whose mission to prove himself ends up driving the story. My only complaint is that he is not tremendously believable as a father.

There are almost two endings to this story, and I enjoyed that immensely. You’ll see what I mean when you read it.

And again, this book scared the daylights out of me. I could only read it during the day. It’s so spooky, and it hints at some really dark and even perhaps demonic dealings that go on in shadowy locations around New York. There are also pictures in this novel, so you never know when you’ll turn a page and come face to face with something weird and startling. Because of this, I had to have something to read that was definitely less scary, and less adult:

Deep Blue
Deep Blue

“Deep in the ocean, in a world not so different from our own, live the merpeople. Their communities are spread throughout the oceans, seas, and freshwaters all over the globe. When Serafina, a mermaid of the Mediterranean Sea, awakens on the morning of her betrothal, her biggest worry should be winning the love of handsome Prince Mahdi. And yet Sera finds herself haunted by strange dreams that foretell the return of an ancient evil. Her dark premonitions are confirmed when an assassin’s arrow poisons Sera’s mother. Now, Serafina must embark on a quest to find the assassin’s master and prevent a war between the Mer nations. Led only by her shadowy dreams, Sera searches for five other mermaid heroines who are scattered across the six seas. Together, they will form an unbreakable bond of sisterhood and uncover a conspiracy that threatens their world’s very existence.”–Indiebound

All I really want to say about this book (so I can forget about it quickly) is that it is stupid. The plot is stupid, the characters are stupid, and the world-building is stupid. The stupid “mermaidisms” drove me insane (example: their money is called “currensea.” Stop.)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The lines between the world we know and the fantasy world where mermaids exist are not well-blended, and it comes off rushed and sloppy. This book is about at the quality level of a made-for-TV movie. I’m not interested in the rest of the series. I’m totally disappointed because I think there is a lack of good mermaid literature in the book world, and I was hoping this would make up some ground. It didn’t. Even for children’s level reading, it was bad.

Dark Places

Dark Places

Enter if you dare
Enter if you dare

There are a lot of people who like Gillian Flynn. I have tried, but I am not one of them. I read Dark Places on my way here to Peru and found that I was so deeply disturbed it messed me up a little bit when I got here.

“Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas. She survived and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, the Kill Club–a secret society obsessed with notorious crimes–locates Libby and pumps her for details. They hope to discover proof that may free Ben. Libby hopes to turn a profit off her tragic history: She’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club for a fee. As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started–on the run from a killer.”Indiebound

There are several people I’ve spoken to who think this is Flynn’s best novel. Published before Gone Girl, there was apparently even a flop of a movie made, also. It does have all the elements of a twisted thriller designed to be devoured by readers. It is engrossing and suspenseful. It has a character at the end of her rope, despicably unlikeable, which for some reason makes her story that much more engaging. Can she redeem herself, or was her whole existence ruined when she was seven years old? It’s got gore, and some truly disturbing scenes, and if that is your thing, then it is masterfully written, and you should read it. You would probably enjoy it.

I am able to admit that I recognize how well this novel is written. Flynn is a talented storyteller, and she is not shy in her explorations of the more twisted pathways of the human psyche. Her character is manipulative and useless and fits into her story perfectly. The mystery itself, while incredibly disturbing and brutal, is suspenseful enough to keep even the most disgusted reader (me) reading until the very last page.

If dark, gory thrillers are your jam, then please read this book. You will like it. It will keep you reading long into the night.

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train

girl_onthetrain

Maybe I’m the last book reviewer to read this book by Paula Hawkins, but better to read it late than never at all! I almost never read mysteries or thrillers because they aren’t my cup of tea (give me dragons and a woman with a sword and I’m happy). But my mom read this one and it hooked her, so I read the inside cover at work last weekend and couldn’t resist giving it a go.

Here’s the text that got me: “Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life as she sees it is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?”  — via Indiebound

WHAT DID SHE SEE?? Amiright? Compared to the last mystery/thriller thing I read (Gone Girl) this was SO MUCH BETTER. I wanted to like Gone Girl as much as everyone else did, but I was too disturbed to like it from start to finish. This one contained similar themes, but with an ending that didn’t have me roaring with rage.

I feel like there isn’t much that one can review without accidentally spoiling something. The beauty of a novel like this is that the reader goes in knowing almost nothing, and the author unfolds the story with surprise after surprise. So I don’t want to give too much away. I’ll just talk about the things I liked in general terms. First up: the characters. I didn’t love all of them (because you aren’t supposed to), but I certainly did like Rachel. Rachel is an every-woman’s woman. Life dealt her some pretty sucky blows, and unlike the unrealistic heroines of many popular novels, she does not have her shit together. To be real, she’s a wreck. And yet, she still ends up being the one who sorts through the tangled threads of the mystery first, all while being judged appallingly by the people who do have their shit together. So take that, haters!

Second: plot, obviously. It was a whirlwind. I couldn’t and didn’t want to put it down. I had to know what happened and who made it happen. There are multiple characters with enough sketch-factor to keep things interesting from beginning to end. And I wanted to know what Rachel would do. There were several places in the novel where I groaned out loud, and I might have even said, “Oh, my god, you didn’t, again?!” Maybe.

Third: structure. There are at least three different women who tell the story from their point of view. Each of them keeps her own secrets, has her own flaws, harbors a dark side that she hides behind a veneer of suburban polish (except Rachel, who has completely lost all semblance of polish). The perspectives also jump about in time a bit, so you have to keep an eye on that. I thought it was a clever way of doing things because you get each woman’s perspective, rather than the perspective of one and a whole bunch of speculation about the inner thoughts and hidden activities of the others.

I think you will like this book. Yeah, you. Like I said, thrillers are not usually my thing, but this is one that bridges the genre divide and is smart and interesting enough to keep readers of all genre-preferences interested.