Review of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Star Ratings

Characters: 5 stars

Character Development: 4 stars

Plot: 3 stars

Writing: 4 stars

Overall: 4 stars

Age recommendation: 16 and up

It took me two nights to read The Wasp Factory, not because it was particularly long – it’s actually quite a short novel – but because it’s one extremely tense and disturbing little story. I’m still reeling from the news of Iain Banks’s death, it’s a tragedy for the literary world and for the Earth in general. I had only read The Crow Road before I first met him, and a bit of Stonemouth after, but I’ve been wanting to read The Wasp Factory and Consider Phlebas ever since he did two talks with the St Andrews Literary Society in the past couple of years. I had the amazing luck to go out with Iain and his lovely girlfriend (now widow) Adele upon both occasions, and he was such an interesting and funny man. In fact, he was witty as hell even when he was writing about his own mortality. The universe is worse without him, but was improved by his 59 years of existence. So, thinking about him and unable to sleep, I finally picked up The Wasp Factory to see if it was as distressing as everyone had told me it was.

Oh yes, this is a messed up book indeed. It is absorbing and well paced, and I think I could have finished it the night I started reading just because it seemed impossible to extract my own train of thought from the antihero Frank’s own narration. However, I was so freaked out by a few of the scenes that I needed to take a break from the twisted world Banks has created in Frank’s head. There are only a few characters in The Wasp Factory, partly because it takes place on a tiny, secluded island somewhere just off the coast of Northern Scotland, but also because we see the world through Frank’s eyes, and Frank doesn’t find other human beings very interesting or important. He’s a sixteen year old with psychopathic tendencies who provides the reader with twisted rationalizations to the murders of his little brother and two young cousins which he committed years ago.

The explanations to his actions are in such matter-of-fact tones that its difficult to get a read on the book’s narrator, making him all the more frightening.  He says at one point:

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through,”

and the delusional logic which inspires his actions is presented in such an offhand manner that his thoughts seem even more monstrous than his violent acts. When he describes the creative but horrifying murder of little Esmerelda, against whom he felt no real malice, Frank assumes that his reader shares his unnatural view of the world and its rules:

“I killed little Esmerelda because I felt I owed it to myself and to the world in general. I had, after all, accounted for two male children and thus done womankind something of a statistical favour.”

What ate into my brain the most (oops, that’s a sick pun which will only make sense after you read the book) was the way that the murderous compulsions, the gory scenes of animal torture, and even the macabre rituals of The Factory and the Sacrifice Poles start to take on a weird rationality of their own as we get sucked into this book. Banks managed to tell a story with no real hero, following a character to whom it should be impossible to relate, and yet The Wasp Factory is still the sort of book that people read voraciously, desperate to understand what it is that’s horrifying them so much.

There’s a bit of a mystery surrounding Frank’s father, a bit of suspense as his older brother makes his way home after escaping from a lunatic asylum, and a bit of philosophy as Frank makes observations about human kind – observations which are so poignant because his view of our species is removed by a few degrees of madness. However, the plot focuses largely on Frank’s personal inner turmoil and the methods with which he comes to terms with his actions and desires. The story is a “page turner” because of the writing and the characters, not necessarily because Banks wrote a tightly constructed plot. I suppose I would call The Wasp Factory a thriller of sorts, but mostly because of the thrills of revulsion I got whenever a particularly gruesome scene forced its way into my imagination. There are a few twists in the book, and one huge one which provides quite a shock, but this is a story about a murderer more than it is a story about murders. Iain Banks writes so well as a dangerously unstable young man that it’s difficult to imagine him as the jovial, hilarious, and warmly friendly fellow who he really was.

I’d recommend The Wasp Factory to anyone who spends the moments before they fall asleep wondering if they’re in danger of going mad, because it shows the shocking depth to which some people’s inhumanity can reach. It’s also the sort of book which would appeal to mystery readers – though the mysteries in the plot are certainly less interesting than the narrative voice – as well as to fans of distinctly Scottish writing, and violent books like American Psycho and A Clockwork Orange. I gave it an age recommendation of sixteen and older because, despite the fact that the protagonist is a teenager, Banks does not shy away from the sort of horrific imagery which you can’t bleach out of your brain no matter how hard you try to imagine yourself in a happy place. I tried to think about kittens to comfort myself about halfway through the book, but that only upset me more because Frank or his brother would probably mutilate those kittens… It’s disturbing, is what I mean to say, and when you’re a young kid and already disturbed enough as it is, this sort of writing won’t do your developing brain any favors. That being said, I think it’s a fascinating example of realistic fiction with a taint of horror and some extremely dark magical thinking. Banks’s writing skills are impressive, and reading The Wasp Factory has encouraged me to try and get my hands on some of his Science Fiction (written as Iain M. Banks) this summer, to read more about the imaginative worlds which lived in this talented and inspiring author’s mind.

Iain with me and a friend a The Central after his second talk with the St Andrews Literary Society.

Anticipating Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

So, like nearly every other nerd in book-land, I am having trouble containing my excitement for Neil Gaiman’s new adult novel, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, which comes out on June 18th.  No one’s let on exactly what the plot is, but I’m happy about that because I want to dive into those pages with no preconceived notions and just let Gaiman do his stuff.  Most interviews have been vague enough to drum up interest without spoiling anything, much to my happiness, and I think that Gaiman is very conscious of his huge fan base’s desire to be newly enchanted.

Source: goodreads.com

He recently mentioned this Star Tribune review on facebook, and said, “I think this is my favourite review so far. It does not talk about the plot, it talks about the book.”  If this review is at all accurate – and I imagine it is – then June 18th needs to be here right freakin’ now!

“Move closer and you’ll notice folkloric grace notes: An unnamed narrator learns the importance of naming, familiar nursery rhymes are reconsidered and made mythic. Magic comes slowly into the story, and it arrives as easily as breathing. When a perfectly sensible character says that she remembers when the moon was made, you will believe her. You won’t actually have a choice.”

—From Startribune.com’s review of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane.

Now I am even more excited to read the book, because what they’ve described is my favorite kind of magic.  Small, fatally important rules and traditions which have lived inside of us for centuries: that sort of power impresses me more than any grand summoning of a demon or tempest.  If Gaiman has indeed written about a form of magic so naturally inherent to his story that it sneaks up on us without drawing attention to itself (and I’m sure he has because he can do just about anything), then The Ocean At The End Of The Lane might even replace American Gods and Good Omens at the top of my food chain of books.

I guess as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been more desperate to find magic in the real world to keep my hope alive, and that’s why folklore and superstition have been occupying my mind more than “high” fantasy these past few years.   The smallest shifts in our world, the secret of my name, the truths other people might be hiding: these have been magical since ancient times and they’re just as magical now.  I’m so glad that authors like Jane Yolen and Charles De Lint have kept those stories alive, and unbearably excited that Neil Gaiman has added those elements into his new novel for adults.  There is hope where there is magic, and there is magic while Neil Gaiman exists!

Thoughts, anyone?  Are you excited about The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, or do you think it’s being over-hyped?  

Are you going to see Gaiman at one point on his signing tour for the book?  (Did you think I wrote “singing” tour, there, instead of “signing”?  He actually has a great voice.)

Do you prefer small-scale magic or big, dramatic fantasy?

Review of The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

 

Star Ratings

Characters: ****

Character Development: ***

Plot: ***

Writing: ***

Overall: ***

Age range recommendation: 16 +

I picked up The Daylight Gate to give Jeanette Winterson a second chance to impress me. When I saw that she had just published a new novel based on the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612 I thought it sounded more interesting than Written On The Body (1993), which I found to be an unbearably contrived love story – not at all my cup of tea. The Daylight Gate was decidedly more interesting and infinitely more memorable despite the fact that it is a short novel, only slightly longer than 200 pages. Since I’ve always been interested in the history of witch hunts and superstition I was excited to learn that nearly every major character in the book is based on real figures from this rather horrifying chapter in British history. William Shakespeare even makes a brief appearance as a voice of reason when some characters go to see a production of The Tempest. Winterson states, in her introduction, “The story I have told follows the historical account of the witch trials and the religious background – but with necessary speculations and inventions… . The characters are real people, though I have taken liberties with their motives and their means.” She gives us a dark and unflinching look into the miserable lives of poor women in England’s early 17th century, describing the fear; violence; filth; and religious uncertainty which governed the daily existences of those ordinary people who suffered most keenly from King James I’s obsession with eradicating witchcraft.

It’s always difficult to read a piece of historical fiction without constantly wondering which details are faithful to the events and which have been invented for the sake of storytelling, but Winterson manages to create a gripping tale out of mostly historical fact by asking one fascinating question: what if the accused women really had been holding a witches’ Sabbat that diabolical night on Pendle Hill? By adding chilling supernatural elements to a series of events which were already rife with superstition, she challenges our perceptions of religion’s effect on the course of history. A woman’s loyalty is tested, and the conflict between a man’s faith in God’s law and his own moral standpoint threatens the lives of several remarkable characters from history. Alice Nutter has lost her certainty about the spiritual world, despite her own experiences with magic and alchemy in her past, and the townsfolk of Lancashire believe she has the Devil’s help in keeping herself youthful and prosperous. Roger Nowell wants to treat the rising accusations of witchcraft with a firm grasp on reality, but the presence of lawyer Thomas Potts in his jurisdiction – the real life author of The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire and a truly insufferable fellow – pressures him to use the gruesome force of royal decree upon the growing list of imprisoned witches.

There are no real heroes in The Daylight Gate; the imprisoned women have no qualms accusing each other in turn and one woman actually turns a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of her young daughter. Even the levelheaded Alice Nutter puts the safety of her loved ones above the law.

Winterson reveals the uncomfortable truth that the only way to survive in this time period was to look out for yourself before thinking of others. We get a sense of this horrifying time in history through the repulsive acts which are performed to summon the Devil’s assistance, but also through the desperation which shines through even mundane encounters. The dangerous period is invoked with as much careful precision as the ghastly setting, and the attention to physical detail which annoyed me in Written On The Body was more appropriate in The Daylight Gate, though it did get stomach turning as the depravity continued. As despicable as the characters seem, we grow to understand the motives behind their actions, which makes their various grisly ends even harder to read about, despite the fact that their fates were sealed long before Winterson took up the challenge of shaping them into a story.

The prose sometimes seemed more focused on shocking the reader than on balancing the book’s suspense, and I must admit that I could have done without some of the gory or sexual details, but I do understand how these moments were important to Winterson’s examination of the witch trials. There are a few moments of violent revenge which satisfied my need for justice, but The Daylight Gate is a generally hopeless story, so don’t pick it up looking for a historical adventure which will lead to a gratifying conclusion in which bravery triumphs over ignorance. A few characters are brave and loyal, but those traits had no chance against the fear which ran rampant in 1612. I happened to like the ending, though some readers may find it disappointing, but be forewarned that – despite the presence of magic in Alice Nutter’s unusually long life – this novel is not the sort of fantasy in which magic can undo reality. Reality was unpleasant in the 17th century. The aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot inspired men and women to distrust their own families, death and misfortune claimed children without justification, and faith was tested and shaken at every turn of fortune’s wheel. The Daylight Gate shows how the hysteria of one town can provide a window into the horrors of a time period which is too often glamorized in contemporary fiction.

By the time I finished The Daylight Gate – and it is a short read – my impression of Jeanette Winterson’s writing abilities had been improved. I still think that she should waste fewer words on grisly details and give her characters more room to develop, but the setting in this novel was well-wrought and her handling of recorded facts was impressive. The balance between historical trivia and invented plot was good, for the most part, and I would highly recommend The Daylight Gate to anyone who is interested in the 17th century witch trials and doesn’t mind having their comfortable illusions about Jacobean England trampled a little. If you tend to dislike historical fiction but enjoy very dark “low fantasy,” with occult and horror elements, this might also be a good choice. Despite the book’s brevity there are some good moments of creepy magic. But, if you have a weak stomach and no fondness for devilry, I’d avoid this particular novel. It’s not a comfortable or pleasant read, but it’s well-written and interesting, and I appreciate its effectiveness at revealing the grim realities of England’s past alongside an imaginative story.

 

Also posted to Dark Lady Reviews on Tumblr.

Archived Review: Book Review: Rescue, or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal by Amy Leigh Strickland

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on May 31, 2013.

 

Star Ratings

Characters: ****(4 Stars)

Character Development: **** (4 Stars)


Plot: **** (4 Stars)


Writing: ***** (5 Stars)


Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 Stars)


Age recommendation: 13 +

This is the first novel I’ve ever read entirely on an e-reader, and while I was a little perplexed by the whole experience I’m so glad that I chose to embrace technology this once. Rescue, or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal is one of the most entertaining books I’ve had the pleasure to read in a long time. I found myself staying up late after an exhausting day of traveling around Sweden, desperate to finish the final 200 e-book pages before the battery ran out.

The book begins with the discovery of a mysterious journal in a locked attic trunk, a journal belonging to the discoverer’s father, and an assortment of strange objects brought to light for the first time in many years. Perhaps this is a clichéd way to begin a story, but I must admit that I was drawn in by the set up. After all, this sort of beginning usually leads to the sort of adventure I look for in a title like Rescue! After only a couple of pages we delve right in to Royer Goldhawk’s journal, which starts on September 5, 1883, “in which Royer Goldhawk embarks on a perilous and unexpected journey.” It was exciting to read a steampunk novel which takes place in the USA rather than England or Europe, and the bustle of New York City is where the action begins. Royer is a student at Columbia who spends his spare time at his friend Benjy’s pawn shop. He’s a mild-mannered fellow, compared to his more boisterous friend who lends plenty of comedy to the story, who loves engineering, his parents, and a girl named Mercy Winmer. When America Loveguard – a fashionable but indelicate vaudeville performer and mutual friend of Benjy and Mercy – invites them to her show, Royer attends more out of a desire to see Mercy than America, whose boldness he finds improper. However, the afternoon soon takes a disastrous turn when a villain with a dirigible kidnaps Mercy in broad daylight. Failing to rescue her, Royer does manage to steal a mysterious document off the flying machine, and this document inspires the wealthy criminal to buy off the police force and hire men who kill Royer’s parents and pin the blame on him. A beautiful kidnapped woman, airships, corrupt police, mysterious documents, murder, and pawn-shop combat all within the first forty pages? It’s the start to an exciting journey across the USA in a time when the country was only half-mapped, and the drama continues when Royer, Benjy, and America board a train to escape their pursuers and, against the odds, rescue their friend.

Royer records the details of their travels in his journal, recounting each day’s events with wonder when the adventure begins but with growing maturity as their courage and loyalty are tested over time. This style of writing – daily journal entries – means that we can never be too sure how the story will progress, though obviously Royer survives to write it down each night. The framing narrative of the trunk in the attic, which comes back again halfway through the book, also suggests that Royer meets his wife at some point in the tale, but aside from this fact and the preserved objects which subtly foreshadow what’s to come, each entry keeps the suspense and sense of discovery alive. The friends meet a one-legged and one-armed drifter with a lust for revenge who joins their band, they encounter a voodoo priestess who tells them that the stolen scroll has to do with fairy magic, and they combine forces with a goggled gun-slinger after a train robbery quite literally derails their quest. We’ve seen similar characters and plot twists before in fantasy novels and cowboy serials, but they come together to make something unique in Strickland’s book. Even when she introduces magic into the plot, enough characters are skeptical about its existence to keep the twist from seeming like an easy way out. There’s a bit of romance and some sexual tension, but the action and memorable characters are what keep the story going. The events builds up to a stressful denouement which features a charged combination of magic and old fashioned science, and the final pages of Royer Goldhawk’s journal clearly set us up for a sequel. By that point, the excitement should have drawn any reader in so deep that they’ll be scrambling for the next installment. I, for one, can barely wait to learn what happens next – so she’d better publish the second book soon!

Amy Leigh Strickland has created an enormously satisfying steampunk adventure with wild western and fantasy themes running through it; but unlike many novels in those genres, Rescue manages to be simultaneously fast-paced and well researched. We get just enough detail about ingenious mechanics and magical scrolls to keep the action within the realm of fictional possibility, but Strickland never lets her prose get self-indulgent. Some fantasy and steampunk stories get too absorbed in the cleverness of their designs and draw us out of the plot completely, but not in this case. On the other hand, she has obviously done her research. Her knowledge of the time period ensures that the setting is vivid and believable rather than just a vague backdrop. I was particularly impressed with the descriptions of commercial enterprises which were just starting at the time; the expanding territories and railroads; mechanics; historical syntax; and even little details like the standardization of timekeeping and Edison’s experiments with light and sound. As our heroes travel from New York to New Orleans to the Wild West – meeting fascinating characters along the way – intrigue, action, and historical detail blend damn near seamlessly to create a vivid world and a compelling story. What more could you ask in the first book of what promises to be an addictive series?

I’d recommend Rescue, or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal to steampunk fans who want something a little different from the conventions of that genre; to adventure enthusiasts; and those readers who like their fantasy stories to be realistically presented, and their historical fiction to be truly exciting. While the characters are adults, it would be an appropriate book for young people as well. I know that thirteen year old Sarah would have been in love with it. You can buy the kindle edition for an absurdly low price at amazon.com, and it looks like there’s a paperback version available as well. Seriously, folks, buy this book and read it if you’ve got a few hours to kill and need some excitement in your life. Just don’t blame me when you’re desperate to know what happens next.

Archived Review: The Earth Hums In B Flat by Mari Strachan

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on April 16, 2013

 

Characters: *****(4 Stars)

Character Development: **** (4 Stars)


Plot: *** (3 Stars)


Writing: **** (4 Stars)


Overall: **** (4 Stars)


Age range recommendation: 16 +

I read this book in two sittings, so it’s clearly got plenty of excellent qualities. I love child-detective stories, especially when those intrepid youngsters are the protagonists of adult novels and, therefore, their deductions about the complex world around them can be completely off track, often to hilarious or poetically tragic results. Despite Gwenni’s tender age of twelve, The Earth Hums in B Flat is about a grown up mystery: yes, there’s a disappearance and death and useless police officers, but the real plot revolves around the little mysteries which flourish in silence to engulf families and entire towns. Our odd little heroine narrates the novel in first person, providing an endearing perspective on events which might be only depressing, rather than intriguing, if they were reported through a more down-to-earth point of view.

Gwenni’s home life is difficult with an unstable mother and a cruel sister; her best friend and she are growing apart as they disagree about the importance of boys vs. magic plans; and to top it all off the intimidating father of two children she takes care of has disappeared, pursued by a mysterious “black dog.” Mr. Ifan Evansdisappearance causes little ruptures in the every day order of Gwenni’s small Welsh town, and when she decides to take matters into her own hands like the detectives in her books, she uncovers more secrets than answers and learns that some stones are best left unturned. The Earth Hums in B Flat is an easy and delightful read, and I enjoyed watching Gwenni’s observations about human nature develop from naivety to somber comprehension without ever losing the innocent edge which make the betrayals of the real world even more poignant. It’s not an uplifting story, though, so while fans of The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie by Alan Bradley will enjoy the similar narrative style, don’t expect an up-front story where the murderer is evil and a clever child’s perseverance necessarily prevails. The family in The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie is dysfunctional in an amusing way; but the families in Gwenni’s town are just plain messed up. There are a few intriguing minor characters, and the setting – a Welsh-speaking village in the 1950s – is seamlessly described to create a unique stage for story’s events. Some elements of social awkwardness around language, war, and class are seamlessly woven into the small-town plot, placing the story in a wider context which should appeal to anyone with an interest in British cultural history.

While I found the writing to be captivating and the characters compelling, there were a few things about The Earth Hums In B Flat which left me feeling a little let down once I reached the novel’s end. Namely, the end of the novel itself. While I was prepared for a pessimistic ending – meaning, I knew that this was not the sort of mystery which would end with peace for the village, justice for all, and due credit going to the amateur detective – I can’t help but feel that Mari Strachan could have let Gwenni receive a little more credit for the hardships she experiences at the hands of her mother and the small minded town. Some characters were sympathetic and kind, especially her memorable grandmother and absurdly saint-like father, but many of the people who made her life difficult never really get their just deserts. Of course, this is how the world works: a child might be in the right, but those who were wrong might never admit or even realize their faults.

Life isn’t fair, and although the unfairness of this novel left me feeling unsatisfied, I can see that it was an important element in the book’s message. Strachan is honest about how ignored young people can feel, how adults never listen even when they should, and this is a point made time and time again in children’s books but not nearly enough in fiction aimed at adults. There’s nothing wildly inappropriate here, some domestic violence and intimated deviancy, but younger readers might be disappointed by The Earth Hums in B Flat because the plot is driven by subtle relationships rather than action, and the writing expects that readers would have passed the point in their lives when they thought like Gwenni does. We must be able to see where she’s mistaken in her judgement to understand the story’s full scope. I enjoyed this book – it was the perfect cure to a day of feeling generally unwell – and I’d recommend it to someone who wanted an absorbing and self-contained story, a mystery which doesn’t follow the patterns we’ve come to expect, and a reminder of how magical life can be when you’re young and how strange it is when life fails to meet your fantasized expectations.

Archived Review: The Curiosities by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on March 26, 2013.

 

Since this is an anthology of short stories, the star ratings will be slightly different.

Star Ratings:

Writing: *** (3 stars. The authors chose to present their stories in their raw and largely unedited forms: notes in the margins point out what they would like to change. Despite the rough writing in places, the general quality is very good.)

Arrangement: **** (4 stars. Stories are relatively varied and presented in an appealing order. I wish the final story had been stronger, though.)

Balance: **** (4 stars. We get a nice mix of fantasy, horror, speculative fiction, legends, and psychological darkness.)

Personality: ***** (5 stars. I mean to say that the authors’ personalities and their writing styles shine through their commentary in the best of ways. We see how they work as writers and it makes them even more lovable/admirable.)

Overall: ***** (4 stars.  I really like this book!)

Inspired by their collaborative website, The Merry Sisters of Fate (merryfates.com), The Curiosties showcases quickly written pieces of short fiction by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff. The stories tend to fall within their collective genre of paranormal or speculative Young Adult fiction, but each author contributes stories which refuse to be contained by one genre or even – as the amusingly hand-written margin notes point out – by their own distinctive writing styles. Brenna, Tessa, and Maggie share their thought processes, inspiration, and their opinions about each others’ work, and we get to see how their voices have changed and developed as a result of their literary friendship. For readers who pick up The Curiosities as fans of one particular author, there will be plenty of familiar themes and fixations within these pages. But it’s the unexpected pieces, the stories which surprised the writer, and which her friends admit to wishing they had written first, which make this collection so valuable to admirers of these authors and their subjects.

I was only slightly familiar with the authors of The Curiosities when I started reading. I’ve shared my high opinion of Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys already, and I remember getting carried away into the dark and intricate world of Yovanoff’s The Replacement a couple of Novembers ago, but I wasn’t particularly well versed in their bodies of work and I’d never read Gratton at all (though I wish I had – she’s great!). My ignorance didn’t really matter, though, because through witty banter with her friends and wise thoughts on writing, history, magic, etc, each writer bares her personality and makes her voice as distinct as if we knew her personally. The informal tone of this collection sets off some of the truly dark stuff which it contains, and you get to read a well balanced combination of YA anthology and “How We Write” essay, all in one attractive package.

The stories themselves are excellent fun, provided that you enjoy the sort of writing done by these women. While the pieces are varied in terms of plot and format, and while the order in which they’re presented keeps the pace from dragging, they are resolutely stories for Young Adult readers who like elements of the paranormal; the esoteric; the sinister; and the weird. (A note: by “Young Adult reader”, I refer to anyone, young or adult or somewhere in between, who enjoys YA fiction.) You will find monsters and creatures to suit every taste, retellings of legends and stories prompted by fairy tales, good old fashioned ghost stories, horrifying visions of the future, and even some stories featuring no technical magic at all but which embody a perfectly chilling sense of dread. You will read about highschool, college, alternative historical settings, the ancient north, and steampunk or sc-fi cityscapes. There is kissing, killing, and wit galore.

What you won’t find in The Curiosities is grown-up, tightly plotted, examinations of every day life; at least, there are no mundane sensibilities left to carry a story on their own. But themes get heavy in this collection, underneath the strange and beautiful surface. Maggie’s pieces about geniuses behaving badly and legends existing in our world deal with questions of power, loyalty, and how to spend the time we have given to us. These are questions which The Raven Boys also handled very well. Tessa’s tales about monsters and complicated spells examine the importance of bravery in the face of sorrow and how traditions shape our lives. And Brenna’s stories about psycho killers tricked by even-more-psychotic killers, lonely ghosts, and wishes gone awry reveal the capacity for darkness which waits within all of us, and that desperate need for understanding which can save us when we’re young. These ladies know what they’re doing, and they do it well: telling us eternal truths hidden deep within compelling stories which appeal to our sense of the macabre and the fantastic.

Archived Review: Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on January 16, 2013

Star Ratings
Characters: ***** (5 Stars)
Character Development: **** (4 Stars)
Plot: ***** (5 Stars)
Writing: **** (4 Stars)
Overall: ***** (5 Stars)
Age range recommendation: 13 +

This is the sort of novel I want to read all day, every day. This is the sort of book I want to write, except Lindsey Barraclough has already written it. And I’m so very glad she did.  Long Lankin falls into my very favorite tradition of modern literature: haunting stories inspired by unsettling British legends and faery stories, usually featuring young children and strange settings, but always grounded somewhat in our own realm and history. Other books I put in that category are Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones and The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea.

Inspired one of my favorite creepy old folk songs (of the same title), Long Lankin follows young Cora and her toddler sister Mimi from London to Guerdon Hall in the countryside in the decade following World War Two. Cora’s mother has been driven periodically insane by some dark memory from her childhood and their father can not take care of them, so they must stay with their less-than-maternal and wildly mysterious Great-aunt Ida on the ancient and decaying family estate. Guerdon Hall makes a perfect setting for this dark and haunting story: there are strange claw marks on the door, latin wards of protection on the gate, and Aunt Ida is vehement that no doors or windows are to be opened under any circumstances, and that they must never go into the yard when the nearby tide is out. Cora makes friends with a local boy, Roger, and his pack of comically English siblings, and soon enough the children break a few rules in pursuit of adventure in the small town. Unfortunately, their adventures in the forbidden church near the estate and their curiosity about the history of Cora’s ancestors prove to be more dangerous than they expected, and the twisted spirit of Long Lankin from the town’s old legend returns to continue his hunt for innocent blood.

The novel uses the general narrative of the folk song as background to the story we read: generations ago in Guerdon Hall a false nurse let Long Lankin in so that they could kill the baby and the mother when the lord of the estate was gone. In fact, the song lyrics make a ghostly appearance when Cora explores the forbidden attic centuries after the fabled murder, thus combining the real legend and Barraclough’s own invention almost seamlessly. She creates an origin for the song as well as a thrilling continuation of its nightmarish characters. While this appealed to me as a fan of the legend, it’s described well enough to be understood by a reader learning about the story for the first time, too. I loved reading little lines here and there which came directly from the song, and yet my prior knowledge in no way spoiled the novel’s plot or its ending. The plot has a traditional feel, but it was actually quite unpredictable and – to my eternal relief – there was no awkward and totally out-of-the-blue plot twist halfway through to ruin the ghostly atmosphere which Barraclough builds so well in the beginning.  In short, the pacing of Long Lankin is superb: a well balanced mix of spirited childish adventure and bone-chilling supernatural suspense.

Several aspects of Long Lankin help it stand out from the other “Young Adult Adventure” books which were its neighbors on Barnes and Noble’s shelf. For one thing, the main characters are a young girl and a young boy, but they are childish enough that their friendship never develops into one of those overwrought romances which weigh down so many other stories. Their determined innocence fits well with the setting of post-war England, and the drama of Long Lankin comes almost entirely from the horrifying imagery and the mysteries which surround Cora’s family. It was a blessed relief to read an entire book without one moment of tragic teenage romantic agony. The writing and story crafting skills which Barraclough demonstrates captured my interest on their own, and I hope that young adults who read this book appreciate that scary stories can be gripping without any real romance at all.

There is true evil in Long Lankin – and that evil is terrifying – but even the good characters have depth and faults. Cora and Mimi are likeable and sympathetic, but they can be brats at times (as children are). Their Aunt Ida wants to do the right thing and protect them, but she also desires peace and solitude and does not have the patience to raise children. Roger and his brothers try to be dutiful sons, yet their adventurous spirits get them into trouble and the natural selfishness which comes with childhood blinds them to their parents’ struggles. These characters all grow and learn as they fight against the shadows of evil – and sometimes each other – but the children never quite lose the power of their innocence. The character development is good but never contrived, another way in which Long Lankin is better than most books I’ve read for the same age group.

I’ve mentioned how frightening the book can be, and I want to make it clear that I am a twenty-two year old girl who has loved ghost stories and scary monster tales since I was a child. Consider yourselves warned, therefore, when I say that this book gave me chills. It’s a little bloody and very suspenseful, but nothing to make you slam the book shut in disgust. Instead, the creepy foreboding mood which starts early on just builds and builds until the very last page of the book.  Eerie dread which comes out of nowhere, the stomach dropping realizations that something is terribly wrong, and the paralyzing sight of a half-dead creature crawling outside your window: the book is full of these moments which would wake us up screaming if we dreamed them ourselves.

I would not recommend that anyone under the age of twelve start reading Long Lankin, despite the young age of its protagonists, unless those children have uncommonly obliging parents who do not mind waking up in the middle of the night to check windows. It’s scary stuff, even for me, and I’m a scary little person. Read Long Lankin if you love grim folktales, if you appreciate the charm of the English countryside and embrace the horrific past which so often accompanies that setting, and if you have several hours of uninterrupted reading time ahead of you. Once you start reading Long Lankin, you’ll be desperate to finish before you have to go to sleep.

Archived Review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on November 6, 2012

Apologies for the short review and the brusqueness of tone, I originally reviewed the book on Amazon, because I wanted other readers of my interests to know that The Raven Boys is better than the cover and blurbs make it out to be.

Star Ratings
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: *** (3 Stars)
Plot: **** (4 Star)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: **** (4 Stars)

Age range recommendation: 13+

This is the first book by Stiefvater I’ve ever read, though she’s extremely popular in the UK and I’m assuming in America as well.  I ordered The Raven Boys on a whim because I needed another purchase to merit free shipping on some books for my dissertation, and it was new and caught my eye.  I had my doubts but read it anyway, and here is why I’m glad I did:

The cover of The Raven Boys featured a tag line of “if you kiss your true love, he will die,” and the back description went on about how “This is the year [Blue] will fall in love.” I was, therefore, a little worried that The Raven Boys would turn out to be a dark-but-uninspired teenage romance with hints of the supernatural but more emphasis on the love story than on “the sinister world of the Raven Boys.”

Much to my surprise and appreciation, The Raven Boys turned out to be a fascinating – and quite original – adventure story with only a bit of the obnoxious romance I was expecting. The Virginia setting was quite vivid, the characters were amusing, and the plot (privileged high school boys use their resources to track down an ancient Welsh king’s burial site, and a local girl with psychic blood gets drawn into their search through a mix of curiosity and fate) was well imagined.

The novel had plenty of faults: too many side plots running at once meant that the story-line seemed disjointed at times and the ending was rushed/not explained very fluidly, but these problems didn’t irk me as much as they could have since I genuinely enjoyed the mystery and atmosphere of the story. Stiefvater’s writing is neither noticeably brilliant nor glaringly awful, her characterizations can be pretty obvious at times, and the book falls into the YA trend of setting up for a sequel when the tale should have been told in a single, longer, novel. But it’s clear that Maggie Stiefvater tried hard to write an imaginative novel for teenagers, one which didn’t fall unimpressively into a tired-out genre, and I would say that she succeeds.

There is moral ambiguity; there is genuine angst about the role fate plays in a person’s life and choices; and there are reflections about family, friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice which will resonate with both young adult readers and we-who-are-technically-adults-though-we-hate-it. There is also a truly fantastic twist in the story, one which completely justifies what I originally thought was a terribly written character, and I will admit that I wanted to high-five Stiefvater through time and space when I realized that she had known what she was doing with that character all along.

I guess I would call The Raven Boys more of a supernatural adventure, a ghost story, or a boarding school mystery than a Young Adult romance. Sure, there are four boys who make one quirky girl seem like she’s the center of the universe (which is one of my least favorite trends in YA literature these days) but there are enough good bits to make up for that and to ensure that I will read the sequel whenever it comes out.

Archived Review: Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Originally posted on The Saint’s Arts and Culture page – St Andrews’ independent student newspaper – on October 16, 2012

 

As an avid fan of Pratchett’s Discworld series and of Mr. Dickens’ novels I spent a torturous few days staring longingly at Dodger as I passed Waterstones before I finally gave in and bought the hardcover.  From the off, it is obvious that this novel was set in Dickensian London – a fact which should be obvious given the title and main character, who was one of Dickens’ many creation – and I resolved not to search for the outlandish, farcical elements of Discworld in Dodger.  It is important that any previous fans of Terry Pratchett become comfortable with this idea before they dive into the murky sewers and shadowy corners of Dodger‘s London, because this novel is quite different from Pratchett’s hilarious fantasies, though it does retain his warm humor and wry view of humanity.

The story itself is an adventure and a mystery, starring young Dodger with guest appearances by Dickens, Henry Mayhew, and some other familiar names.  Dodger is a ‘tosher’: someone who scavenges the sewers of London for dropped riches and trinkets, and a popular rascal amongst the less-washed citizens of Victorian London.  When he rescues a girl from some violent men, he finds himself wrapped up in political intrigue (not to mention emotional turmoil) well above his head and his status.  We join Dodger as he works out the mystery girl’s origins, navigating through some awkward upper class dinner parties, gets himself into scrapes only to talk himself out of them.  Occasionally the main character seemed a little too smooth and unnaturally lucky, but the somber and often enlightening presence of his wise landlord Solomon served well to keep the tale from losing its grip on the reader.  While the book is an enjoyably easy read, it makes gentle observations of poverty and misery which would make Mayhew proud; and indeed, it is to Henry Mayhew that Terry Pratchett has dedicated his book.

In his acknowledgements Pratchett describes Dodger as ‘a historical fantasy, and not a historical novel,’ and while there is no magic of the hocus-pocus variety to be found, the fantasy comes in a form I can only describe as a historically-minded literature nerd’s daydream.  Characters from Victorian legend, literary giants, and historical figures all mingle together in this atmospheric mystery story.  It’s got adventure, romance, and a wink or two from the author to his readers as he sends his hapless protagonist to Fleet Street for a shave or places the young vagabond next to Sir Robert Peel at a dinner party.  I was so fully absorbed into the story as it twisted through the sewers and streets of London that I didn’t have time to miss the oddities of the Discworld novels; Dodger may not be as funny, but on a dark October night it is the perfect book for history and literature enthusiasts as well as long time fans of Terry Pratchett.

Archived Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on February 12, 2012

Star Ratings
Characters: *** (3 Stars)
Character Development: ** (2 Stars)
Plot: *** (3 Stars)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: *** (3 Stars)

Age Range Recommendation: Young Adult

I have very mixed feelings about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The concept of the novel is pretty cool; Ransom Riggs collected an assortment of vintage photos – seemingly unrelated despite the theme of incredible creepiness which binds them together – and wrote a novel about their subjects and settings. This appealed to me particularly because I am one of those losers who buys photos of old fashioned strangers from antique stores and yard sales. It’s a Lemony Snicket-style hobby and, in a way, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children managed to take that fascination in its own unique direction. At no point did I feel like he was ripping off Snicket or any other story of the sort. However, the creepy photos and interesting concept could not entirely make up for the novel’s disappointing turn of plot about one third of the way through.

The first few chapters of the book were amazing. The photos were mysterious, Jacob’s grandfather was a compelling character, and I found myself entirely engaged in the plot which started to unfold. Creepy Floridian landscapes! Unexplained floating children! Stories of monsters told by an old man with an armory in his basement! The woes of unappealing employment for teenagers! It was a promising start. When Jacob traveled to a remote island in Wales in his attempt to find the mysterious house which contained secrets from his grandfather’s childhood, I was all prepared for one of the best ghost stories of all time. The setting was atmospheric and the Welsh idiosyncrasies were amusing and when our intrepid protagonist began exploring the ruined house on his own I was nearly hopping with suspense. The abandoned orphanage, jars of suspicious stuff in a basement, the hidden stash of increasingly creepy photos: it all pointed to a chilling romp with some dead kids.

Then, immediately after the book really started to impress me, everything started going downhill. Instead of ghosts, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has time travel. Time travel is cool, I suppose, and the Home itself was interesting, but after such a creepy start I didn’t want to read what was essentially, The X Men As Children During World War II. Not only was the introduction of “time loops” a little anti-climactic, it wasn’t explained in sufficient detail to be believable. Yes, I know, time travel isn’t exactly realism, but I mean that the sudden turn of events was jarring and did not mesh with the novel’s beginning. I enjoyed reading about the peculiar children themselves; their powers, their lives at the Home, and their guardian. But from that point on the plot grew more and more far fetched, introducing evil mutated “peculiars,” under-developed villains called “wights,” U-boats, and a new plot which grew too big to be contained in one book. In fairness, Riggs is working on a sequel right now so the story has some time to grow into itself. I still couldn’t shake my disappointment, though, as I read on towards the end wishing that the book had stayed its original course and gone for creepy rather than action packed.

So who should read this book? I would recommend it to people who like Young Adult fantasies and aren’t easily frightened, but who also don’t mind a far-fetched story. I would recommend it more heartily to those folks like me who love weird old photos and unexplained shadows, to vintage fanatics, and to fans of Lemony Snicket and John Green (Snicket for the atmosphere, Green for the protagonist and narrative style). I would not suggest picking up this book if you are easily frightened, because there are some chilling descriptions and one ridiculously scary photo of a Mall Santa staring at some children with dead, pupil-less eyes. I just wish that the book in its entirety had managed to be as haunting as some of its better images and ideas.