Book Review: The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

Star Ratings:

Characters: ****

Character Development: ***

Plot: ***

Writing: ***

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age Range recommendation: 16+ (horror, sexual violence, math.)

The Supernatural Enhancements is a cryptograph mystery, a haunted house horror story, and a Southern Gothic as seen by Europeans. It’s made up of diary entries, transcribed conversations, letters, and more. If you like found footage stories and things that go bump batshit crazy in the night, check it out.

A. and Niamh come to Point Bless, Virginia not knowing what to expect at Axton House. A., our otherwise nameless protagonist from an unspecified European country, inherited the enormous, secluded mansion from a recently deceased distant cousin. Ambrose Wells and A. never met, but Wells died the same way his father did: plunging to his death out the window at the age of fifty in highly suspicious circumstances. Compared to other, older rumors about Axton House, a few odd window-tragedies are comfortably dull. The family that gave the estate its name, before Wells’ line bought it up much later, was known for inhumane cruelty, especially to the slaves who once lived on the plantation. Everyone in town knows the place is haunted. A. is a skeptic who “wants to believe” (he watches a lot of X-Files) and Niamh is mute but not without opinions, but the two of them will have to re-think their relationship with reality as they delve into the secrets hidden behind every door of Axton house, and every twist of the maze around it.

The ghost stuff is cool, of course, because I love ghost stories. Creaky floorboards, electrical disturbances, human shadows standing behind the shower curtain… what fun! Even more interesting, though, were the secret codes and hidden messages A. and Niamh find all over the place. Ambrose Wells belonged to some super-secret society of Rich Old-Fashioned Dudes Having Thrilling Global Adventures. Every year, on the Winter Solstice, they would meet at Axton House for some annual, esoteric observance. Since Niamh and A. don’t know what the meeting entails, they need to put the pieces of Ambrose Well’s haunted life together before the Solstice to find out if these are just old guys playing with a “bourgeois passtime” or desperate men on a dangerous mission.

There are codes and maps and cyphers and grids so complex they require mathematics. There’s a sinister maze in the backyard. There’s an enormously tall German butler with many secrets behind his respectable facade – I kid you not! Too many threads from different mysterious genres tied together in one tangle? Maybe. But I liked A. and Niamh enough to follow them, to be confused and frustrated with them, then rejoice whenever they figured something out. Of all the characters, these two major ones were probably the only fully fleshed-out persons to be found. But it didn’t really matter that various lawyers, businessmen, neighbors, and Oddly Wise Far Away Aunts Of Dubious Relation seemed built to further the story, sometimes. This is not a realistic tale by any means, so a Southern Gothic stereotype or an overly expositional old man (pipe included!) here and there seemed to fit right in.

I’d also like to mention that The Supernatural Enhancements is Edgar Cantero’s first book written originally in English. The dialogue and descriptions occasionally veered from cliché to slightly pretentious, but at no point did I have to think “well, I guess this is good enough for someone who doesn’t usually write in English.” It was just good enough, period. So well done there, Mr. Cantero. Especially given the pieced-together method of presentation, with all sorts of scholarly articles and even security footage transcriptions thrown in, he had to change voices an awful lot – frequently American ones in a region known for its eccentricities. Most of them were pretty well done.

My favorite voices, without a doubt, were our main characters’, though. A. and Niamh had an interesting relationship: he a twenty-something scholar with the sudden need to never work again, she a seventeen year old punk kid from Ireland with some roughness in her past and no voice to speak of it. Their conversations – her scribbling, him speaking – and even the looks they gave one another amongst all the weirdness were endearing. So who cares that I still don’t get how Aunt Liza fits into this picture? Or that the book’s denouement, while suitably horrifying, seemed to come out of nowhere and almost devalued some of the mystery that had been building up? I liked these kids and I liked solving the frightening mysteries of Axton House by their sides.

If I had to describe the style of Cantero’s book to someone, I guess I would call it a (slightly) less gimmicky House Of Leaves meets movies like The Skeleton Key and Paranormal Activity, if characters who wish they were in a Donna Tartt book visited Virginia. And yes, there were some Da Vinci Code / Angels and Demons elements too, with all the arcane spirituality and complex codes. I’m not sure if The Supernatural Enhancements was quite as good as House of Leaves, and it definitely can’t come close to Tartt’s genius, but it a disturbingly fun mix all the same, and terribly absorbing.

I compare the book to other stories only to try and place its style; there were original elements here that impressed me even despite the far fetched and sometimes gruesome details. Suspend your disbelief for an evening, turn on all the lights, and get lost in Axton House for a while.

Book Review: Fiendish by Brenna Yovanoff

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age recommendation: 13 and up (scary stuff, some language)

The South has swamps; and mosquitoes; and yards full of decaying cars, rotting pieces of other houses. The South has church groups and superstitions and streets that are no place for respectable people. There is a unique fear that Southern parents instill in their children. At least, these are some things I’ve inferred from the gothic, dramatic, claustrophobic YA novels set down yonder. Dark stories about teenagers fighting against violent inner turmoil and sweltering old-time-y moralities of small-town pride. I tend to like the creepy atmospheres and am intrigued by the cultural idiosyncrasies that I don’t understand.

Much in the way that Natalie C Parker’s debut, Beware The Wild, evoked the tense relationship between close-knit communities and encroaching, untamable swampland, Fiendish pits townsfolk against natural forces too big and vicious to comprehend. In Yovanoff’s typical style – which I think of as Shirley Jackson drunk on teenaged angst – her main characters have to grapple with more than mere monsters rising from riverbeds or specters walking in tangled shadows. Brenna Yovanoff concentrates on the dangerous natures within her teen characters as carefully as she imagines disturbing corners of our own world for them to inhabit.

Recall, if you will the emotionally derelict town (almost monochromatic to my memory) in which her twisted changeling story, The Replacement, was set. There’s the surface level of small town politics, of trying to hold it all together in front of an unsympathetic crowd. But then there’s this underground world of darkness and horror that seeps up into her plots like an acrid, poisonous, echanting mist. In The Replacement, this place of horror was literally hiding just below Mackie’s town, full of cruel faery-things who looked like children and demanded the impossible.

Fiendish has its fair share of subterranean nightmare places. Clementine was locked in a cellar closet when she was just a little girl, and has nearly become part of the house’s decaying foundation after all her years there, drifting in some half-dreaming stasis. Reading about the roots and creatures that grew around her, the dust that collected on her forgotten form, made me want to leap and jump; shake my limbs out; maybe even do the hokey-pokey to get rid of the creeping feeling that shuddered through my nerves in sympathy. Clementine’s life changes when she comes back above ground again, now as a teenaged girl whose memories don’t go past early childhood. Thrust back into the blinding sunlight amongst a town full of people who can’t remember who she is, our sweet and determined protagonist has only her cousin and a few old friends to support her.

Clementine, Shiny, and Rae are all part of a local subset: folks who have “craft” – strange old magic – running through their veins. It’s not a glamorous sort of power, and their talents don’t necessarily make life any easier. Shiny’s flare for manipulating fire only gets her into worse scrapes when the local boys act like creeps. Rae’s affinity for associative charms and abstract magic only lets her skate by as an accepted member of society so long as she continues to hide her more elemental nature. Obviously, Clementine shouldn’t run around announcing that someone dug her out of the ground below her ruined house; the good old boys of New South Bend burned the homes on Weeping Road for a reason. They call it “the reckoning,” and all Clementine knows is that something horrible happened right before she was put in the ground. The families that live down there, with their generations of weird lore, are thought to be descendents from fiends. Fiends that haunt the nearby hollow, a sinister patch of wilderness where even the cockiest boys don’t venture.

There might be a measure of evil in what kept Clementine alive for all those years, so it should come as no surprise when Fisher, the boy who found and rescued her, isn’t wild about being seen in public with the strange girl who lives with a fiendish family and has missed out on so much of life. Clementine is innocent but she’s not helpless, and her attempts to catch up with her peers make the strange biases of “normal” people stand out all the more cruelly. Fisher was kind and brave when he dug her out of the cellar, not freaking out like his friends at the trickbag hung around her neck. He’s level-headed and caring, at least when he’s with Clementine. Check out this rather chilling moment, which nonetheless illustrates Fisher’s unflappably steady nature:

“‘Why don’t they like me?’ I whispered, getting my arms up, feeling around for his shoulder. ‘What’s wrong with me? I never did anything to anyone.’

Fisher was quiet for a second and when he answered, he sounded strange.

‘It’s not your fault,’ he said. ‘They’re just nervous about how your eyes are sewed shut.'” (p.15 in the hardcover)

But one of the major themes in Fiendish is the difficulty of being loyal and fair when the pressures of a judgmental society are closing in. Fisher and Clementine don’t exactly band together, two teens in love against the world. His friends are jerks in trucks – the sons of those men who burned down Clementine’s house in the first place – and his grandmother is, quite frankly, terrifying. Though Clementine feels attached to him because he saved her, their occasional sweet moments alone are scattered between harsh encounters in town where he behaves like a very different, much more normal, sneering guy with old family in New South Bend. The romance in Fiendish is more a slow discovery of secret depths and histories, while a shared compassion keeps Fisher and Clementine determined to do what’s right in the end.

What’s right is never obvious in Yovanoff’s writing, though, and in this case it might not even be possible. The big magical showdown – towards which the frightening natural oddities and mounting social tensions build – gets a little out of hand by the end of the novel, but it sure is scary and weird. The monsters and spirits that haunt Wixby Hollow are even worse than the rumors that circulate town (heck, do I love it when Southern superstitions turn out to be right) and something’s been stirring them up to a restless nightmare. Superstitions abound in Hoax County, sometimes right under the smiling and ever-so-normal veneer of clean cut town traditions. Take the symbolic paintings of crazy fiends that go up with all the other patriotic decorations at the annual town fair, or even Fisher’s grandmother, who is meant to be the most uptight and upright citizen around. The little old lady knows more than most, and I loved reading about the insufferably awkward dinners shared by Clementine, Fisher, and this sharp matriarch. She might be mean and snappy (and a damn good cook), but Clementine needs to know what’s behind the dangerous events they’ve witnessed.

“Just that there’s five of you creatures up there in town now. Knocking around with craft in your blood and your bones. Five kinds of wrong, and that’s one wrong thing for every point on the reckoning star.” (p 151 in the hardcover.)

Local legends combine with universal concepts of five magical elements to set the stage for a dramatic clash of monstrous nature gone crazy versus normal people hopped up on fear. With Clementine, Fisher, Shiny, and Rae caught in the middle of two blindly ruinous forces, there’s no easy way to force this growing power back where it belongs. Personally, I preferred the first three quarters of Fiendish; following Clementine as she seeks the motives behind her awful imprisonment and sussing out the unnatural powers that thrive in the periphery of New South Bend. The prophecies and stand-offs were impressive and fraught, but not quite so evocative as an odd word heard on a street corner, or an eerie silence in the Hollow.

My own fondness for subtle Southern Gothic touches aside, Fiendish was an exciting novel that felt like a breath of summer while I read it in the freezing early spring. Not a pleasant, balmy summer, though. I felt the sticky, buzzing, fear-tinged air of frayed nerves and suspicious neighbors. Fiendish has a satisfying enough ending (yay standalone YA novels!) and is good fun for teen readers who like their towns creepy and their characters disturbed.

All Hallows Read: My Favorite NEW Scary Books in 2014

Happy Halloween!  (Cue singing: It’s the most wonderful time of the yeeaarrrr!)  I have had such a busy October that there’s no way I’ll be able to do a semi-thoughtful All Hallows Read post like last year’s.  Sorry!  Check there for a list of scary children’s books I highly recommend for this most joyous of occasions: the giving of books intended to horrify your loved ones. But I read some great new scary books this year, which I’d like to mention.  Just in case anyone needs something frightening for tomorrow and doesn’t know what’s come out recently.  (Click links and book covers to read my full reviews of these books.)

I was rather taken with the spooky, swampy atmosphere in Natale C. Parker’s debut YA  novel, Beware The Wild.  It just came out this month.  The premise is suspenseful, and the small Louisiana town feels wonderfully real despite all the sinister swamp action going on just beyond the fence.

Conversion by Katherine Howe is more thought-provoking and stressful than it is scary, but it centers around the events of the Salem Witch Hysteria, and so is very seasonally appropriate.  Katherine Howe expertly balances a modern story of inexplicable hysteria shaking up a girls’ Catholic school in Massachusetts with the historical narrative of Anne Putnam, one of the girls who was instrumental in accusing her neighbors of dealing with the devil in 17th century Salem.  Psychologically astute but also very compassionate, this is a book about teenagers which adults would enjoy just as much as teenagers.  (Plus – she’s so good at making historical accuracy readable and compelling! A difficult feat.)

On the note of Katherine Howe’s encyclopedic knowledge about the history of American witchcraft, may I direct your attention to the brand-new Penguin Book of Witches.  Edited by Howe herself, this little gem has first-hand sources relating to the belief in witchcraft and persecution of suspected witches, starting with the superstitious King James and then on even past those famous trials in Salem.  It’s not the sort of book you might want to read all in one go, but the individual documents provide a fascinating peep into the minds of people in a time when the influence of black magic was a constant concern.

The second book in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series came out this fall, and I liked it just as much as the first one!  Truly terrifying ghostly action, punctuated with saber fights and lively dialogue between the teenaged exorcists who are the series’ heroes.

Another book starring a sarcastic fellow and a whole host of nasty supernatural creatures was William Ritter’s debut novel, JackabyThis one is recommended to both teenagers and adults: the plot is fun and fast, but the monsters are pretty grisly.  Like Sherlock Holmes in a monster movie, with an awkward partnership and false trails promised along the way.  I particularly liked the inclusion of banshees.  (And, of course, the witty banter.)

Jennifer McMahon’s thriller The Winter People came out –appropriately– in the late winter, but it’s got a very spooky atmosphere and some violent ghosts.  A modern girl reads the diary of the woman who used to live on her property, and finds herself enmeshed in over a century of dead children, threatening forest, and seriously bad vibes all around.  The secluded Vermont setting made me very nervous about driving through heavily wooded areas for a few days after I finished.

Josh Malerman’s debut novel Bird Box scared the crap out of me. Don’t ask me what was so scary; it’s better you don’t know.  Just buy it and read it.  But read it on a night where you don’t need much sleep, because you won’t be putting it down until you’ve finished.  I’m still on edge, ten months later.

W.W. Norton released a new annotated collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories just in time of Halloween!  It’s a big, impressive tome full of nightmarish images from the prince of horror himself.  And, if Lovecraft’s haunting stories aren’t enough to get your blood running cold, there are handy notes and further reading in the margins: tour guides to a truly sleepless night.  I grabbed a copy of this book the moment we got it in at the shop, and sent it to one of my closest friends, with whom I used to trade great old scary books every All Hallows Read when we were in University.  It gets his stamp (or shriek) of approval.

I love the Everyman’s Library Pocket series of poetry collections, and this year they blessed us with an anthology devoted to poems about the dead and undead.  It’s like they read my mind!  This macabre sub-genre of poetry isn’t always easy to track down on your own, and now it’s been kindly compiled for freaks like me.  Thanks ever so much.  Best read in a graveyard by moonlight.

The Quick, by Lauren Owen, came out this Spring.  Sort of a mix of Dracula and Oscar Wilde, with some great slaying thrown in for good measure.  I loved the fraught atmosphere of a Victorian London plagued by an otherworldly menace, but the secret societies and gangs of urchins made for some scary reading, too.  And the conversations between dandies were great fun, even while sinister forces lurked in the shadows.

A few new scary books I still need to read:

Anne Rice’s new Lestat book only JUST came out but I am dyyyying to read it! Lestat, Louis, Armand, and their whole gang felt like close friends of mine in middle school and high school. (The Vampire Lestat, Interview With The Vampire, and Queen of the Damned were my first favorites.)  Now there’s a new book featuring The Brat Prince, at last!  My fourteen year old self is just salivating to get sucked back into all that vampire drama again.

A customer bought Emily Carroll’s beautiful and blood-curdling graphic novel, Through The Woods, before I had a chance to read it thoroughly.  But what I flipped through… just wow.  Proper horror and folktale combined, told in few, well chosen, words.  And the images will haunt me forever.

I loved the dangerous faeries and sinister style in Brenna Yovanoff’s The Replacement, and her newest YA book looks even more disturbing!  Kirkus’s review had this to say: “The atmosphere in Yovanoff’s latest is eerily reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, if only Harper Lee’s Maycomb residents had been given magical families as a focus for theirbigotry.”  I’m so intrigued!

I’ve heard mixed reviews of Lauren Oliver’s new book Rooms, which is aimed at adults (unlike her very popular YA books).  But haunted houses are totally my jam, so I’ll almost certainly read it eventually.  Plus, look at that cover.  Dang.

The Book Smugglers’ review of The Girl From The Well, by Rin Chupeco, has me completely hooked.  Inspired by an old Japanese ghost story and featuring a violent, vengeful spirit, this sounds like exactly my sort of YA horror novel.  I hope to read this one before the year is out.

There are almost certainly new scary books I’ve neglected to mention, but this list has grown mighty long.  Obviously, 2014 has been a spectacular year for scary books. A reason to rejoice for those of us who spend way too much time reading scary stories on crumbling graveyard walls.  As it’s All Hallow’s Read, I hope you all give a scary book to someone, and read one for yourself.  Frighten your loved ones.  Unnerve your friends.  And hey authors: keep writing ghost stories and haunting tales, please!  I love the way you make my blood run cold.

Book Review – Lockwood & Co #2: The Whispering Skull

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 11 and up

It’s rare and exciting that I read more than one book in a series.  Series aren’t often my thing, and even when I do read a first book that sweeps me off my feet, the sequels tend to get lost at the bottom of a daunting pile of New Books I Need To Read.  That avalanche is real, it’s heavy, and it’s never ever ending.  But I was kinda-sorta on a little vacation this weekend (meaning I stayed home and ate cranberries and finally got to read in the daylight) so I said to myself, “Do something crazy an unexpected with your free time!  Break the rules!  Follow your heart to whatever terrifying destination awaits!”  I didn’t move from my reading chair, but I did pick up the second book in a series. 

Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series is ghostly and scary and action-packed.  There’s a terrifying destination for ya’, without having to put on proper pants!  And The Whispering Skull is a sequel, so I can put a check-mark next to “unexpected”, too.

I read it because Halloween’s approaching, and Stroud writes some properly terrifying scares.  Bleeding walls, hungry rats: really not for the faint of heart.

I read it because I really enjoyed The Screaming Staircase last year, and wanted to hang out with Lockwood, Lucy, and George again.  You can read my review here.  The old-fashioned ghost-hunting subject mixed so well with the modern setting and characters in the first installment, while the young team’s mysterious adventure was tightly-plotted and tense.  Plus –huzzah! — the ending left room for development but was not an unbearable cliffhanger that left frayed seams and torn holes in the fabric of the plot.  More of that in kids’ series, please and thank you.

And I read it because the skull on the cover was staring at me from my shelf, whispering: “Read me. You know you want to fall back into a world where specters haunt the streets and psychic children carry swords.  It’s a rainy October afternoon and you’ve got nowhere to be until tomorrow.  Reeeeaad meeee.”  So I gave in and followed the skull’s advice.  Unlike Lucy and her friends, who end up seriously regretting an instance in which they follow the haunted cranium’s suggestions, I had a great time reading the book.  Didn’t even mind the goosebumps too much, though I did turn on lots of lights that evening…

The Whispering Skull introduces a new set of assignments for Lockwood & co, but also carries over some unsolved mysteries from the first book.  Clever readers would have no trouble starting with the second book, as long as they could throw themselves unreservedly into the setting of post-Problem modern London.  (The problem being ghosts, of course, the history of which is developed a little further in this second installment.)

Lucy, George, and the ever-dashing Lockwood made quite a name for their rag-tag agency after their adventure in Combe Carey Hall where, yes, the staircase was rather unhappily vocal.  They’ve been busy with new cases and a few mishaps.  When the bully Quill Kipps and his team of smug, snobby young agents from the well-established Fittes agency challenge Lockwood & co to a ghost-hunting competition, the rivalry between agencies takes on higher stakes than ever before.  Bruised pride and broken faces abound.  The trial: the next time they’re each working to solve the same haunting, whichever team defeats the spirits first and secures the case gets to humiliate the other team in print.

As luck would have it, Lockwood and Kipps find themselves called together quite soon.  An every-night graveyard job went badly awry when a definitely-haunted and probably-cursed mirror is stolen from the scene.  The mirror has an irresistible pull, but anyone who looks into it goes very mad and is quickly dead. The twisted individual who created the mirror centuries before was Dr. Bickerstaff: a man obsessed with finding out what lay beyond mortal perception, who was pleased as plasma to harm other people in his quest to find out.  With the mirror at large in London, the living are at risk.  Scotland Yard insists that Lockwood’s team work together with Kipps’ cronies to secure the mirror and keep Bickerstaff’s ghost from killing anyone else.  Racing against nefarious antique dealers, dangerously obsessed academics, and their horrid rivals, the young psychics will have to draw on all their sword skills and quick wits to find the mirror before calamity finds them.  (Lucy even has to do it in a cocktail dress and high heels!)  And if that weren’t enough to keep them on their toes, the haunted skull that George has been experimenting on since Lucy joined agency has started talking to her.  Only to her.  No one has been able to converse with spirits since the legendary founder of the Fittes agency, so very long ago.  So why is the rude and crafty skull trying to get Lucy’s attention?  Why is it trying to play on their fears and turn the three friends against one another?  And should they trust anything the skull tells them, if it might help solve the case even while it endangers their lives?

The Whispering Skull has all the trappings of a good episodic sequel.  The mystery in this book is new and self-contained, but bigger questions from the first book get embellished.  (I can only hope there will be a third book next year, so that I can continue my wild and crazy rule-breaking trend.)  Some of the things I didn’t like so much about The Screaming Staircase are even remedied in this installment.  For example, I thought that the antagonism between Kipps and Lockwood was too petty when the characters had their little standoff in book one.  The renewed strength and higher stakes of their rivalry made me really cheer for Lucy, George, and Lockwood to solve the case and wipe the smug looks off of their opponents’ pointy faces.  That is, I cheered for them when I wasn’t inwardly screaming, “Agghh just run!  There’s something horrible coming down the hall!”

Stroud’s writing continues to be mature and chilling.  These books are rather long for Middle-Grade adventures, topping out at over 400 pages.  What with the gruesome hauntings and complex plot, I still recommend Lockwood & Co to teenaged readers and even to adults looking for fast-paced supernatural thrills.  There’s no heavy romance in the series, yet – no time for making eyes at one another when you’re busy jabbing wraiths with swords – but the plot, action, and lively banter should stand up to older readers’ expectations very well.  Many middle school readers will surely love the books, as long as they’ve got an appetite for some quality horror but no appetite for their dinner just yet.  (Did I mention the rats?)

I’m getting seriously attached to Lockwood and his not-always-so-merry band of psychic swashbucklers.  All of the major characters had a chance to develop further in The Whispering Skull – even the skull himself.  Maybe it’s thanks to the haunted head’s spiteful meddling that we learn more about Lucy’s gift, about the extent of George’s curiosity, and about Lockwood’s dark secrets.  I wouldn’t thank the skull, myself, because honestly it’s an asshole.  But I’m really liking the chance to get to know these characters better.  This series deserves a whole hoard of eager followers.

Can you guess if I have any regret about reading the second book in a children’s series instead of making a few inches of progress against the Towers To Read?  None at all.  Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull has got me so ready to wander around in the dark on Halloween night.  I would feel a little better if Lockwood himself were around to provide back-up, but maybe I’ll stick some iron in my pockets and lavender in my purse, just to be safe.

Book Review: Beware The Wild by Natalie C. Parker (coming out soon!)

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 -18

I read an ARC of Beware The Wild and some details may change before publication!

I seriously dig swamp magic.  I mucked around writing half a novel about swamp faeries one Spring, and it was good fun.  The bayous down South hold me in dreadful fascination, even though I’ve never really explored that part of the country and would probably quit after an hour because of the insects.  Swamps make a great setting for mysterious or threatening otherworldly activity, with weird creatures and secrets hidden down below the slime.  Hence my excitement for this new YA novel set in Louisiana, where ghostly girls come out of the bayou and local legends mix with memories which may or may not be trustworthy.  Beware The Wild is Natalie C. Parker’s first book, and I’m excited to see it in bookstores because there can never be too many creepy swamp stories.  This is a good one.

Sterling is distraught that her older brother, Phineas, will be leaving their tiny Louisiana town for college soon.  She’s always looked to him for protection, but now he’s just going to disappear.  That is, she’s sad about him leaving until he really disappears into the spooky swamp that haunts the borders of town – the swamp that’s home to all sorts of unhappy legends, where no one dares tread and which no one will admit has something sinister at its heart.  Once Phin crosses the border, Sterling becomes terrified that her brother won’t ever return in one piece.  And things only get weirder when a girl comes out of the swamp and takes his place, quite literally replacing Phineas in everyone else’s memories and even in physical evidence.  No one believes that Sterling had a brother; not her parents, not her friends, no one except for Heath. Because Heath lost his best friend to the swamp, too, and has been carrying Nathan’s memory on his own ever sense.  Even while false memories of a sisterhood with this mysterious Lenora May threaten to take over Sterling’s desperation to save her brother, she and Heath hang on to what they know is true and try to face the twisted magic which makes the swamp so dangerous.

Wow, so, the plot of Beware The Wild really hits the ground running.  Phin has disappeared by page three, and the swamp demands our attention from the very first sentence.  The girl who comes out of the swamp – Lenora May – establishes herself as a mysteriously compelling tangle in Sterling’s suddenly messed-up life before we even see inside of the high school.  And that’s only chapter one!  The family drama, friendship dynamics, and past romantic tensions come to light gradually, as Sterling grapples with her memories.  She thinks she’ll have to rescue Phin on her own at first, which would obviously be difficult, and the swamp’s background gets clearer as she struggles to come up with a plan. Sterling’s own history solidifies gradually, too. Her voice is well-defined, and the town’s spooky ambiance is believable, so I was able to accept each revelation as it came. The magical solutions which Sterling and Heath use to save their friends were dishearteningly simple in their execution, but the magical logic behind their attempts was sound enough to keep me reading.

The legends connected to the swamp took on different cadences depending upon who told them.  Mrs. Clary at the general store is a bit mystical, so her superstitions had me convinced that something awful lives beyond the boundaries.  Candy – Sterling’s best friend – is a hardcore skeptic who just happens to love telling the local scary stories.  A good mix of very American characters from all perspectives – on matters magical as well as sociable – made for a realistic, modern variety of of attitudes towards whatever danger lies just beyond rational belief.

As Sterling and Heath soon come to understand, the line between memory and belief can get fuzzy when no one else can remember the truth.

For the most part, the characters were developed nicely.  None of them will become favorites of 2014 for me, but they were fun and passionate; likable products of such a cool setting.  I thought that the villainous figure could have been developed much further, though with so much going on and quite a few twists I guess there wasn’t much space for even more exposition.

The writing was fairly strong, especially for a debut. First-person present-tense narratives usually bug me, but the pacing and narrative worked well together, here. I loved how certain details were allowed to slip through the cracks for a little while, until the reader could suddenly realize that something (or someone) was missing at the same time that Sterling notices.  The suspense took on the logic of dreams at those moments, in a consistent way that created a uniquely alarming effect.  Rather than being a jumpy or gory horror novel, Beware The Wild sustains a vaguely sinister tension up through its conclusion, with a few light breaks for awkward dates and emotionally fraught snack attacks.

On the subject of snacks: anyone struggling with an eating disorder might want to give Beware The Wild a miss for now, since Sterling has many a Bad Food Thought. Her decisions and motives are clearly influenced by starvation in several instances.  Other characters definitely act as the voice of reason against Sterling’s worrying behavior, but, as in Brandy Colbert’s Pointe (which I enjoyed but also deals with an ED) the main character’s inner narrative is very prevalent.  Therefore, whenever Sterling throws out a meal or lies about what she’s eaten, her rationalizations become part of the story.  All that sound advice from Candy, Phin, Heath, and other healthy characters comes after a strong emotional aversion to feeding herself properly. For most readers, this will just be an interesting point of character development.  And, rest assured, Sterling does change her attitude towards food as the book goes on.  Unfortunately, for those of us who have also looked for reasons not to eat – especially those of us who thought not eating could make us stronger, somehow – the element of starvation here could easily be a trigger.  So proceed with caution, please!

I recommend Beware The Wild to fans of American ghost stories and superstition junkies.  People who like intriguingly claustrophobic settings for their paranormal drama.  Teenagers with complicated feelings about their families, and anyone who daydreams about how they’ll be remembered when they’re gone.  (I, for one, have spent many an hour wondering how best to achieve immortality through other peoples’ stories.  Even if it’s just, “Don’t do that or you’ll end up like Sarah.”  A cautionary legend, if you will.  The impact of forgetting in this book hit my dreamy side hard.)

Beware The Wild has an atmosphere and themes in common with Beautiful Creatures and (Don’t You) Forget About Me, even though I liked Beware The Wild much better than either of those.   The rich setting and bizarre twists were comparable, but Parker managed to make her characters and magic more accessible, even when we have to get to know them on the fly.  It wasn’t quite so stunning as Franny Billingsley’s Chime, but honestly I can’t imagine anything replacing Chime in my affections. This book has found a place on the high end of my bog-magic list, nonetheless.

The magic in this particular swamp is unique in its function, but hauntingly familiar in the way that it seeps into the sort of fears we try to ignore: that of forgetting, but also of loving too hard, and giving up hope.  A good swamp story is fertile ground for those worries, playing them back to us on a seemingly natural stage, where something unnatural lurks under every root and rock.  Natalie C. Parker’s threatening but lovely swamp has drudged up a ghost story, and a couple of love stories, which will be a welcome addition to the Southern Gothic YA genre.

Book Review: The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

I read The Winter People a week ago, but was holding off on a review until I could let the story settle in my mind.  In the meantime, I actually got to meet Jennifer McMahon at a cocktail party in Boston. This means I had a chance to berate her with questions about the book over crudités and macarons.  Questions like “why the heck was that doll so sinister?” and “When do you think you’ll allow your young daughter to read your super creepy books?”.  She was so much fun to speak with; warm, kind, funny, and not at all unnerving despite the general tone of her fiction.  To be quite honest, I think The Winter People would only be getting 3 stars from me, had I sat down to write this review right after I closed the book.  But, after meeting Jennifer, I have a new appreciation for some of the little details which vexed me.  So bonus points for being delightful.

The Winter People is sort of a literary thriller, if I’m using that term correctly.  I don’t generally read much suspense fiction, preferring ancient-folklore-is-real-and-scary style horror to the find-them-before-its-too-late genre.  The Winter People had a good mix of both, though, not to mention a healthy dose of oh-crap-don’t-go-out-in-the-woods.  The novel’s events stem from  the tragic story of Sarah Harrison Shea, after her daughter disappears in the woods one winter in 1908.  Excerpts from Sarah’s secret diaries and her husband’s own experiences show how a mistake from the past can utterly ruin someone’s chance for future happiness, especially when that mistake involves betraying a pissed-off medicine woman and failing to appropriately dispose of her mystical belongings.  Oops.  Sarah’s friends and neighbors start to worry that she’s sinking into madness after Gertie is found dead, but there is someone scratching at the closet door and something killing animals in the snow.  Could it be that Sarah’s Auntie really taught her how to summon life back into the bodies of the dead when she was a child?  And how much misfortune must befall a devastated lady before we can forgive her for trying her hand at necromancy?  It should not come as a shock to any fans of supernatural mysteries that the price for tampering with natural fate is almost always much worse than the original tragedy.

Sarah’s dairy entries are revealed through a modern lens in The Winter People by way of two other personal encounters with whatever dreadful forces are at work in the woods of West Hall, Vermont.  Nineteen-year-old Ruthie and her sister Fawn live in Sarah Harrison Shea’s old farm house, and their mother has just gone missing.  Nothing to worry about; it’s not like they’re totally isolated, living near a stone circle called “The Devil’s Hand,” without computers, but with Fawn’s imaginary friends to keep them company!  Oh wait – yes they are, and I got very nervous right away for the girls’ wellbeing because I was immediately invested in their characters in a way which I couldn’t quite care about Sarah Harrison Shea.  Ruthie and Fawn are realistic and likable.  The elder sister’s valiant attempts to remain level-headed in times of crisis only made their eerie situation all the more urgent and uncanny, especially since things quickly escalated from the vaguely mysterious circumstances of their mother’s disappearance to a desperate hunt for answers underground, at gunpoint.

The modern chapters of The Winter People are full of action and investigation, while Sarah’s diary entries focus on a slow build of supernatural suspense and emotional disturbances.  In nearly all of my reading experiences, I’m more receptive to the latter sort of story.  Give me ancient curses and haunting visions, and I’ll be in my reading chair for the rest of the afternoon.  But I think that McMahon actually did a much better job bringing the characters and the story to life in Ruthie’s chapters of the book.  Naturally, the big concern was over Fawn’s safety as things rapidly progressed beyond the sisters’ control, but I also rather liked Ruthie’s UFO-spotting redneck boyfriend and even her exacting, slightly paranoid mother.  Maybe I knew that the Harrison Shea family was doomed from the start and gave up hope on a happy ending for them, but I was holding my breath for Fawn and Ruthie.  Whenever the little girl mentioned a creepy little fact she supposedly heard from her doll, and every time they discovered a new claustrophobic secret passageway in the house, I wanted to jump into the pages and help them get out of there ASAP.  There’s one scene in which Ruthie and her boyfriend honestly pry some boards off of a closet door which has been obviously barricaded from the outside to keep something in.  Ack!

The biggest flaw I found with The Winter People would have to lie in the minor characters who are meant to push the plot forward.  I couldn’t bring myself to care one way or another about the grieving artist who moved to Vermont and finds her fate intertwined with Ruthie’s and Sarah’s, despite the fact that I understood her importance to the mystery.  This book is as much a study of grief as it is a scary story, and this woman had lost her husband after he got tangled up in the supernatural draw of West Hall.  Her attempts to rediscover his last moments brought some important catalysts to the plot – and provided opportunities for exposition – but I just found her character to be a little too convenient.  The same goes for the baffling woman who holds the answers to some of Ruthie’s questions, a rich and possibly delusional lady who is also struggling with having a child taken away from her.  (McMahon writes a lot about lost children – several of her other novels seem to follow a similar theme.)  Sarah’s niece, who could have been really interesting given her fascination with mediums and the spiritualism of the early 20th century, also fell a little short of my expectations.  Of the three supernaturally-inclined ladies in the novel’s historical chapters, Auntie was the most intriguing, but even she wasn’t developed enough to be entirely believable as such an important character.  The superstitions behind the “sleepers” wasn’t explained in enough detail for my liking, but I tend to get overly enthusiastic about folklore and magical lore, and I don’t think that the book suffered too much for the vagueness of those details.  Maybe if Auntie had a bit more time in the spotlight, some of my questions would have been cleared up.  But I doubt many other readers will be bothered by the occasional lack of clarity, there. It’s really too bad that the minor characters fell flat, because the major characters were complex people with emotional depths which made their desperate – sometimes ill-advised – decisions stressful and compelling.

The little sensory details – like a girl-shaped figure in a blurry photograph or the sound of something scuttling around a dark room – amped up the tension in the book even when the plot itself threatened to fall into somewhat conventional patterns.  I really liked the way Jennifer McMahon could focus on how one small thing out of place can change the atmosphere entirely, and she carried those details from the historical chapters all the way to the modern, exciting conclusion.  As I reached the novel’s end I started to get really stressed out that things might not get resolved before I ran out of pages, but the ending was fairly satisfying if not a little hard to believe.  But, honestly, this is a book about grieving women raising the dead and terrified teenagers trying to put them back down again.  Suspend your disbelief for a while, especially if you like smart thrillers and can handle some chilling descriptions. Curl up with The Winter People and a blanket next time a snowstorm keeps you cooped up inside.

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman (coming out May, 2014)

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

(It is hereby stated that I read the advanced reader’s copy of Bird Box and a few details might change before publication.)

When I wrote my preview of Bird Box after meeting Josh Malerman at the HarperCollins dinner a couple of weeks ago, I made a series of predictions about what it would be like. Let’s see if I was right, shall we?

No one will let slip any concrete details about the plot of Bird Box, but it seems to be one of those gripping, horrifying tales which ensnares your attention at the beginning and completely ruins you for any weekend plans.

Well, my weekend plans were decidedly not ruined. But boy, oh boy, was my attention ensnared. I started reading Bird Box at the train station before a long ride to NYC, and I can’t remember a single detail of the commute. All I recall is burrowing deeper and deeper into my pirate scarf as my nerves got overwhelmed by the tension in this book. It’s “unputdownable,” that’s for damn sure, and I was almost reluctant to close it – halfway finished in a couple of hours – to have adventures in the big city.

I got so sucked into the story I didn’t even notice my mother taking photos in the station.

The story follows a woman as she rows down a river with two young children, blindfolded. That image alone is enough to hold my attention hostage. If there’s a combination I love, its desperation and boats! Where are they going? Why aren’t they looking? So many questions, and I’m nervous about the answers.

Yes, the story does start with Malorie gathering her two children – four year olds who have never laid eyes on the world outside their boarded-up and bloodstained home – and blindly setting out in a rowboat with the hopes of getting the three of them to safety. I got my desperation, I got my boats. But the narrative actually alternates between the immediate events of Malorie’s dangerous journey and flashbacks showing a bit of what happened to turn the world into this nightmare. She starts out living a perfectly normal life, getting accidentally pregnant, arguing with her sister about the strange and scary events which are popping up all over the news. Grisly murders and suicides, seemingly without motive, are becoming an epidemic. When the mysterious deaths start to be reported in the USA, people start to panic. No one knows what makes people snap, what turns ordinary friends and neighbors into frenzied killers. All they know is it’s something they’ve seen. So people stop looking outside. They blindfold themselves, they board up their houses, they eventually stop going outside all together. The whole country – maybe the whole world – becomes like a ghost town. The monsters – and are they monsters? – roaming outside are like infinity, or the end of space: you can’t see it without going mad and self-destructing.

But Malorie is pregnant, so she finds her way to a house with a handful of other people in it; people determined to survive. They have a system of blindly getting water from the well each day. They have a cellar full of canned food. As she falls into a routine with her new friends, and gets closer to her due date, Malorie starts trusting some of her housemates more than others. Tensions run high, as they naturally would during a horrifying scenario like this. (I would like to mention how pleased I am that there isn’t much romantic nonsense to get in the way of all this terror. Huzzah for someone who can create compelling situations without trying to make everything about sex!) Some characters want to venture outside with blindfolds and broomsticks to find food and information, while others think that’s suicidal. And all this time they’re hearing things outside – brushing against things on the way to the well – in little moments which made my blood run cold. When another stranger joins the household, all the pent-up drama has to unfold one way or another.

The story-telling shifts between this frightening backstory and the very sensory experience of Malorie’s journey, paddling a boat with her blindfolded children trained to listen and report every sound that they hear. Because who knows what could be in the woods. Do animals go mad, too, when they see these creatures? And what’s the sound that’s been following them down the river? And this whole time the reader has to wonder what exactly happened in the house, years ago, to leave Malorie alone with the children and the bloody walls? The answers are the stuff of nightmares, but there’s still hope that she might survive to get somewhere safe. The whole story is about safety, really. It made me realize how much I take my own comfort and security for granted.

While I’m not always keen on post-apocalyptic settings, I am very keen on atmospheric adventure novels and surreal horror stories.

I would actually say that Bird Box was not so post-apocalyptic as I imagined it would be. The world outside is in shambles, sure, and a great many people have died. But it’s not in the too-distant future. There was no huge destructive event and people aren’t roving the waste-land with machetes and rigged-up jeeps. Nor is there any big government conspiracy to wrap our heads around. This is a proper horror story with the creeping, eerie, something-is-terribly-wrong-oh-god-don’t-open-your-eyes sort of danger. I like this book way more than some of the large-scale zombie novels and dystopian futures set in a world of rubble.

We don’t know exactly what’s out there. Josh Malerman has turned withholding information into an art form, yet his descriptions of sounds and feelings alone create more tension than some people would be able to bear. Is that a breeze or a breath on her neck? Is there a creature in the well? Is this bucket slightly heavier than it was a few seconds ago? Does that sound like another boat, to you? Why did the birds stop chirping, in their box out the window which serves as an alarm? Sounds are scary, silence is scary, and sometimes people are scariest of all. The atmosphere of Bird Box was foreboding and relentless. It’s easy to imagine the nightmare Malorie is living, even though we never get to really see it. And, as I’m Atmosphere Girl with a capital “A,” I declare this book well done indeed.

So, did this book keep me awake at night? It honestly didn’t get the chance, because I finished it on the train ride home. But the ideas and shaken nerves I got while reading it stayed with me for days. I had to choose a funny book next to calm me down, because my neighbors’ dogs were barking unusually late at night while I was chopping kindling and I nearly bolted inside with the axe still in my hand. If you’re the twitchy, fearful sort, Bird Box will mess with your head. If you like being relentlessly terrified for several hours, go buy this book when it comes out in the Spring. Bird Box will be a great book for anyone who wants to really think about what it is that’s scaring them, and for people who might be a little tired of the horror genre’s usual conventions. Josh Malerman has written a chilling, unique, and utterly captivating first novel, here, and I’m very glad to have had the chance to read it. I’m not sure the lady next to me on the train enjoyed my company (there was a lot of gasping and nail-biting and scrunching up in my seat), but there was no way I’d be going to bed without knowing what happens to Malorie, her children, and the messed-up world around them.

Four New Books from HarperCollins: The Bookshelf Pirate Has Dinner With Authors

People keep making the mistake of letting me out into public. A pirate on cold medicine in a restaurant full of book people: this situation had the potential to end in broken glass, spoiled endings, and elaborate apologies. But, for reasons which continue to befuddle yet flatter me, my coworkers and other literary grown-ups keep treating me like a real person. I got the wonderful opportunity to have dinner at Erbaluce – in Boston – with some fellow booksellers from the area, the lovely reps from HarperCollins, and four absolutely smashing debut authors. The food was amazing, the books sound fantastic, and as far as I can tell no one was physically injured in the course of the evening! At least, no one was run through with a cutlass or butter knife, and therefore I can call the night a success.

In a strange and delicious combination of musical chairs and literary speed dating, a knife was clanged against a wine glass in between each course to haul the poor authors out of their chairs and to a different end of the big table. This ensured that we got to speak to each of them for a part of the evening, and kept the waiters on their toes. (I should note that the staff at Erbaluce was so patient with us. They’re obviously enthusiastic about the food and the atmosphere where they work, and it was such a pleasant experience.) There was a really interesting mix of people; each of them had such a different writing experience to share and wacky areas of expertise gleaned from research and work and life. The books aren’t necessarily similar to one another in genre or purpose, but all four seem really interesting and I can’t wait to get started on the stack once I finish reading The Accursed.  Here are the books HarperCollins was promoting.

The book which intrigued me most, with its mysterious summary and a sinister atmosphere that practically leaked out of the pages, is called Bird Box by Josh Malerman. I’m certainly going to read this one first. I’m a grim little person and the very little I know about Bird Box makes it sound like just my cup of menacing and brackish tea.

No one will let slip any concrete details about the plot of Bird Box, but it seems to be one of those gripping, horrifying tales which ensnares your attention at the beginning and completely ruins you for any weekend plans. That’s what I hear from everyone who’s read it, anyway… Hugh Howey, author of Wool, says this about Bird Box: “A book that demands to be read in a single sitting, and through the cracks between one’s fingers” One thing I can say for sure is that no one seems to have read only a few chapters of this book. It’s of the dreaded “unputdownable” variety, the sort of tense and mind-blowing read – supposedly – which gets into your brain and shakes you awake at night.

The story follows a woman as she rows down a river with two young children, blindfolded. That image alone is enough to hold my attention hostage. If there’s a combination I love, its desperation and boats! Where are they going? Why aren’t they looking? So many questions, and I’m nervous about the answers. While I’m not always keen on post-apocalyptic settings, I am very keen on atmospheric adventure novels and surreal horror stories. Bird Box brings characters out of a boarded up house into an outdoors so dangerous you can’t look around you without going fatally mad. Damn it, I’m already desperate to find out more, and I haven’t even started the book yet!

An author willing to eat his own book. Photo from Josh’s twitter. (Note the fine photography skills of his portside dining companion.)

Josh Malerman was great fun to sit next to for the first portion of our dinner. He listens to horror movie soundtracks, is part of a band (I really hope we get to hear a sinister soundtrack to go along with Bird Box someday), and knew an awful lot about all things freaky and weird. I’ve got to say that it put me at ease to sit next to someone who would talk about about H. P. Lovecraft at my first-ever professional dinner. (At the last dinner party I attended, my dining companions were confused about my “halloween scarf” and no one had any opinions about haunted houses. This evening was way more fun.) Nice to let the inner demons out in public now and then. Josh and his fiancee were so interesting and full of creative energy; I envy their talent, and wish I could harness some of that artistic vigor. It sounds like the book has already been snatched up by the film world, too, and I’m intrigued to see what they do with a story which relies so much upon what is not seen and what is unknown. I can’t wait to read Bird Box and get stuck in a nightmarish world full of scenes to fuel my own sleep-screaming fests.

Smith Henderson, who used his years as a social worker to inspire Fourth Of July Creek, sat by me next when the wine glass was clanged and the appetizers cleared away. (My starter was a very good fishy broth with chunks of lobster and veggies.) If I recall correctly, it took him something like ten years to write this novel, but I get the feeling it will have been worth all the time and effort. Fourth Of July Creek will probably be the sort of book one person in Concord reads and then starts talking about to all their friends. We do love our stories of isolated weirdos and messed up families. So much fodder for book clubs and heated conversation!

Henderson’s book sounds like it will be a distinctly American and utterly fascinating read. Here’s the summary from HarperCollins:

After trying to help Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral eleven-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, social worker Pete Snow comes face to face with the boy’s profoundly disturbed father, Jeremiah. With courage and caution, Pete slowly earns a measure of trust from this paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times.

But as Pete’s own family spins out of control, Pearl’s activities spark the full-blown interest of the F.B.I., putting Pete at the center of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed.

You may recall from my University years that I am really interested in wild children living in wacky environments. I spent six months dwelling on (and writing about/weeping over) literature portraying kids in volatile environments where adults are either nonexistent or irresponsible. So the premise of Fourth of July Creek really appeals to me. I’ve also been thinking about the wilderness, survival, and the strange world of inland America a lot lately. I have never been to the Midwest; the bookshelf pirate clings to various coastlines, and Montana seems as alien to me as Antarctica or Saturn. But it’s important that we broaden our horizons, and since there’s a really compelling story to sweep my imagination across the country, I think I’ll really enjoy this novel’s setting.

Smith has lived in conservative Montana but also Portland, I believe, and therefore he has a really good grasp on the area’s unique brand of weirdness both as a first-hand observer and a rational outsider. I trust him to portray the situations in his novel with integrity and vivid detail, because when we spoke I was entertained by the details and stories he shared with us about each of the very different places where he’s lived. He might not be good at guessing peoples’ weird fetishes after a few big glasses of wine, but he has an eye for human nature and a talent for turning little oddities into really amusing anecdotes. (Do I look like the cloven-hoof sort? Now I’m re-thinking the scull scarf decision…) I hope that his experience in social work will ensure that this novel’s characters are believable and complex as well as dramatic. I can see myself recommending Fourth of July Creek to people looking for a riveting airplane read or something diverting to bring on a camping trip. It comes out in June, but I want to read my advanced copy before the summer starts as a reminder that the USA can be a stage for all sorts of big bad drama and strange beliefs.

The Bees, by Laline Paull, might give Bird Box a run for its money as the most unusual premise from the evening. I know that there are tons of books with “bees” and “beekeepers” in the title on bookshop shelves these days. There are mysteries, family drama, and plenty of historical fiction. But The Bees is genuinely about bees, and I think that’s awesome. The story follows Flora 717, one lowly bee who climbs the ranks from sanitation worker, as she challenges the natural order of the rigid hive system. Themes of maternity, loyalty, and natural instinct will come up as Flora 717 uncovers the mysteries behind her hive and brings danger upon herself with each question.

While The Bees is Laline’s first novel, she has written several plays which have been performed in the United Kingdom. One of them, Boat Memory, is about the “native hostages” brought back to England on the Beagle, during a voyage with Charles Darwin. I really want to see this play. The intensity of investigation which has to go into writing about such cool bits of history must be similar to that which goes along with a sudden interest in Entomology. She told me about all the research which went into writing The Bees; how she wasn’t always interested in them but got drawn into the fascinating world after the death of a friend, and realized how much there was to learn about nature and ourselves in the study of these creatures. My family actually keeps bees and makes honey, so I bet I’ll be seeing our own white-boxed hives differently this summer in the aftermath of this novel.

They’re advertising The Bees as a sort of Handmaid’s Tale set in the natural world, but I bet it’ll be more unique than that. Laline Paull has written a book exploring a brutal social order, but to do so without including any major human characters is ambitious. Even in The Handmaid’s Tale, we can imagine ourselves into the situations without too much difficulty. It will take careful writing and very precise descriptions to bring most causal readers into a beehive and keep them invested in the characters, when most of us only think of the honey bees who make our tea so tasty when we’re walking through clover patches in bare feet. George Orwell managed to seize us by the hearts and minds in Animal Farm, but even that had a setting which would be familiar enough to most of us. We can cast ourselves in a horrible future, and we can understand the predicaments faced by unhappy allegorical farm animals. I am so excited to see how Laline Paull will bring us into the complex world of beehives and natural politics – with plenty of creative license, I’m sure – and make us follow the adventures of an insect with emotional investment and suspense.

The final author I spoke to on Thursday evening was David McCullough Jr., the only author at the dinner from around these parts. He had given the graduation speech at Wellesley High School in 2012, and made quite an impression on the graduates, the community, and then the country at large. McCullough is the son of David McCullough the famous historian and author, and he teaches English at Wellesley High School. You can read the transcription of his inspiring and refreshing commencement here.

His irreverent words of wisdom made such an impact that he’s now written a whole book elaborating on the ideas he touched on. You Are Not Special…And Other Encouragements is full of the sort of truth-bombs I wish my fellow graduates and I had been hit with upon leaving our (honestly rather snobby and unrealistic) prep school. He’s a preppy guy but he’s got a realistic view of the world, striking the right balance between recognizing teenagers as individuals and reminding them that so many other people are going through the same stuff and want the same things out of life. I do think that we’d all be a lot less depressed about the post-high school and post-college years if we had stepped out of those hideous graduation gowns knowing that our futures didn’t need to be so competitive and self-centered. I barely remember the graduation speech from my own High School experience; I think it was some laughably unhelpful extended juice-metaphor, since the guy owned some big beverage company or something. But if McCullough’s students keep in mind his suggestion that you don’t need success to validate your own worth, but should work hard and keep learning simply because you love what you’re doing, I think they’ll be more prepared for adulthood than many.

Here’s a quote from the speech itself, and the sort of advice I really hope will be in the book:

Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them.

Now that there’s going to be a book elaborating on his tough-love (but still loving) rally to intelligence and passion, I predict that a great many classes of 2014 will be getting book-shaped graduation gifts explaining how they aren’t special, with other encouragements. The book comes out in April and I intend to press it upon all those doting grandparents and starry-eyed relatives who believe that their special little someone is destined to step out of that crowded gymnasium and into all sorts of gratifying superstardom. If they read the book before they give it to the hapless new adult, I hope they’ll find some fresh perspective within the pages. The adults in these situations are so often the worst offenders at cultivating a desire for adoring recognition at every step of life, and it seems like David McCullough Jr, who has teenagers himself, has found a way to articulate this in a way which might actually shake things up without tearing things down. It was great to hear him swapping stories about favorite vacation spots with other locals at the table and telling us about his own (rather literary) youthful years. If You’re Not Special… and Other Encouragements is as earnest and clearheaded as he is in conversation, then there might be hope for the future go-getters and must-havers of the world.

I left Erbaluce nearly four hours after dinner began with my stomach full of chocolate hazelnut truffles and my mind swimming with anticipation. I have to know what is lurking just out of sight in Bird Box! I want to find out what the characters in Fourth Of July Creek seem to think the End Times entails, and how a rational hero might possibly deal with all that nonsense. I’ve got to see if The Bees convinces me to rise against social expectations I didn’t even know existed, and if nature turns out to be utterly cruel to poor Flora 717. And I’m curious to see if learning how very un-special I am proves to be encouraging after all, as I suspect it will.

Bird Box might actually bump The Brothers Karamazov off my To Be Read Next pecking order. I’m so impatient to get sucked into a story which twists my dreams and makes me nervous – it’s been far too long since I spent a disturbed evening jumping at noises with a book and my own messed-up subconscious. Far too long.

Difficult decisions, but I think the scary book wins.

Difficult decisions, but I think the scary book wins.

I’m very grateful to HarperCollins for treating us to dinner and for introducing us to such creative and hard-working writers. I’ve been inspired to read faster, to get to these books sooner. I’m also feeling the writerly energies building up in myself again after a week of not writing much at all, due to this damned cold, which took all the salt and gunpowder out of my piratical thoughts and replaced them with congestion and a desire for naps. All four of these writers were so encouraging and helpful when I told them that I was currently slogging through a novel myself.

Now that I can picture faces and hear voices behind the names on the spines of these books, I know I’ll be really excited to see the first printing on our shelves in a few months. The bookshelf pirate will be keeping a weather eye out for those readers who need to read them, even if they don’t know it yet, themselves. By then, I hope to have read all four galleys and formed opinions of my own. If we’re lucky, those opinions will be of the “Avast! Read this now!” variety.

Book Review: Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase is supposedly for middle grade readers and young adults, and I know my most morbid friends and I would have absolutely adored it at that age, when we spent our afternoons trying to get possessed by spirits in the church basement during Girl Scout meetings. However, it’s such a sophisticated and downright scary book that I think older teenagers and even adults who read it would not feel like they were reading a children’s book below their league. (I am, of course, a hundred percent in favor of older people reading all manner of kid’s books without a hint of shame.)   The Screaming Staircase is a supernatural thriller which is scary, funny, and intriguing to the very last page.

Jonathan Stroud introduces us to a modern London full of ghosts. In fact, the whole world is experiencing “the problem” of a dramatic rise in hauntings, for reasons yet undisclosed – and into that London he’s introduced our young teenaged narrator, Lucy, and the the indomitable Lockwood & Co. Part of “the problem” seems to be that adults are not sufficiently attuned to ghostly disturbances and therefore aren’t too effectual in ghost hunting. But kids are more susceptible to paranormal behaviors. Just like with suspected hauntings in the real world, there might be some presence in a haunted house but only someone with psychic sensitivity can make any sense of it. In The Screaming Staircase, sensitive kids are apprenticed to ghost hunters as the eyes and ears of operations or they work as night guards in important parts of the city after curfew has been put in place after sunset. Lucy starts out as one such apprentice, but quickly learns that adults are cowards and often unprepared, even when they’re supposed to be in charge. Reeling from a ghost-busting gone horribly wrong, she joins up with Anthony Lockwood’s agency, where the entire operation is run by young teenagers out of a London townhouse full of weird artifacts, sword play in the basement, and a mess of tea and biscuits.

Lockwood himself is dashing, clever, and positively brimming with enthusiasm to get rid of ghostly “Visitors” and make a name for his unorthodox little company. George, his chubby and sarcastic young coworker who researches things from a safe distance, cooks and conducts experiments on a haunted skull even when he’s taking a bath. George doesn’t inspire Lucy’s confidence quite so much at first, but Lockwood & Co give her a home and a way to channel her ability to hear Visitors into a sense of purpose. Together, the three of them take on a haunted house case which should just be a routine exorcism. Things go awry, as they so often do. They are unprepared, they find a mysterious dead socialite by accident, and they end up burning their client’s home to the ground. And that’s when The Screaming Staircase really gets going. Lockwood must agree to investigate the incredibly haunted estate of one of the richest men in the country – a fellow in the iron business does a good bit of business when supernatural disturbances become part of the daily forecast – and the three young ghost hunters get in way over their heads at Combe Carey Hall once they start digging deeper into the mysteries of its past. Blood pours down from the ceiling. Children from other agencies have disappeared mysteriously or been found dead the next morning. And yes, there is a staircase which wails and screams with violent medieval memories. Lucy, George, and Lockwood will have to rely on little more than their wits, their rapiers, and each other when they come face to face with the afterlife and realize that things are quite confusing enough on this side of the mortal veil.

When I say that I would have loved this book as a young teen, I want to make it clear that I was a creepy, weird little lass. The Screaming Staircase is scary. Ghosts in Stroud’s world range from spooky phantoms seen near gallows-trees to full-fledged nightmares attacking kids in their bedrooms. There’s horror in this adventure, but what a fun adventure it is! Ghost stories for children sometimes run the risk of being too old-fashioned (like Constable & Toop, which I enjoyed but which might not grab the attention of Middle Grade readers accustomed to high stakes and snappy dialogue) or too high-tech and superficial. Lockwood & Co seems to be a series which will fall comfortably in the middle of these two generalizations to give us riveting action and relatable characters while still retaining some of that old-time-y ghost story atmosphere. I love the fact that agents use rapiers to parry with spirits and the inclusion of folkloric beliefs like the protective qualities of iron and various spiritual artifacts. The hauntings themselves are appropriately motivated by untimely deaths and unfinished business, so fans of ghost stories for both kids and adults will recognize some of the patterns which move the novel’s plot along. I like traditional ghost origins, though, and was perfectly content to wonder vaguely at “the Problem” without wishing it had been entirely spelled out for me. Maybe in future books Stroud will give us the logistics of his haunted setting, but the story doesn’t suffer for his skirting the issue.

While the ghosts and haunted houses might seem straight out of a Gothic novel, the characters are decidedly modern. I challenge any reader to put this book down not wanting to hang out with Lockwood. He’s just so cool. George, too, is so much fun to read about. Lucy immediately dislikes his mocking manners, but I usually find that the sarcastic side-kick turns out to be my favorite character in any book. He acts as a great voice of unfortunate reason, but also turns out to be brave and loyal. Huzzah for a sidekick with depth! Lucy is surly, but eager to do a good job, and I found that I could easily relate to her character. There’s plenty of background to her past as a strongly attuned psychic, and despite life’s hardships she just wants to put her talents to good use. Of course, this being a children’s book, there’s a hint that there might be something more to Lucy’s powers. That’s not my favorite literary tradition of all time; kids do not always need to find out they’re destined by to save the world, sometimes they should be just a normal sword-fighting psychic trying to save London from supernatural foes… But, once again, the threat of “specialness” didn’t ruin the book for me.

A few points did make me raise an eyebrow and wonder about certain choices. The Americanization of Stroud’s British terminology was inevitable, I suppose, but for a book which talks about changes in temperature all the bloody time it was distracting to stop and wonder why these kids were speaking in degrees Fahrenheit during otherwise bone-chilling scenes. The major villain of the story isn’t revealed as a scoundrel until late in the book, so some other unpleasant characters are sprinkled throughout to act as antagonists to our intrepid heroes. Unfortunately, the rivalry between Lockwood & Co and another group of agents seemed shallow and petty to me. It’s always great fun to watch an arrogant twit make an idiot of himself so that protagonists can have revenge upon him later, but the bully and his cohorts were too one-dimensional to add much to the story besides a glance at why big agencies with adult supervision aren’t nearly as awesome. There’s also the gore-factor. I love scary stuff, but visceral grossness really bothered me as a youngster (and it still does). There are a few little descriptions here – not lengthy ones, but vivid – which would have certainly fueled some scream-worthy nightmares a decade ago. I hope that anyone who picks up The Screaming Staircase reads the cover blurb and flips through it before dedicating a night to getting lost in the story. It’s such an engrossing read you won’t want to quit halfway through, even though you might regret it later when you start hearing a steady drip-drip-drip in your dreams.

I heartily recommend Lockwood & Co to anyone who liked the charismatic characters in Artemis Fowl, as well as the mix of modern and old fashioned adventure. Spooky kids who liked The Graveyard Book but want a little more action will love it, as will anyone who wished that superstitions and sword fights were still part of every day life. Any grown-up anglophiles who want a straightforward ghostly adventure will also enjoy The Screaming Staircase. I hope Stroud will continue to write about the exploits of Lockwood & Co, even though this book ended very nicely without too many loose ends. There’s a lot to explore in his version of London, and I want to explore it with Lucy and her friends.

My review of the second book in the series – Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull can be read here.

All Hallow’s Read Suggestions: YA and Children’s Books

I’ve got excuses for the scarcity of reviews this month, and they’re waiting at the end of this list.  But first, here are some random books amongst the dozens which I’ve been recommending to young readers as Halloween approaches.  I encourage all of you to participate in Neil Gaiman’s invented holiday known as All Hallow’s Read, which we celebrate by making presents of books which scared us; or creeped us out; or made us tiptoe up the stairs a little faster with a chill on the backs of our necks.  Give those books to friends of yours who should share your fear.

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Some of the books I’ve chosen truly terrified me, while others had a great spooky atmosphere without actually causing nightmares.  There’s a Hallowe’en book out there for anyone who enjoys the holiday, no matter how brave they feel in the darkness.

1. The Graveyard Book and Coraline by Neil Gaiman.

The editions with illustrations by Dave McKean are the best.  Wonderfully spooky stories for middle grade readers and above.  Coraline has been a classic for ages.  It has a black cat, a mysterious old house, a scary parallel world, monstrous grown ups, a mouse circus, and the terrifying threat of having buttons sewn on as eyes.  The Graveyard Book is Gaiman’s retelling of Kipling’s The Jungle Book but it’s set in a graveyard with ghosts and vampires raising the young hero as opposed to animals.  It’s one of my favorite books to recommend to children who can handle a bit of gloom; there’s a reason it won the Newbury Award, people!  I will say that the opening scene of The Graveyard Book is really grisly and disturbing, but if you can get past the first chilling chapter you’re in for one of the most atmospheric and well-told ghost stories published in the past decade.

2. Constable and Toop by Gareth P Jones

An old-fashioned style of ghost adventure book which came out earlier this month, Constable and Toop reminded me of the books by Eva Ibbotsen I used to really like as a child.  It’s spooky and charming, starring likable heroes who have to combat darkness with tenacity and luck.  Sam Toop’s dad is an undertaker with a mysterious past, and young Sam hangs around a lot of dead folk.  It’s not just corpses who demand his attention, though; Sam can see ghosts and they’re desperate for his help because something’s going terribly wrong with the haunted houses in London.  Constable and Toop is a dark Victorian adventure through London with enough violence to be scary without turning into an absolute gore-fest.

If you liked Constable and Toop, go find old copies of  Eva Ibbotson’s Dial-A-Ghost and Which Witch?  I like them even better.

3. Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough

I’ve already written a review of Long Lankin, which you can read here.  It’s properly terrifying, exactly the sort of horror story which haunts my nightmares and makes my blood run cold.  Even though the main characters are young children, this is definitely a book for teenagers – the plot is inspired by a disturbing English folksong about horrific murders, and there plot is dark and twisted.  The atmosphere of a decaying English estate in the 1950s with something evil lurking just out of sight is so chilling and vivid.  Even though Long Lankin doesn’t actually take place near Halloween it’s the perfect book for someone who wants to stay up all night quaking with nerves, but who isn’t necessarily keen on big splashy gore and nonstop action.  This is the eeriest book I’ve read in ages, and if you’re looking to give an All Hallow’s Read gift to someone who really wants (or deserves) to be scared, this is a good choice.

4. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

This is another one I’ve already reviewed.  Really creepy found photos are combined with a dark and mysterious plot to make a unique sort of YA horror novel.  I think the first half of the book is a little more Halloween-y than the second, and in my review I explain why I was disappointed with the story’s direction, but it’s got really uncanny photographs of ghostly children and some great scary scenes.  I would give this one to teenagers who like to find weird objects in thrift shops and make up scary stories about them trying to gross each other out.

5.  The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff.

Not only does The Replacement have a great Halloween party scene with some dead girls dressed up as themselves to hide amongst the living, it’s also a great example of how a small-scale YA horror novel can be just as gripping as one in which the whole world is at stake, as long as it’s written by the right author.  I loved Brenna Yovanoff’s take on the changeling myth – I mean, can we talk about how the cover alone shouts “hey, Sarah, read me right now!”?  Her story about a changeling boy trying to protect his town from the monstrous faery-creatures who influence the area is scary, entertaining, and somehow very moving, too.

Since I’m the sort of person who spends Halloween midnights waiting for faeries at crossroads, I really enjoyed this book and thought that the teenage angst and moral dilemmas worked very well against such a sinister background.

6. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury is always a great bet, and I actually gave this book to a friend on the first All Hallow’s Read after Gaiman declared it a holiday.  Something Wicked This Way Comes is technically a YA/children’s book, but adult Bradbury fans usually love it, too.

I think this passage from the book sums up the tone of writing and easily explains why it’s a great Halloween read:

“For some, autumn comes early, stays late through life where October follows September and November touches October and then instead of December and Christ’s birth, there is no Bethlehem Star, no rejoicing, but September comes again and old October and so on down the years, with no winter, spring, or revivifying summer. For these beings, fall is the ever normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenxy forth. In gusts they beetle-scurry, creep, thread, filter, motion, make all moons sullen, and surely cloud all clear-run waters. The spider-web hears them, trembles-breaks. Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.”  (source of quote, because I can’t find my copy of the book.)

(If you liked this – I hear Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree is great but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.  Any opinions?)

7. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

This is another new book which came out in October, and one by a favorite YA author of mine.  You can read my full review here.

Vicious vampires + a believable heroine + snappy one-liners + the coolest explanation of vampirism in YA fiction right now (oh dear I hate temperature puns) = an excellent addition to the growing vampire mythology.  This book is grisly and violent.  If you really want to get into the spirit of things, read it right before you go to a Halloween party.  Just don’t freak out if, when you wake up from your drunken haze, all the other party goers have had their blood sucked dry.

8. The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

Read my original review of this book here.

Again, this YA horror novel is not necessarily Halloween themed, but it’s so densely atmospheric and dark that October’s the perfect time to read it.  Wooding’s book takes place in Victorian London, but unlike Constable and Toop, this one is relentlessly frightening and meant for teenagers rather than middle grade readers.  It contains great villains, complex musings about the nature of evil, the terrors of bedlam, and plenty of fog.  Give it to steampunk readers looking for a break from the gadgets, and old fashioned goths who aren’t afraid of monsters hovering above one’s bed at night.  (This book made me scream out loud in my sleep two nights in a row when I first read it as a freshman in high school.)

9. The Tailypo

I will never forget the first time I heard this story read allowed in my elementary school library class.  It’s about a hermit who cuts off a creature’s tail, and then the creature stalks him repeating “I’m coming to find my tailypo” until it finally eats the hunter and his dogs on a dark night.  The stuff of my earliest nightmares.

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Apologies and excuses:

This has been a very busy October for yer dedicated Captain o’ these pages, what with my escapades at The Boston Book Festival and various nerdy adventures on land  and by the sea.  My moments of freedom have been few and far between, and while I’ve read at least ten books since finishing Rooftoppers I haven’t yet managed to write a half-decent review.  There’s quite a tempest loomin’ on the horizon of my bookish future as well, as the holiday season is approaching, so the good ship Bookshop has been battening down the hatches for the busiest months of the year.  My reviewing energy may dampen a little in the near future, but never fear.  Neither hell nor high water, nor indeed a plague of paper cuts from wrapping paper, can keep me away from saying stuff about books for long.