Characters: **** (4 stars)
Character Development: **** (4 stars)
Plot: ***** (5 stars)
Writing : ***** (5 stars)
Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)
Age range recommendation: 13 +
Characters: **** (4 stars)
Character Development: **** (4 stars)
Plot: ***** (5 stars)
Writing : ***** (5 stars)
Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)
Age range recommendation: 13 +
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on November 5, 2011
Characters:**** (4 stars)
Character Development:*** (3 stars)
Plot:***** (5 stars)
Writing:*** (3 stars)
Age Range Recommendation: Ages 14 and up. (Frightening ideas and some graphic violence.)
Hello my poor neglected readers. I had fully intended to review The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray in time for Hallowe’en, as it is one of my favorite scary books of all time, but alas I was figuratively drowning in school work, literally drowning in tea, and quite unable to form coherent sentences until now. However, November is an appropriately creepy month – especially here in Scotland where it gets dark by four in the afternoon – and the novel does indeed take place in November, so I’ll review it now.
The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray has a slightly deceptive title; it suggests a ghost story about a young woman with a strange name. In fact, the book is less about a single haunting and more of a full-on supernatural onslaught in an alternative-history Victorian London.
The main character is a seventeen year old “wych-hunter” named Thaniel Fox, and he is one of those teenage protagonists blessed with an ability to perform any task a thousand times better than his adult counterparts. Thaniel and his mentor in wych-hunting Cathaline (in anticipation of your questions: No, not a single character in this novel has a normal name) stalk and destroy immensely terrifying creatures called wych-kin who roam the streets of London. London itself is different than it was historically in Victorian times: in an act of steampunk warfare the Prussians have bombed it from their airships roughly thirty years before our story takes place, and in certain parts of the city the wych-kin roam about unchecked. When stalking a cradlejack – a monster who steals and eats babies, infecting anyone it bites – Thaniel comes across a traumatized girl his own age with amnesia. This is Alaizabel Cray, and she is possessed by a cranky, super evil old wych. The story centers around Thaniel, Alaizabel, and Cathaline as they learn about Alaizabel’s past and realise that much darker forces are at work than the monstrous wych kin who are growing in numbers too ghastly to think about.
Some readers may be confused by the extremely varied ratings I’ve given each aspect of this novel. The writing and character development of this book aren’t too excellent, you can tell that the author was still in his early twenties when he wrote it and his style hasn’t been perfected yet. He overuses certain words, like “clotted” and “lacquered,” to remind the reader how very dark and scary his version of London can be. As for the characters, each person is unique and fascinating but sometimes they are a little too perfect. With the single notable exception of Artemis Fowl (by Eoin Colfer), no teenager could believably be so proficient in this many fighting techniques, magical applications, and generally bad-ass skills as Thaniel. He’s a likable character, levelheaded and cool, but when I first read this book I was fifteen years old and even then he seemed a little unrealistic. The same goes for Alaizabel Cray; she is sweet, clever, brave, and sympathetic every time she speaks or acts, and it doesn’t quite add up. Were I possessed by an evil spirit, I’d be grumpy and tired. The minor characters are more believable, they each have their own strengths and foibles which round out the cast quite nicely.
Despite Wooding’s occasionally questionable writing, the plot in The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray is one of the best I’ve read in YA fiction. He doesn’t just center around the relationship between Alaizabel and Thaniel, he writes a twisting, high-stakes tale which encompasses all of Victorian London from the police, to madhouses, to aristocratic cults, to beggar kingdoms, to serial killers. The wych-kin themselves are each described in spectacular detail; there are new creatures the reader learns about in nearly every chapter and each is grosser and more sinister than the last. Scrawny cradle-robbers with needle sharp teeth; the drowned splashing noises of the Draugs’ footsteps as they stalk their victims, the air growing cold and salty as they approach; the terrifying spectre which fills Alaizabel’s entire bedroom as it looms in darkness over her bed: this is the stuff of nightmares. Once you have read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, you will never look behind yourself more than twice when walking at night, no matter what you might hear in your wake, for fear of getting devoured by Rawhead – the invisible stalker who only strikes on the third glance.
Chris Wooding has invented horrors I couldn’t even dream up myself, and I am notorious for screaming in my sleep from night-terrors. The wych-kin are truly traumatizing, but the villainous humans aren’t much nicer. The mysterious Fraternity – that dark cult which causes Alaizabel to become possessed as they carry out a nefarious scheme for power – is made up of corrupt policemen, cruel wych-hunters, and one truly nasty doctor who controls the city’s insane asylum. Their rituals are creepy and completely immoral, and although Wooding’s writing style sometimes detracts from the story he is extremely talented at inventing and describing magic in an original but comprehensible manner. The system of wards and summoning in the novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read and I was impressed by his inventiveness.
With the Fraternity and wych-kin for antagonists, those characters who remain in the moral middle-ground are evil enough themselves. Devil-boy Jack, a psychic little boy with his eyes sewn shut, has absolutely no qualms about letting his friends die for the sake of a plan. And he’s one of the kinder anti-heroes. Stitchface is one of Wooding’s greater creations. He’s a serial killer who drives a hansom cab at night, wearing a woman’s wig over his mask: a gaping face sewn together from the skin of prostitutes he murders. Yup, Stitchface is one of the good guys; the villains and monsters are way more horrifying than your regular psycho killer. Hence, my age recommendation of fourteen and above. “Not a bedtime book for those of a nervous disposition,” wrote The Times in its review of Alaizabel Cray, and I would have to agree. Read this book if you want to be terrified, and if you don’t mind feeling entirely on edge when walking home at night, because you’ll soon be counting the number of times you look over your shoulder and jumping at every noise.
So, why should you read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, even though the writing is a bit iffy? The setting is vivid, the plot is engaging, it features one of the best duels I’ve ever read, and the story is entirely unique. It being a Young Adult novel, one could probably finish it in an evening, and that would be a November night well spent. It’s an atmospheric novel, perfect for this time of year when the nights are long and the weather dreary. Go and read it quickly, before November is over!