book review: This House is Haunted by John Boyne

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THIS HOUSE IS HAUNTED by John Boyne
★★★★☆
Other Press, 2013

 

This House is Haunted is essentially a love letter to Victorian and Gothic literature – it’s like if you put The Turn of the ScrewJane Eyre, and the complete works of Charles Dickens into a blender, with an occasionally tongue in cheek contemporary spin. It’s also a reminder of why John Boyne is one of my favorite authors; there’s such a compulsively readable quality to his prose, where it’s witty and compelling and tense all at once.

I feel like a very common pitfall of the ghost story horror genre is phenomenal buildup to a sort of anticlimactic conclusion, and I’m sorry to say that this isn’t really an exception. This is filled to the brim with delightful ghost story tropes that fans of this genre will adore (a spooky Gothic mansion, creepy children, a standoffish caretaker, a harrowing family history), and I loved the experience of reading this novel, but as we got closer to the end, I became more confident that I was going to be disappointed, and sure enough, the climactic scene and denouement left me pretty cold. There’s also an entire element of the resolution that didn’t totally work for me (the presence and identity of the second spirit I thought took away a lot of the tension).

But, all that said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this book. I loved the way Boyne played into certain familiar tropes while subverting others. I loved our heroine Eliza, who’s both vulnerable and strong-willed. And, to give credit where it’s due, creating a compelling ghost story as a contemporary author is hard. How on earth do you write a conclusion that’s fresh, devoid of cliches, and appropriately scary for your modern reader? I still haven’t found a ghost story that totally works for me in this regard, so I’ll have to keep looking. But for its wonderful buildup, vivid characters, and clever prose, I’m rounding up my 3.5 stars.

book review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

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THE BROKEN GIRLS by Simone St. James
★★★★☆
Berkley, March 20, 2018

 

The Broken Girls is a delightfully chilling mystery-meets-ghost-story, set in Vermont (my homeland!) in two parallel timelines – one in 1950, and one in 2014. The past timeline tells the story of four girls who are roommates at a desolate boarding school called Idlewild, where unwanted and illegitimate girls are sent by their families and then neglected. There are also rumors of a ghost called Mary Hand who haunts the school grounds, and one day, one of the four friends vanishes. In the present, journalist Fiona Sheridan attempts to come to terms with her sister’s murder, which occurred 20 years ago near the ruins of Idlewild.

Interestingly, there aren’t a whole lost of twists and turns in this book. In lieu of shock and awe, Simone St. James lends her efforts to weaving together several seemingly unrelated plot threads, and she does so expertly. This is a book for readers who like satisfying conclusions and neat resolutions – I didn’t have a big ‘wow’ moment, which I tend to enjoy while reading this genre, but the storytelling was superb, and I had fun reading this book from start to finish.

Naturally I love when books are set in Vermont, and St. James delivered with the atmosphere. Though the town of Barrons and Idlewild Hall may be fictional, the dark, bleak tone of a rural Vermont winter was captured perfectly. It’s the ideal setting for a ghost story in many ways, and St. James took advantage of that to create a ghost who’s as intriguing as she is haunting. The research St. James put into this novel is also admirable, particularly regarding the Ravensbrück concentration camp, a chilling piece of history which features into one character’s backstory.

The characters themselves are very well developed, though my main complaint about this book was the heavy focus on Fiona’s relationship with her police officer boyfriend, which lent itself to a somewhat cliched ‘his parents disapprove because cops and journalists can’t mingle’ sort of narrative. But the girls in the 1950 timeline though were vivid and compelling enough to make up for this for me, and I didn’t mind Fiona herself.

Anyway, since I started this on Saturday morning and finished it on Sunday afternoon, The Broken Girls is the perfect book to get lost in for a weekend if you’re looking for something quick, eerie, and compelling.

I chose this book as my February Book of the Month selection.  If you’re interested in checking out this great subscription service, feel free to use my referral link!  The Broken Girls will be published on March 20, 2018.