book review: The Invited by Jennifer McMahon

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THE INVITED by Jennifer McMahon
★★★☆☆
Doubleday, 2019

 

Set in the Vermont countryside (in my backyard, essentially), The Invited follows a couple, Helen and Nate, who have just bought property and are building a house from scratch – the only problem being that the land is supposedly haunted. This is the second book I’ve read by Jennifer McMahon (the other being The Night Sister) and honestly I feel similarly about both: I have a soft spot for McMahon and her spooky Vermont ghost stories and I would recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone looking for a quick and entertaining read, but they’re not without their significant issues.

The biggest problem with The Invited is that it takes an agonizingly long time to get going. Once it hits its stride it’s juicy enough, but for the first hundred or so pages, you will be inundated with more construction talk than is strictly necessary, and a parallel storyline following 14-year-old Olive failed to come to life for me (mostly because I never really believed Olive’s voice and found her sections a little tonally inconsistent).

What I did thoroughly enjoy though was the central mystery surrounding Helen’s haunted land and the ghost of Hattie Breckenridge. I’d honestly hesitate to classify this as a thriller (there were really only two twists, both of which I found painstakingly obvious), but if you’re in the mood for a compelling enough, unexpectedly subversive ghost story, I’d say this is a pretty safe bet.


You can pick up a copy of The Invited here on Book Depository.

book review: Bunny by Mona Awad

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BUNNY by Mona Awad
★★★☆☆
Viking, 2019

 

I liked the idea of this book more than I ended up liking the execution.  A horror novel set on a college campus surrounding a toxic friend group sounds like a recipe for perfection, but I found the result a little uneven.  I didn’t dislike reading it, but I also didn’t find it nearly as weird or groundbreaking or darkly funny as other readers have.

There was a sort of disorienting quality to this book that I didn’t particularly enjoy.  As you read you have the feeling that there’s something just outside your grasp that remains integral to the plot, and that feeling of being slightly unmoored was never compensated with a compelling enough hook to make me really care to figure out what it was that I was missing.  It’s one of those books that sort of sat in that nebulous grey area between being a chore to read and a pleasure.

The thing that I did absolutely adore about this book was the ending.  No spoilers, but suffice to say I found the resolution well worth waiting for.  And I feel I may have been overly harsh here, but expectations were high and I just didn’t enjoy the ride nearly as much as I hoped I would.


You can pick up a copy of Bunny here on Book Depository.

book review: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

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THROUGH THE WOODS by Emily Carroll
★★★★☆
Faber & Faber, 2014

 

A few months back, I asked on Twitter what everyone’s favorite short story collections were, and Through the Woods came up a lot.  I found the premise enticing (I love horror, and I hadn’t ever read a short story collection in graphic novel form), so I decided to give it go, which ended up being a good decision.

Ultimately: 3 stars for the stories and 5 stars for the artwork.  These short stories had moments of creepiness, but they were only ever moments; on the whole they were a bit on the perfunctory side and usually ended all too abruptly.  Some of the ambiguity worked; some just left me wanting, and not in the good way.  I did enjoy reading them in the moment, but I don’t think any are going to stay with me, and I wouldn’t have minded a bit more bone-chilling terror.

The artwork, on the other hand, was nothing short of breathtaking.  A Lady’s Hands Are Cold just about knocked my socks off on a strictly visual level – the color palette in this story in particular is incredibly striking.  I buy a lot of books that I haven’t read yet and I rarely keep the ones that I don’t love or don’t plan on rereading, but I think I’m going to hang onto this one just so I can flip through and look at the art on occasion.   But maybe I’ll reread it next year around Halloween; these stories are all very light on text and you can easily read this in under half an hour so why not.  A quick, enjoyable read for horror fans, even if it wasn’t revolutionary.


You can pick up a copy of Through the Woods here on Book Depository.

mini reviews #7: audiobooks with long titles & an ARC

You can see all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.

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A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN by James Joyce
audiobook narrated by Colin Farrell
★★★☆☆
date read: July 2019
Audible, 2019
originally published in 1916

In spite of my whole ‘Irish lit thing’ I have never once felt compelled to pick up Joyce. But then Colin Farrell went and narrated this audiobook, so that was that. And though he does a terrific job, this is, unfortunately, probably a book that I should have read in print – I’m just not an auditory person at all and there is a lot going on in this book. So I’m not going to lie and pretend that I got as much out of this as I arguably should have, and I’m sure I’ll want to revisit it one day. But I ended up surprising myself with how much I did enjoy it – Joyce’s language isn’t as impenetrable as I had feared, and more mesmerizing than I had expected, and Stephen Dedalus’s journey was occasionally, unexpectedly, thrilling. There’s a lot to unpack here about religion and family and nationality, and if I ever reread this I will vow to attempt to unpack it all then.

You can pick up a copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man here on Book Depository.

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BUT YOU DID NOT COME BACK by Marceline Loridan-Ivens
translated from the French by Sandra Smith
audiobook narrated by Karen Cass
★★★★☆
date read: August 2019
Faber & Faber, 2016

This is a slim, hard-hitting book that doesn’t dwell on the horrors that Loridan-Ivens experienced in Birkenau so much as examine their aftermath. Returning to a family who was spared from the concentration camps while losing the only other family member who was sent to Auschwitz with her, she writes this memoir as an extended letter to her father, whose death overshadows her own survival. Sparse and poignant, But You Did Not Come Back is certainly worth a read even if you feel oversaturated with WWII lit.

You can pick up a copy of But You Did Not Come Back here on Book Depository.

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THE NEED by Helen Phillips
★★☆☆☆
date read: September 2019
Simon & Schuster, 2019

Right book, wrong reader. I don’t have much else to say. I think The Need is a smart, unexpected book that blends genres and arrives at something unique that I can see working for plenty of readers who are willing to embrace a bit of weirdness. I just don’t like books about motherhood, and at the end of the day, that’s what this book is. The science fiction/speculative element is only there to enhance the main character’s anxieties about juggling motherhood with her career, and if that’s a theme that usually makes you reach for a book, by all means, give this one a try; I unfortunately was just bored senseless.

Thank you to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up a copy of The Need here on Book Depository.

Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think? Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

mini reviews #3: short stories, memoirs, and novellas

I don’t always feel like writing out multi-paragraph reviews for every single book that I read, but I do post all my reviews – long and short – over on Goodreads.  I’ve started transferring these mini reviews over onto my blog in groups of 5 – you can check out the first two installments here.  Next up:

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YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT by Daniel Kehlmann
originally published in German, translated by Ross Benjamin
★★★★☆
date read: October 25, 2018
Pantheon, 2017

A delightfully sinister novella that essentially puts a bunch of tried and true horror tropes into a blender but still rewards the reader with its almost unbearably tense atmosphere. Though the creepy house in the woods setting does most of the legwork – I’m afraid this won’t be winning any awards for creativity any time soon – it was a fantastically entertaining way to spend an hour. The translation is excellent; really poised writing that convincingly unravels with the main character’s mental state.

 

535225THE WHOLE STORY AND OTHER STORIES by Ali Smith
★★★★☆
date read: October 15, 2018
Anchor, 2004

This is a rather unassuming short story collection that gave me such joy to read for reasons I don’t know how to articulate. Only my second Ali Smith and I reckon it’s not one of the more essential ones to read but I really enjoyed this.

 

 

34848808THE ONLY GIRL IN THE WORLD by Maude Julien
originally published in French, translated by Adriana Hunter
★★★★☆
date read: September 18, 2018
Little, Brown, 2017

The Only Girl in the World is every bit as disturbing as you’d imagine, but it’s also the single most inspiring story of resilience that I’ve ever read. This is what I was hoping Educated was going to be; the difference for me is that Maude Julien seems to have an appropriate amount of distance and perspective from her horrifying past, whereas Tara Westover’s story still felt too close to allow for much analysis. The Only Girl in the World certainly is description-heavy, and it’s not until you head into the home stretch that you see the ways in which her childhood impacted the person she was to become, but it’s well worth the wait, especially in seeing how her feelings toward her mother shift over time. Only recommended if you can handle reading about very extreme cases of mental and physical abuse; it’s almost viscerally painful to read at times.

 

16032127REVENGE by Yoko Ogawa
originally published in Japanese, translated by Stephen Snyder
★★★★★
date read: August 26, 2018
Picador, 2013

Revenge is a gentle and unsettling collection of interconnected short stories focused mainly on death and grief and an inner darkness that plagues its eleven different narrators. Both melancholy and macabre in tone, these stories range from heart-wrenching to disturbing, each narrated in an eerily calm and poised tone. This was absolutely engrossing and I’m keen to check out more of Yoko Ogawa’s work.

 

25733983LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren
★★☆☆☆
date read: August 24, 2018
Knopf, 2016

This is a textbook case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me.’ I understand the appeal, and in a lot of ways I’m thrilled about this book’s mainstream success (women in STEM fields and healthy, platonic relationships between men and women are two things we need more of in media), but there were only so many loving descriptions of trees I could take after a while. There was just too much science and not enough human interest to keep me engaged, and while I wouldn’t say you need to be knowledgeable about biology to approach this book, a certain amount of interest would be helpful, and I just don’t have that, at all. And the audiobook was a mistake; the author narrates it with a positively bizarre amount of melodrama (like, actually in tears at multiple points, and I’m sorry if that makes me sound callous but I really don’t react well to overly sentimental narration), so I can’t say it was a pleasant listening experience… But anyway, really not a bad book, just not my kind of book.

Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think?  Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

Autumn Book Recommendations and TBR

Despite living in the autumn capital of the universe, I’m one of the few people who actually does not enjoy this season very much.  Between annoying fall allergies and a deep hatred for cold weather, I’d gladly exchange the foliage and pumpkin spice aesthetic for three more months of summer.  Alas.  But that said, fall is ironically the only time of the year when I let the season influence my reading.  I’m generally not a seasonal reader at all, but I do love using autumn as an excuse to prioritize some creepy and atmospheric books.  So, here are just a few recommendations if you’re also in the mood for some good autumn reads:

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.  When you think of autumnal books one of the words that probably pops into your head is ‘gothic,’ and Rebecca is pretty hard to beat.  It follows an unnamed narrator who becomes the second wife to the charming widower Maxim de Winter, who soon finds herself living in the shadow of his previous wife, Rebecca.  It’s tense, immersive, creepy, and gorgeously written.

The Book Collector by Alice Thompson.  Probably inspired by Rebecca, The Book Collector is a novella which follows a young woman obsessed with fairy tales, who marries a book collector who won’t let her read or touch the prized books he collects.  It’s a deeply sinister story that deftly explores gender roles in fairy tales, while immersing the reader in a delightfully gothic setting.

This House is Haunted by John Boyne.  Essentially a love letter to Victorian and gothic literature, This House is Haunted follows a young woman who takes up the post of governess at a creepy hall where she’s greeted by two children, with no sign of their parents anywhere.  If you’re in the market for a good ghost story, I’d highly recommend this one.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.  Really, anything by Agatha Christie, but And Then There Were None remains my favorite of her books that I’ve read, and is decidedly the spookiest.  Ten strangers are invited to a dinner party on a remote island, but when they arrive their host is nowhere to be found, and one by one they start to be killed off.  This book is just genius.

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio.  Set at a fictional university, If We Were Villains follows a group of students studying Shakespeare, who are all close-knit friends until one of them ends up dead.  Campus novels in general make me think of fall with the whole back to school time of year, but this is also a perfect fall read because of one spectacular scene in particular where they put on a Halloween inspired production of Macbeth outdoors.

Bird Box by Josh Malerman.  This list wouldn’t be complete without some proper creepy horror.  Bird Box is probably the scariest book I’ve ever read.  Set in a vaguely apocalyptic near-future, there’s something outside that drives people to madness and suicide when they see it, so in order to stay safe in this world, you can’t open your eyes.  The way Malerman plays up the primal fear of the darkness and unknown is just brilliant.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.  This is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read in my life; if at all possible, I implore you to read this one in November when it’s set.  It follows two characters on a fictional, fantastical Irish island, who are about to participate in a yearly event called the Scorpio Races, where riders race on the backs of feral water horses.  It’s beautifully written and so wonderfully immersive.

As for my TBR… I’m finding myself in the middle of a hundred different reading obligations so I won’t be able to devote my entire month to creepy and gothic books, unfortunately, but I’m hoping to read at least one of these, all of which are on my shelves or on my Kindle:

Helter Skelter: The True Story of The Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

What are some of your favorite books to read in autumn, and what’s on your TBR this season?  And have you read any of these?  Comment and let me know!

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.

book review: Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman

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UNBURY CAROL by Josh Malerman
★★☆☆☆
Del Rey, April 2018

No one likes to be one of the pioneering negative reviews for a book, especially when you’re already invested in the author, so let me start out by saying: some readers are going to love this. Unbury Carol is not a bad book by any means – it was just not the book for me.

I recently read and adored Bird Box, and even though the summary for Unbury Carol seemed about as different from Bird Box as anything could be, I had enough faith in Malerman’s storytelling to confidently dive in. What I found was a very bizarre story, sort of a spaghetti western-horror-fantasy-fairytale hybrid.

Basically, Carol Evers has this condition where she goes into a coma for days at a time, and while she’s unconscious, she appears dead – you have to wait for a full minute to feel a pulse. When she slips into a coma at the beginning of the novel, this time her husband Dwight is conniving to bury her alive and steal her fortune. When he gets wind of what’s going on, a notorious outlaw – and Carol’s ex-lover – James Moxie, has to ride the Trail to Carol’s town, racing against time to save her.

Here’s my main problem with Unbury Carol: it relies on and perpetuates one of the most tired tropes of all time – the damsel in distress. That’s essentially what Carol is for the duration of the book. Whether Malerman eventually subverts this trope by having Carol save herself (which is hinted at early on as a possibility), I can’t say without getting into spoiler territory, but the fact is, rather than focusing on Carol herself, the majority of this novel is told from the point of view of male characters who have a vested interest in Carol’s fate: her husband Dwight, her former lover James, and a criminal called Smoke who’s hired to prevent James from reaching Carol in time. As an avid reader, it feels stale, and as a feminist, it feels insulting, to have Carol’s story stripped from her and framed around so many male characters. To clarify – Carol does have POV chapters. I don’t think everyone is going to agree with my assessment about her lack of agency – you could even argue that that’s the point, to illustrate the injustice of male characters having to fight for Carol’s sake. It just didn’t quite sit right with me, especially from a male author. I think any good intentions Malerman may have had with this book got swallowed up by a sort of unwieldy execution.

The good news is that Malerman still has a great way with words, and I flew through this pretty quickly. I liked several of his characters, too, especially Carol’s young and intelligent housekeeper, Farrah. Fans of westerns will probably be especially riveted by this story, which does well to evoke an old-timey western atmosphere, even though there are more fantastical elements than you’d traditionally expect. But the fact that I couldn’t even make it through Westworld probably should have clued me in that this wasn’t going to be for me.

Thank you to Del Rey and Josh Malerman for the ARC received in exchange for an honest review. Unbury Carol will be published in April 2018.

book review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

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BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman
★★★★★
Ecco, 2014

Bird Box is one of the most original and downright terrifying horror novels I’ve ever read. Set in the near future, the novel begins in a vaguely post-apocalyptic wasteland that used to be suburban Michigan, where a young woman, Malorie, leads her two children to a rowboat, all of them blindfolded. Five years previously, there was some kind of event which wiped out the majority of the population – there’s something outside, and when people see it, they’re driven to madness and violence. There’s only one rule in the new world in order to survive: don’t open your eyes.

This is more of a survival story than I had been expecting from a horror novel, but I was okay with that, because it focuses on the elements of survival that I find particularly interesting. How does a group of individuals move forward together in a lawless world? Which social norms from the old world are worth preserving? At what point does survival stop being enough? (It’s strangely reminiscent of Station Eleven in this regard.) I highly recommend this to anyone who prefers their horror light on the gore and heavy on the psychological.

But survival is only one element. Bird Box is scary. The tension that Josh Malerman creates in this novel never lets up, even for a second. Malerman taps into a really primal fear – fear of the dark, fear of the unknown. What’s so remarkable about Bird Box is that the scariest passages aren’t necessarily ones where you see horrifying things happening. It’s the ones where the characters are taking a tentative step outside, eyes closed, not knowing if they’re mere inches away from danger.

No, it’s not perfect; yes, there are questions that go unanswered, but I loved this. The atmosphere is unsettling and frightening, the characters are real and flawed and believable, and the climax is incredible. What a delightfully creepy and striking book. I wanted to start it again the second I finished.