Horrorstör

Book Review: Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix 4/5 StarsTitle: Horrorstör

Author: Grady Hendrix, Michael Rogalski (Illustrator)

Summary: Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking.

To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they’ll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.

A traditional haunted house story in a thoroughly contemporary setting, Horrorstör comes packaged in the form of a glossy mail order catalog, complete with product illustrations, a home delivery order form, and a map of Orsk’s labyrinthine showroom.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: This book caught my eye immediately when i first came across it. A novel idea, and the cover and design were brilliantly done. I knew I wanted to read it. But more than that, I wanted to buy a copy for my sister–she’s in Ikea as often as her credit card allows her to be. Buying a copy for her meant i could borrow it, so it was a win-win.

Although i’m a big fan of the horror genre, i really didn’t expect this book to be scary or creepy at all. I expected humour and a goofy, slapstick kind of horror. I was kind of right, but also so, so wrong.

Hendrix wastes no time in getting the story going, with the whole thing taking place over just 24 hours. The first third of the book is pretty light reading, with some odd things going on and the main characters seeming fairly two dimensional. It was good and kept my interest, but wasn’t outstanding.

The last two thirds of the book were brilliant. At a particular point the horror aspect stopped being just weird and quirky stuff in a furniture superstore and actually began getting scary. Genuinely scary. So much so that one night i had to stop reading early and scroll through instagram and pinterest for a while before i went to sleep. I loved it.

Although the creep factor got pretty high, the humour didn’t suffer for it. My favourite has to be the furniture names, and a chair called a arsle had me grinning for a while. The book walks a fine line between genuine horror and poking fun at horror clichés, and it walks it perfectly. It allows the fun poking to compliment the contemporary setting.

If you’re paying enough attention there’s a lot of commentary on consumerism, retail work, and the soul-sucking nature of it all. But never so much that it bogs down the book, nor make too much light of it.

The characters follow form. They are an interesting two-dimensional, never quite reaching three, but i think that fits with the overall vibe of the book. Our main character Amy was annoyingly likable, and i was rooting for her as soon as shit starts to get real. She becomes a worthy hero of the story… and the wardrobe scene, while predictable, was an excellent example of the horror/humour line and is definitely my favourite part of the entire book.

If you couldn’t tell already, i loved it. I can already see this being a strong contender for the book i most urge people to read this year. If i had the money i’d buy a load of copies and hide them amongst Ikea’s avalanche of catalogues!

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The Wendy Project

Title: The Wendy Project

Author: Melissa Jane Osborne (Writer), Veronica Fish (Illustrator)

Summary: What forces us to finally grow up?

16-year-old Wendy Davis crashes her car into a lake on a late summer night in New England with her two younger brothers, John and Michael, in the backseat. With Michael missing, Wendy struggles to negotiate fantasy and reality as students and adults around her resemble characters from Neverland. Given a sketchbook by her therapist, Wendy starts to draw “The Wendy Project.”

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I was drawn to this book both because of my own name in the title, and because of that gorgeous cover. The beauty continued on the inside, both in terms of the art and the story.

Following a car accident and a missing, presumed dead bother, Wendy begins to draw and write. She chronicles her life, emotions, and ways of coping. People in her life become characters–good, bad, mischievous–her trauma and loss becomes a story, a fantasy, a mystery to be solved. She tries to make things easier by fitting feelings and events into a narrative she can control, but she can’t control her characters.

The art is wonderful, whirling and fading between a grim reality and a bright make-believe. The use of colour is magnificent–it emanates from her journal and seeps into the life around her, into the people and places and objects. The colour is both what her life is missing and her escape from life. It’s just… really amazingly done, okay?

Wendy deals with so much, so beautifully in this book. Loss, love, depression, guilt, teenage romance, teenage angst, loneliness… and it’s all dealt with and portrayed in heartbreaking simplicity with a thread of hope throughout. I felt the depth of Wendy’s emotions, but not so much that i became upset myself. And i’m happy with that.

I devoured this book. It flowed so easily, i couldn’t help but keep reading. The story, the art, the colour… I couldn’t look away.

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Internal Wilderness

Title: Internal Wilderness

Author: Claire Scully

Summary: A journal of a sequence of events occurring over a period of time and location in space.

Based in London, freelance illustrator Claire Scully works in pen, ink and digital with a heavy focus on drawing. Her work explores a variety of themes including the relationship between ‘man’ and his environment. Internal Wilderness is part of an ongoing project looking at ‘landscape and memory’ – our relationship with the environment, effects we have on the world and space around us and in turn it’s profound affect on our own memory and emotions.

Each of these landscapes is a starting point to a much bigger adventure that strives to answer the question of what lays beyond the horizon. Within the space on each sheet of paper a world can be created either from a distant memory of a childhood holiday or from the desire to see parts of the world that for now are only dreamed about.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: With no words, this little book was a quick, but wonderful read. Each page shows a landscape: mountains, fields, lakes, forests… Each page is its own little escape. They are all set at night, with a full moon featuring in almost all of them. The light from the moon reflects back on the sea, on steams, on cloud cover and mist. The colour palette is black, white, and shades of blue. It’s all gorgeous.

I spent long minutes looking at these pages, taking in the art and the detail, but also letting go. I wondered if these were real places–real views. I let myself believe there was a corresponding spot on the earth somewhere where i could stand to see these images in real life. I also thought about places i have been where i’ve seen similar views, and the feelings i experienced there. The knowledge that the world is so vast, while i’m so small. How minute my own worries were in the face of that.

This book took me away for the time i was reading it, and the places it took me were lovely. It’s a book i’ll pick up again, when i need to escape, but can’t go anywhere.

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Dockwood

Title: Dockwood

Author: Jon McNaught

Summary: It’s a cloudy Tuesday in October and the residents of the town are going about their business as usual. In Elmsview Nursing Home, a kitchen porter dutifully prepares lunch for residents. Elsewhere, a council worker sweeps the fallen leaves from the pavements. Along Nettlefield Road, a paperboy is delivering his daily round. And in the trees, swallows gather noisily in preparation for their annual migration.

In this bittersweet and contemplative work, Jon McNaught weaves together the everyday lives of three locals against an evocative backdrop of autumnal transitions.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: As with almost all my graphic novel purchases, this was bought on a whim from my local comic shop. I love impulse buying graphic novels–they are rarely as disappointing as random book buys!

This book is so, so lovely. It has two stories in it, but i think the word ‘story’ doesn’t do them justice. They don’t really have plots, or development, or conclusion. Instead of stories, they’re more like a series of moments. Each is so quiet and unassuming. Both are set in the fictional British town of Dockwood. The first, Elmview, follows an employee at a care home as he helps the chef in the kitchen and as he delivers cups of tea to the residents. The second, Sunset Ridge, follows a kid walking home from school with a friend and doing his paper round.

The art is wonderful. With a limited colour palette of blue, red, pink, black, and white, the panels are simple, but hold so much depth, change, and mood. And mood is really what this book is all about. There is some dialogue in the stories, but most panels have no text. Instead they show people walking, chopping, folding, reading. Instead they show animals flying, climbing, eating, perching. These panels, strung together, show small moments that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. They have a peaceful feeling about them. Serene and simple, they made me take the time to slow down and really appreciate them–really experience them. I found this book just really, really calming.

My favourite moment would be in Sunset Ridge when the kid stops for a few minutes to eat a chocolate bar and read one of the papers he is delivering. There is a story about a new galaxy being discovered and he stops to look up at the night sky, still munching on his snack. It’s a moment to contemplate how big the universe is, and how small you are in comparison to it all… Then a bus drives past, blocking the view with a giant advert for an action film. Suddenly we’re back down to earth and moving on–to the next moment.

This graphic novel is just lovely. That’s the word. It wrapped my mind up the same way a blanket would wrap my body. Safe, and warm, and comfortable.

It is also not without humour…

Black Widow

Title: Black Widow

Author: Christopher Brookmyre

Summary: Diana Jager is clever, strong and successful, a skilled surgeon and fierce campaigner via her blog about sexism. Yet it takes only hours for her life to crumble when her personal details are released on the internet as revenge for her writing.

Then she meets Peter. He’s kind, generous, and knows nothing about her past: the second chance she’s been waiting for. Within six months, they are married. Within six more, Peter is dead in a road accident, a nightmare end to their fairytale romance.

But Peter’s sister Lucy doesn’t believe in fairytales, and tasks maverick reporter Jack Parlabane with discovering the dark truth behind the woman the media is calling Black Widow…

Rating: ★★★★☆ 3.5/5

Review: I’ve been having a bit of a reading slump lately, so i decided to dive into a Brookmyre, as they are always a fun, interesting, and relatively light read. I wasn’t wrong; this was just the type of book i needed to get me enjoying the act of reading again. Even in the 7 hours since i’ve finished reading it, i’ve caught myself with a half hour to spare and thought, “Oh, good, i can read a bit of my book,” before remembering there isn’t any left to read!

This is the seventh book in the Jack Parlabane series, and as with the last book, Dead Girl Walking, Brookmyre remains departed from the humour-filled escapades of Parlabane of yore. Instead of wise-cracking and elaborate set ups, he’s glum and lack-lustre. I miss the old Parlabane–i miss Christopher Brookmyre. But there is more to this book than simply one character!

The story itself is a not-unfamiliar one. A career-driven woman meets and swiftly marries a man somewhat beneath her. Her husband’s car is then found off the edge of a cliff, they have no body but work with the assumption that he is dead. The details involve cyber-spying, troubled childhoods, and secrets inside secrets inside password-protected secrets.

Most of the book is heavily focused on our main character–and main suspect–Diana. The second half is more of an even split between her and Parlabane. Diana, as the ‘black widow’ of the title and the main suspect from the get go, i liked and was rooting for almost immediately. This is a crime thriller and i expect twists and turns; if i’m being told to assume a character is guilty too early, i’m going to go right ahead and assume they’re innocent. So while she was portrayed as callous, cold, and calculated, i was busy admiring her strength and self-preservation.

The start reminded me strongly of Gone Girl. The missing and presumed dead partner, the first-person narrative of a harsh and intelligent woman. It might even be another reason i warmed to Diana so quickly–i’m one of the few people who actually enjoyed Amy’s character. Thankfully, as the plot developed the similarities faded and i was invested in this book in its own right, rather than as a comparison.

I enjoyed the book well enough; Brookmyre’s writing is stellar in all the ways it always has been. It’s smart, it’s intriguing. His characters are always so well-rounded and he seems to bring them to life with such an ease that i’m insanely jealous of. There are side plots, mini plots, pre-plots. There is never a dull moment, to say the least. However.

However, there weren’t any shocking revelations. Well, i mean, there were, but they weren’t shocking to me–i’d figured them all out. When i read a book i know has twists and turns i’m looking for them. I’m an active reader–i can’t not be looking for them. The book is saying, “Oh, hey, look at A,” so i’m looking closer and B and C. Small throwaway comments regarding the timeline, someone’s perfume, or someone’s pregnancy and i can see what road the reader is being led down, so i extrapolate and take the road less travelled, instead. The only thing i didn’t have figured out were the fine details and the overall motive, because they didn’t matter so much until the very end.

For anyone who doesn’t consciously evaluate the mystery in crime thrillers, this book will not disappoint. For those of us that do, well… i think the only way we’ll be surprised is if a book left no clues and made very little sense. I enjoy the process of figuring things out as i read, and as much as i’d like to be surprised by a twist, i do feel a smug dose of satisfaction when i see it all coming.

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Graffiti (and Other Poems)

Title: Graffiti (and Other Poems)

Author: Savannah Brown, Ed Stockham (illustrator)

Summary: These poems are about growing up, budding and grappling and shedding, about how wonderful it feels and about how deeply it aches.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: This book’s been on my radar for a while, but i’ll admit, in the end it was this second edition cover that had me buying it (black > white). I also seem to be a bit hit-and-miss with poetry. Sometimes i love it, sometimes it just doesn’t click with me; i’m always apprehensive going in.

It was the third verse in this collection that got these poems clicking for me. I so immediately felt like an adolescent again, old and familiar emotions swept over me so effortlessly. And the best part was that they weren’t unwelcome or uncomfortable. Often, remembering emotions from my teenage years can stir embarrassment and shame, but that’s not what i felt and recalled when i read this book.

The poems are written from a place of introspection, but with enough perception to make them astute and mature. Poems like a poem just for me, real estate, and the only things i know to be true reveal an author who knows herself, but knows she’s not infallible, and knows she’s going to grow and change. While i relate to many of the feelings and sentiments in these poems, it’s with hindsight–i would never have been this self-aware as a teenager.

To me these are the poems of someone processing their own experiences and emotions in a safe and intelligent way, and that makes them massively relatable and fascinating. If these were written during and about Brown’s teenage years, i–as a woman a few years into her 30s–would be very interested in reading any poems she writes in her 20s.

And the art! The accompanying pieces amongst the words. They’re perfect little visual snippets of the poems. There is one in particular of a capsizing ship that I would consider having tattooed on my body. Such simple artwork speaks volumes, in just the same way three verse poems contain as much depth as a novel.

The Practical Implications of Immortality

Title: The Practical Implications of Immortality

Author: Matthew Dooley

Summary: Fresh from winning the 2016 Jonathan Cape/Comica/Observer prize, Matthew Dooley returns with his second collection of comics. Featuring tales of astronauts, milkmen, and more existential angst than you can shake a stick at, The Practical Implications of Immortality is a characteristically witty and often surreal follow-up to Matthew’s first collection Meanderings.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I got this from my local comic shop on a whim (as most of my purchases there are–i love it). I just liked the art style on the cover and interesting title. It’s also a book of short comics, which for a 28 page book, made them pretty damn short!

The art is wonderful. It’s fairly simple, which make its small details, like facial expressions and texture, really easy on the eye. It’s also colourful, with a restricted pastel palette used for most of the stories. Basically any single panel from this book could be blown up and framed and i would gladly hang it on my wall (even the naked ones).

The stories themselves made me laugh out loud often and with great joy. A lot of them are quite… pessimistic, which makes the humour quite black. And that’s likely why it made me laugh so much. (It’s funny because (to my cynical self) it’s true?) A few of the best would be a pair of birds talking shit about Napoleon, a world full of Matthew Dooleys, and various wonderful ways to avoid an existential crisis.

My very favourite, though… the one that wrenched a proper good cackle from me, was this untitled masterpiece:

 

In summary: I loved it. I want to get my hands on Dooley’s first collection of comics, too, but unfortunately his website is sold out. Le sigh. If you get the chance, pick this up: £4.00 definitely well spent.

A Monster Calls

Title: A Monster Calls

Author: Patrick Ness

Summary: The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4.5/5

Review: When i bought this book from my local comic book shop, the guy behind the counter warned me to have a box of tissues nearby when i read it. He wasn’t wrong.

The story is a simple one, but one well told, with depth and meaning not immediately obvious. It’s hard, reading about Conor coping (or not) with his mother’s illness whilst also trying to navigate life with a grandmother he doesn’t get on with, fights with friends, stand offs with enemies, and an all but absent father. His visits from the monster are almost a relief… taking him out of that world, but still, abstractedly, dealing with the issues from it.

This is a book that deals so well with grief, and loss, and change, and all the messy human emotions that people experience. And it does that so, so well. Never heavy-handed, never too vague. The story is a dark one, but manages to tell it with a certain lightness–an approachable ease; it wasn’t really until three quarters of the way through that it hit me in gut and pulled hard at my emotions.

And the artwork… they are something to get lost in. The full page spreads are packed with detail and texture, while the smaller pieces blend and weave with the words to make a more immersive reading experience. All the artwork is in black and white, and though in some ways that seems stark, in more ways it only enhances the importance of the story being told. The images are striking and bold while never drawing too much attention away from the words.

The end… well. The reader knows what’s coming, just like Conor. And just like Conor, it’s not easy to go through. But it is important.

I do think this is a five-star book, but i just can’t bring myself to give it five stars. It’s a very good and important book, but it’s also a hard book. It’s sad, and although i loved and appreciate it… i can’t celebrate it. If that makes any sort of sense?

In the Flesh

Title: In the Flesh

Author: Cliver Barker

Summary: Terrifying and forbidding, subversive and insightful, Clive Barker’s groundbreaking stories revolutionized the worlds of horrific and fantastical fiction and established Barker’s dominance over the otherworldly and the all-too-real. Here, as two businessmen encounter beautiful and seductive women and an earnest young woman researches a city slum, Barker maps the boundless vistas of the unfettered imagination–only to uncover a profound sense of terror and overwhelming dread.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I disliked the last Clive Barker book i read enough that i didn’t think i’d ever pick up another. But when i discovered one of the creepiest films from my youth–Candyman–was based on Barker’s short story The Forbidden, i had to get my hands on a copy.

I was shocked and happy as soon as i started reading the first of the four stories, In the Flesh. It was instantly one of those stories where you know something isn’t right, where things aren’t what they seem, where there’s more to be revealed. It’s the kind of story that keeps my interest and keeps me reading. The characters were criminals, imprisoned, but they were sympathetic and likeable; i was scared for them and that had me invested in the story.

The second story was the one i’d been waiting for–The Forbidden. Much of it was familiar to me, having seen the Candyman film enough times. The creepy vibe of the film, and the Candyman himself in particular, came through in satisfying ways. But the story created even more, i think, than the film. The eerie, isolated feeling of the housing estate and the peculiar social structure are such banal things, but increase the macabre feeling in the story intensely. It draws on similar themes as High Rise, but with more of a horror twist and i loved it.

The Madonna is the third story in the book, and overall the weakest in a lot of ways. I hated the two main characters, so welcomed any nightmarish retribution that came their way. This was the one horror that i wanted to know more about, though. How did it/they end up inhabiting the pool? Do all their women come to them in the same way? What exactly happens to the creatures they raise? Where did they all go at the end? And in someways i think this was the story that dealt with more interesting themes and non-horror concepts. It’s the one story, maybe, that would work well as a longer story.

Lastly there was Babel’s Children. This one i liked a lot. It marked itself as different in almost every way from the other stories. It was obviously not a supernatural horror–it was a human one. Unlike The Madonna i feel like i got exactly the right amount of information to tell the story, without it begging more questions or being too full of answers. It was more like a mini adventure with an is-it-or-isn’t-it premise that was pretty delightful, actually. All the characters were likeable and it even made me smile. The end wasn’t sombre, but it did have weight and an unspoken captivity.

With not one story i didn’t enjoy, compared to the 700+ novel that failed to engage me, it’s clear Barker is a far, far more accomplished short story teller. While i’m unlikely to pick up one of his novels, i won’t hesitate to jump into another of his short story collections.

Bird Box

birdboxTitle: Bird Box

Author: Josh Malerman

Summary: Most people dismissed the reports on the news. But they became too frequent; they became too real. And soon it was happening to people we knew.

Then the Internet died. The televisions and radios went silent. The phones stopped ringing.

And we couldn’t look outside anymore.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I remember reading the synopsis for this book and being fascinated. What on earth could stop people being able to look outside? What happened if they did? I didn’t even speculate on answers to those questions, and jumped into this book without expectations, ready to find out.

The multiple narratives are great. We follow our main character, Malorie, during three stages of her life. In the present day she leaves the safety of her home with two children, blindfolded, to take a boat 20 miles down river. One flashback narrative is told in reverse, how Malorie trained the children to use their hearing, how she struggled being a new mother alone in a post-apocalyptic world, and how she risked her life gathering tools and provisions shortly after giving birth. A second flashback narrative documents the disaster, how Malorie arrived at the house and lived with her new housemates before giving birth. The two flashback narrative converge, completing the story’s history, just as Malorie is reaching the final stage of her journey down the river.

The thing that is stand out for me, is how freaking creepy this book is. For the most part, the characters are locked up inside the house, which creates a claustrophobic atmosphere with tensions often running high; i was just waiting for something to kick off. The worst(/best) parts, though, were when the characters ventured outside. Blindfolded for protection against what they must not lay eyes on, the loss of such a main sense was palpable in the writing. I felt as anxious and on edge as the characters just reading. Most often i read in bed at night before sleep, and most nights i couldn’t read more than two or three chapters, because it would freak me out too much. (I loved it.)

It wasn’t until today, when i started reading during daylight hours, that i could plough through the book and got the second half finished in a matter of hours. Because that’s the other thing about this book: it kept me reading. I needed to know what happened. It’s the nature of the three time lines–i knew certain things of the future, but not how they came to pass, and i was desperate to find out.

The book isn’t perfect. The characters are somewhat lacking in depth; you have the main few who we’re supposed to like, a couple who are obviously supposed to be questionable, and the rest are pretty much filler without much individual personality. The writing is simple, but far from bad; it makes it an easy read, but (as above) still manages to create quite an atmosphere. None of these were so bad as to be off putting, just ways the book could be improved.

There was one question that i couldn’t help but ponder quite early: Where were all the blind people? In a world where seeing things proved deadly, surely there would be a higher proportion of blind folk still around, perfectly fine? Thankfully, this is addressed… but i wouldn’t want to spoil anything for you!

I loved the ending. I thrive on open endings, and this delivers that in the best ways, while simultaneously wrapping the narrative up nicely. If you’re reading to find out exactly why people can’t look outside, don’t expect a definitive answer. I’m still wavering between all the options, because i don’t want to have to settle on one. Aliens? New species? Parallel universe? Mass hysteria? I want them all!