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!

The Passage

the-passageTitle: The Passage

Author: Justin Cronin

Summary: Amy Harper Bellafonte is six years old and her mother thinks she’s the most important person in the whole world. She is. Anthony Carter doesn’t think he could ever be in a worse place than Death Row. He’s wrong. FBI agent Brad Wolgast thinks something beyond imagination is coming. It is.

Unaware of each other’s existence but bound together in ways none of them could have imagined, they are about to embark on a journey. An epic journey that will take them through a world transformed by man’s darkest dreams, to the very heart of what it means to be human. And beyond.

Because something is coming. A tidal wave of darkness ready to engulf the world. And Amy is the only person who can stop it.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: It’s sort of a thing, now, that i read an epic apocalyptic distopian over the Christmas and new year period; this one was recommended to me by Claire over at Bitches with Books. The synopsis intrigued me, and though i was wary on the vampire front, i clung to their concept in I Am Legend and bought the damn book. So, going in i had very few expectations of this book. It blew me away.

I was literally sobbing by the end of the first chapter and i though, “Shit, this book is going to ruin me, isn’t it?” It did, and i loved every second of it.

Where to start? The book takes its time settling in. It introduces you to the characters mentioned in the synopsis, as well as a few others, before their paths cross. It doesn’t jump straight to the apocalypse, instead we follow its making as we meet our heroes, villains and those in between. This first part of the story is almost a book in itself. An extended prologue. It sets the groundwork for details and relationships and meaning that last literally all the way to the last page. At this point i was enjoying the book, but i wasn’t loving it.

Once the apocalypse comes, the narrative jumps almost 100 years in time, with a new location, a new cast of characters, and a new focus. I barely paused. I was fascinated by this new world and these new people. It was quite an experience leaving behind all the other characters, but i took the leap wholeheartedly, trusting that that first story i’d read would pay off, that the threads would meet. By halfway through the new story, i’m not sure i’d’ve been bothered if they hadn’t, but i was only more sure that they would.

I’m honestly finding it hard to articulate my feelings about this book, because it’s simply the entire book. I guess, with that, the key thing is the writing. I was immersed in it. It read as effortless, though i’d bet it was far from it. Nothing was spelled out, but everything was so clear. What some writers take paragraphs to explain, Cronin captures in a sentence or two. So many times i had to stop and marvel at the perfect simplicity in the writing. I even made note of a few my favourites:

“A blast of quiet that felt like noise.”

“An absence of torment so abrupt it was like pleasure.”

“…to his right, an abyss of blackness, a plunge into nothing. Even to look at it was to be swept away…”

“Courage is easy, when the alternative is getting killed. It’s hope that’s hard.”

I was just in awe of the writing, half the time. The other half i was swept up in the story. The story that encompassed so much, but seemed never to become muddled or confuse me. It was simple enough to follow, but interesting enough to keep me constantly thinking. I am a reader who is always looking ahead; i think about what facts and clues and hints i’ve been given, and where they might lead, what twists and turns are up ahead. With this book, though, i didn’t–i didn’t want to. I wanted to be caught up in the story, and i was. I didn’t try to guess what was coming, i just kept reading until i got there.

A big part of the story i keep coming back to is the relationships–all the different kinds. Family, friends, romance, loyalties, responsibilities… this books has all sorts of relationships, and none of them hog the spot light. None of them are forced or over done or saccharine or meaningless. In a lot of ways, they are all quiet. They are all part of the story, rather than being a story in themselves. There weren’t two characters who were ~destined~ to be together from the start. The focus was never on anyone’s–or any one–relationship. They all simply develop over time, when you aren’t quite looking, until the differences in how people interact and what they mean to each other just make a new sense.

I feel like this review is all over the place and that i’m not making any sort of sense; i’m rubbish at explaining why i loved something–it’s not always able to be articulated (case in point: i wanted to use the made up word “articulatable”).

This book just hits all my likes: apocalyptic, dystopian, sci-fi/horror mix, strong female characters. It’s excellent writing, well constructed and followed through on every point to the final page. I sobbed at the start and i sobbed at the end. The ups and downs in the books were not a punch in the gut of my emotions–they crept up on me, then engulfed me.

I never imagined a book of this length could be this good. The longer a book is, the more chance there is of there being something i don’t like. I was not prepared for this. I was not prepared to love everything about this book. But here i am, ruined and in love. And with the sequel already ordered.

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Through the Woods

ttwTitle: Through the Woods

Author: Emily Carroll

Summary: It came from the woods. Most strange things do.

Five mysterious, spine-tingling stories follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss. Come, take a walk in the woods, and see what awaits YOU there.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: I’ve had this book on my shelf for quite a while, but saved it as I thought it would be the perfect halloween-time read. It was.

First, and most obviously, this book is gorgeous. The simple-but-striking cover, with creepy branches, limited colours and embossed feel is what drew me to the book in the first place. The art inside is just as striking. The panels are clean and uncluttered, bold in what they show. The use of negative space was incredible and added so much to the atmosphere of the stories (we’re not afraid of the darkness, we’re afraid of what the darkness is hiding). The artwork seems so effortless; it all flows and works so well. It’s not busy, but holds such detail. It’s just amazingly beautiful, and to say that of a graphic horror novel makes me so happy.

The stories themselves are similar, i think, in their simplicity and depth. Nothing is given away easily. The reader is let in on a glimpse of the tale, and it is in the art–the faces, the colours, the settings, the space–as well as the words, that the stories are told. The stories are generally heavy on the build up, on the back story, on the scene setting. A couple of times i found myself awaiting a twist, a big reveal, a spike in the action… but that wasn’t what these stories were about. There weren’t solid conclusions or explanations to these tales–that’s not the point. These stories are about a creeping horror, that crawls inside and makes itself at home. There was no release offered by an explanation or solid conclusion–that would be too easy.

I loved all the stories, but i think my favourite was My Friend Janna.

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The next time i want to feel a chill down my spine and wonder what’s hiding in the darkness, I will definitely re-read this by candle light while the wind howls outside.

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Fellside

fellsideTitle: Fellside

Author: M.R. Carey

Summary: You will find Fellside somewhere on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. It is not the kind of place you’d want to end up, but it’s where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life.

It’s a place where even the walls whisper. And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess. Fellside will be the death of you – if it doesn’t save you.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: After the brilliance that was The Girl with All the Gifts, it was inevitable i would read Carey’s second novel. I was prepared for different; different setting, different genre, different vibe… I was not prepared for not-quite-as-good.

This book is a slow burner, setting up the characters, moving them into positions, and setting out several story lines before things really get going. And while that didn’t make the book that exciting, it was still very readable. It was easy to fall into the world and learn more about the characters.

Talking of characters, Carey does a brilliant job with all of them. They all have their faults, but they all have things to appreciate about them; they’re all realistic. Which i’m sure i’ve said dozens of times in various reviews, is the most important thing for me. Jess, the main character, was probably the character i liked the least. It’s not that i hated her, it’s just that she was the most lacking in character. For the protagonist I found her far too reactive (or simply inactive), rather than proactive. She let things happen around her and only did things in response to others. Dr Salazar, the prison doctor, i adored. He felt the most caring in a lot of ways, despite the fact that he was such a push over. I was waiting and hoping all the way through for him make a stand. Sylvie Stock was a self-centred bitch; i loved to hate her. The prisoners, the guards, the lawyers… all of them had their layers and were interesting to read about. The characters, i think, are what i enjoyed most about this book.

The different story threads were intriguing, and I enjoyed following them all. I’d just be getting into one over a few chapters, then it would change back to another one and i’d forget all about the previous to find out what was happening with this one… it was a good way to keep me reading and keep the book engaging. I loved the way the stories slowly began to overlap and then weave together, and how that affected the characters and their motivations. It was some pretty well executed storytelling.

But still, this book was not above three stars for me. I have quite a lot i wasn’t too impressed with, but to talk [read: rant] about them at any length or in any detail would involve pretty big spoilers. Suffice to say… there were no surprises for me in the book. From the very beginning I could guess how and where things were leading, if not the specific details. The trial, the little boy, the roles characters would play in the narrative… i called it all accurately and early enough that none of it was a revelation to me. Generally, i found the book a little too formulaic. The plot–its twists and turns–were very standard, if you know what to look for.

Mostly, though, i wasn’t a huge fan of the supernatural aspect of the story. That’s not a fault of the book, just a way in which we didn’t get on. I love books that could be real, that have their plots rooted in reality in some way. I loved The Girl with All the Gifts because it was science fiction; it gave its horror a biological basis. I find pseudoscience more palatable than the outright supernatural. And i would likely have enjoyed this book more if it had leaned more towards an ambiguous interpretation of certain aspects; the classic ‘is it real or was it all psychological’ get out clause.

I will likely read more of Carey’s work, but will hope for more in the vein of Gifts than Fellside. And with The Boy on the Bridge, a book set in the Gifts world, due out next year, i am cheerfully optimistic!

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No Monsters Allowed

nomonstersTitle: No Monsters Allowed

Author: Various

Summary: Horror has a human face…

In a world over-run with vampires, werewolves and zombies, No Monsters Allowed goes back to the very roots of horror – humanity itself. The vile acts of our fellow men and women, the fears that hide in our own minds, the nightmares that inhabit our everyday lives . . .

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: This book caught my eye from the shelf in the library. I love horror and i love short stories, but what really got me interested was the human-horror element. So often the horror in fiction is represented as “other” be it in the form of monsters or disease or some such. But horror that draws on the cruelty and evil inherent in the human race is a horror you can’t tell yourself doesn’t exist when you’re trying to sleep at night. It’s scarier because it could be real–because it is real.

Overall the stories here were hit and miss. It’s not that any were outright bad, but that some didn’t hit as hard or leave an impression on me. And overwhelmingly the stories read as quite amateurish, which isn’t a criticism, per se, but the inexperienced writing didn’t help in the stories that were also weaker, and unfortunately did effect how seriously (or not seriously) i took the stories.

One story i really enjoyed was the second one, The Silence After Winter, which was about a woman and a young girl getting by following an apocalyptic event. Really, though, this story didn’t read as horror to me. I loved it because of its post-apocalyptic setting, and it certainly explored human nature and its drive to survive in various ways. But horror? Not so much.

Another great story was Puppyberries, about a new food stuff that takes a small town by storm for a short while. They don’t know what it is or really where it came from, but they can’t stop eating it. The thing is with this story, i was waiting for the human-horror twist for the entire narrative… and it didn’t come. I’m still baffled as to what the human-horror aspect was intended to be, as ending on the insinuation that the puppyberries had living things inside them that burrow out brings this story back around to a monster.

Bred in the Bone, Killer Con, and Precious Damaged Cargo are three excellent stories that hit human-horror spot on. For the first, i could feel the anticipation and the hidden horror throughout, and was perfectly satisfied when it was revealed. The second i loved as a commentary on society’s fixation with murderers and serial killers, with newspaper articles and books written about all the gory details–this story took that to a place and exposed the horror of not only the killers, but the public obsessed with them. The third one surprised me–i did not see that end coming, and i loved it!

My favourite story, and i think the one that struck me the most, and will likely stay with me a while, is Some Girls Wander By Mistake. I loved it because it explores sexuality and transgender topics, but within a horror setting. And the fact that it’s human-horror suits it perfectly. I also loved it because i knew where it was going, what the twist would be, but i don’t know how i knew. I just kept thinking, “This seems that,” and “It would be so good if this happened” and then it did. I just. Loved it.

Despite the stories being hit and miss, i did enjoy this book a lot. Mostly because the stories i enjoyed, i really enjoyed. I might actually have to re-read (and even photocopy?) Some Girls Wander By Mistake before i return it to the library. Damn, i really loved that story.

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Swan Song

ssTitle: Swan Song

Author: Robert McCammon

Summary: Facing down an unprecedented malevolent enemy, the government responds with a nuclear attack. America as it was is gone forever, and now every citizen—from the President of the United States to the homeless on the streets of New York City—will fight for survival.

In a wasteland born of rage and fear, populated by monstrous creatures and marauding armies, earth’s last survivors have been drawn into the final battle between good and evil, that will decide the fate of humanity: Sister, who discovers a strange and transformative glass artifact in the destroyed Manhattan streets… Joshua Hutchins, the pro wrestler who takes refuge from the nuclear fallout at a Nebraska gas station… And Swan, a young girl possessing special powers, who travels alongside Josh to a Missouri town where healing and recovery can begin with Swan’s gifts. But the ancient force behind earth’s devastation is scouring the walking wounded for recruits for its relentless army, beginning with Swan herself…

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 2.5/5

Review: So, i’ve decided it’s a thing. A read an epic apocalyptic dystopian over Christmas and new year thing. It really cheers me up over the festive period. In 2014/15 i read The Stand, in readiness to read Swan Song in 2015/16. I felt i had to read The Stand first, because chronology and all that. And in the end, it’s turned out i did prefer The Stand, but now we’ll never know if that’s because i read it first (but really, it’s not).

I loved the start of this book. It got straight into the action of launching nuclear weapons and we’re introduced to the characters as the bombs fall. I loved the lack of messing about and getting straight into the story. I loved the gruesome, realistic descriptions of the characters’ post-nuclear blast wounds. I loved how nothing was easy, everything was a struggle and how much the tension was set high from the very beginning.

For most of the book, i enjoyed all the main characters. I didn’t necessarily like them (i’m looking at you, Ronald), but i enjoyed their storyline and their representation–they interested me. I don’t think there was anyone i was overly fond of; there was no one i favoured more than the others, and for that, the deaths that occurred throughout the book were sad, but not genuinely upsetting, which felt like a shame. As much as i liked the characters, i felt far enough removed to see the deaths as a device to the story and other characters’ motivations.

My problem with the characters began when the two main groups of ‘good guys’ finally met up. I had been waiting and getting excited for it, but it was quite a let down, and actually left me disliking characters i had previously been fond of. You choose to traipse all over the country for seven years looking for someone you see in a magic glass crown, that’s your choice. Don’t get all righteous and demanding when that person’s trusted friends are protecting them from you because you are pushy, potentially dangerous, strangers. I’m going to side with the sane, rational people looking out for each other, not the bossy self-important ones who think they deserve something. I never fully recovered my fondness, unfortunately.

The, perhaps very strange, thing i liked most about this book, was its ability to make me wince. I’m a fan of horror, i’m used to gross and disturbing things, and it usually takes a lot to get to me. But there was something about the simple, almost blasé way this book described disfigurements, violence and injuries that had me screwing my face up and hissing through my teeth. And i loved that. I loved being physically affected in that way, because i so rarely am.

Something that bothered me from the very first chapter, continually, right up through to the last chapter, was the choppy–dare i say sloppy–point of view. It switched from person-to-person without warning and in no discernible pattern. No chapter or even paragraph breaks to distinguish and prepare the reader for the change, just -bam- you’re in someone else’s head. It wasn’t hugely difficult to follow, it just interrupted the flow of the reading, particularly when it would flit to one person only for a line or two, then switch back, or switch between a multitude of people in a short space of time. I understand it was to get across more and relevant information to the reader, but honestly it was a sloppy way to do it.

About halfway through the book, time skips ahead. By seven years. I know it’s seven years, because the narrative makes sure to mention that fact several times, very clearly and extremely pointedly. And at this point, i suddenly felt very far away from the characters i’d got to know over the several months the first half of the book spanned. Could not, instead, those first several months have spanned several years? To take the reader, gradually, on the journey with these character over the years and showcase the key points of their growth and spread the plot points out over the years… rather than skipping ahead as if nothing of note had happened in seven years. It rubbed me entirely the wrong way and felt entirely like a quick and easy cheat on the author’s part. “Let me introduce you to all these interesting characters! Aaaaand… skip to the end.”

The major turning point for me and this book was towards the end. When the two teenagers are pushed together in an awfully sexist fairytale way. A kiss to wake sleeping beauty… i strained my eyeballs, i rolled them so hard. I very nearly gave up right there and then, on page 627, with only 229 pages to go. But i persevered, and was rewarded only with more talk of how beautiful Swan was, with how much Robin loved her, even though they’d barely spoken 20 words to each other. Forget all the violence and gore–this made me sick.

Overall, the ending felt rushed and unsatisfying; the threads of stories weren’t so much woven as tangled haphazardly into a knot. It was a case of moving things along too quickly to pack everything in, and in an 856 page book, that’s quite something. Suddenly war and defence! Suddenly prisoners of war! Suddenly weeks later on the road! Suddenly ‘God’ and the end of the world! And still other things weren’t explored or utilised enough. For seven years a magical glass crown is converted, protected and hunted. Its vital role in the story is stressed and pages dedicated to an exaggerated ‘crowning’ scene… only for it to have no relevance to the dramatic conclusion of the book. It becomes a trinket. And i’m left with the overwhelming feeling of, ‘What was the point?’

What was the point? That was the ultimate feeling i was left with when i closed the book. For all it galloped to the big climax, the very end–the ‘they all lived happily ever after’–dragged. At that point, i didn’t care that much. I was just wanting it to be over.

Wytches

wythchesTitle: Wytches

Author: Scott Synder, Jock (art), Matt Hollingsworth (colours)

Summary: When the Rooks family moves to the remote town of Litchfield, New Hampshire, to escape a haunting trauma, they’re hopeful about starting over. But something evil is waiting for them in the woods just beyond town. Watching from the trees. Ancient… and hungry.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: Graphic novel horror story with excellent-looking art, i wanted this book. The graphic aspect is amazing, shame about the story part.

I both liked and disliked the narrative style. The present day and flashbacks, side by side and interspersed. I liked it because it kept me guessing, kept me wondering, but unfortunately it made the story as a whole not work as well. I couldn’t sympathise or root for the characters in the present day, because i didn’t know their history; i didn’t understand them. To be quite honest, i didn’t like any of the characters. I came to like Charlie, but only right at the very end and after his full back story is revealed. I also called the “twist” very early on. For all i didn’t like any of the characters, it was pretty clear who they’d made most vague and suspicious. The plot was weak, with, again, the full extent of it only revealed at the very end… stories shouldn’t work like that. You don’t explain everything at the end, you leave pieces all the way through which then all come together at the end. It was just poor storytelling.

The art, however, is absolutely amazing. It has depth and design and mood… it has so much atmosphere and detail. It was the art that makes this book any kind of good. It carried the entire thing. It held the emotions of the story, it had the horror, the loneliness, the despair, the joy, the love. It’s all in the art, not in the words or the plot.

I would look at this book again, but i wouldn’t read it.

DayBlack

DayBlackTitle: DayBlack

Author: Keef Cross

Summary: Beneath the polluted clouds of DayBlack, Georgia, exists a murderer. After hundreds of years of killing to survive, he no longer wants to simply exist… he wants to live. DayBlack is the story of Merce, a former slave who was bitten by a vampire in the cotton fields. Four hundred years later, he works as a tattoo artist in the small town of DayBlack. The town has a sky so dense with pollution that the sun is nowhere to be seen, allowing Merce to move about freely, night or day. Even darker than the clouds are the dreams he’s been having that are causing him to fall asleep at the most awkward times (even while he’s tattooing someone). As he struggles to decipher his dreams, someone from his past returns with plans for him–plans that will threaten his new way of life and turn him back into the cold-hearted killer he once was.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: This was a pretty fun, smart and interesting read. I was intrigued by the premise–a vampire who works as a tattoo artist in a town of perpetual darkness. Add to that narcolepsy, falling asleep while tattooing and strange dreams and i needed to read this graphic novel.

Set up for the story starts right away, with a brief introduction to two young boys and their mother. This gives some expectations of Merce, his life, and hints of what’s to come. Ambiguity and suggestion like that are a surefire way to keep me reading. The details of Merce’s “life” are slowly revealed; his bizarre dreams, his dissatisfaction with death, his place in the town, why he’s a tattoo artist, his friends, acquaintances and customers. It’s all leading somewhere, and setting the scene at the same time. It gave me a feel for Merce and his “life”–how he gets along and spends his time, what he cares about but also how he keeps everything at a distance. He has a clear air of apathy and indifference about him, and i loved that. For me it emphasised his undead state; it isn’t that he doesn’t care, it’s more like he can’t.

The other characters, though often brief in appearance, are so succinctly summed up and given life–sometimes in just one frame. Others remain a purposeful mystery, to Merce himself as well as the reader, and i hope we can find out more about them in future editions. A lot of Merce’s history also remains a mystery to be explored in the more comics. It’s clear he worked in cotton fields and was turned into a vampire there, but we don’t know by who or why. There are hints of things surrounding his mother and a possible significant other; but i want to know more–it’s clear there is more to find out.

My favourite aspect were the details around vampire lore. It reminded me of I Am Legend; it played on the stereotypes while doing something new and interesting with them. It also brought the vampire myths firmly into the modern day by addressing how vampires could be affected by technology and disease. I found those kinds of thoughtful details really fascinating.

And of course, the artwork. It really struck me, because i don’t think i’ve come across this kind of style before. In a lot of ways it is quite simplistic; black and white line drawings with splashes of red and a few colourful collages. But within that simplicity is a lot of detail; crosshatching and lines for shadow and emphasis, negative space and excellent framing. The two kinds of frames that were the most striking to me were the less complex ones with one focus, and the scenes that shows Merce’s dreams, which were abstract and full with so much to take in.

Granted, i’m still new to the world of graphic novels, but i’ve not yet read one quite like DayBlack. It felt fun, but interesting enough to be going somewhere. I definitely want to read more about Merce, his tattoo parlour, his vampire hunter ‘son’ and his dreams.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

WHALitCTitle: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Author: Shirley Jackson

Summary: Living in the Blackwood family home with only her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian for company, Merricat just wants to preserve their delicate way of life. But ever since Constance was acquitted of murdering the rest of the family, the world isn’t leaving the Blackwoods alone. And when Cousin Charles arrives, armed with the overtures of friendship and a desperate need to get into the safe, Merricat must do everything in her power to protect the remaining family.

In her final, greatest novel, Shirley Jackson draws us into a dark, unsettling world of family rivalries, suspense and exquisite black comedy.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I adore Shirley Jackson’s work. There is no simpler way of putting it. She writes such slow, careful, creeping horror stories. Not the kind to make you jump or wince, but the type of horror that crawls inside you and makes you cold. It’s atmospheric and psychological and entirely within the realms of possibility. And i love it.

I was hooked from the first chapter here, as our narrator Merricat walks through the local village, buying groceries, exchanging library books and pausing for coffee. It sounds so normal, but it is anything but. What struck me most was how she turned the unpleasant trip into a game–if she could make it to her next goal without being whispered about, stared at, or called out to, she would win. Head down, moving as swiftly as possible, she would pass through the village while imagining all of its inhabitants dead, consumed by rot. And Merricat would picture herself walking over their bodies, on a satisfying and peaceful trip through the village. Yes, i liked Merricat right from the start.

It was also during that first chapter that [SPOILER>>>] i decided she had been the one to poison her family. [/spoiler] I don’t think it’s meant to be a huge twist when that fact is revealed later in the book–it is more a surprise that they are openly talking about it, as comes across as an unspoken acknowledgement for most of the story. Merricat very much lives in her own world, using her own made up “magic” to keep herself and the family safe. But when her magic starts to fail and Cousin Charles shows up, Merricat doesn’t admit defeat.

It may be the fact that Merricat is our narrator, and an unreliable one at that, but i really did dislike Charles and the villagers. But Merricat is the protagonist, and as the reader, i was behind her 100%. I wanted Charles gone and the villagers punished. In fact, i wanted it so much that this book kept me up until midnight last night. I had to keep reading, i had to get to Charles’ comeuppance. It is actually so, so rare for a book keeps me up at night, and i really relished it.

The only think i really disliked about the book was a lack of detail or information on certain things. Mostly regarding the village and why all the locals hated the Blackwoods so, so much. It was alluded that the Blackwoods had never really been popular; shutting their property off with a fence, thinking themselves better than the others in the village. But so much of the villagers’ anger focuses on the poisoning, an incident that was so self-contained i can’t understand why it alone would be enough to incite such hostility. Of course, we see all this via the unreliable narration of Merricat, so the reader is either misinformed, or Merricat herself doesn’t have all the information.

The ending was… enough to satisfy me. It felt a little like it trailed out and went on just a smidgen too long, for my own tastes, but the situation was apt. Despite all that happened, Merricat and Constance are simply more entrenched in their solitude and safety than they were at the start of the book. The last couple of chapters also gave me more appreciation for the minor characters, who genuinely did care, despite their inability to help.

It’s a book with no firm conclusion, no cut and dry happy ending, and leaves me with more questions than answers. But then, that’s exactly the kind of conclusion i love.

This knocks one square off my Bookish Bingo: Set in a small town.

Florence and Giles

florence-and-gilesTitle: Florence and Giles

Author: John Harding

Summary: 1891. In a crumbling New England mansion, 12-year-old orphan Florence and her younger brother Giles are neglected by their guardian uncle. Banned from reading, Florence devours books in secret, and twists words and phrases into a language uniquely her own.

After the violent death of the children’s first governess, a second arrives. Florence becomes convinced she is vengeful and malevolent spirit who means to do Giles harm. Against a powerful enemy, with no adult to turn for help, Florence will need all her intelligence and ingenuity to save Giles and preserve her private world. This is her chilling tale…

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: There was a lot i liked about this book, but there was also a lot that i think could be improved. On the whole, i don’t like having that kind of feeling about a book; i like to either really like it, really hate it, or just think it was okay. To see so much good and so much potential in a book just leaves me wanting.

Let’s start with the good. I adored Florence–from start to finish. She’s strong, smart and independent; i can’t not love her. She teaches herself how to read, she spends hours each day sneaking to the library to read. She creates a herself a little den in the library in the winter to keep warm while she reads, she reads and loves Shakespeare and Poe. She messes with the English language, making nouns and adjectives into verbs (which are hit and miss; some are brilliant, others are awkward). She effortlessly manipulates the adults around her, while never taking that ability for granted.

I loved the setting: A old country mansion. Two young children alone save for the adults hired to tend to the house. Visits from the young boy from the next mansion over. And i loved the setting up of a mystery: A mysterious uncle whom no one has ever met. A father and two mothers whose lives nor deaths anyone will speak of. A photo album with the faces of one woman cut out. The sudden death of one governess followed by the swift appointing of a suspicious second.

Where the book then started to fail was towards the end, with the rather lacking unravelling of this mystery. Quite early on i thought i had it pegged. I thought i knew who this suspicious new governess was and what her motives were. In the end, i can’t be sure whether i was right or wrong–the clues surrounding it are never truly addressed. Instead there is a different twist to the end of the book. A twist which i loved, but that came with it’s own problems. All the foreshadowing in the book pointed in one direction, while the drama at the end focused on something entirely different. Neither the mystery nor the twist satisfied me enough because of this.

I really would have liked to see a better pay off for the clues scattered throughout the first half of the book, as well as more build up and foreshadowing towards the twist that is revealed at the end. The fact that i can see exactly how easily this book could have been better, stronger, more shocking… it pains me more than everything i enjoyed about it.

To end on a fond note, though, one of my favourite Florence-isms:

As I princessed in the tower, he knight-in-shining-armoured up the drive.

This knocks three squares off my Bookish Bingo: A retelling (it’s a reworking of The Turn of the Screw), main character under 16 and a strong sibling relationship.