A Double-Dip Review to Make Your Skin Crawl: Humans as Monsters (and two more Top Books of 2015!)

1

image

I hope you’ve chosen the most fortifying snack you can think of, because today’s Double-Dip is truly monstrous. I’ve got one adult fiction (or at the very least, upper YA) from one of my new favourite authors and a super-original YA nightmare-scape jaunt from an Australian author. The first, Monsters by Emerald Fennell, I acquired under my favourite author auto-buy policy and the second, In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker, I won in a competition from the publisher Allen & Unwin.

I also have to tell you that both of these books are making my Top Books of 2015 list for originality and the unexpectedness of their respective storylines.

First up: Monsters by Emerald Fennell. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Set in the Cornish town of Fowey, all is not as idyllic as the beautiful seaside town might seem. The body of a young woman is discovered in the nets of a fishing boat. It is established that the woman was murdered. Most are shocked and horrified. But there is somebody who is not – a twelve-year-old girl. She is delighted; she loves murders. Soon she is questioning the inhabitants of the town in her own personal investigation. But it is a bit boring on her own. Then Miles Giffard, a similarly odd twelve-year-old boy, arrives in Fowey with his mother, and they start investigating together. Oh, and also playing games that re-enact the murders. Just for fun, you understand… A book about two twelve-year-olds that is definitely not for kids.

Dip into it for…monsters

…exactly what it says on the tin: Murderous minors, suspect elders and some seriously twisted behaviour. The unnamed young narrator is reasonably unlikeable – although as the story progressed I did gain a smidgeon of sympathy for her – and her new friend Miles is one of those kids that you would definitely NOT want to have to sit next to at school (even if he wasn’t homeschooled). The tone is very matter-of-fact and the tale baldly told which suits the highly suspicious goings-on perfectly. Contrary to what you might expect from the blurb, there isn’t a great deal of gore and blood-splatter here, but there is definitely an undercurrent of mind*uckery. The ending also hit me for six – it was unexpected and quite fitting, to say the least.

Don’t dip if…

you think this is a light-hearted tale featuring rambunctious pre-teens. There are references to sex, abuse, violence and even some quite ribald language, so this is not a book aimed at a middle grade audience. Similarly, if you don’t like seeing animals harmed in books (never mind about the people), there are some parts of this story you will need to avoid.

Overall Dip Factor

I had been anticipating Monster’s release since I first heard about it, way back when it didn’t even have a cover. I can’t say that this is a book I “enjoyed” – it was too uncomfortable a read for that – but I was certainly impressed with this change in direction from Fennell’s earlier works. It reminded me a lot of Rotters by Daniel Kraus, a book that was similarly creepy and stomach-churning, with elements that made it highly memorable and compelling, if not necessarily agreeable to a tender constitution. I will be hugely interested to see what else Fennell comes out with if Monsters and the Shiverton Hall books are any indicator of her talent.

image

*Bruce just chiselled another book out of Mount TBR!*

Now on to In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Three years ago, Alice’s identical twin sister took a gun to school and killed seven innocent kids; now Alice wears the same face as a monster. She’s struggling with her identity, and with life in the small Australian town where everyone was touched by the tragedy. Just as Alice thinks things can’t get much worse, she encounters her sister on a deserted highway. But all is not what it seems, and Alice soon discovers that she has stepped into a different reality, a dream world, where she’s trapped with the nightmares of everyone in the community. Here Alice is forced to confront the true impact of everything that happened the day her twin sister took a gun to school … and to reveal her own secret to the boy who hates her most.

Dip into it for…in the skin of a monster

…an unexpected tale that blends mental health, identity and the power of dreams (and nightmares) in a highly engaging tale that will greatly appeal to readers of YA. The first few chapters of the book dump the reader in the deep end a bit, with an immediate introduction to the strange dreamscape that Alice eventually finds herself in, but once the initial world-building is out of the way and the dreamscape exchange set up, the plot rolls along at a hurried pace. The changing points of view between Lux and Alice work well to drip-feed the reader the information they need to keep half a step ahead of the characters and attempt to puzzle out the scenario before the surprising ending.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re looking for a standard, chirpy YA plot that hands you all the answers and leaves you with a predictable outcome. This book has a slow burn plot and the reader needs a switched-on brain to avoid missing important links as Alice’s story unravels. Similarly, if you’re looking for a typical YA romance plotline where the rugged loner boy falls madly in love with the broken, honest girl you will be sorely disappointed – the romance in this one is much more authentic and surprising than that.

Overall Dip Factor:

I found this to be a bit of a challenge in the beginning, as the reader really is dumped in the deep end of the dreamscape and is forced to hang in there (along with the characters!) until things start to become clearer.   I was super impressed with the way that Barker has steered clear of the expected fantasy/paranormal tropes and delivered both a world and storyline that is deeper and more challenging than is typically found in YA. The use of twins – one a murderer and the other left to remind the town of a murderer whenever they see her face – was clever and the themes of identity, individuality and our responsibility to those we love is seriously explored in Alice’s recounting of events to her deceased sister. Barker doesn’t neglect the minor characters either – a number of other innocent victims’ back stories are considered here, with the consequences of Alice’s sisters’ actions played out in reality and in the land of nightmares. In the Skin of a Monster is one of the most original, compelling and thought-provoking YA reads I’ve encountered in a while, with the added bonus of a touch of fantasy and a genuine philosophical reflection on the ramifications of our actions…and inaction.

So what do you think of these little beauties? Are they good enough to make YOUR Top Books of 2015 list? Let me know what you think!
Until next time,

Bruce

 

A “Top Book of 2015” MG Read-it-if Review: Hoodoo…

3

image

If you’ve been wandering around in a fog of “what-do-I-read-next?” then you have stumbled into the right place. I heartily recommend today’s cracking and original tale and I have taken the rather rash and possibly disputable decision to elevate it to a place in my “Top Books of 2015” list. I received a copy of Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith from the publisher via Netgalley. Apart from that stunning cover, this historical tale has folk magic, family secrets, stranger danger, talking crows, dream travelling and one very nasty demon…not to mention the fact that it is a book that could easily slot into the “promoting diversity” category.

But enough with the tantalising descriptions! Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher was born into a family with a rich tradition of practicing folk magic: hoodoo, as most people call it. But even though his name is Hoodoo, he can’t seem to cast a simple spell.   

Then a mysterious man called the Stranger comes to town, and Hoodoo starts dreaming of the dead rising from their graves. Even worse, he soon learns the Stranger is looking for a boy. Not just any boy. A boy named Hoodoo. The entire town is at risk from the Stranger’s black magic, and only Hoodoo can defeat him. He’ll just need to learn how to conjure first.     

Set amid the swamps, red soil, and sweltering heat of small town Alabama in the 1930s, Hoodoo is infused with a big dose of creepiness leavened with gentle humor.    

hoodoo

Read it if:

*you’ve ever had a bad dream that seemed incredibly real…then woken up to discover that it was actually…incredibly real.

*you are possessed of a name that implies characteristics that are absent from your personality

*you’ve ever thought the whole “Stranger Danger” thing is a big overreaction from helicopter parents

*you’ve ever ignored sage advice from a trusted elder. Or a deceased relative.  Or indeed, a talking bird.

What an original little offering this book is! I truly enjoy meeting books that stand out from the thoroughly well used plotlines and characters that have populated middle grade fiction since Moses was a lad. On reading the blurb, one might be forgiven for thinking that this was, in fact, a typical “chosen one finds magic within himself and saves the world” sort of a story, but there are some important details that set this one apart.

First off, this is historical fiction, with events taking place in the 1930s, when segregation was alive and well. The author manages to weave in aspects of the period as well as some nifty little informational nuggets while keeping the plot flowing and the setting authentic. I quite enjoyed the little historical tidbits and as the book is set in the US, there were some interesting things I learned from the tale, such as the use of patterned quilts hung in cottage windows that held secret instructions for slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad. I always liken fiction that teaches you something to a bonus prize you win after you think the game is over.

The sinister elements of this book are very sinister indeed, and I was surprised at how creepy the content got considering that this is a middle grade offering. Apart from the Stranger (who starts off merely unsettling and finishes in full-blown demon possession), old sulphur-boots himself makes an appearance (albeit off-stage) and the second half of the book certainly felt to me like it had a fog of malevolence blanketing the action. The plotline that requires Hoodoo to solve the riddle of the Stranger and use his folk magic to protect himself is tightly woven and will provide a challenge to those who like to puzzle things out along with the hero.

I almost wish that this was part of a series because Hoodoo is such a likeable character, and I really felt like part of his extended family as I followed his adventures. The supporting characters are well developed and there is a distinct theme of loss and re-connection as the story unfolds. The sense of warmth and welcome that exudes from the descriptions of Hoodoo’s home with Mama Frances and the obvious reliance on others that is evident in the community definitely balances out some of the more frightening aspects of the story and provides a consolation for the losses that Hoodoo has experienced in his young life.

Having read a few early reviews of Hoodoo, I do agree with some reviewers that there is something lacking overall in the execution of the tale. While I was highly impressed with the originality of the story and the way in which the author has pulled off the scarier bits, I did feel mildly dissatisfied at the end. Strangely though, I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly was missing or lacking. I did find the pacing to be unusual, with the earlier chapters almost devoid of anything magical at all (except Hoodoo’s first encounter with the Stranger) and the later chapters particularly intense in terms of danger and macabre doings. Perhaps it was this disparity in pacing that put me slightly off, making Hoodoo seem younger than his twelve years in the beginning and much older by the end.

Having said that, this was definitely a stand-out book for me for this year, for its original content, historical setting and the masterful way in which the author has developed the more frightening aspects of the story. This is certainly not a read for the faint-hearted or suggestible, but for advanced middle grade readers of stout heart and steady nerve this would be an excellent choice.

Until next time,

Bruce