Creepy Adult Fiction Review: The Ghosts of Sleath…

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Meet an old story in a new jacket!  We received this gorgeously covered copy of The Ghosts of Sleath by James Herbert from PanMacmillan Australia not realising that the story was originally published in 1994.  All things considered though, this didn’t really matter to us because we’ve never read any of Herbert’s work anyway!  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Can a ghost haunt a ghost?
Can the dead reach out and touch the living?
Can ancient evil be made manifest?

These are the questions that confront investigator David Ash when he is sent to the picturesque village of Sleath in the Chiltern Hills to look into mysterious reports of mass hauntings. What he discovers is a terrified community gripped by horrors and terrorized by ghosts from the ancient village’s long history. As each dark secret is unveiled and terrible, malign forces are unleashed, he will fear for his very sanity.

Sleath. Where the dead will walk the streets.

Sleath, it seems, is a picturesque village that is haunted by…well, pretty much everything that ever happened there.  When psychic investigator David Ash is called to Sleath at the behest of the local vicar amid whispers of hauntings, he is woefully unprepared to deal with the sheer backlog of instances of human misery that this town seems to be hiding.  Along with Grace, the vicar’s daughter, and later on, a mysterious Irish man who turns up out of the blue, David must try and get to the bottom of the diverse phenomena appearing all over the village and discover whether they have paranormal origins or are driven by something more mundane.

Before you pick this one up you should probably be made aware that it isn’t your average, run of the mill ghost story, but also features some quite graphic, stomach-churning violence that is sprung on the reader without warning in various places.  We Shelf-dwellers, being fans of ghostliness, but not necessarily goriness (unless we’re in the mood!), found this to be a bit of a stumbling block to getting into this book because after a while we became hand-shy that something icky would be around the next corner.  For those who appreciate trigger warnings, you should be made aware that this book features descriptions of child sexual abuse that are quite confronting.

This is the second book in a series featuring psychic investigator David Ash.  Not having read the first book wasn’t a major problem as the author provides enough information here and there to ensure that the reader gets an idea of his backstory. Ash is a bit of a tortured character by all accounts who is committed to his job but still coming to terms with some seriously nasty psychological trauma from a past case.

I couldn’t quite make up my mind as to whether I enjoyed this book or not.  On the one hand, it certainly satisfies the criteria of “totally creepy paranormal phenomena” and “reveals you didn’t see coming”, both of which I appreciate in a good ghosty story.  On the other hand, the aforementioned violence seemed shockingly out of place and was so graphic in places that it made me feel a bit sick.   I also had a few issues with the slow pacing of the investigation and constant interjections of flashbacks from various townsfolk.

While this one didn’t quite hang together in the most appealing way for me as a reader, I’m sure there will be plenty of folk who will appreciate the dark, brooding atmosphere of this book and the multiple narratives that have been woven together to contribute to the surprising reveal.

I will be submitting this one for the Colour Coded Challenge 2017   You can check out my progress toward all my challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Some Spooky Shorts for your Halloween: The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories…

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the-travelling-bag

The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories by Susan Hill. Published by Allen & Unwin, October 26, 2016. RRP: $24.99

Any self-respecting fan of contemporary ghost story writing will immediately notice the vintage creepy charm of a cover design style that is synonymous with Susan Hill.  Having read and enjoyed The Small Hand a number of years ago, I decided to put Hill’s work on my radar and so was happy to receive a copy of The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories from Allen & Unwin for review, just in time for Halloween.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

From the foggy streets of Victorian London to the eerie perfection of 1950s suburbia, the everyday is invaded by the evil otherworldly in this unforgettable collection of new ghost stories from the author of The Woman in Black.

In the title story, on a murky evening in a warmly lit club off St James, a bishop listens closely as a paranormal detective recounts his most memorable case, one whose horrifying denouement took place in that very building.

In ‘The Front Room’, a devoutly Christian mother tries to protect her children from the evil influence of their grandmother, both when she is alive and when she is dead.

A lonely boy finds a friend in ‘Boy Number 21’, but years later he is forced to question the nature of that friendship, and to ask whether ghosts can perish in fires.

This is Susan Hill at her best, telling characteristically flesh-creeping and startling tales of thwarted ambition, terrifying revenge and supernatural stirrings that will leave readers wide-awake long into the night.

If this was the first Susan Hill book I had encountered and I read this collection in the traditional fashion (that is, from front to back), I might be forgiven for discarding this book halfway through as sub-par in quality.  As this is not my first Susan Hill book, I persevered and am very glad I did so because oddly enough, the final two stories of the four far outshine the first two in psychological creepiness and general paranormal entertainment.  But let us address each of the stories in turn, in the traditional fashion; that is to say, from front to back.

The collection opens with The Travelling Bag, a  story of professional betrayal and revenge told from a third person’s perspective and set in Victorian times.  This one certainly felt like it was going to be a spine-tingling paranormal winner, with a mystery immediately set up and the listener (as well as the reader) left in suspense for a spell.  The actual reveal felt a bit light for me though and I didn’t contract any of the sense of fear that the main character was supposedly feeling.  Overall, this story had a strong build-up, but petered off at the end.

Next up is Boy Twenty-One, which I thought I might enjoy the most, but ended up completely forgetting about as soon as I’d read it.  The story is set in a boarding school and centres around the friendship of two lonely boys.  This one felt as if it was either unplanned or unfinished – as if the author had a number of options with how to link the threads of the story together, but couldn’t decide which would be best and so ended up finishing the story abruptly with no real answers and no particular sense of mystery.  I literally did find this story so forgettable that I couldn’t remember anything about it before writing this review even though I’d only just finished the book a day or two ago and I had to go back and flick through it again.

Happily, the third story, Alice Baker, finally employs some good old-fashioned creep-factor with a ghostly, mind-twisty traditional sort of tale about the workers in a women’s typing pool (or similar).  This story has more of what you would expect from the term “ghost story” with obvious clues left about for clever readers, a slow build and the inevitable abrupt shock and reveal.  The ending probably won’t be much of a surprise to anyone who has ever read (or heard) a ghost story before, but there is something deliciously delightful about being drawn along with a character on a path toward certain fright.

The final story, The Front Room, was far and away the best of the lot in my opinion, employing psychological twists, and playing on familial and religious themes in all the right places to evoke the shiver-down-the-spine effect.  In this story, an ordinary family are inspired, after hearing their pastor’s weekly sermon about charity, to invite the husband’s elderly step-mother to live with them.  The tale takes the stereotypical “evil stepmother” trope to a whole new level, ending with a surprise and a lingering feeling of ickiness that will have you reconsidering inviting anyone to your place ever again.

On the whole, the final two stories of the collection really saved this one for me and with the first being passable, I’d have to say that this is another enjoyably scary offering from Susan Hill.  Others may have different opinions about Boy Twenty-One (and I’d love to hear your take on it if you’ve read it!), but if that story had been left out or replaced, this is definitely a book I would rave about.  As it stands, if you are looking for a suitably quick and frightening story to get you in the mood for Halloween, you should find what you are looking for in The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories.

Until next time,

Bruce

Magrit: An MG Good, Sad and Quirky Review…

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Today’s review nearly ended up being a “Great Expectations…” review because my level of expectation for today’s book was impossibly high, but I have decided to unleash my psyche on you instead.  Magrit by Lee Battersby (author of such bizarre adult fiction favourites of the shelf as The Corpse-Rat King and The Marching Dead) is a middle grade, beautifully presented foray into a graveyard full of surprises.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Magrit lives in an abandoned cemetery with her friend and advisor, Master Puppet, whom she built from bones and bits of graveyard junk. One night as Magrit and Master Puppet sit atop of their crumbling chapel, a passing stork drops a baby into the graveyard. Defying Master Puppet’s demands that the baby be disposed of, and taking no heed of his dire warnings, Magrit decides to raise the baby herself. She gives him a name: Bugrat. Magrit loves Bugrat like a brother But Master Puppet know all too well what will happen when Bugrat grows up – that the truth about them all will be revealed.

magrit

The Good:image

If you are a fan of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and have wished that there existed a book very like it, but suited to a younger audience, Lee Battersby has fulfilled that wish in Magrit.  The book is set in a beautifully atmospheric cemetery, wherein the inhabitants lie forgotten and a self-contained, private sanctuary has been chiseled out of the silence.  Magrit is an easy character to follow along with; a carefree nearly-ten year old, whose imagination is fed to bursting by her mouldering home and her questions answered by the all-seeing Master Puppet.  Master Puppet is a great, original character, I must say – a skeleton patched together from various discarded bones and lashed to the cross atop the cemetery’s chapel, dispensing wisdom and criticism in a voice that is practically audible while you read.  The plot is easy to follow for young readers, and while adult readers (and indeed, canny youngsters) may pick up on which way the wind is blowing reasonably early in the story, the ending is unexpected and satisfactorily ambiguous.

The Sad image

If you have not read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, then this criticism will pass you by and not affect your reading of Magrit at all.  If this is the case for you, I am truly happy that you have yet to discover the magic of both of these wonderful books.  The only problem I had with this story is that it felt far too much like The Graveyard Book.  So much so, in fact, that I felt like Bod and Magrit could have easily lived in Bod’s graveyard at the same time, with Magrit’s corner cordoned off in some way so that the two never got around to meeting.  The reason this was a problem is that because I read The Graveyard Book years ago on its original release (our dust-jacketed, hardbacked edition has pride of place on our shelf, with only slight paper-specklage after eight years), and have since re-read it multiple times, Bod, Silas and the gang have taken up residence in my brain as the superior graveyard-dwelling crew.  Again though, if you haven’t read The Graveyard Book, you should find Magrit and Master Puppet entirely original and thoroughly unique.

I would also have loved to have seen a bit of the quirky, bizarre humour that Battersby inserts into his adult fiction works make its way into Magrit’s story.

The Quirkyimage

The presentation, both inside and out, of this first edition of Magrit is something else entirely.  For a start, the textured hardback cover fits neatly in your hand and the raw edges of the pages are tinged an inviting pale purple.  The beautiful papercut illustration on the front sets the tone for the gorgeous reading experience awaiting you.  The pages inside are bordered in similar papercut designs and Master Puppet’s dialogue is always printed in a spectacularly eye-popping font, which is both a handy visual cue for younger readers and serves to enhance that unique character voice that I mentioned earlier.  Overall, there has been a great deal of consideration put into the visual presentation of this book and it greatly enhances the reading experience.  I can just imagine the coveting that will go on amongst mini-fleshlings when this one hits the school library shelves!

I also loved that Battersby references Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis: London and its Dead in his acknowledgements.  This is a reasonably large and dense non-fiction tome that I checked out of the library years ago, before I started blogging, as part of my attempt to read all the death-related things.  I just like the idea that other people have read a reasonably obscure book that I randomly checked out of the library many years ago.

Overall, I am so glad I pre-ordered this one and didn’t wait around on the off-chance that I would get the opportunity to get a free review copy.  This is definitely a book that you won’t regret purchasing and displaying in a prominent place on your shelf to amaze your friends and confuse and dismay your enemies.

Until next time,

Bruce (and his psyche)

 

 

 

An MG Ghostly Haiku Review: Remembering Kaylee Cooper…

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It’s Mad Martha with you today for a poetical look at a new release middle grade ghostly tale from Curiosity Quills – Remembering Kaylee Cooper by Christopher Francis.  I only discovered after finishing the book that the author hails from my very own city of residence, so I had a moment of imagined comeraderie that he too was experiencing the ridiculous temperatures Brisbane turned on especially for the G20 summit…then I noticed that he no longer lives in Australia, so I silently cursed him for not sharing the ridiculous temperatures Brisbane turned on for the G20 summit.  But weather gripes aside, let us examine Remembering Kaylee Cooper.

From Goodreads:

Kaylee Cooper is certain that Alex will become friends with a ghost this year. Alex thinks that he is far too old to be listening to a first grader and encourages Kaylee to stop jeopardizing his important sixth grade social life. Kaylee doesn’t listen and finds awkward ways to spend as much time with Alex as possible, even if it means following him into the boy’s washroom.

Fed up, Alex develops a strategic plan to ultimately help him get rid of Kaylee Cooper for good.

However, he soon learns about the mysterious legend of Screaming Ridge that pulls an unlikely group of friends together, including the girl of his dreams, and the school’s meanest bully. When they discover that the legend is real, and that Kaylee Cooper is at the core of the mystery, Alex stares death in the face and helps save her from an eternal life of misery and confusion.

remembering kaylee cooper

Wouldn’t be seen dead

Hanging with a first-grade girl

Maybe vice versa 

Oh the mixed feelings about this book!  This is a quick, middle grade ghost story that is pitched at the perfect level for a young audience. There is just enough creepiness to satisfy those who enjoy a scare and just enough mystery for those who like a puzzle. Alex is a likeable protagonist and there is a palpable sense of comaraderie that develops between Alex’s classmates as the story progresses and the mystery deepens, which I particularly enjoyed.  It gave the story a bit of life and energy and opened up a sense of adventure.  The ghostly elements vary between being a bit predictable and hiding some unexpected twists and by the end I felt like everything had been wrapped up in a neat little package.  Depending on whether you enjoy your ghost stories with loose ends tied up, this will be satisfying or not so much.  I suspect though that middle grade readers will appreciate the resolution to the various puzzles that are presented in the story.

There was one inexplicable element to this tale that drove me nuts while I was reading and disrupted my ability to remain in the story world.   For some strange reason, the author has given ridiculous surnames to all the teachers in the story, and alliterative names to most of the kids (but not all). The teachers were called Stoolpigeon, Humblewick, Allthumbs and Monobrow….really? Monobrow? The kids were called Damian Dermite, Madelyn Mayfeather, Henry Horkenminder…Why? For me, the use of unlikely names just gave the characters a silly, cartoonish feel when the plot seems to be aiming for an atmosphere of mystery and slight danger.   This really affected my overall enjoyment of the book and I wish it hadn’t been the case.

This next bit is a bit spoilery, so skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled!!

Another small niggle I had with the plot was the fact that Kaylee was supposed to have died in 1962, having been born in 1954. Why then, I wondered, was she described by more than one character as as being dressed as if she lived 100 years ago, in long dresses and leather boots with long stockings? This bit didn’t tally for me and as I’m a pedantic sort of a reader, caused me to be mildly cranky with the whole book.

Spoilery bit over – normal service resuming….NOW!

Putting aside my minor irritations, this is a solid ghost story that should appeal to fans of middle grade mystery of your acquaintance. There are a few elements in the plot that are fairly predictable, but also a few that come completely out of left field and add to the puzzle that Alex and his friends are trying to solve. Pick this one up if you’re looking for a light, fun read with a spooky twist.

Cheerio my dears,

Mad Martha

Jake and the Giant Hand: A Review for The Good, The Sad and The Quirky!

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Welcome, welcome, come in, make yourself comfortable…for today I have for you a story so strange, so mind-bendingly eerie, so unbelievably weird and bizarre that….no, wait.  I don’t know if you’re up to it. Really.  Maybe you should go somewhere else for your review today, because I wouldn’t want to be responsible for any weirdness-related heart attacks or strange-induced night terrors.  Really? You think you’ll be fine? Well, if you say so. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  But at least allow me to tell you about this book via my various emotional identities – the Good, the Sad and the Quirky!

Today I present to you Jake and the Giant Hand by Philippa Dowding, a book in the new series for middle-grade readers, Weird Stories Gone Wrong.  We are well-disposed to Ms Dowding round the shelf because she has also written a few books featuring gargoyles.  They sold quite well too, I believe.  We have one sitting on the shelf waiting to be read.  Soon my pretty.  But I digress.  In Jake and the Giant Hand, we meet Jake, an ordinary sort of boy who has gone to visit his Grandpa for the summer holidays.  This is a yearly occurence for Jake and most of his prior visits have seen him spending time with neighbours Kate and Chris, riding bikes and telling ghost stories.  This year, Kate tells a tall tale about a giant’s dismembered hand discovered in a farmer’s field over 100 years ago.  Jake doesn’t believe the tale could be true, but he can’t deny there’s some weird stuff going on around the farm this year.  Take the giant flies, for instance.  Or the weird stone he discovers in a post-hole.  Not to mention his Grandpa’s uncharacteristic reserve about the events in the story.  Depending on what Jake finds out, this could be a summer holiday to remember!

jake and the giant hand

This is the kind of book that will draw young male readers to it like flies to a particularly stinky pile of rotting compost.  It is the perfect subject matter with which to tempt reluctant readers, and it dovetails nicely with an age group that is just beginning to gain some independence from parents and take on experiences laced with adventure.  So I suspect this one will be a hit with middle-graders.

image* The content is great – ghost stories, tall tales, the potential to uncover a particularly bizarre and freakish secret in one’s own backyard – all of this points to popularity amongst middle grade readers

* This is a relatively quick read, and it is peppered with illustrations here and there, so it’s not too off-putting for reluctant or struggling readers

*I suspect this will be a great read-aloud choice for teachers wanting to freak out kids on school camp

The only thing I didn’t really rate in the story was the abrupt manner of the reveal.  There’s a lot of creepy, odd build up before Jake eventually solves the mystery, and I felt that the scene in which the the mystery is revealed didn’t quite gel with the rest of the book.  There is an epilogue of sorts in which we find out what happens later, and it may just be the nature of the genre, with a slow build-up and quick surprising reveal, but I was left wanting, just a little.

image* The surprise ending seemed a bit forced to me, and didn’t quite match the creepy weirdness of the events leading up to it

* Jake has issues with Gus, his Grandpa’s stinky dog.  I felt it was a bit unfair that Gus was held accountable for his stinkiness when it wasn’t really something he could control.  I realise this is a small quibble, but as a self-appointed spokesthing for unsightly/malodorous creatures everywhere, one I felt should be mentioned

If you’re looking for quirky, and let’s admit it, we all are in one form or another, you will not be disappointed with this book.  As a citizen of the country that brought you the hat-with-the-dangly-corks as a low-tech fly repellant, I was with Jake all the way in the creep-out stakes here.

image* Quirkiness abounds – there are flies at least as big as the family dog, tales of wandering swamp hags and oversized dismembered limbs to be encountered as you follow Jake’s adventures

* There is also the opportunity to discover the purpose and manner of working of an auger, for those who are unschooled in the ways of this important piece of equipment

Overall, I’d have to say this was a great, fun read and I look forward to seeing what’s in store for the rest of the series.  There’s plenty of humour here, crazy, exciting mystery and just the right level of strange goings-on to provide an enjoyably creepy atmosphere without scaring the pants off anyone.  A definite “read it to your middle-grader” I reckon!

Jake and the Giant Hand is due for release in September 2014.

Of course you all noticed that this title would perfectly acquit two categories of the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge – category four (a book with someone’s name in the title) and category five (a book with something that comes in pairs in the title).  There’s still plenty of time to sign up and join in the fun!  Click on the image to find out more:

small fry

 

Until next time,

Bruce

*I received a digital copy of this title for review from the publisher via Netgalley – thanks!*

 

 

Mad Martha’s Lantern Review: The Ghost Box…

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Welcome dear readers to my haiku review of a brand new book for the ghost story buffs among you (and I know there are more than a few in that category!).  It’s Mad Martha with you and today I will present to you The Ghost Box by Catherine Fisher. Yes, that Catherine Fisher. I received an ecopy of the book from the publisher via Netgalley – thanks!

The first thing that grabbed me about the book was the stunning cover art.  Really, you could just blow that up and stick it on the wall for instant atmosphere, couldn’t you?  The second reason I wanted to read this book is the fact that the content is targeted at the 11+ age group, but the reading accessibility level is pitched at the 7+ age group, so it is designed to be a good choice for older kids who struggle with reading.  I’m always curious about these sorts of books, having sat on the shelf of a few classrooms in my day, because the search for interesting, engaging yet accessible books for older kids with emerging literacy skills is difficult indeed!

In The Ghost Box, Sarah is struggling to adapt to life in her newly blended family, comprising her mum, Gareth, her step-dad, and Matt, her annoying goth step-brother.  After one very strange night of dreaming, Sarah finds a silver box that has a lock but no key and is immediately curious to find out what’s inside.  When a strange ghost-boy appears and begs Sarah to find the key, Sarah thinks it’s a fairly straightforward task…but she doesn’t count on the inexplicable opposition she meets from the local jeweller, who refuses to open it.  What could possibly be so dangerous about an old silver box?

ghost box

Key:

it could

open the lock

or shut you out.

Choose.

The first thing I appreciated about this book was the fact that it felt, for all intents and purposes, like your average late MG/early YA read.  There was nothing about the writing to indicate that this was a book for kids still gaining literacy skills.  The dialogue wasn’t stilted, the characters were well fleshed-out for the limited word count and the content was appropriately atmospheric and engaging.  I suppose that’s what happens when you get an author who already writes for the age-group (and does it well!) – they don’t feel the need to patronise their readers, or sacrifice the content because of the need to restrict certain bits of the writing.

While the story related in The Ghost Box is fairly formulaic, Fisher has really set the tone beautifully with some fantastically suspenseful and creepy bits.  As I was reading (in the dark, incidentally…why the dark? It’s not like the lightbulb had blown…) a door creaked open, swung by the wind, and I got one of those spooky shivers down the spine that make you look over your shoulder as you read.  Score one, Fisher.  Score one, creaky door.  I also really enjoyed the relationship dramas that Sarah experienced weren’t forced, but evolved naturally as part of the story and appeared in the resolution in a believable way.

I would recommend this book for confident readers in the 9 to 11 age bracket who appreciate a good spooky story.  I’d also say that this should appeal greatly to that targeted 11+ age group who may struggle with reading, or those in the same age group who need something to bring them back into the reading fold.  Oh, and it would fit nicely into category two of the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge – a book with a piece of furniture in the title…come on, a box is a furnishing, so it will fit… To find out more about the challenge (and sign up!) click on the button.

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Yours in the pursuit of spooky boxes,

Mad Martha

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Read it if…: Anna Dressed in Blood

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Happy New Year to all of you in Blogtopia! I have decided to start the year with an absolute fire-cracker of a Read-it-if…it’s one I’ve been wanting to read for a while and now, having accomplished this task, I feel I must share my thoughts with you all as it has been a bit of a rollercoaster thrill-ride that may or may not be to your taste.

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake is a young adult horror, ghosty, slash and smash, slice and dice adventure.  Essentially, it charts the story of Cas, a young lad who is tasked with dispatching murderous ghosties by virtue of his inheritance of ghostie-slaying powers through his father’s bloodline.  I’ve seen many reviews for this book, some glowing, some not, but the cumulative effect of these did not prepare me for the gory, terrifying and downright compelling nature of this book.  At a number of points I wanted to give this book up because of its graphic and scarifying scenes of gut-splattering horror, but the writing was so good I just had to pick it up again….Having said that, I have also decided to put a little spoiler section in below: “Don’t read it if…”, so that those of a more delicate constitution can make an informed choice before plunging in.

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Read it if:

  • you are the type of person who thinks that the “Saw” films should be categorised as light entertainment
  • you think YA romances containing vampires are sooooo 2011…and that no YA romance these days should be without at least one deadish, ghosty type character
  • you can’t wander past a cemetery without donning a pouch of  protective herbs and anointing yourself with a patchouli poultice

DON’T read it if (SPOILER ALERT):

  • you think Finding Nemo should be categorised as horror
  • you don’t like stories where pets come to harm…particularly out of the blue
  • you have even a mild aversion to any of the following: blood, haunted houses, ghosts, witches, magic, voodoo, exploding corpses or patchouli

I can’t say I enjoyed this book – it kept me too tense for that – but I certainly found it a compelling read, and I will therefore reserve the sequel, Girl of Nightmares, at the library when it comes out in paperback.

Until next time…And here’s a hot tip: I hear Bruce may be bestowing a second round of Gargie Awards any day now to usher in the new year! (Keep it under your hat).

Mad Martha