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

YAhoo! It’s a YA Review: Fir…

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It’s time for a little YA and today’s book is a dark, shadowy tale of the power of nature and the puniness of humans.  We received Fir by Sharon Gosling from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

We are the trees. We are the snow.

We are the winter.

We are the peace. We are the rage.

Cut off from civilization by the harsh winter of northern Sweden, the Stromberg family shelter in their old plantation house. There are figures lurking in the ancient pine forests and they’re closing in. With nothing but four walls between the Strombergs and the evil that’s outside, they watch and wait for the snows to melt.

But in the face of signs that there’s an even greater danger waiting to strike, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish reality from illusion. All they’ve got to do is stay sane and survive the winter…

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I had high hopes for this one, given that it featured creepy trees – a collective character that, it must be admitted, surely doesn’t get enough coverage in YA – and a cold, dark setting that I hoped would be a mental escape from the unrelenting heat of Australian summer.  Unfortunately I ended up DNFing at just over halfway, having given the book plenty of time to grab my attention and hold it.

The two biggest problems I had with this one were the slow pace and the stilted dialogue mixed with tedious monologue. I just couldn’t be bothered to stick around and find out what the trees were planning, or indeed, if they were planning anything at all and not just a figment of the narrator’s imagination.  The suspense aspect takes its time in building up, which is perfectly forgivable, provided the characters around which the suspense is building are interesting enough to inspire a sense of protectiveness from the reader.  I found most of the characters to be reasonably unlikable – the teen narrator is angsty and moody, the father is arrogant and stubborn and the mother is overly conciliatory – and so would have happily seen them eaten by trees …or whatever…and for this reason, somewhere along the line the suspense morphed into a sense of impatience and a desire for the trees to get on with eating the characters…or whatever.

The one character who was written to be off-putting, the housemaid Dorothea, actually turned out to be my favourite, simply because at least she had a bit of nouse about her.  By the time I put the book down however, my feelings toward Dorothea had merged with my feelings for the hapless others and I would have been quite happy to have seen her eaten first…or whatever.

The setting was the definite standout of this story and set the appropriate tone of mild foreboding, and in some instances, blessed quiet.  Had the pace of the book been a bit quicker or had I given a hoot about any of the characters, I probably would have finished this, but I just wasn’t enjoying it enough to keep snow-ploughing on.

Until next time,

Bruce

Shouty Doris Interjects during… The Women in the Walls!

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Shouty Doris interjects

It’s been a while, but today Shouty Doris is back to interject during my review of The Women in the Walls by Amy Lukavics, a YA thriller that we received for review from Simon & Schuster Australia.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Lucy Acosta’s mother died when she was three. Growing up in a Victorian mansion in the middle of the woods with her cold, distant father, she explored the dark hallways of the estate with her cousin, Margaret. They’re inseparable—a family.  

When her aunt Penelope, the only mother she’s ever known, tragically disappears while walking in the woods surrounding their estate, Lucy finds herself devastated and alone. Margaret has been spending a lot of time in the attic. She claims she can hear her dead mother’s voice whispering from the walls. Emotionally shut out by her father, Lucy watches helplessly as her cousin’s sanity slowly unravels. But when she begins hearing voices herself, Lucy finds herself confronting an ancient and deadly legacy that has marked the women in her family for generations.

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Before we get into it I have to ask: Doris, where have you been for so long?

Shouty Doris interjects

Washing my hair.

For seven months?

Shouty Doris interjects

Yes.

But surely you couldn’t ha —

Shouty Doris interjects

Just get on with it Bruce.

Haven’t lost your charming personality, I see, Doris.  Right.  Let’s crack on.  Just a warning – there will be some spoilers in this review.    

I had high hopes for The Women in the Walls when I requested it for review.  The blurb sounded spooky and mysterious, the cover was creepy, with a hint of old-time menace.  I honestly thought that this would be a five-star read and something I would thoroughly relish.  But….

Shouty Doris interjects

It wasn’t.

Well, quite.  From the very first chapter I started to have misgivings about how creepy this book would turn out to be, mostly because from the very start it seemed that the author was having trouble getting a handle on her protagonist’s voice.  I was finding it hard to pick up from the dialogue, thoughts and actions of Lucy, the main character, just what kind of a person she was – what made her tick, what her strengths might be…in short, who she was going to be as a character.  But, I decided to press on regardless because I didn’t want to give up on the prospect of creepy voices in the walls.

Shouty Doris interjects

Well, that was a mistake.  

How so?

Shouty Doris interjects

The voice problem never gets any better.  It’s like the author decided to pick obvious, wooden dialogue for all the characters and just throw it at the page in the hope that it would create a spooky atmosphere.  Quite frankly, I would have been happy if the walls had collapsed on the lot of them by the end of chapter five.  Spoilt, selfish brats, all.  Even the adults.

You’ve got a point there, Doris.  None of the main characters – Lucy, her cousin Margaret, and Lucy’s father – were particularly likable and none were developed in any deep way.  We get told (through Lucy’s thought processes) about the various tragedies that have befallen each of them, but their behaviour toward each other is so cold and unlikely that I couldn’t muster up the motivation to care about what happened to any of them.  Yet still I pushed on, hoping for the atmosphere to take a turn for the creepy.

Shouty Doris interjects

Strike two!  The author doesn’t know anything about creepy.  There’s no suspense, no atmosphere, no tension; just a bunch of whinging young girls bickering and some supposedly spooky happenings plucked out of thin air and slapped down in front of us with no build up.  I think the author was going for shock value rather than bothering to craft a story that felt suspenseful.  It’s like bringing a bag of salt and vinegar chips to a party – people will be disgusted on first seeing them, but it won’t leave a lasting impression (luckily for you.  Who brings salt and vinegar chips to a party?)

I’d have to agree, Doris.  I was hoping for this to be a real psychological thriller, with voices in the walls causing madness and mayhem to ensue.  It does ensue, admittedly, but the execution is so ham-fisted and unsubtle that any sense of tension is completely lost.  There are a couple of violent and outwardly gruesome scenes – Margaret’s death being one of them – that the author describes in detail and then keeps bringing up, as if to try and raise the scare factor, but the narration and plot arc are so clumsy and signposted that these scenes feel like they’ve been included simply to add a bit of gore to the book.

There were also parts of the narration that made absolutely no sense.  My particular favourite of these is Lucy noting, after Margaret’s brutal and frankly dubious (according to the laws of physics) method of suicide – she throws herself out of a window, landing on a spiked fence, causing her to be impaled through both body and head, in case you’re wondering – that she had no idea why Margaret did what she did.

Shouty Doris interjects

HA!! Yes, that had me chuckling a bit too.  No idea why she did what she did? Really, girly? So the inappropriate giggling in the middle of the night, the claim about hearing voices of dead relatives, the scribbling out her mother’s face in every photograph in the house, the waking to find her standing over you with scissors, the dissection of a rat, the previous gruesome suicide of another member of the household ….none of this gave you a hint that Margaret was unhinged and might do something even more unexpected? Like launch herself out of an unfastened window onto a fence worthy of Vlad the Impaler’s summer home?

Exactly.  That, and the intermittent introspection about “Did I ever really know *Margaret/Penelope/My Father/insert name of character here* at all?” felt stilted and pedestrian and did nothing to add any depth or realism to Lucy as a character.

I think the author had some good ideas for a truly creepy story here, but the execution is amateurish.  There are supposedly interweaving plotlines involving magic, the disappearance of Margaret’s mother and the involvement of a country club, but the author couldn’t seem to bring these together in a coherent, suspenseful story.  Every time I felt any kind of suspense building, the author would cut to a scene that allowed the suspense to deflate.  The parties with the country club were a big culprit here.  I mean, her aunt has disappeared, her cousin has killed herself and Lucy is quite content to hang out with her father’s country club buddies?

Shouty Doris interjects

I don’t know why you bothered to finish it.

Weeeellll.  I didn’t.  I pushed on for 227 pages and then I just couldn’t face wading through any more stilted, disconnected events narrated by a bitchy, self-centred teen.  It’s sort of my two-fingered salute to the book for not being what I expected.

Shouty Doris interjects

I’m sure the author is cut to the bone that you read seven eighths of the book and then put it down in protest.

Yeah, yeah.  I just honestly kept hoping it would get better.

Shouty Doris interjects

Let that be a lesson to you, boyo.  Now, I have to go and wash my hair.

But didn’t you just wa —

Shouty Doris interjects

Get on with it.

Right.

In case you haven’t picked up on my mood yet, I was disappointed with this one, but at least I know I gave it every chance.  Have you read The Women in the Walls?  What did you think?

Until next time,

Bruce

Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: The “Middle Grade Ripping Reads” Edition…

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Yeeeeeeehaaaaah!  I have some absolutely ripping reads to round up with you today, all of them pitched at a middle grade or early YA age group.  Excitingly, I’ve also stumbled across a fantastic, new-to-me indie fantasy series that I will share with you too!  I’m so excited I might pop my chaps!  Let’s ride on in!

Trollhunters (Guillermo Del Toro & Daniel Kraus)

*We received a copy of Trollhunters from Allen & Unwin for review*

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Trollhunters by Guillermo Del Toro & Daniel Kraus. Published by Allen & Unwin, 23rd November, 2016. RRP: $16.99

Two Sentence Synopsis:  

Jim Jnr knows that the reason his dad is so overprotective has to do with what happened with his uncle forty years ago, but locks, alarms and curfews won’t stop what’s coming for Jim now.

Muster up the motivation because…

…Whoa there!

Hold Up!

In case you feel like you are experiencing deja vu, allow me to put your mind at rest.  Yes, I have reviewed Trollhunters before on this blog, but Allen & Unwin recently sent me this new, red-jacketed edition that is a tad more slim-lined than the first edition, because as seen on the informative sticker adorning the front cover, a new TV series is being (has been?) released based on the book.

Suffice to say, I will not bore you by re-reviewing a book that I have already reviewed, but if you haven’t come across Trollhunters before, you can find my original review here.  My updated comment on this edition is that the illustrations are still a drawcard and I am quite taken with the dashing red cover.

Brand it with:

Involuntary organ donation; safety when cycling; friends in low places

Murder in Midwinter (Fleur Hitchcock)

*We received a copy of Murder in Midwinter from Allen & Unwin for review*

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Murder in Midwinter by Fleur Hitchcock. Published by Allen & Unwin, 23 November 2016. RRP: $14.99

Two Sentence Synopsis:  

Maya is travelling home on the bus when she accidentally takes a photograph of a crime in progress. Now the criminal is after her and the police attempt to hide her away in the country at her aunt’s house – but is she as safe as she appears to be?

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is an atmospheric, wintry romp through snow, sideways glances and suspicious criminal types.  I thoroughly enjoyed this brief but action-packed foray into middle grade mystery and the snowy setting was just the thing to take me away from summer heat that is so unforgiving it makes my eyeballs bleed.  Maya, the eldest sister in a charming little family that lives above their shop, innocently takes a photo from the bus window and is immediately plunged into a deadly game of cat and mouse when she realises that her photo may be a key piece of evidence in an unfolding murder investigation.  She is popped off to her aunt’s in Wales, and has to contend not only with being away from her close-knit family, but being shut in with her annoying (and downright disrespectful) cousin.  Of course, Maya turns out not to be as safe as the police thought she might be and it looks as if she and her repellent cousin may have to join forces to avoid being murdered in their beds.  Even though this is a standard size novel, it felt like a very quick read because the action just keeps coming.  There were some truly spine-tingling episodes in this one, as Maya’s antagonist attempts to smoke her out of the safety of her aunt’s house. There are a few bits of the story that do feel a bit clumsy and convenient to a reader of lots of adult murder mysteries, but overall this was lots of fun to read, with an epic, exciting, race-against-the-clock ending.  I would definitely recommend this to any readers looking for a wintry escape tinged with danger this holidays.

Brand it with:

Family ties; tips for taking good selfies; wintry Wales

Icebreaker: The Hidden #1 (Lian Tanner)

*We received a copy of Icebreaker from Allen & Unwin for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  

Icebreaker: The Hidden #1 by Lian Tanner.  Published by Allen & Unwin, December 2016.  RRP: $12.99

Icebreaker: The Hidden #1 by Lian Tanner. Published by Allen & Unwin, December 2016. RRP: $12.99

Petrel is the Nothing Girl – shunned by her shipmates because of the actions of her parents when she was a baby. When Petrel spots a boy on the ice and convinces the chief engineer to have him brought aboard, events are set in motion that could change Petrel’s life forever – as well as endanger everyone on the ship.

Muster up the motivation because…

…there aren’t a great deal of middle grade adventure series set on an Icebreaker ship in a speculative future, so if you haven’t read one such already, The Hidden might be just the place to start your middle grade ice-boating adventure reading journey.  In case you’re wondering why this book seems familiar, this edition is a cover redesign of Lian Tanner’s successful series (which has already seen a number of re-jacketings, by the look of things), so you may have come across this book before, in a different cover.   From a personal point of view, this re-jacketing is a great thing because I had seen this book a number of times before, yet never picked it up.  When I pulled this one from the postal box, I immediately went, “Oooooh!” and eagerly read the back to see what it was about.  In that sense then, this cover art enticed me sufficiently to ensure that I actually read a book that I had previously passed on multiple times in the past.  The story is appropriately icy and atmospheric, with the ship becoming almost a character in itself.  The world aboard ship is clearly divided into three social groups – Engineers, Cooks and Officers – and the mechanics of this are deftly explained throughout the story without the need for information dumps to slow things down.  The story picks up pace quickly once Petrel spots the boy on the ice and his rescue starts to cause division amongst the crew.  Clearly, the boy’s presence on an ice floe is highly suspicious, but the crew can’t seem to puzzle out his purpose for being there.  Petrel, for her part, is keen to gloss over any potential danger because at last she has a companion in a society from which she has been effectively shunned.  Mister Smoke and Missus Slink, a pair of talking rats who may be more than they seem, are a great touch, and I particularly warmed to Squid, the cook’s daughter and loyal friend (eventually) to Petrel.  There are a lot of surprises in the second half of this book and Tanner has done a wonderful job of creating an insular world ruled by machinery and survival in a hostile environment.  If you are (or know) a fan of tales of a speculative future that are heavy on the atmosphere and feature writing that conjures the story like magic, then I would definitely recommend grabbing a copy of Icebreaker – in any of its jackets.

Brand it with:

Is the heating on?; a sailor’s life for me; infernal devices

A Monstrous Place: Tales from Between #1 (Matthew Stott)

Two Sentence Synopsis:  a-monstrous-place

When Molly’s best friend Neil goes missing, it is up to Molly to investigate. With the help of her ghostly Gran, Molly must brave the world of Between and unravel the mystery of her missing friend.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is an exciting, original new fantasy series for middle grade that has the potential to explore all sorts of spine-tingling and imaginative situations.  I stumbled across this when the Kindle store threw it up as a recommended read, so I took a chance…and have subsequently bought the next two books in the series.  Between is a world that exists between waking and sleeping and is populated by all manner of strange, unexpected and unbelievable folk, including a tall faceless man, a boy-who-is-not-a-boy, and a bus full of weirdos of various persuasions.  When Molly’s best friend goes missing, her Gran – currently residing as a ghost in Between – tips her off as to where he might be, and Molly’s rescue mission begins.  After discovering some home truths about her next-door neighbours, Molly realises that she must brave a terrifying prospect in an attempt to save her mother from a fate worse than death.  The world of Between is just perfectly suited to my reading preferences.  I love original worlds filled with quirky, scary and unexpected folk and this book has them in spades.  There are a few sections of the book that are a little bit scary, but overall the story is packed with action and puzzle-solving as Molly attempts to wrangle her own rabbit-hole and save those she loves. Overall, the book has a sense of levity about it that staves off any real sense of terror, but there are definitely a few bits that had me biting my nails.  The adult characters of Gran and Mr Adams are larger than life in some senses, which keeps the story firmly in the realm of make-believe for younger readers.  I haven’t been so excited about an indie series since I found Mick Bogerman’s Slug Pie Stories, which I’ve raved about multiple times on the blog and it’s heartening to know its still possible to stumble over original, highly engaging indie-made stories.   I am so pleased to have found this series and I highly recommend these to you, if you are a fan of original fantasy tales.

Brand it with:

Sleepy time tales; old-fashioned chutzpah; gruesome gardening

The Identical Boy: Tales from Between #2 (Matthew Stott)

Two Sentence Synopsis:  the-identical-boy

Sam is bullied at school and a disappointment to his parents, so when he slips into Between and discovers a friend, it makes perfect sense to help the boy through to Awake, where they can be best friends together. As Sam and his friend start setting Sam’s world to rights, it becomes clear that Sam’s best ever best friend may not have Sam’s best interests at heart.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this second book in the Tales from Between indie middle grade series takes a much scarier turn than the first book.  More a psychological thriller in tone, The Identical Boy takes place mostly in the waking world, in which Sam is lonely and bullied…until his friend from Between crosses the border.  The book starts off innocuously enough, with Sam and his new friend dealing out schoolyard justice to a truly nasty gang of bullies, but as the boys spend more time together, things start to get a little out of hand.  Gorily out of hand, if I’m honest.  I ended up knocking this one over in one sitting because I just had to know what happened next, in that “I know it’s going to be bad, but I can’t look away” kind of way. In this book we also meet Ally, Sam’s rebellious, anti-establishment baby-sitter who becomes an ally for Sam when things start getting dangerous.  We get to see the Tall Man from Between, who appeared in the first book, again, and as the book continued I suddenly realised that Sam’s friend may indeed be the Not-Boy from the first book, although this is not confirmed – he certainly shares some of the Not-Boy’s personality traits though!  I suspect that the audience for this book would need to be of slightly sturdier stuff than readers who found the first book genuinely scary, because there is a bit of violence and blood-splatting in this one that is scary in a more realistic way than the fantasy frights of the first book.  As this series is designed to be a set of standalones though (if that makes sense!), more sensitive readers could easily skip over this one if it’s outside their comfort zone.  This is shaping up to be a super-readable series and I am impressed with the variety in content and setting that Stott has shown in just these first two stories.  I can’t wait to get stuck into book three, which is sitting on my Kindle patiently waiting its turn.  It won’t have to wait long!

Brand it with:

BFFs; parental disengagement; fun with flesh-ripping

Now look me in the eye, partners, and tell me that there isn’t a book in this herd that you want to lasso and drag home to your shelf.  Of course there is – but which one is your favourite?

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

Gabbing about Graphic Novels: Lunch Witch #2 (Knee-Deep in Niceness)

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It’s long past time that I created a new feature for graphic novels, given that I enjoy them so much and there are so many brilliant ones out there, so welcome to the inaugural, coincidentally-Halloween, edition of Gabbing About Graphic Novels.  Today’s book is the second in a series that I hadn’t heard of before, but will now make a point of pursuing.  We received a copy of Lunch Witch #2: Knee Deep in Niceness by Deb Lucke from the publisher, Papercutz, via Netgalley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Grunhilda the Witch has a weakness…a tiny soft spot on her black and crusty heart. She continues to hide the nice feelings she has when she gets a letter from former Salem Elementary student Madison. But she can’t keep up the ruse for long because her familiars are onto her…and so are her ancestors! The familiars search her hovel and find her collection of letters from Madison. Mr. Williams has a solution, but it involves making a meanness potion from the book that IS-NOT-TO-BE-USED-BY-ANYONE-OTHER-THAN WITCHES (ESPECIALLY-NOT-WITCHES’-PETS). But anything that can go wrong does when he accidentally mixes up a positivity potion instead…and it starts to affect everyone in town. Birds are singing. Flowers are growing. The principal cancels school! Grunhilda hurries to mix up a potion to fix the town, her familiars, and her own black crusty heart before the positivity succeeds in making everything bright and cheerful.

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Target Age Range: 

Middle grade and above

Genre:

Comedy, fantasy

Art Style:

Line drawings, scratchy hand-lettering and some atmospheric cardboardy highlights

Reading time:

I read this in about three short sittings.  At 164 pages, it is more substantial than many graphic novels I had read and by the end I felt like I had finished a well-developed story.

Let’s get gabbing:

Even though I hadn’t read the first book in this series (which is called The Lunch Witch, in case you are interested), I had absolutely no problem following the story, as this feels a bit like a standalone.  Essentially, Grunhilda’s animal familiars think that she is hiding a kind-old-lady characteristic somewhere about her personality and they make the decision to alter this by (inadvisedly) using the old lady’s spell-book.  Disaster ensues and with the prospect of everlasting positive vibes overtaking the town, and its up to Grunhilda and one very determined Scout to make things right and miserable again.

Grunhilda is perfectly lovable as the cranky old witch with just a grain of love in her heart, while her collection of familiars – the irrepressible mutt, Mr Williams, straight-talking spider Louise and a collection of bats – provide alternating bouts of support, chaos and general ill-feeling.  Scout, the badge-obsessed boy scout, is an unexpected and standout character, as much for his determination to legitimately achieve a badge to sew on his sash (be it a “helping old ladies” badge or a “causing everlasting negativity for a whole town badge” – he isn’t fussy) as for his commitment to assisting the community (whether or not he is wanted, and however loosely the term “assisted” may be applied).

Best bits:

Apart from Scout, I have to say I found the ancestors pretty amusing, with their mish-mash of old-timey costumes and incessant banging on the underfloor of Grunhilda’s house with broom handles.

Recommended for:

This series would best suit subversive middle graders who like a story that flips stereotypes on their heads and isn’t afraid to delve into the wicked and vexatious sides of human (and witch) behaviour.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

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

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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

A Deathly Dangerous Double Dip Review: Cell 7 and Circus Werewolves…

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If you are hankering after a book-sized snack with a dangerous flavour, then I’ve got just the thing for you today.  Two things in fact – one YA suspense tale and one MG horror comedy (horromedy?), so let’s jump straight in!

First up I have the fourth book in indie (yes, I know I said I wouldn’t, but I love this series too much), middle grade scary humour series, The Slug Pie Stories: How to Protect Your Neighbourhood from Circus Werewolves by Mick Bogerman.  We received this one for review from the author.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The circus is in town, and Mick Bogerman has a fail-proof plan to sneak inside the adults-only Macabre Pavilion. But there’s something weird about the A. Linville & Purnima Bros. Circus this year. Angry parents and crying kids exit early by the carload. Maybe it’s the clowns. Yes, they wear the standard stark-white faces and red bulbous noses, but underneath their painted smiles, there’s something not quite right. What’s more, after the full moon rises . . . they howl.

When Mick and his friends rescue a caged boy from the clown’s clutches they set off a series of disasters that threaten their entire neighborhood. Can Mick become the leader his neighbors need and protect them from the pack of hungry predators infiltrating their town?

Dip into it for… circus-werewolves

… fast-paced adventure, escaping death by the skin of one’s teeth and improvised werewolf deflecting weaponry.  It’s no secret that I love the originality of this series as well as the salt-of-the-earth narration from Mick Bogerman himself.  There are no frills to Mick – he’s a boyish boy with a strong sense of justice, a stronger sense of humour and a fierce protective streak for his younger brother Finley.  In this offering, Mick, Finley and their friends are excited to visit the circus, as they do every year, but are also wary of the reports they’ve been hearing about clowns that are far scarier than clowns have any right to be.  After the boys make a split-second decision to rescue a boy trapped in the “freak show” tent, they discover that they will now have the opportunity to see the clowns up close and personal.  

Don’t dip if…

…you’re a wussy wussbag.  Each of the books has a (possibly tongue-in-cheek!) warning to parents at the beginning, noting that the books are not for the faint-hearted and should only be read by kids of a strong constitution.  Otherwise, there’s nothing not to like.

Overall Dip Factor

The best thing about this series is that it is evolving with every book.  In this book a collection of Mick’s friends are integral to the action, and Mick and Finley’s globe-trotting Uncle George makes an important (and life-saving!) appearance.  The addition of so many extra characters gave the story a fresh energy, and as each of the characters is a bit quirky and unusual, the group of friends has quite a collection of unexpected skills and resources to hand, which is lucky when terrifying monsters seem to pop up around every corner. This book, like the others, is a reasonably quick read and the clever pacing means that there is no time to sit on one’s hands, as the action unfolds so quickly.   I’d highly recommend this one, especially to male readers of middle grade age.  Did I mention that you can also vote for the plot of the next Slug Pie Story by visiting their website?  I don’t want to get too excited, but the story featuring GARGOYLES is at the top of the rankings right now!! You can check it out and cast your vote here.

Go on, I’ll wait.

Now that that’s sorted, if you haven’t read the others in this series, you really should rectify that as soon as possible.

Next up we have Cell 7 by Kerry Drewery, a YA tale of suspense, privilege, choices and reality TV set in a speculative near-future.  We received a copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Should she live or die? You decide

An adored celebrity has been killed. Sixteen-year-old Martha Honeydew was found holding a gun, standing over the body.

Now Justice must prevail.

The general public will decide whether Martha is innocent or guilty by viewing daily episodes of the hugely popular TV showDeath is Justice, the only TV show that gives the power of life and death decisions – all for the price of a phone call.

Martha has admitted to the crime. But is she guilty? Or is reality sometimes more complicated than the images we are shown on TV?

Dip into it for…cell-7

…an intriguing take on the mob mentality and the ways in which mass media, entertainment and critical thinking intertwine in today’s society.  In a near-future that doesn’t look too far different from our present, courts have been abolished and the fate of prisoners is decided over a seven-day public voting period.  The motto “an eye for an eye” is the driver behind the TV program Death is Justice, and the viewers feel that they have a personal stake in dealing out deadly justice to perceived wrong-doers.  This book is a bit unusual in that it flicks between a number of points of view – Martha, from the inside of her death row cell; and Eve, her counsellor, in particular – as well as employing flashback scenes and running scripts from the Death is Justice television show.  This variety of style actually kept me more interested in the story than I otherwise would have been because it allows the situation in which Martha finds herself to be explored from a number of angles, and exposes the motivations of various characters.

Don’t dip if…

…you are hoping for a pacey story.  This book takes its time in giving the reader the full picture, although the information that is held back at the start of the novel does provide for an interesting mystery.

Overall Dip Factor

There was something about this book that screamed “high school set text” to me because it is such an issues-focused book, with justice, fairness and power being the issues under examination.  It was obvious from the beginning that there was more to Martha’s case than initially meets the eye, and it seemed to take quite a while to get to the crux of the issue.  I did enjoy the final few chapters of the book, when the flaws of the public voting system become apparent for all to see.  This part of the book was faster-paced than the earlier sections, and the impending and inevitable sense of danger added a bit of excitement to proceedings.  Because this did feel a bit didactic to me as an adult reader, I was a little disappointed to find out that there is a second book in the works.  I was quite satisfied with the ambiguity of what might happen to the characters given the events of the ending and I think it would have been a stronger conversation-starter if the story was left there.  Whatever the case, you should probably give it a read and let me know what you think!

After all that danger and daring, you could probably do with a cup of tea and a good lie down, so I’ll let you go, but do let me know which of these books takes your fancy.

Until next time,

Bruce