Starting 2015 with a Bang (and a few shrieks!): A Murder of Crows…

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Welcome to my first review of 2015! Are we all rested after that 24 hour break? I am. I always get a nice early night on December 31st, but some hooligans in the area always think it’s funny to let off fireworks at midnight. Rapscallions!

I’m a great subscriber to the old exhortation to “start out as you mean to go on”, so to start the year I bring you a highly intriguing and very well-constructed anthology of short stories with a horrorish theme.  A Murder of Crows: Seventeen Tales of Monsters and the Macabre by DeAnna Knippling is a frightfully good collection of scary stories weaved into a larger narrative framework that in itself is positively unease-laden.  Allow me to explain.

When Machado the crow and his flock save a young girl from the questionable magic-based antics of her mother, they drive out the cold by telling her stories.  Admittedly, the stories aren’t necessarily what one would consider appropriate for children, but telling stories is part of the crows’ culture and this particular child has seen many things that would not be considered age-appropriate.  When a mysterious monster known as the Crouga is released into the flock and begins to wreak murderous havoc, it signals the girl’s moment to take revenge on her mother.  But the thing that her mother has unleashed may be stronger than even the Crouga – and even if the girl survives the damage her mother has wrought, will she ever be able to heal?

Murder of crows

I have read quite a few short story anthologies and collections that are interwoven about a central narrative, but I have to say that this book is an extremely good example of the genre.  Putting aside the content for a moment, Knippling has created a tight, thoughtfully constructed collection here that subtly links each story to the greater narrative and covers a great variety of horror-themed tales.  There’s a nifty little zombie narrative, in which humans and the undead coexist in an uneasy sharing of geographical space, stories of changelings and fey interference in human affairs, tales of summoning what should not be summoned, particularly where revenge is involved and stories featuring objects imbued with a power not their own.  I was surprised and impressed by first the number of stories included here, as well as their quality – while the content of some was a little beyond my horror-tolerance, they were all remarkably well written and engaging, something that is not always the case in longer anthologies.

As the subtitle suggests, there are seventeen short stories within the greater narrative and they are all quite hefty in themselves and therefore the reader won’t be left wanting in terms of reading time.  Like I mentioned, some of the stories, especially toward the end became a bit too realistically violent for my tastes, but I suspect they will please more experienced horror-buffs than I.

I particularly enjoyed the characterisation given to the various crows, from the elders to the chicks, and the backstories that coloured both the stories the crows shared and their attitude to the unfolding monster-based crisis.  Machado particularly had a very relatable voice and I enjoyed his musings between the short stories.

This was an out-of-the-box, quality find for me and I will no doubt end up seeking out some other examples of Knippling’s work in the future.  If this tome is anything to go by, I will not be disappointed!

I received a copy of this title through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

Until next time,

Bruce

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!*

 

 

A Little Ripper Read-it-if Review and GIVEAWAY: The Girl from the Well…

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It is not often that I get to bring you a book that is a hands-down, five-star, should’ve-got-it-in-print read.  Don’t get me wrong, I do bring you lots of wonderful, interesting, original and exciting books on this here shelf, but today I’ve got one of those special ones.  It’s a keeper. The kind you buy in hardback and keep on the “special” shelf (wherein lie the oldest knick knacks with the most sentimental value).  Basically, this one is a guaranteed re-re-re-re-read.  (NB: that last bit wasn’t a hitherto unencountered stutter that I’m developing, just a fancy way of saying “book that you will read multiple times”).

I give you….The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco.  This book has loose ties to the Japanese film The Ring, that was later remade in English and if you know anything about that film, you will immediately gain the understanding that this book is not all flowers and sunshine.  If you don’t know anything about that film, it is apparently spectacularly terrifying and psychologically scarring.  I haven’t seen it, because I am far too sensitive to expose myself to horror films of this ilk.  Having said that, I am SO GLAD I requested this book to review because it is fan-fugu-tastic (as they say in the Simpsons).  Allow me to synopsise synopsisise tell you about the plot.  And if you live in the US or Canada, stay tuned for a chance to win a copy at the end of this post.

Tarquin is a teen who has trouble fitting in.  His mother has recently been sectioned in a psychiatric hospital for (among other things) attempting to kill her son, he and his father have just moved interstate to try to start a new life and, oddest of all, Tarquin has to try and fit in to this new life while attempting to hide his tattoos.  The tattoos that his mother put on him when he was a little boy.  Callie is Tarquin’s older cousin, who works as a teaching assistant at the junior section of Tarquin’s new school.  When she’s not dealing with kids who have decidedly odd abilities, she attempts to watch over Tark and try to help him fit in.  Okiku is dead.  But she’s still here.  After a long, long, long time, she’s still here.  And she knows that there’s something weird going on with Tarquin and his tattoos.  As the story unfolds, the reader is treated to a tale filled with kidnap and murder, ancient evil, creepy dolls, ghosts hell-bent on revenge and happenings that lead Tark back to his native Japan.  But unless he and Cassie can find the right people to help them overcome a lurking, malevolent presence that is desperate to escape into the world, they may find that their lives will suddenly become a lot shorter than they expected.

the girl from the well

Read it if:

*you like a scary story that has the potential to be terrifying and psychologically scarring, but also has a few elements thrown in to ensure you won’t be dragged screaming and ranting to the loony bin after reading it

*you’ve always been creeped out by Granny’s collection of hideous porcelain dolls staring with their blank, dead eyes from behind their glass cases

*you’ve ever had (or seen, or been told about) a tattoo that you later thought was a spectacularly poor idea…and that’s before it starts bubbling and moving under your skin

*you’re looking for a lesson on Japanese culture, history and legend that is not the kind you’ll find in history classes at school

The first and best thing I can tell you about this book is that it is compelling.  Compelling is the word that I use to describe books that I either (a) can’t put down or (b) keep thinking about and being drawn back to whenever I’m not reading it.  This was definitely the latter.  The Girl from the Well is a chunky read that took me a number of reasonably long sittings to get through, but whenever I took a break I was thinking about the story, the characters and how the book was going to end.  That, in my opinion, is the mark of great writing.

There is so much going on in this book, and I think that’s one of the reasons I was so drawn into the narrative.  We start off meeting Okiku, a spirit who is on a mission to hunt down and murder those who have threatened or killed children.  Now, while this might seem immediately off-putting (or fantastic, depending on where you sit on the love-of-horror-o-meter), there’s a real vulnerability about Okiku that had me sympathising with her and her situation right from the start.  Then we meet Tarquin and his weird tattoos, Cassie and her kids that appear to have ESP, and a sinister man who one can only conclude is up to some serious mischief involving helpless children.  We meet Tarquin’s mother, and discover that Okiku is not the only murderous spirit getting around.  And when that part of the story gets resolved, the narrative shifts everyone to Japan where the action kicks off again with ancient evil aplenty and the aforementioned creepy dolls and slashing and hacking and terrifying action.  I can’t say much more because it would be a definite spoiler, but there is plenty to keep you awake at night in this book – and not just from abject terror, either.

Because really, the story isn’t that terrifying.  Sure, there’s horror-type stuff going down and a number of scenes of violence and murder, but I never felt like it was over the top or too scary that I had to put the book down – and that’s saying something, coming from Mr Scaredy Pants extraordinaire.  I think that because most of the book is narrated by Okiku, and even though she’s a vengeful, murderous spirit, there’s something comforting about her ethical. justice -driven approach, and the posthumous journey of personal growth that unfolds for her over the course of the book.

And finally, I loved the Japanese elements of the story.  It was thoroughly refreshing to experience a contemporary YA novel with such an integrated focus on an Eastern culture and their legends and history.

In short, get this book. Get it now! If you live outside the US or Canada,  preorder it now, because it’s not released until August 5th.  If you happen to live in the US or Canada, enter this giveaway and possibly WIN a copy now!  Simply click on the rafflecopter link below and cross your fingers:

click to enter button

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Many thanks to SourcebooksFire for providing a copy of the book for this giveaway.

I, as an outside-the-US-and-Canada-dweller will just have to acquire it myself in print, as I received it as a digital copy from the publisher via Netgalley.

Until next time horror-lovers,

Bruce

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A Read-it-if Review for lovers of Spookiness: Shiverton Hall #2 The Creeper…

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Morning horror-lovers! Today I have a particularly creepy and fun read for you.  I’m pretty excited to be bringing it to you, because this second installment in the Shiverton Hall series by (the intriguingly named) Emerald Fennell has cemented the series as one of my new favourites.  Today I will present to you book two in the series, subtitled The Creeper.  I stumbled upon this series a few months back and was immediately drawn into the thrillingly chilling exploits of Arthur Bannister and his friends at the boarding school Shiverton Hall. Obviously then, when this one popped up on Netgalley, it was a no-brainer to request it – and I’m so happy I was approved because it is possibly even better than the first book and ensured that my heebies were thoroughly jeebied!

shiverton hallFor those unfamiliar with the series, I’ll give you a little overview before jumping into reviewing this new installment.  In Shiverton Hall, we meet Arthur Bannister, a young lad who experienced some trouble at his previous school and finds himself the recipient of a mysterious scholarship to the (slightly run down) boarding school, Shiverton Hall.  When an ex-pupil bursts into the principal’s welcome address, screaming at the students to beware their imaginary friends, Arthur begins to realise that Shiverton Hall is not all midnight feasts and play up, play up and play the game.  As a number of students begin to succumb to some strange behaviour, Arthur, along with his friends, ghost-story loving George and voice of reason Penny, attempt to figure out the mystery of the imaginary friends before anyone else is subjected to some supernatural and not-so-friendly behaviour.

You can read my (5 star!) review of the first book at Goodreads, here.

In book two, Arthur is all set to return to Shiverton Hall armed with some new knowledge about the hall itself and how he fits into it.  But before he leaves, Arthur is accosted by a horribly burned man in a hood who warns him not to return to school.  Arthur, though shaken, ignores the warning and is soon reunited with George, Penny, Jake, Xanthe and (unfortunately) the Forge triplets.  With an eccentric new art teacher and compulsory Wednesday afternoon activities assigned by principal Long-Pitt, Arthur has plenty on his plate without having to think about crazy warnings from creepy strangers.  After a few lessons with Mr Cornwall however, the students uncover the legend of the Creeper – a mysterious painted figure, whose absence from his painting usually indicates that a child is about to go missing.  The story sounds easy to discount – except when you consider that a young boy has recently gone missing from Grimstone without trace.  Through his Wednesday afternoon visits to an elderly lady in Grimstone, Arthur finds out more about the strange and violent history of the town and Shiverton Hall.  On investigating the missing boy himself, Arthur also finds out about an old book that may have played a part in the disappearance.  With danger closing in all around, and more encounters with the burned man, it looks like Arthur’s second year at Shiverton Hall will be just as eventful as his first!

shiverton creeper

Read it if:

* you’ve ever thought that returning to school for another year might be a bad idea (with or without assistance from a horribly burned stranger)

* you (like me), can’t go past a book that has stories within stories…particularly if the stories within are even scarier than the story without

* you believe that a psychic medium must be real if he goes by the name Alan

Right, so as I mentioned, I really like this series and I will be buying the first two very soon to be placed reverently on my “special” shelf, so clearly I will be singing its praises in this review.  Allow me to get a few little niggles out of the way first.  The main problem I had with the book was the fact that this installment seemed to have a number of similarities to the second book of the Harry Potter series.  There’s the warning to the main character not to return to school, there’s a sinister book involved in the plot and there’s the sudden appearance of a vain, eccentric new teacher with very little teaching talent.  Admittedly, these are all resolved in very different ways to the Potter series, but those few commonalities (especially as they happen fairly early on in the book) may be enough for some people to put this down as a rip-off of that more famous set of books.  They would be foolish to do so, in my opinion, but I felt I should put the warning out there, because even I was having a few qualms as I was reading.

But onto the good (awesome!) stuff.  One of the reasons I love this series so, is that Fennell has deftly woven a bunch of original short horror tales into the main plot of the story.  In the first book it is mainly George who is the narrator of these tales, and in this book they mostly come from Arthur’s elderly friend Mrs Todd, but much like Chris Priestley’s Tales of Terror series, these stories add immensely to the pacing and creepiness and spine-tingly-dingliness of the main plot.  They’re like little islands of terror dotted off the mainland of Arthur’s adventures.  I would never consider myself to be a lover of horror stories, but I must be of the closet variety, because I LOVE these scary snippets – being chilled to the stone by the likes of Skinless Tom and Grey Mary just adds to the reading experience of this series.  My favourite of these mini-stories was Husband and Wife – what a ripper! – that features some utterly strange strangers that you would be well advised to avoid, should you bump into them in the (shadow) street.

Another thing I love about the series is the banter between George, Penny and Arthur.  George has some classic one-liners thoughout both books and Fennell has a wonderful, dry sense of humour (the best kind!) that includes unexpected and hilarious interjections and extremely colourful and giggle-worthy descriptions.  One of my favourites of this book was the description of George’s self-portrait, in which we are told that while George attempts to paint himself in a suit of armour, the end result turns out looking more like a potato draped in ferrets.  Oh, the imagery!

Overall, the characters are strong and believable, the tales and back-story surrounding Arthur and Shiverton Hall are thorough and detailed, and the writing is highly engaging and filled with humour, as well as creepiness.

If you like a rollicking mystery that also contains true look-over-your-shoulder scariness, this is the series for you.  Shiverton Hall: The Creeper is released on June 5th.  Get on it, my friends.

I’m off to drape a potato in ferrets,

Bruce

*I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for an honest review*

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Post Number 100!: A Double Read It If Review….

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Yes, that’s right – 100 posts! How the time has flown….

Well, after Tales of the Nunexpected in post number 99, I bring you read-it-if reviews of two books that turned out to be entirely different to what I anticipated.  The first of these is Moose Baby, by Queen of the Quirky, Meg Rosoff.

I found this one during a random browse, and while I wouldn’t consider myself a real fan of Meg Rosoff, I have read and enjoyed a few of her books.  Moose Baby seemed to promise a similar level of thought-provoking oddity that I had experienced in my previous Rosoff encounters.  I was wrong. Moose Baby broke the pointer on my homemade weird-o-meter.  Let me explain.

moose baby

Moose Baby is the story of a 17 year old girl who gives birth to a moose. Now on reading the blurb, I assumed that either (a) “moose” was a metaphor for something I would discover during reading or (b) the girl did not actually give birth to a moose, but had to look after a young moose in some kind of “Preparing for Motherhood” type school project.

Nope. She actually gives birth to a moose. The book follows the trials and tribulations of a young couple attempting to raise a moose baby in a world designed for humanoid bipeds.


Read it if:

* you’re looking for a cheerful, quick, light read – I finished this one in 40 minutes

* you’re a teenager who thinks it would be so awesome to have a baby right now

* you’ve ever experienced that awkward moment when deciding how to compliment the new parents of an unattractive baby

* you are a parent and you suspect that your sweet, intelligent, genial and well-behaved infant was accidentally swapped at the hospital and that’s how you ended up with this loud, energetic, misbehaving, dirt-magnet for your offspring 

While I personally found this book a bit too left-of-centre for my usual tastes, I think it would appeal greatly to its teenage target audience as it is a funny, engaging and not-at-all-demanding take on the young parent theme.

My second not-quite-what-I-anticipated read this week was Doll Bones, by Holly Black, of Spiderwick Chronicles fame.  I had been looking forward to this one for a loooong time as the blurb seemed to indicate an appropriately atmospheric and promisingly creepy story centred around a spooky haunted doll. Somewhat disappointingly for me, given the level of my anticipation, the blurb was….well, not exactly inaccurate, but emphasised minor parts of the story.

Doll Bones tells the story of middle-schoolers Zach, Alice and Poppy, who enjoy playing an elaborate role-play type game of their own creation after school.  When Zach’s dad throws out the action figures that are an integral part of the game in an attempt to make Zach “grow up”, the friendship between the three is tested. Faced with the disintegration of their game and a new prickliness in their friendship, the three set out on a quest to lay to rest the ghost of a young murdered girl that is trapped in the form of a china doll.  Cue adventure!

doll bones

If that explanation seems a bit disjointed, it reflects the narrative in Doll Bones – while the story itself is engaging and action packed, the horror and paranormal elements championed by the title, blurb and cover actually play a very small role in the story. The meat of it revolves around the relationship between Zach, Poppy and Alice and the challenges they face in maintaining their friendship as they experience the changes of growing up.

Read it if:

* you are certain that the creepy china doll in your mother’s/grandmother’s/aunt’s/neighbour’s cabinet is watching you…

* No, seriously. It just moved. Didn’t you see it move?

* you still like to indulge in certain childish activities…even though by all accounts you are way too old for them

* you’ve ever indulged in quite significant levels of theft to overcome minor problems with the full expectation that the rightful owners of the stolen goods would be perfectly happy for you to be using (and damaging) their stuff

* you are quite happy to pick up a book with the expectation that it will be a spooky ghost-ish story…only to find it is actually a road trip/coming-of-age tale instead

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy this book – very much in fact, and I think it would be greatly enjoyed by middle readers.  I do feel though that the blurb is significantly misleading – this is by no means a ghost story. My only other problem with the book was the theft mentioned above….

***SPOILER ALERT****

The characters willingly steal and capsize a sailing boat, then abandon it when it runs aground, and make up for this by saying that they’ll phone the marina when they get the chance to let the owners know where it is. As if this will excuse the possible charges of grand theft and wilful damage to property that could be coming their way.  Then they steal some bikes too.   I’m all for the adventure element in kid’s books, but as there was no consequence mentioned in the narrative for what is unquestionably a pretty significant crime, I felt that this was a bit of a stretch.  But maybe that’s because I’m a cranky old curmudgeon who can’t remember what it’s like to be young.

****SPOILER OVER!!****

Thanks to all who’ve joined in at some point over these last 100 posts – let’s hope I’ve got at least another 100 in me somewhere!

Until next time,

Bruce