Small Spaces

Small Spaces is a Middle Grade offering by Katherine Arden (author of the YA title, The Bear and the Nightingale). It is also the perfect read for the Halloween season.

Set during October in small town Vermont, Small Spaces introduces readers to Ollie, a sixth grader still mourning the loss of her mother earlier in the year. She copes with the pain by immersing herself in fiction and alienating herself from her classmates.

One day, Ollie finds a woman about to toss a book into the river. Ollie saves the book and begins reading it. The story in the book within our book tells of a deal with a devil at a small turn of the century farm. Events in the book begin to mirror real life when Ollie and her sixth grade class visit a local farm the next day, a farm that Ollie begins to suspect is the same one described in her book. Soon Ollie and two of her friends find themselves trapped in an alternate universe and hunted by animated scarecrows.

With Small Spaces, Arden has written a legitimately creepy tale that should entertain readers of all ages. The October atmosphere is palpable; reading, I could almost smell the autumn air and feel the chilly breezes. I encourage readers to snatch this book up quickly. There’s no better time than the Halloween season to enjoy it!

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The Fade

The Fade by Demitria Lunetta made me feel old. Being an adult who reads YA titles, this occasionally happens. Still none have yet hit me quite this hard, and it was all thanks to this one passage, where the heroine teases her sister:

            “Whatever, Sporty Spice.”

            She looks at me. “Who?”

            “You know, the Spice Girls. They were a girl group in the nineties…”

            I don’t bother to explain that I helped Mom rip all her old CDs to her computer…

This book was published in 2018, so it makes sense that the teenage characters wouldn’t be terribly familiar with the Spice Girls, but I was still surprised. I turned 30 recently, and the fact that I am now closer in age to the parents than the teenagers in some of the books that I read still hasn’t completely sunk in.

Other than this shock to my system, I really enjoyed The Fade. The story revolves around Hayley, who moves from Chicago with her parents and older sister to an old house in small town Wisconsin. Shortly after moving in, she begins to hear stories of the Grabbed Girls of Gladwell, four girls who disappeared about five years before. The girls were all from her neighborhood, and one of them had lived in her house. Hayley knows that the girls were actually killed, because she begins to sense the girls’ ghosts. The novel revolves around her hunt for their killer.

The Fade gets instant points for inclusivity. The main character is half Vietnamese, and there are several gay and lesbian side characters. For the most part the characters behave like realistic teenagers and are pretty likable, even if the fast pace of the story means that some character development falls to the wayside.

There’s also a few neat twists that seasoned horror fans may see coming, but the average YA reader might not. About halfway through the book, one twist takes the novel in a new and interesting direction. It’s unique enough that it makes allows The Fade to stand apart from many similarly plotted novels.

Ultimately, I highly recommend The Fade for older teens and adults who enjoy YA. The subject matter (which includes suicide, familial abuse, and murder) plus the somber tone of the latter half of the book might be too heavy for younger readers, but older ones should appreciate this novel’s unique take on the haunted house genre.

Movie Review: The Witch Files

I’ve been pretty sick recently, so I didn’t really have time to get in a book review this week. Instead, I thought I’d share with y’all a brief movie review that I wrote for my other sight, Final Woman: Horror Fiction from a Female Perspective. THE WITCH FILES is a teen horror movie (rated TV-14) currently available on Netflix, which I encourage everyone to check out. Here’s what I had to say about it:

I checked this one out solely because I saw it featured Paget Brewster, of Criminal Minds fame. I honestly wasn’t expecting much; I knew next to nothing about THE WITCH FILES going in, but I was pleasantly surprised. The movie plays out like a PG-13 version of The Craft, which is a long time favorite of mine. FILES revolves around 5 teen girls who form a coven and start casting spells to get everything they want. Unfortunately, their new gifts come with a price. Brewster is sadly underused in the role of a police detective investigating the coven, but she shines in every scene she’s in. The five teen actresses are also outstanding, particularly Britt Flatmo as head witch with a secret, Jules. Serious horror fans might find the tone of the film too light and breezy, but fans of Buffy and Charmed will probably enjoy it as much as I did.

Tales for the Midnight Hour, Volume 1

I first read the four Tales for the Midnight Hour collections by J. B. Stamper as a preteen and was pretty impressed. Over the years since, I had forgotten most of the stories, but remembered enjoying the books and even being pretty creeped out by some of the stories. A few days ago I was going through some books stored in my old bedroom at my mom’s place and found the two omnibus editions Tales for the Midnight Hour, Volume 1 (collecting the first two books Tales for the Midnight Hour and More Tales for the Midnight Hour) and Tales for the Midnight Hour, Volume 2 (collecting Still More Tales for the Midnight Hour and Even More Tales for the Midnight Hour). I decided to reread Volume 1 and see if it held up after all these years.

The first part of Volume 1 (the stories from the original Tales for the Midnight Hour) starts off with “The Furry Collar,” which while somewhat nonsensical is still suitably creepy. Two other stories, “The Ten Claws” and “The Jigsaw Puzzle” were also effective, even if they didn’t manage to invoke the same shivers they gave me when I was younger. In these stories the brevity works to Stamper’s advantage. The best entries in the collection all play out like the recitation of an urban legend and would make good tales to tell around a campfire.

Speaking of urban legends, some stories are directly lifted from famous ones. “The Black Velvet Ribbon” tells the familiar tale of a lovely young woman with a ribbon around her neck, which she refuses to take off. When her lover defies her wishes and removes it, he realizes too late why she was so insistent. Another story, “A Free Place to Sleep” is set at 50 Berkley Square, a notoriously haunted London home.

Some stories, however, suffer from their shortness. These are the stories that are less fable-like. Stories such as “The Face” and “The Stuffed Dog” are more original, but that’s not necessarily to their advantage. They don’t feel fully thought out and end abruptly. They also don’t make a lot of sense.

In the second section of Volume 1 (the stories from More Tales for the Midnight Hour), we’re treated to some slightly longer stories. While none of them reach the creep factor of the best stories of the early segment, they are overall more even in tone. The writing is slightly better in this collection, and the stories are mostly fun, if occasionally predictable. I particularly enjoyed “The Hearse” and “The Black Mare.” ” A Night in the Woods” started off pretty strong but ultimately would have been creepier if Stamper had gone in a different direction with it. The werewolf angle seemed kind of silly.

So did the collection hold up? Unfortunately, not really. But that shouldn’t stop kids from picking it up. Preteens will likely still be creeped out by the same stories I was at their age. I might go back and reread Volume 2 at some point. Maybe it will hold up a little better.

13

I originally received this Point Horror anthology as a birthday gift from one of my best friends, way back when I was 11 or 12. I read it for the first time that summer and revisited it again and again. While none of the tales ever really scared me, even as a kid, they were thrilling and fun and infinitely re-readable. So I thought now, on my 30th birthday, I’d revisit the collection and give it a proper review. 13 is filled with authors who were super popular in the 90s, so there’s also an incredibly high nostalgia value here for those of us who lived through that time.

“Collect Call”-Christopher Pike

“Collect Call” is actually divided into two parts; one begins the compilation, the other appears later on. This is a fun tale that plays with time and destiny – two girls are in love with the same dangerous boy, but which one will be his victim and which one will enact revenge for them both?

“Lucinda”-Lael Litke

I originally loved this story because of its depiction of an underwater town – flooded to create a nearby dam. That concept always fascinated me as a kid. The story itself is one of retribution from beyond the grave. Nothing fancy or too original, but fun all the same.

“The Guiccioli Minature”-Jay Bennett

This one is one of the best written in the collection but doesn’t really fit well with the other stories, being much quieter and more understated.

“Blood Kiss”-D. E. Athkins

I thought this vampire story was oh-so-romantic when I was growing up. Now that the media has been oversaturated by romantic teen vampires, I’m a little less in to it, but it’s still worth a read.

“A Little Taste of Death”-Patricia Windsor

This one, though one of the more original entries, has never been one of my favorites. The “never take candy from a stranger” saying is hounded home here, when a girl finds herself mixed up with a group of other teens who all took candy from the same man when they were kids. These teens are now turning up dead. Who could possibly be responsible? (Hint: it’s the obvious answer.)

“The Doll”-Carol Ellis

I always forget about this story, which is a shame, because, while not original, it’s still a pretty good entry into the “killer doll” subgenre. Nothing seasoned horror fans haven’t seen before, but for kids who may be less familiar with Chucky, Annabelle, and their ilk, it’s a good diving in point for the subgenre.

“House of Horrors”-J. B. Stamper

A teen stays after-hours in a wax museum of horrors. Haunted/deadly wax museums are another popular subgenre, and this is also a fun jumping off point for kids not yet familiar with the “House of Wax” films, “Wax Mask,” or anything similar. It’s also a genuinely fun story, even for those of us familiar with the course it will take.

“Where the Deer Are”-Caroline Cooney

This story, Mummy (received as a gift from the same friend on the same birthday), and (obviously for those of us in the 90s) The Face on the Milk Carton were my introductions to Caroline Cooney. “Where the Deer Are” was definitely the strangest of these early reads, but it’s also the only one of the three that has really stuck with me over the years.

“The Spell”-R. L. Stine

I stand by what I’ve said before. R. L. Stine is comfort food horror. You can always count on him for a good time, and this story is no exception.

“Dedicated to the One I Love”-Diane Hoh

Three best friends are all unknowingly dating the same boy and accidentally kill him after discovering his two-timing and attempting revenge. This one has I Know What You Did Last Summer vibes mixed with the supernatural. It’s one of the most fun entries in the collection, although I’m not sure if I would have appreciated it as much had I read it for the first time as an adult.

“Hacker”-Sinclair Smith

This one might have been my favorite back in the day. It’s a fun tale of a girl going up against a serial killer, and I must have read it a million times as a teen. While the computer references are so out of date today, it otherwise still holds up.

“Deathflash”-A. Bates

A story of the gift of life conquering death, this one is one of the most memorable, if not one of the best in the collection. Plus, it has cats. I love cats.

“The Boy Next Door”-Ellen Emerson White

I’ve seen this story in other anthologies as well, for good reason. The story of a girl facing off a dangerous acquaintance in an ice cream parlor after hours is one of the best written in the collection and features a neat twist.

Overall, this collection holds up to adult re-reading. It’s nothing incredibly special, but a good way to kill a few hours. The stories, for the most part, are fun, quick reads, and I highly recommend 13 for both teens looking for an introduction to the horror genre and people of my generation looking for a nostalgic trip back in time.

Defy the Dark

Defy the Dark is an anthology of (mostly) horror and dark fantasy themed short stories, edited by Saundra Mitchell. Like all anthologies, it has its hits and misses, but overall it’s a pretty solid collection. Many of the stories are creepy; some are touching, and all of my favorite stories had one thing in common: they were haunting.

The best stories include:

“Nature”-Aprilynne Pike

First up is Aprilynne Pike’s “Nature,” which, while it is not at all a horror story, was one of my favorites, so I wanted to include it here. Kylie lives in a dystopian future where people are divided into 3 groups when they turn 16. Laborers do manual work; Nurturers continue their academic studies and go into related fields, and Natures produce babies. Kylie has heart set on being a Nurture, but is relegated to Nature. While Kylie is heartbroken, Pike does allow the story to end on a hopeful note. I definitely walked away from this one feeling the warm and fuzzies.

“The Dark Side of the Moon”-Dia Reeves

Reeves contributes a story set in Portero, TX. the fictional town of her novels Bleeding Violet and Slice of Cherry. I love Portero (I seriously wish this place really existed), and this story serves as a fun, quick visit to that mysterious place. In “Dark Side of the Moon,” Cade, an outsider, tries to prove himself to his Porterene girlfriend by facing the one thing in town that even the natives are afraid of, the Night Trolley. This story is wondrously strange and can be enjoyed even if you haven’t read the preceding novels.

“Stillwater”-Valerie Kemp

When you live in a small, rural town, life can seem monotonous. It can almost seem like every day is the same. But what if it really was the same? What if your town was trapped in some sort of time loop? What if the reason that no one ever leaves town is because they can’t? That’s the premise behind “Stillwater,” a haunting, but hopeful, story of two teens who begin to realize the truth about their little town and look for a way out.

“Almost Normal” by Carrie Ryan

Taking place at the beginning of the apocalypse Ryan writes about in her Forest of Hands and Teeth novels, “Almost Normal” is a breath of fresh air in an oversaturated subgenera. Ryan’s story tells of the loss of innocence and hope, as four teenagers spend their last night of freedom before the zombie hordes reach their town at a local amusement park. Ryan is a fantastic writer, and while I’ve put off reading Forest of Hands and Teeth for a while (zombie stories aren’t really my thing), “Almost Normal” has pushed her other works to the top of my list.

“Naughty of Nice”-Myra McEntire

In Myra McEntire’s “Naughty or Nice,” two old friends realize their true feelings for each other as they battle Krampus in Bavaria. This one was a lot of fun, and I do love a good Krampus story, so this one easily made it on to my favorites list. McEntire makes us really care about her characters, and her Krampus is legitimately frightening. I can’t wait to check out more from this author.

“Where the Light Is”-Jackson Pearce

Will is a young man in a small mining town, who has reluctantly begun working in the mines after graduating high school. While underground one day, he meets Ennor, who is a “Knocker,” a race of fae-like people who live underground and are guardians of the mines. Knockers are powerful and can be dangerous to those who disrespect the earth, but Will and Ennor form an unlikely friendship, as they both dream of a life above ground and away from the darkness of the mines. Pearce has a gift for infusing her stories with a haunting, magical atmosphere, and this short story is one of her best works.

“This Was Ophelia”-Tessa Gratton

This is more dark romance, but it is a beautiful story, possibly the best in the collection. Ophelia is young heiress who likes to spend her nights out on the town, dancing and smoking cigars. On these nights, she is “O,” a handsome and charming young gentleman. She has always felt more comfortable this way, rather than as the proper young lady she has to be in the daytime. When she falls in love with a young man she meets on one of these nights, they both must make a choice. Romance is nor normally “my thing,” but this story blew me away, and I couldn’t stop think about it for a long time after I finished it.

Other good stories include Courtney Summer’s suspenseful “Sleepstalk,” Malindo Lo’s haunted house story, “Ghost Town,” the creepy cryptid tale “Eyes in the Dark” by Rachel Hawkins, and Mitchell’s own contribution, “Now Bid Time Return.” I also initially really liked Chrsitine Johnson’s “Shadowed,” but the ending felt a bit rushed and confused, not to mention depressing. As far as the other stories, while I really don’t think any were particularly bad, there was some that I was admittedly not over the moon for. Ultimately, however, Defy the Dark is definitely a collection worth checking out for fans of horror and dark fantasy. Although I initially checked it out from the library, I plan on adding a copy to my own personal collection, so I can revisit it again and again.

Sweet

Sweet is the first novel I’ve read by Emmy Laybourne, but it definitely has me intrigued to read more, including her more famous Monument 14 series. Sweet is also a novel of survival horror, although it’s set on a cruise ship instead of a superstore. The plot revolves around the Solu Cruise to Lose, a luxury cruise where a wealthy businessman is unveiling his new artificial sweetener, Solu, a week before it becomes available to the rest of the world. Solu is being touted as a “miracle” weight loss drug, and most people on board are excited to drop some pounds.

Our heroine, seventeen-year-old Laurel doesn’t really want to be on the cruise, but her wealthy best friend has dragged her along. Viv and Laurel are about the same size, but while Viv is desperate to lose weight, Laurel is comfortable with her fuller figure. She likes being curvy. Our other protagonist, former child star, Tom Forelli doesn’t really want to be on the cruise either; he believes exercise is the key to good health, not fad diets. However, his publicist thinks the cruise would be a good way to get Tom back in the spotlight. When Laurel and Tom meet, sparks fly, and things begin looking up for both of them, until they start noticing the side effects of Solu on their fellow passengers.

Turns out, Solu may be an effective way to lose weight, but it is also extremely addictive. And its side effects are deadly.

Sweet starts off interestingly enough, and Laurel and Tom make for likable heroes. I also commend Laybourne on Sweet‘s body positivity message. Laurel and Tom are some of the few passengers who manage to side step the dangerous effects of Solu, because both have healthy body images and avoid the sweetener, wary of something that sounds too good to be too true. As someone who has vacillated between super-skinny and overweight all my life, I appreciate the message and wish this book had been around when I was in high school.

Where Sweet really gets good though is when all hell breaks loose. Solu brings out the worst in its consumers. People become temperamental, then violent, before finally losing all moral inhibitions. When Solu on the ship becomes scarce, the addicts turn to murder, rioting in order to get more of the addictive sweetener. People are trampled when the kitchens get mobbed, and fights break out over the packets left. When all the packets of the sweetener are gone, the addicts resort to cannibalism and blood drinking, attempting to get the remains of Solu out of the bodies of others who have consumed it.

I’m not going to lie. This book gets pretty gory. So despite my massive amount of love for this under appreciated thriller, I can’t recommend it to those with weak stomachs. For the rest of us, Sweet is a can’t miss, fun, action packed thrill-ride that will have you on the edge of your seat as you turn the pages to see if Tom and Laurel will succeed in warning the outside world of Solu’s effects…and if they can get off the ship alive.