Red Spikes

Hey guys, sorry it’s been a long time since I’ve posted. I’m crazy busy right now. Anyway, the collection reviewed here, Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan is not strictly horror, but it does contain some pretty creepy and occasionally disturbing stories, some of which fit into the genre, so I thought I’d leave the review here (I originally posted it on Goodreads) to tide over until I can publish a new actual horror review again.

This book. It’s not what I expected, and I find it hard to put a rating on it. Some stories I loved; one story I hated (seriously, Monkey’s Paternoster-I wish I had never read it).

Baby Jane was a charming opening to the collection. A boy finds his home invaded by a bear, a pregnant queen, and a little man, all from another world. The story was sweet and whimsical an I adored it.

Baby Jane was unfortunately followed by the unpleasant Monkey’s Paternoster. I wish I could unread it. It was unpleasant and nearly caused me to give up on the whole book.

A Good Heart was a short, sweet, melancholy tale that encouraged me to give the overall collection another chance.

Winkie, about a young girl and a giant, was strange and creepy, and my only real complaint is that it could have gone on longer.

A Feather in the Breast of God features a pet bird that comes back from death to save the daughter of the family that kept him. It’s beautifully sweet (and not nearly as saccharine as it sounds). I teared up a little.

Hero Vale was weird and creepy and hard to describe. Another story that I could have lived in a little bit longer.

Under Hell, Over Heaven features workers in the middle ground between hell and heaven, escorting a soul to hell. It’s mean spirited and gruesome and oddly entrancing. I was left melancholy and slightly disturbed by this forbidding idea of the afterlife.

Mouse Maker started out promising but kind of fizzled by the end.

I was originally not terribly impressed with Forever Upward, but it’s hopeful ending left me smiling. Kind of the opposite of how I felt about Mouse Maker.

Finally, Daughter of Clay, tells of a changeling going to fairy land to trade places with the girl whose life she’s living. It’s a bittersweet appropriate end to the collection.

Ultimately, Red Spikes reminded me of a collection of fairy tales, more Grimm than Disney. Charming and whimsical yet also melancholy and disturbing. It’s a hard book to rate. It’s like a box of dark chocolate, rich and filling but not to everyone’s taste.

Except for Monkey’s Paternoster. Seriously, it’s the worst.

Gothic! Ten Original Dark Tales

Gothic! is a horror (although I use that term loosely here) collection, edited by Deborah Noyes, that I first read when I was back in high school. Like most collections, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, although overall it’s enjoyable, if nothing entirely special.

Joan Aiken (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) contributes the first story, “Lungewater,” which is an old fashioned ghost story. Our narrator is on the way to visit her great-aunt at Christmas when she runs into an elderly man who relates the history of a local legend. It’s nothing particularly original, but it’s comforting in a way that I find old fashioned ghost tales tend to be.

Prolific author, Vivian Vande Velde, contributes the first of my two favorite works in the collection. “Morgan Roehmar’s Boys,” also included in her collection, All Hallows’ Eve, concerns a teenage girl working at a haunted hayride on Halloween. It soon become apparent that there are some very real horrors haunting the attraction, and our protagonist will be lucky to make it through the night.

“Watch and Wake” by M.T. Anderson would probably make more sense if I had previously read his novel, Thirsty, which this story shares a (truly bizarre) world with. It’s a weird little story that I don’t remember particularly liking when I first read it years ago, but I appreciate it a lot more now. I’m definitely more inclined to pick up his novel, which I’d always passed over before.

Neil Gaiman’s “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire” is a parody of gothic romances and horror stories. You know the ones: scantily clad women running away from dark castles on the cover? It’s a fun story, which Gaiman has also turned into comic book form, and I recommend checking out that copy.

“Have No Fear, Crumpot is Here!” by Barry Yourgrau was easily my least favorite story in the collection. Our “hero” (another word I use lightly) is the thoroughly obnoxious and unlikable Walter. I’ve never read anything else by Yourgrau, and after reading this story, I certainly wouldn’t want to.

Caitlin R. Kiernan is a fabulous writer, and while “The Dead and the Moonstruck” isn’t her finest work, it’s still one of the better stories in the collection. There’s a lot of mythology crammed into this short story, so it’s really no surprise that it’s a prequel to some of her other work. The protagonist, Starling Jane, also features in Kiernan’s adult novel, Low Red Moon.

“Stone Tour” is by Janni Lee Simner, an author I am not otherwise familiar with. It’s a brief tale of a young girl searching for something she’s lost. It’s sad and, ultimately, sweet, but it doesn’t really last long enough to leave much of an impression.

Gregory Maguire (Wicked) does not turn in his best work with “The Prank,” a tale of bad choices and family secrets. It’s an interesting read, but doesn’t hold a candle to his fairytale adaptations, and honestly almost seems like it’s written by a totally different writer. It doesn’t help that the main character is absolutely unlikable, although I did feel a little sorry for her by the end.

Celia Rees’s story, “Writing on the Wall” was my other favorite when I first read this collection, and I’m pleased to say I still enjoy it now. I love a good haunted house story, and this one doesn’t disappoint.

Garth Nix contributes the final story, appropriately titled, “Endings.” The story is well written, but it’s so brief as to be inconsequential. I know Nix can do better than this. If you want to see him at his best, check out his YA dark fantasy novel, Sabriel, or his adult short horror story, “Shay Corsham Worsted.”

Overall, it’s an entertaining collection, but nothing that ever left a lasting impression on me. It’s a quick read and probably better for older kids and teens just dipping their toes into the horror genre, rather than seasoned horror fans.

Bad Taste in Boys

Bad Taste in Boys by Carrie Harris is a zombie/infection novel. Our heroine Kate is a senior in high school and a science genius who works as an assistant medic for her high school’s football team. Her longtime crush, Aaron, is the quarterback. Kate becomes suspicious when she finds out her coach has dosed some members of the team with a mysterious, experimental injection. This injection is supposed to be a performance enhancer, but it begins to turn the infected into essentially zombies, mindless and cannibalistic, who can then pass along the disease to those around them. Kate spends the book trying to get to the bottom of the mystery involving the injections and attempting to come up with a cure.

So what did I think of it?

Okay, I want to get the serious stuff out of the way first. I had a big problem with one particular aspect of the book: Kate gets groped by a guy at a party and then mentions she hooked up with him once while drunk and now he thinks she’s easy. Her BFF also still gives her a hard time about the hook up. The same guy proceeds to grope her again and later force a kiss on her. She essentially shrugs off all the encounters. This. Is. Not. Cool. And I think, honestly, my main problem with the whole thing is that the book treats it so lightly. Granted the book was published in 2011 before the Me Too movement forced Americans to really think about and understand the definition of Consent. Still, this kind of brush off in a book aimed at teenagers seems inappropriate. At least, it certainly rubbed me the wrong way, and I had to discuss it before getting into the rest of my review.

On a much less serious note, another big problem I had with the book is that Kate never tells an adult until almost the very end. The zombie disease is clearly dangerous and extremely contagious, but Kate spends most of the book trying to figure the infection out on her own, rather than contacting authorities. She tries to put together the information she knows and pass it along to the team’s official doctor…who specializes in gynecology and acupuncture, not exactly someone who would be expert on infectious diseases. Eventually Kate contacts the health department, but this happens in the last 1/4 of the book. (Needless to say they ignore her at this point, but to be fair she doesn’t try very hard).

Kate also takes her sweet time getting to the bottom of things herself and although privately panicking, never thinks to inform anyone that they might be in danger. She needs to alert the police, the hospitals, the CDC, people who are more capable at handling this than teenagers. She doesn’t even call the police when she stumbles across a dead body, a victim of one of the zombies. At one point, Kate even lets a friend go home with someone she knows to be infected without warning her. In real life, Kate wouldn’t be a hero at the end of all this, she’d be in serious trouble for not letting the authorities handle it.

If it seems from the above paragraphs that I didn’t like this book, I’m sorry. It was actually really enjoyable, and I do plan on checking out the sequel. Kate is, for the most part, a likable narrator and at times her narration is laugh out loud funny. Her love interest is adorable, although he’s not really given much to do, and I also really liked the character of her younger brother, Jonah. I do recommend Bad Taste for those looking for a fun, light read; I just recommend it with the above mentioned caveats.

Non-Review of Undead

I actually started Undead by Kirsty McKay several years ago, but, for some reason I can no longer recall, I got about halfway through and then never finished it. I remembered enjoying the parts I did read, and so a few weeks ago, when I was looking for a good cold weather book, I decided to check this one out from the library and give it another shot. Was it worth the extended wait?

Well…no, because I dnf-ed it again. I don’t know what it is about this book. It’s entertaining. It’s not badly written. It’s snowy horror and I love snowy horror! But, for one reason or another, I just couldn’t get into it. And so I put it down. Again.

One day, Undead, I will finish you. I will give you the attention you deserve, and I will finish you. I will probably even enjoy you. But today, is not that day. Tomorrow probably won’t be either. But eventually, you and I will be friends, and I’ll follow your snowy zombies all the way to the sequel.

One day.

The Shadowing: Hunted

The Shadowing: Hunted by Adam Slater is a spooky little book, perfect for curling up with on a cold winter’s night. At less than 200 pages, it’s also a short read and with its fast pace, a quick one.

Hunted is about a boy named Callum, who can see ghosts. He’s been able to see them all his life, although he’s never told anyone. The ghosts are spooky but boring; they don’t ever seem to see Callum. Callum lives with his Gran in a little cottage on the other side of woods from his small town. His mum died several years before, and he’s never met his dad, so when he starts seeing other creatures, besides the usual ghosts, he doesn’t know who to turn to. A demon is after Callum, and he’ll have to figure out, quickly, who to trust if he’s going to have any hope of defeating it.

Hunted is the first book in a trilogy, and I am already eager to read the next two books. Although this one could have used a little more depth to its characters, I otherwise appreciated the way Slater immediately plunges readers into the action of the story. The demon on Callum’s trail is legitimately creepy and the murders it commits gruesome. The stakes are set high from the very beginning, and I can imagine the books will only get more thrilling as Callum’s story progresses. I highly recommend this to readers looking for fast-paced thrills and chills. The second book is already sitting on my shelf, so I’ll let you know if it holds up to this one.

Nightmare City

Nightmare City by Andrew Klavan is…not great, if I’m being completely honest. I had high expectations for it; the plot sounded really interesting. Here’s an excerpt from the back cover: “The streets of his town are suddenly empty and silent. A strange fog has drifted in from the sea and hangs over everything. And something is moving in that fog. Something evil. Something hungry. Closing in on Tom.”

Sounds pretty cool right? Unfortunately it’s an interesting idea marred by its execution.

The first problem is the writing. While, based on subject matter and marketing, the book is clearly aimed at teens, the actual writing feels more like it’s aimed at younger children. A lot of the sentences are short, often fragmented. For example, “Tom sat up in bed, tossing the comforter aside. He shook his head to clear it. Weird call. Weird noise. Woke him up out of that great dream too. What was it? Oh yeah, he remembered: heaven.”

There’s also a lot of telling, rather than showing, which can doom a book. We’re told that Tom’s “blue eyes shone out intense, smart, steely and unwavering. His features were narrow and sharp, serious and purposeful…anyone else who looked at him recognized a young man who knew how to go after what he wanted, a young man who could not easily be turned away.” But we’re not shown it. If anything, throughout the book Tom comes across the opposite of all of the above; he’s self-conscious, awkward, and more than a little dense.

Klaven also often feels the need to define things he’s not sure his readers will get, like the definition of “malevolence,” or, more distractingly, during a hospital scene, what scrubs are. This would not be so out of place in a book for younger readers, but it’s kind of insulting to teens to treat them like they need so much explanation.

Then there’s the somewhat heavy handed Christianity aspect. I’m sure there are readers who may not be bothered by that, may even appreciate it, but to me, it came across as distracting and cliche. I was able to overlook it at first, but as it became more overt, it became harder to see past. Especially when Tom talks to Lisa, who discusses with Tom the nature of heaven and gives him advice based on Biblical quotes. She also leaves him with her cross necklace for protection, reminding him that God is with him. Again, I recognize that this will not bother some readers, but I was a little thrown off by my horror novel veering into “Inspirational Fiction” territory. That’s partially my fault though; if I had looked into the author a little more I would have seen that he is also the author of some more overtly Christian works.

Another problem I had is the depiction of women. Calling the female characters weak is an understatement. Lisa is okay; she starts out marginally interesting, although she kind of devolves into a stereotypical “good Christian girl” as the book goes on. Meanwhile, Marie is mostly described by her looks. Tom has supposedly been crushing on her for years, but the book doesn’t really explain why except that she is really pretty. That she eventually turns out to be villainous is telegraphed from the beginning. Between Lisa and Marie, you have the pure good girl and the duplicitous temptress. I am more than a little tired of women being reduced to one or the other in fiction, especially fiction written by men.

Finally, the book is pretty predictable. I don’t want to give anything away, but seasoned readers will probably guess what direction this book is going pretty quickly. That direction also doesn’t happen to be particularly scary, which is a letdown for a book with such a creepy premise.

I read Nightmare City pretty quickly, and I wasn’t ever really bored by it (although certain parts got repetitive), so I’m not going to say you shouldn’t read it. Just be aware of what you’re getting into before opening the cover and maybe you won’t feel as let down as I was. There is probably an audience for this book. It just wasn’t me.

The Night She Disappeared

The Night She Disappeared by April Henry is more of a thriller than a horror novel, but I think the situation (budding serial killer, kidnapping of a teenage girl) is horrific enough to warrant its inclusion in this blog.

The Night She Disappeared begins interestingly enough, with Drew and Kayla working late one night at Pete’s Pizza. A call comes in requesting a pizza delivery; the caller asks for Gabie to deliver it. Gabie isn’t working that night, so Kayla takes the delivery. She doesn’t come back. The book then follows Drew and Gabie as they wonder what happened to Kayla (contrary to the back cover, they don’t really do a whole lot detecting – for the first 3/4 of the book not much really happens; Drew and Gabbie mostly just talk about whether or not they think Kayla’s dead) and Kayla herself, trapped in her kidnapper’s basement. The point of view changes with each chapter, and occasionally, we even get glimpses of the killer’s thoughts.

To be perfectly honest, I did not particularly like this book. The lead characters are boring and flat. We’re told things about them: “Gabie is smart;” “Kayla is fun;” “Drew is poor.” But none of them really act in a way that shows us any more of their personality. The worst developed is Gabie, which is unforgivable as the book sets her up as the main character. Gabie tends to just behave in whatever manner is helpful to the book at any given moment. She never really develops a believable personality; her behavior is erratic, her thoughts all over the place. There is supposed to be a romance blossoming between Drew and Gabie, but it never comes across as real. The two characters have zero chemistry; I still have no idea what they supposedly saw in each other.

I will take this time to also note that Disappeared, published in 2012, contains the line, “That’s just whack,” a sentence I don’t believe I’ve heard since 1995. I have no idea why Henry thought a teen in 2012 would use this sentence in a serious conversation.

The police also behave bizarrely. Even though Drew tells them that the caller requested Gabie, they don’t even bother to begin to look into the possibility of her being the intended target. They then focus on one suspect based on the sketchiest of circumstantial evidence (on the night she went missing, his truck was seen near where her car was found) , and when (SPOILER ALERT) he kills himself, despite the fact that they still haven’t found anything concrete to tie him to Kayla’s disappearance, everyone just assumes Case Closed and immediately holds a funeral for Kayla, assuming she is dead too. She’s only been missing for a little over a week at this point. You can’t actually declare someone legally dead this early on, even if it is, sadly, a long time for a kidnapping victim to survive. I doubt any family would be okay with letting go that quickly, and I know the cops wouldn’t be allowed to close a case with such little evidence.

And to top it all off there is an out-of-left-field paranormal element that eventually pops up as well, where Gabie is suddenly telepathically connected to Kayla, or something. There’s also a subplot which never pans out about Kayla leaving her high school boyfriend for an older guy. They never even properly set the new guy up as a red herring. This book is just a mess.

April Henry is apparently a New York Times Bestselling Author, and her work has been praised by other writers I admire, so I’ll likely give another one of her books (possibly the interesting looking The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die) a read at some point, but I was not impressed by this effort and am baffled why so many people seem to enjoy it.

Favorites: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer

Mara Dyer wakes up after an accident mysteriously kills her friends. She has no idea how she survived. In the wake of the accident, Mara’s family moves to a new town. As more strange things happen around Mara, she begins to realize she has powers that she never knew. When she meets Noah, a swoon worthy boy with powers of his own, she begins to piece together the puzzle of what happened the night of the accident and discovers she’s not out of danger yet.

Going in to Mara Dyer, I didn’t know what to expect, but I ended up blown away. I’m always a little wary of books where romance plays a huge element in the plot, but, not only was I not bothered by it, I actually found myself deeply invested in the relationship between Mara and Noah.

Mara Dyer is the first book in a trilogy, and there’s now a second trilogy from Noah’s point of view, although I haven’t checked those out yet, and I’ve heard mixed reviews. Still, I love love love this book. Super duper recommended.

Favorites: The Fury

The Fury by Alexander Gordon Smith is an epic British horror novel, involving a group of teens who everyone wants to kill. And I mean everyone. One day, they suddenly find themselves inspiring intense, murderous rage in friends and strangers alike, a rage that disappears when they get far enough away. Their would-be murderers then forget everything that just happened. The only people the teens are safe with is each other. They soon realize something much bigger is at stake than their lives, and they may be the only ones who can save everything.

While The Fury is long, it is a quick read and one I recommend to every horror fan, regardless of age.

Favorites: The Blood Confession

I read The Blood Confession by Alisa M. Libby years ago, so I don’t remember too much about it. Honestly, it might be time for a reread. I did love it though, which is why I’m including it in this month’s series of brief reviews of my favorite ya horror.

The Blood Confession is a novel about Hungarian countess, Elizabeth Bathory (using the Anglicized version of her name here), possibly the world’s worst female serial killer (there is some question of the veracity of the accusations against her). This book tells her life story, and there is a supernatural element to it. Bathory receives many visits over the years from a supernatural figure who eventually leads her to her crimes and subsequent doom. It’s heartbreaking to trace her path from spoiled, lonely child to hardened killer, but Libby’s writing makes this transformation believable.

The book can be a little bit slow going, especially at first, but I urge readers to stick with it. You’ll be rewarded for your patience with this beautiful, disturbing novel.