Missing the mark

I read two books this week about which I was kind of excited, both of which didn’t pay off in the way I was hoping they would.

The first was The Final Girl Support Group, by Grady Hendrix. I hadn’t read anything by Hendrix, but people rave, so since I’m not much of a horror reader but am trying to keep up with some new books in that genre that I could recommend, I decided to try this one, which didn’t sound as terrifying as some.

The premise was interesting: In slasher movies, the “final girl” is the one who’s left standing at the end, after having fought back and defeated the killer, cutting short his terrifying rampage. This book purported to explore what happens to real-life final girls after the trauma is ended. The answer is, the trauma never ends. There may be an actual threat offered by a surviving villain (one who, for instance, has gone to jail rather than dying, and could therefore escape or be released) or from a crazed fan; or the ongoing villain could simply be the PTSD that lingers long after the events are history.

This book focuses on six “final girls” (women) and their therapist, who have met for more than a decade to try to exorcise their demons, and the action in the book is triggered by one of the women going missing, followed by other events that indicate someone knows who they are and is stalking them, one by one. The premise goes on to promise that the “girls” will stick together and have each other’s backs.

I’m not going to waste a lot of time on this review. I struggled to find a description for the book: It was supposed to be horror…but the emotion of fright was never once evoked. The scenes were so disjointed and the red herring got passed to so many different people that in the end, I just didn’t care that much. Add to that a bunch of intensely unlikeable characters and a somewhat boring narrative and all I can say is, interesting idea, poorly executed, don’t bother.

The second was the book Grown, by Tiffany D. Jackson. I had selected this book for my Young Adult Literature class in the mystery category without having read it, because it was a book that included diverse characters, written by a credible (and award-winning) author of color.

The blurb on Goodreads said: “Author Tiffany D. Jackson delivers another ripped-from-the-headlines mystery that exposes horrific secrets hiding behind the limelight and embraces the power of a young woman’s voice. When legendary R&B artist Korey Fields spots Enchanted Jones at an audition, her dreams of being a famous singer take flight. Until Enchanted wakes up with blood on her hands and zero memory of the previous night. Who killed Korey Fields? Before there was a dead body, Enchanted’s dreams had turned into a nightmare. Because behind Korey’s charm and star power was a controlling dark side. Now he’s dead, the police are at the door, and all signs point to Enchanted.”

First of all, whose idea was it—the publishers, the author’s?—to try to position this book as a murder mystery? That is specifically what the blurb on Goodreads promises: It makes it sound like the book is all about “Who killed Korey Fields?” In that blurb, Enchanted (the main character) almost serves as a set-up rather than as the whole point of the story. But (spoiler alert) the murder doesn’t happen until you are almost 80 percent through the book, and is, compared to the rest, a minor plot point. The author specifically says in her author’s note at the end, “This book is about the abuse of power. It’s about the pattern of excusing grown men for their behavior while faulting young girls for their missteps. It’s about the blatant criticism of girls who were victims of manipulation…. About the individuals who were meant to protect and serve never believing victims in their moments of bravery.” So why not position the story directly? Why promote what amounts to deceit? I am honestly surprised that more reviewers aren’t calling this out.

The book is a vivid and sometimes horrifying depiction of a teenage victim of “Me Too,” who is stalked, groomed, essentially held captive, and abused by a 28-year-old celebrity. Korey Fields prefers young girls, and uses his celebrity as a music star to draw them in by promising them assistance with their singing careers. Enchanted Jones has an amazing voice and dreams of stardom, and she is captured by the twin allures of that and the personal attention Korey begins to lavish on her. She ends up leaving school and her family behind at age 17 to go on tour with Korey, supposedly protected by a guardian (who is in Korey’s employ and is possibly one of his former victims), only to encounter the crazy, jealous behavior and punitive actions of an exploitative sociopath who must be the center of attention no matter what.

I can see all the reasons why so many people embraced this book and gave it high marks. It deals with issues that need to be shouted about—loudly. And its focus is about and from within the Black community, where these issues are even more perilous. But there were so many problems with it that I couldn’t give it the credit I wish it fully deserved.

I feel like the author punted in some ways. She starts out with a clear idea of where she wants to go, but then doesn’t follow through in areas that matter, and that’s too bad, because there was real potential. The story gets confusing when her characters don’t know, act, and do as the real people in this situation would. There’s way too much random here.

Some specifics:

The main character was all over the place. I can see her initial star-struck reaction when this man shows interest in her and supposedly wants to promote her career, but honestly, her ongoing level of naiveté, given her background and family dynamic, was flat-out ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that a teen girl could get herself into this situation—but not this teen girl, the way she is initially written. And the mistakes that she makes in attempting to defend herself, after the murder occurs…anyone who had ever watched five episodes of any police procedural TV show would understand such concepts as chain of evidence and illegal search and find another way to make sure that somebody paid attention to the things that would exonerate her.

And looking at that family dynamic: There are certainly hordes of teens out there with parents who aren’t paying attention and/or just don’t care, but that’s not how these parents were set up. Sure, their life was pictured as busy and full of worries (primarily financial), and they placed a lot of reliance on their eldest to help out and babysit the rest of their children, but this is painted as a household in which everyone acts responsibly, and even if their daughter insisted she leave school and go on tour with a male musician who is 11 years older than she is, there’s no way that these parents were going to allow that. These parents, the way they were drawn (and the father’s lay-off and financial woes are not sufficient distractions) would have been all up in her business to find out how she got to know him that well in the first place, and stuff would have come out that would have waved all kinds of red flags on the way to the big one, which is, Are we really letting our daughter, who we care enough about to send to an expensive private school and harangue about her homework and college prospects, be a dropout and go away with this man? No. Sorry. I just didn’t buy it. And if you are saying Yeah, but the girl was determined—again, not this girl. She wasn’t described as someone with the self-confidence, bull-headedness, or fortitude to demand and get her way, or to leave without permission. On the contrary, she is nervous, unsure of herself, all of the characteristics that would lead to the initial situation of his being able to groom her, but would not promote the action she then takes. It just happens, somehow, and that’s one of so many things that just happen, without enough back story to create believability.

There were a lot of things to appreciate about this book, but there were so many small details that jangled that the cumulative effect was an atmosphere of disbelief for the reader (or at least this reader), which is the complete opposite of what the author was trying to achieve with her thesis of “please believe the victims.” I admire her desire to write about girls being sexually coerced and exploited by adults who know better, and to focus specifically on black girls, who continue to be the most disregarded, but the way she went about it was simply inadequate. There were elements that rang true, but just as many that made me say “Oh, c’mon!” more times than I should have during a narrative such as this. I give her respect for her attempt, and her storytelling kept me reading to the end despite all the missteps…but it could have been so much more powerful.

(I do love the cover…)

Altering the past

It’s been many years since I read a Stephen King book; not because I haven’t liked some of them, but for a combination of reasons including a dislike of most horror and a prevailing impulse to call his editor and tell him to automatically edit out 300 pages from everything King writes. There was a time, in my youth, when I gravitated towards gigantic tomes—the longer the better!—and managed to immerse myself until the deed was done. I find these days that I am a bit more impatient, and it takes some really good writing, story-telling, and character/world building to keep my attention.

But…as I have mentioned before, I am a sucker for time travel. Also, for all children of the ’60s, the biggest conundrum was and remains the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, that new, young, charismatic leader whose death was variously chalked up to Lone Gunman Lee Oswald or a mysterious shooter from the grassy knoll, and attributed to J. Edgar Hoover, Lyndon Johnson (impatient to succeed), or the CIA for some reason having to do with Cuba. Put those elements together, and it was inevitable that I would get around to reading 11-22-63 by Stephen King.

The idea of going back in time to kill Hitler or witness the birth of Jesus or whatever has always been out there; but most time travel writers find some unbeatable reason why it can’t be done—like simply stating, “If something happened, then it happened.” otherwise known as the Novikov self-consistency principle. Even if you allow for the possibility of paradox, the problem with changing something in the past is, of course, that it has the potential to alter all future outcomes, so even if it were possible, people might hesitate to do it—unless there was a really good reason. This is the idea upon which King’s book is built—that if JFK hadn’t died, everything would have turned out differently—presumably better (for instance, no war in Vietnam)—and that’s a really good reason to go back and thwart the assassination.

The method of time travel in this book is vague. It’s not even loosely based in science or invention—there’s no time machine, no De Lorean or Tardis, no black hole in space, it’s more like a version of Narnia, reached via a portal at the back of a wardrobe or, in this case, the pantry of a local diner. And it leads to only one place and time, a small town in Maine in 1958. It is from this place and time that Jake Epping, aka George Amberson departs 2011 and takes up residence in the ’50s, making a living as a substitute teacher while he scopes out Oswald, his associates, his various addresses, and his ultimate destination—Dallas, the Texas School Book Depository, and November 22nd, 1963, when JFK drives through town in an open car to meet his fate.

In the process of taking on this quest, “George” will also meet and change the lives of a bunch of other people, and fall for the love of “his” life, small-town school librarian Sadie Dunhill, thereby endlessly complicating what was already nigh impossible to achieve.

All the potential for a roller-coaster ride of a story is built right in, and King provides a lot of exciting moments…and a lot of sitting and waiting. Since the only entry point to the past is 1958, and returning to 2011 means the time on the “other side” resets to 1958, Jake has no other choice but to take on an identity that will allow him to live in the past for five years while waiting for the right moment to take out Lee Harvey Oswald. Even though there is research involved, and even though we are provided with such distractions as a rescue mission for an unrelated family and Jake’s romance with the beautiful but ungainly Sadie, it’s about 700 pages of waiting before we get to the ultimate climax, which then goes by quickly and with much less explanation than this reader would have liked.

Also, you have to keep in mind that even though this is presented as an alternate history, Stephen King is, when all is said and done, a horror writer. He can’t resist adding in sinister bits involving characters or even whole towns that give him the willies; he makes the hero the target of various ill-intentioned people or groups, leading to a fair amount of violence and uncertainty; and history itself is cast as the “monster” of the tale. Jake comments (more than 60 times, as another Goodreads reviewer helpfully provided) on the immutability of the past and its obduracy, and this irrevocable tendency manifests as a series of catastrophes that intervene between Jake and his goal. No, it’s not a clown, but it’s still creepy.

The part I found most disap-pointing is the many oppor-tunities King misses to comment on the time and place as it was; instead, he does a virtual whitewash. Despite some of the threatening characters, questionable neighborhoods, and ominous events, the 1950s are primarily presented as a place where the “real” food tastes so much better (butter, root beer, deep-fried lobster), people in the ideal small town are trusting (leaving their doors unlocked and greeting one another as they walk down the street), and the automobiles are an aficionado’s dream (tailfins). He mentions the ever-present smoking of cigarettes and the bad smells of unregulated industry and diesel-belching transport, yet fails to find them particularly offensive; he gives (and then repeats) exactly one example of the separate-and-unequal state of bathrooms for whites vs. “colored people” but neglects to further notice or comment upon any inequities he sees, whether they be race-related or examples of rampant sexism. I think I could have forgiven this aspect of the book more easily had it been a fast-paced thriller; but there are at least (the aforementioned) 300-400 pages where we wander from New Orleans to Dallas to Fort Worth and back again, pondering what little is known about Oswald, attempting to observe he and his family and his associates, and waiting, waiting, waiting. Some of that waiting could have been more profitably spent.

Ultimately, I did enjoy more than half of this flash to the past…but for all the reasons cited above, I could have loved it better.

Ambivalence and vampires

After not quite embracing the witch book, I thought I’d give some vampires a shot, as my last read of October. But the one I picked…well, let’s just say it’s not what anyone would expect from a story about the undead.

Matt Haig’s The Radleys features a middle-class family living a somewhat suffocating existence in a small, declining village in North Yorkshire. Helen and Peter used to travel in the fast lane in London, but decided, once they married, to move to suburbia to raise their children, Rowan and Clara, who at this point are both in high school. Helen seems like your classic up-tight suburban mom, while Peter is showing signs of mid-life crisis in his yearning after his neighbor, Lorna. Rowan is painfully shy, has a nearly constant headache, suffers from various skin rashes, and is bullied relentlessly by the jocks at his school; Clara is trying to save the planet by going vegan, but nothing she eats seems to agree with her poor stomach, and she gives a convincing imitation of someone suffering from bulimia.

Despite her poor health, however, Clara still has the spirit of the rebellious teenager buried deep within her, and manages, in a moment of inattention from her father, to get permission to go to a party. This proves to be the pivotal event of the story: A drunken lout attacks her and tries to rape her, and she bites him on the hand with which he is covering her mouth. Suddenly, Clara is no longer feeling weak and sickly, and manages to fight back very effectively…because the one thing their parents neglected to tell Rowan and Clara is that they have made the choice for the family to live as “abstainers,” but what they are denying is vampirism! When Peter calls upon his brother, Will, an unregenerate blood drinker, to come sort out the tricky situation with Clara, their secret, restrained lifestyle is upended and new choices have to be made.

Well, first of all, I was somewhat disappointed because I picked out this book based on the name—I thought maybe someone had written the back story for the character of Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird! (You have to admit that it would make sense for the pale and reclusive Boo to turn out to be a vamp!) No such luck. Maybe someone will write it someday, however, after this book in which the name “Radley” is revealed to be that of an old vampire family of natural-borns.

The premise of the book—that vampires could choose to be “vegetarian”—echoes the choices of the Cullens in the Twilight saga—no eating the neighbors, utter secrecy, etc. But in those books everybody gets to choose, while in this one Rowan and Clara are miserable because unaware of and without access to their true natures. Also, although everyone in the family (except the martyr Clara) eats a lot of meat, it doesn’t seem to be an option to drink animal blood, which I found peculiar.

The truth is, this isn’t so much a book about vampires as it is about bourgeois values: The well-behaved Brits are fighting their baser instincts in order to lead an upstanding existence by engaging in a lot of typical repression. What it is they are repressing is supposed to make it more interesting, but I felt like that in some ways they were just too stereotypical to make it work. The middle-aged malaise about sex with one’s long-term partner, the yearning over the forbidden neighbor (or wicked brother-in-law!), the hasty steps taken to keep what’s really going on a deep dark secret—even from their children—doesn’t explore much new ground. I was thrilled when Clara finally bursts her restraints, but that had to be covered up like everything else.

The various temptations that present themselves once the truth comes out result in both triumphs and tragedies for the conflicted Radleys, and there is an eventual resolution…but by the time it happened I had become wearied by all the dithering. The writing is both descriptive and clever, and there are some dark moments and some redemptive ones that appeal, but ultimately it felt like just another story about child abuse, with parents deciding for their children who they are to be without ever consulting them. That may sound like a harsh conclusion to draw, but when you find yourself applauding as the dainty teen protagonist takes large chunks out of the school bully, well…there’s just something not quite right about that!

Mostly ghostly

I promised ghostly goodies in honor of Hallowe’en, so let’s review some titles that will have you thinking of the mysterious barrier between this world and the next, and what happens when that barrier falters!

First off is a series that was written for middle school teens but that delights everyone who reads it: The Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud. The first book is called The Screaming Staircase, and it lays out the scenario that prevails in the other four books:

For more than 50 years, England has been overrun by ghosts. They linger, they float around, they make horrifying noises, they haunt specific places and, in some cases, they reach out to touch the living, which “ghost-touch” is nearly always fatal. The most frightening aspect of this wholesale haunting is that while adults can experience some of the effects, they can’t actually see the ghosts and therefore can’t protect themselves. So a bevy of teens and children (who CAN seen them) are recruited and armed with silver chains, salt, lavender, swords, and holy water and sent out in teams to lay the souls to rest by measures merciful or stern.

Psychic Investigation Agencies, mostly run by adults, are in charge of these teams of teens; but one young man decides that the adults who can’t even see the threat shouldn’t be in charge of his fate, and starts his own agency, run by and employing only teenagers. Anthony Lockwood, George Cubbins, and Lucy Carlyle do their best to prove they can fight ghosts with the best of the prestigious and powerful organizations against which they are competing for business, but a series of hapless incidents puts their fate in question. Then they get the chance to spend the night in one of the most haunted houses in England…

I’m baffled as to why the reviewers insist that this series is “for a younger audience.” In fact, the recommendation for 4th through 7th grades is wholly inappropriate—the 4th-graders would be too frightened! I would say 6th grade and up…and up. I found the mysteries engaging, the haunted scenarios truly frightening, and the world-building completely believable. I think anyone would like these. The other books are: The Whispering Skull (pictured above), The Hollow Boy, The Creeping Shadow, and The Empty Grave. (Another bonus: The series is complete! No waiting around for sequels.)

Now for another book that is also YA, but doesn’t seem so in the reading: A Certain Slant of Light, by Laura Whitcomb. Helen and James are two spirits who are haunted by a few hazy, incomplete memories of their pasts (when they were alive), and need to remember who they are and how they died, and figure out why they are in this strange limbo between life and death. Helen, who is 130 years past her due date, has discovered that when you are “light,” in order to keep from plunging into some kind of horrific afterlife you need to cling closely to a human host. Her latest is an English teacher, Mr. Brown, and it is in his class that she encounters James, the first person who has been able to see her since she died. There’s a reason for that: James is also “light,” but has found an ingenious way to live again.

I don’t want to give away much more than that, but if you are thinking this sounds like a Stephenie Meyer plot, think again: It’s far more than a sappy teen romance. FIrst of all, Whitcomb’s writing is witty and sophisticated, and the story itself is surprisingly complex, exploring such themes as human existence, forgiveness, and the emotions of love, grief, and responsibility. The personas are carefully crafted to relate to their relative time periods, Helen’s formal speech contrasting beautifully with James’s more contemporary lingo. Whitcomb is also a master at describing the sensations the characters feel as they experience certain things for the first time. I found the story arc deeply satisfying when I read the book, and only recently discovered that there is a second book, called Under the Light. I was surprised, since a sequel didn’t seem necessary, but the description reveals that it’s more of a companion novel, telling the stories of two other deeply invested characters, and I intend to grab it just as soon as I reread this one so that I remember all the necessary details!

Note; Whitcomb has another book that sounds like it would be spooky, called The Fetch. My recommendation is, don’t bother. It’s more about the Russian Revolution than anything else.

Another young adult series that offers up some spooky situations is the Shades of London series, by Maureen Johnson. In the first book, The Name of the Star, Louisiana teen Rory Deveaux has arrived in London to start boarding school just as a series of murders directly mimicking the crime scenes of the notorious Jack the Ripper are taking place. Despite a number of potential witnesses, it seems that Rory is the only one who spotted the man responsible for these heinous crimes, for a surprising reason that puts Rory in imminent danger. In the other two books—The Madness Underneath, and The Shadow Cabinet—we move beyond the Ripper story to discover that there’s a lot more happening on the ghostly front in London than anyone without Rory’s extraordinary perspective would suspect.

Note: There was supposed to be a fourth book, but six years passed and the author seems to have moved on permanently. It’s not really necessary to continue—the story arc was satisfyingly contained within these three. People wished for new adventures for various characters, but there is no cliffhanger, the story ends.

Finally, let me mention a few stand-alone titles that provide a satisfying shiver for your backbone:

Try Graveminder, by Melissa Marr. Although she is primarily a teen author, this book was billed as her first for adults; but I think both teens and adults would enjoy it.

The story centers on the town of Claysville, home to Rebekkah Barlow and her grandmother, Maylene, and also a place where the worlds of the living and the dead are dangerously connected. Minding the dead has been Maylene’s career and, once she dies, Bek must return to her hometown and, in collaboration with the mysterious Undertaker, Byron, make sure that the dead don’t rise. The tagline of the book is “Sleep well, and stay where I put you.” Deliciously creepy!

Break My Heart 1,000 Times, by Daniel Waters: A suspenseful thriller in which a “Big Event” has happened in the nearby metropolis, and all the resulting dead are lingering instead of moving on. Veronica and her friend Kirk have recently noted that not only are the ghosts not moving on, but they seem to be gaining in power. But when the two decide to investigate, they draw the sinister attention of one of Veronica’s high school teachers, who has an agenda that may include Veronica’s demise…

Meet Me at the River, by Nina de Gramont, is told from two viewpoints, that of Tressa, trying to cope with the death of her boyfriend, and that of Luke, the boy who is dead but can’t leave. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I so much enjoyed discovering the facts of the story in exactly the way the author wanted, which was not immediately, not all in a paragraph of explanation, but gradually, through the interchanges, the thoughts, the scenes. I will say that this book is much more than a sad paranormal love story—it’s as deep and intense as the river in its title. I found myself humming while I was reading, and finally figured out that I was remembering the hymn “Shall We Gather At the River?”, a song they sang at funerals in my childhood, a song laden with images of crossing over, being with loved ones. So much of this book was about death, but so much about life, too.

Far Far Away, by Tom McNeal: Jeremy can hear voices. Or, specifically, one voice, that of the ghost of Jacob Grimm, one half of the infamous writing duo, The Brothers Grimm. He made the mistake of admitting this once during childhood, and has been treated with doubt and suspicion by all the others in his village ever since. Jacob watches over Jeremy, protecting him from an unknown dark evil whispered about in the space between this world and the next. But when Ginger Boultinghouse takes an interest in Jeremy (and his unique abilities), a grim chain of events is set in motion. And as anyone familiar with the Grimm Brothers knows, not all fairy tales have happy endings…

For this list, I pretty much stuck to ghosts and steered clear of all the other beings that go bump in the night, but I’m going to mention one simply because it’s so much fun: Fang Girl, by Helen Keeble. Xanthe Jane Greene, a true fangirl of the fanged, wakes up one night in a coffin. Given her fantasies you’d think she’d be pleased, but no: What girl wants to preserve in eternal life such 15-year-old afflictions as acne and a puberty-born tendency to extreme clumsiness? Not to mention missing out on all the teen milestones, like getting a driver’s license and going to prom. So what does she do, upon emerging from her grave? What any 15-year-old from a loving environment would do—she goes home to her parents and little brother. Vampire lore has been done to death, but in this clever and winning parody Helen Keeble finds new territory, and it’s the perfect mix of paranormal with comedy. Don’t miss it.

I hope you will find something from this list to make your Hallowe’en reading sufficiently scary. Let me know what you think!

Ghosts for Hallowe’en

Now that we’re coming up on October, someone on “What Should I Read Next?” (Facebook page) just asked for good ghost stories or scary books for their teenager and, although I have a few favorites (more about those in a later post), I think that niche has been underfilled with good works. But T. L. Huchu is helping to change that, with his new book (published this summer), The Library of the Dead, listed as “Edinburgh Nights #1.”

The book’s protagonist is a fierce, brash, in-your-face 14-year-old girl with green dreadlocks named Ropa, a part-Zimbabwean, part-Scots “ghostalker”—I’m not sure whether this was Huchu’s (unattractive) way of spelling ghost-talker, or whether he purposely left it hazy as to whether she is a talker or a stalker!—who carries messages between the living and the dead in a vaguely post-apocalytpic Edinburgh. She, her little sister, and her beloved Gran live in an immobile caravan (trailer) parked on someone else’s land, and while Gran pays for her medicines with her knitting, Ropa haunts the streets looking for ethereal customers whose relatives will pony up a fee for a message from the dead, in order to pay the landlord for their parking space and buy their food and coal for heating. She draws on her Zimbabwean heritage by using an mbira, an ancient African musical instrument, as an aide to better communicate with the spirits, whose messages can be “tuned” into coherence by music.

Jomo, a friend of hers since childhood, has recently begun a job about which he is being extra secretive, but Ropa knows how to play to his ego, and she is soon being ushered (surreptitiously) by him into a library that operates as a secret society, available only to those with an interest in and talent for the occult. Although Ropa dropped out of school in order to support herself and her family, she is a lifelong reader and is thrilled with the opportunities offered by the library, once she gets past the daunting gatekeepers. Some of what she learns comes in handy when Ropa finds out from some ghosts on her turf that (live) children are being kidnapped and exploited in weird ways, and decides to track them down and return them to their families.

I was immediately drawn into this book—the narrative voice is fantastic. Ropa uses street lingo like a hansom cab driver from a Regency novel, but also throws in a lot of teen slang (presumably Scottish), so that while she is completely understandable, her turns of phrase are quite entertaining. The scene-setting is likewise amazing: History has taken the heart out of Edinburgh, and while there are only slanting references to wars and conflicts that leveled buildings and changed the financial dynamic of the city, a clear picture emerges that seems like London after the Blitz, if London had also suffered from climate change! It’s clearly a victory of some other country (England?) over the Scots, since everyone greets one another with the call-and-exchange of “God save the King!” and “Long may he reign!” with a nervous look over their shoulders to make sure people observe that they are following protocol. It’s little details like this that make the book so immersive and such fun.

The book is populated by quirky, fully fleshed-out side characters, both sinister and benign, and draws on Ropa’s two cultures—Zimbabwean and Scots—to make things even more interesting. There are truly scary scenes and also a lot of sarcasm and humor, and I predict a big hit with teens from about 13 up, although this is one of those young adult books that speaks to a wider audience. If you are an adult and enjoy a good ghost story, by all means recommend this to the teens in your circle, and then go read it yourself!

I’ll review an array of Hallowe’en-appropriate books for teens (and others) as soon as the month turns to October…

Malorie

As I noted a couple of days ago, I went on to read the sequel to Bird Box. I’m not going to say much about Malorie, because whatever I said would be fraught with spoilers. The key things to know:

The book begins 12 years after the end of the first book. The children are now 16-year-old teenagers and Tom, in particular, has an independent streak that frightens Malorie because of the blind world in which they still live. Both he and Olympia are at the age when rebellion is common, but it’s so much less safe to be a teenager in this post-event world of voluntary darkness: Nothing has changed with regard to “the creatures,” one sight of whom will still drive you mad.

But one day, someone shows up at the Jewish day camp where the trio are now living, and gives Malorie news that galvanizes her into action like nothing else could. The rest of the book is a series of adventures for the family that culminate in an interesting and somewhat satisfying ending.

I say “somewhat” because Malerman doesn’t feel the need to explain certain things. But the two books together form a much more satisfying story arc than does the first one alone and…perhaps there will be a third? If not, I won’t really mind; but if there is, I will read it.

Creeping horror

I am not generally a horror reader. Somewhere in my mid-twenties, my then-husband introduced me to Stephen King and I read most of his books, but since then I can count the number of real horror stories I have read on one hand, and have regretted most of them! I am too susceptible a reader to be comfortable with this genre.

I will say first off that I didn’t find most of King’s books that horrifying. There are a few with elements that got under my skin, but many of them were just compelling reads with an undertone of uneasiness. And King tends, in my opinion, to go so over the top in his resolutions that it makes his books less real, as I feel he did in the book Cell. I loved the premise, but disliked most of the rest of the book.

I also differentiate between suspense horror and gross-out horror: I have read some of the latter (Michael Grant’s Gone series, The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey, a handful of zombie books) and have withstood their effects fairly well; but to me the most terrifying are the truly psychological ones where you’re not sure what is stalking you and may never find out. The Ruins, by Scott Smith, frightened me so badly that I swore never to read another horror novel!

I’m not sure yet whether I regret the decision to read Bird Box, by Josh Malerman. There was such buzz when it came out that I thought I needed to, but I put it off indefinitely until I needed to buy one more book from bookoutlet.com in order to get free shipping, and there it was.

It’s a small, short book relative to the amount of punch it packs. It is written fairly simply, and is not particularly introspective; some people have compared it to books like The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, for its spare lack of commentary, and I think that is valid. Something happens on a global scale—something BIG—and yet there is little speculation about the how and the who and the why in the midst of the panicky effort to avoid its effects. The protagonist, Malorie, comments that her housemates do eternally debate the topic, but fails to report back much on what they say or at what conclusions they arrive. The book is more of a daily factual account of relatively humdrum detail that nonetheless leads to increasing uneasiness and dread.

The basic premise is that there is something “out there” that, once encountered by humans, drives them rapidly and inevitably to madness, murderous behavior, and ultimate self-harm to escape it. Everyone who sees it succumbs and dies, most by their own hand. No one who experiences it is afterwards sane enough to explain to anyone else what, exactly, it is, so unaffected people are left not knowing whether it is a creature, a spore, an alien…the ultimate fright of the unknown.

The response to this threat is a retreat behind closed doors and closed curtains that rapidly escalates to boarded-up windows, blindfolds, and the desperate attempts to survive in the closed environment that used to be your home. The key to the terror is that it is something seen; keep your eyes closed and it (supposedly) can’t harm you. But…if you don’t go crazy from what you see, you very well might from what you imagine.

The setting and cast of characters is a small one: Malorie, alone after her sister has succumbed to the terror, finds her way, through an advertisement, to a household of individuals who are willing to take people in. The man who originally owned the house was a conspiracy-theory end-of-civilization kind of guy, and has a fully stocked cellar that will feed many people for a long time. He is no longer in the picture, but his friend, Tom, has seen the advantages and recruited others to live with him—half a dozen men, a dog, and three women, two of whom—Olympia and Malorie—are pregnant.

The book’s POV alternates between a time when Malorie is alone in the house except for two four-year-old children, and a flashback to five years previous, when she arrived at the house to meet and move in with its inhabitants.

The story is a deceptively simple recounting of the extraordinary measures they have to take in order to survive—for example, the daily trip to the well to fill their three buckets with water, blindfolded and feeling with their feet to stay within the boundaries of the path they have laid down, banging with a stick to avoid obstacles, all the while listening carefully to discover if anyone—or anyTHING—is near and constitutes a threat. In the five-years-along sections, it becomes clear that Malorie is finally ready to make a change for herself and the children, and recounts the horror of that journey. But between, in the past tense sections, the book is almost mundane in its acceptance of the daily horror.

I won’t give any more of the details of the book, except to say that the art of the tale is the dread you experience at this almost boring suspension of living. It also ends at the beginning of a new story, so you may feel compelled (as I do) to pick up the second book, Malorie, as against your will as it may feel to drag out the horror further—especially while sitting at home alone wearing a mask, in the midst of a global pandemic!

Dystopia 4 Kids, cont.

I mentioned about five or six posts ago that I had begun Charlie Higson’s young adult dystopian series The Enemy (review here) but would probably stretch out the reading of the entire thing by interspersing it with other books, which I have done. But this week I jumped back into it and quickly made my way through books #2, #3, and now I’m midway through #4. Finally, in this book, there has come a hint (no more so far) of how this whole thing started, which is certainly incentive to keep going.

And I do need a certain amount of incentive. On the one hand, I am still in awe of Higson’s abilities to write compelling characters about whose fate you come to care within a very short time of “meeting” them; but on the other hand, I’m wondering when I’m going to hit my personal limit for unmitigated gore. Because this is such a good story, my tolerance seems broader and more sustained than I would have expected, but after 3+ books of it I am getting as glazed in the eye as the kids who are encountering it and either going catatonic or becoming inured to its effects!

Lest anyone be either unduly impressed or put off by the size of the books, which are listed as 400+ pages apiece, keep in mind that this is a young adult series, and page count is not nearly as significant in terms of density. These are smaller-than-usual books, the typeface is several points larger than in an adult novel, and both the page margins and the leading (the space between lines) is generous. I’m finding it possible to zip through one of these in about two days, and that’s with reading only a couple of hours per day. So if you are intrigued by the reviews, by all means pick up the first one and see what you think. But one suggestion I would make is that if you don’t have a strong stomach, then don’t read these during meals!

Dystopia 4 kids

As a teen librarian, I have been recommending Charlie Higson’s “Young James Bond” books for years to kids of a certain age, but in all that time I never really registered his other series, although we stocked it. Recently, I saw the first book offered at a discount and picked up a copy of The Enemy, his first in a series of six dystopian/zombie books.

“Zombie” is a little bit of a misnomer for the villains in these books: Some kind of plague washed over the City of London (or the world? nobody in this first story knows for sure), and everyone over the age of 14 caught it. They first got sick, and then they lost their minds; some of them died, but the rest went around indiscriminately trying to eat anything that wasn’t nailed down, including their own families. So all the kids 14 and below are on their own, figuring out how to survive and having to fight off the grownups or, as some poignantly call them as they shamble around the city, the “moms and dads.”

The story opens on a crew of about 50 kids who are living in an abandoned Waitrose supermarket building, which two of their number who are good with mechanics have secured with the previously existing metal shutters and some other nifty reinforcements. They’ve been doing okay up to now, but since the food in the supermarket ran out, they have had to forage farther afield to feed everyone, and have had to accept things to eat that they wouldn’t previously have considered. So when they check out the underground swimming pool at the local rec center and see an untouched vending machine full of Mars bars and Cokes, they could be forgiven for not being as careful as they should have been with their scouting efforts before jumping into the pool to retrieve the booty. This is the first graphic incident in which we see the ruthlessness of the enemy they are up against, and this is when Higson lets the reader know not to get too fond of anyone, because everyone is disposable!

The writing is so atmospheric, almost like a script in the way it sets up and delivers scenes to the reader. It’s also (be warned) bloody, graphic, and gruesome, almost to the level of The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey, which is saying something! But to alleviate that atmosphere, there are strong friendships and alliances, distinctive characters, witty banter, and a powerful narrative voice.

This series couldn’t help but bring to mind the equally gory Gone books by Michael Grant, in which a strange translucent dome comes down over a beach town and all the adults are magically transported elsewhere, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. I believe both authors drew on the classic Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, and Higson also cites I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, as his inspiration. I enjoyed Grant’s first book but honestly felt that by book three he had jumped the shark; I hold out much higher hopes for Higson’s tale of horror.

Higson says in an interview (at the back of the book) that his two “wants” were to write a book where the kids were in charge and supposedly free to do whatever they wanted (on your own in London! Wheee!), but also a book that was truly scary because they were impeded by a serious problem. One of his readers confided in Higson that he felt safe reading the James Bond books because the protagonist does grow up to be, well, James Bond, so he’s never going to get seriously hurt or killed off. Higson accepted that as a challenge for this series, and says that he would purposefully write his characters to be endearing in some way to the reader before deciding to eliminate them, and also that he would read his pages to his son before bed to see if they were scary enough to give him nightmares. (Note to Social Services: Don’t give Higson custody of any more kids.)

The book is scary, and also gripping as the kids are approached by an envoy from another group, whose members have taken over and are living in Buckingham Palace and want the Waitrose kids and another group from the same Holloway neighborhood to join up with them. They claim the neighborhood is much more secure there, as are the grounds and buildings of the Palace, and that they are growing their own food to provide for themselves, so they need the help. The Waitrose kids wonder: Is it salvation, or is it a trap?

Because everything in life is always a little too good to be true, there are of course things they are not being told by their prospective hosts. They also run into some serious hiccups in getting across town to the Palace, and begin to notice disturbing new behavior from some of the grownups, who seem to be becoming both more aware and more organized. Then there are the hidden dangers from zoo animals in the park, evil people living in the tube stations…you name it, there are perils on every side.

The brilliance and also the frustration of this series is that the first book begins well after the main action has already transpired, and because you only have the children’s perspectives, you don’t know what happened: Was it really a plague, some kind of biological weapon gone wrong, or something else? No one knows or even wonders much any more—it happened, life changed forever, and at this point, it just is. The big question on everyone’s mind who is old enough to speculate: What happens when their oldest members
turn 14?

On Goodreads I discovered that book #2 jumps back in time and is a sort of prequel to fill you in on some of what has gone before. I can’t wait to find out.

My experience with series is that I am always on a seesaw trying to decide whether I hope to love it or hope to hate it; for one that has seven books in it, I dip a little more towards “hope to hate” because taking a time-out from my headlong rush to read everything in one big eclectic mashup in order to pursue one series by one author makes me feel a bit stalled in my tracks. On the other hand, if it’s a good series, there’s the payoff. I don’t think I will read #2 immediately (I have 12 books in the queue ahead of it), but it won’t be that long from now that it persuades me to take it up again. That’s saying a lot, because I am neither a horror nor a zombie aficionado. But I like good writing, good story-telling, and engaging characters, and this series has it all.

Ninth House

I have been anticipating reading Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo, for several reasons: Although I didn’t care for her Grisha series because it was so full of angsty teenage indecision, I absolutely loved the duology Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, particularly the latter. I felt like Bardugo had stepped up her style and discernment by a lot in the second series, and also, I can’t resist a “gang of thieves” story.

ninthhouseI’m really not sure why Ninth House has been identified as an adult, rather than a teen, book. Admittedly, it’s far too gory and explicit for younger teens, but I could definitely see some of my former book club members from the 10th-12th grade club enjoying this. After all, the philosophy in writing for children or teens is that they always want to read “up,” which is to say, they want to read about a protagonist who is a year or two older than they are. As a freshman at Yale, the Ninth House protagonist, Alex Stern, is just the right age to appeal to seniors in high school. I imagine many parents of said older teens would still quibble with me, because they feel their children should be protected from such graphic fare; and there is a part of me that thinks everyone should be protected from it! But as you learn from reading a lot of books, sometimes you need that stuff to make a point, to expose a wrong-doing, to create empathy in your reader. (Plus, of course, for dramatic effect in your adventure story.) There were certainly plenty of opportunities for that here!

Within the first few pages of this book, I seriously considered putting it down without finishing it. There is a scene early on in which a group of students from one of the magical “houses” at Yale performs a “prognostication” by reading the innards of a man who is still alive (although sedated), with his stomach cut open and pinned back; when they’re done, they stitch him up and send him off to hospital without another thought for his well-being. Also present at the ritual were a group of “Grays,” ghosts who gave off a really frightening vibe. The entire scene turned my stomach, and since I hadn’t as yet invested much into either the story, the scene, or the protagonist (and didn’t really want to encounter more of this), I thought about stopping. But surely all my friends—both personal and Goodreads-type—who were bowled over by this book couldn’t be wrong? So I kept reading.

Ultimately, I was glad I did. Although it took a long time to understand what was happening and also to bond with the main character, I eventually came to appreciate both the bizarre behind-the scenes action and the dogged, flawed, yet honorable Alex, who didn’t give up no matter what.

“Could she grasp the ugly truth of it all?
That magic wasn’t something
gilded and benign, just another
commodity that only
some people could afford?”

Some things I liked about the book:

It gives this Ivy League school an ulterior motive for existing that is both completely creepy and also believable. The concept of a university elite is nothing new, but the idea that they became that way by the practice of necromancy, portal magic, splanchomancy (the reading of entrails), therianthropy (basically, shape-shifting), glamours, and the like is certainly novel!

The funniest part of this is at the end of the book, in an appendix, where the author describes the eight occult houses, reveals in what talent or magic each is invested, and then names graduates (from the real world) who have benefited by being members of the houses during their careers at Yale.

This is not just an amusing commentary, however, on how these students one-upped their futures by participating in magical solutions on the sly. As highlighted in the quote above, Alex comes to realize that magic, while theoretically accessible to whoever was trained or born to practice it, was in reality a tool of the rich and privileged that was sought after at the expense of the poor and defenseless. This is a huge theme of the book, and this is why the reader is able to bear with all the dark scenes, because they are so illustrative of our own contemporary world where billionaires are tripling their wealth during the pandemic while so-called “essential” workers are flogged back to their minimum-wage jobs, despite the danger, by the threat of unemployment. I don’t know if she intended it, but Bardugo here reveals the true “deep state” of influence, bought and traded favors, and a deep disregard for anyone who gets in the way.

Up against this mostly impenetrable and nearly unbeatable system of advancement is Galaxy “Alex” Stern, an underdog heroine if there ever was one. She is recruited (and given a full ride to Yale) to be a member of a secret society, Lethe, whose officers are trained to monitor the other eight houses for stepping over the line, and to report and penalize them when they do. Alex wants to use her special abilities for good, but quickly realizes that her job is mostly for show, and that there will be few consequences for any of these offenders, because to bring their activities out into the light would mean embarrassment for alumni, for administrators, and for Yale itself as an institution. What the people who recruited her don’t realize, however, is that first, Alex has abilities about which they (and at first she) are unaware, and that second, Alex has been conditioned by life as an almost constant victim to fight for herself and for other victims no matter how hard the going.

At its heart, Ninth House is a giant (and cleverly structured) mystery. There is a contemporary murder, there are disappearances of vital personnel, there is a string of dead girls from the past that may tie in, and Alex, despite discouragement from both her mentors and her opponents, is determined to solve it in order to bring justice for the have-nots that she sees as her equals.

But the book is not single-minded. There are also themes of friendship and (nonromantic) love, and a lot of social commentary. There is the gradual evolution, also, of the book’s characters as they confront issues and reflect upon their responses. One early-on thought from Alex that I loved was when she was pondering how easily things change from “normal” to not:

“You started sleeping until noon, skipped one class, one day of school, lost one job, then another, forgot the way that normal people did things. You lost the language of ordinary life.”

There were also, in amongst some fairly gruesome scenes that (if you are squeamish, you should be aware) include drug abuse, coercion, murder, rape, and the like, some inside jokes about college that I enjoyed, including some funny dormitory moments among roommates. One library-oriented joke, as noted by my Goodreads friend Lucky Little Cat, was, “I especially liked the special-collections library where occult search requests result in the delivery of either an avalanche of barely relevant books or one lonely pamphlet.’ Anybody who has been to college has encountered this result, with absolutely no occult assistance whatsoever!

Be aware that some readers have accused Bardugo of racism (because of a few comments on Alex’s Mexican origins), and of blatant sexism and misogyny in her portrayal of the rape scenes in the book (because they are pictured from the observer’s point of view rather than that of the victim’s). You will have to decide for yourself how you feel about these accusations.

Bottom line, apart from a rather confusing and disjointed few pages at the beginning, I found this to be a clever, nuanced read about white privilege (as symbolized by magic!) and the lengths to which people will go to cling to it. It also has both a protagonist and a secondary character that, while the book has a satisfactory ending, you are longing to follow into the sequel, which will hopefully be produced quickly.