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Book Review: The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Review by Morgan. Originally posted at my book review blog Bookshelf Pirate Reviews.

I read The Winter People a week ago, but was holding off on a review until I could let the story settle in my mind.  In the meantime, I actually got to meet Jennifer McMahon at a cocktail party in Boston. This means I had a chance to berate her with questions about the book over crudités and macarons.  Questions like “why the heck was that doll so sinister?” and “When do you think you’ll allow your young daughter to read your super creepy books?”.  She was so much fun to speak with; warm, kind, funny, and not at all unnerving despite the general tone of her fiction.  To be quite honest, I think The Winter People would only be getting 3 stars from me, had I sat down to write this review right after I closed the book.  But, after meeting Jennifer, I have a new appreciation for some of the little details which vexed me.  So bonus points for being delightful.

The Winter People is sort of a literary thriller, if I’m using that term correctly.  I don’t generally read much suspense fiction, preferring ancient-folklore-is-real-and-scary style horror to the find-them-before-its-too-late genre.  The Winter People had a good mix of both, though, not to mention a healthy dose of oh-crap-don’t-go-out-in-the-woods.  The novel’s events stem from  the tragic story of Sarah Harrison Shea, after her daughter disappears in the woods one winter in 1908.  Excerpts from Sarah’s secret diaries and her husband’s own experiences show how a mistake from the past can utterly ruin someone’s chance for future happiness, especially when that mistake involves betraying a pissed-off medicine woman and failing to appropriately dispose of her mystical belongings.  Oops.  Sarah’s friends and neighbors start to worry that she’s sinking into madness after Gertie is found dead, but there is someone scratching at the closet door and something killing animals in the snow.  Could it be that Sarah’s Auntie really taught her how to summon life back into the bodies of the dead when she was a child?  And how much misfortune must befall a devastated lady before we can forgive her for trying her hand at necromancy?  It should not come as a shock to any fans of supernatural mysteries that the price for tampering with natural fate is almost always much worse than the original tragedy.

Sarah’s dairy entries are revealed through a modern lens in The Winter People by way of two other personal encounters with whatever dreadful forces are at work in the woods of West Hall, Vermont.  Nineteen-year-old Ruthie and her sister Fawn live in Sarah Harrison Shea’s old farm house, and their mother has just gone missing.  Nothing to worry about; it’s not like they’re totally isolated, living near a stone circle called “The Devil’s Hand,” without computers, but with Fawn’s imaginary friends to keep them company!  Oh wait – yes they are, and I got very nervous right away for the girls’ wellbeing because I was immediately invested in their characters in a way which I couldn’t quite care about Sarah Harrison Shea.  Ruthie and Fawn are realistic and likable.  The elder sister’s valiant attempts to remain level-headed in times of crisis only made their eerie situation all the more urgent and uncanny, especially since things quickly escalated from the vaguely mysterious circumstances of their mother’s disappearance to a desperate hunt for answers underground, at gunpoint.

The modern chapters of The Winter People are full of action and investigation, while Sarah’s diary entries focus on a slow build of supernatural suspense and emotional disturbances.  In nearly all of my reading experiences, I’m more receptive to the latter sort of story.  Give me ancient curses and haunting visions, and I’ll be in my reading chair for the rest of the afternoon.  But I think that McMahon actually did a much better job bringing the characters and the story to life in Ruthie’s chapters of the book.  Naturally, the big concern was over Fawn’s safety as things rapidly progressed beyond the sisters’ control, but I also rather liked Ruthie’s UFO-spotting redneck boyfriend and even her exacting, slightly paranoid mother.  Maybe I knew that the Harrison Shea family was doomed from the start and gave up hope on a happy ending for them, but I was holding my breath for Fawn and Ruthie.  Whenever the little girl mentioned a creepy little fact she supposedly heard from her doll, and every time they discovered a new claustrophobic secret passageway in the house, I wanted to jump into the pages and help them get out of there ASAP.  There’s one scene in which Ruthie and her boyfriend honestly pry some boards off of a closet door which has been obviously barricaded from the outside to keep something in.  Ack!

The biggest flaw I found with The Winter People would have to lie in the minor characters who are meant to push the plot forward.  I couldn’t bring myself to care one way or another about the grieving artist who moved to Vermont and finds her fate intertwined with Ruthie’s and Sarah’s, despite the fact that I understood her importance to the mystery.  This book is as much a study of grief as it is a scary story, and this woman had lost her husband after he got tangled up in the supernatural draw of West Hall.  Her attempts to rediscover his last moments brought some important catalysts to the plot – and provided opportunities for exposition – but I just found her character to be a little too convenient.  The same goes for the baffling woman who holds the answers to some of Ruthie’s questions, a rich and possibly delusional lady who is also struggling with having a child taken away from her.  (McMahon writes a lot about lost children – several of her other novels seem to follow a similar theme.)  Sarah’s niece, who could have been really interesting given her fascination with mediums and the spiritualism of the early 20th century, also fell a little short of my expectations.  Of the three supernaturally-inclined ladies in the novel’s historical chapters, Auntie was the most intriguing, but even she wasn’t developed enough to be entirely believable as such an important character.  The superstitions behind the “sleepers” wasn’t explained in enough detail for my liking, but I tend to get overly enthusiastic about folklore and magical lore, and I don’t think that the book suffered too much for the vagueness of those details.  Maybe if Auntie had a bit more time in the spotlight, some of my questions would have been cleared up.  But I doubt many other readers will be bothered by the occasional lack of clarity, there. It’s really too bad that the minor characters fell flat, because the major characters were complex people with emotional depths which made their desperate – sometimes ill-advised – decisions stressful and compelling.

The little sensory details – like a girl-shaped figure in a blurry photograph or the sound of something scuttling around a dark room – amped up the tension in the book even when the plot itself threatened to fall into somewhat conventional patterns.  I really liked the way Jennifer McMahon could focus on how one small thing out of place can change the atmosphere entirely, and she carried those details from the historical chapters all the way to the modern, exciting conclusion.  As I reached the novel’s end I started to get really stressed out that things might not get resolved before I ran out of pages, but the ending was fairly satisfying if not a little hard to believe.  But, honestly, this is a book about grieving women raising the dead and terrified teenagers trying to put them back down again.  Suspend your disbelief for a while, especially if you like smart thrillers and can handle some chilling descriptions. Curl up with The Winter People and a blanket next time a snowstorm keeps you cooped up inside.

Filed under book review the winter people jennifer mcmahon suspense thriller horror necromancy book lit ghosts historical fiction vermont books morgan

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Book Review: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

 Review by Morgan. (Originally posted at my book review blog: Navigating The Stormy Shelves.)

This is the sort of big, clever, historical, dry book I really like. But, as a fairly obvious warning: it’s big, clever, historical, and dry. It won’t be the sort of book everyone likes. I feel compelled to admit that it took me nearly a week to finish The Accursed, and that’s a long time for me. The writing was complicated, the plot took enormous detours, and the “historian” narrator sometimes talked himself in circles. As it’s the depths of winter, and I have a comfortable reading chair, I can totally get into sprawling stories with an endless parade of characters. The setting and drama – and there’s drama a’plenty – captured my attention even if the novel’s pace was sometimes a slog. I happily kept reading through the superfluous chapters about socialism and the transcribed Christian sermons because I was determined to see what befell the characters. I’m also not bothered by academic prose. Many people ain’t got time for that shit. And that’s ok, but this will not be the best choice for those readers.  I’m giving the book 3 1/2 stars rather than 4 because I don’t know tons of folks to whom I would recommend this book, no matter how much I enjoyed it.

The Accursed is the history of mystifying, diabolical events plaguing the well-to-do families of Princeton in the early 1900s. Real figures like Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London play major roles in the affluent setting, though the fictional Slade family is at the curse’s center. The book contains extensive footnotes; chapters told in letters; diary entries; and an ever-changing cycle of points of view. We read about the story’s strange events, horrors which are inexplicable to so many people, through an ever-changing kaleidoscope of perspectives. I assumed that I knew who the main character would be in the first chapter, and got attached to the fellow, only to change my mind completely in the next chapter. And again, and again, the focus shifted. In situations like this, it gets hard to decide who is right, who is wrong, who is hallucinating, and who sees the truth. When unexplainable phenomena – and is it really phenomena, at that? – strikes a group of people set staunchly in their respective ways, everyone sees his or herself as a hero and a saint. The devil wanders in and out of The Accursed in several guises, and eventually it becomes hard to tell whether evil forces or human nature are to blame for so much humiliation, ignorance, passion, and misery.

It would take me ages to try and formulate a concise summary of the 688 page saga’s plot. A lot of stuff happens in Oates’s book. A stranger comes to town. Young women behave in ways their families could never have imagined. Political and social unrest presses in on Princeton, in the form of lynchings nearby and the rise of the working man around the country. The rich are fearful, the rich are scandalized, the rich write in their diaries about who won’t be invited to tea again anytime soon. There’s a nightmarish bog-kingdom where a supernatural villain imprisons his transfixed wives. There’s a big to-do about campus politics. A girl’s school is attacked by invisible snakes. Sometimes 1906 Princeton seems just as exotic as Bermuda and Antarctica, where certain characters escape from the claustrophobic social scene even though they cannot escape the curse’s reach. Mark Twain annoys the heck out of Woodrow Wilson in Bermuda, and that made me very happy. (Team Twain!) Men murder their wives, women think about poisoning their friends, Jack London is a jerk when he’s drunk, people travel in their dreams. The pages are many and the plot goes all over the place.

It gets harder to figure out where Hell has a hand in the novel’s events as the novel progresses, and, interestingly, the narrator himself isn’t too sure. The child of some minor characters in The Accursed, our narrator has set out to chronicle the events with an eye for including all the facts. All. The. Facts. Some readers will get really annoyed about this, because there are many details which could have been overlooked without altering the plot one bit. While constructing an in-depth study of a certain time and place – and the social complexities therein – Joyce Carol Oates may have been a little self-indulgent with the editing process. But I honestly had fun with this book. I liked the witty banter just as much as I liked the horrifying visions. I learned new things: before reading The Accursed I couldn’t have constructed two sentences about Upton Sinclair or Woodrow Wilson. Now I want to go find out what sort of people they really were. I also appreciated how the inherent racism and sexism of the time period was brought to light, without pardoning the characters for their ignorance. Some younger characters learn to be more thoughtful about their fellow man as their world changes around them, and some otherwise likable men and women tout hideous opinions which should make any reader today cringe. Oates neither excuses nor condemns the accepted judgements of the early 20th century. She just subtly reminds us how dangerous it is to think that certain races, genders, and classes deserve their misfortune. Because misfortune happens to everyone in this story, and it’s impossible to say if anyone deserves the fates they suffer.

I have recommended The Accursed to a friend who loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, because the style and subject are similar. Both books are heavy with historical details and vivid characters. They each take a fascinating time period and introduce supernatural elements to the scene, thus exposing the ridiculous qualities of real life, which may as well be fantasy for all the sense it makes. I liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell quite a bit more than I liked The Accursed, because I thought the supernatural elements were more cohesive and the plot was much cleaner. (You can read our old review of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell here.) That being said, fans of American history and literature might well prefer The Accursed. There were themes and structures of folklore in each book, each rooted firmly in the country of its origin. The nightmare world in The Accursed followed some grisly fairy-tale patterns which reminded me of Clarke’s haunting fairy lands. I can’t really compare The Accursed to other examples of Joyce Carol Oates’s writing, because it is so different from the few books I’ve read (like the YA novel I read over the summer). The writing here is so invested in the historical and biographical tone I almost forgot that such a curse never really existed. I’ll take that as a very good thing indeed, because if I’m drawn into a world so deeply I lose myself in it, then the book must be doing something right. Not all of you will like The Accursed, and it may not always be the right time to delve into such a behemoth, but if you’ve got time to kill and a mind for some complex drama, give it a try. At the end, you’ll be able to return to the real world more easily than some of the doomed characters you meet along the way.

Filed under morgan the accursed joyce carol oates jonathan strange and mr norrell susanna clarke historical fiction paranormal fantasy horror history book review satan demon mark twain upton sinclair woodrow wilson princeton jack london feminism race racism sexism socialism

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Book Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2stars)

Review by Morgan.

Age rage recommendation: 14+ (Or, you know, only people who are ok with lots of bloody violence. It’s a vampire book, after all!)

I was delighted by Holly Black’s new YA novel, The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, in more ways than one! It’s a disgustingly entertaining book, and I had the wonderful fortune to attend her reading and talk in Cambridge this week, where I got to hear about the writing process and what experiences go into the fantastic stories she tells. I read an ARC of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown a few days before it was released, and here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, it’s inspired by one of my favorite of her short stories, of the same title, in which vampirism is a disease which causes its victims to go “cold” for eighty eight days. If someone who’s survived being bitten by a vampire can withstand their all-consuming hunger for blood, they remain human. Vampires and the infected are quarantined in Cold Towns, and anyone who goes cold must surrender themselves or be considered a danger to society for obvious reasons. The thing about Cold Towns is, anyone can sign themselves into one, but you can never leave again unless you have a very special marker and aren’t Cold or a Vampire. Of course, this being the age of reality TV and live blogs, feeds come out of the Cold Towns glamorizing the constant bloodletting parties and the dramatic lives of the real vampires who live there. Misunderstood goth kids will do anything to become a vampire – though bitings are growing rare since vampires don’t want to create competition for the blood supply – and events like The Eternal Ball and Lucien Moreau’s highly-televised parties draw thousands of viewers from outside the heavily guarded walls. You should check out Holly Black’s short story in her collection The Poison Eaters, because it’s a great introduction to the dark and gritty atmosphere of the novel. (Please buy it from an independent bookshop, or ask your local bookseller to order it for you! Amazon is evil.)

So the background to the novel was awesome to begin with, but how about the book’s specific plot? Also awesome. Tana wakes up the morning after a drunken party to find that all of the other party goers – most of them her high school classmates and friends – have been brutally murdered. With her infected and infuriating ex-boyfriend in tow and a suspiciously helpful vampire boy in the trunk of her car, Tana heads to Coldtown hoping to get Aidan through three months of cold hell and somehow make it back to her father and sister. They encounter a pair of vampire obsessed siblings with connections in the nearby Coldtown, and things soon spiral even further out of Tana’s control when everyone around her becomes desperate enough to put their own desires – blood, immortality, escape from a mysterious past – above the struggle to stay mentally and physically human.

I liked Tana as a protagonist because her motives were simple and real. She wants to survive Coldtown, get back to her family, and convince her little sister that turning into a bloodthirsty monster isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She wants to figure out what horrifying force is pursuing the cute but terrifyingly-insane vampire who owes her his life; not because the two of them are destined to save the world (such an exhausted plot twist in YA these days) but just because she likes him. She wants to help her friends and keep them from biting her. She’s horrified but determined, and it’s easy to invest in her troubles because she experiences a conflict between the instincts of self preservation and loyalty in a completely realistic fashion throughout the whole book. The supporting characters have lots of depth and great backgrounds, too. Tana’s ex boyfriend is charming but frustrating, the famous vampires were terrifying but so completely fascinating, and the human inhabitants of Cold Town had really interesting lives. Plus, there was an awesome Trans* chick who kicked ass without functioning as a mere one-dimensional attempt at diversity! Woohoo!

Reading The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, I noted with interest which parts of the Vampire Literature tradition Holly Black had adopted into her own mythology, and which conventions she decided to ignore or subvert. It’s impossible to write a vampire book without involving some of the patterns and themes from a genre which has been so popular for centuries, and Black does a great job of acknowledging this while still letting her own creativity take center stage. There were obvious influences from Anne Rice’s vampire books – the attention loving villain reminded me an awful lot of Lestat – and some of the action scenes took on a Buffy-eque, cinematic style. It’s a bloody story, and the narrative never shies away from gore in favor of Romantic death metaphors. In fact, the violent descriptions are an integral part of the story’s dichotomy: the quest for a beautiful immortality appeals to the vainer side of human nature at the cost of our self restraint, but the reality of becoming a monster is hideous and painful.

I imagine that any reader will be able to spot hints of their own favorite vampire legends and series when they read the book. At her talk at the Cambridge Library, Holly Black mentioned a whole ton of books and movies which had built up her image of vampires and asked us which vampires we remembered igniting our interest as young readers. The list included: Dracula, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Carmilla, Sunshine, and even TV and movies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that 80s film The Lost Boys, among many others. Aside from the obvious lineage behind Coldtown, I also thought of some embarrassing obsessions from my teenage years which actually fit quite well with the tone and themes of the book. The sarcastic heroine reminded me a little of Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ short and bloody YA books, while the themes of loyalty; desperation; and gritty violence actually brought me right back to the years when My Chemical Romance was the soundtrack to my life. Their early albums I Brought You My Bullets You Brought Me Your Love and Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge go surprisingly well with the pace and structure of The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, though it was uncomfortable to hear the sounds of my fourteen year old weirdness eight years later…

There were a few aspects of the book which I thought could be improved upon slightly, but for the most part I really enjoyed it. The big, dramatic parts of the story actually belonged to the vampire characters and not to Tana herself, so there’s quite a lot of exposition and other characters talking about a history which the protagonist never experienced. However, I was glad to read a book about a teenage girl who isn’t the center of some powerful machination and who isn’t destined to save the world armed with nothing but underdeveloped special powers, so I didn’t mind that structure too much. Some of the interesting minor characters didn’t get enough page-time to satisfy me, but the book was a good length in the end so I suppose their moments had to be pared down to only the most essential contributions. I’m not sure if Holly Black intends to write a sequel to The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, but I was so very happy that it didn’t end on a dangling cliffhanger. If she releases another novel set in Coldtown –either about Tana and her friends or just in the same fictional timeline – I will be excited to read it, even though I’ll be grossed out and nervous for the next few days, like I was this week. The book is great on its own. If you’re after a gross and gripping tale about complex vampires, with a few clever twists, I think that The Coldest Girl in Coldtown will satisfy the morbid side of anyone looking for a disturbing and addictive book to read this Fall.

Filed under Holly Black Coldest Girl in Coldtown Coldtown vampire YA Book Review YA lit new YA books horror fantasy review morbid goth vamp halloween morgan

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Book Review: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

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Star Ratings

Characters: 5 stars

Character Development: 4 stars

Plot: 3 stars

Writing: 4 stars

Overall: 4 stars

Age recommendation: 16 and up

Review by Morgan

It took me two nights to read The Wasp Factory, not because it was particularly long – it’s actually quite a short novel – but because it’s one extremely tense and disturbing little story. I’m still reeling from the news of Iain Banks’s death, it’s a tragedy for the literary world and for the Earth in general. I had only read The Crow Road before I first met him, and a bit of Stonemouth after, but I’ve been wanting to read The Wasp Factory and Consider Phlebas ever since he did two talks with the St Andrews Literary Society in the past couple of years. I had the amazing luck to go out with Iain and his lovely girlfriend (now widow) Adele upon both occasions, and he was such an interesting and funny man. In fact, he was witty as hell even when he was writing about his own mortality. The universe is worse without him, but was improved by his 59 years of existence. So, thinking about him and unable to sleep, I finally picked up The Wasp Factory to see if it was as distressing as everyone had told me it was.

Oh yes, this is a messed up book indeed. It is absorbing and well paced, and I think I could have finished it the night I started reading just because it seemed impossible to extract my own train of thought from the antihero Frank’s own narration. However, I was so freaked out by a few of the scenes that I needed to take a break from the twisted world Banks has created in Frank’s head. There are only a few characters in The Wasp Factory, partly because it takes place on a tiny, secluded island somewhere just off the coast of Northern Scotland, but also because we see the world through Frank’s eyes, and Frank doesn’t find other human beings very interesting or important. He’s a sixteen year old with psychopathic tendencies who provides the reader with twisted rationalizations to the murders of his little brother and two young cousins which he committed years ago. The explanations to his actions are in such matter-of-fact tones that its difficult to get a read on the book’s narrator, making him all the more frightening. “Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through,” he says at one point, and the delusional logic which inspires his actions is presented in such an offhand manner that his thoughts seem even more monstrous than his violent acts. When he describes the creative but horrifying murder of little Esmerelda, against whom he felt no real malice, Frank assumes that his reader shares his unnatural view of the world and its rules: “I killed little Esmerelda because I felt I owed it to myself and to the world in general. I had, after all, accounted for two male children and thus done womankind something of a statistical favour.” What ate into my brain the most (oops, that’s a sick pun which will only make sense after you read the book) was the way that the murderous compulsions, the gory scenes of animal torture, and even the macabre rituals of The Factory and the Sacrifice Poles start to take on a weird rationality of their own as we get sucked into this book. Banks managed to tell a story with no real hero, following a character to whom it should be impossible to relate, and yet The Wasp Factory is still the sort of book that people read voraciously, desperate to understand what it is that’s horrifying them so much.

There’s a bit of a mystery surrounding Frank’s father, a bit of suspense as his older brother makes his way home after escaping from a lunatic asylum, and a bit of philosophy as Frank makes observations about human kind – observations which are so poignant because his view of our species is removed by a few degrees of madness. However, the plot focuses largely on Frank’s personal inner turmoil and the methods with which he comes to terms with his actions and desires. The story is a “page turner” because of the writing and the characters, not necessarily because Banks wrote a tightly constructed plot. I suppose I would call The Wasp Factory a thriller of sorts, but mostly because of the thrills of revulsion I got whenever a particularly gruesome scene forced its way into my imagination. There are a few twists in the book, and one huge one which provides quite a shock, but this is a story about a murderer more than it is a story about murders. Iain Banks writes so well as a dangerously unstable young man that it’s difficult to imagine him as the jovial, hilarious, and warmly friendly fellow who he really was.

I’d recommend The Wasp Factory to anyone who spends the moments before they fall asleep wondering if they’re in danger of going mad, because it shows the shocking depth to which some people’s inhumanity can reach. It’s also the sort of book which would appeal to mystery readers – though the mysteries in the plot are certainly less interesting than the narrative voice – as well as to fans of distinctly Scottish writing, and violent books like American Psycho and A Clockwork Orange. I gave it an age recommendation of sixteen and older because, despite the fact that the protagonist is a teenager, Banks does not shy away from the sort of horrific imagery which you can’t bleach out of your brain no matter how hard you try to imagine yourself in a happy place. I tried to think about kittens to comfort myself about halfway through the book, but that only upset me more because Frank or his brother would probably mutilate those kittens… It’s disturbing, is what I mean to say, and when you’re a young kid and already disturbed enough as it is, this sort of writing won’t do your developing brain any favors. That being said, I think it’s a fascinating example of realistic fiction with a taint of horror and some extremely dark magical thinking. Banks’s writing skills are impressive, and reading The Wasp Factory has encouraged me to try and get my hands on some of his Science Fiction (written as Iain M. Banks) this summer, to read more about the imaginative worlds which lived in this talented and inspiring author’s mind.

Filed under Iain Banks The Wasp Factory Horror Book Review Book Lit Psycho Scotland Scottish Fiction Iain M Banks Disturbing Literature Murder Killer morgan

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Book Review: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

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Star Ratings

Characters: ****

Character Development: ***

Plot: ***

Writing: ***

Overall: ***

Age range recommendation: 16 +

Review by Morgan

I picked up The Daylight Gate to give Jeanette Winterson a second chance to impress me. When I saw that she had just published a new novel based on the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612 I thought it sounded more interesting than Written On The Body (1993), which I found to be an unbearably contrived love story – not at all my cup of tea. The Daylight Gate was decidedly more interesting and infinitely more memorable despite the fact that it is a short novel, only slightly longer than 200 pages. Since I’ve always been interested in the history of witch hunts and superstition I was excited to learn that nearly every major character in the book is based on real figures from this rather horrifying chapter in British history. William Shakespeare even makes a brief appearance as a voice of reason when some characters go to see a production of The Tempest. Winterson states, in her introduction, “The story I have told follows the historical account of the witch trials and the religious background – but with necessary speculations and inventions… . The characters are real people, though I have taken liberties with their motives and their means.” She gives us a dark and unflinching look into the miserable lives of poor women in England’s early 17th century, describing the fear; violence; filth; and religious uncertainty which governed the daily existences of those ordinary people who suffered most keenly from King James I’s obsession with eradicating witchcraft.

It’s always difficult to read a piece of historical fiction without constantly wondering which details are faithful to the events and which have been invented for the sake of storytelling, but Winterson manages to create a gripping tale out of mostly historical fact by asking one fascinating question: what if the accused women really had been holding a witches’ Sabbat that diabolical night on Pendle Hill? By adding chilling supernatural elements to a series of events which were already rife with superstition, she challenges our perceptions of religion’s effect on the course of history. A woman’s loyalty is tested, and the conflict between a man’s faith in God’s law and his own moral standpoint threatens the lives of several remarkable characters from history. Alice Nutter has lost her certainty about the spiritual world, despite her own experiences with magic and alchemy in her past, and the townsfolk of Lancashire believe she has the Devil’s help in keeping herself youthful and prosperous. Roger Nowell wants to treat the rising accusations of witchcraft with a firm grasp on reality, but the presence of lawyer Thomas Potts in his jurisdiction – the real life author of The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire and a truly insufferable fellow – pressures him to use the gruesome force of royal decree upon the growing list of imprisoned witches.

There are no real heroes in The Daylight Gate; the imprisoned women have no qualms accusing each other in turn and one woman actually turns a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of her young daughter. Even the levelheaded Alice Nutter puts the safety of her loved ones above the law.

Winterson reveals the uncomfortable truth that the only way to survive in this time period was to look out for yourself before thinking of others. We get a sense of this horrifying time in history through the repulsive acts which are performed to summon the Devil’s assistance, but also through the desperation which shines through even mundane encounters. The dangerous period is invoked with as much careful precision as the ghastly setting, and the attention to physical detail which annoyed me in Written On The Body was more appropriate in The Daylight Gate, though it did get stomach turning as the depravity continued. As despicable as the characters seem, we grow to understand the motives behind their actions, which makes their various grisly ends even harder to read about, despite the fact that their fates were sealed long before Winterson took up the challenge of shaping them into a story.

The prose sometimes seemed more focused on shocking the reader than on balancing the book’s suspense, and I must admit that I could have done without some of the gory or sexual details, but I do understand how these moments were important to Winterson’s examination of the witch trials. There are a few moments of violent revenge which satisfied my need for justice, but The Daylight Gate is a generally hopeless story, so don’t pick it up looking for a historical adventure which will lead to a gratifying conclusion in which bravery triumphs over ignorance. A few characters are brave and loyal, but those traits had no chance against the fear which ran rampant in 1612. I happened to like the ending, though some readers may find it disappointing, but be forewarned that – despite the presence of magic in Alice Nutter’s unusually long life – this novel is not the sort of fantasy in which magic can undo reality. Reality was unpleasant in the 17th century. The aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot inspired men and women to distrust their own families, death and misfortune claimed children without justification, and faith was tested and shaken at every turn of fortune’s wheel. The Daylight Gate shows how the hysteria of one town can provide a window into the horrors of a time period which is too often glamorized in contemporary fiction.

By the time I finished The Daylight Gate – and it is a short read – my impression of Jeanette Winterson’s writing abilities had been improved. I still think that she should waste fewer words on grisly details and give her characters more room to develop, but the setting in this novel was well-wrought and her handling of recorded facts was impressive. The balance between historical trivia and invented plot was good, for the most part, and I would highly recommend The Daylight Gate to anyone who is interested in the 17th century witch trials and doesn’t mind having their comfortable illusions about Jacobean England trampled a little. If you tend to dislike historical fiction but enjoy very dark “low fantasy,” with occult and horror elements, this might also be a good choice. Despite the book’s brevity there are some good moments of creepy magic. But, if you have a weak stomach and no fondness for devilry, I’d avoid this particular novel. It’s not a comfortable or pleasant read, but it’s well-written and interesting, and I appreciate its effectiveness at revealing the grim realities of England’s past alongside an imaginative story.

Filed under The Daylight Gate Jeanette Winterson Book Review Witch Trails Historical Fiction Witchcraft Satanism Jacobean Shakespeare occult demon magic fantasy horror hammer films Books Lit Literature Review Novel Criticism morgan

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Book Review: The Curiosities by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff

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Review by Morgan

Since this is an anthology of short stories, the star ratings will be slightly different.

Star Ratings:

Writing: *** (3 stars. The authors chose to present their stories in their raw and largely unedited forms: notes in the margins point out what they would like to change. Despite the rough writing in places, the general quality is very good.)

Arrangement: **** (4 stars. Stories are relatively varied and presented in an appealing order. I wish the final story had been stronger, though.)

Balance: **** (4 stars. We get a nice mix of fantasy, horror, speculative fiction, legends, and psychological darkness.)

Personality: ***** (5 stars. I mean to say that the authors’ personalities and their writing styles shine through their commentary in the best of ways. We see how they work as writers and it makes them even more lovable/admirable.)

Overall: ***** (4 stars.  I really like this book!)

Inspired by their collaborative website, The Merry Sisters of Fate (merryfates.com), The Curiosties showcases quickly written pieces of short fiction by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff. The stories tend to fall within their collective genre of paranormal or speculative Young Adult fiction, but each author contributes stories which refuse to be contained by one genre or even – as the amusingly hand-written margin notes point out – by their own distinctive writing styles. Brenna, Tessa, and Maggie share their thought processes, inspiration, and their opinions about each others’ work, and we get to see how their voices have changed and developed as a result of their literary friendship. For readers who pick up The Curiosities as fans of one particular author, there will be plenty of familiar themes and fixations within these pages. But it’s the unexpected pieces, the stories which surprised the writer, and which her friends admit to wishing they had written first, which make this collection so valuable to admirers of these authors and their subjects.

I was only slightly familiar with the authors of The Curiosities when I started reading. I’ve shared my high opinion of Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys already, and I remember getting carried away into the dark and intricate world of Yovanoff’s The Replacement a couple of Novembers ago, but I wasn’t particularly well versed in their bodies of work and I’d never read Gratton at all (though I wish I had – she’s great!). My ignorance didn’t really matter, though, because through witty banter with her friends and wise thoughts on writing, history, magic, etc, each writer bares her personality and makes her voice as distinct as if we knew her personally. The informal tone of this collection sets off some of the truly dark stuff which it contains, and you get to read a well balanced combination of YA anthology and “How We Write” essay, all in one attractive package.

The stories themselves are excellent fun, provided that you enjoy the sort of writing done by these women. While the pieces are varied in terms of plot and format, and while the order in which they’re presented keeps the pace from dragging, they are resolutely stories for Young Adult readers who like elements of the paranormal; the esoteric; the sinister; and the weird. (A note: by “Young Adult reader”, I refer to anyone, young or adult or somewhere in between, who enjoys YA fiction.) You will find monsters and creatures to suit every taste, retellings of legends and stories prompted by fairy tales, good old fashioned ghost stories, horrifying visions of the future, and even some stories featuring no technical magic at all but which embody a perfectly chilling sense of dread. You will read about highschool, college, alternative historical settings, the ancient north, and steampunk or sc-fi cityscapes. There is kissing, killing, and wit galore.

What you won’t find in The Curiosities is grown-up, tightly plotted, examinations of every day life; at least, there are no mundane sensibilities left to carry a story on their own. But themes get heavy in this collection, underneath the strange and beautiful surface. Maggie’s pieces about geniuses behaving badly and legends existing in our world deal with questions of power, loyalty, and how to spend the time we have given to us. These are questions which The Raven Boys also handled very well. Tessa’s tales about monsters and complicated spells examine the importance of bravery in the face of sorrow and how traditions shape our lives. And Brenna’s stories about psycho killers tricked by even-more-psychotic killers, lonely ghosts, and wishes gone awry reveal the capacity for darkness which waits within all of us, and that desperate need for understanding which can save us when we’re young. These ladies know what they’re doing, and they do it well: telling us eternal truths hidden deep within compelling stories which appeal to our sense of the macabre and the fantastic.

Filed under The Curiosities Book Review YA Literature Fantasy Horror Supernatural Specualtive Fiction short stories merryfates Brenna Yovanoff Maggie Stiefvater Tessa Gratton Brenna Yovanoff Maggie Stiefvater Tessa Gratton Vampires ghosts magic dragons legends fairy faery folktales anthology morgan

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Book Review: The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding


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Star Ratings
Characters:**** (4 stars)
Character Development:*** (3 stars)
Plot:***** (5 stars)
Writing:*** (3 stars)
Overall:***1/2 (3.5 stars)

Review by Morgan.

Age Range Recommendation: Ages 14 and up. (Frightening ideas and some graphic violence.)

Hello my poor neglected readers.  I had fully intended to review The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray in time for Hallowe’en, as it is one of my favorite scary books of all time, but alas I was figuratively drowning in school work, literally drowning in tea, and quite unable to form coherent sentences until now.  However, November is an appropriately creepy month – especially here in Scotland where it gets dark by four in the afternoon – and the novel does indeed take place in November, so I’ll review it now.

The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray has a slightly deceptive title; it suggests a ghost story about a young woman with a strange name.  In fact, the book is less about a single haunting and more of a full-on supernatural onslaught in an alternative-history Victorian London.  

The main character is a seventeen year old “wych-hunter” named Thaniel Fox, and he is one of those teenage protagonists blessed with an ability to perform any task a thousand times better than his adult counterparts.  Thaniel and his mentor in wych-hunting Cathaline (in anticipation of your questions: No, not a single character in this novel has a normal name) stalk and destroy immensely terrifying creatures called wych-kin who roam the streets of London.  London itself is different than it was historically in Victorian times: in an act of steampunk warfare the Prussians have bombed it from their airships roughly thirty years before our story takes place, and in certain parts of the city the wych-kin roam about unchecked.  When stalking a cradlejack – a monster who steals and eats babies, infecting anyone it bites – Thaniel comes across a traumatized girl his own age with amnesia.  This is Alaizabel Cray, and she is possessed by a cranky, super evil old wych.  The story centers around Thaniel, Alaizabel, and Cathaline as they learn about Alaizabel’s past and realise that much darker forces are at work than the monstrous wych kin who are growing in numbers too ghastly to think about.

Some readers may be confused by the extremely varied ratings I’ve given each aspect of this novel.  The writing and character development of this book aren’t too excellent, you can tell that the author was still in his early twenties when he wrote it and his style hasn’t been perfected yet.  He overuses certain words, like “clotted” and “lacquered,” to remind the reader how very dark and scary his version of London can be. As for the characters, each person is unique and fascinating but sometimes they are a little too perfect.  With the single notable exception of Artemis Fowl (by Eoin Colfer), no teenager could believably be so proficient in this many fighting techniques, magical applications, and generally bad-ass skills as Thaniel.  He’s a likable character, levelheaded and cool, but when I first read this book I was fifteen years old and even then he seemed a little unrealistic.  The same goes for Alaizabel Cray; she is sweet, clever, brave, and sympathetic every time she speaks or acts, and it doesn’t quite add up.  Were I possessed by an evil spirit, I’d be grumpy and tired.  The minor characters are more believable, they each have their own strengths and foibles which round out the cast quite nicely.

Despite Wooding’s occasionally questionable writing, the plot in The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray is one of the best I’ve read in YA fiction.  He doesn’t just center around the relationship between Alaizabel and Thaniel, he writes a twisting, high-stakes tale which encompasses all of Victorian London from the police, to madhouses, to aristocratic cults, to beggar kingdoms, to serial killers.  The wych-kin themselves are each described in spectacular detail; there are new creatures the reader learns about in nearly every chapter and each is grosser and more sinister than the last.  Scrawny cradle-robbers with needle sharp teeth; the drowned splashing noises of the Draugs’ footsteps as they stalk their victims, the air growing cold and salty as they approach; the terrifying spectre which fills Alaizabel’s entire bedroom as it looms in darkness over her bed: this is the stuff of nightmares.  Once you have read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, you will never look behind yourself more than twice when walking at night, no matter what you might hear in your wake, for fear of getting devoured by Rawhead – the invisible stalker who only strikes on the third glance.

Chris Wooding has invented horrors I couldn’t even dream up myself, and I am notorious for screaming in my sleep from night-terrors.  The wych-kin are truly traumatizing, but the villainous humans aren’t much nicer.  The mysterious Fraternity – that dark cult which causes Alaizabel to become possessed as they carry out a nefarious scheme for power – is made up of corrupt policemen, cruel wych-hunters, and one truly nasty doctor who controls the city’s insane asylum.  Their rituals are creepy and completely immoral, and although Wooding’s writing style sometimes detracts from the story he is extremely talented at inventing and describing magic in an original but comprehensible manner.  The system of wards and summoning in the novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read and I was impressed by his inventiveness.

With the Fraternity and wych-kin for antagonists, those characters who remain in the moral middle-ground are evil enough themselves.  Devil-boy Jack, a psychic little boy with his eyes sewn shut, has absolutely no qualms about letting his friends die for the sake of a plan.  And he’s one of the kinder anti-heroes.  Stitchface is one of Wooding’s greater creations. He’s a serial killer who drives a hansom cab at night, wearing a woman’s wig over his mask: a gaping face sewn together from the skin of prostitutes he murders.  Yup, Stitchface is one of the good guys; the villains and monsters are way more horrifying than your regular psycho killer.  Hence, my age recommendation of fourteen and above.  “Not a bedtime book for those of a nervous disposition,” wrote The Times in its review of Alaizabel Cray, and I would have to agree.  Read this book if you want to be terrified, and if you don’t mind feeling entirely on edge when walking home at night, because you’ll soon be counting the number of times you look over your shoulder and jumping at every noise.

So, why should you read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, even though the writing is a bit iffy?  The setting is vivid, the plot is engaging, it features one of the best duels I’ve ever read, and the story is entirely unique.  It being a Young Adult novel, one could probably finish it in an evening, and that would be a November night well spent.   It’s an atmospheric novel, perfect for this time of year when the nights are long and the weather dreary.  Go and read it quickly, before November is over!

Filed under The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray Chris Wooding Stitchface Thaniel Fox Wych-Kin Wych Gothic Fiction YA Book Review YA Fiction Fantasy Steampunk Horror Monsters Victoriana Alternative History Fog London London Victorian Airship Cults morgan