Book Review: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

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The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Another long-timer in my TBR down! Obviously after reading The Haunting of Hill House, this was the next logical step.

Arthur Kipps, up-and-coming young lawer, is sent to tend to the estate of recently deceased widow Alice Drablow. Upon arriving at the small village of Crythin Gifford, Kipps finds that the locals regarded Mrs. Drablow and her isolated manor, Eel Marsh House, with a wariness bordering on fear. Feeling rather superior to what he regards as uneducated superstition, Kipps resolves to stay overnight at Eel Marsh House, the better to complete his work efficiently. Once at the house, however, and trapped by the tide, Kipps discovers that the residents of Crythin Gifford feared the old woman and her house for good reason.

This was a truly creepy book. I’m very glad we’re into the springtime here; reading this book in the dark of winter would have been terrifying. As it was, I found myself thoroughly creeped out on more than one occasion. Hill does a great job at providing us with an unforgettable and menacing location in Eel Marsh House. The grand, ancient manor, sitting high in a desolate landscape, unreachable and inescapable during the high tide is claustrophobic and vividly unnerving. The Woman in Black herself, with her skeletally thin and bone white face, and unceasing aura of malevolence and hate is a figure out of a nightmare.

Horror fans: this is a must read! There’s an excellent reason The Woman in Black is considered a classic in the genre. Any one looking for a quick, creepy read need look no further.

Book Review: George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin J. Hayes

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George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin J. Hayes

So here you are, reading a book review about a book about the history of George Washington’s books. It’s hard to get more meta than that. In all seriousness, though, this was an interesting angle for a history/biography about the first president of the United States.

Working roughly in chronological order, Hayes takes us through the library at Mount Vernon. We start with Washington’s earliest books (collections of devotions by famous preachers), and move from there to travel guides, reference books, abolitionist tracts (though he regrettably never used his considerable political influence to address the injustice of slavery, in his personal dealings Washington was an abolitionist), popular fiction, and military books.

Hayes introduces us to a man born in the American colonies, and denied a “proper” English education. In order to compensate for an education he perceived as lacking, Washington would embark on a lifetime quest of self-improvement. He actively sought out books to deepen his understanding of the physical, spiritual, and literary worlds. His passion for books and for reading would remain undiminished throughout his life.

George Washington has deservedly been the subject of countless biographies. Approaching his life from the direction of his library is both refreshing and educational. While some of the conclusions the author draws based on the content of the Mount Vernon library shelves seems a bit reaching, on the whole this is a fascinating look at one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: It by Stephen King

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It by Stephen King

This is one of Stephen King’s iconic books. And it’s one you could kill a small child with. Literally. The book is a whopping 1153 pages long. The book is huge, but the story King tells is also huge.

The major part of the story focuses on seven friends in the summer of 1957. In the midst of a spate of disappearances and murders of local children, the kids discover that an unnameable and evil entity is at work under the streets of Derry, Maine. Whats more, the adults in town seem to be unwilling or unable to acknowledge what is underneath their noses (or, more appropriately, their feet). The kids fight and defeat the monster, but twenty-seven years later It comes back, and they must defeat It once and for all, but as adults, the fight is going to be all the harder.

That is the barebones of the story. Hell, that story could probably be told in a normal-sized book. But what Stephen Kings gives us in It is much broader and deeper. In The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson toyed with the imagery of a house that is so indefinably wrong that it is actually insane

Hill House,not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it has stood for eighty years and might stand eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

In It, Stephen King presents us with an entire town that is wrong, that is rotten, and that is insane. As such, the story is as much about the town as it is about the protagonists. There are interludes within the book, histories of atrocities and massacres that occurred over the preceding centuries. And the sickness isn’t just in the town. it’s in the people as well. Murders, bullying, sadism, and abuse all seem to run rampant in Derry; but is the town (and the thing living under it) making people act so horribly, or does the dark hum of evil simply bring to the surface a reciprocal evil that is hidden in all of us?

The book is more of an epic than a straight-up novel. Fortunately, despite the 1000-plus page count, there are few places where it drags. I also liked how the horror came from both the monster and from its all-too-human counterparts. While there were some scary parts, I have to say that I found The Shining to be more flat-out scary. It also delves into the weird, and there is one part (just before the 1100 page mark) that was a bit, well, what-the-fuck-were-you-thinking!?!

In all though, there is a good reason this book is considered one of King’s masterpieces, and I’m glad I’ve read it. If you’re a Stephen King fan and haven’t read this book, and/or you want to do your homework before the new movie comes out, then get cracking (and don’t drop it on your feet or on any small children)!

Book Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager

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Final Girls by Riley Sager

Quincy Carpenter is a survivor. Ten years ago, she was the only survivor of a horror movie-style massacre and joined the ranks of the “Final Girls.” A term given to two other women who survived similar massacres. Quincy has determinedly put the past behind her. She can’t remember much of what happened that night, and she has moved on, courtesy of Xanax and an obsession with baking. All she wants is to be “normal,” and not to be identified solely as a victim.

But her carefully constructed house of cards falls down when Lisa, one of the Final Girls, is found dead, her wrists slit. Soon the only other Final Girl, Sam, arrives on her doorstep. Sam’s method of dealing with her past is an exercise in self-destruction, and her presence sends Quincy spiraling down into instability. When the police investigation of Lisa’s death reveals that she was murdered, Quincy finds herself in a position where she can trust no one around her; not even her own memories.

This book surprised me. I went in expecting something leaning more towards the horror genre, and ended up with a tense little psychological thriller. I really enjoyed this book, and read it straight through in one sitting. The novel is told from Quincy’s point of view, and we get a first hand look at the rituals she holds herself to in order to maintain her grasp on normalcy. It is all too easy for the rampaging presence of Sam to knock these habits into disarray, and Quincy’s mental state with them. Interspersed between the chapters dealing with the here-and-now are chapters flashing back to the night of the massacre that Quincy survived as a college freshman. As both stories unfold, we must call into question everything we had learned before.

Sager does a brilliant job keeping the suspense going in this book. Her use of false leads and red herrings is masterfully done. Sager uses twists subtly telegraphed to hide other plot twists you will not see coming. We think we have guessed at a character’s hidden secret, only to have that secret be revealed as surface clutter to a more cunningly hidden depth.

Fans of Lisa Unger, Ruth Ware, or Karin Slaughter will likely enjoy this book. Anyone looking for a unique and riveting take on the horror genre should also pick up this book.

An advanced copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

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Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

It’s been a year since Sybilla “Billie” Flanagan disappeared while on a solo hiking trip. Missing and presumed dead, her grieving husband and teenage daughter have been left to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. Then one day at school, Billie’s daughter has a vision: her mother is alive, somewhere out there, and needs Olive to come find her. Jonathan, Billie’s husband, initially dismisses the idea that Billie is still alive. After all, he has just recently been able to accept the fact of her death. But then a chance encounter with one of Billie’s friends reveals that his wife has been keeping secrets from him for years. The deeper he digs into his wife’s mysterious past, the more uncertain he becomes about the woman he married, and whether she did actually perish a year ago.

This is a tight, subtle thriller. We know Billie, former wild child turned Berkeley super mom by the holes she left in the lives of those around her. While Olive and Jonathan work in their own ways to find out what happened to Billie, we see her surface persona slowly scraped away, and something different and darker start to show through underneath. Every revelation about who Billie was adds more mystery, rather than less, to her ultimate fate. Through the course of the book, you find yourself very smugly sure that so-and-so knows what happened to Billie, only to have that assumption ripped away a few chapters later, and your focus moved on to a new suspect.

Fans of mysteries and thrillers will probably enjoy this book. The story has several elements in common with Gone Girl. If you’ve enjoyed books in that vein, this is a good pick for you.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine

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Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine

The Great Library was started to ensure that the wisdom of mankind was safeguarded. However, since its advent during the reign of the Egyptian Pharaohs, the Library has stagnated, hoarding its knowledge, and stifling any dissent.

Jess is the son of a book smuggler. Printed books outside the Library’s control are contraband, and the penalty for owning these forbidden tomes is death. Though he has lived his life defying the Library’s hold on the printed word, he understands the value of protecting knowledge. When his family is able to get him a coveted position to train as a Library Scholar, he is secretly excited for the opportunity. Once his training starts, however, he discovers he may have been safer as a smuggler.

First of all, I can’t believe I waited this long to read this book, it has been filling up my feed for ages now, and the third book in the series is due out soon.

The world building in this book is fantastic. Caine manages to combine steampunk with dystopian near-future, and it works. This is a world built on steam, alchemy, and high technology. It manages to feel both nostalgic and futuristic at the same time. The characters that inhabit the book are similarly complex and well-crafted.

As Jess starts out his training with the Library, we begin to hope that we can stay with the “Hogwarts with Books” aspect. Alas, soon any illusions about the Library are tugged away and we find ourselves in a dystopian world where knowledge is a coveted resource, and this supreme entity will go to any lengths to keep their monopoly.

Honestly, it’s a bit like Amazon took over the world. The Library is a repository of knowledge, and the information deemed “acceptable” to be released to the public is done via “blanks,” electronic books to which the texts can be sent via alchemy. In a world where increasing digitization has vastly changed the concept of ownership, Ink and Bone feels like a cautionary tale. It certainly made me look at my kindle in a new light.

This book is a great adventure story, and fans of books like the Hunger Games will enjoy this series. Though I’m sure this book is considered YA, the subjects being dealt with are mature and complex, and there is a lot here for older readers (like me). Now I’m off to get the next book in the series (hard copy, not in kindle format).

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Virgin of the Wind Rose by Glen Craney

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The Virgin of the Wind Rose: A Christopher Columbus Mystery-Thriller by Glen Craney

While investigating the death of her fiance in Ethiopia, State Department newbie Jacqueline “Jac” Quartermane stumbles upon a mysterious word puzzle in an underground church in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Determined to solve the puzzle, she finds herself thrown into an ancient Christian mystery. Her investigations spark a wide ranging race to resurrect the Temple of Solomon. Running parallel to this, we travel back to 1452, where a Portuguese secret society seeks to avert the Spanish crown’s designs to bring about judgement day.

If you’re thinking that this sounds very like The Da Vinci Code, you’re not alone. The promise of an interesting mystery tied to a historical thriller sounded like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the main character, Jacqueline Quartermane, is a literalist, born-again Christian. Her mentor is a megachurch pastor with most of the GOP in his pocket. Forgive me for saying this, but I find the idea of cheering for someone like Jac to be repellent. The historical portions of the plot were interesting, although the time jumps did get confusing at times. It was the modern-day portions, with Jac at the helm, that ultimately turned me off this book. Perhaps I’m letting my personal feelings have too much sway, but especially in this day and age I find I have no patience for the religious set. If this book had been more secular, like The Da Vinci Code, it would have been much more palatable for me.

So, this book was entirely not to my tastes. For those who don’t mind the overly-religious bits, you may still enjoy it. One person’s tastes are not the be-all and end-all (which is the whole point of this blog). But for myself, I had to say no.

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

 

Thaniel Steepleton is a low-level telegraphist with the British Home Office. One morning, after a long night shift, he finds a mysterious package sitting on his bed. Inside is a watch he is unable to open, though he can hear the clockwork moving inside. Forgetting about the mysterious watch as the months go by, Thaniel is drawn with the rest of the government into investigating bomb threats being made by Irish Nationalists. When the watch saves him from such a blast, Thaniel is determined to get to the bottom of the timepiece’s mystery. Seeking out the maker of the piece, a Japanese Baron turned watchmaker, Thaniel finds a quiet, unassuming man. As events continue, it appears more and more that Keita Mori is hiding something. Thaniel must weigh his growing regard for the kindly Mori with his increasing suspicion that he may be at the center of the bombings in London.

This is a neat little book, and took me down unexpected paths. In the interests of keeping my reviews spoiler free, I won’t elaborate any more on the plot here, but suffice to say that having started the book, I could not have predicted where it would wind up. There are elements of fantasy and steampunk in this story, but these aspects don’t seem intrusive, which is a fairly easy trap to fall into in this genre. Rather, the book felt like a historical mystery, with the more fantastical elements providing a gilding along the edges.

The characters of Thaniel Steepleton and Keita Mori are richly drawn. Mori, especially, is well done. As the plot weaves on, we come to regard both he and Thaniel as sympathetic characters, yet we are left guessing until the very end of the book whether or not Mori is a villain.

Fans of historical mystery, steampunk, or historical fantasy will find a great deal to like in this book. The book lies somewhere between the historical-with-a-bit-of-supernatural Lady Julia Grey series by Deanna Raybourn, and the vividly steampunk Magnificent Devices series by Shelly Adina.

 

Book Review: The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

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The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Helena grew up in an isolated cabin deep in the marshes of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she understood the horrible truth of her unconventional childhood: her father was a kidnapper and rapist, and her mother his victim and prisoner. Now an adult, Helena has two young children of her own, and her father, known as The Marsh King, has been in prison for over a decade. Then one day, state troopers show up at her door; her father has escaped from prison. Helena knows that he will be coming for her, but her father is a consummate woodsman, able to disappear into the wilderness at will. Helena will have to use every bit of information he taught her in order to track him down and keep her family safe.

This nail-biting thriller contains shades of Room by Emma Donoghue and Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller. The story weaves between the present day, where Helena is living a more or less normal life in rural Michigan (though she still struggles with the intricacies of society), and her childhood living on the land in the isolated cabin on the marsh. We can acutely feel the subtle damage done to Helena by her father, yet she was raised to more or less worship him. Her father is a rapist, a kidnapper, and a sadist, but he was also the man who raised her, and what little girl doesn’t want the approval of her father? This dissonance between the facts and the feelings of her childhood present Helena with a horrible and complex dilemma. She knows her father is an evil man, and that he means to hurt her and her family, but how do you truly stop being daddy’s little girl?

I really liked this book. Dionne has taken a theme that occupies both newspaper headlines and our nightmares and made it into a terrifyingly realistic, gripping story. The weaving of past and present events is done well, revealing in increments the full story of Helena’s childhood. If you’ve been looking for a fast-paced, stay-up-until-one-in-the-morning read, this is the perfect book for you.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Horrorstör by Grady Henrix

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Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

This is one of those books I decided to try because of an intriguing cover and a gorgeous Instagram photo (you should check out@sadie_reads_them_all, her stuff is brilliant!). I am a total sucker for a great looking book. The intriguing blurb and the fact that another of Grady Hendrix’s books, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, has been on my TBR for a bit cemented the impulse buy.

Welcome to Orsk, Cleveland. This superstore offers pressboard furniture with clean lines and wallet-friendly prices. The massive showroom winds through setups of perfect living rooms, dining rooms, and bedrooms, all decked out exclusively in Orsk dressers, mattresses, tables, and couches. But something is wrong in this store; escalators run backwards, furniture is broken and vandalized in the night, and mysterious graffiti continues to show up in the bathrooms. In order to find out the cause of the vandalism, three employees stay overnight to monitor the store. What they encounter defies their worst nightmares, and it will be a miracle if they survive the night . . .

This book was a great take on the haunted house genre. Anyone who has been in a big box store in the dead of night knows just how creepy the place can be. There’s something about a location, normally bustling and loud with activity, echoing with the steps of a few 2am shoppers that works on the nerves. And anyone who has had to work an overnight shift (especially if by yourself) knows how much you seek out the well-lit and normal looking portions of the building to spend the night.

The horror is more psychological than flat-out gory (though there is gore, never fear). The store shifts and moves, entrapping the unfortunate employees in an increasingly sinister maze. The book reminds me a lot of House of Leaves, but without the dead spaces where nothing happens. Events ramp up quickly in Horrorstör and continue at a breakneck pace throughout the book.

I also enjoyed the portrayal of a more subtle horror: working in retail. The inanity, the amplification of petty annoyances, and the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped on a hamster wheel of fake smiles and interior screaming should be very familiar to any who has ever worked the other side of the cash register.

Horror fans will enjoy this book immensely. I’ve always enjoyed haunted house stories, and having one set in a thoroughly modern situation is refreshing. I will say, however, that reading the book gave me a paradoxical desire to go hang around the local Ikea . . .