Tag Archives: horror

Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

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Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp
Sourcebooks Fire, January 2018

A creepily atmospheric YA paranormal chiller which draws much of its menace from its setting in a tiny tight-knit community in the wilds of Alaska during the long winter when there are few hours of daylight. Corey returns to Lost Creek, “an almost all-white conservative town with little room for wayward girls,” for the funeral of Kyra, her troubled best friend and almost immediately realizes it was a suicide not an accident. Corey becomes increasingly troubled by the town inhabitants’ attitude towards Kyra in both life and death and, even though she herself left only a few months ago, their closing against her as an “outsider.” This is interspersed with flashbacks to the previous two years during which Kyra’s alternate manic episodes and depressions had become increasingly severe. Niekamp (This Is Where It Ends, 2016) draws nuanced portraits of both bipolar Kyra, looking only for acceptance of herself as she is, and Corey, convincingly conflicted between being there for her friend and craving normality. Some interesting sub-plots around sexuality are undeveloped and the novel occasionally breaks into a screenplay format for no apparent reason. Nonetheless, this will appeal to teens who enjoy magical realism with a side of eerie. Reviewed from an ARC.

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Dreamfall by Amy Plum

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Dreamfall by Amy Plum
HarperTeen, May 2017

I was really enjoying this imaginative and gripping scifi horror thriller, but then I started to get this little niggle: there wasn’t much left to read and there seemed a fair bit of plot to squeeze in. And then, oh crap, I realized it’s the first book in a series. Why, why, why? It felt like another 50 pages would have been quite sufficient to tie up all the ends and give us a satisfying resolution. But, oh no, Ms Plum, who has written other series, wants to keep it going. Still, on the basis of reviewing what’s in front of me and not what I wish it was, here goes….

After an experimental treatment for severe insomnia goes wrong, seven teens are stuck together in a place they call Dreamfall, which throws them alternately between one of their nightmares and a white waiting room-like void. The nightmares are various degrees of chilling and originality, including monsters, clowns, and zombie monks, and the author ratchets up the tension as the teens race to get out of each nightmare and back to the Void.

The Dreamfall teens are mixed in age, ethnicity and social class and two of them, 16 year old Catalina and 18 year old Fergus narrate these sections. Initially it’s all a bit of a jumble with seven characters, but they do gradually shake out into at least two-dimensions. A third narrator, Jaime, is a medical student who was observing the treatment in the lab and this allows the reader to see the doctors’ reactions, improbable as they sometimes are, as well as allowing us to peek at the subjects’ files and find out the differing reasons for their insomnia.

The plot rattles along at a breakneck pace, only to come to an abrupt cliff-hangerish sort of ending. No real resolution is reached, just further twists thrown in along with a bunch of other loose ends. It’s not clear where the author is going to take this, or if this is going to be a trilogy or duology. For my money, this should have been a one and done, but teens who like series may disagree.

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Polaris by Michael Northrop

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Polaris by Michael Northrop
Scholastic, October 2017

Mr Northrop has always been good at fast-paced adventures, and he turns that talent to a new genre – one he calls “historical science fiction.” It’s a well-plotted thrill ride with some excellent surprises that will appeal to middle grade lovers of speculative fiction with a side of horror.

On an 1830’s scientific expedition to Brazil, the captain and a handful of the crew of the Polaris accompany a botanist into a jungle inlet. A week later, only half of them return and there is sinister mystery surrounding what they discovered. A mutiny ensues, leaving just six boys on the ship and they decide to sail back it to the US. It gradually emerges that there is someone or something on board with them and it is not friendly.

The characters are roughly drawn but serviceable for keeping the plot moving along. We see the narrative through the eyes of three of them – Owen, the captain’s nephew, Manny, a Spanish boy with a secret, and Henry the botanist’s assistant. There are tensions between them pivoting on class, science, and nationality.

The novel successfully combines historical sailing adventure and hold your breath creeping around below decks, with a dash of 19th century science sprinkled in. It rattles along and sweeps to a thrilling climax with a Jurassic Park-like question mark at the end. As with Surrounded by Sharks, Mr Northrop knows what to do to keep a reluctant reader engaged and the historical setting is far enough in the background so it doesn’t to get in the way.

Thanks to Scholastic and Netgalley for the digital review copy

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The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

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creeping-shadowThe Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood & Co. Book 4
Disney Hyperion, 2015

This middle grade series just keeps getting better. Lucy Carlyle is now out fighting ghosts on her own, away from the comfort and protection of Lockwood and Co. She’s doing alright, after all she has the Bartimaeus-style snarky skull to keep her company, and she’s making a living as a freelancer. But, and you’ll have noticed the name of the series, she’s soon back happily working with charismatic Anthony Lockwood, nerdy George Cubbins, and even last book’s newcomer and love rival, the elegant Holly Munro.

There is an overarching grand conspiracy going on, that seems to revolve around the two original agencies founded to solve the Problem, Fittes and Rotwell, and once again, Lockwood and Co. is all wrapped up in it. This time it starts when Lucy discovers that someone is stealing powerful Sources which should be destroyed, and leads to a very haunted village.

Stroud does a magnificent job of keeping this series fresh, building on the familiar characters and world, as well as introducing new elements. Coming into the familiar mix of humor, chills, and mystery is a more somber note, a trepidatious twang of foreboding: Lockwood’s dark side and live fast die young attitude comes more into focus, even as he gets closer to Lucy.

Each novel in this series can stand alone, with an episodic structure that builds to a dramatic climax. But the reader would be best to start at the beginning to get the full rich umami of the stew that the author keeps cooking up for us.

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As I Descended by Robin Talley

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AsIDescended-highresAs I Descended by Robin Talley
HarperTeen, September 2016

I have really enjoyed Ms Talley’s two previous books, particularly What We Left Behind  (2015), one of my top books of 2016. Both those books were about, among other things, young women coming to terms with their gender and sexuality. In her latest, many of her characters just happen to be gay and lesbian, and none of them have any issues with this (though their parents might have), and the author has ventured into genre territory – an exceedingly chilling modern day retelling of Macbeth, setting in a Virginia boarding school.

When spirits tell brown-skinned Maria, through a Ouija board, that she will have what she most desires, she decides to take matters into her own hands, goaded on by her white girlfriend Lily. The prize is the prestigious Cawdor Kingsley scholarship, and once the spirits offer it, Maria can’t stop wanting it, and will let nothing get in her way, beginning with deposing Queen Bee, Delilah.

Though this isn’t a completely faithful rendition of Macbeth – none of the characters have children, for example – it is surprisingly close and works extremely well. Some of it is a little forced – the football field is rather clunkily called Dunsinane – but the characters and their motivations and arcs are remarkably faithful. It will work just fine for readers unfamiliar with the Scottish play, but for those who do know it, there are some clever nods and reimaginings.

The story is told from the point of view of several characters, and they are mostly well-developed despite being players in a melodramatic story. However, Maria/Macbeth starts off well, but as she gets further into the web woven for her by the malignant forces, l lost the feel of her and she seemed to become more of a chess piece to get through a plot. However, Lily/Lady Macbeth and Brandon/Banquo avoid this, and are heartbreaking in their roles.

Because it’s based on a Shakespearean tragedy, there is a lot of Gothic drama and the writing becomes very feverish and a little overwrought. However, Ms Talley brings a creepiness that kept me awake and a little nervous in my holiday cottage in Ireland, and which will appeal to fans of Maggie Stiefvater.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby

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TasteForMonsters-CCVR-1A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby
Scholastic, September, 2016.

I am a big fan of MJK’s standalone books (and not so long ago we had an MJK week at bibliobrit), and though they are all very different, they share an excitement and specificity about a historical setting, as well as creatively introducing different speculative elements, all wrapped up in an intensely human story.

And he keeps getting better! A Taste for Monsters is a story of redemption set in a wonderfully drawn late 19th Century London, with a Gothic mood, and supernatural elements drawing from the spiritualist ideas of that era.  17 year-old Evelyn Fallow gets a job as maid and companion for Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man, at the London Hospital in the East End. This coincides with the horrific Whitechapel murders, attributed to the never-identified Jack the Ripper, and when the victims start haunting Joseph, Evelyn feels it is her task to bring peace to the ghosts.

Educated and intelligent (and fictional) Evelyn narrates with the formality and seriousness of a Victorian novel (though, thankfully for YA readers, without the longueurs), but her true heart, and her devotion to Joseph bring her alive off the page. Evelyn herself is a victim of ‘phossy jaw’ (phosphorous necrosis) caused by working in a match factory, which means her lower face is severely disfigured, and she has been victimized and reviled on the streets:  “The harsh words and violence had eaten away at my soul just as the phosphorous had my bone.” Her empathy with Joseph, her work at the hospital, and her quest to dispel the ghosts develop a self-confidence and gutsiness in Evelyn that provide the spine of the novel.

As in The Lost Kingdom, Kirby mixes real-life and fictional people. As well as Joseph Merrick, the novel also weaves in the murder victims, the patronizing Dr. Treves, Henry Sidgwick, the founder of Newnham College, and stern but fair Matron Luckes. Joseph, who we only see through Evelyn’s eyes, changes from the ‘monster’ that his physical appearance suggests, to becoming a kind, valiant and sensitive gentleman as she gets to know him. Her growing protectiveness of his physical and emotional health allows Evelyn to realize that her own scarring does not define her, and that a person’s true nature, whether monster or not, is internal and not indicated by their looks.

Kirby has a masterful hand with the telling historical detail. Evelyn’s trips on the new underground railway and her expeditions into the grimy, frighteningly unprotected streets, contrast with the bustling sanctuary of the hospital, and both provide an authentic setting. Of course somethings resonate with today – the public has a paradoxical tabloid taste and revulsion for monsters, and the East End Jewish population is demonized and scapegoated. The author also revels in the contemporary patois, and though sometimes the meaning isn’t always clear, it’s easy to get the gist. One bravura passage has Evelyn and the other maids describe a salacious gossip as “an old haybag”, “a vile church-bell”, and “a blowsabella”.

The novel’s plotting and pacing, along with the character development, are so impeccable, I was just a little disappointed that Evelyn’s climactic epiphany seemed a tad too slick and easy.  Nonetheless, the ending itself is satisfying and feels complete.

Teens who enjoy a mix of history and fantasy will surely love this, but it’s also worth trying with fans of straight historical fiction like Mary Hooper’s Fallen Grace (Bloomsbury, 2011).

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.