The title of Joe Hill’s second novel encapsulates the problem facing its main character – Horns. Ignatius “Ig” Perrish wakes up after a hard night of...moreThe title of Joe Hill’s second novel encapsulates the problem facing its main character – Horns. Ignatius “Ig” Perrish wakes up after a hard night of drinking brought on by the one-year anniversary of his girlfriend’s murder. He may not have his memories of the previous night, but he does have horns. Actual, bony protuberances. A logical trip to the hospital finds the horns aren’t the only unusual thing about Ig.
He has the ability to make people around him disclose their innermost thoughts, sinful fantasies and confessions of past and planned crimes. If he touches someone, he sees their sinful pasts. If he thinks about it, he can make them act on their worst desires.
The first few people Ig listens in on confirm one of his worst fears. Everyone believes he’s guilty of murdering and raping his girlfriend, Merrin. Even the local priest isn’t immune to what Ig suspects is the horns’ Satanic influence. Nor are his parents who just wish Ig would go away. His brother, who hosts a late-night talk show, falls under the horns’ spell and tells Ig who really murdered Merrin. And all of this happens in the first fifth of the book.
In a typical horror novel, Ig would embark on a quest to rid himself of the horns and seek justice. But Hill isn’t a typical horror writer. Instead of rejecting the evil of the horns, Ig embraces it, finding it second nature to encourage people to act out their desires. Ig isn’t a hero in the conventional sense of the word. It could be hard to root for him to succeed - usually a reader cheers for the characters fighting the devil – but traditional good and evil don’t apply here. Hill doesn’t take a black-and-white view of the world in Horns; it’s grey streaked with darks and lights. Perhaps the question underlying the novel’s events is whether evil is necessary.
Where Hill hits his stride is in the extended flashbacks to younger versions of the main characters. The novel becomes a coming-of-age story where teenagers do stupid teenage things that create bonds between them lasting well into adulthood. The allure of cherry bombs (made before child protection laws) sets off a chain of events that introduces Ig to Lee, who becomes his best friend and the third player in the Ig-Merrin relationship. Lee has his own issues to deal with as an adult, and the clichés a lesser author might trot out never come to pass. The characters are complicated and fully realized. Even minor characters enter with a full history. The reader has the impression Hill knows all of his characters down to what brand of toothpaste they use. Hill’s talented so he doesn’t feel the need to put everything he knows about the character down on the page. It’s enough that he knows and uses that knowledge to inform the choices the characters make.
The novel holds more than well-drawn characters. Hill writes exciting action sequences that send the reader along with Ig on his journeys down the Evel Knievel trail. It is all too easy to immerse yourself into the novel – seeing a cherry tree and hearing a trumpet play – and devour the book in one sitting.
The flashbacks can hold more attraction than the present-day pieces, but that may be because they tell the story of before Ig’s life fell apart. As the horns become more important to who Ig is (and snakes begin to follow him), the reader starts to look for signs Ig will find a way out, that good will prevail and innocence will take the day. These things happen … and they don’t. Not all questions are answered by the last page. And the ones that are don’t come with a nicely tied ribbon on top.
It’s inevitable that Horns will be compared with Hill’s first novel, Heart-shaped Box. Whether one is better than the other is a matter of personal taste. The two novels are different enough, with Horns coming off as a little more fantastical and requiring a little more suspension of disbelief. Regardless, Horns is an enjoyable read that leaves you anxious for another book from Hill.(less)
A young girl disappears in the woods, leaving no real clues where she’s gone or who might have taken her. She told her brother and cousin she was goin...moreA young girl disappears in the woods, leaving no real clues where she’s gone or who might have taken her. She told her brother and cousin she was going to live with the King of Fairies. It couldn’t be true, could it? Except her brother had chased after fairy bells in the woods, too.
Fifteen years later, Lisa is still missing. Her brother, Sam, hasn’t gotten over her disappearance. His girlfriend, Phoebe, has her own suspicions about fairies. When they receive a mysterious call that leads them to Lisa’s Book of Fairies, they reunite with Sam’s cousin, Evie, at a remote cabin. Evie “knows” things, including that Phoebe may be pregnant. An old woman shows up at the door, singing Lisa’s childhood songs, only to stab Evie and run off, stripping off a disguise and revealing she’s a young woman. Phoebe and Sam give chase, but the young woman tells police the couple abducted her. Back at the cabin, there’s no trace Phoebe and Sam stayed there and no sign of Evie.
Once home, Phoebe and Sam discover the Evie they met at the cabin isn’t the real Evie. They find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance. Was she taken by the King of the Fairies? Or was a more sinister, all-too-human villain behind her disappearance?
The bones of a good story lie beneath Jennifer McMahon’s Don’t Breathe a Word. What starts off as a young teen’s desire to believe in something magical, to be something more than ordinary pick up a sinister undertone as the plot progresses. As McMahon writes, “What if things happened to you—special, magic things—because you’d been preparing for them? What if by believing you opened a door?”
Chapters flip between Phoebe’s investigation into Lisa’s disappearance and 15 years earlier to Lisa’s attempts to contact the Fairy King. The chapters from Lisa’s point of view are stronger. McMahon does well when writing about the transition to being an adult while wanting to cling to parts of childhood like believing in fairies. Her teen and preteen characters are believable, making mistakes and assumptions that real teens would. The plot in these chapters is a bit muddy at times, but that can be excused by gaps in Lisa’s knowledge of her family’s history.
The Phoebe chapters are more problematic, with some inconsistencies in how characters act and one too many plot twists and reverses. A hint of deus ex machina in the form of a late-introduced character to provide answers doesn’t help.
As those answers come, the end of the novel feels rushed as information is dumped on the reader through a discovered diary. The full scenes McMahon was able to portray of the young Lisa give way to quick flashes and hints of scenes that may have played better if more fully developed. (less)
London in the mid 1850s. A manor house governed by a stern housekeeper while the Lord of the house slowly goes mad. A soldier who loses a leg upon his...moreLondon in the mid 1850s. A manor house governed by a stern housekeeper while the Lord of the house slowly goes mad. A soldier who loses a leg upon his return from the Crimean War. Secrets and strange bumps in the night. Clothes and furniture that move when no when watches. And at the center of it all, a 15-year-old scullery maid, unaware of the secrets that surround her.
Michael Ford’s The Poisoned House trots out nearly every trope found in a Gothic novel. The target young adult reader may be new to the genre of haunted Victorian families and may not wince every time Mrs. Cotton, the housekeeper, threatens young Abigail Tamper, the book’s heroine. Older readers, however, will recognize the stereotyped characters and plot twists long before they occur. And if younger readers have been exposed to Algernon Blackwood or Henry James, they may wonder if Ford deserves a place among them.
The Poisoned House sticks to the Gothic formula without straying. This is both an asset and detriment for the book. The formula lays the groundwork for the story, and readers should have an easy time following along. The main plot twist carries enough foreshadowing on its shoulders that young readers can congratulate themselves for figuring it out ahead of the big reveal, even if the reveal depends on one character’s complete change in personality that may dumbfound older readers.
Abigail, or “Abi” as she is called by other characters, is an amalgam of every young Gothic heroine. She is plucky. She has hidden intelligence and taught herself to read from the books in her employer’s library (although she cops to having poor handwriting and her use of the word “pumps” to describe her footwear could throw older readers out of the story into a search for the words etymology). She enjoyed a special sibling-like relationship with the young master of the house (now the aforementioned war hero). She was the daughter of a servant and given special privileges while raised in the house she now serves.
Ford could have deviated from the formulaic road map now and then and elevated the story: Did the parlormaid have to become pregnant by her footman boyfriend; was it necessary for Mrs. Cotton to abuse her position as housekeeper and the lord’s sister-in-law so obviously; why did no one talk about the supernatural activities at the house?
It is when Ford turns his attention to the supernatural that the story takes hold of the reader. Are the strange events the result of a ghost or a human? A medium visits Mrs. Cotton and manages to convey a garbled message to Abi. A strange figure appears in a daguerreotype image.
Abi, however, is far too accepting of what she interprets as supernatural events. Even without a 21st-century cynicism, the scullery maid doesn’t question what is happening around her, even when events seem to tell her to mistrust everything she knew about the people with whom she’s spent her life.(less)
When the Grim Reaper is your only constant companion, life can be strange. That’s how it is for Casey Maldonado, heroine of Judy Clemens’ Grim Reaper...moreWhen the Grim Reaper is your only constant companion, life can be strange. That’s how it is for Casey Maldonado, heroine of Judy Clemens’ Grim Reaper series. Death and Casey have been constant companions since Casey’s husband and son were killed in a car accident that Casey managed to survive.
Flowers for Her Grave is the third book in the series. It finds Casey and Death in Florida, on the the run from police and the manufacturer of the car that killed Casey’s family. Explanations about how Death became Casey’s companion are absent, and readers new to the series may want to jump back to an earlier book for the background.
The background may not be all that necessary. All a reader needs to know is that Death hangs around Casey, serving as a combination of a Greek Chorus, Jewish mother and Cat-in-the-hat-esque observer. Death’s real purpose is to give Casey someone to talk to in order to provide exposition for the reader.
The plot centers around a mysterious death at an adult community where Casey, under an alias, finds work as a personal trainer. Casey plays Nancy Drew to solve the crime, all the while hoping the local police don’t discover her true identity and trying not to act on her growing attraction to one of the detectives. Readers can easily keep up with the twists and turns of the murder investigation, spotting red herrings as they appear and vanish.
Clemens tries to make the novel a mix of humor, pulp crime and the paranormal, with a dash of romance and female empowerment thrown in for good measure. As would be expected in the growing genre of supernatural chick lit, Casey doesn’t need a man to help her get things done. She’s a martial arts expert who’s inevitably smarter than those around her, except when the plot calls for her to forget something or overlook an obvious clue in order for the story to advance. The mishmash of genres works against developing affection for Casey. Her backstory is tragic, but the lighthearted tone of the books clashes with the few times Casey is reminded of her losses.
Death’s main character feature is sarcasm, and the other characters are virtually indistinguishable from each other apart from gender, occupation and name.
The end result is a harmless, lightweight novel, the sort you might buy in an airport, only to leave behind unfinished on the plane. Flowers for Her Grave has some entertainment value, but it doesn’t grab a reader’s attention and make you anxious to read the previous books or look forward to the next.(less)