A chilling gothic mystery steeped in romance, murder, and laudanum. A must for fans of Victorian sensibility and crime.
the basics I can see readers being quite divided on this one. It's a languid, Victorian tale with an ornate style and a main character ambivalently teeterig between wicked and good. Maud is not always the easiest to root for and I can see readers disliking her. However, I loved her wickedness as much as her goodness. She's clearly broken and driven by addiction as much as compassion. It's actually as unflinching a look at addiction as some of the contemporary work. It's also a look, like Witch Finder, at the dark side of womanhood in the Victorian era. I enjoy the Victorian style and didn't mind the slow buildup at all, though I can imagine others might find it boring. However, even for me, the book really came into its own in the second half, when the mystery became more important, tensions between the characters stretched to snapping, and the quasi-supernatural elements ramped up. While I thought Elliott could have made the "devil" motif more salient, particularly early on, I appreciated her clever weaving of the religious and addiction imagery. Her work shows a mastery of language and a comfort with Victorian idioms and customs that grants her work authenticity. I read this book nearly fully over two nights--once it caught me, I couldn't go free without reaching the end.
plot . 4/5 My main contention with the plot is a disjointed feeling between the first and second half. Part of it was, I think, the strange use of Maud's past. We get a clear sense that her three positions as governess ended badly in traumatic ways, but this mystery seems to fade for a while, and then is brought back so briefly that I felt cheated. There's also the fact that John's perspective is absent for the first several chapters. I hadn't been expecting the change, and felt jarred at the sudden new voice. John's perspective in the end also takes us out of Maud's head at a very crucial time for her character development. However, in general, the split perspective and the pacing worked. Elliott's a master of tension and dramatic irony. She uses the split perspective to create Shakespearian situations of missed chances and cringingly unfortunate deceptions, to the point where I wanted to scream at the characters, "No, no, you don't know all the facts!" She also throws in drama just when the plot needs a twist. I would have preferred a bit more firsthand looks at John and Maud's relationships, since much of their summer together is told after-the-fact, but I also bought their affection completely. And besides the weird perspective change at the end, the end itself was rapid, exciting, and infuriating in the best way. Like I said--I couldn't put it down.
concept . 4/5 The only conceptual piece I thought was less well-developed involved the Doom and devil. For a major part of the blurb, the Doom painting seems less menacingly present in the text than it should be. Given Maud's terrible premonitions and visions of devilish creatures, I would have liked more connection to the work, which is appropriately all about sin and judgment. It seemed like a missed opportunity. With the Victorian mystery, however, Elliott succeeds. She captures a quietly supernatural country-house mystery ala The Turn of the Screw (only interesting) like she grew up in the age, with interweaving threads of social intrigue, woman's rights, drugs, and God. Her portrayal of Maud as an addict is raw and spot-on. You can feel Maud's desperation and struggle in some of her most deplorable actions, in her horrific sights. And there's always the discomfiting uncertainty whispered in every page--are the devils real, or are they human? It'd make a great Awakening-style thriller.
characters . 5/5 I think the characters were the novel's strongest attraction. Maud is instantly pitiable and also occasionally infuriating. She's poor, abandoned, clearly the victim of something traumatic; broken, desperate to be loved, kind. She's also manipulative, cunning, selfish, judgmental. I hated her most when she hated Sly for his deformity and never repented of her prejudice. I loved her most when she broke herself down for her horrid cousin out of pity and a desperate longing for affection. She's a perfect example of an imperfect hero. John actually felt less clear to me. Next to Maud, he's blander and I liked his chapters less. However, for his purpose, the downtrodden poor artist and love interest, I found him suitable. He was just sweet and naive enough, if not a little lukewarm. Then there are the key antagonists, beginning with the hateful irritating-as-hell cousin Juliana. I pitied her, of course, but I also wanted to punch her in the face. She's coldly manipulative, histrionic, and clearly borderline. Contrast that with Edie, the young maid who is manipulated by Maud and manipulates Maud in turn. These are deeply human devils and easy to invest yourself in.
style . 5/5 I'm a sucker for the Victorian style of writing. You'd probably enjoy this book if you like Austen, but it's definitely a different feel. Just as pretty and precise but much more layered in doom and darkness. This was a book of many highlights and quotes, picture-perfect phrases and snappy dialogue. It also utilized Victorian phrasing without becoming dense or difficult. I would have loved it just for the writing.
mechanics . 5/5 Like I said, the pacing is slow. It's not something I minded, but I know that others will find it difficult to stick with--but do! Once you find yourself immersed, you'll appreciate the tense build-up. The POV switching mostly worked in Elliott's favor, except for the pieces mentioned above. It's also beautifully polished. This is tight writing, with no room for danglers and pointless paragraphs.
Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review. The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions. ...more
I was really excited about this book, but it just fell a little short. It wasn't bad by any means. It was pretty entertaining and the concept was a fun horror-movie revamp. Some of the plot twists were even pretty clever. However, it just seemed loosely put together. There were pieces that didn't add up. Plots that added too much complexity where it didn't need to be. I also had a rough time really connecting with Dan. It felt like Roux was grasping for something like Looking for Alaska with the characters and fell a little short. Abby and Jordan have big subplots that don't get fleshed out enough, making me feel like they were just there to add drama. The main plot is pretty interesting, however. It toed the line between supernatural and real for a long time, which really ramped up the suspense. Not to mention, some of Roux's descriptions of the asylum were truly creepy. It's an entertaining read, but it just wasn't as tight and well-done as other supernatural ghost stories (try Jeannine Garsee's The Unquiet, which also deals with mental illness).
plot . 3/5 This is a case of the overburdened subplots. The main plot itself was pretty good. People start to get murdered, the characters get creepy notes, and someone is messing with Dan's head. What's even cooler is that Roux sidesteps your average slasher movie or The Grudge type haunting and puts a lot of the action off-scene. So when Dan hears creepy voices and blacks out, we're left to wonder what was really going on while he was away. It's a great premise. What clogs it up is the extra baggage. Jordan telling his parents he's at gay reform school, Abby searching for a long-lost aunt who might have been in the asylum as a child. It's a lot to put in one story, and the Abby plot is especially far-fetched. You could include all these and do it well, but I just didn't think that Roux gave these plot lines enough attention to make them feel like more than extra material that should have been cut. In the end, they don't add much to the story.
concept . 4/5 Mysteriously vanished serial killer, mad scientist doctor, criminally insane population, teenagers living in an old asylum--it's a great horror story set-up. Asylums are always creepy, especially the old kind, and it's even more interesting to have this building being the subject of controversy in a small town. The college wants to keep it, the townspeople think it's cursed. It has a lot of potential for conspiracy and intrigue. Roux did this pretty well, but I think she could have pumped up the history aspect even more.
characters . 3/5 I couldn't get on board with Dan for a lot of the book. He struck me as kind of whiny and jealous. Right when we meet him, he's complaining about his roommate in what seems like a pretty entitled way. That gave me a sour taste. He does get better through the book and I started to sympathize with him over his emotional struggles. He just never feels fully developed. Plus, his mysterious background feels gimmicky. Then there are Abby and Jordan. They're both pretty flat, but they serve their purpose as sidekicks. I just wish we could have spent more time with them, especially since they're going through painful emotional struggles of their own.
style . 3/5 The writing style is what you'd expect of most young adult horror. Concise, clear, leading you along without attracting much notice to itself. Not as rich as it could have been, but decent. Except when you get to some of the descriptions of the asylum. There were chunks of description that were truly eerie, with unique metaphors and really tight, punchy phrasing. I'd have liked to see more of that kind of writing. The dialogue was a weak part, with all the characters sounding a little stilted.
mechanics . 4/5 For the most part it was good and polished. What bugged me were the pictures. The real ones were amazing and added a ton of creepy-factor to the book. However, a bunch of them were computer-generated, which made it seem low-budget instead of creepy.
take home message A fast-paced supernatural horror that plays on your fear of the dark and the damned. ...more
Finally, the book I've been looking for! It's a rare book I just can't put down, and I finished this one in a day and change. It's what I wanted The Asylum by Madeline Roux to be. Once you get through the slowish start, it races to the end, taking twists and turns that I never expected. Parker is immediately likable (even when I wanted to slap him) and his voice adds a snarky, unique tone to the narrative. His incredible power is a talent that many people crave, but Johansson adds a dark twist that makes it nightmarish. Add a mystery stalker and Parker's world becomes a dark race against time, with no easy way out. I loved that even though the plot is breakneck, it doesn't sacrifice the characters. Even the side characters feel as deep and real as Parker, and I loved that they were real friends that didn't disappear when "neat new person" Mia came to town. And her role? Not what I expected, which made it even better. I thought the ending was a bit of a cop-out, but not enough to knock it down a star. This was an exciting, well-paced, tightly written book that could stand well alone--but if you read it and aren't dying for the sequel, I'll be surprised.
plot . 4/5 It took me a little bit to get into. I was kind of afraid, considering how much I'd looked forward to this book. The slowness didn't last long. Once I was oriented to the dream lore and Parker's life, and once Mia really became central, I was hooked in the mystery. On one hand, you have Parker's race against the clock. If he doesn't sleep, he'll die. But saving himself may require sacrificing others. Not to mention something dark is happening to Mia, and Parker has no idea if he's a part of it. The tension between Parker's desperation to save himself and his longing to save his friends not only makes him feel real, but it keeps the plot strong through the whole book. I was never sure which Parker would choose, or whether he would ultimately find himself to be innocent or guilty.
Like I said, the end was a little too easy. I wasn't sure it was set up enough, and I kind of wanted it to go the other way. However, I liked that not everything was roses in the end. It left a lot open for a sequel, and also made the consequences of Parker's decisions more real. All in all, it was well done. Parker's friends play a much bigger role than most friend characters do, which was refreshing. There's also a touch of absolutely breathtaking romance, murder, and mystery. What more could you want?
concept . 5/5 I've never read anything like this before. Dreamwalkers aren't a new concept, but the way Johansson writes it is fresh. Being able to see dreams is Parker's living nightmare. He can never sleep, never dream, never escape from the secret thoughts of others. And if he doesn't sleep, his brain will go first, and then his body. The many layers of reality--dream, waking, hallucination--keep you on your toes, never quite knowing what's real and what's imagined. There are a few holes (hem, four years without real sleep and you're still alive?) but suspend a touch of disbelief and it doesn't matter. Where young adult horror is concerned, this goes way beyond your typical slasher.
characters . 5/5 The characters were so good that they made up for the few holes I saw. Parker is a complex, endearing narrator. He's snarky, sincere, and flawed in real, dangerous ways. He can be foolhardy and selfish. His flaws get him into a lot of trouble and take the plot in new directions. But he has such love for his friends that I could forgive him a lot. Then there's Finn, his best friend, who's quirky, silly, and loyal--but doesn't let Parker get away with any crap, either. Addie was possibly my favorite. Unlike your typical girl sidekick, she's there for the hero, but she's going to make sure her own needs are met too. She's fierce, smart, and uncompromising. And in a way, she saves the day as much as Parker does. Mia is a little less fleshed out than I'd like, but that's part of her character, too. She's closed-off, so we don't get to know her as well. Even so, she plays a damsel in distress who's terrified and hunted, but still desperate to fight her own battles.
style . 5/5 When I dog-ear a bunch of pages, it's a good sign. There were a bunch in this one. Parker's voice is just so clever. It's parts lyrical, parts sardonic. I laughed a lot at his internal monologue and his banter with his friends. It's part of what gives him dimension. There are also some beautiful metaphors and a romantic scene that gave me chills. I look forward to seeing Johansson's writing mature even more in the next book.
mechanics . 5/5 Like I said, the pacing was a little off in the beginning, but it picked up quickly. I liked that there were some common threads and motifs sprinkled through, and the dialogue was so much more believable than a lot of young adult books. I could totally buy them as teenagers.
take home message Young adult horror that takes on the blurred lines between reality and dreaming, sanity and madness, with a lovable cast and a plot that keeps you guessing. ...more
Infernal Machines is a page from a classic horror movie. Only this isn't a haunted house--it's a haunted town. Not by ghosts or ghouls, necessarily, but by people--the strange, the evil, the ones with control of an even greater evil. The focus on the characters makes it strong and gives you a peek into the psyches of several very different types of people. The Nazi-next-door. The video-game-playing good boy. The dark magic shop owner. It takes a little while to get the hang of the big cast, but once you do, you'll be pulled along deeper into more and more twisted adventures. I found myself really enjoying the gritty procedural-like prose and the unexpected twists. A must for fans of modern horror.
plot . 4/5 It's difficult to tell what's going on for a while. This isn't so bad in the long run, because the confusion builds a lot of suspense. It just makes it harder to get into at first. But once it picks up, it doesn't let go. I found myself really getting invested in the secrets each character has. The weird Cliff and his experimentation killing animals. The mysterious Mr. Cardiff. You're dying to know the whole time how all these stories are going to connect and what terrible things are going to happen. It was an uncomfortable feeling in the way that psychological thrillers do best--the kind of uncomfortable that only authors with good atmosphere can produce.
concept . 5/5 It's a cool concept. A weird town. There's something it reminds me of on the tip of my tongue but I can't pin it down. Suffice to say, I loved the idea. It's like a circus or something, with that small town feel. I can't describe it. There was just something inherently eerie about the isolated Washington woods location, the railroad bums, the river stores, the trailer park Aryan gang. You get to know everything as well as if you lived there. But the whole time, you know there's something evil bubbling under the surface.
characters . 4/5 I knocked it down just because there are so many of them. With around ten or so voices, it takes a while before you can really get into everyone's head, which is important for me in getting into a story. I thought it could have stuck with just a few and done the same job, maybe with a few deviations along the way to add some scenery. But besides the confusion, all the characters are remarkably well-explored. I felt like I knew some of them right away (e.g. Cliff, Stoner) and it made it a lot easier to ground myself in the story.
style . 4/5 The style has that gritty feel like crime procedurals. There's even a cop! I kid, but seriously, the style gives this story a really great atmosphere. Dark, kind of grungy, even a little gory. A little like Palahniuk only without his particular brand of psychopathic elegance. More concrete. I was really impressed with it and I think it made the story stand out a lot from the other indie horrors you see out there.
mechanics . 4/5 I thought there could have been a lot more cut out. I'm big on conciseness, so I like to see a lot of pruned adjectives, pithy descriptions, etc. OR, if there is going to be floweriness ala Jane Austen, tight floweriness.
take home message The heartbreakingly beautiful story of what true horror does to the human spirit, and how it can be overcome. ...more
the basics Warm Bodies is by far one of the best books I've ever read. I mean, come on. It's like Tim Burton and Chuck Palahniuk wrote a love story. Only don't get me wrong, Isaac Marion is no derivative. (Also I may have a little crush on him. What? Hiding.) Okay, so this book is not your average romance. Zombie R, meet Julie. And yes, I didn't notice the Romeo-Juliet parallel til the book. Saw the movie? It was great, but the book has layers and layers of depth that the movie misses. Grappling with themes of progress and decay, cynicism and hope, despair and redemption, it pulls you into a world terrifyingly easy to imagine, where humanity's inward decay has become manifest. Zombies. But love saves all, and somehow, Julie and R forge a bond that overcomes the darkness around them. It's sweet but not saccharine and bursting with writing as pretty as poetry, but still perfectly accessible to the average reader. Don't worry; the plot kicks ass too, tearing you from one confrontation to another. It's the book that every author wishes they could write. So read it, yeah?
plot . 5/5 You don't get bored, even though much of the beginning describes a vapid, listless zombie existence. Marion has created a rich world inside of R's head. Don't expect the movie. You won't find a blow-by-blow. What you will find is a lot of the same scenes fixed into a much richer narrative. Perry's inner existence in R's head becomes much more important, and we find much of the plot centered around Perry's despair and R's hope, mixed together in one mind. But there's plenty of fun too, and adventure; the change-hating Boneys; moments of acid humor and sweetness. The end starts with a shock and leaves you feeling wistful and thoughtful and very much in love with love.
concept . 5/5 I'm not sure I could have come up with a more original concept if I were trying for a parody. I'd always joked about zombie romance in the past. "Love at First Bite" and all that (though that might have been for a cannibal...). But Marion takes it and makes it plausible, lovable, and meaningful. R's condition is a foil for humanity. Julie is the savior and young idealist. Perry is the victim of the system. And the world is something all too familiar--run by fear-mongerers who see isolation as the only survival. Famous art is a useless bauble. Nations are obsolete. Marion uses a very compelling story to explore deep issues of societal corruption and the power of fear. But if you don't want to dig that deep, the surface story is amazing in itself.
characters . 5/5 Totally in love with R. Especially the Nicholas Hoult version. I mean...come on. Anyway, book-R is a silent philosopher with a poetic view of the world. He can't talk much, so he listens. Observes. Sees things that others can't see in a rich and surprising way. Julie is a little annoying at times, but you grow to love her. You can't help but get behind her fragile idealism. And she's deeper than in the movie, with a darker past and uglier wounds. Nora, Perry, M, and Grigio too are all explored on a deep level. Even though we don't see them as much, we come to know them as clearly as if we were in their heads. Marion has himself a real world here.
style . 5/5 I could quote every other line, but I won't, because that's plagiarism. Suffice to say, it's gorgeous. Like what a painting would be in book form. I'll borrow from Maggie Stiefvater's review: “I dream my necrotic cells shrugging off their lethargy, inflating and lighting up like Christmas deep in my dark core. Am I inventing all this like the beer buzz? A placebo? An optimistic illusion? Either way, I feel the flatline of my existence disrupting, forming heartbeat hills and valleys." Don't be afraid of getting the story lost because of the poetry. The beautiful, intricate lines are well mingled with less esoteric stuff, so the prettiness feels natural instead of overwhelming.
mechanics . 5/5 Zombie narrator. OMG.
take home message A love story between the most unlikely pair, with striking prose, a thrilling plot, and many thoughts to take away and keep forever. ...more
I'm very picky about my short stories, but I really, really liked this. It's such a clever concept. Girl goes to therapy...because she wants to kill someone, and she wants her therapist to help her decide whether to do it. I mean, come on? Aren't you already curious!? I think part of the reason I liked it so much was that Barcelos legitimately did her homework. I thought, well, this would never work. As soon as she names a person, her therapist will have to tell the police. But she even mentioned that loophole in the text and how Cassandra got around it. I had a moment of sheer joyful geekery. The writing was clean, though a little bit exaggerated. It's an all-dialogue story, which is neat, but some of the phrasing felt a little over-the-top. I also felt that "meanness" just wasn't impactful enough for the concept Barcelos wanted to get across. But overall, it kept me up turning page after page and I'm about to go buy Barcelos' other story because I want more!
plot . 4/5 It's divided into therapy sessions, which is great. Barcelos has a good concept of pacing. Cassandra slips a lot of details in the first session, but you realize in the next and next that there is still so much more to the story. I wish she had been a little more vague about the situation with her mother at first, since she re-explains it in much more detail (and more powerfully) later. However, it was definitely paced right to build suspense. I had to stop myself from reading the end first. (Also, there are people screaming in the apartment over from mine. Just thought you should know. Gr.) Also, I guessed the ending about halfway through but that's not a bad thing. It was more like, "Oh, I hope this is the ending because that would be really cool!" And it was. And it was really cool. And still managed to surprise me.
concept . 5/5 So great! Serial killers and such go to therapy all the time in books and movies. But this is a whole different take on it. Like a non-humorous version of Gross Pointe Blank. Which you should watch. Now. Anyhoo, the story is also entirely Cassandra's dialogue, which is also really clever. You know that the therapist says things because sometimes Cassandra responds to them, but you're only getting words. It's like listening to a transcript and trying to piece together what happened. It lets your imagination run wild and gives it a very interview-like feel.
characters . 5/5 Weirdly enough, the therapist doesn't speak in the whole book. We know her through Cassandra's statements about her, which is a really clever idea. She/he's like this ghost in the room, someone who is so important but invisible to us. Like the wife in some old play I can't think of, sadly, who is very important but never appears. Maybe she murdered someone? (If you know what I'm referring to, please comment because now it's driving me crazy.) It lets your imagination run wild. On the other hand, we get to know Cassandra very well through her statements, but we have no visual cues to tell how truthful she's being. What tone. Yet, we come to know her very deeply.
style . 4/5 Like I mentioned, a little over-the-top sometimes. Cassandra sometimes waxes stereotypical southern and I just thought, No one talks like this. But if that were toned down, what's left gives her plenty of personality. And Barcelos has a gift for description. I could imagine the scenes perfectly even without visual cues. I will say that I thought "mean" was a little too, I dunno, schoolyard bully for this book. Feeling murderous is beyond mean. I would have felt more power if it had a different name or nickname.
mechanics . 5/5 Very nicely formatted. I liked the breaks into different sessions and there weren't any noticeable typos or mistakes, which is always nice to see in an indie work.
take home message A unique tale of a girl's struggle with her murderous desires and a fatal question--to kill or not? ...more
the basics I could have rated this book higher, but I think I expected so much of it that I judged it more harshly than similar books. The writing is clever. The voice is unique. The setting is somewhat reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis fastforwarded ten years and stuffed into the body of a teenage girl. All great things, right? Right. Except for something clearly referencing the best band of all time (read: Nirvana), I wanted more. I wanted darker. Grittier. Deeper than a vampire novel. And, ya know, not a vampire novel. What I got was a well-written vampire novel with a few plot holes but overall, a solid cast of characters and a refreshingly classic take on the undead. It may not have met all my lofty expectations, but it had enough atmosphere to stick with me, and I'd definitely recommend it to fans of paranormal romance, who are more in tune with its style than I am.
plot . 3/5 The plot was a little haphazard. It started out in one place, dragged on through a slow reveal of the love interest's dark secret, and then sped up. Then all of the sudden we're meeting this other character. James was definitely the main driver of the story. Whit felt thrown in, like Bloom needed something to happen while James was away. His sudden affection for Quinn felt thin and contrived. But if you ignore that icky middle part, the overall story is entertaining. It's less about the cool neat new world of vampires and more about decadence, friendship, and what goes bump in the night.
concept . 4/5 Okay, so I dinged it for being about vampires. I just can't put vampires in the same sentence with Nirvana. I mean, Bloom had the chance to do something super cool and new with James and his weird habits. That said, as a vampire novel, I thought the concept was dead on. (I amuse myself.) It felt more classic than Twilight, like Anne Rice for angsty teens. Dark, scary, dangerous--not the sparkly good guys of Meyer's world.
characters . 4/5 Quinn is actually kind of annoying, but in that, "Hey, I was totally that annoying when I was that age" way. And sometimes in that "Oh my god, stop being a total idiot moron" way, but I was hooked enough on the story to stick with her. She's messed up and selfish and she knows it, which is refreshing. Bloom doesn't try to hide her faults. I think because she's so obviously and transparently flawed, I respected her for it. The side cast is a little more variable. James feels cardboard. Libby is one of the better developed, as far as the brainwashed party girl can be. I really liked James' sister and wished she was in it more. Whit could have been thrown out, or brought in more; he felt too in-between.
style . 5/5 This was the saving grace of the book. The style was just so gorgeously dark. It's hard to explain, but it had atmosphere. I felt dark and excited and ethereal while reading it. I felt like I always did reading about Lestat. Something about the 90s and its grungy apathy is so perfect for the undead, and it was a brilliant backdrop. All in all, it was the writing that kept me going, and that made this book much more memorable than your average throwaway teen pararomance.
mechanics . 5/5 Don't use Nirvana songs unless you're going to go deeper than blood jokes. The editing was fine. Pacing could have used a tweak.
take home message A new-old vampire tale that brings the grungy apathy of the 90s and the undead together around a wonderfully flawed heroine and her hopeless romance. ...more
I'm very picky about short stories. Maybe it's all the fiction classes I took in college. Doesn't matter. Basically...I don't go around gushing about short stories lightly. So when I say that Flowers is a fantastic story, that's not an empty compliment. Set up as a journal, it gives us a slice into the life of George, a deeply troubled high school senior. We don't get his past. We don't get all the details, or know how we got here. That was one of my favorite parts. You're thrown into someone's life and you have to solve the puzzle. While I would have liked more details about George's father, and though the epilogue was unnecessary, on the whole I was extremely impressed. Dickerson knows how to create atmosphere and he has a literary voice both beautiful and captivatingly faltering. At least in George's character. I'm psyched for Dickerson's next work!
plot . 4/5 I didn't exactly know where it was going from the beginning. It worked. I came to the realization slowly, which is perfect for a horror story. I watched the pieces forming into a puzzle, unable to stop it. I would have liked a little more set-up. I didn't need a full history of George's mom and dad, but considering how important they were, I would have liked more veiled references and hints. A few more journal entries, maybe. More hints of George's impulses before they're fully revealed. Mostly, I thought it moved at a great pace. I thought the last journal entry would have been a perfect ending. I really didn't need the epilogue, and I don't think it added anything.
concept . 5/5 The comparison of flowers to women, especially as used here, is gorgeously sinister. Okay, it sounds pretty and normal. But just wait. I don't want to spoil it, but I'll just say...the concept of both of them withering is key to the message of this book, and so well done. It's the perfect frame for this length of story. Not too obvious, not too subtle. It gives me eerie tingles of literary joy thinking about it.
characters . 4/5 I thought George was very well portrayed, but I wanted some more Chloe and more of George's mom and dad. I felt like I needed a better grasp on the parents, especially, to understand George and how he became who he is. However, George was, for the most part, very relatable. Even during the darkest parts of this story, I found myself wanting to hug and protect him.
style . 5/5 I'd be surprised if Dickerson hasn't taken some fiction classes. His writing is beautifully polished. There are a few confusing places, like on the first page--but considering it's a journal format, I felt like the confusing bits fit with George's state of mind. His language is simple for the most part, with forays into stronger language that's absolutely beautiful. As a result, it's a quick read that doesn't feel flowery (ha) or overbearing, but it creates a subtle, dark impression. Layer on layer. It's hard to describe, but you feel reading this book the way you do watching a horror movie, at the opening, when the character is first walking down that long dark hall but nothing horrid has happened yet. It's just beautiful.
mechanics . 5/5 Okay . . . I am in love with this cover. I wish this was available as a physical copy because I want to be able to stare at this cover. Also, ya know, cause the story was very enjoyable! But seriously. The cover reminds me of my favorite Ivan Albright painting and it perfectly, beautifully, eerily matches the atmosphere of the story. Not to mention looks totally professional! Other mechanics-wise, there were some comma splices and such, but it was presented as a journal so I almost would have liked to see more weird grammar.
take home message An atmospheric horror story with a surprising plot and beautiful, clean writing. ...more
The Basics: I’m a Victorian junkie. Oscar Wilde is my hero. I worship Jane Austen. Dostoyevsky (okay, he’s not Victorian; shh) is my god. IRead more
The Basics: I’m a Victorian junkie. Oscar Wilde is my hero. I worship Jane Austen. Dostoyevsky (okay, he’s not Victorian; shh) is my god. I miss that style of writing: elaborate, ornate, precise. Katriel writes like he was born in 1820, but with a clearness that makes him understandable for any modern reader. His prose is just beautiful. The first half, especially, is exquisite. The second half of good, though the plot loses some fire once we depart from Helena’s point of view and becomes a little convoluted. Still, a chilling, gorgeous read. Reminds me so much of my beloved Wilde, I could swear Katriel was inspired by some ghostly apparition of the author. I have no doubt that Katriel’s career will be a strong one.
Plot (3/5): The first half was quick and intriguing. I paged through it very quickly, and had to go back to admire the prose again, because I was too eager to find out what would happen! When we switch from Helena’s point of view to Gabriel’s, I got a little lost. The history of the Salazars is long and twisted; I had a hard time keeping it straight. Still, the actual goings-on (the investigation, the deaths) were really interesting and kept me reading.
Concept (5/5): Very Victorian, in the best of ways. Alatiel is one of the “decorative poor” (a fabulous phrase) briefly worshipped, then forgotten, by Helena’s friends. But she doesn’t forget them. The idea of a consuming muse is awesome! The witchly family is a pretty cool connection too.
Characters (5/5): Need I invoke Dorian Gray? There was so much of Lord Henry in the characters, especially Helena’s friends. Basically, they’re hysterical dandies full of frivolous humor, silly sayings, and total nonchalance. Dandies. They made me laugh. Helena’s voice was really strong. I felt I knew her from a few pages in. I didn’t feel as close to Gabriel; for me, he was more a window into the story.
Style (6/5): You’ll note that I rated this a six. I don’t have enough punctuation to express my love of Katriel’s style. Many authors focus on plot and forget that how you say it can be just as important. Not here. Katriel’s phrases grabbed me from the get-go. They’re ornate and Victorian, but don’t worry—this won’t confuse you like all those books you read in high school English. It’s pretty, but very understandable. I love him for it. I want to hug this prose. Literally.
Mechanics (5/5): A few typos here and there, but it was hardly noticeable. The only confusing part was moving from Helena’s diary to Gabriel’s normal narrative. I liked the diary bit more.
Take Home Message: A flower of a book, with gorgeous prose and a chilling plot. ...more
The Basics: This long short story, or short novella, is a lovely companion to The Sin Collector and a nice interlude before the release of the sequel. It satisfies the curiosities of fans of the first book who met Thomas briefly and, like me, were intrigued by his history. It also takes you more in depth into the protection ritual practiced by the Collectors, as well as Collector lore that could very well become important later on (I hope). Focusing on the two most influential parts of Thomas’ life, it is a sweet slice of tragic love and duty. Of what it really means to serve selflessly, to be a Collector. While it left out some details that I really craved (e.g. the sin-eating ritual), I definitely enjoyed it.
Plot (4/5): In such a short work, Fortunato is clever enough to focus on small snippets of time, layered upon each other to give the background we need. My favorite scenes described Thomas’ efforts in World War II, though I wish there had been more views into the actual battles. I thought it dragged a little during some of the exposition, but for the most part, it was a fast-paced read. However, my main concern is the lack of attention paid to sin collecting. Like the first book, it talks about the sin-eating ritual but never goes into depth. I want to know what it involves. How you do it. What it feels like, viscerally. I hope to see this in the next installment.
Concept (5/5): As I said for the first book, very original. Fortunato takes a little-known myth and makes it her own. With all the allure of vampires but none of the blood sucking, the Collectors have a nicely fleshed-out mythos that kept me flipping pages, even during slower parts.
Characters (4/5): Thomas was the deepest of the characters, since we saw through his eyes. I also really enjoyed Cricket. Though he played a small role, I thought it was a very important one in the shaping of Thomas’ attitude towards his duty. I thought Emmilina and Lucy could have been fleshed out more. They felt flat to me, props more than people. I would have liked to see a little more what made them so likeable and unique to Thomas.
Style (5/5): Simple and clear, with some very pretty descriptions here and there. Like much YA writing, Fortunato’s style doesn’t try to compete with its subject matter and get too clever for its own good. It’s here to show you Thomas’ world without getting in the way. If you like a sparse, plot-heavy style, it’s perfect for you. If you like something more flowery, there is less of this, but Fortunato still can write some very lovely descriptions. I never had trouble picturing where I was.
Mechanics (5/5): Some of the problems of the last book (e.g. misplaced commas) have been ironed out in this one. I didn’t notice any distracting typos or grammatical mistakes. It was nicely polished.
Take Home Message: A fun look into the history behind the Collectors. A great quick read....more
The Basics: I’ve been slowly working my way through Ellis’ life works, and I’m still going strong. While not as iconic as Less Than Zero or as breathtakingly brilliant as American Psycho, Lunar Park is still a fantastic, multilayered novel. I laughed from the very beginning, got a little teary sometimes, wanted to knock something over in rage otherwise. The Bret of this fictional autobiography is endearingly messed up. Even as you’re screaming at him, you want so desperately for him to succeed. Embedded in an exciting murder-mystery plot is a beautiful commentary on the nature of writing and what it does to the writer.
Plot (5/5): The first bit was slow and took me a while to get into; then I couldn’t put it down. The majority of the book covers a short space of time, but so much happens that you’re ever, ever bored. There’s illicit affair, intrigue, missing children, murders, and plenty of Bret doing silly things. There’s never a boring moment. Even when nothing is actually happening. That’s true talent.
Concept (5/5): Most of the characters are real. Most of the happenings are not. Or are they? It’s confusing at times, delving between reality and fiction, but I think that’s the most brilliant part of this book. You don’t know what’s real. Even in the plot—is Bret really watching the house magically transform, or is this a side-effect of his drug-addled mind? It’s the perfect way to look at where stories come from and what they can really do. And it’s just damn clever.
Characters (5/5): Even when you hate them, you love them. Bret drove me bonkers. I wanted to throttle him and say, “Get your life together! Stop cheating on your wife! No more cocaine!” But I also wanted to hug him. A lot. Because you’re in his head the whole time, and you realize just how lonely and ill-prepared he is. Jayne is frightfully annoying but you feel for her, dealing with her husband’s antics. The kids are wonderfully eerie.
Style (5/5): I miss the minimalistic style of Less Than Zero, which Bret mourns himself in the first chapter. I do love the style of this book, though. It’s excessive. It’s winding. It goes well with Bret’s confusion and ever-working mind. You’d probably ramble too if you were on several different drugs, legal or not, and hallucinating evil beasties in your backyard. Makes it a little hard to follow, but I like a good challenge.
Mechanics (5/5): I suppose you can add “run-ons galore” to this piece. But it’s a style. It works for him. It’s clearly not a mistake of editing. ...more
The Basics: Kieran’s short story shows great promise and a blossoming talent. His writing is mostly very clean and fluid, although it could be trimmed for unnecessary descriptions and occasional awkward phrasing. He has a great sense of atmosphere and character. I could get a good feel for the mental hospital and Shaun’s situation right away, and the other mental patients in his class were very vivid, though somewhat over-the-top. The connection between Shaun’s imagination and the events of the story’s end make for a very interesting portrayal of psychotic aggression. I found his actions in class to be a better surprise ending than the actual ending, actually. My main complaint is that many of the details of the psychological illnesses and the psychiatric institution do not seem realistic. However, on the whole, I enjoyed this story and look forward to following Kieran’s growth as a writer.
Plot (4/5): In general, the plot is fast-paced and entertaining. I liked hearing about the other mental patients and Shaun’s instinctive reactions to their stories. I thought it was a very entertaining way of revealing his problems. Some details seemed overdone, though. The description of his father at the beginning never becomes important later, and his abuse at the hands of Marcus also seemed more incidental than necessary. I enjoyed the part during class the best, up until Shaun leaves the classroom. I thought the final reveal was unnecessary and (as I will explain below) not entirely realistic.
Concept (4/5): Violent mental patients (though rare in real life) are not new in literature. You could throw a stone at a list of TV shows and hit an episode of a violent “crazy” person nine out of ten times. Especially the poor schizophrenics, who get a bad (and very fictional) rap from Hollywood. However, Kieran’s portrayal of Shaun is still very well done and enjoyable to read. The way he presents Shaun’s pathology as obsessive thoughts around what he can do with normal objects is a very clever way of showcasing his problems. And, a much more interesting version than “The voice told me to,” so kudos for that.
Characters (3/5): I liked Shaun. Even though he was pretty typical as a mental patient, I felt like I could still get a handle on his personality. The other characters were a little over-the-top. Marcus seemed too much like a caricature of a mental hospital worker. The psychiatrist was definitely not believable as a PhD. Darla and the football player also seemed like caricatures, but I actually liked that part of it. I thought they were just ridiculous enough that they seemed satirical instead of unbelievable, and it added some dark humor to the story that I appreciated. I think Marcus and the doctor needed to be a little more normal or a little more flamboyant to fit in the story. Either full-on satire, or full realism.
Style (4/5): Kieran’s writing is good, and shows a lot of promise as he develops his skill. While the plot could use a bit of polishing, the writing definitely didn’t scream “amateur” like some stories do. Some lines were really wonderfully sharp and well-done; in context, my favorite was, “But here, I’ve no one to protect. So when the footsteps come, I wish them on someone else.” I think the story was best when it was subtle like that. Some of his metaphors are also clever, like the orderly as a “failed parachute.” But when Kieran tried to describe too much, that’s when the writing felt heavy-handed or clunky. Then, this is a personal taste, so judge for yourself. With a little pruning, I think Kieran’s skill would show through even more. The exception being Shaun’s thoughts; here, I thought the excess of description really helped to emphasize the obsessive quality of Shaun’s thoughts.
Mechanics (3/5): Typo-free and well formatted, which is always nice to see! My main concerns relate to realism of the psychology. I’m a psych major, so I get a little nitpicky about these things. One, electro-shock therapy (modernly called Electroconvulsive Therapy) is not painful and would not be administered by orderlies like Marcus. It’s a fairly safe procedure that uses anesthesia and muscle relaxants to prevent uncomfortable spasming, you can’t feel the electricity, and the usual side-effects are stomach-ache and occasional loss of memories very near to the ECT event. Greater memory loss has been reported but is rare. So the portrayal of ECT as some kind of terrifying, painful punishment in modern times just doesn’t make sense. And especially, a trained technician would do the procedure, not an orderly whose job it is to serve lunch.
The other big thing was the schizophrenia bit. If you haven’t read, please skip this paragraph NOW because there will be a spoiler. Basically: schizophrenia is not multiple personality disorder. They are unrelated and anyone having both would be almost unheard of. Either Shaun was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia or the ending is just extremely unlikely. ...more
I was fantastically excited about this book. It didn't quite meet my exuberant expectations, but it delivered plenty. The story is a fun, Supernatural -style ghost hunt. Boy's father hunted ghosts. Boy's father is killed by ghost. Boy takes up the mantle and hunts ghosts. You start right in the action, and Blake doesn't waste any time getting you into Cas' world--or the Anna plot. Cas wants to kill Anna. Then it gets more complicated, in ways that I didn't expect. Cas can be an annoying, self-absorbed I-go-alone guy, but what was fun for me was seeing him change and grow. There's a romance that isn't insta, friendships that felt genuine and relatable, and Cas' mom gets involved too, which is a far cry from the I-must-leave-all-loved-ones plots I'm used to. The coolest part is Blake's ghost and demon mythology. You get voodoo, Wicca, and a sort of dark blood magic that combine for some neat baddies. Not a perfect book, but very enjoyable. I will be reading the sequel.
plot . 5/5 The plot starts you right in the action with a ghost and doesn't let up. Even when there's not a lot of ghost hunting, everything is moving forward. Either something is happening with Cas' investigation into Anna or his relationships are developing in important ways. Blake doesn't show mercy, either. Plenty of blood is spilt. It makes it realistic, rather than the dumbed-down horror stories where people miraculously escape because the hero never screws up. Cas screws up plenty, and it adds to his character. The ending was also great for a first novel in a series. Satisfying on its own, but also promising more.
concept . 4/5 Ghost hunters: not super original. Yeah, we know that. Blake takes it a step farther with the magical element. She adds in voodoo and Wicca to add color and depth to her supernatural world. I really enjoyed reading about the rituals and some of the demon creatures. There's also a mystery. Your typical find-out-how-the-ghost-was-killed mystery--but it becomes much less typical when you find out how. I won't spoil it, but it was a great surprise and I thought it turned a typical plot into something more unique.
characters . 4/5 Cas was a hard sell for me. He was just so arrogant, a trait that hits me the wrong way. However, he wasn't a badly written character. You can dislike a character but still find them realistic. That's the way I felt about Cas. As the story progressed, my feelings for him changed as I saw him change. What Blake did well with the other characters was give them roles that weren't flimsy or merely supporting, and twist some expectations. Carmel was not the prissy cheerleader I was fearing. Thomas was deeper than your average nerd. Cas' mom was Wiccan, not only an underrepresented role but also one that enriched her personality. It clearly wasn't thrown in just to make her interesting.
style . 4/5 There's nothing particularly beautiful or special about the style. It was polished, succinct, and clear. It's told in Cas' voice, which means that you get a lot of teenage-boy speak. I thought it was done well, but I don't have much to gush over either.
mechanics . 5/5 Everything was well polished. You don't get a lot of extra passages or unnecessary language.
take home message A fun ghost hunt with extra layers of magic, romance, and strong friendships. ...more
While I didn't like this story as much as Ratliff's other story Little Bernie's Map (which was brilliantly creepy and had a super clever concept), I still think he has a lot of promise as an author. The Uninvited Guest has a very clear concept of character. The narrator feels authentic as an apathetic teenager, and his friend brings some nice, funny moments. What made me feel less excited about this story was the somewhat over long introduction. I felt like I didn't really know where I was headed or what was trying to be said. I don't usually read a lot of genre short stories, so maybe it's just not my thing. I thought the surprise would have worked better with more foreshadowing, though, for greater impact. Overall, the writing was good and I hope to see Ratliff grow as a writer.
plot . 3/5 This was the main part of the story that lost me. The beginning was very long and seemed to be primarily about the wedding festivities. I knew that something bad was going to happen, per the blurb, but I didn't feel it. In Little Bernie's Map, there was a sense of creepiness from early on. The narrator kept mentioning "what happened later", but this was too blunt for foreshadowing. Instead of feeling the slow build of anticipation like I did in Ratliff's other story, I was just waiting to finally get some answers. I think with a shorter beginning and more subtle foreshadowing, the final surprise would stand stronger.
concept . 3/5 The concept was interesting for a thrill, but I don't think it was as strong as Map. The wedding didn't seem to serve much purpose except for providing a group of people for the horrific event to happen to. However, the wedding took up much more of the page space than the attack did, which kept making me wonder what it was trying to say. I think the attack could have been worked in a little more to the beginning to send a stronger message.
characters . 4/5 I really liked the narrator. He reminded me of someone I could know. A carefree, self-conscious, slightly freeloading nineteen-year-old. Secretly affected by the romantic goings-on but also mostly occupied mentally with the buffet. His friend, Jose, was a funny but unexplored side character. I would have liked to know more about the bride and groom, since they played such an important symbolic role.
style . 4/5 Ratliff has a very clean writing style that allows the characters and plot to show through. He has a good sense of voice. His narrator felt authentic. However, it got repetitive in some places. The food and certain things about the wedding were mentioned several times, so that they were amusing the first but seemed less interesting after a repetition or two. I think tightening overall would have made this story shine more.
mechanics . 4/5 There were some grammar error and typos that I would have liked to see corrected. However, generally the formatting was good. ...more
Overall, I loved the concept. The execution is where I experienced a few bumps. I tend to judge short stories more harshly than novels, because they’re so compact that every word really counts. To explain myself clearly, I’ll break it down by halves.
First half: Ratliff has a wickedly sharp sense of his character. Daniel’s nervous, hopeful demeanor ekes out of every page. I felt instantly connected to him, so much that I forgot the whole deal with the map for a time. Some of the writing drags a little in too much description or too much metaphor; however, generally there’s little to distract you from Daniel’s worried internal monologue.
Second half: Which is the problem. I had no idea what this story would be like going into it. I don’t mind a surprise ending, but the best surprises are carefully set-up. A clever reader can feel the tension building, even if they don’t know why they feel anxious. The map was introduced a little too late into the tale. What’s more, we have a case of telling, rather than showing. Sometimes that style can work. Here, just when the horror was becoming clear, Ratliff yanked us out of Daniel’s head and simply described the action as though in a newspaper, as though it had already happened. I wanted to see what was going on through the eyes of the narrator with whom I’d grown comfortable. Feel the horror as Daniel felt it. I think I’d have enjoyed the last part much more if Ratliff had showed us what was happening as it was happening. ...more
Let’s break it down. The first half was almost entirely set-up. It suffered a bit from a lack of the old “show, don’t tell” adage. We started fine with our introduction to David and Will. Then disaster hit immediately. Good sign. We get rolling in an instant. However, suddenly we jumped forward into a montage-style “Months passed and all these things were happening and this was how the school became.” Instead of living through the formation of the clique gangs, the barter system, the drops, the first breach of the military—all really vibrant elements of a well-conceived alternate world—we read about it as though in a newspaper article. After the fact. As a result, I found myself dragging through much of the first half. Not to mention, we’re in David’s head entirely until maybe a third of the way in. Then we begin to jump in and out of whoever’s head is most convenient. A little sloppy on the literary side, in my opinion. Stick to point-of-view changes from the start, or stick to one voice.
Cut to Act Two. Suddenly, we’re not looking at the past anymore. David is in the midst of caring for Will and himself, with the threat of his enemy Sam always looming. He’s forming his own gang. He’s taking us on a tour through the workings of a system ruled by guerilla warfare, blackmail, and fear mongering, where athletes rule the school and a palm-sized shard of mirror could buy you a month’s worth of food. Captivating! Interesting! I was engrossed in the struggle between David and Sam, Will’s feelings of inadequacy, Lucy’s idiotic girlishness (yes, I hated her). I came to know the gang members and to root for them in their scrapes. David bothered me, but I think this added to the story. He was self-centered, he was big-headed, and we were supposed to watch him fall by these flaws. And overcome them. ...more
The Basics: The Sin Collector is a rare beauty in a paranormal market overwrought with vampires and the occasional witch. Exploring the old obscure sin-eaters myths of England and Scotland, it creates a hidden world of Collectors that feels both ancient and breathtakingly new. Liliana is a childlike character with the wisdom of a century under her belt and a sarcastic tongue that keeps the tone light and makes for laugh-out-loud pages. While the other characters aren’t as strong, they’re sufficient to prop up a fast-paced plot. Once I started reading, it was a trick to put it down.
Plot (5/5): On the whole, the plot shows very tight design. Details are planted in the beginning and woven carefully to an exciting end. Since Lily doesn’t know quite whom to trust, you as reader are also left guessing—and the final traitor, while not a complete surprise, is still a satisfying discovery. Some parts feel thin, mostly surrounding the two romances in the book (which I’ll omit to avoid spoilers). The first, I felt was strangely intense for its underpinnings. The second, I thought a little eerie, considering the previous relationship of the two characters. However, in general, the book moves at a quick and exciting pace that keeps you reading. The ending promises a thrilling sequel.
Concept (5/5): I have little to say about the concept except “Wow!” Fortunato has a talent for breathing life into old myths and making them modern and fresh. The aesthetic reminds me of Anne Rice and her Egyptian demon vampires. On two points, however, I wished for more detail. The first is the Castus, the evil group tracking the Collectors. There were hints of their motivations, but I felt I didn’t understand them deeply enough. The second and most important is the collecting. Sin-eating is the most exciting part of this concept, but for a long time, we only hear about it. When we finally witness the ritual ourselves, the moment passes quickly and with only routine description. For such a cool idea, I would have loved to see a much more in depth exploration of the process and how it really feels.
Characters (5/5): Lily was a little childish for 100, but it didn’t bother me. She never really went through the adult rites of passage. It made sense for her to be a little broken. Julia was the next best character, in that I got a good sense of her immediately. Both Olexander and Billy fell a little flat. Also, this might just be me, but I was imagining Olexander as a sort of Donald Sutherland type from the beginning and didn’t realize that he, like Lily, does not age. I just couldn’t feel as comfortable with the others as with Lily, who was very deeply portrayed.
Style (4/5): The style was generally good and simple, a backdrop for a fast-paced plot. Lily’s voice felt consistent throughout. The only hitch was dialogue. The characters rarely used contractions and in some places, their speech sounded forced. This would pull me out of the story when it happened. However, in general, the style didn’t overpower the plot.
Mechanics (3/5): Commas were a persistent problem, in that they were either missing or misplaced. There were a few odd grammar points. In general, the spelling was typo-free and the formatting was good.
Take Home Message: If you’re looking for a quick read that packs a punch, pick up Jessica Fortunato’s debut—and look out for her second offering, coming this month!...more