Review – Nerve

A chilling concept with flat characters – a review of Nerve by Jeanne Ryan (2.5/5)

Nerve by Jeanne Ryan was originally released in 2012 – I read the 2016 movie tie-in edition. I have not seen the film yet, but some of my review will include thoughts on the film.

nerve

Nerve is about a girl named Vee who feels like she’s the supporting actress in her own life. Her friend Sydney is the star of the show in their high school, the girl all the boys like, and Vee is fine with being the sidekick most of the time. There’s a crazy reality show called Nerve that gives dares to players in order to win prizes; they aren’t documented by a camera crew but rather by Watchers – people who sign up to film and follow players for the show. In a fit of rebellion, Vee films a dare and it gets a lot of attention. She’s assigned a partner, Ian, and they begin completing dares together. They get into the live rounds that lead to bigger and bigger prizes – it also leads to danger. Is this just a reality show with production and protection, or is Nerve something much more sinister? And who is running the show?

I am really conflicted about this novel.

The concept is fantastic. From reading about Jeanne Ryan’s other novel, Charisma, I can give her a lot of credit for finding unique, super relevant, and thought-provoking plot lines. It’s kind of in the vein of Black Mirror (one of the most fantastic shows ever made) – how far can technology advance us before it also becomes our downfall? Her grip on this sideways reality and how it works is intelligent and deep.

The Nerve game of the book is all about manipulation, disrespect for the privacy of public figures, and our desires to feed on fear and violence. The way the story plays out is strong, and it leaves you on a cliffhanger in regard to the resolution of the big picture. I was a little frustrated by the lack of explanation of the world. The technology seems just slightly beyond our reality (again, very Black Mirror) but I didn’t really understand what kind of access or capability it had, which decreased some of the fear when it came to how they discovered information or how much the Watchers really had access to about the players.

I did not like Vee; and from what I read of Charisma I don’t think I’d like Aislyn either. They were weak – not in terms of character but in terms of characterization. Vee was insecure and it rarely went deeper than that. All of the characters felt very surface level except Ian, which kept me from truly worrying about what happened to them. The characters were sort of enhanced stereotypes. I didn’t care who lived or died, I just wanted to see how the story played out. And maybe that was intentional, to show that I as a consumer was as callous as the Watchers in the book, but considering we are told the story from inside Vee’s head I kind of doubt that.

Just looking at the movie cast and some of the photos really depressed me because I don’t think it expanded on what was so well done in the novel, and I don’t think it added anything deeper to the characters. The races were changed, identities were altered, and I think it was more a vehicle for certain people than an actual adaptation. Obviously in the visual realm they needed to add more dares or change them to make it more appealing, but I think that likely diminished any growing horror that there is no way out and no way to win the game. I will see the film, but for a book I didn’t really like, I’ll probably stand by the belief that the book is better.

This book is worth the read for the concept and plot. Nerve is not that far from our reality and that is chilling. 5/5 for the plot, 1/5 for the characters. I’m going 2.5/5 overall.

Review – Strange Times: The Ghost in the Girl

Get reading, pals. The Strange Times crew is battling ghosts. (4/5)

Strange Times: the Ghost in the Girl by Tom DeLonge and Geoff Herbach was released October 4, 2016 – it’s the prologue to the Strange Times graphic novel, also by DeLonge. I finished it on October 7, 2016 while eating nachos. This was inspired by the tacos in the book, but I didn’t have the stuff to make tacos.

Despite the swearing, this is definitely a mid-level reader book – middle school or early high school. As long as the parents of the reader are chill, and acknowledge that their kids totally talk like this when they aren’t around. If you weren’t swearing in secret in 8th grade you’re a liar.

I should say that I know Geoff personally – he was one of my professors in grad school. I have not been asked to and I am not receiving anything for reviewing this book. I probably would have read it without knowing Geoff because of the nostalgia of my middle school crush on Tom DeLonge, and that he creates some pretty cool stuff. Geoff is an awesome person and a great writer, and if you ever get the chance to hear him read I recommend it. It was hard not to hear some of the passages in his public reading voice.But I digress.

strangetimes

The Strange Times crew are five teenage boys who get occasional help from an aging hippie named Cortez. Our narrator is Charlie Wilkins. He and the crew – smart guy Wiz, new kid Riley, and skaters Mouse and Mattheson, were thrown together for a science project, discovered the truth about ghosts, shreds, and shadows, and stuck together to take them down. The book follows their initial gathering in school – Charlie’s struggling because his Air Force father has disappeared and they can’t tell anyone, Wiz is being threatened with military school if he doesn’t get “normal friends,” Riley is the new kid in town living with grandparents who don’t love him, and Mouse and Mattheson have the first encounter with the Ghost Girl herself, Paula. It’s actually really hard to provide a summary of this book – but it’s the adventures of the Crew and their first battle with evil ghost Yankee Jim Robinson.

If you want to really enjoy this book, make sure you’re not too caught up in being an adult. Because if you aren’t in the state of mind to laugh at moose farts, purple flames coming out of buttholes, or pants being burned off by a Pinto, then this is the wrong book for you. I really love when there’s supernaturally-induced farting and indigestion because it adds hysteria to the scare – it reminded me of Dreamcatcher.

I already want more of the Strange Times crew – which is good because the graphic novel takes place after the book, but I want to know when I’ll get even more adventures. What happened to Charlie’s dad? What happened to Gramps in Vietnam? Do they use ghosts to punish Wiz’s dad for being a douche? Will they ever defeat Yankee Jim? I also love the supernatural mythology – how ghosts and souls work, what can happen, how they can manifest, was all fleshed out well but didn’t tell everything.

It’s no secret that keeping teenage boys engaged in literature and reading is an uphill battle – this is definitely a work that would keep a young male reader entertained and interested. He’d recognize these boys in himself, and that just doesn’t happen enough. I loved these characters because I knew them too – especially Mouse and Mattheson. Those were my friends, things we would have said, and probably the way we would have responded to ghosts being real and friends being in danger. My friends would have also absolutely tried to build a papier-mache asscano.

I also really loved the message of self-love that was sprinkled throughout. Charlie needed a dose of confidence and learning to love himself – and he learned it from Mouse and Mattheson and Wiz. While there’s too much fat-shaming in general in the book, when Riley has his revelation about himself and his body it was a pretty beautiful moment. We put a lot of pressure on boys and girls these days to look a certain way, and the recognition that your body is beautiful because it is capable and you are living is so needed.

Teenage me would’ve given this a 5/5 all the way – cute vulnerable boys, ghosts, adventures, so much swearing, hilarious fart scenes. Adult me is going with 4/5 – I wish it had been longer because some of it felt rushed or unexplained, and too!many!exclamation!points! Which feels kind of hypocritical because people really talk like that, but it kept snagging my eyes while reading.

I recommend this book for a quick, funny read, or for the young person in your life who needs an adventure.

Review – Wink Poppy Midnight

A hero.A villain.A liar. – A review of Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke (5/5)

Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke was released March 22, 2016 – I read it in one thrilling sitting on October 4, 2016. I read this as part of a read-a-long with @BookishGals on Instagram.

A hero. A villain. A liar. Who’s who?

dscn1915

We start the story with Midnight moving to a new house. He now lives next door to Wink – petite, redheaded, unique, from a big and free spirited family. He used to live next door to Poppy – ultimate cool girl, icy blonde hair and ice in her heart, the girl Midnight doesn’t want to love anymore.

The characters are full, complicated, at turns sympathetic and exhausting. We are inside their heads and seeing things in their hearts that they don’t. I can’t tell if I saw the twist coming because I’m a cynical weenie or because Tucholke wanted the reader to know. It’s a good twist. It’s a twist that fixed my one reservation during my reading.

I was concerned we had a pair of dueling Manic Pixie Dream Girls because despite being in all three characters’ perspectives it feels most like Midnight’s story. His story was about getting over love – and the way he described both Wink and Poppy led me to be concerned he didn’t see them as people. I was relieved to be wrong. Wink Poppy Midnight goes beneath the surface so that not only do we the reader know each character, but by the end of the novel they all know each other on that better level too. Midnight borders on MPDG most with Wink, but I think in the end they connect on a level only the two of them can understand.

This is a love story.
This isn’t happily ever after.

There are heroes and villains.
Sometimes they are both at once.

Everyone is a liar.

It’s a bit of a ghost story, a bit of a fairy tale, and a little bit mystery thriller.

It reminds you how much it sucks to be a teenager – that life is bigger and harder and truer well before people consider you an adult, or believe that “the real world” is an arbitrary label. The real world is now. This novel highlights that it matters to learn to ask for the truth, to give it, and to say what you need instead of hoping life will give it to you.

The voice of each character, the style and structure are flawless in their execution and you can follow the story and keep the threads separate without confusion or blurring of roles.

5/5 – I loved this.

I am really happy that I recently ordered Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – I hadn’t put together that it was the same author.

Reviews – Shadow of Night and the Book of Life

A dual review of Shadow of Night (3/5) and the Book of Life (4/5) by Deborah Harkness.

After A Discovery of Witches I was really amped to read the rest of the All Soul’s Trilogy.

all-souls-trilogy

I finished both Shadow of Night (2013) and the Book of Life (2015) by Deborah Harkness this weekend, and as they are the completion of the trilogy I am going to review them together.

Because Shadow of Night drove me crazy (in the bad way,) and I am a little teeny bit disappointed with the ending of the Book of Life.

I should have loved Shadow of Night. Time travel! Elizabethan England! Ruffs!

We find our heroes in 1591, mostly in London, where blossoming witch Diana Bishop has traveled in both time and space to learn to use her unique magic. There is a Matthew in 1591, and we are constantly reminded that he is going to be a very different Matthew from the one we know in the present. This is Diana and Matthew as a couple without hesitation, building their lives in a different time. It’s complicated by the social politics and drama of the Elizabethan age, and the demands of present Matthew inhabiting past Matthew’s place in time. Diana learns more about her magic, embraces the power of the sisterhood/brotherhood of witches, meets famous historical people, changes history, loves her partner, makes her family, and comes back to the present to use her power for its intended purpose. There’s so much that happens in the past that shapes how Diana and Matthew relate to one another…but a lot of it also seems completely unnecessary to the story.

My favorite thing about Shadow of Night was meeting Philippe de Clermont. He wasn’t what I expected him to be, and it’s a killer plot of playing the long game. He came up and had influence on SoN and tBoL in ways I could not have foreseen. He’s just a master stroke of a character and a plot device, and when all the myriad ways he planned ahead are revealed layer by layer I continued to be delighted with him. He’s the only character whose story made me feel deep emotion, and not just the satisfaction of story resolution.

Here’s the thing I hated about Shadow of Night in particular – it was so much about Matthew that sometimes I forgot I  was reading first-person narrator Diana. We lost her. I lost the intellectual, independent woman that I loved in aDoW. Which is really disappointing because I think Harkness did a great job showing how involved and powerful women were back then, how much influence they had on their households and families. We often talk about liberation without understanding context, and what we were asking for liberation from.

Luckily, we get Diana back a bit in the Book of Life. She goes where Matthew cannot follow. With her faith in herself returned, she is once again dynamic and intelligent. She is once again a match for Matthew’s dangerous need to protect her. Her power allows him a certain amount of peace to control his disease. That is a beautiful and balanced partnership.

In the Book of Life the true villain is finally revealed – and he is the worst kind of creature, the worst things we imagine about a villain are in him. We spend the last book figuring him out and hunting him down. There is also a subtle jab I’d like any other readers to look out for regarding our villain and the familial origins of a witch named Janet.

*Highlight below here if you want to see the spoiler…*
the only time he successfully had a living child was during consensual sex, CONSENT BURN! Take that Benjamin!

The message of the Book of Life was a little on the nose for me – I wish there had been room for the reader to make the jump about the origins of creatures and why knowing and proving those origins was world-shattering. It’s an important message, but for something to be truly valued it has to be earned. We didn’t earn the message.

Overall, I really enjoyed this trilogy and there are characters I won’t forget any time soon. I also do not recommend binge-reading the trilogy as I did. There’s SO MUCH that happens in each book that trying to remember what happened in which book is difficult. They are almost impossible to summarize because each novel is action-packed and a little insane. It feels like more than three books. But when you are telling an epic tell, there are going to be things that are brushed over or mentioned without delving into them. I didn’t need to see every scene and conversation. These are books that depend on the understanding of the relationships between characters. I would watch the heck out of a TV show based on this trilogy.

Shadow of Night – 3/5

the Book of Life – 4/5

The All Soul’s Trilogy – 3.8/5 (the average of the individual books’ ratings)

Review – Hex

A review of Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt – in which you will question, who should you really fear? (5/5)

Hex was first published in Dutch in 2013, and then re-worked and translated into English. It was released in the US in April 2016. Amazon kept recommending it to me and I kept not buying it. So what happened? The library. When I held the book in my hands and read the sleeve, I wanted it.

fullsizerender-1

For 350 years, the frightening and solid ghost of Katherine van Wyler has haunted the town of Black Spring, NY. Once you become a resident of Black Spring, you can’t leave. If you’re away too long you are overcome with the desire to kill yourself to be free. Parts of Katherine’s existence have a pattern, while in other parts she just appears in homes, in the woods, on the streets, in the stores, carrying the stench of death and the clinking of the chains that bind her body. See, Katherine was killed for being a witch, and somewhere along the way her eyes and mouth were sewn shut. And so she appears around Black Spring, a ghoulish but normalized specter, a sign of their coming doom.

Hex follows Steven Grant, father, doctor, resident of Black Spring – his sons Tyler and Matt, and his wife Jocelyn. Through Dr. Grant we see the town of Black Spring as a resident, and as someone who made the mistake of moving there. The novel also follows Robert Grim – born and raised in Black Spring, its protector, leader of HEX – the organization that keeps the secrets of Black Spring from getting out to the rest of the world. The sanest man in a town of people corrupted by darkness.

Things start changing – the teenagers of the town begin to rebel against the rules that keep them safe and Katherine from public knowledge. They begin a chain of a events that leads to destruction.

This is supposed to be a horror novel – and don’t get me wrong it is incredibly unsettling and has some very frightening moments – but what will haunt me about this novel is not the supernatural horror, but the human kind. The horror of humanity. At the end of this novel I didn’t shiver, I cried.

Because you start to guess the ending. You start to guess the truth. But it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t change the one-two punch to the face of the ending. Somehow, knowing what’s coming and why makes it worse. It is more frightening to see humanity stripped bare and find it wanting than it is to find a supernatural source of the horror. The very best horror novels are not about the supernatural itself, but what that supernatural entity either says about humanity, or become a mirror that we are afraid to look into for too long. Hex does that.

The entire premise of this novel is unique and high-concept. I have never read anything like this before, and I am going to read more work by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. He is a master storyteller, and his acknowledgements section was so enlightening to him as a person and an author. It might just be worth it to learn Dutch, or bribe a Dutch person, to read the original.

A lot of other reviews complain about some of the gendered issues in the novel – particularly regarding breasts and rape. As someone who works every day in the realm of gender-based violence, these moments felt earned and fitting given the concept of human depravity within the novel. It was not placed without genuine narrative purpose, and it wasn’t just a plot device. And except in one more metaphorical occasion, it wasn’t so overly described that it became the blending of violence and pornography either – it was not sexualized violence, just violence. Heuvelt wanted the reader to be appalled, not appealed, and did so successfully.

5/5 for a heart-rending, complex, and fantastically realized work of horror. Read this immediately.

 

Review – Fates and Furies

A love/hate review of a novel about the blur between love and hate…Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (3.5/5)

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff was published on September 15, 2016 and released in paperback on September 16, 2016.

I loved Groff’s the Monsters of  Templeton. When I finished, I looked into Fates and Furies but wasn’t really interested. As before, I saw it in the library and thought, why not?

fandf

In order to truly review this book I have to treat it as two distinct entities. One is the story within the novel, and the other is the way in which the novel is written.

Because I love one. The other, not so much.

Fates and Furies is the story of a marriage told in two parts: Fates – mostly from Lotto’s perspective, and Furies – from Mathilde’s. It’s how they met, married, their lives, careers, choices, understandings, fights, failures, intrigues, friends, and family. They live in New York – Lotto is a failed actor turned successful playwright, Mathilde is a saintly supportive wife turned business manager. Things are exactly what they seem; things aren’t what they seem.

If you like tense interpersonal drama, a wide-ranging cast, characters you hate to love and love to hate, this is absolutely the novel for you.

Structurally, this book deserves all the praise it’s gotten because it’s dynamic and unique. The writing style, the craftsmanship, the movement of time and place, the lyricism in the language and the asides like a Greek chorus are brilliant. The structure itself is compelling regardless of the story the words are shaping – run on sentences, use of semi-colons, parentheticals. It’s not just the characters’ thoughts, it’s these droplets of an omniscient narrator that provide insight into life in general. If I was going to review just this, 5/5 – one of the most uniquely designed and planned novels I’ve ever read. Groff is a genius.

My struggle to praise to this book to the heavens is the story. I like Mathilde more than Lotto, but I like Mathilde the way I like Claire in House of Cards. She’s a cornered woman who has had to live her life as an incomplete person due to a sense of self-protection; she is ice and fire and secrets. Lotto is the golden child, the one ignorant of the feelings of others but manages to get away with it. Often. There is a goodness in Lotto that means his ignorance is often in line with the needs of others, but he is written to be the worst kind of representation of the benevolent patriarchy. I know that Groff wrote Lotto very intentionally – I know she wrote him to be the person you hate to love, but you also know he’s a deeply problematic person. His arrogant beliefs regarding his wife’s needs and wants, his sense of ownership of her, his belief that love is more important than respect just drove me crazy. When I got to Furies and I was reading Mathilde’s experiences my disgust with Lotto went straight to repulsion. I could not understand why Mathilde wanted to be with him – even if she’d been a whole person she could have been with better than Lotto. And it’s frustrating, because even self-aware Mathilde thinks Lotto is special or deserving and I just don’t see it. I was disgusted with everyone because there are powerful and intelligent women in this novel and they seemed to be reduced to idiocy by Lotto. And there are no good men.

I also believe it’s pretty popular in adult fiction, film, and television right now to have characters who are mostly bad people – we don’t like competent, good people dealing with ordinary struggles. We like knowing about horrible, selfish people dealing with extraordinary struggles. Yes, both characters have redeeming qualities but it’s a very small percentage of who they are on the page. It allows us to live out the worst parts of ourselves. It’s just not my taste. Maybe it’s because most people believe they don’t know a benevolent misogynist like Lotto, or a damaged feral calculator like Mathilde. I see them every day in my work, so it’s hard to be pushed through that experience in my free time. So…3/5.

Anyone would be impressed and compelled reading this book – whether or not you come out of it feeling amazing or depressed is a matter of taste. I can’t say I recommend Fates and Furies, but I am in awe of it. I’ll compromise with 3.5/5.

Top Five – Horror Novels

A taste of my taste in horror – my top five as of today.

I have been reading horror for a long time, but have finally come to terms with the fact that it’s my favorite genre. Tell me your favorites! Tell me why I’m wrong or right! Or if you want a longer review of any of the books below. I’m happy to talk about any of them more.

5. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
house-of-leavesDanielewski describes House of Leaves as a love story, but most who read it would agree there’s a significant horror element. This was the first time I screamed out loud while reading a book from fear – “Look behind you!” Luckily, I lived alone.

House of Leaves is not one story but three – a man named Johnny finds a manuscript written by the old tenant Zampano about a documentary called the Navidson Record. We read an explanation of the documentary and know the Navidson’s story, we read Zampano’s footnotes and his experiences, and the madness of Johnny reading both stories. I find the Navidson Record the most compelling, as that, to me, is where the love story is. It’s also the most fear.

The structure of House of Leaves adds to the overall disorientation, disconnection from reality, claustrophobia, and fear. There are pages with few words, pages where the words are going in a different direction, and it is WORK to read this book. It causes investment in the reader, which makes it so much scarier when the work pays off. While I ultimately think this book has a happy ending, it was a book I had to finish immediately because I could not be alone in my house comfortably without a resolution. I love this for the format, I love this for the work and time it makes you invest, and for the stories contained within it. I advise against the electronic version of the book because there’s something about having it in your hand and being able to move it around.

I will say that when this book is on my shelves I put it spine-in because just noticing it can give me the shivers.

4. Sign of Seven Trilogy by Nora Roberts 
sign-of-sevenI know what you’re thinking – Nora Roberts? Horror? But yes, horror. This trilogy by the prolific romance novelist consists of Blood Brothers, the Hollow, and the Pagan Stone. And it is terrifying. I do have to give credence to the fact that I first read this series while delirious with the stomach flu, but I’ve read it again at least twice and every time there are jolts in my stomach at certain moments. The demon at the center of the story is a truly violent creature, and this series delves fully into the dark side of the supernatural. While yes, there is romance and sex scenes and some cheesiness, it’s also a trademark example of positive masculinity common in Roberts’s works. Roberts often covers the supernatural – many of her characters have been witches, gods, and ghosts – but a demon was something new, and she carves out her spot in horror lore with relish. If you like your violent horror with a side of love story, this is absolutely for you.

3. The Elementals by Michael McDowell
elementalsWe all owe a lot to Michael McDowell. McDowell wrote some great novels, but he is also the mind behind the screenplays for Beetlejuice and the Nightmare Before Christmas. I can also say he is so good and so underappreciated, and well-respected enough that his last novel was completed and published by Tabitha King after his death. This man is amazing.

The Elementals is a story that doesn’t give you answers. Most modern supernatural work likes to close the circle – all your questions are answered, the mythology makes sense. That sense of normal that allows us to return to our lives unafraid. Published in 1981, this book gives no such gratification. Set in a fictional trio of vacation houses called Beldame on the Alabama Gulf Coast, you will be there. The work McDowell does on setting and place is incredible. Just thinking about the book makes me feel the heat of peak summer sun that leads to lethargy and the feeling of sweat pooling in the small of my back. There are three houses, and two families (the Savages and the McCrays) and no one goes in the third house. There’s something in the third house, and as it unravels sanity and takes lives, you are terrified by the surreality and absurdism, and will question why you think something was scary but you know that it was. You will  not have answers to your questions, and you will be haunted, forever by the line “Savage mothers eat their children up!

I think about this book all the time.

2. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
I was so unsettled reading this book that I could only read it during daylight hours. There’s something especially scary about reading a horror story told through the point of view of a child who doesn’t understand what’s going on. As adults, there are things she notices that we have context or connection for that a child would not. It makes you see how much your children are exposed to, no matter what you do.

This is a story of possession. Or is it? ghosts

The story of a family in crisis, a beloved and admired older sister who waivers between violence and protectiveness, and the unchecked desire in our society to exploit the pain and tragedy of others.

The brilliance of this book is no matter how you read it – believing or doubting – it is no less terrifying. It has one of the most haunting resolutions I’ve ever read – it is the most disturbing ending that while definitive, leads to more questions that will never be answered. I may have had to strangle a scream. I may have had to eat some chocolate and watch a Disney movie. You might think differently about spaghetti, forever.

1.IT by Stephen King
itI had a hard time choosing which Stephen King book – but if I picked my other two favorites – Salem’s Lot or the Shining – they weren’t number one. The irony is that I don’t even consider IT a horror novel. It is so much more than Pennywise the clown and the monster under the bed, although that has become representative of the story. I’ve never seen a movie version of this book and I’m not sure I ever will.

IT strikes at our core – because what IT brings out of people is their worst fears and their worst behavior. IT lays the world bare in front of IT’s victims and tells them how bad it can be, bad enough that it kills them. Truly, only children could ever face IT. No adult has that kind of hope. In the second part of the story, the main characters must find that child within themselves to once again face IT and save…everyone.

If you like Stranger Things, you will love IT. Don’t go in with pre-conceptions, because its nothing like you think it is. Forget the movie, forget the clown, just read. IT is a masterpiece of fiction, probably one of the best books ever written that has easily withstood the test of time. IT is probably in my top five favorite books ever, not just horror. The size of the book can also be intimidating, but it goes quickly and is worth the read.