The Dickens Mirror, by Ilsa J Bick

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date -March 10, 2015

Summary: Critically acclaimed author of The Ashes Trilogy, Ilsa J. Bick takes her new Dark Passages series to an alternative Victorian London where Emma Lindsay continues to wade through blurred realities now that she has lost everything: her way, her reality, her friends. In this London, Emma will find alternative versions of her friends from the White Space and even Arthur Conan Doyle.

Emma Lindsay finds herself with nowhere to go, no place to call home. Her friends are dead. Eric, the perfect boy she wrote into being, and his brother, Casey, are lost to the Dark Passages. With no way of knowing where she belongs, she commands the cynosure, a beacon and lens that allows for safe passage between the Many Worlds, to put her where she might find her friends—find Eric—again. What she never anticipated was waking up in the body of Little Lizzie, all grown up—or that, in this alternative London, Elizabeth McDermott is mad.

In this London, Tony and Rima are “rats,” teens who gather the dead to be used for fuel. Their friend, Bode, is an attendant at Bedlam, where Elizabeth has been committed after being rescued by Arthur Conan Doyle, a drug-addicted constable.

Tormented by the voices of all the many characters based on her, all Elizabeth wants is to get rid of the pieces under her skin once and for all. While professing to treat Elizabeth, her physician, Dr. Kramer, has actually drugged her to allow Emma—who’s blinked to this London before—to emerge as the dominant personality…because Kramer has plans. Elizabeth is the key to finding and accessing the Dickens Mirror.

But Elizabeth is dying, and if Emma can’t find a way out, everyone as they exist in this London, as well as the twelve-year-old version of herself and the shadows—what remains of Eric, Casey, and Rima that she pulled with her from the Dark Passages—will die with her.

Thoughts: This book is going to be difficult for me to review properly. In part because it’s such a brain-bender, requiring you to really really challenge your grasp of timelines and your sense of reality, and in part because a section of my brain just wants to make this review entirely out of swear words, because it’s just that amazing!

Continuing from where White Space left off, Emma is now trapped in the mind of Elizabeth, who is in turn trapped inside an asylum in an alternate-universe Victoria London that is besieged by a strange thick fog and a dreaded rotting disease. Rima, Tony, and Bode are also there, but as though they grew up in that London, rather than as the characters we got to know in the previous book. Kramer is still after the secret of the Dickens Mirror and the ability to jump to different Nows.

When I said this book is a brain-bender, I wasn’t exaggerating. Firstly, there’s all the ideas that got introduced during White Space. That book-worlds can yield real people. That characters in books can create characters of their own and in turn become real. That real people can have pieces of themselves put into characters in books and thus share a deep link with them. That time is an illusion. That’s all still in there, and is fundamental to understanding what’s going on. Then you add in a tweak on dissociative identity disorder, the question of whether characters are more real than the people who created them, and whether or not I as the reader am even real or whether Ilsa Bick is still writing me!

(No, seriously, I actually had a moment during this book where I doubted my own reality. The Dickens Mirror may go down in my personal history as the only novel to give me an existential crisis.)

Then it goes on to get even more meta with the ending, when Emma is sitting in a bookstore listening to an author talk about her new novel, The Dickens Mirror, and how it plays with multiverse theory, and Emma thinks that she hates it when characters in books have the same name as her. And while it’s a lovely little tongue-in-cheek scene, it also begs the question as to whether or not that Emma is the primary Emma, or whether that’s even an applicable question because of course she can’t be, she’s just a character in the book I’m reading, OH WAIT MY BRAIN HURTS AGAIN!

This is what you’re in for when you read this series. And I strongly recommend you do. It’s phenomenal, one of the best YA series to come along in years, and tragically underappreciated because it involves a highly complex plot that many people just don’t seem to be able to wrap their heads around. It’s not a light read. It may require you to keep notes so that the converging plotlines and multi-dimensional versions of characters keep making sense. It’s the kind of series you read when you want something utterly out of the ordinary, something to challenge you and your fundamental beliefs about reality and the nature of being. It introduces some advanced ideas that aren’t simple to comprehend and are even more difficult to apply.

But here’s the thing. If you can fall into the right headspace, throw aside your understanding of reality and just let the story carry you along, it still all makes sense. It’s a mind-twister for certain, but it’s still a cohesive story that gets a solid conclusion within the boundaries it sets for itself. It’s not trite. It’s disturbing on multiple levels, both with stomach-churning imagery and thought-churning quantum theory. I think it works best for people who already know how to look at the world sideways, who look at life from different angles and who don’t just accept things as they are because that’s what everyone says is so. It’s for people who love to ask questions and be challenged by the answers. And it’s a series with amazing reread potential, something with earlier scenes you can probably read completely differently when you already know the truth.

I can’t recommend White Space and The Dickens Mirror enough, I really can’t. Bick works wonders here, true wonders, and I have immense respect for someone who can sit down and hold this entire story in their head while writing it out. Take your time with this one, let the amazing characters and the outstanding story sweep you away, keep copious notes, and enjoy the ride. I’ve found a gem among gems, a novel with wide cross-genre appeal, and while it may take some getting used to, it’s worth every last second.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Grimm Mistresses, edited by Amanda Shore

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Editor’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 21, 2015

Summary: REMEMBER THOSE GRIMM BROTHERS? Dark fairy tales that made you leave the light on long before Disney sanitized them? Well, we certainly do! And now the MISTRESSES GRIMM take back the night, five female authors who will leave you shuddering deliciously. Get ready to leave the lights on again with five pieces of short fiction bringing the Grimm Brothers’ tales into the present. Be advised: these aren’t your children’s fairy tales!

Thoughts: Over the years I’ve discovered, bit by bit, that I have a weakness for fairy tale retellings, preferably with a dark element or an unusual twist. So when I was offered a copy of Grimm Mistresses, an anthology of fairy tale horror written by a collection of talented women, I couldn’t say no. It provided me some good and disturbing entertainment during a long bus ride across provinces.

As is true in just about every short story collection, not always stories are equal. Some are better than others. Fortunately all the stories in here are good, and they work well to chill you and make you feel a little bit sickened, bringing forth that perfect horror feeling from the pit of your stomach. Though a warning to those who haven’t read this: let’s just say I agree with Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn when he says that the wrong anthology got named Trigger Warning.

Little Dead Red – Mercedes M Yardley starts off the collection with a take on Little Red Riding Hood, told from the perspective of a troubled mother raising a daughter alone after her ex-husband was revealed to be abusive and thrown in jail. The disappearance and death of her daughter tips her over the ends into a desperate madness fuelled by grief and vengeance, and she does the unthinkable while searching for “the Wolf,” the despicable man who hurt and killed her only child. It’s disturbing, powerfully so, and doesn’t flinch away from some very brutal aspects of reality. While this adds to the story’s strength, it also pegs it as one of the hardest stories to read in the entire collection, and it’s thrown at you right off the bat, no time to adjust to the dark tone. You open the book and BAM, a story about rape and death and wolves in sheep’s clothing and I won’t lie, I actually shed some tears over this one because it was just such a visceral hit. (And I probably would have shed more had I not been on a bus surrounded by strangers whom I did not want to see me cry.)

Nectar – I’m going to be honest. I have no idea which fairy tale Allison M Dickson’s story was based on. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad story, though it probably was one of the weaker stories in the bunch. Largely due to the unsatisfying and quite inexplicable ending. The story starts off with 2 men going on a blind date with 2 gorgeous women, who kidnap them and reveal that they are people from a far-future earth that, for some reason, can only allow women to survive. Seriously. Something in the atmosphere makes men revert to a primal brutal animal state and they don'[t survive long. You see this quite disturbingly when 1 of the men goes into a rage and kills himself by smashing his own face in. The other man, our main character, doesn’t really seem affected by the atmosphere for reasons that are never actually explained. He also shares a bond with the woman he slept with after the blind date, who was ostensibly there to kidnap him and get sperm so that she and other women could get pregnant and continue their race. She apparently feels the same way toward him, since the story ends up her freeing him and stealing a spaceship and them running off together with their newborn son. Not exactly love at first sight, but something akin to it, since she was willing to leave her wife and her entire world behind for a guy she slept with once and bonded with because reasons. The setup was interesting, the premise could have yielded so much, but honestly, so much about the conclusion seems random and doesn’t get explained. It takes a lot of suspension of disbelief, and that rather spoiled it for me.

The Leopard’s Pelt – S R Cambridge’s story was probably my favourite of them all! It starts with a WWII soldier being stranded on a desert island, coming across a telepathic leopard (who may well be a demon) making a deal with him when he gets desperate. Kill her, wear her pelt and don’t wash or tell anyone his name and he can only live by the charity of others, in exchange for getting off the island. If he can’t follow through on this deal, she gets to claim his soul. He accepts. And ends up meeting a volunteer at a hospital, a woman who wants to become a doctor (which, in the 1940s, is impressive and I applauded her on determination alone). They bond, though he runs from her when she gets too close, fearful that their connection will force him into a situation where he’ll lose his soul, intentionally or inadvertently. This is another story where I’m unsure of the source material, the original idea this was a new spin on, but honestly, it didn’t matter. It was so stylishly written, so wonderfully told that it didn’t matter whether I was reading a fairy tale retelling or not. All that mattered was an amazing story told by a very skilled writer!

Hazing Cinderella – This story by C W LaSart made me feel a bit uncomfortable, largely due to the abundance of sexuality in the text. It centres around a duo of mother-daughter… succubi? Witches? A combination of both? They obtain life and youth by draining it from men during sex, which is what leads me to think succubi, but they’re not referred to as such in the text, so I’m not entirely sure. Either way. Most of the story takes place around the daughter, taking over-the-top revenge against her stepsister and her friends, who want to frighten and humiliate her. She responds by killing them. It’s not presented as justified. Merely expedient, cruel people being cruel on both sides of the coin. It’s visually quite impressive, but not a particularly strong story, and it largely stands out from the others due to the sex and gore.

The Night Air – Stacy Turner’s story is probably my second-favourite in the collection, tied with Yardley’s contribution, so this book banked on both sides by quality. (With a second slice of quality smack-bang in the middle. I think that makes it some sort of double-decker quality book-sandwich.) This is a retelling of the Pied Piper story, taking place around a family who has just moved to a small town. There’s some odd behaviour by the locals, which they pass off at first as just small-town mentality coming to light, but it turns out that the “old wives tales” have some merit after 2 of the children vanish into the night, never to be seen again. I admit, part of the reveal at the end stretched coincidence a bit for me, but otherwise this was a solid story, emotional and impressive, and I would definitely read more of Turner’s work in the future.

So over all, this double-decker is worth reading, though it’s definitely a “your mileage may vary” kind of book. There’s some very disturbing material contained within its pages, but then, that’s entirely the point. Fairy tales were cautionary tales wrapped in entertainment long before they were sanitized “happily ever after” tales that most of us have grown up with, and this brings them back to form with a host of talented women at the wheel. If horror is your thing, then definitely grab a copy of Grimm Mistresses while you can, and be prepared to feel some gut-shaking spine-tingling horror while you read.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

We Are All Completely Fine, by Daryl Gregory

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 21, 2014

Summary: Harrison is the Monster Detective, a storybook hero. Now he’s in his mid-thirties and spends most of his time not sleeping.

Stan became a minor celebrity after being partially eaten by cannibals. Barbara is haunted by the messages carved upon her bones. Greta may or may not be a mass-murdering arsonist. And for some reason, Martin never takes off his sunglasses.

Unsurprisingly, no one believes their horrific tales until they are sought out by psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer. What happens when these likely-insane outcasts join a support group? Together they must discover which monsters they face are within and which are lurking in plain sight.

Thoughts: A group therapy session. A support group for survivors, only these aren’t your average survivors of terrible events, if anyone in such a situation could be considered an “average” survivor. Each one has faced supernatural horrors and has come out the other side, not whole, definitely damaged, but still alive to tell their stories. But when nobody wants to hear those stories, when nobody believes the truth behind the events, who can they turn to but each other, after meeting at a very specialized group put together by Dr. Sayer?

The stories of each of the group members are horrific, ranging from Stan’s experience of being partially dismembered and eaten by a family of cannibals, to Martin’s experience of augmented reality games allowing him to see beyond and come into contact with terrifying creatures. And bit by bit, all their stories do come to light over the course of the novella, and I’m probably not the only reader who thought that it would have made for incredible reading to go deeper into the events themselves, to get a closer look at everything that landed everyone in that therapy group to start with. That Gregory managed to tell such complete stories in such a short space is a real testament to his ability as a writer; as much as I would have loved to have seen more, the important parts of the stories were told, giving you more than enough to appreciate what everyone went through.

I often end up thinking things like this when I read novellas. I’m so used to novels that when I read something shorter, I want more. I want to read it all fleshed out and bigger and long enough to allow me to completely immerse myself in it for days without coming up for air. Novellas are so quick, it feels like I just have a chance to get my feet wet before it’s over. But that perceived weakness really is a strength, too, since the author has such a small space to cram a coherent story into, and the very fact that Gregory can do this just blows me away. We Are All Completely Fine doesn’t just tell the backstories of multiple characters, but also the overarching story that ties them together and keeps things moving forward. It’s multiple stories combined into one, and just take a moment to contemplate the skill that takes to accomplish.

All of the stories fit so perfectly together, with one exception. I found that Dr. Sayer’s story seemed to come out of left field. There were small hints trickling through the cracks, and it was obvious that she wasn’t undamaged by strange events, but the way her story tied back to Stan’s just seemed tacked on. It wasn’t supposed to be obvious until the end, which makes sense since any revelation earlier would have ruined everything, but when her story comes together, it just seemed overdone, like it wasn’t enough for her to have some supernatural connection and be touched by weirdness herself, to be connected to them all by what had happened to Barbara (which affected all the group members, in a way).

But this is entirely a subjective thing and other people may have had no problem with that aspect of her story. It certainly did tie everything up in a neat package, no threads really left dangling except those that were supposed to dangle.

One aspect of the way the story was told that did interest me was the narration, and I’m left puzzled but intrigued by the choice. The first paragraph or so of each chapter is presented as though it’s being told by the same person, using “we” and “us” to indicate the group, so you think that it’s all being told by a member of the group itself. Then it switches to the third person, each chapter highlight one character or another, never going back to the same sort of first-person pronouns until the next chapter begins. It takes a while to realise that eventually, all of the group members have been talked about (and you’re sure that it’s all of them, because the story’s clear to point out the number of males and females in the group very early on), and this mysterious voice who calls everyone “we” isn’t actually going to get talked about. It’s one of those things that can hit you out of nowhere, and once I realised it, I couldn’t help but start to speculate on why. Was there somebody else there after all, an invisible someone watching everything? Was one of the members of the group split, in a sense, to think of themselves in the third person to prevent getting too close to trauma, and if so, which one? Or was it just a cool storytelling trick to hook readers and provide a little more interest? (Not that it needed it, because the story was fantastic even without that as a hook!)

What this all comes down to is that if you’re a fan of horror, or of anything Daryl Gregory has written elsewhere, or just of fantastic novellas that demonstrate exemplary storytelling, then you ought to read We Are All Completely Fine. The pacing is tight, not a word wasted, and for all that most of the immediate action occurs at the end, it never once feels slow or ponderous. Masterful writing and a sensational set of intertwining stories keep you reading, keep you pushing for details, and it’s a great thing to whet your appetite for more of Gregory’s superb writing. It’s early days yet, but this is already a strong contender for Best Novella in 2015’s eventual year-end Best Of lists!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 23, 2014

Summary: Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking.

To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they’ll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.

Thoughts: Horrorstor is one of those rare books that actually manages to combine disturbing imagery and good tongue-in-cheek humour that pokes fun at not only foreign-sounding product names but also the unique experience that is Retail Hell. It’s hard not to grin when you get to read amusing descriptions of Tossur treadmill-desks and Rimmeyob shelving. The whole thing is an Ikea riff, which the book doesn’t pretend to hide; it cheerfully says that the whole Orsk store idea was a company deciding it wanted to do exactly what Ikea was doing, only cheaper!

The story of Horrorstor centres around Amy, a disgruntled Orsk employee who doesn’t get along with her manager and who finds her life at loose ends. Barely hanging onto her shared apartment, fearing having to move back in with her mother, a university drop-out who sees no real future except for mediocre employment at a store and company she doesn’t really feel any attachment to. So when she and model worker Ruth Anne get hand-picked to join the investigation team to find out who’s been vandalising the Orsk store at night, the only reason she agrees to do the extra work is the money and the fact that her supervisor will put in a transfer to get her to another store.

And that alone can provide some creepiness, as anyone who has ever been in a building after hours can attest to. Go into a store or school when the place is closed, dark, and devoid of the usual crowds of human life you’re used to seeing, and suddenly everything echoes, odd sounds are louder, the shadows deeper. So even when some of the mystery is explained by the unexpected presence of 2 other employees and a homeless man, this part of he novel is still creepy.

And then he real haunting begins.

I loved the book’s prodding of Retail Hell. I loved the characters, who were real and diverse and carried their own quirks admirably. I didn’t love the lack of originality that the story held, which was analogous to just about any one of a dozen or more horror movies that relied more on imagery than plot to keep you interested. The Orsk store was built upon the site of an old psychiatric treatment centre from the 1800s, run by a sadistic overseers, and right there I think you can see what I mean by the way it’s a little lacking in the originality department. The actual plot of the novels seems to largely just be a frame for the creepy images to hang upon, rather than a real driving force behind the novel’s progression.

Admittedly, the imagery was terrifying, and those with an active imagination are forewarned not to read Horrorstor at night. (And definitely don’t read it if you’re working after-hours security at a retail store!) If you don’t find the idea of a woman working her fingers literally to the bone in a madness-induced bid to claw an escape from the now-tangible monsters of her childhood to be disturbing, then you’re more jaded than I am. Oddly, the only part that I found decidedly undisturbing was the most action-packed scene in which the entire store is being flooded with dirty water and the remaining two employees are desperately trying to escape before drowning. At was at that point that I realised that I’d already hit my limit on being creeped out, that the balance had swung too far, and that what should have been a tense scene was just being read with detached curiosity.

However, this was, I think, an entirely person thing, as everyone’s limits for horror are different, and I suspect plenty of readers viewed this as being more intense than I did.

Horrorstor would make a fantastic movie. I can say that with utter certainty. Hendrix has a good flair for both approachable wry humour and characters that you want to know more about, and these aspects of the novel were brilliant, highly enjoyable! And the imagery was crystal clear throughout, so I was never in doubt as to what was happening even when things were chaotic. Seriously, I would love to see this transformed with visual media.

One minor downside I feel I should mention is that if you’re not reading this book on a tablet or as a dead-tree version, there are things you’re going to miss. The booked was packed with images that provided some more background detail, amusing little tidbits, and as I’ve seen mentioned in a couple of reviews, even the ads of Orsk products carry some small detail that really adds to the flavour of the story, and all of this was utterly missed by me because I read it on a basic e-reader that only displayed a small fraction of whatever image was actually there. Finding out there was more to it was disappointing, since it’s a drawback to anyone who doesn’t have the option of reading it in one of two specific formats. I can see why such formats would be needed to properly display the images, of course, but that doesn’t make the lack of them for everyone else any less disappointing.

Still, Horrorstor was a good horror novel, a quick read with a fast tight plot, excellent characters, and disturbing imagery that will stay with you long after the last page. Highly recommended for those who enjoy a good blend of horror and humour, or for those looking to hip their toes into the horror genre to see what it can provide.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

White Space, by Ilsa J Bick

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date  – February 11, 2014

Summary: In the tradition of Memento and Inception comes a thrilling and scary young adult novel about blurred reality where characters in a story find that a deadly and horrifying world exists in the space between the written lines.

Seventeen-year-old Emma Lindsay has problems: a head full of metal, no parents, a crazy artist for a guardian whom a stroke has turned into a vegetable, and all those times when she blinks away, dropping into other lives so ghostly and surreal it’s as if the story of her life bleeds into theirs. But one thing Emma has never doubted is that she’s real.

Then she writes “White Space,” a story about these kids stranded in a spooky house during a blizzard.

Unfortunately, “White Space” turns out to be a dead ringer for part of an unfinished novel by a long-dead writer. The manuscript, which she’s never seen, is a loopy Matrix meets Inkheart story in which characters fall out of different books and jump off the page. Thing is, when Emma blinks, she might be doing the same and, before long, she’s dropped into the very story she thought she’d written. Trapped in a weird, snow-choked valley, Emma meets other kids with dark secrets and strange abilities: Eric, Casey, Bode, Rima, and a very special little girl, Lizzie. What they discover is that they–and Emma–may be nothing more than characters written into being from an alternative universe for a very specific purpose.

Now what they must uncover is why they’ve been brought to this place–a world between the lines where parallel realities are created and destroyed and nightmares are written–before someone pens their end.

Thoughts: Throughout reading this book, my brain went through three different stages. First it was lightly poached. Then it started to get a bit fried. Then at the end, it was thoroughly scrambled. White Space is one of those novels that I say without a doubt isn’t for everybody, because it’s confusing as anything and requires twisting your mind in about 5 different directions at once and spending the majority of the book not knowing half of what’s going on.

But because of this, it’s a book with amazing reread potential. Not just that, but I think it requires multiple reads to fully appreciate, because the story is beautifully complex, a multifaceted gem of storytelling. It’s told from multiple viewpoints, all of teens with abilities that they don’t quite understand and definitely don’t want to reveal, thrown together by painful circumstance and forced to solve the mystery of what brought them together and what keeps attacking and killing everyone around them, before they themselves are killed. Emma experiences strange blinks where she loses time and gets visions and memories of someone else’s very disturbing life, as well as getting glimpses of a famous author’s unfinished works. Rima can sense the whispers of the dead in things that were close to them. The gifts of the others, don’t become clear until much later on, so I won’t give any spoilers in that regard, but suffice to say that some of them aren’t quite what I expected. Everything is important, everything in its place, which is impressive for a novel that’s so steeped in utter chaos.

There’s some extremely disturbing imagery in White Space, more than I’ve come to expect in novels aimed at teens, and enough to make me feel pretty squeamish at times. From people being torn apart from the inside to just knowing that any character you may get attached to might not make it out of the story alive, it’s a book that evokes a lot of emotion in the reader, and it’s something that I think some may need a bit of a warning before they get fully into it. I may not have the weakest stomach, but there was some stuff in here to make me feel uncomfortable. The imagery was terrifyingly clear.

Which is one of those things that, as the book goes on and pieces of the overarching story get revealed, gives me pause in retrospect. Much of the story is about characters in books being real on another plane of existence, part of a separate multiverse that their creator/artist reaches into in order to bring out books, paintings, and so on. To tell stories. The best books get under your skin, are so real that the reader feels them deeply, sinks into them, and sees them as if they’re really there. So when a book that plays with that notion is just such a book, well, you may start to understand why my mind felt like a cooked egg by the end of it.

That notion also can appeal to just about any writer who’s had the experience of dealing with characters as though they’re real people. Characters don’t always want to do what they’re told. You want the plot to go one way, they want to do something else entirely. It’s practically a running gag amongst those who have fictional people inside their heads. Not only does White Space address the issue of popular works of fiction being part of a real multiverse, but it also looks at what might happen if a character was unfinished, without a set beginning, middle, and end to their story, and what happens then. What also happens when the author puts enough of themselves into a character; do they become part of the character, or does the character become a part of them? Honestly, at times I started to feel like Bick must have been present for one of might late-night conversations with friends in which we discussed these very issues, because so much of this book’s exploration of reality and multiverse theory matched closely with the general consensus we all reached at the time.

Which begs the question: is Ilsa J Bick writing my life and made me have those conversations and reach those conclusions?

This is what I mean when I say this book isn’t for everyone. If you don’t have the kind of mind that enjoys those sorts of hypotheticals, and throwing a bunch of “what if” questions together all at the same time, then much of what makes this book so brilliant for me will be lost on you. It is, however, a fantastic YA horror novel with powerful imagery that challenges the notions of what teenagers can and cannot handle in their fiction, and for that alone I think this book deserves a greater amount of attention. I can’t wait to read the second book of the duology, due out in 2015, and at least this time I’ll know what a head-trip I’m getting myself into when I sit down with it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Girl From The Well, by Rin Chupeco

Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 5, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) You may think me biased, being murdered myself. But my state of being has nothing to do with the curiosity toward my own species, if we can be called such. We do not go gentle, as your poet encourages, into that good night.

A dead girl walks the streets.

She hunts murderers. Child killers, much like the man who threw her body down a well three hundred years ago.

And when a strange boy bearing stranger tattoos moves into the neighborhood so, she discovers, does something else. And soon both will be drawn into the world of eerie doll rituals and dark Shinto exorcisms that will take them from American suburbia to the remote valleys and shrines of Aomori, Japan.

Because the boy has a terrifying secret – one that would just kill to get out.

Thoughts: Chupeco takes the Japanese legend of Okiku and does something quite interesting with it, turning her from simply a ghost locked in a loop into an avenging ghost that punishes those who murder and abuse children, not just in Japan but wherever she’s called by the trapped spirits of said children. She isn’t, however, some sort of beautiful avenging angel, as one might expect. She alters from human to hideous, the remnants of the young woman she was in life running alongside the powerful and brutal ghost that hungers for the death of the wicked. It’s an interesting path to take with a traditional ghost story, and Chupeco managed the balance of Okiku’s dual-natured character quite well, I think.

Tied up with Okiku is the story of Tarquin, called Tark, a modern teenage boy whose mother is in a locked psych ward after trying to kill him. Tark  knows the strange tattoos that cover his body were put there by her, though he doesn’t know why and he doesn’t remember much of his life before that moment. He struggles not just with the social stigma of all of this, but with the fact that elements of the supernatural are entering his life. His ordeal will lead him from small-town America to small-town Japan in an attempt to understand and alleviate the growing menace that plagues his life.

Most vast majority of the story is told from Okiku’s perspective, from her observations of Tark and his family to her brutal  murders of murderers, which make it interesting to see justice from the shoulder of a spiritual vigilante, so to speak. Some parts of the story, however, are told without her being present to observe, with no change in tone, and sometimes even outright stating that Okiku is not present, leading to a very consistent narrative with an inconsistent narrator. Very good for the reader, so that the full story can be told, but not so good for internal consistency.

Okiku’s narrative is extremely good to read, though, and there’s a kind of poetry to the prose that goes beyond what I normally see in YA writing. The dialogue, however, is probably the weakest part of the book. With the exception of Tark’s sarcastic commentary, most of the dialogue feels forced or unrealistic, from the strangely perceptive and articulate elementary school girl to the verbose infodumps that characters occasionally give each other, most of the speech feels more like somebody said it in an online conversation than face to face.

(As a bit of an aside, I understand that in review copies, errors will be there, and I’m not supposed to comment on them because they may well not be there in the finished version. However, I would feel like I was doing this book a disservice if I didn’t mention it in this case, because part of the reason I’m not rating this book higher is because of some very awkward phrases and incorrect word usage that I found scattered throughout the book’s pages. It affected my reading experience, and as such affected my ultimate opinion of the novel. Not just typos and formatting errors, either; those I can and most often do overlook. If the errors I found in my review copy aren’t in the finished version, then great. Things get ironed out in editing, and that’s a good thing for future readers of The Girl From The Well. But I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention that here. Consider that this book might have gotten 4 stars instead of 3 had that not been part of my reading experience.)

Fans of J-horror are going to love this book. I can say that with confidence. It’s the kind of book that I couldn’t read at night, due to some creepy and evocative imagery that reminded me of one too many horror movies and one too many playthroughs of the Fatal Frame video game series. Chupeco has a real gift for creepy narratives, and for providing a new and interesting spin on traditional tales, and it really shows well here. It was also one of the few novels I’ve read involving Japanese culture that didn’t make me wince from stereotypes and inaccuracies. There’s some real promise here, and for those who are looking for a YA horror novel that offers something different, then The Girl From The Well is a good choice.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Ring, by Suzuki Koji

Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Author’s Wikipedia entry | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 1, 2003

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) A mysterious videotape warns that the viewer will die in one week unless a certain, unspecified act is performed. Exactly one week after watching the tape, four teenagers die one after another of heart failure.

Asakawa, a hardworking journalist, is intrigued by his niece’s inexplicable death. His investigation leads him from a metropolitan Tokyo teeming with modern society’s fears to a rural Japan–a mountain resort, a volcanic island, and a countryside clinic–haunted by the past. His attempt to solve the tape’s mystery before it’s too late–for everyone–assumes an increasingly deadly urgency. Ring is a chillingly told horror story, a masterfully suspenseful mystery, and post-modern trip.

The success of Koji Suzuki’s novel the Ring has lead to manga, television and film adaptations in Japan, Korea, and the U.S.

Thoughts: Suzuki Koji’s Ring is pretty well known in North America, even by people who haven’t read the book, due to the North American remake of the Japanese movie adaptation of the story. (Still following the links in that chain?) The horror story about a dead girl who come back from her watery grave to take brutal vengeance upon those who watch her cursed video tape. If you enjoyed the movie, either the original or any of the remakes, then taking a look at the source material might interest you.

Unlike just about every version of the movie that I’ve seen (and I think I’ve seen every one that currently exists, to be truthful), the protagonist of the book is a man, Asakawa, a journalist whose niece recently died under mysterious circumstances. A chance encounter leads him to believe there was more to her death, and the death of 3 other teens, than meets the eye, and he begins a personal investigation that uncovers a darker and more complex truth than he could have ever thought possible. If you haven’t seen the movie before, then you’re in for an evocative and detailed ghost story with plenty of speculation. If you have seen the movie, you can expect elaborations on issues that the adaptations didn’t have time to cover.

I won’t lie, this book is far from perfect. It largely stands the test of time, if you ignore the use of outdated technologies such as video cassette tapes and mentions of shows that haven’t been on TV for a while, or the twists of pseudoscience that blend with the supernatural to create the whole plot in the first place. But I would say that the biggest mark against it is the sexism, the commentary about the place of women, casual mentions of violence and degradation, things that may have flown by without notice when and where it was first written, but that come across considerably more negatively here and now. Some of the discussions certain characters had about rape were downright uncomfortable to read, even if they weren’t graphic, due to the bragging tone of the conversation. So even aside from horror elements that might make one edgy, there are definitely potentially triggering things within Ring.

It also does a lot of hand-holding where the plot is concerned, rehashing current events and theories during character discussion as they try to figure out what’s happening and what to do next. You get a lot of stuff drilled into your head over and over, which is fine enough if this is your first exposure to the series, but if you’ve seen or read any of this before, it gets dull pretty quickly, reading about people talking it all over and speculating on the whys and wherefores without actually doing anything.

The story is a real head-trip, looking like a creative but fairly bog-standard ghost story for most of the novel but getting twisted toward the end, with dual themes of dark self-sacrifice and viral behavior. Even those who haven’t been exposed to the book or the movies know, on some level, the story behind the cursed video tape, the way you’ll die within 7 days unless you make a copy and show it to someone else. Let that sink in for a moment. You’ve got a ghost who kills by fear and sheer mortality, stopping your heart, and the only way to make sure that you survive after seeing that video is to, through honesty or trickery, convince someone else to copy the video and put themselves at risk. Repeat ad infinitum. Saying that the video would go viral is also quite literal, and there are multiple comparisons drawn to the way we gain immunity against a virus. Get infected, survive, and move on, infecting others as we go so that the virus survives too. Not the most novel concept these days, given the number of biohorror stories that are floating around, but back in the 90s when this novel was originally published in Japan, that plot device hadn’t been done quite so often, and even now you’re hard-pressed to find this in a ghost story instead of a vampire or zombie story. It thus still retains a good amount of its originality.

This isn’t a book to read when you’re all alone. It will get you thinking. It will get you contemplating chains of coincidence, of action and reaction, and the effects of the spread of information. It’s a credit to both the author and the translator that the imagery is so creepily clear, the characters not entirely sympathetic but still real (much to my regret, in the case of Ryuji), and the attempted combination of science and the supernatural may not pass muster to those who dabble in hard science, but on the surface the theory is sound enough to keep the novel going without requiring too much suspension of disbelief. It’s become a J-horror classic for a reason, and it’s a must-read for fans of the genre, or even just fans of the movies.

I am Legend, by Richard Matheson

  Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com

Author’s Wikipedia page
Publication date – 1954

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) A terrible plague decimates the world, and those unfortunate enough to survive are transformed into bloodthirsty creatures of the night. Robert Neville is somehow the last living man on Earth.

Thoughts: I’m not sure how many times this book has been turned into a movie, but it was after seeing its most recent incarnation that I made the decision to sit down and read the source material. I Am Legend is a short read, quick and tense with sporadic bursts of action, and has been named an SF Masterwork, with good reason.

Matheson gives us an interesting concept to read about. Most people are dead, killed by a vampire virus that covered the world as spores travelling on high winds after the climate changed in many of the same ways that scientists suspect. The virus kills most, and turns the others into manic bloodthirsty monsters, who seem to have little better to do with their time than to harass Robert Neville, the last remaining human. Neville spends his time barricaded in his house, experimenting with ways to kill the vampires by day, trying to ignore them and drink himself senseless by night. Until he spies another living human being during the day…

In spite of the somewhat embarrassingly dated language in places, I Am Legend is still something of a timeless tale of isolation and discovery. You can really feel Neville’s loneliness and desperation, and his disappointment every time he thinks he has a breakthrough that ultimately fails. You feel his anger as he lashes out at the hordes or vampires that chase after him. Matheson seems adept at cramming a great deal into a few words, the whole story refined and condensed and without any of the frills and fillers you find in longer novels.

The twist ending is one that has been discussed time and again, and is one that the movies supposedly never do well (again, I’ve only watched the most recent movie and can’t speak to any of the others). Neville may be the last human alive, but he is not the last sentient being, as some of the vampires overcame their animalistic drives post-transformation and began to organize a civilized society in which to live. Neville’s fear and hatred of vampires kept him killing them long after they made this change, and so he has become to them the very think that they used to be to him: a boogeyman in the dark, a killer for no understandable reason. It was an interesting twist on the old “us versus them” dynamic; not a mere meeting of minds and discovery that we’re all alike at the core, but each being the other’s monster, and each being more than the other understands. The monsters, in the end, become more civilized than the human who once prided himself on his civilization.

It’s an inversion and a cycle. Human society crumbles, monsters are born, man hunts monsters, monsters have social revolution, monsters-turned-men defend themselves against a man-turned-monster. It’s the kind of idea that, if a person is really thinking about what they’re reading, can really give them pause and force them to re-examine the dynamic by which they function in their own society and how they compare it to that of others. In one man’s story, we can see our own, and that’s why I Am Legend cuts right to the bone with its brutal sympathetic commentary.

It’s easy to see why this became a masterwork, a classic of sci-fi and horror fiction. It’s something that modern readers can relate to and find meaning in, and will undoubtedly stand up to further decades of scrutiny and come out kicking. If it has any flaw, I would have to say that flaw is in the book’s length. While the imagery is clear and the dialogue believable, it does lack much of the detail that modern readers have become accustomed to, and I suspect that might turn many people away. It may lack filler, but it also doesn’t have much flesh.

Still, it was worth reading, for both the story itself and for the look into the genre fiction of the past. Recommended for hardcore fans, and for those looking to get some greater insight into the movie concept that will never die.

Inheritance (Heir to the Blood Throne), by Tim Marquitz

inheritancebloodthrone  Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com

Author’s website
Publication date – May 17, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) What’s a vampire to do when he’s afraid of the dark and passes out at the sight of blood?

These are but two of the problems that face thirteen year old Rupert Bartholomew Cooke. After growing up in England’s Foster Care System, Rupert is at last adopted. Then what should be the happiest moment of his life turns into the most terrifying day imaginable. His adopter, the same man whose bite turned Rupert into a vampire, is none other than the infamous Jack the Ripper.

To make matters worse, Rupert is left to watch over Jack’s mansion, under which is buried a portal that leads to the Source of all magic. Untrained and coping with the stresses of his new and terrible existence, Rupert is forced to defend the Source against Jack’s enemies, the necromancer Mobius and his secret accomplice.

With his newfound friends, Lorelei the thrall, Alistair the diminutive werewolf, and Horatio the gruff housekeeper, Rupert must battle Mobius and preserve the fragile truce between the Vampire Nation and the Legions of the Dead; all without giving Jack a reason to kill him when he returns home.

Thoughts: My first opinion of this book was, “If I was a 12 year old boy, this would be exactly what I’d want to read!” My second opinion was, “Hell, if I was a 12 year old me, this would be exactly what I’d want to read.” Far from the usual YA fare, Inheritance was filled with blood, battle, and yes, brains. As in intelligence. While stats for this book say that it’s for readers aged 8 and up, I would disagree. Not because of the violent content, but because Marquitz uses a higher standard of vocabulary than one normally sees in books intended for that age range. Not enough to keep kids constantly reaching for the dictionary, but enough to stretch their brains while allowing them to enjoy a good action-packed story. I might say that kids 12 and up would be able to handle the vocabulary a bit more easily.

Then again, there are some smart 8 year olds who could use some more reading material directed at them that gives them something to sink their mental teeth into.

Rupert isn’t your typical vampire character. He’s a little bit of a coward, has spent years being rather downtrodden and bullied in an orphanage, and dreams of greater things while simultaneously being uncertain as to how he’ll achieve them. As a protagonist, he was wonderfully real, flawed and curious and the very embodiment of a young teen suddenly finding himself completely out of his depth in the world. In her normality, he’s very relatable, and I think that’s what makes him, surprisingly, a very unique protagonist. Most YA protagonists have something undeniable special about them right from the get-go. Rupert gets thrust into a strange and dangerous situation, but he earns his place, works for his accomplishments, makes mistakes and pays for them, and doesn’t get treated as anything other than what he is.

There’s no denying that there’s plenty of violence in this book, and more than a few things that rate high on the “gross-out” scale (a colossus made of multiple human corpses, for example), and normally that doesn’t appeal to me very much, but Marquitz made it work. Even through the bits that I found distasteful, well, they were supposed to be distasteful. And none of it was over the top. I can see plenty of parents being unhappy that their children are reading such graphic material, but I can say with certainty that any child who wants to read books like this will end up lacking for not having read Inheritance. The violence is balanced with an interesting plot, relatable and diverse characters (though the girl of the group is relegated to a more passive role where the boys get to take a more active role in events, some of that can be forgiven by the time period the book is set in), and as I mentioned earlier, doesn’t talk down to kids and assumes that they’re capable of understanding larger words and advanced concepts.

There are hints of greater things to come with this series, and I’m looking forward to following it and seeing where it all goes. I believe this is Marquitz’s first foray into YA fiction, and I think it’s been a successful one.  I know I’m hooked, at the very least. And really, given that the price of this book is approximately $1, if you have the money to spare for it, I think you’ll be hooked too.

(Book was provided for review by the author.)

Another: volume 1, by Ayatsuji Yukito

Another: volume 1, by Ayatsuji Yukito  Buy Kindle edition from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com

Publisher‘s website
Publication date – March 19, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In the spring of 1998, Kouichi Sakakibara transfers to Yomiyama North Middle School. In class, he develops a sense of unease as he notices that the people around him act like they’re walking on eggshells, and students and teachers alike seem frightened. As a chain of horrific deaths begin to unfold around him, he comes to discover that he has been placed in the cursed Class 3 in which the student body head count is always one more than expected. Class 3 is haunted by a vengeful spirit responsible for gruesome deaths in an effort to satisfy its spite. To stop the vicious cycle gripping his new school, Kouichi decides to get to the bottom of the curse, but is he prepared for the horror that lies ahead…?

Thoughts: At first when I got a review copy of this, I thought it was he first volume of the manga, and after having watched and enjoyed the anime, I was thrilled. Then I discovered that it was a translation of the light novel, and I was even more excited! Even aside from the fact that I have a minor love affair with Japan and its culture, I do firmly believe that more foreign literature needs to be translated and shipped to these shores. There was no way this could go wrong!

Unfortunately, I have to say that this didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

The story itself was interesting, and I was impressed to note just how closely the anime followed the events of the novel. In many ways, though,  thought it was a good thing that I’d watched the anime first, as it allowed a clearer picture in my mind of characters and settings. Description was very often lacking here, tossed out in favour of circular thought patterns and a great deal of repetition, which made sections of the book tedious to get through. I do admit that the curse is quite a complex one, and occasionally a little bit of a recap isn’t a bad thing, but it was taken to extremes. Even if I hadn’t known the plot in advance (again, thanks to having watched the anime based on the book), I still would have gotten frustrated.

I do have to praise the author for such  clever curse, though, and the execution of it from the main character’s point of view. As a transfer student, Kouichi had no idea what was actually going on for most of the novel, and characters around him would only make vague hints, or try and dissuade him from prying too deeply, hoping that in the end there wouldn’t be a need to tell him anything if the curse wasn’t active that year. And when it became obvious this wasn’t the case, the deaths of the students were suitably shocking and occasionally quite gruesome, and I think that as occasionally annoying as it was to read, the characters did act quite realistically given the situation they were in. So I can’t find fault with the realism of it all.

What I can find fault with, however, is the actual translation of the novel. Now, I’m not fluent in Japanese, so I’m not going to say something stupid like how I could have done a better job. However, there were many things that needed improvement, phrases that came across very awkwardly in English that I know wouldn’t have been so in Japanese. The best example I can think of for this is how one character was referred to: he was the younger brother of another character, and so was on multiple occasions referred to as “Mizuno/Little Brother.” Really, that’s exactly what the text said. Now, Mizuno-onii-chan is exactly what that would have translated as (referring to the little brother of the character known as Mizuno), but Mizuno/Little Brother is just awkward. Especially as that character had an established name. I would make the excuse that the translator was trying to make the thing feel more Japanese there, alluding to the actual term that may have been used, but given that there were countless examples of giving names in Western order (given name then family name, as opposed to the Japanese style of family name then given name), I don’t hold that as a good enough reason. Ultimately the translation needed work, and I really hope it improves for volume 2.

One other thing that deserves to be pointed out here is that the novel also assumes that the reader is familiar with what a Japanese person in 1998 would be familiar with, right down to recent crimes. When it’s known that the protagonist’s family name is Kouichi Sakakibara, mentions are made of a Seito Sakakibara, referencing “childish characters used to write his name,” and how people would make fun of Kouchi for having that surname. No explanation is given of why this is. It took me doing research online to find out about the Kobe child murders of 1997. Didn’t know that? Too bad, no context for you.

And this wasn’t just a brief passing mention. It was brought up a few times over the course of the novel. Without context, even a small footnote, the reader is left wondering what’s going on, whether this is a dangling plot thread or a bit of bad translation or whether they’re actually expected to know about 15 year old Japanese crimes.

So between multiple translation and contextual issues, plus far too much repetition and circular thought patterns that go on for pages, I have to confess myself a bit disappointed by the first volume of this story. The plot itself is quite interesting, if you can get to it through all the other issues. The characters are bare-bones at best, some of them rather forgettable in spite of playing a large role in the story. Some things could be improved with better translation, but others are flaws inherent to the novel itself. It was interesting to me primarily because I had watched the anime, but without that to pique my interest, had I just read the novel on its own, I don’t think it would have gotten as high a rating as I gave it.

If you do want to read this, I recommend doing so after watching the anime for yourself, as it will give you a very good grounding in the characters and the imagery that the novel itself is actually lacking. It’s worth reading if you want a bit of supplementary material, to know what the really good anime came from, but as a standalone reading experience, I don’t recommend it very highly.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)