Tag Archives: horror

The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

The Ghost Bride

  • Genre
    • Horror, Ghost Story, Historical Fiction
  • Plot Summary
    • Li Lan, a beautiful young woman from a family fallen on hard times, is asked if she wants to become a ghost bride; an unusual custom used to placate the restless dead. When she declines, she finds that her undead suitor is persistent, and tied to deeper secrets than she could have imagined. 
  • Characters
    • I really liked Li Lan, as well as the side characters. Their quirks, histories and foibles were well developed. The bad guys had enough tragic pasts and difficult situations to make you feel sorry for them, but were still despicable enough to make you root for their downfall. The good guys had enough flaws to be relatable, but were heroic enough to make you hope for their success. Special shoutout to Amah, who was a delightful mother figure and mentor. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Gothic and creepy, with a good bit of fantasy adventure thrown in. I think this would be a good one for anyone who likes scary material, but wants to spend more time excited or in suspense than disturbed and horrified. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The setting is actually Victorian Malaysia, but focused on the Chinese community within it. The author is Malaysian of Chinese descent, so it’s not some exoticized stereotype, but a breathing world portrayed with the warmth of familiarity. It was a setting that was completely unfamiliar to me, and it was delightful to get to see a bit of it through the eyes of an insider.
    • She adds end notes on the history, culture and folklore that inspired it.  
    • The afterlife and magic system is well developed, unique and fun. It is heavily based on Chinese and Malaysian beliefs and mythology, but there are also elements she invented for herself, and they all blend together beautifully.
    • Lots of great female characters, both heroic and villainous. Bechdel’s Test is easily passed.
  • Content Warnings
    • Possessions and stalking; probably the creepiest thing about Lim Tian Ching, the ghost who haunts Li Lan, is how much of a realistically entitled pervert he is. 
  • Quotes
    • “It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures we had acquired one another’s superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts.”
    • “I liked the moon, with its soft silver beams. It was at once elusive and filled with trickery, so that lost objects that had rolled into the crevices of a room were rarely found, and books read in its light seemed to contain all sorts of fanciful stories that were never there the next morning.”
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The Frangipani Hotel, by Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani Hotel

  • Genre
    • Horror, Suspense, Ghost Stories
  • Plot Summary
    • A collection of ghost stories and monster tales, centered around the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
  • Character Empathy
    • I loved the variety of the viewpoint characters. Some were cynical and detached, some curious and naive, some lonely or depressed, some heartless, some too compassionate for their own good. Depending on whose eyes you are looking for, you might more or less insight into the other characters. However, even with the most jaded and unobservant characters, the author gives you glimpses of the facets they might be missing, all without violating the point of view. It’s fantastic and brilliant. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Creepy, but also oddly charming. I’ve always thought that horror is most effective when paired with something loved or lovable; if you don’t love something, how are you going to get attached, and so why should you be afraid? Here, the love most often comes from the sense of place. You can tell that the author loves Vietnam (her mother was a refugee from the war, and Violet Kupersmith later returned to study there). She draws you into even the dingiest alleys and most polluted landscapes, and makes you long to protect it from the monsters that are about to break out onto it.
    • She’s also an absolute master of suspense. She knows that less is sometimes more, and always keeps you guessing about what she’s going to show you, and what she’ll leave to your imagination.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • A creepy water woman who could probably eat Odysseus’ sirens for breakfast.
    • The first story is dialog only. I’m kind of a sucker for stories that take those kinds of gimmicks and make them work naturally. She definitely pulled it off.
    • A cranky old truck driver’s story about the time he transported a shark… and it’s not even the main ghost story, just beautifully weird set dressing.
    • A sweet old man who happens to spend part of his life as a giant snake. That’s shiny to me, because I like both sweet old men and cool snakes.
  • Content Warnings
    • Creepy bodies, monsters, a pinch of body horror… the usual fare for this genre.
    • There is one story, Skin and Bones, that might be triggering for people with eating disorders. Still read the book, just skip that one.
  • Quotes
    • “Con, if you were listening you would have learned almost everything you need to know about your history. The first rule of the country we come from is that it always gives you what you ask for, but never exactly what you want.
    • “Thuy didn’t mind that she and her grandmother couldn’t speak to each other. In fact, she rather liked it, and found that their mutual lack of language skills freed them from the banalities of conversation.”
    • “They had discovered that excitement is really just smog and noise and never seeing the stars, and trash piled up in the streets. They would ride with their heads out the window, their faces softening as the city fell away and the world turned flat and emerald-colored again; they were waiting for the moment when we crossed into their province, when they would smack the dashboard and cry out, “Here! Here!”
    • “Sometimes kids will sit on the lower branches and try to fish, but everyone knows that there’s nothing to catch in Hoan Kiem but empty Coca-Cola cans and used heroin needles. Legend says that centuries ago, a giant turtle lived at the bottom of the lake, and it once gave a magic sword to a general to help him defeat the Chinese invaders. I’m supposed to tell the story to all the tourists who stay at the Frangi.”

The Suffering, by Rin Chupeco

the-suffering

  • Genre
    • Horror, Supernatural Horror, Ghost Story
  • Plot summary
    • In this sequel to The Girl From the Well, Tark and Okiku learn that the miko who helped them before has gone missing in an infamous haunted forest. They journey back to Japan to help her, and along the way discover a curse that tests even Okiku’s strength. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • High once again. I noted in my review of the first book in this series that Okiku managed to be simultaneously terrifying and lovable, which is a hard combination to pull off. So it should be no surprise that the same characters I loved then continue to make this series great. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s a perfect homage to Japanese horror. Expect nightmares.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • One of those rare sequels that actually improves on the foundation built by the original
    • Opens with a haunted doll chase scene scarier than what most horror writers come up with for their endings. Goes on to top it easily
    • Cool use of Japanese elemental magic
    • More creepy monsters than your amygdala will know what to do with
  • Content Warnings
    • Did I mention this is a wee bit scary?
  • Quotes
    • “The air changes. Then that invisible spider crawls up my spine, tickling the hairs behind my neck.

      I have come to know this spider these last couple of years. It whispers there’s something else in the room, breathing with you, watching you, grinning at you.

      I hate that damn spider.”

Book Review: The Devourers by Indra Das

the-devourers

What it’s about: A professor meets a strange man who claims to be half werewolf, and learns the terrible story of his family.

Praise: Full disclosure – I’m a sucker for werewolves. They are by far my favorite of the classic monsters. Unfortunately, I don’t think the average movie or book uses them well. Werewolves don’t just scare. They explore nature, civilization, shifting identities and humanity itself. Unfortunately, ninety percent of werewolf stories feel more like the author wrote a vampire story, decided it wasn’t original enough, then hastily changed it. Still, when an author tries to do something properly werewolfy, the result is some of the best stories horror has to offer.

This book firmly belongs in that latter category. It makes you equal parts terrified, fascinated and in love with its subject. It is philosophical, but not the measured philosophy of lecture halls. It’s the trembling, awestruck philosophy of the mad hermit in the woods. It is gory, but not the sickening splatter of modern slasher. It’s the strangely elegant gore of Gothic horror.

On a less pretentious note, I loved the plot and the characters. The viewpoint characters all had beautifully distinct voices. It drives me mad when a story shifts between multiple first person POVs and I lose track of who is talking. I never had that problem with this book.

Also, on one more personal note, there are multiple non-stereotypical queer characters. I can’t say any more without spoilers, but I was happy and I think other LGBTQ readers will be too.

Criticism: For the first few chapters, when I wasn’t sure where this was going, it was a little slow. It was well worth pushing through, though. Once things came together, I didn’t want to put it down.

Also, content warning, this books contains violence, anthropophagy (I feel wrong calling it cannibalism given how the shapeshifters insist they aren’t human) and a rape scene. Even the latter, though, avoids the common pitfalls. In a book full of sexual imagery, it’s one of the few scenes devoid of eroticism. There’s no “well, it wasn’t really proper rape because….” Instead, the book insists that, despite how the attacker frames it, it was rape, because he did not give the victim the opportunity to consent. The victim is actually characterized as an interesting and sympathetic human being, not just a tool of the story. The scene is necessary to the plot, not just there to add drama or titillation. All other writers, take note.

Recommended? If intense, brutal and beautiful is up your alley, then yes, very much recommended.

Review: The Girl From the Well, by Rin Chupeco

So, remember that Halloween scary novel thing I was doing? Where all the authors were women from this awesome list? Yeah, this is one I didn’t quite get to post back in October. I always said this was a possibly November too project, so there you go. Ass covered. 

the-girl-from-the-well

What it’s about: A vengeful ghost meets a boy afflicted with a strange curse, and the consequences might doom or redeem them both.

Praise: This is the best book.

Full points for atmosphere, on every page. The descriptions of the ghost vengeance scenes were grotesquely vivid, in the best style of J-horror. But one of my principles of horror is that pure creepiness cannot be sustained for long. Rin Chupeco varies the tones of each scene; horrifying, creepy, tense, and a breath of heartwarming that gradually builds to ominous.

As I read, I had no idea where the plot was going, and I loved that. It’s been a long time since a horror story took me lead me somewhere blind; the formulaic aspects of horror don’t bother me, so long as they are well used, but it is fun to have a genuine surprise every now and then.

I loved every character, and the developing relationships between them. And most of all, I loved Okiku’s perspective. I love a truly inhuman point of view. Okiku hasn’t been a human for several centuries. She can tap into human’s minds the way most people peek into boxes, but she doesn’t think of people by their names. Mostly she walks on ceilings. She incessantly counts things. It made her eerie and alien, but she was still somehow relatable.

Criticism: None. Did you not hear me when I said this was the best book?

Recommended? Stop everything and read it.

Review: Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake

Note: This October (and probably November) I’m reviewing scary novels from Book Riot’s list of Horror YA from Women Authors. For more Halloween reading suggestions, click the link!

anna-dressed-in-blood

What it’s about: Teenage ghost hunters, magical bloodlines that give the protagonists both special powers and terrible burdens, and a love interest who also happens to be a deadly monster. You know, the usual stuff you find on the YA shelves.

Praise: This story opens with an inner monologue from a teenage ghost hunter on the prowl, and could easily have come across as a formulaic Supernatural copy. Instead, Cas quickly came to feel like a real person to me. The same thing happened with all the characters. It wasn’t really unique in any way that I can quantify, at least not without spoilers, but it felt like it’s own thing.

The pacing was also stellar. I worried at the beginning of this that there wasn’t enough story to flesh out a whole novel, and that I had pages of filler ahead of me. But man, the story wasn’t going the direction I expected at all. It was exciting.

The supporting cast was fantastic, especially Anna herself. It’s hard to make the same person genuinely terrifying and deeply sympathetic. With Anna, Kendare Blake completely succeeded. She also makes her cast click together perfectly naturally. I’ve read so many books where the author says, “this character and that character will become best friends, take my word for it,” but it never really feels organic. I just know the characters wouldn’t have become friends if the author hadn’t decided to make it so.

Plus, there’s a mother/son relationship that actually feels like, well, a mother/son relationship. Why is that so hard? Why are most parents of protagonists either absent, evil, stereotypes or dead? All you need for realism is love and intimate understanding that doesn’t preclude mistakes and miscommunication, plus a tension between their mutual desire for the son’s independence and mutual desire for anything but.

Okay, I can see why not everybody goes for that. Anyway, in this book there is all of that and it works so well.

Criticism: Narratively, I can’t think of a single thing to complain about. This book was completely engaging. On a social justice note, though, it did bother me that a scary ghost is literally the only POC in the entire book. Any of the protagonists could have been POC with no significant changes, or the ghost could simply have been white as well. Again, still enjoyed the book, and it’s the only problem I can think of, but it would have been so easy to avoid.

Recommended? Oh good lord yes

Review: What Waits in the Woods, by Kieran Scott

Note: This October (and probably November) I’m reviewing scary novels from Book Riot’s list of Horror YA from Women Authors. For more Halloween reading suggestions, click the link!

what-waits-in-the-woods

What it’s about: Callie Velasquez goes on a camping trip with her boyfriend and two best friends. Things go terribly wrong.

Praise: This book is fairly predictable, but for about the first two-thirds, that was part of its charm. It was like a campfire story. There’s a weird comfort to the mundane familiarity of its chill. It knew what kind of a story it was, and it embraced it.

Criticism: Yeah, we got here fast. There was almost a lot more in the praise section. I nearly said it had great characters, a good build of suspense, and above all that it valued the friendships of the three female characters over teen boyfriend drama. This was just going to be a bit about how the prose isn’t anything special and it’s highly formulaic, but if you like that kind of thing it’s still worthwhile.

Then the last few chapters ruined everything.

With one reveal, it ruined the best character, punctured the suspense and loudly announced, “nevermind, boyfriends are the most important things EV-AR!” Plus it served up a steaming pile of ableism; the sort that goes, “mental health problems, evil, basically the same thing amirite?” It’s not subtle about that either. Several pages in a row just hammer home that this character would be fine and nice but they went off their meds so insta-evil. Then there’s this awkward sentence where the main character informs us that she’s had friends who have anxiety and depression, but clearly this isn’t that sort of mental illness. It’s the other mental illness. The one where you randomly turn evil.

Also, the shocking reveal wasn’t that shocking. See, there was only one character I wasn’t given reason to suspect. Never do that, guys. Seriously, never do that. You want three suspicion-free characters, minimum. If you just have one, every genre savvy reader is going to go, “huh, I wonder when that totally innocent character will crack and reveal they were behind it all.”

Honestly, I was hoping this story would let the mysterious stranger be the scary one. It should always be the one you don’t suspect, and the last person I would have suspected was the guy who was suspicious all along.

Recommended? Sigh. Not really.

Review: Fiendish, by Brenna Yovanoff

Note: This October (and probably November) I’m reviewing scary novels from Book Riot’s list of Horror YA from Women Authors. For more Halloween reading suggestions, click the link!

fiendish

 

What it’s about: Clementine DeVore wakes from a magical sleep, tangled in roots in the cellar of her burned out house. She emerges to find a town where normal folk live alongside a minority with strange powers. Sometimes the “crooked folk” are tolerated, sometimes not. Clementine vanished at a time of trouble. Her return may be a harbinger of dangerous days ahead.

Praise: Overall this book is very well written. I especially loved the tone and ambiance. Everything is perfectly creepy and witchy. The magic system is well designed; a creative twist on the familiar elemental magic concept. It has enough consistent rules to create limits and suspense, but enough mysteries to feel otherworldly and powerful. That’s not an easy balance to hit.

One of the most interesting parts of the whole book is that, after Clementine’s slumber, she no longer familiar with her own self. Her own reactions to events often surprise her. That was absolutely fascinating. The side characters were well written as well.

Criticism: I think it should have been longer. When I made that comment about Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods, I meant that it was perfect and I could not make any complaints, beyond wishing it wasn’t read so quickly. I mean something a little different here.

There was a lot to discover about the world of this book. I didn’t just want to skim the basics and get on to the plot. I wanted to be immersed in it. I also wasn’t sure whether the setting was somewhere I should love or hate. There was so much that was toxic about the citizens and their culture, but also glimpses of happier, peaceful times. Was this a good place that needed to be saved from itself, or were the pleasant moments just the honey in the trap? A great climax fell short of its potential because I kept wondering whether I should be afraid the town would be destroyed, or afraid it wouldn’t.

Also, as I said, I liked the characters, some of whom had far too little time. This book sticks strictly to Clementine’s POV. Often fewer perspectives make for a cleaner story, but I think this story was an exception. There were interesting people who I wanted to know more about, and whose perspective on events would have been informative. And in general, there were characters who I liked and wanted to see more of. (Rae! Isola! Davenport!)

Recommended? Those caveats aside, I still think it’s a good sign when the worst thing you can say about a book is that you wanted more of it. So yes, definitely recommended.

Review: Slice of Cherry, by Dia Reeves

Note: This October (and probably November) I’m reviewing scary novels from Book Riot’s list of Horror YA from Women Authors. For more Halloween reading suggestions, click the link!

slice-of-cherry

What it’s about: Fancy and Kit Cordelle grew up in, Portero, a strange town of monsters and magic portals, with a serial killer for a father. It’s no surprise they turned out with a bloodthirsty streak. Together they experience first love, the pain of growing up, and the challenge of getting away with murder.

Praise: First of all, both Portero and the plot are delightfully original. The tone is I think best described as Gothic Lolita with a Southern twist. I loved that, because I’m a macabre little bastard.

I also enjoyed Dia Reeves’ prose style. It hits a perfect balance of vivid and descriptive, but not too flowery. She has a knack for metaphors and similes. It’s hard to find comparisons that are original, but conjure up an immediate picture. She manages it over and over again.

Criticism: For me, characters are key to my enjoyment of a book, and these protagonists weren’t… well, they weren’t any of the things I would have liked them to be. I love characters who struggle against their inner demons. I love dark and twisted characters who utterly lack the moral impulses we all take for granted. Kit and Fancy are heartless sociopaths about eighty percent of the time, but the other twenty don’t reveal a surprising soft side, or intriguing character arc. They feel more like the author forgot her characters are devoid of empathy.

Fancy, the narrator, is particularly inconsistent. Her lack of empathy isn’t the only trait the author forgets. In one scene, Fancy speaks to someone who is not her mother or sister. Every other character is shocked, because Fancy never speaks.

 

I didn’t know that. In no other scene did she come across as abnormally quiet. Rather, she seemed like a normal shy girl who likes letting her talkative sister dominate the conversation.

And in several more scenes, she breaks her habitual silence. And everyone comments, immediately reminding me that she has just violated a character trait for the second, third, fourth time. In most of these scenes, the events don’t feel like character development, because I wasn’t even clear on why Fancy doesn’t normally talk to people. Shyness? Selective mutism? Misanthropy?

An example that illustrates both inconsistencies; Fancy is rescued from a Portero monster by a Mortmaine, which I guess is a kind of police officer? But for monsters? They wear green, and that’s about the extent of my knowledge. Fancy thanks them. Why? Fancy doesn’t talk to people, Fancy doesn’t like people, and Fancy is not polite. Yet the explanation we are given is that saying nothing makes her feel rude Why does she care? It isn’t necessary to the plot. In fact, it never comes up again, and I only remember it because it struck me as a perfect example of the kind of inconsistent characterization that made Fancy feel lifeless to me.

Or, perhaps not lifeless. For those of you who write yourself, you know when you have a plan for a story but the character in your head comes to life and rebels? It feels like Dia Reeves wanted Fancy to be one thing, and Fancy herself wanted to be someone else. As a reader I didn’t know what to want for her because I couldn’t tell which version was the real one.

I also thought Portero, a fascinating concept, was a bit wasted in this story. It is rife with monsters, yet monsters never impact the plot in a serious way. Cultural differences between Portero and the rest of the world are mentioned, but the only one that ever comes up more than once is that Portero citizens, or Porterenes, always wear black. This is frustrating, because so many more interesting elements are raised then ignore. For example; every Porterene carries a silver key, given to them at birth by their immortal mayor. Are they used for anything? Nope. Are there other immortals? Apparently not. How does the outside world deal with the existence of an immortal? How does this affect elections, term limits, legislation? I dunno.

There’s something wonderful about a story with details that exist simply to flesh out the world, without being used in the plot. But that can be taken too far. My interest kept being piqued and then ignored, which left me with a nebulous grumpiness. Not only are Chekhov’s guns left unfired, but even superficial details are established and abandoned at random. In one scene, it’s mentioned that severed heads are so common children play with them in the street. But severed heads and the corpses they come from are never described again. Nor are street cleaners sweeping up stray fingers or juvenile delinquents cleaning up blood splatter as community service, or anything else that would make this feel like a society where gore is the norm.

In fact, many scenes would play better if this story took place in an ordinary town. They use magic to dispose of the evidence of their crimes. When someone witnesses that magic, Kit reassures Fancy that they won’t tell, because they know nobody would believe them. That would work in any town, except one with an immortal mayor, daily monster attacks and a police force that actually specializes in magic.

Also, a content warning; childhood sexual abuse is mentioned for a few side characters. It isn’t described in detail, but this is a story that otherwise doesn’t take other traumas very seriously. It isn’t exactly a comedy, but it is irreverently macabre and gets away with it by being over the top and surrealistic. To have that tone, and then bring up a painfully serious real-world trauma? It bothered me a bit.

Recommended? I thought this story had incredible potential, and if this sounds like a book you want to read even with the caveats I mentioned, go for it. Personally, though, the issues ruined it for me. It wasn’t a bad book at all. Just one where I was constantly distracted by the small changes that would have made it better. It was okay in a way that was almost great and was therefore awful, if that makes sense.

Review: Through the Woods, by Emily Carroll

Up until now, my reviews have mostly been focused less on making a recommendation, more on analyzing a story; making them into case studies for life or writing or my never ending search to understand how exactly themes work. But I’ve been wanting to change that and add in some quick fire reviews.

I also came across this awesome list of horror YA, all written by women, on Book Riot. I immediately wanted to read them all and also thought it would make a great October project. So through October and November, I’ll be challenging myself to read as many as I can, and reviewing them when I’m done. This should hopefully keep my posts up through NaNoWriMo as well.

Here I go!

through-the-woods

What it’s about: A graphic novel, featuring ghosts and monsters in six bite sized spooky fairy tales.

Praise: This is my favorite kind of scary. It relies on suspense and atmosphere, waiting for the tension to rise then following through with catastrophe fulfills on its promises. Embedded in the horror is a childlike curiosity and wonder. This book made me feel like a baby mouse in his nest, watching a panther stalk a doe in the moonlight.

The art is agonizingly beautiful. I love the way she uses color. Pages are soaked in shadows and etched with light, with blues, reds and greens added with strategic precision. She proves that comics are not a cheap storytelling form, where events are pictured instead of described. Her panels also show emotions, and foreshadowing, and subtle motifs that you can easily miss on the first read.

All the more reason to buy it and read it again.

Criticism: There are only six stories. That number should be larger.

Recommended? Indubitably