Heart-Shaped Box – Joe Hill

Generally speaking, horror is not really my jam. I prefer my ghost stories poignant and ethereal, usually, and – notwithstanding the odd dystopian fiction or political satire – I tend to gravitate more towards happy and fanciful rather than scary and dark. Especially when we’re talking about books – the last couple of horror-type novels I’ve read have just not hit home at all; The Wasp Factory and The Loney, as acclaimed as they both are, didn’t strike a chord with me at all, and I was left thinking that perhaps horror genre literature just isn’t for me.

So, when someone recommended Heart-Shaped Box by (successful in his own right) son of Stephen King, I have to confess it slipped to the bottom of the to-read list a few times. I’m making a conscious effort this year to take recommendations (plus, with a target of 250 new books read in 2017, I kinda need recommendations!) so I didn’t ignore it entirely, but I was ready to encounter either gratuitousness or yet another narrative that I simply didn’t get.

I do so love being proved wrong by a good book!

I’ll elaborate. The thing I tend to not enjoy about horror in films is the gratuitous nature. Gore by the bucket load, the evillest evil the human mind can think of, things that go bang or boo and can’t be beaten, ever, and not a sliver of light or hope anywhere… simply for the sake of it. The point is to scare, to unsettle, or to gross out… not as part of the story, but just for the sake of scaring, unsettling, and grossing out. They leave me with a nasty taste in my mouth and a distinct feeling of being cheated out of a story (complete tangent, here, but this is why I hate the film of A Woman in Black so much, because they took an amaaaaazing play with a brilliant story and an incredibly clever use of multiple roles, minimal props and one re-usable set and turned it into a story-less scare-fest that made me want to sleep with the light on).

Against my expectations, then, I actually loved Heart-Shaped Box. It’s definitely horror… it’s not a nice ghost story about love lasting through death, or a kooky fantasy novel where creatures of dark are just as complex a mixture of good and evil as people – it’s proper horror, with a malevolent ghost and some thoroughly unlikeable living people. The set up is this: the main character, an ageing metal/rock star who collects the macabre (a serial killer’s letters, an actual hangman’s noose, etc blah blah) buys a ‘ghost’ – the ghost is apparently attached to a suit belonging to the dead man, and said suit duly arrives, folded neatly in a black heart-shaped box. As you can guess, dude gets a little more than he’d bargained for, and scary hijinks ensue.

What kept me turning the pages, though (sometimes reading through my fingers, I’ll confess) was the story. There was one! A good one! The characters are complex and three dimensional, and they grow during the story. People who you think are good turn out to be not so much, and people who you think are pretty despicable turn out to be not so bad, actually, and people who you think are awful turn out to be so much worse. The theme of the cycles of abuse becomes apparent a few chapters in, and Hill writes a distinct and clever metaphor around this. I don’t want to say much more, to avoid spoilers, but the idea that the evil that living humans sometimes work on other living humans can echo through the years is a heartbreaking and powerful one. I won’t give away the ending, either, but I will say I wasn’t left with that horrible sourness I get from the horror I was moaning about above.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book, and I’m looking forward now to reading more of Hill’s work.

20170530_145541

 

Monument 14 – Emmy Laybourne

I can’t actually remember where I got hold of this. I think I won it in a game of literary bingo? If not, then it was the Book Fairy (but I don’t think it was her…?).

Anyway, for a mystery book on my TBR pile, I quite enjoyed this! It’s YA fiction, and the first part of a series – set in a dystopian not-too-distant future, everything is pretty hunky dory until a catastrophic collection of natural disasters hit, and the not-so-natural consequences that come with it (e.g. chemical leaks, looting etc). Fourteen kids are trapped/hiding out in a shopping mall, trying to ride out the (literal and figurative) storm – fun for the first few hours, and then the reality of the situation hits home. Unusually for dystopian future novels, we actually join the story before the world-changing disaster hits, and follow the characters as everything they know changes, making this a combination disaster novel and dystopian future novel.

It’s an interesting change – usually in this type of genre fiction, something has gone catastrophically wrong with the world, but it happened a few decades to a few hundred years before the story is set, meaning our characters never remember the world before. It changes the feeling of what you’re reading; instead of battling the status quo to try and find a better way (i.e. The Hunger Games, Throne of Glass, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Breathe, the Shadowhunters books… I could go on), our protagonists are fighting to return to the status quo, to the happy, stable life they remember – at least, in this first of the series they are.

Ultimately, this isn’t the best example of the genre I’ve come across, but it was very easy to read and kept me turning the pages. I’ll almost certainly lookout the subsequent books in the series at some point.

20170530_145516

Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy – Laini Taylor

Second (and third, and fourth) in the treasure trove gifted from the Book Fairy was Daughter of Smoke and Bone (and Days of Blood and Starlight and Dreams of Gods and Monsters) by Laini Taylor. Before I get into what I thought, let’s just run through a quick checklist, here…

√ YA trilogy
√ Fantasy trilogy
Completed fantasy YA trilogy (yeah, I’m looking at you, Patrick Rothfuss)
√ Can’t tell who the good guys are or who is a monster
√ Epic winding subplots which all tie together at the last minute
√ Angels and demons

Do I even need to tell you what I thought of it??

The answer is obvious to anyone who knows my reading habits even a little, but I’m gonna anyway. Because it’s my blog and I love gushing about books I’ve loved.

Yeah, this series is all of my favourite things. Where Julie Andrews waxes lyrical about brown paper packages etc etc, I love magic, and fairytale themes, and re-imaginings of traditional well-known characters or archetypes. I love made-up names, and a badass female lead or two – especially when one of them is a teenager who inexplicably has to save the world – and I love let’s-not-make-a-big-deal-of-this-because-let’s-face-it-this-shizz-should-be-normal-by-now diversity in representation. I particularly love clever writing in which it turns out throwaway lines or tertiary supporting characters are actually super important to the endgame so you have to flip back a few pages or chapters or… books… to remind fully appreciate how well those clues were dropped in there back when you had no idea how important they were.

Ok, maybe all that doesn’t scan quite as well to a pretty tune, but you get the idea.

A brief opening summary, then: Karou, a seventeen year old art student, lives a pretty successful double life. On one hand, she’s a normal student in an art college in Prague, but on the other she dips in and out of magic doors to run errands for the monster/creature/whatever this thing is who raised her. And as simple and sustainably stress-free as this life sounds, it’s about to get worse…

This is just a really great example of the sub-genre, guys. If you enjoy the Throne of Glass books, or Shadowhunters (the books, not the truly awful Netflix series), and if you liked the Patrick Rothfuss books but are also cool with something a little more YA-ey (not a word, but whevs) then you will love this trilogy too.

Letters to the Lost – Brigid Kemmerer

I must have been a very very good girl at some point – maybe in a previous life – to have a friend like The Book Fairy. Last time we caught up, she gave me an absolutely ginormous pile of books; I swear I don’t know what I did to deserve them!

Anyway, thank you very very much, Book Fairy – this was the first of the ginormous pile that I read… and it is excellent.

I inhaled this in one day. Well, more accurately, I started it on my commute in to work, worked a full 8.5 hour day (with an hour for lunch) and had finished it before the train home reached my station. It’s a YA novel, so very readable, but more to the point it was SO GOOD that I didn’t want to put it down! I ate my lunch in the park, on a bench, eating my pasta with one hand, eyes glued to the rapidly turning pages. I even missed my mouth a couple times I was concentrating so hard.

Yeah… enjoy that mental image!

Letters to the Lost is – somewhat unsurprisingly – about loss. It’s about bereavement, guilt, and grief, and … I promise I will blog about a light and fluffy book soon! Honestly, though, the subject matter was treated so well; both protagonists have suffered losses and (although no loss is ever straightforward) they’re both pretty complex losses. The narrative follows them as they find each other through letters, and learn about each other’s grief while dealing with their own. It’s a genuinely beautiful story, with very faint Cyrano de Bergerac echoes, and themes of mental health, friendship, healthy vs. unhealthy relationships, and the importance of communication alongside the bigger themes of love and loss. One of my favourite scenes involves a teacher using post-its to communicate with the male protagonist – because she sees that talking is sometimes too much for him, so she tries things until they figure out a way to effectively communicate when things are reaching fever pitch. I found that an incredibly touching moment – and pretty representative, actually, of the book as a whole.

I’ll definitely be reading this again.

20170517_200138

Bellman & Black – Diane Setterfield

Continuing with my creepy/mystical theme from my last post, my next read was much more gentle. Quietly poignant rather than overtly creepy (although it definitely has its moments!), I chose Bellman & Black because I loved The Thirteenth Tale so much – if you haven’t read that one, do! I think the latter just slightly has the edge, if we’re making comparisons… but Bellman & Black has the same dark beauty and cleverness, making it a very worthwhile way to spend a tube journey or three.

The narrative follows William Bellman, from a few days after his tenth birthday (the day he kills a rook with his catapult), all the way through his life and loves. The subtitle reads ‘A Ghost Story‘, but – not wanting to give too much away – it both is and isn’t. Don’t go in expecting a tell-it-around-the-campfire-with-a-torch-under-your-chin kind of yarn, or a horrific murder with lots of gory details… but do expect the bittersweet pangs characteristic of (in my opinion) the best kind of ghost stories.

That, and a heck of a lot of bird imagery!

Seriously, birds – rooks in particular – feature heavily, lending the whole thing a kind of Poe-esque feel. As a ten year old, William carefully aims his lovingly maintained catapult and fires – but at the same time, the death of the bird is not entirely purposeful either. He never expected to hit it. This ambiguity – and the resulting metaphor(s?) – carry the thread through the whole narrative in a pleasing and coherent way.

Well worth a read if (like me) you love a good ghost story.

20170517_200029
LOL at the large print label… it was the only copy the library had!

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

Even before I found out that Gaiman’s American Gods was being adapted for the small screen, I had been trying to get hold of a copy from my local library for aaaaages. Because, y’know… Gaiman!

However, I was out of luck until after I’d seen the first episode(which was completely awesome, btw…) when a friend agreed to lend me their copy. I reluctantly gave it back a few days later, having annihilated it in the meantime. I didn’t want to return it; I am definitely going to have to get my own copy!

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Neil Gaiman fan, and in my humble opinion, this is quite possibly the best thing he’s written. It’s intelligent and complex, yet very readable and not too dense. It’s creepy and enigmatic, yet innately human. There’s magic and conflict and the mundane clashes with the majestic and its all woven together with just the most beautiful language!

I’m actually not even going to attempt to summarise the plot – there’s too much in there and I wouldn’t do it justice – but suffice it to say that American Gods somehow manages to be a critical portrait of America (and humanity at large) while also being something of a love letter. I loved it. Read it.

20170514_165013

The Muse – Jessie Burton

This was an impulse pick-up from the library – having read and adored Burton’s The Miniaturist a couple years ago, it was a bit of a no-brainer to give her latest a try.

The Muse is set between 1967 and 1936. There’s art and a mystery surrounding a valuable and rare painting; there’s racism and culture shock (one of the main characters is from Trinidad, and trying to build a life for herself in 1967 London); there’s love and scandal and truth and secrets and war and rebellion and myth and legend and it’s all wrapped up in beautiful prose and just really well crafted sentences.

Highly recommended.

20170508_164449

Death Note – Tsugumi Obha & Takeshi Obata

Regular readers may remember that sometime last year I embraced full nerd-dom (who was I kidding, anyway?!) and started to get into graphic novels. Until recently, I’d stuck with familiar territory, mostly focusing on the works of Neil Gaiman, or stories which were already familiar from movies (like Scott Pilgrim and Watchmen), but the recent loan of some books by a friend who’s even nerdier than I am has introduced me to the world of manga.

Death Note is the first manga series I’m reading, and the first thing to say is that it really does take a little while to get the hang of it. Like a lot of translated Japanese comics, the Death Note books are written backwards – you read from right to left through the pages, and from top-right to bottom-left through the panels. For a speed-reader like me, it was really tricky to get my eyes to stop jumping to the top-left corner and making the whole thing very confusing!

Once I got the hang of it, though, I’m really enjoying the story. The art is great – on the slightly more realistic side of the Japanese manga style (very few of those big sparkling eyes and cutesy touches more common in anime, for example) and with very cool gothic-dark touches in keeping with the narrative, which is the kind of creepy-cool, magic realism that I love.

The story starts when Light Yagami, a fifteen-year-old boy genius, finds a notebook on the ground outside his school. Turns out, the notebook was dropped by a Shinigami – a death god – who was bored and looking to cause some chaos in the human world. As the name suggests, when someone’s name is written in the Death Note (as the notebook is called), that someone dies… and the Shinigami’s chaos ensues!

I don’t want to give too much away, so that’s all I’m saying about the plot. It’s a really interesting story though; heavily playing on the themes of vigilantism and justice found in many comic book stories, and exploring good/evil and the grey areas in between in a really fascinating story. Light is the protagonist, definitely – but he’s also definitely something of an anti-hero. His nemesis, L, is the antagonist – but is he the bad guy, or not? I’m only on book two, but I haven’t actually worked it out yet.

If you’ve never read manga before and it all looks a bit too confusing and intimidating (or just not interesting), then let me reassure you. That’s absolutely how I felt until recently, but the Death Note books – once you get the hang of the backwards-reading thing – are accessible, engaging, and really fun stories.

20170508_164640

Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of Thirteen Reasons Why. It’s been adapted into a hugely popular Netflix series, and that is how I came across the story first. My sister recommended it to me, and then had to put up with me blowing up her WhatsApp while I binged it… and then was kind enough to loan me the original book. Thanks sis!

Content warning: Suicide/bullying/violence

Continue reading