Friday, January 23, 2015

The Vanishing--5 stars

I get Amazon gift cards from my family a lot. They know it's the way to my heart. Diamonds? I do like those. Gargoyle bookends? Yes, please. But an Amazon gift card elicits squeals of delight. There's something about having money specifically dedicated to the books my heart desires that fills me with happiness. So in perusing Amazon to choose my purchases, I often follow a rabbit's warren of "other customers who bought this item bought--" or "other titles you may enjoy." I can spend hours at this. Hours, people. And one of those sojourns is how I came across The Vanishing by Wendy Webb. The novel instantly appealed to me. The synopsis reminded me of Barbara Michaels or Barbara Erskine--both authors who's books I've read and re-read. I'm a sucker for a good Gothic. Plus, the book had ghosts, a horror author (wait, I'm a horror author), and an interesting setting. Sold! Trying Wendy's work was one of my best decisions ever.

You can read about Wendy Webb over on The Author Spot where she was kind enough to let me interview her. Now on to my review of The Vanishing.

Synopsis: Recently widowed and rendered penniless by her Ponzi-scheming husband, Julia Bishop is eager to start anew. So when a stranger appears on her doorstep with a job offer, she finds herself accepting the mysterious yet unique position: caretaker to his mother, Amaris Sinclair, the famous and rather eccentric horror novelist whom Julia has always admired . . . and who the world believes is dead.

When she arrives at the Sinclairs' enormous estate on Lake Superior, Julia begins to suspect that there may be sinister undercurrents to her "too-good-to-be-true" position. As Julia delves into the reasons of why Amaris chose to abandon her successful writing career and withdraw from the public eye, her search leads to unsettling connections to her own family tree, making her wonder why she really was invited to Havenwood in the first place, and what monstrous secrets are still held prisoner within its walls.

The story grabbed me from the very beginning. Julia's life is in ruins, she's bankrupt, people she considered friends now hate her, and her husband--the one person who could tell everyone she wasn't in on his scheme--is dead. So when Adrian Sinclair shows up on her doorstep and makes his offer, what choice does she have? And once we arrive at Havenwood, the story really gets going: ghosts, a hint of madness, a mystery, and a hunky Scottish caretaker.

The narrative is simple and direct, the story well paced, and the characters well drawn and sympathetic. The atmosphere is delightfully eerie and will have you just as uneasy as our heroine, Julia. The mystery is involved enough to not have you guessing the ending right away, in fact it took me quite a while, while the hint of romance is just enough and doesn't overpower the story line. 

I liked the book so much, I immediately ordered Mrs. Webb's other two novels: The Tale of Halcyon Crane, and The Fate of Mercy Alban. I loved them as well, but I'm partial to The Vanishing. I highly recommend the book to anyone who enjoys Gothic tales, especially those put in a more modern setting. Fans of spooky tales, who like it a little lighter than the horror genre's usual offerings will enjoy this one as well. Five stars from me.

Happy Reading,


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Bird Box: 7 out of 10 stars

I'd seen a friend on Facebook recommend Bird Box. I'd also read another friend's scathing review of it. And yet, for all the critiquing the review did, he still insisted he liked the book. So when I was leaving the library and just happened to see it on the shelf, I grabbed it. I like to decide for myself and occasionally a bad review actually prompts me to read a book. What can I say? I'm contrary like that.

It's not a long book and the prose is sparse, which can be a downside or an upside depending on how you like your books, so it only took me a few nights to finish. I'm not a big fan of sparse prose, but it depends on how it's done as to whether it's a reading turn off or not. For me, the author handled it well and it suited the story line so it wasn't a detriment. Sometimes, I like books that go quickly.

Here's the synopsis: Written with the narrative tension of The Road and the exquisite terror of classic Stephen King, Bird Box is a propulsive, edge-of-your-seat horror thriller, set in an apocalyptic near-future world—a masterpiece of suspense from the brilliantly imaginative Josh Malerman.

Something is out there . . .

Something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from.

Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remain, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, she has dreamed of fleeing to a place where they might be safe. Now, that the boy and girl are four, it is time to go. But the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat—blindfolded—with nothing to rely on but her wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. And something is following them. But is it man, animal, or monster?

Engulfed in darkness, surrounded by sounds both familiar and frightening, Malorie embarks on a harrowing odyssey—a trip that takes her into an unseen world and back into the past, to the companions who once saved her. Under the guidance of the stalwart Tom, a motley group of strangers banded together against the unseen terror, creating order from the chaos. But when supplies ran low, they were forced to venture outside—and confront the ultimate question: in a world gone mad, who can really be trusted?

Interweaving past and present, Josh Malerman’s breathtaking debut is a horrific and gripping snapshot of a world unraveled that will have you racing to the final page.

I'll tell you this: the premise is truly original and that is a hard thing to do in this day and age. Josh Malerman proves not every idea has been written. And it's plausible, which is even better. But, I think where the novel fell down for me was the sense of urgency. I never felt like the threat was imminent or physical. As long as Malorie did what she knew she had to do, the bad things wouldn't harm her. Which makes no sense if you haven't read the book, but those who have will get it.

The characterization was not well developed. You had a sense of who each person was, but not a whole picture. Usually for me this would be a problem, but I think it worked ok for this novel. Because of the brevity of the novel and the amount of ground it covered, I don't think you could have done a better job of characterization without bringing in another 500 pages. And while I might have enjoyed that novel too, it wouldn't have been in keeping with this author's style. So while I'm usually all about characterization, in this case the lack worked.

All in all, I did find it hard to sympathize with the main character. I understand why she was the way she was and why she treated the children the way she did. Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures. And I did sympathize with the children because they're children. 

I did like the flashbacks. Every other chapter alternates between the present Malory is living with the children and the past where the story is set up and the threat explained. I'm a huge fan of the flashback though, and alternating really helped moved the story along. 

I kept reading because I wanted to find out if they made it, and if making it was even a good thing. I think the ending could have had a little more fleshing out. I'm not sure I trusted everyone where Malory ends up and it would have been nice to have that settled when I left the characters. But maybe that was the author's point? In this new world, can you really trust anyone ever again? I don't know.

I'm recommending the book. If for no other reason than the original premise. But I think that a lot of people will be surprised to find themselves liking it. I know I was. It did remind me a bit, style wise, of Jennifer McMahon's Winter People, which I did not like as well as I did Bird Box. Again, I think it's the premise that holds you.

So if you like apocalyptic fiction, like original ideas, and don't mind sparse style, this is definitely the book for you. And if you don't, well it's a fast read, what have you got to lose?

Happy Reading,