The Coldest Girl in Coldtown – Holly Black

Thank goodness for Holly Black – she’s put the bite back into vampire fiction.coldest  If you’ve been playing the home game, you’ll know that Stephenie Meyer pretty much took fangs and sex out of the vampire equation with her hugely popular Twilight series.  I didn’t hate the first book, but it went downhill fast afterwards. I loved The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. The prose sparkles, but the vampires don’t, so it’s win-win for lovers of vampire fiction.

Tana woke lying in a bathtub.

It doesn’t take very long for Tana and the reader to realize that something just isn’t right. Tana had been attending a sundown party and had locked herself in the bathroom to avoid her ex boyfriend, Aidan. Exiting the bathroom the morning after, Tana is aware of the quiet.

She’d been to plenty [of sundown parties], and the mornings were always full of shouting and showers, boiling coffee and trying to hack together breakfast from a couple of eggs and scraps of toast.

What Tana finds instead, as she moves through the house which smells of spilled beer and “something metallic and charnel-sweet,” are the bodies of her classmates “their bodies pale and cold, their eyes staring like rows of dolls in a shop window.”  And we’re only on page five, people!

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown takes the best parts of standard vampire mythology and ups the ante. The vampires in this book are rock stars, revered and coveted.  Black builds a mythology that is believable. Patient zero in Black’s world is Caspar Morales, a vampire who decided that he wouldn’t kill his victims, he’d infect them instead. Essentially, you’re bitten by a vampire, you’re infected, or Cold.

If one of the people who’d gone Cold drank human blood, the infection mutated. It killed the host and then raised them back up again, Colder than before. Cold through and through, forever and ever.

Pretty soon, the government has no choice but to barricade the infected people (and the wannabes) in places called Coldtowns. People who suspect that they are infected must,  by law, turn themselves in. And once you’re in a Coldtown, there’s no getting out.

As Tana comes to terms with the fact that her friends are dead, she discovers that Aidan is, in fact, not. He’s been bungee corded to a bed and chained beside him is a vampire boy, a boy who “must have been handsome when he was alive and was handsome still, although made monstrous by his pallor and her awareness of what he was.”

This is Gavriel. He is everything a vampire should be: dangerous, cunning, tortured and impossible to resist. (Okay, maybe I am just a little bit fixated on my personal notion of a vampire here, but Gavriel ticks all the vampire ticky boxes for me. )

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is so good. Tana is smart and resourceful and brave. The book builds a world that is believable and terrifying. It is a world that just is. The book isn’t scary, but it is definitely a page-turner. The descriptions of vampirism are bloody and sensual (without being over-the-top, so there’s nothing sexually graphic).

I raced to the end, concerned for all the characters and their fates.  Should there be a sequel?  Black had this to say on her website:

Coldest Girl in Coldtown was written as a stand-alone. That said, I know what happens next, and maybe someday you will too. Right now, as with Curse Workers, I’m happy with where I left everyone. I’m sure they’ll be fine. Right?

I’m good with that.

Highly recommended.

Off the Shelf – CBC Radio

So I did my second book column on CBC Radio this morning.

Listen to it here.

Here’s what I prepared for the talk about scary books.

Literary historian J. A. Cuddon defines the horror story as “a piece of fiction which creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. Horror is usually supernatural, though it can be non-supernatural. Often the central menace of a work of horror fiction can be interpreted as a metaphor for the larger fears of a society.” One of the first horror novels was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, 1764 – probably not going to get too many young people reading that one today.

R.L. Stine is probably the best known writer of horror novels for the middle grader. He’s the author of all the Goosebumps books and then went on to write Fear Street, a series of over 150 titles for older teens. To date he’s sold over 400 million books, so I guess the proof is in the gloopy pudding.

Teenagers love to be scared. No one knows that better than Stephen King, who’s made a career out of scaring us. King said: “horror stories allow us to safely vent our “uncivilized emotions…lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath. In addition, for some young people, reading a scary story can be a rite of passage, a way of earning bragging rights: “That didn’t scare me!”

Heart-pounding, palms-sweating, doors locked, lights on – who doesn’t love a good scare? It’s like riding a rollercoaster, thrilling, scary, but ultimately safe. A really good book can creep you out way more than a movie – where the scary stuff is often in your face and you become desensitized. A good scary book can be way more unsettling.

So – in honour of Halloween, here’s a list of my favourite scary books.

I’m going to talk about some of the books in the genre geared for Young Adults – plus one.

First off – here’s a quick guide:

If you want to read a book about vampires – definitely check out Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Cold Town.

If you want to read a book about werewolves, check out NB writer Kathleen Peacock’s novel Hemlock.

If you want to read a book about zombies, I highly recommend Ilsa J Bick’s series, Ashes.

If you want to read a book about a ghost hunter, check out Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Now for a closer look at some of my recent scary reads.

Nevermore – Kelly Creagh

It sounds like your typical good girl, bad boy set up…but this book is awesome and super creepy. Isobel is a popular cheerleader who gets partnered up with Varen the goth kid (of course he’s a goth kid with a name like that!) to work on a project about Edgar Allan Poe. There’s your clue right there that things are going to take a seriously gothic turn and they do. I mean Poe’s the granddaddy of creepy and Creagh makes good use of his personal story. Fans of Poe will eat this book up, but even if you’re not a fan or know very much about him, you’ll get gooseflesh reading about the truly nightmarish world and Pinfeathers, the character who inhabits it. There’s a sequel, too, called Enshadowed.

Through the Woods – Emily Carroll

I just read this one last week. It’s a collection of short stories written by Canadian author and illustrator, Emily Carroll. I don’t know anything about art, but I can say that the art in this book is really striking, the colours are kind of menacing. Can you say that about a colour? Anyway – these are stories about dark places and strangers and people who are not whom they seem. The first story is about three girls who live with their father in the woods and one day he leaves them to go hunting and tells them, if I’m not back in three days, head to the neighbours. Of course he doesn’t come back, and then the narrator’s two sisters disappear and the ending will just give you goose bumps. You could certainly read the five stories contained in this volume in one sitting, but I think it’s the sort of book you’ll want to revisit again and again – especially at this time of year.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

Fifteen-year-old Jake Portman has a special relationship with his grandfather, who has always been a teller of tales. Thing is, his tales are pretty fantastic and concern children who could fly or make themselves invisible. When his grandfather is killed, Jake goes to Wales to visit the orphanage that his grandfather was sent to during the war and finds out the stories might actually be true. The book is full of pretty dang creepy pictures culled from private collections, but the story itself is magical with a side of monsters.

Plus one.

I had a student a couple of years ago who insisted he’d never been frightened by a book. I promised him that I could remedy that and gave him Stephen King’s novel, It. Okay, anyone around in the 1970s will remember the miniseries starring Richard Thomas aka John Boy Walton and that clown, Pennywise. “They all float down here.” Stephen King is the king (pun intended) of making everyday things scary. He’s also really excellent at tapping into childhood fears – something all great horror fiction does – and nobody captures adolescence quite like he does. I don’t love everything King has written, but I loved It and so did my student.

Read something scary for Halloween. With the lights on, of course!

 

 

Through the Woods – Emily Carroll

throughwoodsJust in time for Hallowe’en comes Canadian author Emily Carroll’s book, Through the Woods, a collection of chilling short stories. The stories would be quite enough on their own, but Carroll ups the ante with amazing art work. As far as graphic literature goes, Through the Woods goes to eleven. (Yes, yes I did just use a Spinal Tap reference.)

There are five stories in Carroll’s collection and each one of the stories feels vaguely old-fashioned. The monsters that live on these pages have been around for a very long time.

In the first story “Our Neighbor’s House,” Mary is left in charge of her two younger sisters, Beth and Hannah, while her father goes off to hunt. Their father tells them “I’ll be gone for three days…but if I’m not back by sunset on the third day, pack some food, dress up warm, and travel to our neighbor’s house.” When their father fails to return, things go from bad to worse in short order.

In the final story, “The Nesting Place, ” Bell, short for Mabel,  spends her school holidays with her older brother, Clarence, and his wife, Rebecca, at their isolated country house. Bell is a solitary child and she takes little interest in socializing with her brother. The only other person at the house is the housekeeper who warns Bell not to venture into the woods because she could easily become lost as Rebecca once had, “found three days later at the bottom of a cave…three days all alone in the dark drinking water out of a fetid pool to stay alive.” Rebecca, as Bell is soon to find out, has been deeply changed by that experience. And not in a good way.

woods

The stories between the first and last are every bit as unsettling. Dreams and teeth and blood and beasts loom large in this collection.Carroll’s illustrations are saturated with primary colours: blood-red moons and sapphire blue rivers. I don’t know much about art, but Through the Woods is a beautiful book to look at – if slightly macabre.

See more of Carroll’s work at her website.

 

 

Gentlemen & Players – Joanne Harris

gentlemenGentlemen & Players is an intricate mystery by Joanne Harris, an author probably best known for her best-selling novel, Chocolat. Before she made it big in the publishing world, Harris was a school teacher which probably came in handy while writing this story of a public (in Britain this is the equivalent of our private, thus you pay a tuition)  school in England. For readers unfamiliar with the British school system, the story will likely seem extra exotic. I grew up reading Enid Blyton books and dreaming about going to boarding school in the UK, so I was all over the notion of the tuck shop (the place to buy sweets) and copious gallons of tea consumed by the teachers.

The novel gets its name from cricket, another very British enterprise. A first class cricket match pitting a team of amateurs (the Gentlemen) against the professionals (the Players) is a throw back to the class system in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Players were the working class guys and the Gentlemen from the middle and upper classes.

Harris’s novel has two narratives taking place over two different time periods. In one we follow Roy Straitley, a Classics teacher at St. Oswald’s Grammar School. He’s been in the business for over three decades and is soon to be turning 65. (I was relieved to see that Mr. Straitley still enjoys teaching since I’ll be at least that old before I will be able to afford to retire.) Straitley has dedicated his adult  life to teaching at the school and prides himself on his ability to control his class and remember all the boys he’s taught over the years.

In the other narrative, an unnamed narrator watches St Oswald’s from the gatehouse where they live with their father, the school’s porter (aka custodian).

I understood at once that they were a different race to myself; gilded not only by sunlight and their proximity to that lovely building but by something less tangible; a slick of assurance; a mysterious shine.

Later, of course, I saw it as it really was. The genteel decay behind the graceful lines. The rot.

Fifteen years later, the narrator shows up at St. Oswald’s with forged credentials and begins to teach and all hell breaks loose. At first the pranks are minor, missing registers and pens, but before long things get serious and lives are ruined and lost.

Gentlemen & Players was an easy read (despite all the wacky names I had to keep straight). Does it have something to say about the haves and the have-nots? Not really, since the second narrator just seems jealous and, quite frankly, crazy. Will I be thinking about these characters in a week? Not likely. Was I shocked by the surprise? No, I figured it out. Careful readers will. Still, I passed a pleasant few hours reading the book and if you like suspense thrillers, this is well-written (except for the over-the-top use of semi-colons!) and fun – if you don’t think too long on all the novel’s implausibilities.

The Splendor Falls – Rosemary Clement-Moore

splendorClement-Moore’s novel, The Splendor Falls, contains several recognizable gothic characteristics including an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, an ancient prophecy, a heroine who experiences visions, and supernatural events (there’s ghosts galore). Sadly, the book is too long and too slow to add up to much that would be considered frightening.

Seventeen-year-old Sylvie Davis is the “youngest-ever principal dancer for the American ballet” when she suffers a freak accident which ends her dancing career forever. Dancing is all Sylvie has ever known and the fact that she no longer can sends her into a tailspin of depression which is completely understandable. What is not understandable, however, is the fact that she starts to see things that she can’t explain. She starts to doubt her sanity and her mother, who has recently married a psychiatrist, decides to send her to her deceased father’s ancestral home in Alabama.

Sylvie and her purse dog, Gigi, arrive at Bluestone Hill, a plantation house which is currently being restored by her father’s cousin, Paula. It won’t take long for the reader to recognize the bit-players: the snotty daughter of Paula’s business partner, Clara; the golden-boy president of the Teen Council, Shawn; the mysterious and handsome, Rhys.

Sylvie is petulant about her circumstances. She doesn’t really know, Paula, and knows even less about her father’s childhood. It seems, though, that everyone in the small town knows her family. To make matters worse – she starts seeing things and hearing things.  The reader, by rights, should be creeped out right along with her. I can’t quite figure out why I wasn’t.

The Splendor Falls’ biggest problem is, I think, with pacing. At just over 500 pages, there just weren’t enough thrills and chills to keep the pages turning. The novel’s denouement, when it comes, doesn’t really live up to its potential.

I’d been really looking forward to this book. I loved the title and the cover and the promise of things that go bump in the night, but at the end of the day the book was more whimper than bang.

The Birthing House – Christopher Ransom

Birthing_HouseConrad Harrison takes a wrong turn after leaving his father’s funeral and ends up in Black Earth, Wisconsin. He stops for food, glances at the paper someone left behind, and sees a listing for a house he decides to check out. When he goes to meet the real estate agent, Conrad had to admit that the house “made his heart beat faster.”

Faster than you can say “sold,” Conrad has bought the house. Then he returns home to Los Angeles to tell his wife Joanna. Except that when he gets home he discovers that Jo is not alone.

Christopher Ransom’s debut novel The Birth House is a lot of things, but sensical ain’t one of them. Okay, yes, I get it that Conrad was itching for change and that catching his wife with another guy (although not really) could certainly be impetus for said change, but he bought a house in a hick town without consulting his wife. Was it grief over the death of his father and the fact that he had a huge insurance cheque burning a hole in his pocket? The reader will never know because we never learn very much about his relationship with his dad other than he wasn’t around much. Clearly his relationship with Jo is at a crossroads because almost as soon as they move to Black Earth, Jo is head-hunted and takes a new job which requires her to leave for eight weeks of training.

That means Conrad is all alone in the house.  (Well, not completely alone; he has his dogs.)

Cue creepiness.

First there’s the guy who used to live in the house with his wife and kids, all of whom have birth defects.

Then there’s the book of the house’s history, delivered by its former owner. The book explains that the house used to be a birthing house, a place women went to have their babies, but it freaks Conrad out so much that he burns the book in the fireplace.

Then there’s the woman who appears at night.

And something weird is happening with Conrad’s snakes. (Yes, he keeps snakes except that they seem more like a convenient plot point than an actual thing that could potentially escape and wreak havoc.)

And let’s not forget about the mind-blowing orgasms Conrad has in his…sleeps? dreams?

As if that’s not enough, Conrad has a back story involving a girl called Holly and while his wife is away he befriends the nineteen-year-old daughter of his next door neighbours who just happens to be pregnant.

Conrad just keeps getting dumber and dumber. And so does the book.

Blech.

 

 

 

The Pull of the Moon – Elizabeth Berg

pullofthemoon Nan is fifty. One day she wakes up and just decides to leave. Her daughter, Ruthie, is grown and gone; her husband, Martin, remains at home receiving the letters Nan writes to him from the road. In the first she tells him

I just wanted you to know I was safe. But I shouldn’t have said I’d be back in a day or two. I won’t be back for awhile. I’m on a trip. I needed all of a sudden to go, without saying where, because I don’t know where. I know this is not like me. I know that. But please believe me, I am safe and I am not crazy, I felt like if I didn’t do this I wouldn’t be safe and I would be crazy.

Elizabeth Berg’s novel The Pull of the Moon is one of those novels that book clubs (whose members are of a certain age) will have a field day over. And I would be the dissenting voice. (I usually am.) It’s not because I don’t get it, it’s just because I didn’t wholly believe it.

So Nan (who has enough money at her disposal that she can just take the car and wander off and stop whenever and wherever she wants – and there’s the first fly in this self-discovery ointment; it’s Eat, Pray, Love for the middle-aged set) has had it with her suburban life. But it’s not even that so much as that she no longer recognizes the woman she’s become. All her dreams and aspirations have buckled under the weight of being a mother and wife and now she wonders “who in the hell am I?”

This question is likely something most women of a certain age can understand because many of us chuck our own desires under the bus when the kids come along. Nan takes this opportunity to examine who she was and who she is and what she wants going forward. She writes letters to Martin and also writes in a journal, something she hasn’t done since she was eleven.

She meanders along back roads, stopping for food and rest and pondering the sorry state of her life. She also randomly befriends people: the waiter in the diner where she gets breakfast, a hitchhiker she picks up, a man mourning the loss of his wife, an old woman shelling peas. These interactions weren’t all that believable to me because Berg expects the reader to believe that a simple question will open everyone’s floodgates. Suspicion quickly gives way to confession.

Strangely, despite the fact that I didn’t really buy the characters Nan meets (or the short time she spends with them) I did empathize with Nan.  Maybe that’s because, although my kids aren’t yet grown and gone and I no longer have a ‘Martin’, I am 53. I am way past the mid-way point of my life and although I try not to spend my life wallowing in regret, I do wish I had done some things a little differently. I also desperately wish I could call someone up and say, “I want and new house and this is what it’s going to look like. As soon as I get back from this roadtrip, we’re building that puppy. You got that buster?” (Seriously, Nan writes to Martin that she wants a new house!)

Nan writes in her journal that when she was twelve her life “was like a wild, beating thing, exotic, capable of unfolding and enlarging itself, pulling itself higher and higher like a kite loved by the wind.”  The best thing about The Pull of the Moon is Nan’s attempt to recapture the essence of that feeling, life’s enormous possibilities which have long been buried under the weight of the expectations of others. When she does that, Nan’s journey is one worth taking.