Welcome to the Dark House – Laurie Faria Stolarz

darkhouseWho doesn’t love a good scare? Not Ivy Jensen. That’s not her fault, though. When she was 12, someone broke into her house and slaughtered her parents. In her recurring nightmare about that horrible night, Ivy wakes “with a gasp, covered in [her] own blood. It’s everywhere. Soaking into the bed covers, splattered against the wall, running through the cracks in the hardwood floor, and dripping over [her] fingers and hands.”

Ivy is just one of the teens in Laurie Faria Stolarz’s YA novel, Welcome to the Dark House. She decides to enter a contest sponsored by Justin Blake, director of several famous (infamous) horror films featuring the Nightmare Elf. Intrigued by the promise that her nightmares will disappear, Ivy submits an essay describing her worst fear. So do Frankie, Garth, Parker, Shayla, Natalie and Taylor.

These teens win an exclusive weekend away to meet Justin Blake and get an exclusive look at his latest project. For some of the attendees, this is the chance of a lifetime. Boy-crazy Shayla is on a mission to “”make the most of every moment” [and] have a fun and fulfilling life.” Garth, Frankie and Natalie are uber-fans. Parker is an aspiring film maker. Taylor is…well…missing. Ivy just wants her nightmares to go away.

When the group arrives at the B & B where they will be staying, they find their rooms kitted out with their most favourite things. Their hostess is Midge, “the psycho chamber-maid who collects her victims’ fingers in the pockets of her apron.” The next afternoon, the teens are taken to a nightmarish amusement park in the middle of nowhere.

It’s like something out of a dream. WELCOME, DARK HOUSE DREAMERS is lit up in Gothic lettering, hanging above an entrance gate. There’s also a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, and a ride called Hotel 9; with multiple pointed roofs, it looks like the hotel in the movie.

The rules are simple: the group has to leave their cell pones and recording devices behind, ride the rides and have some snacks, but each participant MUST ride the ride that has been specifically tailored to them. The prize? Well, “the camera’s already rolling” and so essentially, in a found-footage way, these guys are the stars of Blake’s latest project.

Of course, this is when things start to get a little hairy.

Welcome to the Dark House is reminiscent of teen horror movies like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Fans of horror movies (and horror fiction) will likely enjoy the inventive ‘rides’ and these characters – although you don’t get to know any one of them particularly well. Of course, you wouldn’t want to get too attached now, would you? There are some truly creepy moments and a cliff hanger ending, so you’ll have to read the sequel, Return to the Dark House to discover how it all turns out.

 

 

Nutshell – Ian McEwan

nutshellThere’s no arguing with the fact that Ian McEwan is an astoundingly good writer. I have read enough of his books over the years to know that I like him, even when he’s hard work. (I have read Saturday, On Chesil Beach, and The Children Act   Predating this blog I’ve read First Love, Last Rites, The Comfort of Strangers, The Cement Garden and my favourite McEwan novel, the devastating Atonement. I have a couple more on my tbr shelf.) McEwan is astonishingly prolific and you really never feel like you are reading the same book over and over. He has lots to say about a variety of topics and he says it well.

That’s the saving grace of Nutshell, which was chosen as our book club selection this month. I did a little inward grown when Sylvie revealed this book. Not because it was McEwan – clearly that wouldn’t bother ne – but because I already knew about the novel’s conceit and I wasn’t really interested in reading this book. At all. But then: it’s McEwan. In less capable hands, this book would be a dog’s breakfast and instead it was, while not exactly enjoyable, an easy read.

So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth.

That’s the opening of Nutshell. If it’s not obvious, the narrator of McEwan’s book is an unnamed fetus. He’s sentient and trapped inside his mother’s womb. I say trapped because instead of biding his time until he’s born, he must listen to his mother, Trudy, plot with her lover, Claude, to kill Trudy’s husband, John. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Claude and John are brothers. If any of this sounds familiar, you know your Shakespeare. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Although the conceit of having the story narrated by a fetus might have proven problematic in less capable hands, Nutshell, is totally readable. Of course it is. Our narrator relates overheard conversations and imagines others to which he is not privy. Through him we see the adults in this story – none of them particularly likeable.  For example, he describes Claude as “a man who prefers to repeat himself. A man of riffs….This Claude is a property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing.” As for Trudy, “my untrue Trudy, whose apple-flesh arms and breasts and green regard I long for”, our narrator both loves and hates her. John, his father, was “Born under an obliging star, eager to please, too kind, too earnest, he has nothing of the ambitious poet’s quiet greed.”

As the narrator contemplates his mother and her lover’s plans to kill John, he also waxes poetic on a variety of topics including philosophy, poetry, and the best wine. He might be stuck where he is, but remarkably (or maybe not remarkably: this is McEwan, after all) the plot moves along at the pace of a good page-turner. Careful readers will love the allusions and readers smarter than me will likely find the overall reading experience intellectually satisfying.

Nutshell  is classy fan fiction by a writer whose talent and intelligence are undeniable, but I wouldn’t have ever picked this book up on my own.

 

 

We’ll Never Be Apart – Emiko Jean

wetogetherSeventeen-year-old Alice is a patient at Savage Isle, an institute for adolescents with mental health problems. She’s recovering after a devastating fire, set by her twin Cellie, killed her boyfriend, Jason.

In the prologue of Emiko Jean’s YA novel We’ll Never Be Apart, Cellie says

…I’ll say it was an accident. An unfortunate tragedy. But it was neither. When they asked me what happened that night, I’ll say, It was a mistake. But is wasn’t. I don’t remember, I’ll say. But I do.

After the death of their grandfather, Alice and Cellie bounce around to various foster homes. In one of those places, “the worst home yet,”  they meet Jason. Jason becomes their protector from their foster father. “He’d wrap his arms around us like a comforting blanket. He smelled of clean laundry, a smell that still makes me feel loved and protected. Cherished.”

Jason’s flaw is that he loves fire. Cellie does, too. Alice can only watch helplessly, but it doesn’t prevent her from falling in love with Jason. After his death, she vows revenge against her sister who turns up at Savage Isle, too, albeit in a locked ward. Alice needs another patient’s help to find her so she can kill her.

The story is told in present day – as Alice, with the help of Chase, attempts to find a way to get to Cellie, and also unfolds the girls’ tragic story through a series of journal entries.  Readers might sense that the narration is unreliable – and they’d be right. There’s a propulsive element to Jean’s story, as we follow Alice on her search for the truth of what happened the night Jason was killed.

We’ll Never Be Apart will probably be enjoyable to mature teens who like a twisty tale with a sympathetic narrator.

 

Thornhill – Pam Smy

Thornhill-HousePam Smy’s lovely hybrid novel tells the story (in words) of Mary and (in pictures) Ella – two girls separated by twenty-five years. Ella and her father have moved into a house that looks out onto Thornhill Institute which was “established in the 1830s as an thornhill orphanage for girls” and sold in 1982 “after the tragic death of one of the last residents, Mary Baines.” For the last twenty-five years, the house has remained vacant, although plans have been made to develop the site.

Through a series of diary entries, we meet Mary. She’s an odd, mostly silent girl who is virtually friendless. As Thornhill prepares to be fully de-commissioned, the few girls who remain are merely passing time, waiting for placement with a family. Mary’s chief tormenter has just returned from a situation which didn’t work out and Mary feels she must “lock myself away. Now that she’s back it is the only way I can keep myself safe.”

Up in her attic bedroom, she spends her time making puppets.

I often wonder what my life would be like without my puppets. …I love that I am surrounded by the things I have made. They sit on shelves above my bed, on my bookcase, suspended from the ceiling, balanced on my windowsill – my puppets are like friends that sit and keep me company..

thornhillellaIn the present day, Ella spends much of her time alone, too. Her father, who clearly seems to love her, is away a lot. Her mother is presumably dead. Ella is curious about the house she can see from her bedroom window and the girl she sometimes glimpses in the overgrown garden behind the walls

One day, she manages to creep into Thornhill’s garden and she discovers  a puppet head. As the days go on, she continues to see the girl in the garden and to discover more puppet pieces.  She becomes more curious about Thornhill’s history and who the girl might be.

Smy makes great use of Mary’s diary entries to round out the story. Her story is particularly sad because there is no one in Mary’s life to take her side against the terrible bullying she endures. The adults in this story are either non-existent or ineffective. Her housemates are cruel and manipulative. Even though it’s obvious that her story isn’t going to end well, you can’t help but root for her.

As for Ella, the monochromatic pictures tell her story as beautifully as Mary’s diary.  It will be impossible not to race through the pages to find out what happens.

Ultimately, Thornhill is a story of loneliness and friendship, and although there’s no happy ending, it’s a journey worth taking.

Seeing Red – Sandra Brown

seeingredBack when Stephen King was writing a column for Entertainment Weekly, he recommended Sandra Brown’s novel Hello, Darkness as a must-read book for that year.  It was part of a Top Ten list and I thought, okay, I’ll give it a go. I bought it; I read it, and I was sort of ‘meh’ about the whole thing. Thus, when Brown’s newest suspense thriller Seeing Red was chosen as the first selection for my book club’s 2017-18 year I was not overly excited. Perhaps it’s unfair, but after reading only one book I sort of considered Brown a grocery store author….not that that means anything really: she’s written 68 novels, sold 80 million copies and been on the New York Times Bestseller list 30 times.

But I gotta say – Seeing Red was just bad. Like, laugh-out-loud bad.

Kerra Bailey is a rising-star journalist about to land the biggest interview of her life. She’s convinced The Major to go on national television and talk about the day he’d heroically saved lives when a hotel was bombed twenty-five odd years before. One of the lives he’d saved was Kerra’s, so interviewing him isn’t the only big deal; she’s outing herself as a survivor, too.

The interview is over and while Kerra is using the restroom she hears shots fired. At first she thinks The Major has discharged the shotgun he’d been showing her, but then she hears voices and realizes they’re not alone in the house. Trapped in the bathroom, she makes her escape out the window and all that happens by page six.

Six days earlier…that’s where the story begins with Kerra meeting John Trapper, a former ATF agent (I had to look that up because I had no idea what that was, but apparently it’s a specially trained member of  law enforcement who deals with alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives), and estranged son of The Major. Kerra’s been having trouble getting The Major to speak to her and she’s reached out to Trapper (he goes by his last name because of course he does) for help. The problem is that Trapper is “the last person on the planet who could convince [the Major] to do anything.”

This is the meet cute, of course, because we already know from the prologue that Kerra got her interview and now she’s been witness to attempted murder. Trapper is convinced his father was shot as part of an elaborate conspiracy that he’s been chasing for years, the very same conspiracy that got him fired from the ATF.

But none of that matters because Trapper and Kerra have chemistry…of the you-can- smell-it-coming-from-a-hundred-paces variety.  Kerra describes Trapper as “everything bad-boy wrong, which makes you everything desirable, and, yes, even knowing better than to fall for the sexy charm, I did.”  And it’s not just Trapper’s incredible sex appeal, he’s also a wounded bird, having had to live his entire life in The Major’s considerable shadow. Boo. Hoo.

So, while  Kerra  and Trapper chase around for answers to who tried to kill The Major (and Kerra) they also chase each other because, y’know, they’re hot and that’s what hot people do.

Some of the descriptions were literally snort-inducing.

“The wedge of damp, softly curled hair over his pecs tapered to form a sleek, yummy trail. The landscape beneath the towel was so well defined it was decadent.”

Yummy is used twice to describe Trapper’s treasure trail and I laughed both times because um, ew. And, trust me, I am not a prude. I love well-written sex scenes. Well-written being the operative words.

When these two crazy kids finally do get it on, I literally had to put the book down.

“As he worked his jeans down, a drop of escaped semen slicked his thumb. He was that close.”

“She came long and lusciously.”

Well, of course she did. Trapper had wanted “this to be the fuck Kerra remember[ed] for the rest of her life.” He’s good like that.

I could go on, but I won’t.

I bought my copy of Seeing Red at the Superstore. It was 40% off and I had enough points that it only cost me $2.00. That was $2.00 too much.

 

 

The Truth Commission – Susan Juby

Normandy Pale, the narrator of Susan Juby’s award-winning YA novel, The Truth Commission,  lives with her parents and older sister, Keira, on Vancouver Island. Keiratruth is a celebrated graphic novelist, whose series Diana: Queen of Two Worlds, tells the story of “a suburban girl who lives with her “painfully average”  family which includes her  high-strung easily overwhelmed mother, her ineffectual father, and her dull-witted, staring lump of a sister.”

Keira published three volumes of Diana, a smash hit with a huge cult-following, and then went off to college in the States.

That’s the same time Normandy (Norm for short) started attending Green Pastures Academy of Arts and Applied Design where everyone knew who she was because of her sister. It was notoriety Norm didn’t particularly covet because “you cannot imagine how embarrassing it is to be in these books, especially when all the Earth plotlines are taken from minor and usually un-excellent incidents in our real life.”

The Truth Commission‘s conceit is that Norm is writing her Spring Special Project, a story which covers three months from the previous fall (Sept-November).

Here’s how the project is supposed to work: Each week I will write and submit chapters of my story to my excellent creative writing teacher. She will give me feedback on those chapters the following week. I will write as if I do not know what will happen next – as if I’m a reporter, which is a device used in classic works of non-fiction.

Norm’s story is about The Truth Commission, a committee consisting of Norm and her best friends Neil and Dusk (aka Dawn) who “went on a search for the truth and…found it.” Norm discovers that the truth is a complicated thing and that is especially true in her own family.

Keira has returned from college under a rather dark cloud. “She wouldn’t tell us what happened,” Norm tells us, “and when my parents asked if everything was okay, Keira got mad and said she’d leave if they asked again.”  Now she spends most of her time in her room or in the closet she and Norm share and “when she did leave, she stayed out for days and we had no idea where she went.”

Since Norm and Keira have never been particularly close, Norm is almost flattered when Keira starts sneaking into her room at night admitting “I think it’s time for me to tell someone what happened.”

I loved every minute I spent with Norm and her friends, who are equally smart and funny. There is a sort of mystery at the core of the novel: what happened to Keira? Although that is certainly one reason to turn the pages I think Normandy pretty much had me at ‘hello.’

Highly recommended and BONUS! Canadian.

 

 

 

Not a Sound – Heather Gudenkauf

Amelia Winn is a hard-working trauma nurse when Heather  Gudenkauf’s novel Not a Sound begins. Then she’s hit by a car. Fast forward ten years and Amelia is unemployed, a recovering alcoholic, separated and deaf. She and her “hearing” dog, Stitch, live in a remote house by  Five Mines River where Amelia spends her days paddling  and trying to right the wreckage of her life. On this particular day, she is feeling somewhat optimistic. She has a lead on a job which her ex isn’t trying to sabotage and for once things seem to be looking up – that is, until she discovers the body of a nurse she once worked, a woman named Gwen, with lying on the edge of the river.

notasoundNot a Sound is a straight-up mystery and while it was easy enough to turn the pages – I didn’t particularly enjoy reading the story because…well, mostly for a whole lot of niggly reasons.

We’re expected to believe that Amelia is going to go all undercover cop because a friend from her previous life is found dead. Even though her brother’s best friend, Jake,  is the cop in charge, she takes matters into her own hands – staking out buildings and breaking into people’s garages and asking questions she shouldn’t ask.

Jake is pretty free with giving out what I would consider privileged information about the crime. He tells Amelia how the victim was murder and then posits “my bet is on the husband. It’s always the husband.” That’s police work at its finest, folks.

Some of the minor characters, her new neighbor Evan for example, just seem like conveniently placed chess pieces.

Amelia doesn’t have any real reason to be so torn up about Gwen and yet she persists in trying to figure out who would have wanted her dead. Readers will follow along, but likely won’t be too surprised with how it all turns out.