The Dogs – Allan Stratton

Cameron and his mom have been on the run for as long as Cameron can remember. the_dogs_uk_cover_med_frontCameron’s dad is dangerous and they’ve never been able to stay in one place for very long. This last move takes them to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, outside of a small town called Wolf Hollow.

“Whoa! Somebody! Put this place out of its misery.” That’s how Cameron describes the two-storey, ramshackle building he and his mom are going to call home. Mom notes the two staircases and says “It’s good to have more than one escape route…in case of fire.” Mr. Sinclair, the old farmer who owns the house, is secretive and slightly menacing.

But Cameron’s creepy father isn’t the only creepy thing going on in Allan Stratton’s YA novel The Dogs. Cameron discovers some drawings and a photograph in the coal room and the discovery connects him to a strange mystery that has haunted the farmhouse for decades. One of the drawings depicts “a pack of wild dogs ripping things apart.” Further investigation reveals that the previous owner, Mr. McTavish, was ripped apart by his dogs after his wife and son, Jacky, ran off with another man.

The clever things about The Dogs is that it operates on many different levels. As Cameron spends more and more time trying to figure out what really happened in the farmhouse all those years ago, he also begins to question his own memories of his father. Is his mother telling him the whole truth or is she leaving out essential details? Is his dad really as bad as his mother says?

Cameron’s traumatic childhood makes him especially suggestible and readers will share every spooky bump-in-the-night incident with him as he tries to reconcile his memories with what is happening in the house. Is he crazy, as his mother worries he might be, or are the things he sees and hears really happening?

“It’s not my fault I picture things, or talk to myself. If I try to keep all the stuff in my head inside, I’ll explode,” Cameron explains to his mother.

The Dogs is written in straight-forward prose, which will appeal to many young readers particularly reluctant readers. I think any reader will enjoy the book’s eeriness and honest portrayal of a teenage boy who despite his own difficulties shows tremendous resilience. I know I did.

 

 

 

Off the shelf – Books with buzz

Listen here.

There are always books which are hotly anticipated by the reading public. Avid readers know, for example, when their favourite authors will be releasing their next book. Publishers generate a lot of pre-publishing buzz and of course books that win major literary awards also garner extra attention. I think book buying has changed a lot in the forty years I’ve been buying books with my own money. I remember when the Scholastic book flyer was my only real opportunity to purchase books – and then all you had was this teensy picture of the cover and the equivalent of a tweet’s worth of description. When you could actually go into a book store and hold the books, well, that was heaven. I have books on my shelf that literally cost 60 cents. Can you believe that? Social media wasn’t even a twinkle in someone’s eye – so word of mouth or checking out top ten lists was really the only ways to hear which books were hot and which books were not.

goldfinchThen you have to wonder if all books with buzz are created equal. Even books that have won big prizes are often mired in controversy. A huge portion of my summer reading time was taken up with reading Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning magnum opus The Goldfinch. That book is close to 800 pages long and, for me at least, was thrilling and infuriating in equal measure. Not everyone agreed that it should have won the Pulitzer. In fact, The Washington Post called it “the disappointing novel that just won a Pulitzer”  Lady Vowell Smith, a professor of literature and book blogger, wondered about the book’s merits in her post “Did the Goldfinch Deserve the Pulitzer?” The UK’s Sunday Times said “”no amount of straining for high-flown uplift can disguise the fact that The Goldfinch is a turkey”. Newsweek’s review said that “The Goldfinch neither sings nor flies.”  Ouch.

I am not much of a follower when it comes to reading, but I have read both of Tartt’s previous novels: The Secret History, which is my favourite and The Little Friend. Plus, my son, Con, read this book and really liked it – so I had to give it a go.

Okay – so what’s this book about?

Theo Decker is thirteen and lives with his mother in New York City. They are on their way to a meeting at Theo’s school when they duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take a look at an exhibit of Dutch paintings, including that of The Goldfinch. Theo’s mom wanders off to the gift shop; Theo is entranced by a girl of about the same age, who is in the museum with her grandfather…and then there’s an explosion and Theo’s life is irrevocably altered. The old man, as he’s dying, encourages – insists – that Theo make off with the painting of the goldfinch and that’s certainly central to the book’s story – but that’s really only a part of it. Tartt wrestles with a lot of themes here: family – both biological and the family you choose, art, beauty, addiction. Theo isn’t necessarily the most likable character, even though lots of bad things happen to him he also makes a lot of poor decisions. This book is chock-a-block with characters – Boris, the friend Theo meets while living in Vegas; Hobie, a furniture restorer, the Barbours, family friends who care for Theo when his mom first dies. A lot of people, lots of stuff happens and it’s up to the reader to decide whether any of it matters. Does it add up to something worthy of praise in the form of the Pulitzer – that is if you think prizes matter at all. It probably mattered to Tartt to the tune of $100,000.

Another book that everyone is talking about is Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. When this manuscript was “discovered” it Watchmanexploded the publishing world – but really: discovered? Everyone knows Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird. Other than Mockingbird she is best known for helping Truman Capote (her childhood friend) with research for his book In Cold Blood. She published a handful of essays – but that’s it. She’s notoriously private and always maintained she’d never publish another book. So, it’s  kinda suspicious that this one turned up after all these years. It’s essentially an early draft of Mockingbird. Lee is 89, lives in assisted care and I think the publication of this book has something to do with the fact that her sister, Alice, sort of her gatekeeper, passed away. There’s an awesome series of articles about the discovery of Watchman and a look back at Mockingbird in The New Republic. The first article, “The Suspicious Story Behind Go Set a Watchman” is particularly interesting for anyone who wants to read the whole story behind the birth of Watchman.

Personally, I’ve resisted buying the book. I love Mockingbird. I’ve read it multiple times. Since I believe I know the story of how Watchman came to be, I’m reluctant to hand over my $30 for a book which has pretty much been panned. And of course it has – it’s unedited because Lee is blind and deaf and perhaps even the teensiest bit senile. The book’s a cash grab. I hate that.

In any case – if you are looking for something to read, something that will guarantee you something to talk about at the water cooler or dinner or with your book club, it’s easy to find those books.

If you are interested in  books that generated buzz, check out some of these titles.

girlontrain

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

This is this year’s Gone Girl. It’s on my tbr shelf, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m probably just about the last person who hasn’t.

purity

Purity – Jonathan Franzen

Famous for dissing Oprah, there’s no arguing with Franzen’s talent. His newest book hits the shelves Sept. 15.

Euphoria

Euphoria – Lily King

Inspired by the life of Margaret Mead and almost universally praised.

troop

The Troop – Nick Cutter

Unless you love horror novels, you might not have heard of this one…but trust me, everyone was talking about it.

spider

The Girl in the Spider’s Web – David Lagercrantz

Stieg Larsson, the creator of the Millennium series, died of a heart attack in 2004, but that apparently won’t stop Lisbeth Salander, the series’ prickly computer genius. Hotly anticipated and hitting the shelves Sept 1st.

The Troop – Nick Cutter

troopNick Cutter is a pseudonym for Canadian writer Craig Davidson, author of Rust and Bone and Cataract City. I haven’t read anything by Davidson, but The Troop ended up on my reading radar because it was on pretty much everyone’s  radar when it was released in 2014. Even Stephen King, master of all things macabre claimed The Troop “scared the hell out of [him]…This is old-school horror at its best.”

Scoutmaster Tim Riggs takes his troop of five fourteen-year-olds (Kent, Ephraim, Max, Shelley and Newt)  to Falstaff Island, which is located fifteen miles off the northern coast of Prince Edward Island. (Trust me, there is not even a whiff of Anne Shirley here.)  It’s October and it’s time for the annual camping trip – something that Tim (who is also the local doctor) and the boys (as varied an assortment of teenagers as you can get including the alpha male, the nerd and the psychopath) look forward to. Tim is “everything they could possibly want in a leader: knowledgeable and serene, exuding confidence while bolstering their own.”

They’ve only just settled in when a boat arrives at the island   and a man disembarks.

A quivering string of drool spooled over his lip, hung, snapped. His skin was stretched thin as crepe paper over his skull. Capillaries wormed across his nose, over his cheeks and down his neck like river routes on a topographical map. His arms jutted from his T-shirt like Tinker Toys. The skin was shrink-wrapped around the radius and ulna bones, giving his elbows the appearance of knots in a rope.

The man is starving. So hungry, in fact, that Tim watches in amazement as the man “picked up a handful of coarse soil and stuffed it in his mouth.”

A day later, the man is dead and all hell has broken loose on the island.

The man has brought a bioengineered threat with him and it doesn’t take very long for the chaos to begin. The boys, who are loosely divided into factions anyway, start to crumble under the weight of their own terror. Shelley, who is clearly a psychopath, uses the circumstances to “play.” He is, by far, the most horrifying character to spend time with. I could barely read the words on the page.

The other boys are equally well-drawn and you’ll want them all to be safe (well, except for Shel) even when you realize it’s just not possible.

I’m going to say it up front: The Troop isn’t a book for the squeamish. I’m talking skin-crawling, page-skimming squick here. I’ve got a pretty strong stomach when it comes to the written word (I’m less brave when the violence is on the screen) but there were seriously parts of this book that were just….awful.

Cutter includes newspaper articles, courtroom depositions and interviews to help fill in some of the narrative blanks – information the boys and Tim would not be privy to in the circumstances. It all makes for page-turning, gloriously icky fun.

White Crow – Marcus Sedgwick

whitecrowMarcus Sedgwick’s YA novel White Crow is not for the faint of heart, but careful readers will certainly be rewarded by this atmospheric tale. It’s a creepy story of science and obsession, of ghosts both real and imagined.

Rebecca and her policeman father move to Winterfold, a seacoast town in England. Like many other villages along Britain’s coast, Winterfold is slowly being eroded by the sea and what was once a bustling village of thousands of people is now “storm by storm, year by year” crumbling into the sea  and all that remains is “a triangle of three streets, a dozen houses, an inn, a church.”

Rebecca is none too happy about having to leave her more urban life for the much quieter Winterfold. She doesn’t quite know what to do with herself besides harbor resentment towards her father (who is, essentially, hiding out after some mishap at work) and pine for Adam, the boy who she left behind.

Then she meets Ferelith, a local girl who is, frankly, pretty strange. In fact, Rebecca notes she’s “the strangest-looking girl she’s ever seen.”

There’s something elfin about her. Everything ends in points: her nose, her eyes, her chin, her lips, her fingers, the spikes of her long tresses of black hair….her teeth, not quite a vampire’s, but not far short.

Rebecca and Ferelith don’t immediately gel, although it’s clear that Ferelith is smitten. Eventually, though, with nothing better to do, Rebecca starts to hang out with her a bit and Ferelith starts to reveal Winterfold’s somewhat sinister past.

That’s where the third narrator comes in.  Entries in a diary dated 1798, reveal the strange relationship between the writer, a Reverend, and a French doctor. The two men are fascinated with the prospect of discovering if there is life after death and their methods turn out to be – well – horrifying. He writes:

And so this young man has become our first subject, and though my hopes were high, the results were low.

I scorn myself to record it herein, but we learned nothing.

Not a single thing.

But, oh!

The blood! The blood!

White Crow is like one of those old fashioned horror movies I used to watch when I was a kid. I could almost hear the menacing music as Ferelith tours Rebecca around Winterfold, through old, decaying ruins and to the one remaining church with the missing wall. When the novel reaches its climax, it’s creepy, page-turning fun. Young readers will have to pay attention; I know I did. But the book pays off in spades.

Bird Box – Josh Malerman

birdboxIt seemed like everyone was talking about Josh Malerman’s debut novel, Bird Box, but it was still a surprise when it was chosen as our April read for book club. In the 15 years we’ve been together we’ve never read anything even resembling a horror story. I was really looking forward to this one because I love a scary book.

Malorie lives alone in a house in a Detroit suburb with two children she calls Boy and Girl. The house used to be nice but now she notices the “rusted utensils and cracked dishes. The cardboard box used as a garbage can. The chairs, some held together by twine.” Clearly, it’s not situation normal and Malorie’s musings allude to “older stains,”  for which there are “no chemicals in the house to help clean.”

Malerman doesn’t waste any time with preamble. That’s probably a good thing because Bird Box relies on a heavy dose of the unknown to make it tick. Something has happened to the world. The “Internet has blown up with a story people are calling ‘the Russia Report.'” People are behaving monstrously, attacking strangers and family members in gruesome ways (a mother buries her children alive) before ending their own lives. It’s a “the whole world’s going crazy” scenario, but it spreads from Russia to North America (and who knows where else) like wildfire. The only way to prevent doing harm to others and yourself is to prevent yourself from seeing whatever is out there. People hole up in their houses, windows covered, and if they must venture outside, they wear a blindfold.

Bird Box bounces between Malorie’s perilous journey down the river in a boat (she’s heard that there is a safe community and after four years alone, she longs for something more for herself and her children who she laments “have never seen the sky. Have never looked out a window.” ) and her time in the house with a group of strangers she discovered through an advertisement in the paper.

I can’t say I was fussy about the beginning or the ending of Bird Box, but I was seriously creeped out in the middle. There’s a scene when members of the house have to go out into the backyard to get water from the well. They have to be blindfolded, of course, and a rope is tied around their waist. The person whose job it is to go to the well must make the journey three times. On this occasion, it’s Felix’s turn. On the third and final trip from the house to the well he hears a sound.

But now he can tell where it is coming from.

It is coming from inside the well.

He releases the crank and steps back. The bucket falls, crashing against the stone, before splashing below.

Something moved. Something moved in the water.

It’s moments like these when Bird Box is at its best. Like Malerman’s characters, we are blind and we realize that the scariest thing in the world is what we can’t see.

 

 

 

Long Lankin – Lindsey Barraclough

longlankin When I was a kid, they used to air these British films about kids on TV. They all would have been set in the 60s (it was probably the early 1970s when I watched them) and although I don’t really remember what any of them were about, I do remember that I wanted a British accent more than anything. I was also a fan of Enid Blyton’s books – especially the ones set in boarding schools.

Lindsey Barraclough’s debut novel Long Lankin doesn’t take place in a boarding school, but it did make me think of those movies. The language, in particular, was reminiscent of that particular time. Things in Barraclough’s novel are “smashing” and words like  “blimey,” “cheerio” and “crikey”  pepper the novel. The whole novel unspooled in my head like one of those movies. I loved it!

Long Lankin is inspired by the English ballad “Lamkin” which tells the story of a woman and her infant son who are murdered by a mason who seeks revenge for not having been paid. The original ballad can be found here.

Said my lord to my lady as he rode away:/ Beware of Long Lankin who lives in the hay.

In Barraclough’s intelligent and creepy re-telling, Long Lankin is a sinister, slithering man who steals children in the small English town of Bryers Guerdon. When Cora and her little sister Mimi go to  Guerdon Hall to live with their great-aunt Ida, Cora soon discovers that her aunt’s crumbling home is full of secrets and her aunt doesn’t seem all that pleased about their arrival. It’s 1958 and Cora and Mimi’s father has sent his children to Ida as a last resort. Their mother is ‘away.’

The story is told from the perspectives of Cora, Aunt Ida and Roger, a local boy. Cora is smart and inquisitive and soon becomes interested in what she knows her aunt is not telling her. Something strange is going on in the isolated little town and it has to do with the church which Aunt Ida tells her she is “absolutely not – under any circumstances…it was completely forbidden” to visit. Of course, that makes it the first place Cora wants to go.

Long Lankin is atmospheric and smart. It’s filled with Latin warnings, menacing shadows, whispers and more secrets than you can shake a stick at. Readers will have to work a little to keep the characters and the story straight, but it’s totally worth the effort.  As with the best ghost stories, this one has a beating heart at its centre and it takes Cora and Roger quite a while to uncover the town’s secret. It’s worth the wait. The novel’s conclusion is terrific, too.

Highly recommended.

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.