Firefly Rain – Richard Dansky

firefly rain Not to be confused with Firefly Lane, Richard Dansky’s debut novel Firefly Rain is about the prodigal son coming back to his childhood home in some back woods town in North Carolina – although he just calls it ‘Carolina.’ His business in Boston has failed, his parents are dead, but the old homestead is just waiting for him.

So, yeah, Jacob Logan goes home to Maryfield. His childhood isn’t quite as he remembered it. For one thing, the fireflies he used to catch on his property now don’t seem to want to come onto Logan land – they stop just at the border of his property and if they cross onto it, they die. For another, his house is creepy – doors open and bang shut; toy soldiers turn up where they shouldn’t be. Carl, the old guy who Jacob has been paying to look after the property after his parents died, is weirdly antagonistic. Then someone steals his car.

Firefly Rain is supposed to be scary. In fact, Publishers Weekly called it “Disturbing…remarkable” and Library Journal called it “Classic horror…a tightly paced tale of mystery and terror.”

I call it hokum.

Nothing was scary about this book. At all. Except perhaps the way the characters spoke.

“I need someone down here whom I can trust,” Jacob says to his friend Jenna. “I’m spooked Jenna, spooked bad, and I need someone who can watch my back until I can get my head screwed on straight.”

Then there’s the scene where Jacob chases his stolen car up and down a dirt road until he finally collapses in the ditch. In his slippers. In the rain.

And then there’s the convoluted denouement – where all the men of Maryfield show up on the property because of some wacky promise they made to Jacob’s mother.  I didn’t really get it…but by then, I didn’t really care.

Anna Dressed in Blood – Kendare Blake

Anna Dressed in Blood[1]I love the cover of Kendare Blake’s YA novel Anna Dressed in Blood. And I loved the first 200 or so pages of the book, too. And then – not so much. Of course, the first clue that things might have the potential to go south was Cassandra Clare’s ringing endorsement. But okay – I was ultimately willing to overlook that. The plot fell apart for me…and the characters…and it just felt like a hot mess by the end.

But in the beginning…

Cassio ‘Cas’ Theseus Lowood kills the dead. He’s got this cool athame (a double-edged daggar) and his dead father’s blood connection to these things that go bump in the night. Cas and his mother (who sells occult supplies on the net) travel from place to place so that Cas can put the dead to rest.  Cas is just 17 but he’s already “seen just about every variety of spook and specter you can imagine.”

Cas and his mother are en route to Thunder Bay, Ontario where the particularly vicious ghost of sixteen-year-old Anna Korlov ‘lives’ in a crumbling Victorian house. Anna’d had her throat slashed on her way to a school dance in 1958 and now she’s been known to haunt her house, wearing the white dress she’d had made for the dance only now covered in blood – hence the name ‘Anna dressed in blood’.

Cas is uneasy about this one from the start, but other things don’t go his way either. First of all – he’s usually able to fly under the radar, but not in Thunder Bay – where he quickly makes friends (and enemies) which necessitates him ‘coming out’ about his ‘calling.’ Sound familiar. Don’t worry – the one-girl-in-all-the-world ‘s name will be dropped before it’s all over.

Blake does create some creepy-crawly fun

Her feet drag horribly along like she can’t use them at all. Dark, purplish veins cut through her pale white skin. Her hair is shadowless black, and it moves through the air as though suspended in water, snaking out behind and drifting like reeds. It’s the only thing about her that looks alive.

She doesn’t wear her death wounds like other ghosts do. They say her throat was cut, and this girl’s throat is long and white. But there is the dress. It’s wet, and red, and constantly moving. It drips onto the ground.

Blake has set herself a difficult task; she has to make Anna both menacing and sympathetic and I think she manages, for the most part. That success comes, partly, from the fact that Cas is a likeable narrator: smart and  resilient. Since we see Anna through Cas’s eyes, we can empathize with her story – which is told via a brief seance-like flashback. Blake had my full attention up until then because that’s about when Cas starts to realize that his feelings for Anna aren’t strictly professional.

And then the kissing starts and – um – how do you kiss a ghost? I would have much preferred a heaping helping of angst to go along with my horror.

Blake further complicates the story with the introduction of the creature who had killed (aka eaten) his father and then the story just sort of falls apart…leading us to the inevitable sequel.

The ingredients for a terrific novel are all here. Blake’s writing is propulsive and straight forward. I think there’s just too much going on: a Dean Winchester-esque hero, wannabe Scoobies, a family friend who sounds suspiciously like Rupert Giles, ghosts aplenty, and a star-crossed love affair that isn’t quite believable.

Too bad – there was so much early potential.

 

With apologies to Adrian and Jon

If my younger self had gotten her act together, I might have found a place in the publishing business. Nothing gives me more pleasure than reading and anyone who knows me, knows that I am really critical about what I read – just ask me what I think of Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight. Or visit my Book Graveyard

By day, I am a high school English teacher and I really and truly feel that the most important part of my job is to put students on a path towards a lifetime of reading. During the 2012-13 academic year I had an astounding grade ten class. These kids were amazing – smart and funny and hard-working – and a true joy to spend time with. They also, for the most part, loved to read. So we did read, a lot.

I have a pretty good-sized classroom library…and it’s getting bigger. I have already asked our Mill & Cab teacher if he could get his students to build me a bigger and better bookshelf in my room in the fall because I am outgrowing all the bookcases I’ve purchased and scavanged over the past few years. I love having all those books in my room because it shows students I am a serious reader. It also allows me to have real conversations about books and gives me the ability to put a book into a kid’s hands and say “Read this.”

So, when a student turns the tables and puts a book in my hands, I feel obliged to read that book. In this case, the book was called John Dies @ the End  by David Wong.

ea_johndiescover And I tried, guys; I really did. I got to page 142 and I just couldn’t go on.  In a nutshell, John Dies @ the End is a crazy hybrid of horror and comedy about two friends, Dave and John, who appear to be some sort of supernatural investigators (think Sam and Dean from Supernatural) who come into contact with this mind-altering drug called ‘soy sauce’. Wackiness ensues.

Sadly, the wackiness just wasn’t interesting to me.

According to Cracked.com (where David Wong, a pseudonym for Jason Pargin, was an editor), John and Dave “find out the world is being attacked by a Lovecraftian god named Korrok,  whose godhood has not saved him from being totally retarded. Dave must overcome  Korrok’s dark and invisible army, while overcoming his own personal demons. His  primary demon is the fact that he just doesn’t give a shit.”

John Dies @ the End had an interesting introduction to the world.  The novel “has been published in no less than four formats: as an online serial, then  through the print-on-demand service at CafePress, then via indie horror  publisher Permuted Press, and now by  huge megapublisher St. Martin’s.” It has also been made into a movie.

I can certainly see why the book would appeal to the two young men who recommended it to me. It’s over-the-top and ridiculous and, I suppose, creepy in parts. It’s like a cult film: Hobo With a Gun, say. Maybe if I had discovered this book 30 years ago, I would have enjoyed it more. But I doubt it.

So, this made me think about book recommendations. Something The Guardian also pondered in its article When book recommendations go wrong. I know how I feel when I fall in love with a book and want to share it and other readers aren’t quite as enamoured. It cuts like a knife, people.

Book Riot (an absolutely fabulous book-related site) had a great article about What To Do When Friends Give You a Book You Don’t Want to Read. I really felt obligated to read John Dies @ the End because how can I expect my students to accept my recommendations if I won’t accept theirs? The truth of the matter is that I have my own criteria for deciding whether or not I should keep on trucking through a book that doesn’t immediately grab me.

I considered what makes me give up on a book in 2012 in my post Books are like a relationship, sometimes you have to end it

At the end of the day – with so many books on my tbr shelf – I just had to break up with John Dies @ the End. I hope Adrian and Jon can forgive me.

What makes you give up on a book?

Bliss – Lauren Myracle

blissBliss Inthemorningdew (no, I’m not joking!) is new at Crestview Academy. It’s tough enough to be the new girl, but Bliss’s life is further complicated by her unusual last name and the fact that her parents are hippies. Bliss has spent her entire fourteen years living in unusual places: a tent, the basement of a college and, most recently, a commune. Now she lives with her very formal maternal grandmother in Atlanta, dumped there by her parents who have run off to Canada to protest the Vietnam War. Or Nixon. Something, anyway. They’re sort of non-entities, in a very strange way.

This is a situation neither Grandmother not I would have chosen, but Grandmother is nothing if not morally upright, which made it impossible for her to turn me away. She’s also uptight, and it seems that often the two go together.

Although life with her Grandmother is odd (at least in the beginning), Bliss is looking forward to having something she hasn’t ever had before: a friend. Soon is she is navigating the impossibly complicated world of teenage drama and it’s a world about which she knows very little.

Lauren Myracle’s novel Bliss isn’t really a coming-of-age story, though. It’s sort of part mystery, part ghost story, part thriller. On some levels it works very nicely; I had no trouble turning the pages as I raced along to the book’s conclusion. In other ways, the book is perhaps a bit bloated. There’s commentary on racism, mentions of the Klan and many of the characters in this book are concerned with Charles Manson and the now infamous murders which took place during the summer of 1969.  Myracle opens chapters with quotes from Manson and quotes from the Andy Griffith Show, perhaps as a way of balancing extreme good and extreme evil. For my money, Bliss might have benefited from a little judicious editing and more of a focus on what was really intriguing:  new girl tries to fit in and gets caught up in creepy hi-jinx.

Bliss is a likable character. I’m not sure I understand why her parents dumped her. She’s smart and kind and open-minded. It was easy to be with her and to fear for her safety. I’m certain teens will find lots to like about this book

Graveminder – Melissa Marr

Melissa Marr’s first novel for adults (she’s better known for her YA novel series Wicked Lovely) was my first read in 2012. Actually I started Graveminder  in 2011 and was hoping to get it finished but I just couldn’t manage it. Graveminder was recently voted Best Horror novel at Goodreads, but it’s been on my radar for a few months and I was really looking forward to reading it.

So, so disappointed.

The premise of Graveminder is actually quite intriguing. When Rebekkah Barrow’s grandmother, Maylene, is murdered, Rebekkah comes back to the town where she grew up. Claysville is not like other towns; it has strange traditions, particularly where the dead are concerned.

Matlene was a graveminder.

If anything happens to me, you mind her grave and mine the first three months. Just like when you go with me, you take care of the graves. …Promise me.

Rebekkah, as it turns out, is a graveminder, too. Her job – which she knows nothing about until she returns to Claysville, is to guard the graves of the dead.

Her return to Claysville is complicated by her on again off again relationship with Byron,  the town’s undertaker.  (Graveminder, undertaker – sounds like a couple wresters,eh?) Byron was Rebekkah’s sister’s high school sweetheart until tragedy struck and now Rebekkah just can’t seem to get it together where Byron’s concerned. These unresolved feelings make up a large part of the novel’s energy – but not in a good way.

None of Graveminder actually lives up to the promise of the plot.  The writing is generally clunky, the characters vacillate between annoying and insipid and many promising plot threads are never satisfactorily resolved.  Rebekkah continually pushes Byron away and they have the same conversation over and over – like they are 12 – drove me c-r-a-z-y.  Their interaction was not adult in any way.

Graveminder wasn’t scary, either. The premise was: the dead must be tended or maybe they’ll come back and if they do – watch out. Also, Marr has created an intriguing ‘other’ world, a place where the dead go and live. The thing is, it feels like she’s dropping the reader into the middle of a story – where questions are asked but never answered.

If there’s a sequel coming, I won’t be reading.

11/365

Dark Harvest – Norman Partridge

Peter Straub, a writer I have admired for several decades said that Norman Partridge  is “probably the most exciting and original voice in horror literature to have appeared in the last decade.”  Coming from the man who wrote Floating Dragon and Ghost Story, two books I read with the lights totally on, this is high praise.

An unnamed Midwestern town is cursed. Every Halloween the October Boy (or Ol’ Hacksaw Face or Sawtooth Jack) rises from the cornfields and heads to town where all the eligible teenage boys try to kill him. They’ve been denied food for the past few days and the October Boy has a gut full of candy.  This year, Pete McCormick is one of those boys. He’s had a rough few months: his mother has died of cancer, his father’s grief led him to the bottle and that led to the unemployment line. Killing the October Boy is Pete’s way out of town because that’s what the prize is: a way out of the one-horse town he lives in and free everything for his dad and little sister.

What Pete doesn’t know is that the October Boy is on a quest, too. He has to make it to the church by midnight and so he’s every bit as determined as Pete. Neither of them know the town’s dark history or its secrets, though.

I liked Dark Harvest. Was it the scariest book I’ve ever read? Uh, no. It was unusual, though. Creative. And strangely, I sort of felt myself rooting (no pun intended – but you’ll have to read the book to know what I mean) for both Pete and the October Boy. It’s a short book, you could read it in a couple hours if you were so inclined. Save it for Halloween night.

 

Song of Kali – Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons’ novel Song of Kali was first published in 1985. At the time, Simmons was not the  well-known writer he is today – he had a few published short stories under his belt, but that’s about it. Song of Kali was the winner of the World Fantasy Award and received universal priase as a novel as “harrowing and goulish as anyone could wish” (Locus) and “an absolutely harrowing experience” (F. Paul Wilson).

“Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist,” narrator Bobby Luczak says. He’s talking about Calcutta. Bobby, a  poet and editor (with his partner, Abe) of a literary magazine called Other Voices is being sent to India to retrieve a manuscript by an important Indian writer, M. Das. Das is presumed dead: he’s been missing for years. Bobby takes his wife, Amrita (who was born in New Dehli, but left for England when she was seven) and their infant daughter, Victoria.

Although Bobby lives in New York City, Calcutta is unlike any place he’s ever been. The heat, the poverty, the stench:

Rotting residential slums gave way to larger, even more decayed-looking buildings. There were few street lights. Vague flickers of heat lightning were reflected in the deep pools of black water that filled the intersections…the buildings seemed ancient beyond age, decayed remnants of some forgotten millennium – some pre-human age – for the shadows, angles, apertures, and emptiness did not fit the architecture of man. Yet, on every second or third floor there were open-windowed glimpses of humanity inhabiting these druidic shambles: bare bulbs swinging, bobbing heads, peeled walls with plaster rotting off the rib-bones of the building…the sight of sheeted figures lying like corpses in the sidewalk shadows.

From the moment Bobby and Amrita arrive in Calcutta life as they’ve known it as intellectuals is tested. Perhaps it is the heat; perhaps it is the lack of those conveniences they’ve always taken for granted, but Bobby’s quest for Das’ lost manuscript takes him to the edge of sanity. Secret meetings, whispered stories and Kali – the Goddess of death- all contribute to the claustrophobic atmosphere Simmons does such a terrific job with. There are some truly heart-pounding moments in this book.

But – this is not a horror novel in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s horrific, but ultimately the truly horrible thing that happens to Luczak’s family is not supernatural. And as we all know, men are  the most evil beings we’ll ever encounter in our lifetime.

So, Song of Kali is atmospheric, creepy and strangely affecting but not in the ways you might expect.

Ammie, Come Home – Barbara Michaels

Barbara Michaels is a prolific writer, having penned over 30 novels (some under her real name, Elizabeth Peters). Somehow her book  Ammie, Come Home found its way onto my tbr list, then shelf and I finally got around to reading it.

Published in 1968, Ammie, Come Home is an old-fashioned ghost story (emphasis on the old-fashioned.) It concerns Ruth, her 19-year-old niece, Sara (who is living with her while she attends college), Pat MacDougal (Sara’s professor and Ruth’s love interest) and Bruce, Sara’s boyfriend. Ruth and Sara live in a house they Ruth inherited from an aunt. It’s quite a famous house, one which causes Professor MacDougal to exclaim “Good God Almighty!” the first time he enters.

A seance kicks off the other-worldly events in Michaels’ novel. Then Ammie, Come Home plods along with all the requisite ghostly bells and whistles (moaning, doors opening and closing, cold air.) Perhaps I am jaded. No, I am definitely jaded because I didn’t find the book even remotely scary and no one likes a good horror story more than me.

It’s got me thinking though. What books have truly frightened me?  I’m going to have to do some thinking on that one. I’ll get back to you. In the meantime, what’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

Isolation by Travis Thrasher

Travis Thrasher’s novel Isolation is a sheep  in wolf’s clothing. It pretends to be one thing, but it’s actually something very different indeed.

Isolation tells the story of missionaries James and Stephanie Miller. They’ve recently returned home from Papua New Guinea with their two young children, Zach, 8 and Ashley, 5. Something traumatic happened in Papua New Guinea and Jim and Stephanie are feeling disillusioned and isolated – from each other and from their church.

Jim wants to take some time to recharge his spiritual battery and so he moves his family  to North Carolina, to an isolated lodge built by an eccentric millionaire. The house has secrets though and so, apparently, does Stephanie’s family history.

Now, if this had been a book about how this couple and family overcome obstacles to find their way back to their faith, that might have been one thing. But this is supposed to be a ‘horror’ novel. Thrasher even thanks scare-master Stephen King in his acknowledgments. I’m not saying the book doesn’t have a certain creep-factor. It does. But I think that this book is more about God and putting your faith him him. Evil in this book is the work of the devil and the ability to fight against it comes from a higher power.

I’m not religious. In my book club, I proudly wear the flag of heathen. Organized religion irritates me. Hopefully that will explain, in part, why I felt duped by Isolation.  Whole sections of the novel felt preachy to me, like when we learn about how Stephanie’s character came to be Christian.

The camp was run by Christians who were sincere and loving. They weren’t like the televangelists her parents mocked or the pious churchgoers in her neighbourhood who never even bothered to wave hello. They weren’t like the preachy kids at school who made others feel bad for not believing. These were simply loving, fun men and women who wanted to befriend the campers.

Oh, so there are different kinds of Christians, then.

Apparently, because the author takes great pains to describe Stephanie’s friend, Michelle’s “no-nonsense” qualities.

Why aren’t there women elders in the church, and why can’t they serve Communion, and what’s the big deal about having a beer every now and then, and why can’t Christians get off their high horse sometimes?

It’s stuff like this that made me feel as though Isolation‘s agenda was not actually to scare, but to instruct. Too bad because all the ingredients were there for a creepy little story…if only it hadn’t felt so much like a sermon.

Dark Debts by Karen Hall

debtsKaren Hall’s novel Dark Debts is a lot of things, but the most ‘terrifying horror thriller of the last decade’ is not one of them. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this book – I did. But it didn’t scare me.

Dark Debts tells the story of Randa, a newspaper writer; Jack, eldest son of a cursed family (all of whom have either committed suicide or been executed); and Michael, a Jesuit priest who’s in love with Tess, a book editor. Their connection isn’t immediately apparent, but as it turns out they have more in common than you’d think. Don’t worry, all is revealed by the book’s rather neat-bow ending.

What I liked about Dark Debts had less to do with its, at times, heavy-handed musing on the nature of faith and more to do with Hall’s ability to write dialogue that is often very funny.It’s the dialogue that propels the novel along, and so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Hall’s other career is as a successful television writer. (The fact that Dark Debts is destined for the big screen should therefore be no surprise either. )

Her characters are all likable, too, even when they do unrealistic things.

There’s a lot going on in Dark Debts – murders and devils and exorcisms, but none of it’s scary –  or maybe I’ve just been forever spoiled by the demon who possessed Regan in The Exorcist.