The Wicker King – K. Ancrum [Books]

wicker kingReceived this as a gift from my lovely boyfriend, because he heard me raving about The Wicked King  (which he got me for Valentine’s Day) and got confused. But this was on my wishlist, so I still really wanted to read it.

And, you know what? I loved it.

August and Jack have been best friends for years, and remain so, despite their vastly different friendship groups. Jack’s memories aren’t always real, and he relies on August to confirm events, but it soon becomes apparent that Jack is seeing something else, experiencing hallucinations that are now intruding on his day to day life. He enlists August’s help, in order to fulfil the prophecy of The Wicker King, and the two try to prevent Jack’s ‘other world’ from being destroyed. But August is torn, unsure if what Jack is seeing is real or not, only knowing that what they are doing is dangerous.

I read this book in two days.

Even for shorter books, that’s unusual for me. But the book itself was easy to read, flowed really well, with chapters broken by images, letters, notes, or mixtape lists.  They all added in some way to the plot, or gave deeper understandings of the characters. I read this book so quick because it was, in some ways, an absolute joy to read, with the relationship between August and Jack, and the people around them. In others, I was desperate to find out what would happen next, if they would be okay, if something was about to happen to disrupt their world/s.

The book focuses on these two characters, but there’s a lot of people around them, too, fully fleshed, fully realised people who pop in and out of both August and Jack’s lives, including absent adults, and well meaning teens who don’t really know what they’re doing.

The question of whether Jack’s visions are real is present, subtly, throughout, and handled really well. I found myself honestly wondering about them, even when August didn’t, and at some points, I had as much faith in Jack as August did, though I also kept hoping both sought extra help, outside of each other.

Overall, this is a really well written, fast paced book that explores mental health and relationships in an engaging way, drawing you completely into the world Jack and August inhabit. Strongly recommended by me.

Any books you’ve enjoyed recently, that explore similar themes? Or have you read The Wicker King? I’m always happy to see what other people thought!

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The Doll Factory – Elizabeth Macneal [Books]

the doll factoryThe Doll Factory is author Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel, telling the story of Iris, a young woman who earns to escape the doll shop she is trapped in, and who wants to paint. A meeting with a pre-Raphaelite painter changes her whole life, but there are other dangers, lurking in the shadows.

The novel is told from three different point of views. Iris, Albie, a loveable street urchin with no teeth, and Silas, a creepy, strange man who runs a shop of ‘curiosities’. In parts, the story reads like Dickens (in a good way), completely plunging the reader into the underbelly of Victorian-era London, allowing us to see the dregs of society alongside the fairly well-off painters, as the site for the Great Exhibition is built, and the PRB try to gain some small measure of critical acclaim.

Honestly, this book is beautiful. The language is gorgeous and an absolute pleasure to read. I have to admit, I don’t often read Historical fiction. Not because I don’t like it, I just don’t seek it out, and I tend to lean more towards books with elements of fantasy or horror. But I am so glad I read this one. There are some very small horror elements in there, combined with aspects of thriller, and they all come together to create a rich atmosphere, really bringing the setting to life.

Although the characters are Victorian, and very much rooted in that era, they have a relevance to the present, as well. Iris is constantly holding back parts of herself, scared of what people will think, fretting about being alone with men, and Silas…Silas will be all too recognisable to anyone who’s ever had an unwanted ‘admirer’.

I would seriously recommend picking this up. Vibrant characters and settings in an atmospheric world, London on the cusp of change as much as Iris is, and an absolute pleasure to read.

Find out more about the author and book on Elizabeth Macneal’s website, including links as to where to buy in the book in the UK & USA.

The Queen of The Tearling – Erika Johansen [Books]

queen of the tearling.jpgDear friends,

One thing I want you to understand, is I will never disguise my feelings about a book on this blog. I will, however, always try to find the good in something. But if I say I liked a book, I liked it. If I gush about how great it is, I absolutely loved it. If I disliked it, it’s going to be clear. And if you felt differently about a book than I did, I would love to hear from you – I’m always open to discussion.

That said, if you passionately love this book and cannot hear a bad word said against it, it might be a good idea to turn away now.

I did not like this book.

I struggled with this book, and it is one of those rare times I considered rethinking my do not DNF policy.

The Queen of the Tearling is about Kelsea, a young woman in the Tearling, who due to her heritage, has grown up isolated with no one around but her foster parents. One day, a group of men come to whisk her away to the capital and crown her queen. But they are being pursued by the Caden, a group of assassins hired by her uncle, who wants her dead before she can be crowned.

So far, so yeah this sounds interesting, right?

It didn’t take me long into the book to discover I probably wouldn’t like Kelsea. She feels really bland, and makes massive judgements about the people she sees. Speaking of which, the book is very, very focused on appearances. All the men in the guard are handsome and young, despite the fact most of them have been in the guard since Kelsea was a child. People seem to age really slowly in the Tearling, for some reason – actually, almost every man (except the bad guys or slightly-bad-guys) are described as handsome. Kelsa herself keeps moaning about how plain she is, but I really don’t understand how one would think themselves plain if they’ve never seen anyone else? Also she has no mirrors, just sees herself reflected in water, and that’s not really a great one to judge appearance?

I’m not saying Kelsea has to be beautiful, or even ugly. But it just reads a bit odd, and honestly, the plain female hero obsessed with books…it’s been done. A lot. And Kelsea doesn’t really add anything to it at all.

Oh! And one of the men in her guard happens to be black. We know this, because Kelsea seems him and IS SHOCKED. She has (gasp!) never seen a black man before. But…she’s never seen ANYONE before? Like, again, her whole life has been lived in complete isolation. Oh, except in history books. She remembers that.  She has definitely seen black people in history books about…the slave trade.

And (I might be misremembering) I can;t recall anyone else’s race being mentioned again. So either he gets a special mention for being the first, or…no one else in the Tearling is black? I don’t know, but considering it’s the future, and people are descended from the Brits and Americans, it would be REALLY BLOODY WEIRD not to have anyone else who isn’t white. Speaking of which, why British-American? What happened to the other countries? Oh, except Europe. Because they came separately and have a completely different country right next door. Coincidently, all the doctors and medical supplies were on the same ship, which sank. So medicine is poor.

Which brings me to some other points. They made a crossing, from somewhere, but to WHERE, EXACTLY? Is this a different planet? Or did they find some other continent, and kill whoever lived there? None of this is explained or hinted at, and there’s really not a lot of indication as to why things have regressed so much. Don’t get me wrong – I love when worldbuilding makes you think you’re somewhere else, but it turns out (GASP) it’s the future! The problem is, this doesn’t do that. There is literally no reason to not explain these events, or where they are. It’s outright stated – not even hinted at – that this is in our future. There’s mention of Harry Potter and The Hobbit. Revealing that this was another planet would have made it more interesting, I think, but maybe that was revealed and I missed something? I dunno.

And why do people live for so long?

The book builds up the mysteries of who is Kelsea’s father and who is The Fetch but there is literally no pay off to these. To any of these! Three huge questions and by the end of the novel none of them were answered. If one of them was, I’d have found that mildly satisfying, but them all being left makes me feel like it’s a ploy just to get people to read the next one.

Honestly I could rant about this so much more, but I’m not going to. I wanted to like this book. I really, really did, but I struggled so much and as you can probably tell from the above, there were a lot of things that just nagged at me.

I would definitely not recommend this book, unfortunately. But that’s just me, and looking on reviews, it seems to be a book you either love or hate, and of course this is all just completely and utterly my own opinion.

Still, if you have read this book, I would absolutely love to know what you thought. And I promise my next review will be less ranty.

On The Come Up – Angie Thomas [Books]

on the come upWhen I read Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give, I knew this was an author I was going to follow for a long, long time. I was super excited when I heard about her next book, On The Come Up, and honestly, I almost squealed in excitement when I spotted it in my local bookshop.

On The Come Up is the story of Bri, who wants to be the greatest rapper the world has ever seen. To try to get her start, she competes in rap battles in the ring, and from there, the story moves forward, showing us this young, strong, argumentative, passionate girl with a powerful voice, who the world wants to silence.

There are certain elements similar to The Hate U Give, a couple of similar themes and elements, and the books are set in the same area, but they are still vastly different. I’ve seen some people say Bri was harder to like than Starr, but I didn’t find that to be the case. I adored Bri. Like Starr, she felt completely and utterly real. A teenage girl, just trying to get along in life, juggling school, social life, her passion, and boys. There were a number of times I wanted to reach through the page and hug her, and there’s little about her personality I didn’t relate to.

When it comes to character voices, Angie Thomas has an amazing gift. Bri practically sings off the page (well, raps…) and it’s so easy to imagine her talking, rapping, thinking. Small touches emphasise her character, as we see the world through her eyes, as we witness the world around her, through her.

Overall, On The Come Up is a brilliant, fantastic novel, about ambition and voice and power (and being powerless), and once again Angie Thomas had me completely hooked right from the very first page until the last. I will be eagerly awaiting her third novel. If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest reading both The Hate U Give and On The Come Up. You really won’t be disappointed.

The Fever King – Victoria Lee [Books]

 

the fever king

Before I get into this, I just want to mention I received this book from Ashleigh (@edwardanddamon on Twitter), after winning it in one of her monthly giveaways. You should definitely go check her out because she’s awesome.

In a future version of the USA, Noam, the bisexual son of undocumented immigrants, survives an outbreak of a disease that leaves some survivors with the ability to do magic, although what kind of magic varies from one person to another. He is taken to a training centre, and put under the watchful eye of the charismatic, mysterious Calix Lehrer, former king, alongside Calix’s ‘son’, Dara.

I wanted to like this. Maybe my expectations were a little bit too high, but the premise sounded brilliant, and the writing itself is good – certain sentences were a joy to read, and some scenes were really gripping. But by the end, it just felt like there was too much crammed in, too much going on. The cast of characters is a little too big, filtering in and out, the other students a little flat compared to the actually well done characterisation of Noam and Dara.

Calix himself just read as untrustworthy, and it was hard to see why Noam trusted him so much, why he felt so willing to go along with everything.

Plot-wise, again, there were some really good elements here, but a lot got crammed in, and the moment one thing picked up, the plot seemed to take a sharp left turn into something else. There were some confusing moments, some really ‘huh?’ moments, and the ending…the ending to me just felt a little contrived, a touch rushed, with everything being a little too coincidental at certain points, and confusing at others. More than once, I found myself going back to reread a paragraph or two.

This is definitely not a bad book, nor is it badly written. The fault – to me – lays in too many ideas jammed into a fast paced scenes, with slower, meandering interruptions throughout where the students do nothing but sit around, repeated quite often, when it feels like the pace should be faster, coupled with too many characters. I really would have liked to have seen more of their training, maybe an example or two of their classes, and what life was really like for the students in this school, rather than just skipping over the interesting parts to show them in the same room or in Calix’s study.

Now, the important question. The Fever King is the first in the series, named Feverwake, and at the end I had to ask myself – will I read the next one?

The honest answer is… (drum roll please) probably yes, actually. Like I said, Lee isn’t a bad writer, and I think the next book will likely show lots of improvement, plus, by this point, I do feel invested in the story. So maybe, despite the things I disliked about it, the book has done its job, after all.

The Near Witch – V.E. Schwab [Books]

the near witchI only recently started reading Victoria Schwab’s novels. I started with City of Ghosts, then read A Darker Shade of Magic, shortly before going to an author event in Waterstones, Cardiff, where I picked up the next two Shades of Magic books and The Near Witch, money being the only thing stopping me from picking up everything else.

From the moment I started City of Ghosts, I absolutely fell in love with the writing. All the books I’ve read are vastly different, but carrying the same talent.

For anyone not aware, The Near Witch was Schwab’s first novel, which went out of print, and has recently been re-released.  Which is honestly a brilliant, great thing, because this book is an absolute delight.

For any fans who have read later books, it is well worth reading The Near Witch. There are some elements sprinkled throughout which feel like they have taken root, and branched out into other books, such as the Shades of Magic series.

The Near Witch takes place in the town of Near, where Lexi lives with her sister and mother. The people are afraid of anything unusual, including the witches who live on the town’s edge. A stranger appears one night, and shortly after, children start disappearing.

Near is described so well, it’s easy to imagine the town, and it really comes to life with the various characters dotted here and there, as Lexi explores and tries to discover exactly what happened to the children. Atmosphere plays a key role, and even the weather itself feels like an additional character, helping or hindering the characters as they move along their journeys.

The characters all feel real and fully realised, including Lexi’s family and Cole, the stranger. And as to the disappearance of the children, the reader is kept as on their toes as Lexi, trying to work through the puzzle and figure out if a fairy-tale really has come to life.

Overall, I loved The Near Witch for the same reasons I loved City of Ghosts and the Shades of Magic trilogy. For the atmospheric settings, the colourful characters, and the intriguing plot. Highly recommend this book for anyone who loves a good, haunting novel.

The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School – Kim Newman [Books]

drearcliffAfter Amy Thomsett’s mother finds her floating on the ceiling, Amy is shipped off to Drearcliff Grange, but rather than squash this strange ability out of her, Amy learns more about her abilities, while her and her new found friends are tested in various ways.

They face off against The Hooded Conspiracy, before a new girl arrives at the school, bringing with her a strange new way of doing things.

I thoroughly enjoyed Kim Newman’s novel, about strange, powerful girls who can do strange, wonderful things in a strange, creepy school. The book reads very much like the old pulp novels, mixed with the great British boarding school novel tradition. The characters are likeable, though a bit numerous, and it was fun to read the clever ways the girls came up with to get themselves out of dire situations.

Newman has a gift for immersing the reader in the time period, as evident in Anno Dracula and Drearcliff, and a solid love for whatever literature he is using as a base for his work. Drearcliff isn’t Hogwarts, Miss Peregrine’s or Xavier’s School. These girls aren’t witches, Peculiars or mutants. Some of them don’t have abilities, but may have other skills. Some just have interesting family backgrounds, but a few, like Amy, are Unusual. In the girls of Drearcliff, Newman has created a brand new batch of teens with abilities, with his own twists. The main core all feel fully fleshed out, though when it came to some of the more background characters, I did find myself losing track of who was who, now and then, especially as a couple of the girls had similar sounding names.

But overall, I really did enjoy this, including the more Lovecraftian aspects filtering in throughout the novel. The novel is set in the 1920s, with the girls using exclamations such as, “Crumpets!” and with that time period in mind, there’s an interesting parallel as the Black Skirts slowly infiltrating the school, mirroring the rise of fascism in Europe.

Some things aren’t as clear as they could be, and some of the characters can get a touch grating, but the clarity feels like a purposeful choice, and Amy Thomsett is enjoyable enough to counter the others.

The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School is a fun, creepy, enjoyable read, with masterful use of language and a solid sense of place and time. Definitely one for fans of more subtle but fantastical horror, and a good twist on the British school literary novel.

HEX – Thomas Olde Heuvelt [Books – SPOILERS!]

hexAs indicated by the title of this post, this post will contain spoilers. If you haven’t yet read the book (and if you have, I would love your thoughts on this!) then I suggest getting a copy, reading it, then coming back.

FINAL SPOILER WARNING PUPPY!

close up of dog on grass
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Glancing over reviews on Goodreads, this book seems to provoke a love/hate reaction. Some feel the book might have sexist tones, and an ‘obsession’ with certain aspects of the female form. But to me, the book was less sexist in itself, than portraying the attitudes of the townsfolk. Grim seems to take a very dim view of women. He goes out of his way to protect the town, to try to make things right, and has clear views of what is right and what is wrong – but he still obsesses over the appearance of women. Personally I don’t think that’s reflective of the author, but of the character. Grim might be good at his job, but clearly living in the same town, unable to leave for any extended period of time, and being forced to watch over the same people day in, day out, with actually very little power, has taken its toll on him. And he’s as dismissive of the men, too.

One argument is that there’s no ‘positive’ female characters, but I think Jocelyn is quite positive. And even if she weren’t, personally, I don’t see any particularly positive male characters, either. Jocelyn definitely comes out much better than Steve who, after Tyler’s death, is so obsessed with it he doesn’t really seem to care about Matt, and thinks bitterly about ‘her son’ still being alive.

Of course, one of the amazing things about books is that everyone takes away something different from different pieces of writing. The actions and thoughts of the characters can be seen as sexist and misogynistic, but I personally feel this was the characters, not the author, though without further works to read, it’s a hard judgement to make.

The book definitely carries a Pet Semetary vibe for me, and a complete Stephen King feel, from the strange small town where odd things happen, to the absolute humanity of the characters. They feel real, and they do things – good and bad – that make sense. They try to protect loved ones, and hurt when they fail.

It’s easy to see early on that Katherine isn’t the real evil in the town. She’s creepy, yes, but that feels like it’s because of the interference by the townsfolk. She’s creepy because they made her creepy. And in a trope any horror fan will recognise (*cough* Mama *cough*), at the end of the day she is a lost mother mourning her children, who ends up – not in the best way – replacing them. The attacks are her self-defence mechanism, and when the town becomes a nightmarish hell hole, it’s less because of Katherine and more mass hysteria.

Overall, if I haven’t made it clear already, Heuvelt has written something which has quickly become one of my favourite horror novels. This is the first English translation of one of his novels, and I really hope it’s the first of many.

HEX – Thomas Olde Heuvelt [Books]

hexI’m actually going to do two posts for this novel, because there’s a fair bit I want to talk about which would contain spoilers. This is the spoiler-free review of HEX, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt.

In the English language version of HEX, the story takes place in Black Spring, a town situated not too far from New York in the USA. Black Spring seems like a pretty normal town, with normal, small town type characters. The novel mainly focuses on the Grant family – Steve, Jocelyn, Tyler and Matt. As newlyweds, Steve and Jocelyn moved to Black Spring, with no idea what awaited them. Because Black Spring has a secret, known to the townspeople, but kept hidden from Outsiders.

That secret is the witch, Katherine van Wyler.

Katherine has a tragic history – accused of witchcraft, forced to do something horrific, and killed for it. The townspeople believe they are under Katherine’s curse – she wanders through the town, her eyes and mouth sewn shut, appearing in people’s homes and disappearing at will.

Katherine is creepy. Her presence is creepy, and Heuvelt does what any good horror writer should do – he takes what is normal, even if that normality is different for the characters than for us – and twists it. We come to accept Katherine’s presence, but similar to Stephen King’s Derry, there are trails of the curse in the town, in the population. It makes us question whether this is a result of the curse, or if people are just shit.

One of the things I really loved about this book was that the characters, and their problems – even where they involved Katherine – were so damn real. The characters are human, and relatable, from the teenager who just wants to live a normal life, to the father who would do anything for his son, and the woman just trying to protect herself and her son after an abusive relationship.

All the characters are, essentially, trying to make the best out of bad situations. But, well, it’s a horror novel. Things happen that change Katherine’s ‘routine’, and the tension kicks in, rising up until we hit the climax.

Overall, I really liked this book. The setting has been transported from the original setting to the USA, and works really well, allowing the more American elements and history to bleed into the novel. The horror is handled brilliantly, with the tension not just rising from the supernatural, but the more mundane issues of the Black Spring residents, as well.

There are some issues, a few strange moments, but these were easy to overlook amongst the strengths. A really fantastic horror novel, and one I would definitely recommend.

Book VS Film – Bird Box

bird box.pngSomething that can often be said for book to film adaptations, but I think really is worth repeating here – the book explains it better.

For those not aware, Bird Box follows Malorie, as the world becomes a strange, frightening place full of creatures the human mind cannot understand nor comprehend. To combat this, survivors wear blindfolds whenever they are outside their homes. They cover windows, learning not to look.

At the start of the story, Malorie is pregnant, meaning she must not only learn to survive in this scary new world, she has to learn how to raise children in it, as well.

There were a number of…interesting changes made between the book and Netflix’s film. They make sense, in a way, because they probably make for better watching, but whereas I finished the film thinking meh, not that scary, not really invested in any of the characters, I found the book to be a good horror novel, really gripping and definitely with more interesting characters.

There are some…strange changes made between book and film. I’m sure there are valid reasons for some of these, but some of the changes include –

  • Ageing up the characters – this is understandable, and not completely a bad thing, but in the book, Malorie and most of the ‘housemates’ are in their early to mid twenties. To me, this makes a lot of sense – not that women past their thirties wouldn’t have one night stands, but I feel like it’s more likely for Malorie to have one AND get pregnant if she’s younger. That might just be me, but a few of the character’s actions make sense when they’re just that little bit younger.
  • Things move slower. Again, a change that makes sense when transferring from text to film, but the ‘creatures’ don’t just suddenly appear to everyone at once at the same time. They creep in, affecting some people and leaving others untouched, rather than everything going from “oh there’s stuff happening in Russia” to “OMG it’s here panic panic panic.” It’s more gradual, leaving people with more time to prepare.
  • Tom. Ah, Tom. Intelligent, keen to help everyone, very flirty with Malorie. In the book, it’s hard to say she’s in love with him or not (I would think she is), but without a doubt, she admires him, respects him, and he gets her through a lot, whether he’s physically present or not. Tom conducts ‘experiments’, pushes for change, BUT (and here’s the kicker) some of what he does in the film, or that the group does as a whole, is done only by Malorie in the book. She learns to survive, and raise the kids, on her own. The film, to me, took away a lot of that strength given to her in the book.
  • The other housemates. On the whole, the other housemates are pretty decent. Even Don, who triggers some problems in the house, doesn’t do it out malice. The characters are more nuanced than in the film. Including Gary, though he is still a dick.  And those two characters who steal the car? Doesn’t happen in the book. (Though maybe they found they needed an excuse to get rid of MGK?)
  • Mental illness. Okay, I’ve been thinking about this one a fair bit. In the film, the implication is that anyone who is just a little bit off the line of what is considered ‘normal’, would be fair game to the creatures. But in the book, it’s more complicated than that. There is an element of that, but it’s more like people who could be susceptible to that sort of thing anyway can be drawn deeper down the path, like someone who believes man didn’t land on the moon might be more likely to believe the conspiracy theories surrounding JFK. And, well, anyone who lives through an end-of-the-world scenario is going to have mental health problems. Cooped up in a house for so long is going to work on your mind, as well as seeing some of the horrific imagery these characters do, it’s going to trigger depression, PTSD, anxiety, and other issues. I feel like it’s more clear in the book, whereas the film simplified it to the point where anyone with any mental illness ‘might’ worship the creatures, disregarding the fact that anyone living isn’t going to be the same person they were before the creatures arrived.
  • Dogs. If I’m remembering correctly, there are no dogs in the film. The book features three, with one ‘main one’, but considering this is horror novel…maybe it is a good thing they dropped them for the film.

Overall, the book definitely wins out over the film. The film felt like a physiological thriller packaged as horror, and though it was enjoyable, elements of it just felt a little too weak. The book was a gripping, engaging horror novel with stronger characters and less plot-holes.

Book wins.