Book Review: Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell

Frozen Charlotte
Alex Bell
Scholastic Press, November 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-94108-2
Hardcover

Everything began innocently enough. Sophie and her best friend Jay sitting in a cafe. He’d downloaded an ouija board app on his smartphone and was insistent they try it. Despite a sense of dread, she goes along reluctantly, but something seems to hijack the app, sending them really scary messages. Then the lights go out and all hell breaks loose. Someone in the cafe kitchen is badly burned and Sophie swears she saw a tall, ghostly figure atop one of the tables. Spooked by the experience, she pleads with Jay to take the towpath home when riding his rickety bike instead of going by way of the heavily traveled streets. The next day, she learns to her horror that he lost the brakes on his bike, slid into a canal and drowned.

Thus begins a series of scary and inexplicable events for Sophie. Her parents have a long anticipated anniversary trip to San Francisco, but are willing to cancel it because of what happened to Jay. Knowing that they’ll lose a bunch of money if this happens, stiffens her resolve to go stay with her strange relatives in an old girl’s school on the Isle of Skye they converted into a super menacing mansion.

Once there, things alternate between creepy and creepier. (Imagine highlights from “The Shining” if the cast were ripped from “The Munsters” minus any comedy and you’d be off to a good beginning.) Her uncle is an artist and essentially clueless about what’s happening, one of her cousins, Rebecca, died years ago under mysterious circumstances, but her ghost keeps reappearing (is she coming back to warn Sophie, or scare the heck out of her?) Then there’s her slightly older cousin Cameron, a brilliant pianist who suffered a terrible injury to one hand, severely hampering his dreams of becoming a world famous musician. Sophie can’t decide if he hates her or everyone in general. Next comes Piper, who is insanely beautiful and the same age as Sophie. At first, she seems like a breath of fresh air, but the longer Sophie’s around her, the more confused she is about who the real Piper is. Then there’s Lilias, the youngest girl who once tried to remove her own collarbone with a butcher knife. She’s hostile toward Sophie in the beginning, but the longer they’re around each other, the more they need to trust and rely on each other.

Add in that her aunt is locked up in a mental hospital, that there is an army of super creepy dolls remaining from when the school was in operation, coupled with a trash-talking parrot and generally gloomy weather and you have a grand recipe for a top notch YA horror story. Even if you start figuring out who was responsible for what nastiness before the end, it won’t matter because reading this makes for a grand and scary ride. Let’s hope the power doesn’t go out while you’re doing so.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, February 2017.

Book Review: Silver by Chris Wooding

SilverSilver
Chris Wooding
Scholastic Press, March 2014
ISBN: 978-0-545-60392-8
Hardcover

Take a boy who is already feeling emotional isolation and drop him into a private school in a remote English countryside, add monsters,  conflicted friendships, a bully and mix well.

This is the situation Paul finds himself in. His parents vanished in a South American plane crash and his aunt and uncle never wanted kids, so he’s felt the double sting of loss and rejection. He’s been polite and friendly at Mortingham Boarding school and has a crush on popular, athletic Erika, but she’s not interested. Caitlyn, however has it bad for Paul and, as the fourth of a group of sisters, has always felt less than in everything. Erika thinks Caitlyn is her best friend, but the opposite is true, although well hidden. Adam is big and a bully because he’s secretly afraid that any sign of weakness will cost him dearly. Quiet, very intelligent Mark realizes he’s outgrown the nerd clique and wants new friends, but has no clue how to do so.

When most of the kids have gone home for the weekend,  those remaining come under siege. It starts innocently enough with the discovery of an odd and very large beetle by the campus pond. Adam intimidates the boys who found it and after it’s dropped, he steps on it. Paul retrieves the crushed insect and takes it to their science teacher who shows the class that this bug is really different. Under a microscope, it looks like it has transistors and silver wires integrated into its body.

Kids go looking for more of the odd creatures and the fun begins. A boy is bitten and hordes of the beetles start after the now terrified students. When kids and faculty members who have been scratched or bitten begin morphing into glowing-eyed,  silvery monsters, those students remaining must put aside petty things and join together or die. They’re trapped in the science building and every time they come up with a defense, the monsters quickly adapt.

What ensues is fast-paced and creepy-scary,  typical Chris Wooding fare. He’s able to take a small part of the world and spin it into something frightening and complex. He does it again in Silver. You’ll want to set aside sufficient time to read it in one sitting because you won’t want to put it down.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, February 2016.

Book Review: The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall by Katie Alender

The Dead Girls of Hysteria HallThe Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall
Katie Alender
Point, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-63999-6
Hardcover

Precisely what I wanted from practically every book I picked up in high school; I simply cannot wait to share The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall with “my” students.  Teen-age angst, quintessentially captured in the sharp, witty and biting dialogue creates characters that are real and relatable.  Fabulous and freaky foreshadowing sets a quick, compelling pace making this a page-turner that causes the reader to declare “one more chapter” many, many times.  The sprawling haunted house/former institution “For the Care and Correction of Troubled Females” that Delia inherits from her former pen-pal and namesake Aunt Cordelia, serves as spot-on setting for this mesmerizing mystery.

While the plot pulled me in and kept me puzzling, the charisma of the characters captured my heart.  The familial and friend drama (with a dash of romance) that distract Delia from her ghost-saving goal of finding and eliminating the source of evil feels familiar.  Plotting escape from the house, Delia matures.  Refreshingly, Ms. Alender reveals this perfectly, in an honest way by allowing Delia to backslide…maybe she learns from this mistake the first time; but just like in real life, she doesn’t stop screwing up and she doesn’t learn from every mistake as quickly.

The history of Piven Institute, where female hysteria could mean anything from schizophrenia to too many opinions, coupled with her dad’s casual dismissal of anything uttered by a female, subtly introduces misogyny and its ill effects.  Conversely, the relationships Delia builds with the girl ghosts and her growing admiration for her little sister, “the prettiest, wittiest, most sparkling complete twerp of a human being you ever wanted to backhand on a daily basis” illustrates girl-power in its finest form.

There is so much to absolutely adore in this adventure peppered with amazing zingers that one highlighter was not enough to get me though this book.  I won’t be lending this out, I’ll need to read it again….at least once; but I will most certainly be giving it as a gift for a long time.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2016.

Book Reviews: Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics and Kittens Can Kill by Clea Simon

Daughters Unto DevilsDaughters Unto Devils
Amy Lukavics
Harlequin Teen, September 2015
ISBN: 978-0-373-21158-6
Hardcover

Isolation in a small cabin on a mountain during a very harsh winter would make anyone a bit strange, but in the late 1800s it’s worse. When sixteen year old Amanda Verner has to endure the additional stress of watching her pregnant mother thrash and moan for months after getting sick, the birth of her deaf and blind baby sister, Hannah, has her on the edge, alternating between guilt and anger…Anger at how unfair life is and guilt because of her wish that Hannah was dead. When she looks out the window and sees a demon coming toward the cabin, it tilts her over the edge.

As spring comes, Amanda isn’t feeling much better, but has decided to lie, particularly to her younger sister Emily, so she won’t be constantly confronted about her strangeness which hasn’t abated since she saw the demon. When she meets Henry, a boy who makes a living delivering things, it doesn’t take long for her to start having sex with him in the forest. It makes her feel wanted and drives tormenting thoughts away, but when she becomes pregnant herself, things go back to awful as she tries to hide her condition and keep the lies going.

After her father returns from the nearest town and tells his family that another harsh winter is predicted, he also tells them that he heard of empty and larger cabins on the prairie and has decided to move his family there. Amanda, grateful for a temporary reprieve, is hopeful that the move will somehow allow her to find a way to tell the family about her condition.

The cabin they find looks good from the outside, but the interior has a torn up floor and reeks of rotting blood. Even so, the family camps on cut grass outside while working to clean things up. There’s a working water pump behind the house and they soon learn that it’s being used by Zeke, a boy about Amanda’s age and his physician father who live a couple miles away. Zeke tells Amanda, Emily and their two younger siblings, Joanna and Charles, ghost stories that have some eerie similarities with ones Henry told Amanda before the family came to the new home.

From that point on, there’s no break and no peace for Amanda and her family. Horrible things follow one another involving demons and natural disasters, leaving it up to Amanda and Emily to assume responsibility at a level well beyond their years. This is a grand debut novel that’s horror at its best. Teens who love creepy and unexpected will devour this one. The blurb on the cover is completely accurate when author Cat Winters says: “Imaging Stephen King writing Little House on the Prairie.”

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, October 2015.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kittens Can KillKittens Can Kill
A Pru Marlowe Pet Noir #5
Clea Simon
Poisoned Pen Press, March 2015
ISBN 978-1-4642-0358-9
Hardcover

This is the fifth book in the Pru Marlowe Pet Noir Series. So far, Simon has written about dogs, cats, parrots, panthers and now for #5, we have kittens. If it’s hard for you to turn down a kitten who may be a witness or the cause of death, I think you will enjoy this book.

The animals in this book communicate with Pru, an animal behaviorist who hides her ability, from the kitten to Pru’s own cat, Wallis, and the animals in the animal hospital. Unfortunately for Pru, the animals (not to mention, some of the humans) are very cryptic with what they are willing to share. And Pru gets to put it all together after she finds a kitten next to the wealthy dead lawyer, David Canaday.

A pet peeve of mine (no pun intended, well, maybe) is when several of the character names in a book begin with the same first letter. It only increases the difficulty of keeping them straight in the reader’s mind and I don’t know why an author would want to do that. Yes, I think it’s a little cute if a parent wants to name their children in that fashion – as in Kittens Can Kill, the sisters are: Jackie, Judith and Jill but it probably is misguided and should have been resisted. Don’t parents want to encourage their kids’ individuality? Don’t authors want the same for their characters?

Anyway, since that’s all I found to complain about, I would definitely recommend this book. It was my first in the series and I didn’t feel I was beginning in the middle. It’s an easy, quick, and pleasurable read.

Reviewed by Constance Reader, November 2015.

Book Reviews: A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny and A Bullet Apiece by John Joseph Ryan

A Night in the Lonesome OctoberA Night in the Lonesome October
Roger Zelazny
Chicago Review Press, October 2014
ISBN 978-1-55652-560-5
Trade Paperback

A quirky blend of horror, mystery, the story is narrated by Snuff, a dog. Jack the Ripper’s dog, although Jack is never quite identified. Nevertheless, he’s easily recognizable in a cast that somehow includes Sherlock Holmes, Dr Frankenstein, and Dracula, among others. Forgive me, but I’m not certain who “Jill” is, beyond an “opener.” Openers and closers being two supernatural factions who, during the month of October, gather creepy stuff to aid them in opening–or closing–the gates into the underworld.

Each of these characters has an animal companion. Jill has a cat, there’s a snake, a raven, a pack rat who’s a bit of a loose cannon. And they all speak. There are also monsters and “things” kept in mirrors and jars and old steamer trunks. Snuff is in charge of keeping them all safely corralled until the big night of October 31. Halloween.

Day-by-day, the tension mounts as the people go about collecting items needed for the opening–or closing–ceremony. Some people are friends, some dire enemies. Ditto their animal familiars. And once a night, Snuff is able to speak out loud to Jack, and so the story progresses.

As one might imagine, the finale is enough to make you shiver although, not to worry, the good guys win. Or do they? Since when is Jack the Ripper a good guy?

Since Roger Zelazny, in his last book, created this highly innovative story, which is complete with illustrations by Gahan Wilson. A perfect read for the month of October (or any month).

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, August 2015.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A Bullet ApieceA Bullet Apiece
Saint Louis Noir #1
John Joseph Ryan
Blank Slate Press, July 2015
ISBN: 978-1-943075-01-0
Trade Paperback

The novel is a comfort read. That is, if you are an inveterate reader of crime fiction, you can be comforted knowing that every joke, every bon mot, just about every cliché of the genre finds its way into the pages of this book. The dialogue ain’t far off, either.

Ed Darvis is a St. Louis PI with a main-floor office in a seedy part of town. The period is sometime after the end of the second world war. Across the road-I suspect it’s a paved street-is a charter school of some kind and while Mr. Darvis is currently idle, he spends time smoking cigarettes, observing the kiddies and ogling the teachers. And some of the parents.

One day, a leggy, seductive woman who drives a late-model Caddy coupe bursts from the school door in what our astute PI deduces is intense fear, “radiating off her like heat waves.” She roars off in a cloud of exhaust leaving one of the teachers, clearly agitated, standing at the schoolroom door. What we have is clearly a case of child abduction. Enter PI Ed Darvis, cigarette dangling, loaded .38 in his belt, ready and willing to find the child and bed either comely teacher or luscious mother, not necessarily in that order.

The dialogue is snappy and often cute, the action is rousing and predictable and the plot becomes surprisingly tangled. Whether the whole thing is a tongue-in-cheek put-on or a serious attempt at a novel is for readers to determine. This reviewer is persuaded the author invested a considerable effort to produce this story and it has its moments.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 2015.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: Watch the Shadows by Robin Winter

Watch the ShadowsWatch the Shadows
Robin Winter
White Whisker Books, April 2015
ISBN 978-0-9863265-0-9
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

In the college town of Isla Vista, California, small, odd things start happening. Science-geek Nicole notes the crows are leaving.  Meg Burdigal can’t find her tabby cat, Schrand. Brian the postman feels uneasy at the rustlings, the shadows he’s seen at the edge of his vision on his delivery route in town. Now Nicole sees fewer and fewer homeless in the park. Using her knowledge of biology and forensics, Nicole searches for answers—but will anyone take the horror she finds seriously?

Back in the late 1950’s, there was this wonderfully goofy movie called “The Blob”, starring a yummy Steve McQueen (the re-make isn’t worth talking about so let’s pretend it didn’t happen). The blob in question was a thing from outer space and it oozed its way around this small town, getting bigger and bigger while it sort of sucked up people and animals wherever it went. Naturally, the only folks who know what’s going on are some teenagers and, of course, nobody believes them. Do I need to tell you that these teens save the day? Anyway, this movie is equal parts scary and campy and hilarious and it’s a genuine classic, not to mention starring my heartthrob Steve McQueen 🙂

From the moment I finished the first chapter of Watch the Shadows, I thought of “The Blob” and knew I was in for a real treat. I’m happy to say I was not mistaken. Full of ooey-gooey scary stuff and mystery and the occasional snicker, this book kept me on the alert all the way through even though there are some periods when the pace kind of grinds to a, well, ooze (sorry, couldn’t resist). Nicole is a cool nerd with parents who are just as nerdy and I loved spending time with her as she put her know-how to use, determined to figure out what was in the neighbor’s kitchen. Mailman Brian and Meg, a woman who collects dogs and the homeless, are also growing more and more suspicious of the odd things happening and Jack makes a great sidekick for Nic.

Storyline aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Winter’s descriptive abilities and her creative ways with words, such as:

A semi thundered by, breaking wind like a fat man.

and…

“No,” Brian said. “You’re right, Jack. Nicole. Both of you.”

“Did you believe Jack because he’s male? You didn’t believe me alone, before,” Nicole said.

“I didn’t believe either of you in the beginning because you’re kids,” he said. The truth surprised him.

“Age-ism,’ Nicole said. “I see.”

Bottomline, I got a real kick out of Watch the Shadows—and I believe I’ll lay in a large supply of Italian salad dressing 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2015.

About the Author

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARobin Winter first wrote and illustrated a manuscript on “Chickens and their Diseases” in second grade, continuing to both write and draw, ever since. Born in Nebraska, she’s lived in a variety of places: Nigeria, New Hampshire, upper New York state and now, California. She pursues a career in oil painting under the name of Robin Gowen, specializing in landscape. Her work can be viewed at Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara or on-line at www.sullivangoss.com/Exhibits/RobinGowen2012.asp

Robin is married to a paleobotanist, who corrects the science in both her paintings and her stories. She’s published science fiction short stories, a dystopian science fiction novel, Future Past, and Night Must Wait, a historical novel about the Nigerian Civil War.

You may contact Robin or read her blog at http://robinwinter.wordpress.com, on Twitter at https://twitter.com/winterobin13 and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/robin.winter.144734?ref=ts&fref=ts

************

Follow the tour here.

************

Virtual Author Book Tours

Book Review: Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis

Bones & AllBones & All
Camille DeAngelis
St. Martin’s Press, March 2015
ISBN 978-1-250-04650-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Maren Yearly is a young woman who wants the same things we all do. She wants to be someone people admire and respect. She wants to be loved. But her secret, shameful needs have forced her into exile. She hates herself for the bad thing she does, for what it’s done to her family and her sense of identity; for how it dictates her place in the world and how people see her–how they judge her. She didn’t choose to be this way.

Because Maren Yearly doesn’t just break hearts, she devours them. Ever since her mother found Penny Wilson’s eardrum in her mouth when Maren was just two years old, she knew life would never be normal for either of them. Love may come in many shapes and sizes, but for Maren, it always ends the same–with her hiding the evidence and her mother packing up the car.

But when her mother abandons her the day after her sixteenth birthday, Maren goes looking for the father she has never known, and finds much more than she bargained for along the way.

Faced with a world of fellow eaters, potential enemies, and the prospect of love, Maren realizes she isn’t only looking for her father, she’s looking for herself.

Maren Yearly is most certainly unlike any character I’ve met before: Maren eats people, especially people who seem to like her and, one day, Maren finds herself on her own because her mother has abandoned her out of fear for her life. Rather than fall apart, Maren sets out to find the father who has never been part of her life and, perhaps, answers to the questions that have always loomed over her.

Now, one might question the appeal of reading about a cannibal, particularly with the rather gruesome scenes that are bound to occur (and they do) but the first chapter reeled me in by starting off with Maren’s first “meal”when she was just a baby and then moving on to a scene 16 years later when her mother deserts her, finally drained of all ability to protect and love her daughter. This conjunction of two kinds of pathos led me to think I wanted to know how Maren would cope and I’m so glad I pushed on.

Bones & All is an odd story, no doubt about it, and it most likely won’t appeal to a broad spectrum of readers but this is more than just a horror novel; this is the journey a young girl must take to accept herself and, as such, Ms. DeAngelis has done a nice job. It also carries a bit of an agenda but not obtrusively and the reader is free to embrace or ignore said agenda. In the end, it’s the story that matters most.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2015.