Reviewing the latest titles, along with books I have been dying to read.
Author: A. Siegelster
I am a classicist specializing in Latin and ancient Greek literature, a writer of poetry and short fiction, and an avid reader. I'm based in Los Angeles, California, and am pursuing an MA in classics in Canada.
Gallant by V.E. Schwab is about Olivia, who cannot speak, but who can see ghosts. One day, she receives a letter at her orphanage/school from her uncle, asking her to come home to her family estate, Gallant. When she gets there, however, she finds that her uncle did not in fact write her that letter. So what brought her to Gallant? And why had her mother warned Olivia, in the journal she left behind, to stay away?
V.E. Schwab has written the perfect haunted house/gothic tale in Gallant. It has hints of The Haunting of Hill House and Crimson Peak mixed in with Coraline. I loved the juxtaposition of life versus death, of mirrored worlds where the reflection is lifeless. To me, this is true horror, the true fear of what lies on the other side of the threshold – it’s what we see when we think of the Faerie realm, of the place over the garden wall, and Schwab captures that terror so wonderfully.
I really don’t have anything I disliked about this book, so I will talk more about the things I did like. I liked the atmosphere of Gallant, how it was definitely spooky, but also definitely alive with something. I loved the way Schwab portrayed the ghosts (or ghouls in this book), and the system within which they worked – seen by Olivia, and even able to be manipulated to an extent that made a lot of sense for this story. A lot of ghost stories I’ve read fall short on their representation of ghosts, but this one joins the ranks of Shirley Jackson, and even Edgar Allen Poe. I liked the characters, too. How Schwab portrayed their pain and grief so well, how she portrayed Olivia’s lack of understanding of this grief in the beginning, and led her to understand it later. The characters (the ones on our side) are warm, are a family, are what you want for the hero who must (very literally) face death.
I don’t want to say any more because that would spoil the story. But this book was nothing short of perfection, and I really want V.E. Schwab to write more ghost stories in this style.
Help Wanted by Richie Tankersley Cusick is about (fyi, the Goodreads description is incorrect) a high schooler named Robin, who answers an ad to work in the old, enormous house of Mr. Swanson, cataloguing books belonging to his late daughter-in-law. Robin goes to work, despite her annoyance at Mr. Swanson’s dashing grandson, and the warnings he made to her about his apparently insane sister, Claudia. Soon, Robin gets pulled into the family’s sordid history, which is rearing its ugly head in the present.
This is my third book by Richie Tankersley Cusick, and I am still having fun with them. I love that they are all about a girl going up against a mystery, and having to learn who to trust along the way or pay. Also the gothic atmospheres are absolutely wonderful. Cusick always provides the spookiest houses.
I thought this particular book was fun, but, again, the plotlines came together way too quickly. There were no little clues that you could follow to unravel the plot, or even to be tricked into predict a totally incorrect plotline. I do realize that because this is basically a murder mystery that Robin gets pulled into, there’s not much time for gradual revealing of the plot; however, how abrupt it all is is not my cup of tea. I like a bit more intrigue.
I wish we had gotten to know the characters a bit more in-depth. I feel like in Trick or Treat we really had an inside look into all of the relevant characters. In this book, it was very minimal – just enough so you know how they fit in with the mystery. It all felt a bit too shallow for me, personally. However, I know a lot of people like more of a crazy plot than spending too much time with characters, and I am sure that’s why many have loved this book.
Overall, a super fun, creepy read. I will be delving into more of Cusick’s books in the future, though, after three in a row, it may be time for a short break.
The Drifter by Richie Tankersley Cusick is about Carolyn and her mother, who, after the death of Carolyn’s father, find out that they’ve inherited an old house from their old aunt. Carolyn’s mother desires to turn the old house into a bed and breakfast. But Carolyn doesn’t like the idea, especially considering its location – right on the cliffs over the sea in dense fog – and considering is grisly history. Soon, the history of the old house comes out to haunt Carolyn.
This book was wonderfully atmospheric and spooky. I love haunted stories that take place by the sea, spooky or no (see The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Haunting of Aveline Jones), and I am adding this book to that list of mine. Cusick has such a talent for making a location – haunted house, haunted school, haunted seaside cliffs – the most frightening place you could ever go. I was on the edge of my seat worried for Carolyn in that old house; I am sure I started hyperventilating at some point.
There were points in the plot and aspects of the characters, however, that I didn’t like as much. For one thing, Cusick really knows how to make a character annoying. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it makes sense for her stories. But I think I would like to have more chill, reasonable characters sometimes (like the brother in Trick or Treat). Carolyn also seems to trust or distrust other characters way too quickly: she doesn’t take enough time to process anything, but especially people she’s just met. Also, she really, really needs to stand up to her mother more.
The plot felt like things happened too quickly towards the end. I usually prefer very gradual revealings of different elements of a mystery, which is what I liked more about Trick or Treat. In this book, the beginning is slow with lots of atmosphere – this I liked. The end, though, hits you with a bunch of necessary plot points all at once. I would have liked to have gotten to know more in the beginning so that things would connect better later.
All of this said, I really did love the atmosphere of this book. I will definitely be reading more of Cusick’s work, and I am so happy there is a giant backlog of books of hers to read!
In Trick or Treat, Martha, a sixteen-year-old high school student, moves into a new house with her dad, new step-mom and step-brother. She hates the situation, having been torn from her happy life in Chicago. Matters get worse, however, when she realizes that the house they’ve moved into, with its long hallways and secret passages, has a dark history she must soon contend with. Even worse, she might have to just get along with her new brother to survive.
You all know I love my spooky stories, my haunted houses, and this book had everything I wanted and more. Here is what I loved about the book:
I loved the way the house is portrayed. You can imagine it as a house like Hill House or Hell House or Bly Manor, not just because the house is imagined so detailed and labyrinthine, but because you can feel the heaviness of its history (whether embodied by a ghost or not). I felt actual fear for the protagonists when they became trapped in the house’s winding passages, stuck in the dark with the evil of that house. I also loved the imagery of the woods surrounding the house, as if not only the house were trapping Martha, but the land as well.
I loved the way the history of the house was written, and how it was reflected in all the important characters of this story. For Martha and Conor, her new brother, it is walking into something dark, evil, and unknown; for Martha’s new friends, Blake and Wynn, it is reopening old wounds, but trying to move on the best they can (or so it would seem). For Martha and Conor’s parents, well, they couldn’t be more thrilled with a haunted house – I could get Martha’s frustration with them as she had her experiences.
There were few things I didn’t get on with in this book, but even these didn’t really affect my enjoyment of it. I didn’t really like how bratty Martha was (and even Conor, though he didn’t seem it). I understand why she was – moving to a new house with a whole new family – but it felt a bit much at times. I also wished that the book’s ending went beyond just the end of the mystery. Lots of horror/thriller books do this, but I do wish we could see their lives getting back to normal, or that we could see them coming to terms with their new life. Again, though, this was not bad enough to ruin my enjoyment.
This is the perfect book to read during the spooky season and Halloween. I know Cusick wrote many other books like this, and I will be checking out more, especially during this coming October!
Dark Matter is a story about a broke young man in 1937, who joins a group going on an expedition to the Arctic. The trip north is fine, but once they get to their destination, the young man realizes that there are dark forces present there that wish them harm.
As most of you know, I LOVE ghost stories. But what I liked about this one, that I like in other stories like The Haunting of Hill House and The Turn of the Screw, was that we don’t always know what part of the haunting is real or is just in the head of the protagonist. In Dark Matter, there are elements of both. There is definitely some malevolent spirit haunting the shores of the Arctic campsite. However, the polar night and increasing cold do nothing to help the paranoia of our protagonist. And I love this. I love that the protagonist is being haunted by both spirits and himself, and has to contend with the long darkness of winter. And as he says about the darkness:
“Fear of the dark. Until I came here, I thought that was for children; that you grew out of it. But it never really goes away. It’s always there underneath. The oldest fear of all.”
This is a very ruminating book, where the protagonist, writing in a journal, analyzes everything around him, including the behaviors of his companions and of himself. There isn’t a whole lot of action, but neither is the book particularly slow. There’s always something happening, though usually via the perceptions of the protagonist. I love that. I love a ruminating ghost story. It lets you know why there must be a ghost present for the protagonist to perceive. Michelle Paver writes this characterization and atmosphere so well.
I really want to read Paver’s other books now – I love the way she writes horror: it feels very much like the ghost stories written in the early 20th century (which are often my favorites). I recommend this book to those who want a chilling (literally) ghost story. I also recommend listening to the audiobook. Ghost stories were meant to be told aloud, and Dark Matter is great as an oral story. I listened to the fantastic narration by Jeremy Northam.
D (A Tale of Two Worlds is about a girl, Dhikilo, who lives in Cawber-on-Sands with her adoptive parents, and goes to school where no one knows anything about Somaliland. One day, Dhikilo finds that all of the Ds are disappearing from words. After much confusion, she finds her old (and apparently immortal) history teacher, who sends her off on a journey (accompanied by a Sphinx named Nelly Robinson) to rescue all of the Ds.
I really liked the premise for this book – a book with a language mystery? Sign me up! It was also hyped up a lot by many book people online, and Neil Gaiman has a blurb on the book. So yes, this book was very appealing to me.
However, this novel sadly did not live up to my hyped-up expectations. Not that I didn’t enjoy the novel, but I felt as though there were things missing.
Some things I didn’t like:
1. The story did not provide any interesting reason for the letter D in particular to have disappeared. Sure it made using words harder for the characters, and it made some D-words disappear, but it didn’t go deeper into “why D?”. I wanted to know, why did the villain hate D? Would it have more of an impact on Dhikilo’s existence? I understand that this would make the story more complicated, but I really wanted those answers.
2. We did not get to know the characters well enough. We know Dhikilo and Nelly very well by the end of the story, which is good. However, we barely get to know Professor Dodderfield, who seems to be pretty important to the story. His role seems very unfulfilled, though. With Dodderfield, and a lot of the other characters, it feels like Dhikilo hasn’t made any real relationships in this story. It all seems to depend on Dhikilo and her position in the world (i.e. how much of an outsider she seems to be), though that theme isn’t developed nearly enough either.
Some things I liked:
1. The writing is beautiful. While the story itself was, at times, unsatisfying, the writing made reading this novel worthwhile. I would very much like to read Michel Faber’s other works now that I know what a beautiful and descriptive writing style he has. It is very much in the style of Gaiman, Anna James, and others who write similar stories.
2. I loved the imagery and the language. I think my favorite part of the story was when the Ds were missing, and I loved how Faber played with words with all of the Ds gone. Made for some challenging, but at times punny reading. I also loved the fantasy world of Liminus (also that it’s named “Liminus”, from the Latin/Greek limen meaning “threshold”). I do wish there was more lore or background with regards to Liminus in this story, and especially regarding the sinister and ever-shifting hotel, Bleak House.
Overall, the writing was gorgeous, but the story and themes were a bit disappointing. I don’t know that I would read this book again, but, as I mentioned, I do want to check out some of Michel Faber’s other works.
I read a lot of LGBT+ short fiction, and a lot of these are hit or miss (many, many misses). But Coffee Boy was absolutely a hit for me. I haven’t read a lot of fiction that features a transgender protagonist, so I don’t know if I’m the proper authority as to whether this character was written well. However, I enjoyed this character – Kieran – very much. I also enjoyed his dynamic with the main love interest, Seth. You’ve got two, stubborn, queer men fighting all the sexual tension.
This is definitely a coming-of-age story as well, and it was interesting to read it through a transgender/queer perspective (that is a weird way to put it, but I’m not sure how else to at the moment). I really like how this story also shows that you can come of age at any time in your life.
I don’t have much more to say, except that this was a really sweet story, very well-written, and full of dynamic main characters.
When I first heard of Piranesi, I only heard that it was a philosophical twist on the paintings of the real Piranesi. Ergo, I was sure the book would be fantastic, but I had no idea what I was getting into. Turns out, this was a wonderfully mind-boggling book that took the paintings of Piranesi and transformed them into a world within worlds. I won’t go into too much description, not only to save you from spoilers, but because the plot is very difficult to describe.
What I will talk about is Susanna Clarke’s imagery, which is always on point. If you’ve read her other works (such as Strange and Norrell), then you will know that Clarke is a master of imagery and description. In Piranesi, she describes long, vaulted halls filled with statuary – not only how it looks, but how it feels and sounds to the protagonist (also named Piranesi). Clarke also describes the halls in such a way that you could see yourself becoming mad, forgetting anything but these long and labyrinthine halls – a key point in the plot of this book. We don’t know whether these worlds of Piranesi are real. They could be in the mind of the protagonist, or in the mind of his enemy. What matters is that they feel real.
This is one of those books that I consider to be peak academia. The protagonist views the halls as a means of scientific discovery, recording his findings and hypotheses in journals, which is the format of the novel itself. There is, again, the madness that comes with such discoveries, and which we often find in rather exaggerated academic settings. However, Clarke writes this madness so well, so that we do not think that the protagonist is mad at all. In fact, we end up sympathizing with the protagonist, knowing that he is in the right (even if he has taken leave of many of his senses).
I absolutely loved this novel. It’s probably one of my favorite academia novels, and one of my favorite sci-fi. I love sci-fi novels that are subtle, that try to immerse you slowly, and Piranesi does such a good job of that. If you’re looking for something great in the academia genre, but also has elements of sci-fi and fantasy, this is the book for you.
Also apologies that this review is so late – I was in the middle of grading exams and that takes up a lot of brain space.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve written an update or done a book review – not that long (I think my last update was early March?), but I would like to be updating more frequently.
I’m still reading, of course, and thinking up ideas for stories, but it’s been a bit slower lately because: I got a job that I really wanted! I’m a sessional (adjunct) professor at a university, teaching mythology, and I could not be happier. It has been taking up most of my time, however, which means less time for reading and writing when I want to. I will have more time in May and in the summer when the course I’m teaching ends, which I am looking forward to.
Even though I haven’t had time to write or read as much, I still have had ideas and I am reading very slowly, so I can update you all on those!
Currently, I’m reading Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, which I am loving so much. It’s the perfect combination of academia, sci-fi, and philosophy that I enjoy. I’m not finished yet – I think I’m about halfway through – but I am enjoying the savoring of the story. Also, it is written as diary entries, so it’s very easy to put down and pick up again.
As for writing, I am thinking of going back to an idea that very literally came to me in a dream once, about a tree that grew through the middle of my house. I’ve written short poems about this idea before, but I am entertaining thoughts of writing a short story or longer work about it. But that won’t happen beyond an idea until May at the least.
So that’s where I am currently. I hope you are all doing very well, and enjoying the coming of Spring!
Slade House is a chilling, paranormal story – actually series of short, related stories – about a house and a set of twins who defy the laws of time and decay.
This book is like Coraline for adults, but without any inkling of warmth. Not to say that that’s a bad thing – this book is meant to feel cold, to feel fake and empty, to feel like a void, and it does it well. I think, however, it was a little too empty and cold for me personally. But it was still a compelling read.
Here’s what I liked:
I liked that each character who gets lured to Slade House is already facing the brink of their own void. They come into this haunting already fragile, and that is why they are lost. I do wish that some of the characters had better qualities about them (I think Sally was the only one I actually empathized with), but that would mean they might not have been ripe for the picking.
I liked the atmosphere. This book is so wonderfully atmospheric, and David Mitchell makes each guest’s experience of Slade House different enough that you feel like you are yourself in a dream with them. The atmosphere of Slade House and its many forms is oppressive, in a way that sucks you in and refuses to let you go.
The biggest complaint that I have is that the book doesn’t go into the hauntings enough. Not of the house or the twins, but of the guests lost to Slade House. In the beginning, we get images of ghosts and their “residue,” but by the last couple of guests, the story has very little mention of these hauntings. I do wish we had seen more involvement from the ghostly inhabitants, maybe find out what happens to them in the end.
Overall, Slade House is a compelling book with a chilling and heavy atmosphere that will leave you wondering if it had all been a dream. I recommend it to those who liked books like Coraline, and other chilling haunts.