Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories by Mariana Enríquez

Rating: 3 of 5

Coming soon! February 21, 2017 Available to pre-order now.

A collection of short stories set in Argentina, filled with macabre imagery and abhorrent behavior, none of which will leave you feeling all that happy. “Horror” stories in the sense that an examined look beneath the surface at a reality the majority choose to overlook or blatantly ignore — poverty, child abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, police corruption — will horrify readers.

There are a few supernatural stories, but, even in those, there’s a residual impression that while ghosts may exist, there’s likely a more dangerous monster, in the guise of a human, lurking, waiting for you to pass by as you walk down the street to your house, in your “safe” neighborhood.

Argentine author Mariana Enríquez is an excellent storyteller who, based on this collection, doesn’t like to write stories with many, if any, answers; her comfort zone exists in ambiguity it seems, endings-wise anyway. However, the social commentary in several stories – like the women’s reactions to domestic abuse and societal definitions of beauty in the titular story, “Things We Lost in the Fire” – is nothing if not straightforward.

My personal favorites are “Adela’s House” (three kids and a house that tells its own stories) and “End of Term” (an outcast who self-harms may be under the influence of something else) — both of which I rated four stars.

I gave one star to “The Neighbor’s Courtyard” because of Elly (that’s my biggest trigger in dark fiction), but it’s superbly written — we question the protagonist’s sanity right until the end — and worth the read if you’re not as sensitive as I am.

Recommended to those looking for literary fiction in which the journey through dark, disturbing territories is very much the point. Not for anyone who doesn’t appreciate ambiguous endings. Not for readers sensitive to triggers like graphic violence involving children and animals.

Official website | Add on LibraryThing | Add on Goodreads

(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

Received ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire

Rating: 4 of 5

Completely wrecked after her older sister’s suicide, Jenna makes a life-shattering decision and, ever since, has been slowly working her way to – wherever, whenever – her sister may be.

Synopsis: “When her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself. When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. Living or dead, every soul is promised a certain amount of time, and when Jenna passed she found a heavy debt of time in her record. Unwilling to simply steal that time from the living, Jenna earns every day she leeches with volunteer work at a suicide prevention hotline.

But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope; something that can bind ghosts to mirrors and make them do its bidding. Only Jenna stands in its way.” (source)

My thoughts: Beneath its “urban fantasy” exterior Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day digs deep into real-world issues to tackle the solemn themes of suicide, grief, and survivor’s guilt.

The story sets itself apart through its exploration of time, death, hope, and what it means to be alive. The reason for why mirrors are covered after a death in the family, what and who ghosts really are, how and why they “haunt” the living… offer an inventive, fresh look at the concept of ghosts. I loved the witches as potential allies or enemies of ghosts. But my favorite is how Seanan McGuire played with time — its meaning, its effects, its boundaries… what an imaginative perspective!

Highly recommended for an experience both entertaining and cathartic.

Read an excerpt on Tor.com | Add on LibraryThing | Add on Goodreads

(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

———————————————
A few passages I bookmarked:

Scent is very much a part of memory, and memory is a form of time travel. It takes us back, whether or not we want to go.” (Jenna)

Ghosts are the nails in the coffin of eternity, and they keep the lid from flying off.” (Brenda)

These days, everyone wants to eat, but no one wants to take the time and care needed to coax the land into giving up its glories. People don’t change. We’re always selfish, and we’re always hungry. We’ve just gotten better at looking at greed and saying ‘Oh, that’s self-interest, that’s all right.’ We’ve forgotten the way the word ‘enough’ feels on the tongue.” (Brenda)

Reprinted the poem “Widow” by Martha Keller from which this book’s title was inspired.

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire

Rating: 4 of 5

Completely wrecked after her older sister’s suicide, Jenna makes a life-shattering decision and, ever since, has been slowly working her way to – wherever, whenever – her sister may be.

Synopsis: “When her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself. When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. Living or dead, every soul is promised a certain amount of time, and when Jenna passed she found a heavy debt of time in her record. Unwilling to simply steal that time from the living, Jenna earns every day she leeches with volunteer work at a suicide prevention hotline.

But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope; something that can bind ghosts to mirrors and make them do its bidding. Only Jenna stands in its way.” (source)

My thoughts: Beneath its “urban fantasy” exterior Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day digs deep into real-world issues to tackle the solemn themes of suicide, grief, and survivor’s guilt.

The story sets itself apart through its exploration of time, death, hope, and what it means to be alive. The reason for why mirrors are covered after a death in the family, what and who ghosts really are, how and why they “haunt” the living… offer an inventive, fresh look at the concept of ghosts. I loved the witches as potential allies or enemies of ghosts. But my favorite is how Seanan McGuire played with time — its meaning, its effects, its boundaries… what an imaginative perspective!

Highly recommended for an experience both entertaining and cathartic.

Read an excerpt on Tor.com | Add on LibraryThing | Add on Goodreads

(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

———————————————
A few passages I bookmarked:

Scent is very much a part of memory, and memory is a form of time travel. It takes us back, whether or not we want to go.” (Jenna)

Ghosts are the nails in the coffin of eternity, and they keep the lid from flying off.” (Brenda)

These days, everyone wants to eat, but no one wants to take the time and care needed to coax the land into giving up its glories. People don’t change. We’re always selfish, and we’re always hungry. We’ve just gotten better at looking at greed and saying ‘Oh, that’s self-interest, that’s all right.’ We’ve forgotten the way the word ‘enough’ feels on the tongue.” (Brenda)

Reprinted the poem “Widow” by Martha Keller from which this book’s title was inspired.

Neverlake (2013)

Rating: 7 of 10

movie poster Neverlake (2013)Don’t be fooled by the poster art. NEVERLAKE is an atmospheric dark fantasy that feels more like a forgotten Italian fairy tale than a modern horror film.

Synopsis: “A teenager visiting her estranged father in Italy stumbles across the Neverlake, an ancient lake said to be guarded by the spirits of the dead. There she befriends a peculiar group of children who are each plagued by strange injuries. As she uncovers the horrific secrets behind the lake – and her new friends – she becomes haunted by disturbing visions that connect to her own mysterious past. However, the ghosts of the past may be more dangerous than she ever thought possible.” (source)

The poster really is misleading. While the movie is scary, it relies more on creepy atmosphere and mystery than the carnage normally associated with modern horror movies. There is a sort of medical thriller/body horror angle involved, but the overall tone of the movie ends up closer to classic horror. Seasoned viewers will likely see the twist coming after a certain point, but it’s a fun journey filled with plenty of thrills and chills.

Highly recommended if you enjoyed movies like PAN’S LABYRINTH, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE or THE ORPHANAGE.

Check out NEVERLAKE’s official website and trailer | on IMDb

(Watched on Netflix 1/31/2015)

The Green Man by Michael Bedard

Rating: 4 of 5

The Green Man by Michael BedardOver time, a bookshop will take the shape of its owner. Emily had been at the Green Man so long that it had grown around her like a second skin. The books were her flesh; the words that flowed through them were the blood that ran through her veins. The poetry section was the beating heart of the collection.

If the above passage speaks to you, then you’re probably the right reader for this book. It doesn’t matter your age, if you feel more at home in a secondhand bookstore than at your actual house, you’ll settle into this book’s atmosphere like a cat into a pile of freshly laundered clothes. If the idea that poets are all “crazy people” with a special perspective of our world (and maybe even other worlds), add this book pronto.

For me, The Green Man was to poetry as Among Others was to science fiction. Both held their respective forms high on a pedestal and showered the reader in various works and authors’ names – some well-known, others obscure – implanting a subliminal urge to read everything mentioned. Both featured a young adult’s quest to find herself. Both dipped their pinky toes into otherworldly goings on but, for the most part, remained fixed on the surface of our reality.

What I really loved about The Green Man – other than the obvious: books, a cat named Psycho, a bakery across the street from a bookshop, ghosts of poets hanging around the shop – was Emily’s ideas about time. (I love all things timey-wimey.) I wonder if the ghosts were an example of that opened door?

One nitpick, had I realized this was a continuation of the mystery and characters introduced in Bedard’s first novel, A Darker Magic, I most certainly would have obtained a copy to read prior to this book. However, having read The Green Man first, I don’t feel like I missed anything. Quite the opposite, now I absolutely MUST find a copy of A Darker Magic.

(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

Received paperback from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

Rating: 4 of 5

The Winter PeopleOnce I started The Winter People I couldn’t put it down. The switch between 1908 and present day really added a sense of urgency to the Harrison Shea legends. There was a couple genuine surprises, but there was also predictable bits. And there was honest to goodness creepouts – based mostly on atmosphere and my expectations – fun, though. It was strange (and wonderful) how fast I connected with Sara; it was within two to three pages. Or perhaps it was simply her fierce devotion to her daughter.

At its heart, the story asks the reader how far they would go, what wouldn’t they give, to have more time with their dead loved one?

Just a heads up: For a literary thriller, there was a scene or three with graphic gore. Nothing shocking for a horror fan like me, but it could be a potential turn-off for certain readers.

Read backstory, excerpts, and reviews on the author’s official website.

(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

Bag of Bones by Stephen King

Rating: 3.5 of 5

A well-written novel with a multi-layered plot that features King’s trademark descriptions – wordy and vivid – and seamless integration of the paranormal into everyday life.

Here is Stephen King’s most gripping and unforgettable novel — a tale of grief and lost love’s enduring bonds, of haunting secrets of the past, and of an innocent child caught in a terrible crossfire. (Source: book cover)

Here’s the gist:

Thirty-something author, Mike Noonan, hasn’t been able to write anything since the sudden death of his wife four years earlier. Unable to beat his severe case of writer’s block, Mike decides to pack up and spend the summer at his lakeside home, Sara Laughs. Upon arrival he discovers two things: the house may be haunted; and, during the last year of her life his wife, Johanna, hid something from him – something that involved Sara Laughs and its community. Mike’s path soon crosses with that of another young widow, Mattie, and her three-year-old daughter, Kyra. He learns Kyra’s grandfather, Max Devore, is a man who stops at nothing to get what he wants, and what he wants is custody of Kyra. So Mike feels compelled to help Mattie and Kyra. But his decision to help only makes matters worse. And what should’ve been a battle for custody turns into a battle for their lives.

Here are my two cents:

For the first 100+ pages (of a 732-page paperback), I was deep inside the grieving main character, Mike Noonan; I don’t think I needed *that* much development of Mike’s mental state, personality and relationships. But King knew just how much not to tell in order to keep me turning the page against the relentless exposition.

Once Mike arrived at Sara Laughs the pace picked up significantly, and the paranormal aspects were intriguing and eerie. During those scenes I felt a little antsy in my chair. However, I didn’t feel a constant pressure or even a consistent tension. There’d be a really juicy scene and then a quick resolution. Not necessarily in the form of an answer but an end to the supsense that had been building. (I prefer stories mimic the beginning of a rollercoaster: when you slowly creep, inch by inch, to the top until BAM! You race toward the bottom and then rip through the middle and arrive mostly unscathed at the end.)

Probably the biggest problem was I just didn’t connect with Mike or his relationship with Johanna. Or his relationship with Mattie and Kyra, for that matter. But that’s me, and I have a hard time with lengthy exposition when from a character I don’t care much for.

Here’s what you might not like:

* It takes between 200-300 pages for the deeper mystery to reveal itself

* It takes even longer for the paranormal activity to kick into high gear

* Racism

* Graphic violence and sexual assault

Final thoughts

I probably won’t read Bag of Bones again anytime soon, if ever, but that’s based more on personal preference than the novel’s quality or content. I would recommend it to readers looking for a slow-paced paranormal mystery built around a town’s dirty secret, with a love story at its core, and topped off with moderate “horror” elements.

Hell House by Richard Matheson

Rating: 4.5 of 5

Hell House is built on a classic framework and then filled with modern sensibilities and indulgences; it’s basically an R-rated version of the Haunting of Hill House.

Here’s the lowdown:

Dr. Lionel Barrett, a physicist who’s studied parapsychology for twenty years, doesn’t believe in ghosts. He just needs the chance – and the financial support – to show the world what he already knows. Enter Rolf Rudolph Deutsch, a dying millionaire, who offers Dr. Barrett $100,000 if he can provide definitive evidence about survival after death. Obviously it is an offer Barrett cannot refuse.

Also along for the investigation are Dr. Barrett’s wife, Edith; Reverend Florence Tanner, a spiritualist and mental medium; and Ben Fischer, who was once considered the country’s most powerful physical medium. The object of their investigation? Why, the world’s most infamous haunted house, of course. The Belasco house, named after its owner, Emeric Belasco, came to be known as Hell House because Belasco “created a private hell there.” Previous investigations were unsuccessful, to say the least, resulting in eight people’s deaths, suicide or insanity.

The house’s history and notoriety only encourages Dr. Barrett. He is determined to debunk Hell House as haunted and he means to rid the house of its disturbances using science. Meanwhile, Florence intends to set free the spirits she knows are trapped there; Ben Fischer just wants to make it to the $100,000 payday; and Edith, well, she believes in her husband and supports him as best she can.

But once they enter Hell House their focus should only be on one thing:

Getting back out … sane and alive.

Here are my two cents:

Right away there was a strong Hill House vibe. There were also the typical haunted house devices: dying rich person, dense fog, a tarn, an abandoned mansion in a secluded location, no electricity despite newly repaired wiring and a generator.

The story was structured around the investigation’s timeline, which created a sense of doom from the get-go. A clock counting down to their deadline but also, perhaps, to their ruin. The plot was fast-paced with little filler. The scientific explanations felt somewhat dated and dry, but those weren’t prominent enough to distract from the story. Additionally, any lack in character development was more than made up for with atmosphere, tension, and suspense.

Florence turned her head. The door to the corridor had just been opened. She looked across the darkness of the room. The door closed quietly.

Footsteps started toward her.

“Yes?” she said.

The footsteps kept approaching, muffled on the rug. Florence started reaching for the candle, then withdrew her hand, knowing it was not one of the other three. “All right,” she murmured.

The footsteps halted…[t]here was a sound of breathing at the foot of the bed (pp. 72-73).

There was a considerable amount of disturbing imagery, though. And Matheson didn’t have to describe every detail for my imagination to pick up what he was laying down.

The figures vanished as she reached the chapel door. A man was crouched in front of it. His face was white, his expression drugged. He held a severed human hand to his lips, sucking on one of the fingers. She bit into her hand. The figure vanished (p. 244).

The overarching mystery surrounding the “truth” of Hell House was expertly written. Barrett and Tanner’s back and forth debates throughout the investigation were presented in such a way that both theories seemed plausible. Plus, I wasn’t 100% sure what was really going on until close to the big reveal.

When the story ended, it felt rushed. The whole “Reversor” thingy a bit too convenient. And I couldn’t quite suspend my disbelief for the characters’ decisions in those final hours.

Here’s what you might not like:

  • Plot-focused with minimal character development
  • Graphic violence with blood and/or gore
  • Sexual situations including sexual assault
  • Science-y discussions and descriptions

Final thoughts

Touted on numerous lists as a “must read” for all horror fans, I was pleasantly surprised Hell House lived up to its hype. As soon as I finished, I rated it 5 stars. Only after further evaluation did I recognize that it wasn’t a flawless book. But those flaws are few and forgivable, especially considering how much I was scared whilst reading. I’d definitely recommend you give it a read if you’re into haunted house stories with a moderate amount of violence and blood.

[Side note: I watched the movie adaptation, The Legend of Hell House, on April 20th, and it was just meh for me. I can’t believe Matheson wrote the screenplay because it seemed so … watered down and, well, boring. The atmosphere and underlying tension that I loved in the book were completely absent from the movie.]

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

In recent months, I’ve re-discovered how much I absolutely LOVE ghost stories, specifically those written in the spirit of the classics. That love might render this “review” somewhat biased.

I could not put down The Woman in Black, literally; I ate lunch whilst devouring page after page. And while it was short and easily read in one sitting – two or three for the more patient reader – it packed quite a psychological punch. The ending hit especially hard. Hill’s prose, setting, characters: superb. And the descriptions were spot on, not too much but more than enough to evoke vivid images.

Whereas the bed had been made up neatly, now the clothes were pulled off anyhow and bundled up or trailing onto the floor. The wardrobe door and the drawers of the small chest were pulled open and all the clothes they contained half-dragged out, and left hanging like entrails from a wounded body (p. 118).

The pace was just right, teasing readers with hints, revealing bit by bit the truth behind the whispers, building steadily to a tense climax, but even then not letting go until the very last page.

Highly recommended to anyone – all ages – who enjoys classic ghost stories.

P.S. It’s hard to believe the soon-to-be released movie, starring Daniel Radcliffe, will be able to capture the true essence of this story, namely the setting and atmosphere. But my hopes remain high.

[Test post of Goodreads’ auto-publish feature. Edited on 2/26/12 to replace image and repetitive links.]

Note to Self: Homebody by Orson Scott Card

I finished Homebody by Orson Scott Card on February 10, 2010. How I found this book at the library, I couldn’t tell you. It was possibly on a list of must-reads. Or, maybe, it found me.

Insert spooky music here.

The jacket’s summary was slightly misleading, though, as it described events out of order, which I assume was in an effort to make the story appear more suspenseful or certain events more critical. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good story. But I think the blurb could’ve been more concise and less scattered.

Don Lark was easy to empathize with, and his grief and anger were justified. …continue reading