Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House

“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.”

While moving a couple months back, my thoughts lingered on the types of homes we encounter in fiction. Some are wonderful places we wish we lived in, others are home to terror and pain. But perhaps no fictional home is as iconic as Hill House. I saw the 1963 movie The Haunting on Halloween years ago, and swore to myself I would read the book. Apparently this is a lucky October for me.

Synopsis: Hill House is a blight that holds nothing but terror, or so the legends say. An occult scholar, Dr. Montague, rents the house in hopes of discovering irrefutable evidence of a haunting. With him come three people, the charismatic and colorful Theodora, Luke, the heir to Hill House, and Eleanor, an outcast who sees her time at Hill House as her first real adventure. All are tied to the paranormal, but none have experienced it with such intensity. Hill House is watching them, and it is waiting.

Thoughts: The movie, while iconic, doesn’t hold a candle to the book. The Haunting of Hill House is a classic for a number of reasons. The characters, the writing style, and the setting are iconic. Those coupled with the pacing of the story makes for an intense and memorable read.

Eleanor is actually a shockingly sympathetic character in the book. For those of you familiar with the 1963 version of the film, you’ll no doubt recall that while the main character, Eleanor is hardly sympathetic. In the book her thoughts are fluid and coherent. She has been hurt by the world as many of us have been, and wants a better life for herself. She’s stubborn, whimsical, and curious. Ultimately she wants to be a part of something larger than herself. These things will eventually come back to haunt her (and the others), but that makes her and her relationships with the other characters all the more interesting.

While Luke, Dr. Montague, and Theodora are all interesting characters, aside from Theo, none of them interested me quite as much as Eleanor. Which is precisely the point of the book. Although the book starts from Eleanor’s perspective, and arguably remains from her point of view, as the story progresses we as the reader become more and more aligned with how the house sees Eleanor and her friends. It’s an uncanny experience and the core element that makes this book so frightening.

What makes the book so terrifying is the writing style. The writing style is somehow simplistic and yet beautifully detailed. Jackson has a talent for picking out the right details and weaving them in. Details that crop up at the start of the book find their way deep within the novel. The repetition of some things, and the lack of it for others, helps add suspense. One is never quite sure how something will come into play. The writing style, filled with shockingly long sentences and paragraphs, is unusual, but absolutely brilliant within the book. I don’t think many, if any, other writers could pull it off. In short, the long paragraphs and sentences add on to the suspense, forcing the reader down an odd rabbit hole, trying to absorb each detail.

And finally, the plot itself. I believe the beauty of the plot lies within its simplicity. Four strangers staying in a legendary haunted house. Each of them have some tie to the paranormal or the house itself, and yet each one has their own doubts. There are so, so many things that could go wrong with this scenario, and things do indeed go wrong, but none of it in the way one anticipates. And this is coming from someone who has memorized the 1963 film. The simplicity allows the reader’s imagination to run away with them, and be surprised and frightened over and over again.

This is one of those books where the cliche of “a beautiful and haunting book” is actually quite fitting. If horror is your thing, then you really can’t go wrong with Jackson’s masterpiece. If you’re a fan of classics, again, this is a solid book and worthy of your bookshelves. As a writer I found myself enthralled with the choice of words and the brilliant details. As a reader I was curled at the edge of my sofa, reading, trying to absorb and unravel each mystery presented to me. Jackson is truly a master of horror and has quickly made her way firmly onto my list of favorite authors.

Book Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses

“…I wish I had it in me to feel remorse for the dead thing. But this was the forest, and it was winter.” ~Fyere

I have no words for this book. The beauty, depth, darkness and light within it, all deeply moved me. Even so, I’ll do my best to review A Court of Thorns and Roses. After all, I’m the sort of person that when I fall in love with a book, I must talk about it.

A red and black book with silver text on it. On the left side of the book a young woman in a black dress stands, a black flowering tattoo on her arm. The text reads "A Court of Thorns and Roses" by Sarah J. Maas

Synopsis: Fyere is a 19 year old woman who kills a wolf in the woods to help provide food for her family. Her world is shattered when a powerful beast comes to claim her as retribution. Taken to the half of the world where no human has ventured and come back alive from, Fyere discovers her captor is none other than Tamlin, one of the immortal and exceedingly powerful Fae. But Tamlin and his companions hold secrets, secrets of a power that is slowly destroying the world of the Fae, and Fyere’s human world. As Fyere learns more about Tamlin, she starts to realize just how little she knows about her world, the Fae, and how little power she has to stop the rising evil.

Thoughts: I had a number of hesitations coming into this book. For one, while “Beauty and the Beast” is one of my favorite stories, it’s also one of the more popular retellings. Secondly, while Fae mythology has always interested me, I’m quite worn out from the watered down Fae. I was afraid that despite the hype surrounding the book, it wouldn’t appeal to me. So somehow, I began reading with high expectations, but low hopes. By the end of the first chapter I was enamored, and my love only grew as I read.

The first thing that captured me was the narration. Maas made a wonderful choice by telling the story from Fyere’s point of view. Fyere’s practical, stubborn, hurt, and yet she’s deeply loyal, desperately trying to hold on to what little beauty life has to offer. From the start, Fyere knows herself and her motivations are clear. As the story progresses and her world view is challenged, Fyere starts to question her motives. This is one of the driving forces of the plot. I personally loved this element because it lead to a lot of character interactions and each one of those pushed the plot forward, adding depth to the story.

It’s impossible to talk about Fyere without talking about the other characters. To go into detail about each one would make this post quite long, so I’ll simply summarize. As much as I enjoyed seeing Fyere and Tamlin’s growing relationship, I still felt that Tamlin was too distant overall. He was certainly interesting, but I still couldn’t fully get behind him. I have a feeling this is purposeful on Maas’ part. I do appreciate that the depth of his actions (or lack of actions) is clarified as the book continues. This leads to some lovely conflict and plot twists.

But it was Nesta and Rhysand that became out of the blue insta-faves for me. At the start of the book Nesta, the oldest of Fyere’s sisters, is cold, selfish, and yet she shows a shocking amount of love and loyalty to Elain, the middle sister. She mostly remains so, and yet she still shows a delightful amount of growth throughout the book. Her relationship with Fyere broke and mended my heart. And then there’s Rhysand. I was surprised with how quickly I fell in love with his character. Sassy, smart, always thinking a few steps ahead, Rhysand is shrouded in mystery. And for someone who is so mysterious, he still was an extremely fleshed out character, and a delight to read.

Of course, characters cannot exist in a void. The world building that went into A Court of Thorns and Roses is breath taking. It brings to mind the detailed fantasy worlds of Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. Not because this book is anything like them, simply because the magic, the belief system, the politics, and the geography are all so well thought out. Even from the first chapter there is a darkness hovering. I wasn’t expecting a terribly dark book, but this book was darker than I anticipated on a number of levels and I loved it. This book also pulls on a number of fantasy tropes and is a fascinating take on the original “Beauty and the Beast” story. But there are also other faerie tales that are referenced in the book, which I found to be an absolute delight.

For a number of reasons this book broke and mended me. I can’t point to any one thing and say “This is what made me love this book.” All of the elements, the way they were woven together, made me fall in love. The elements all tied into the plot. Nothing was mentioned needlessly, and that will always win me over in a book. A Court of Thorns and Roses hits on everything I want in a fantasy book. It pulls on old troupes and transforms them into something formidable and unique. It has a detailed, character and world based plot, suspenseful plot twists and a plethora of other things. If you haven’t read this series yet and are looking for fantasy with an edge, I highly recommend A Court of Thorns and Roses. It’s a deeply immersive book that holds your heart and keeps you in its world long after the book is finished.

Book Review: The Silence of the Lambs

“Problem-solving is hunting; it is savage pleasure and we are born to it.”

I adored the movie Silence of the Lambs when I first saw it years ago and have seen it many times since. I promised myself that one day, I would hunt down the book and read it. When I finally got around to reading it, I devoured the book.

Book cover with a woman's hand is held out and above it flies a yellow and brown moth with a human skull on its back. The cover reads "Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs"

Synopsis: Clarice Starling is a bright young woman, a hardworking student at the FBI Academy. Thanks to her work ethic and skills she is asked to do a seemingly impossible task: go to a maximum security prison and talk to the renown serial killer Doctor Hannibal Lecter. Starling’s surprise success opens doors for her. But these doors lead to Buffalo Bill, a serial killer just as twisted as Doctor Lecter. Buffalo Bill keeps is victims alive for only a short time. His latest victim is the daughter of a powerful senator who is putting pressure on the FBI to work like they never have before. To save lives Clarice must make deals with a number of people, including Doctor Lecter, a man hellbent on regaining his freedom.

Thoughts: This book is everything I want in a mystery/thriller. It’s intricate, twisted, and dark. I found it delightfully easy to sink into the story.

This book is both strange and delightful. The characters, the setting(s), the underlying themes, all are deeply relatable, and yet seemingly removed from real life. I think a fair bit of this can be attributed to the writing style. It goes from past tense to present tense, but if you’re alert, you’ll catch on to where this happens and it’s easy to see why. It took a couple of chapters for me to get used to it, but I found it delightful overall. It added to the suspense and fast pace of the story.

If serial killers and psychology weren’t enough to capture my attention, the way that these topics and others were handled certainly did. While Harris brings up excellent points about how people treat one another through his characters, the book never once falls into the trap of preaching. Whatever is said is always tied into the plot. This was not only incredibly refreshing, but it also heightened the suspense.

One of the key elements in the book is trans-sexuality. There are very few, if any transsexual characters, but the topic is integral to the plot. I was happy to see statistics, acknowledgement of the struggles that those who transition go through, and how people stood up to protect their privacy. That is a huge and welcomed difference from the movie.

Speaking of the movie, if you’ve seen it but haven’t read the book, fret not. The book is hardly spoiled for you. Although I knew the ending, there were many more details and twists that I didn’t see coming. The ending is a fair bit different than how the movie portrays it to boot. I was delighted by the book’s ending.

From start to finish The Silence of the Lambs is an immersive book. The characters, even the most minor of them, are fleshed out, challenging topics are handled with grace, and the pacing is as close to perfection as one can get. This became an immediate classic when first published, and the book is certainly deserving of such praise. This became an instant favorite for me. No doubt I will enjoy reading it many times in the future.

Book Review: A Simple Favor

“Your mother is a monster.”

December is a time for companionship of all sorts. Family, friends, significant others, pets, it doesn’t matter. Of course this season can also be extremely trying. So it’s important to do simple, loving things for yourself. Simple favors you might say. I found the book A Simple Favor shortly after I saw the movie by the same name. I adored the movie and had to hunt down the book. The book did not disappoint.

ASimpleFavor_Bell_Cover

Synopsis:  Brought together by their young sons, Stephanie and Emily quickly become best friends. Their afternoons are spent bonding over motherhood, work, and love. They tell each other everything, and are more than happy to help each other. One day Emily calls Stephanie to ask for a simple favor: pick up her son from school and she’ll pick him up from Stephanie’s house after work. Midnight comes and goes, a day passes, then two. Suddenly Stephanie wonders how much she knew about Emily, and how much she can rely on Emily’s husband to help. Motherhood is lonely, but now it just became deadly.

Thoughts: If you’ve seen the movie, don’t worry. The movie does the book justice, but the book is a dark and beautiful beast of its own. Even if you’ve seen the movie, you won’t see the ending coming. If you haven’t seen the movie? Read this review, read the book, then hunt down the movie.

A Simple Favor hits on hard topics. That’s what makes the book so fun, yet so disturbing. Normal people are involved in abnormal things. Death, suicide, incest, affairs, abuse. Somehow, the cast is convinced they’re normal, and yet they’re convinced that they’re anything but due to their involvement in these issues. These are hard and ugly issues, yet I felt the book handled them well. After all, as difficult as they are, these issues are deeply real problems.  The dark realism is what makes this book work. But it did lead to a few slow parts at the start. Thankfully the book picked up speed rather quickly once Emily vanished.

At the end of the book I was left wondering who the real victims were. How do we measure the value of life when we can so easily warp it, twist it, and create excuses for the inexcusable, convincing ourselves we’re sane? It’s an odd question to be pondering at the end of a domestic thriller, but weeks after I closed the book, I’m still thinking about it.

There’s no question about it though, life is valuable. How valuable it is, well, maybe that’s up to us. Or in the case of this novel, our dear narrators.

I’ve always been a sucker for unreliable narrators, and this book is a glorious study of them. I loved the narrators. They seemed like horrible people, but at the same time they were deeply relatable. Some were insecure, some thirsted for power and love, and others weren’t quite sure of what they wanted. Bell does a fantastic job of crafting characters that we know are wrong, but we can’t help but root for. There’s just enough redeeming or relatable qualities to each character. As the lines between reality and right and wrong blur for our narrators, those lines blur for the reader as well.

If you’re turned off by the idea of domestic thrillers, thinking them tame, this book will no doubt help you think differently of the genre. This is Bell’s first book, and I surely hope it’s not her last. I’ve found a new author to add to my favorites. I’ll be treating myself with re-reads of this book for many years to come.

TL;DR: If you’ve seen the movie, don’t worry. The book will still hold plenty of surprises for you. The book is a masterful dark domestic thriller, with twists galore. The characters are perhaps unlovable, and yet, they are deeply relatable. The pacing is a little slow out the gate, but when it picks up, the pace is breakneck and brilliant. Get your fuzzy blankets, your favorite hot beverage and treat yourself to A Simple Favor. You can thank me (and yourself) later.

Book Review: The Ribbajack and Other Curious Yarns

“Gentle reader, heed my plea, pray witness now this shocking tale…”

Apologies for the terribly belated book review. But have one last treat before the night ends. I’ve been a long time lover of Jacques, and it seems a disservice to his memory to not bring to light his little book of curious short stories. And while this Halloween night is creeping ever closer to its finish, there’s always time to pull out a delightfully unsettling story collection.

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Synopsis: From the mastermind behind the bestselling Redwall series, Brian Jacques invites us to explore a darker, creepier side of life with six short stories. Each story explores a different element of the human experience, each experience more bizarre than the last. Enhancing the mood is a short poem that preferences each story. Long time fans of Brian Jacques, and those who are new to his works will be able to see why Jacques is considered a master storyteller.

Thoughts: There is nothing like Jacques’ writing style. Despite the stories being dark, there is a warm, welcoming feeling to the stories. This is what made me devour the tales growing up. As an adult, I’m still in love with the collection.

While the horror aspect of the collection initially attracted me, it’s the twists and morals of the stories that have helped this set of stories dig its way into my heart. The welcoming writing style keeps you reading, and then something slightly unexpected happens then is built upon. Of course, it’s not Jacques if there’s only one twist. It’s the ultimate twist that leads to the moral. Yet this moral is hardly a slap on the wrist, and more of an invitation to think, to muse and mutter over what you just read, to walk a little more cautiously, or a little more bravely.

As for the stories themselves…”The Ribbajack” is by far my favorite. It’s the longest of the seven, and the darkest. Revenge tales are old hat at this point, but the revenge of the Ribbajack is unusual and fresh, despite the plot drawing from historical elements. The Ribbajack is a monster worthy of the Monster Hall of Fame.

I deeply appreciated “The Mystery of Huma D’Este”, and “The all Ireland Champion Versus the Nye Add”, although these stories didn’t seem quite as magical as they did to me when I was younger. Perhaps it’s because I re-read them so much as a kid that they’ve lost a bit of their appeal now that I’m older. After reading them so many times I’ve come to see how the twists are inevitable, not surprising.

“Rosie’s Pet” and “A Smile and a Wave” are oddly humorous. There’s something deeply childlike and relatable in each. The twists are predictable after reading them so many times, yet the enjoyment for me was enhanced, knowing what was coming. “Miggy Mags and the Malabar Sailor” must be mentioned with these two as well. The humanity and humor in this story is wonderful. Even though these stories are more lively than the others, there’s a seriousness and darkness to all three. When read together with the others in the collection, it makes sense how they would be included.

Overall this is a lovely set of stories, perfect for reading aloud around bonfires, or for hiding under the covers and reading by flashlight. Dark surprises, wicked humor, and a warm writing style make this short story collection an excellent pick.

TL;DR: Those familiar with Jacques’ works will no doubt delight in this collection. While it’s a step away from the Redwall and Castaways series, there’s no denying the enjoyment these seven tales give. If you’re new to the author, The Ribbajack and Other Curious Yarns is a brilliant introduction to him. Told in a unique style, these stories are twists on classic ideas and questions we sometimes dare not ask ourselves. If you’re into the darker and more curious things in life, then this is a book well worth investing in.