book review

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu is based on the true story of the Donner Party – a group of pioneers that migrated to California from the Midwest in 1846. The pioneers were delayed by a series of problems that meant that they ended up trapped in the snow in a mountain range over winter, when they should have already made it to California. This unplanned delay meant that they ran out of food, and it is rumoured that they turned to cannibalism to survive. A great premise for a horror novel, right?

But The Hunger fell flat for me, and I think it’s for two main reasons. Firstly, the image of humans turning to cannibalism to survive after being lost in the wilderness for months is a genuinely terrifying prospect, and I was expecting this to be a novel that explored human nature in a realistic manner, if fictionalised rather than in a non-fiction book. However, this novel actually takes this real-life scary thing and it gives it a supernatural reason – which completely sucked all of the scariness out of it for me. A lot of the time, scary things are scary because we think it’s possible that they can happen to us, and I think this novel lost that element by taking that away.

And secondly, there was no grit to this novel. It was slow-paced, which I’m not fussed about if the novel is doing a good job of building up and creating that tension. But, for the most part, I was a little bit bored. And then, when we finally get to the point where the bad things are supposed to happen, I found the writing confused and disjointed, and it skipped in time and didn’t actually portray any of the cannibalism. Writing that down sounds really morbid of me, doesn’t it? But I’m reading a horror novel to be scared; I don’t expect to be spared any description or detail of the actual scary thing that’s happening.

The book is written in third person, switching between lots of characters’ points of view. I think the author did a good job of giving all of the characters’ backgrounds and reasons to be on the wagon train, and she wrote some characters that you were rooting for. However, the novel ended quite abruptly and though you know the outcome for a couple of the main characters, you don’t really know who has survived and who hasn’t.

Overall, I can’t say that I recommend this book. However, I honestly do recommend the Wikipedia page if you want to read something deeply chilling and horrifying! I think I will be looking to see if I can find a non-fiction novel based on this story.

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book review

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Mexican Gothic opens with Noemí receiving a strange and confused letter from her cousin (Catalina), begging her to save her from her husband’s house and talking about strange voices in the walls.  Noemí’s dad sends her to High Place (the ancestral home of her cousin’s new husband) to investigate, and it’s there that things really start to get weird.

This was an oddly captivating and beguiling read, but as soon as I put it down I was left wondering what on earth I had just read. And I’m still trying to work it out!

Noemí was a fine protagonist, but never really much more than fine. She’s pretty, she’s a socialite and she’s intelligent, but I don’t think I can necessarily name any of her other character traits. For me, all of the characters fell flat and I think the author struggled to show instead of tell with her when building their personalities. For example, Catalina is Noemí’s cousin but they were brought up together and are supposedly very close. I only know this, though, through Noemí’s internal monologue – I don’t know it at all through the way that they talk to/treat each other, and I think it’s very weird how little we see of Catalina while Noemi is visiting her. I thought Francis was also a very thin character, defined mostly by the fact that he wasn’t as handsome as his cousin.

I also felt that Moreno-Garcia’s writing could be clunky/heavy-handed in places, which sometimes took me out of the story.

And finally (before I get into the positives!) a few notes on the romance (which I felt was unnecessary), which is a spoiler so please avert your eyes and scroll down two paragraphs if you don’t want to see it!

Continue reading “Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia”
book review

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Haunting of Hill House follows the story of four people who travel to Hill House to investigate the unexplained ghostly phenomena that has been observed there over the years. Told through third-person narration, but mostly from the point of view of Eleanor (Nell), we witness the strange events in the house and how it sinks its claws into one of the guests.

This novel relies on terror rather than the horror – it’s the idea that something bad might happen, and wondering what that bad thing will be, and working yourself up, that really causes fear in the reader. It’s not that bad things don’t happen, it’s just that the anticipation of the bad thing is perhaps just as (if not more) terrifying. I thought this was something that this novel did exceptionally well, and it does that through Jackson’s phenomenal descriptions of the house.

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

Hill House is basically a character of its own in the novel – it looms over all of the characters, inciting disgust and repulsion, and creeping into their subconscious. Jackson’s prose is intelligent and distinctive, and I think it’s very clever how she builds up the wrongness of the house through little things like it being built at slightly wrong angles, with rooms and towers not quite being where you think they should be logically. It’s a great way to isolate, untether and confuse both the characters and the readers.

As well as the darkness and the creepiness, the author instils a great sense of humour into the novel, and an immediate kinship and closeness within the characters (that does get twisted as the story progresses). It was a joy to read both during the creepy moments and the moments when they’re sitting around and having a chat.

Jackson leaves a lot up to the reader’s interpretation, leaving you wondering about whether the goings on were supernatural, caused by humans, or manifestations of mental illness (or a combination of these things). It’s the perfect way to end the novel, as it means you get something out of no matter what you believe.

This is an engaging, well-written gothic novel that I would heartily recommend this scary season (or any other time of the year, for that matter!). Having already read another of Shirley Jackson’s novels (We Have Always Lived in the Castle), I am now intent on reading more!

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October recommendations

If you’re anything like me, when it gets to this time of year, especially as Halloween is fast approaching, you want to read lots of spooky, gothic, supernatural and scary reads. I thought I’d share some of my top recommendations with you!

1. Misery by Stephen King

Firstly – what would this list even be without a bit of Stephen King? I think ‘Misery’ might be my favourite of his novels – it’s very suspenseful, very psychological and a bit gruesome. It’s shorter than a lot of his other novels and I like the fact that it feels like it could happen – it’s not supernatural in any way and the main villain is a (terrifying) human. I also really recommend the film, which is the best King adaptation I’ve ever seen and really manages to keep the suspense going, even if you’ve read the book.

2. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

I love books set in ‘crumbling country estates’; I think they are such good backdrops for gothic horror novels. Purcell gets everything right with this chilling, atmospheric ghost story – including the ending! I absolutely loved everything about this and if you don’t mind being a little bit scared, then you should definitely pick it up!

3. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

I just read this book this month and enjoyed it so much I have to recommend it to you all. It’s a story about a haunted house that relies more on terror (the feeling that something bad is going to happen) than horror (scary things actually happening). The way Jackson describes the house sets it up brilliantly as a looming, off putting, cruel character in its own right – you know something is wrong, you just don’t know what.

4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Perhaps an odd thing to read on the beach, but I enjoyed it!

Maybe a little bit out of the left field, but for me, there’s nothing more chilling than descriptions of actual crimes, especially ones with no real motive. Capote’s seminal ‘In Cold Blood’ reconstructs the murder, investigation, capture and trial of Perry Smith and Dick Hitchcock, who murdered an entire family in a small town in Kansas. The book is well-researched and meticulous, but still manages to be suspenseful, atmospheric and frightening. There’s a reason this book is considered a classic!

5. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

‘Ninth House’ is a magical fantasy novel, set in the modern day at Yale University, where secret societies dabble in the occult. I read this book during lockdown and loved it. It’s definitely a slow burner, but I think it’s definitely worth the read. It’s beautifully written and can be dark in places – and if you aren’t scared by the magical elements then you definitely will be by the deft discussion of privilege (covering race, wealth and gender) which certainly shines a light on the scary parts of our society.

So these are just a few of my October recommendations for you all. What are you reading at the moment? Is there anything you think I need to read to properly mark this spooky season?

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book review

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When I saw that Naomi Novik was coming out with a new book, I immediately pre-ordered it, having absolutely adored Uprooted. And I wasn’t disappointed!

A Deadly Education is the story of Galdriel (El), a teenager at Scholomance – a school for witches and wizards with a twist: less than half the students who go there make it out alive because of the monsters that stalk the halls.

For me, this book was a quick read, highly addictive and really quite fun, despite the darkness of parts of the plot. El, the main character, is a loner at a school where being alone can literally kill you – if you don’t have someone to guard you while you take a shower, you never know what might decide to attack you while you’re distracted. She is smart, sassy and hardened to the outside world, having been shunned by basically everyone she’s ever met since she was a child (apart from her mother). As such, she carries a rather large chip on her shoulder. As the novel progresses, you see El start to connect with other people and it’s really heart-warming to see/read about. I think the characters Novik creates and the connections between them are what really shine in the novel.

The magical world, and more specifically Scholomance (the school), were really creative and well-built, but I do feel like at times Novik had too much information to share with us that she couldn’t quite explain through the story – and so there were a few times I thought she was infodumping. Especially at the beginning of the story, where after the first scene, the rest of the chapter felt like we were just being thrown a lot of information that was difficult to digest almost out of context. I really feel like this sort of stuff could’ve been cut down in the edit or perhaps shown throughout the story in a more interesting manner.

There’s a lot of diversity in the novel, which should be praised (El, for example, is half-Indian and the school itself is for students across the globe, from lots of different backgrounds), but the author doesn’t always get this right. One of the issues was the description of a monster insect that lives specifically in dreadlocks, needlessly and harmfully perpetuating the myth that dreadlocks are dirty (she has posted an apology for this). It’s not up to me to accept (or not) her apology, but I didn’t think it was right to review the book without mentioning some of the problems that have been raised.

Having thought about it a bit more, I’ve edited this review to add: I also think that though the book is inclusive, it feels very surface-level – the different cultures and backgrounds of the students aren’t explored; there’s no nuance to the inclusion. Language also plays such a strong part in the magic and world building, but the attached cultures aren’t important to the world/narration and I find that disappointing. I think the diversity was well-intentioned, but something doesn’t sit right about divorcing people from their cultures and language. I hope I’ve explained this well and I would be interested to hear your thoughts if you have read the novel!

All of this being said, I mostly enjoyed the book and would recommend it as a fun and fast read, with an interesting world and a well-developed set of characters who are easy to like. The book ended on a sort-of cliffhanger, and I would definitely like to pick up the next book when it’s out and revisit these characters.

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book review

Bone China by Laura Purcell

Rating: ⭐️⭐️

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell was a 5-star, atmospheric, chilling read and I absolutely loved it. I think I’m rarely properly scared by books – I find them less immersive in terms of horror than TV or film (perhaps my imagination won’t quite let me conjure up things scary enough!) but The Silent Companions managed to scare me. And, it stuck the landing when it came to the ending – which I think horror novels really struggle to do.

Since then, I’ve read The Corset by Purcell, and now Bone China. Both of these have failed to really capture me the way that The Silent Companions did, though I really want to like them.

Bone China by Laura Purcell

Bone China has the perfect gothicky setting for this sort of novel; an old, large, weathered house overlooking the sea in rural Cornwall, where some of the local people still believe in Cornish folklore (think fairies, pixies, mermaids and giants). The story almost writes itself, doesn’t it?

Accept the biggest problem I have with Bone China is you don’t get anyway near enough of the folklore aspects of the novel.

One of the biggest problems I think is the novel is broken into three parts:

  1. The ‘main narrative’ – where Hester Why arrives at Morvoren House in Cornwall to be a maid for Miss Pinecroft – an elderly lady who has suffered from strokes and whose house is filled with superstitious servants.
  2. The recent past – flashback to Hester’s previous job as a maid in London, and why she had to leave it.
  3. Forty years previously – which follows a young Miss Pinecroft having just moved into Morvoren House with her father, which explains how the house came to be how it is now.

I usually enjoy split narrative books – and if done correctly, they can be very useful for building suspense and foreboding. However, I think the narratives here really took you out of the action – especially the recap about Hester’s past, which didn’t feel relevant enough to main plot (and especially the supernatural element) to warrant being there.

The ending felt like instead of tying anything together, it was leaving all of the threads of story hanging loosely – and we never really encountered the creatures from folklore that the characters talk about and are scared of, which means that I can never really feel too tense or scared. There’s no denying that Purcell is a talented author – the book was still gripping, I read it quickly and I wanted to know more – but I was left feeling deflated and like I was always waiting for something more to happen.

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October: Bedside books

Autumn is here, Pumpkin Spice Lattes are back (my favourite seasonal treat) and I want to honour the best (and spookiest) time of year by reading some fitting fiction. Here’s my to-read list for the next month or so, full of gothicky, scary, Halloween-y horror novels.

  1. Bone China by Laura Purcell. I loved The Silent Companions and would absolutely recommend that for anyone looking for an atmospheric & chilling read. I find it takes a lot more for books to shock/scare me than TV shows or films, and this one was definitely nightmarish in all the right ways. I wasn’t as impressed with The Corset, so I’m hoping Bone China lives up to my expectations.
  2. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. How could you have a reading list like this and not include a bit of Shirley Jackson?! I’ve read (and enjoyed) We Have Always Lived in the Castle before, and I loved the Netflix TV show adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. However, I’m very intrigued because the TV show makes a lot of changes, so I’m excited to see how the book differs (and whether it can be just as scary as the TV show). I think it’s good that it’ll be different as it means I don’t know what to expect!
  3. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Morena-Garcia. I feel like this book has been everywhere for months now, and I was so intrigued by the cover (so beautiful!) and even more intrigued when I read the blurb. This is a gothic novel set in 1950s Mexico and I’ve seen nothing but good things about it. How could I resist?
  4. The Hunger by Alma Katsu. This is a bit of a different one for me. It’s based on the true story of the Donner Party, who were migrating to California from the Midwest and ended up trapped by snow in the mountains. In order to survive, they resorted to cannibalism. Sounds cheery, right? This is a bit different on the list as it’s less gothic, less supernatural (I think) and more about the harsh realities of humanity. 
  5. A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik. OK, this doesn’t quite fit my pre-requisites of gothicky or scary horror novels, but I have just got a beautiful hardback copy of this book and I can’t wait to read it. I think it still fits with the wider October theme though, as it’s set at Scholomance – a ‘school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death’. It’s a magical fantasy novel and seems like a lighter take on the Halloween vibe. Also, I absolutely adored Uprooted by Novik, so was excited to see her come out with a new book!

Hopefully this list inspires a few additions to your to-read pile this October. Are there any you recommend I pick up? Or do you have anything you’re particularly looking forward to reading? Or maybe you’re eschewing the season firmly and sticking with the feel-good beach reads? Let me know down below!