The Waking Dark (by Robin Wasserman)

22 04 2014

wakingdarkThe town of Oleander is nothing exceptional… except for one thing, something brewing underneath the surface that one horrible day led to the most gruesome of things: The Killing Day. 12 people in the small Kansas town were killed by 5 other Oleander people. Four of them killed themselves afterwards, except for Cass whose suicide attempt failed. With no recollection of what happened, she’s put in an institution hoping that this means things will be buried forever.

But then, a year later, a storm came, the town of Oleander is put under military quarantine (for which you don’t exactly get a reason until…) and the distrust that had been plaguing the people of Oleander ever since The Killing Day is about to come to the surface once again… no more hiding, not for Cass, who’s now out of the mental institution, but not for the other group of ‘outsiders’ in the ‘normal’ city of Oleander either: Jule (the girl trying to escape her family reputation of meth addicts and meth dealers), West (the high school football star mourning his dead lover, Nick), Ellie (the religious zealot who’s trying to save all of their souls) and Daniel (who’s the son of a Preacher and has taken the care of his younger brother Milo upon himself as he sees his father suffering from his own personal demons) and a bunch of other teens, like Grace and Milo who all blend in and out of the story as you go along.

Wasserman changes focus so very often throughout her narrative that getting to the essence of a character was really hard. The book is told in the 3rd person, which here is a very distancing perspective, and which always prevents the reader from internalizing the often shocking things that happen to the characters or that the characters do themselves. Each of the protagonists has something that sets them apart, and each of them has baggage galore, so once the mayhem starts the book almost feels like an experiment in human behavior focusing on rage, violence and (im)morality of certain acts. Something to watch, rather than experience. It’s also the main reason why I never clicked with any of the characters, and there’s nothing worse than feeling indifferent about the fate of a character in a book.

The Waking Dark is very much set in a Stephen King horror tradition…that much is clear, from Wasserman’s own acknowledgements, to the blurb, to the marketing of this book, and also to the brewing menacing style of writing. However… Stephen King is more than just horror and style. For me, Stephen King is first and foremost a brilliant storyteller who manages to create a menacing universe, yes, but whose characters within that universe are so well-rounded that even at the creepiest of times, the characters (that I can care for or have actual emotions about) and the lavish plot always – always – win over style. “Style” is not so much secondary with King, as that it feels like he’s not even trying and it’s an integral part of the overall plot. It’s not that Wasserman is trying too hard in The Waking Dark, though. What bothered me the most is that the style becomes an impediment to the plot, the mystery and the characters. Ultimately the style drags out the sentences and the paragraphs and the pages, until you really have to look for the plot – which is there, for sure, but which should have been to the forefront and not in the background like it is now.

As for the ultimate resolution of the story? Well, I don’t think that this was Wasserman’s intention in the first place, and it shows… because when we get to the why, it’s not very… well, original. It’s just a bit of a cheap way out.

The Waking Dark is horror, but there’s much better to be found out there, not in the least in Stephen King’s magnificent oeuvre. However, if the Maine Master of Horror doesn’t shake your bones enough, try Daniel Kraus’s Rotters and Scowler or Andrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens and Passenger.

Scowler (by Daniel Kraus): to horror or not to horror.

19 01 2014

scowlerHere’s something completely different! Prepare to be horrified. And probably disgusted and sickened a little too. And definitely prepare to have your ideas of “horror and YA” be amended. Daniel Kraus’ Scowler is not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.

Daniel Kraus confirms his talent for writing the true psychological (and physically revolting) horror that he also used in Rotters. And just like in Rotters, the reader should not expect Kraus to compromise. This is a ‘take-no-prisoners’ story which takes the reader to the most extreme situations imaginable. Think of Stephen King’s The Shining and/or Silence of the Lambs type horror and you might get close to what Ry Burke – the 19-year-old protagonist – is going through here.

Ry lives with his mother Jo Beth and younger sister Sarah at the family’s dying and secluded farm in Iowa. It’s 1981 and Marvin, Ry’s father is in prison for inflicting the worst possible abuse on his wife ánd son. It’s taken years for Ry and his mother to somewhat recover, and now Ry’s mother feels it’s time to move on and she’s finally decided to pack up so they can move into town.  However, before they get to leave, a stranger calls at the farm… and this man who turns out to be an escaped convinct, and who also brings them the worst possible of news about Marvin Burke.

Marvin’s ‘return’ coincides with the 1981 August meteor shower and meteorites fall from the sky onto the Burke farmland. The return of Marvin forces Ry to go back into his own past and relive the events of what happened in 1971 and 1972. This story is then told in flashbacks. We learn about the horrible things Marvin did to Jo Beth and Ry, and how Ry found some kind of coping devices in 3 old ‘toys’: Mr Furrington, a stuffed animal, a Jesus Christ figurine and Scowler, an ugly and twisted hunk-typed thing.

The things that Marvin did to Jo Beth are truly horrific, and it’s obvious that Marvin is just an all-around psychopath. But Kraus doesn’t leave it at that. What is the more interesting question here is the effect having a psycho-dad has on Ry. What did Ry have to do to save his mother in the past? What did Ry have to do to cope with the trauma afterwards? And what does Ry have to do now that Marvin is back with revenge on his mind? To truly take care of his mother and little sister, Ry will have to face the darkness that is in him and decide whether to use this darkness against Marvin or not. In this, the 3 ‘toys’ (the Unnamed Three) are significant. Once they were actual toys to Ry, but over time they have become different aspects of his own personality, and some of those aspects may be too horrible for Ry to revisit.

Just like Rotters, Scowler is a truly disturbing read. However, I’d argue that it’s not horror for horror’s sake. Despite its horrifically realistic and gory imagery, it’s also a brilliant example of characterization.  Ry’s search for his own self is a scary journey for the reader, and it will lead Ry as well as the reader into unknown territories of his own mind, a point where the conscious and the subconscious collide, where the real and the sur-real merge. And it’s not just the characterization of Ry that is done well here. I  especially liked how Jo Beth is equally convincingly drawn (the metaphor of the dress is almost heartbreaking).

Scowler is a brutal book, by an unflinching author, as the best authors tend to be. This is a book by someone who dares to go where very few YA authors dare to go. For anyone who likes Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist series* and Andrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens and Passenger, Daniel Kraus’ work is a must read!


* didn’t review the last one, but here’s a nice thing:finaldescent

Midwinterblood (by Marcus Sedgwick)

20 04 2013

mwbTwo souls who long to be reunited through time is in short what Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood is about. It all starts on the mysterious Blessed Island in the year 2073 with journalist Eric Seven visiting the island and intent on writing a story about a place where apparently no children are born and people are rumored to live forever. On Blessed Island he meets a young woman, Merle, who he feels strangely drawn to although he doesn’t quite know why. At the close of the first tale, the reader ends up with more questions than answers, questions that are slowly answered by going back in time… seven times, until we get to the beginning of their destined love.

As per usual, Sedgwick’s prose is sparse and seemingly simple, which gives it its unsettling and haunting feel that most people call “gothic” (and after all, this is not just a book of love, but also one with quite a lot of violence, blood, death…). Somehow, Sedgwick always manages to give his books an almost poetic quality and Midwinterblood is no exception to this. I’m sure that Sedgwick will be accused of trying to outsmart himself with his attention to structure, genre, language and mood. But that’s not taking into consideration how engrossing this book (and many other of his books) really is: you just can’t stop reading and that’s the mark of a true artist right there.

Any Sedgwick book needs to be savored rather than devoured, though. His atmospheric prose is of the type that lingers. Blending the contemporary (e.g. the use of present tense alternated with the use of past tense for the narration of the 7 tales) with the traditional (these stories are what gothic horror tales would have been like at the heyday of “the gothic novel”!), he is so unlike many present-day “fantasy” writers, who churn out formulaic fantasy fodder. Sedgwick, on the other hand is – to use Aidan Chambers’ words – a true author and not a writer and he’s obviously not concerned with pleasing a certain type of audience, but rather in producing a work of art. Revolver, Blood Red, Snow White, Midwinterblood… all of these share this common urgency. And it works! It works for kids, it works for teens, it works for adults!

Short Cuts

11 03 2013

I Will Save You (by Matt de la Peña)

i will save youKidd Ellison has the worst of lives. Away from the mental facility Horizons where he ended up after his mother killed herself (after she killed her abusive husband), he now lives in a tent on the beach, employed by Mr Red. In I Will Save You Matt de la Peña plays with narrative timelines as the reader has to figure out the links between Kidd and Olivia, Kidd and Mr Red, and especially Kidd and Devon, a guy Kidd met at Horizons but who now also turns up at the beach.

The book actually starts at the end of it all, when Kidd somehow pushes Devon off of a cliff, and then goes back to tell the entire story in flashback, memories, dreams and notebook entries (Kidd writes in his philosophy of life notebook). This disjointed chronology may throw you off at times, but it actually enhances the sense of desperation Kidd feels. The only thing this broken and vulnerable kid wants it to save Olivia, but when the mysterious Devon arrives and starts his devious schemes, everything Kidd wants is threatened. Even though you know from the start that something is up with Devon – there are clear hints throughout the book – I’m sure some readers will still be shocked at the ultimate twist at the end of the book.

I was a bit surprised to see this listed as a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, because it’s not exactly a “quick read”. On the contrary, it really does require some effort from the part of the reader. I don’t see my reluctant readers picking this up ‘quickly’. In any case, I Will Save You is a deeply moving and engaging book about a boy with an extremely troubled past and whose future is far from bright. Definitely one of the saddest books in a long time…

4 stars


My Swordhand is Singing (by Marcus Sedgwick)

my swordhand is singingMarcus Sedgwick is a cat favorite. One of the only writers to successfully publish work for children and young adults, his foray into the ‘darker’ genres is remarkable. In My Swordhand is Singing Sedgwick takes on the myths of the vampire. In his version of the age-old myth, there are no melodramatic romances. There are also no shining and sparkling über-creatures and irresistible doe-eyed maidens. Instead, Sedgwick focuses on the folktales that have been told all over the world, all through the ages. He sets his story in the 17th century in the dead of winter somewhere in Eastern Europe. We get the story of a father, Tomas – a drunk – and his son Peter, both woodcutters and not liked by the villagers where they have settled. In this tale we get gypsies and the evil of the Shadow Queen. In this tale we get the ‘hostages’ (vampires), who’re only after one thing and it’s not making out with the living!

Sedgwick’s horror is so different from the fantasy horror that is usually associated with Vampire stories these days. If anything, it looks like for once we get a writer who has done his homework researching ancient folklore instead of romanticizing it. My Swordhand is Singing is by no means Sedgwick’s best work, but it already shows what this unique writer will attempt in later books too: a focus on setting (eerily so), an interest in the past, and gothic-like retellings of old tales.

3.5 stars

The Marbury Lens (by Andrew Smith)

20 02 2013

marburylensAndrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens starts off in the harshest of ways as a contemporary urban horror story in which 16-year-old Jack gets too drunk at a party and in a weird turn of events ends up being kidnapped by a horrible man, Freddie Horvath. Horvath consequently plays brutal mind games with him, molests him and intents on doing so much more than that… Jack narrowly escapes death and in the aftermath of this kidnapping he and his best friend Connor actually kill Freddie Horvath. Yes, you get kidnapping, attempted rape and murder all in the first 50 pages of this book… but that’s only the start because things are about to get much much worse…

Jack is left with the conflicting feelings of relief and guilt when he leaves for London to spend some time there checking out a school with his friend Connor (who will join him a few days later, which means Jack’s on his own at first). The entire Freddie Horvath experience only seems like a horrific prequel to what is about to happen once Jack arrives in London. A mysterious man, Henry Hewitt, slips him a pair of weird glasses and soon Jack realizes that looking through them takes him into a whole different – ugly, brutal, devastating – world: Marbury.  From then on out, Jack is progressively slipping into and out of worlds: the world “here” and the one in Marbury. Looking into the glasses has other side effects: Jack is starting to experience time loss, he gets sick every time he comes back from Marbury. And even more questions arise: is Henry Hewitt who gave him the glasses real or is he just imagining him? And what about Connor? Why and how is it possible that in one world Connor is his best friend and in that other world Connor is like a vicious beast who tries to kill him? And what about the girl he’s met in London, Nickie? What is her link to Marbury? Why can’t she see Marbury through the glasses? The plot of this book is so dense (I haven’t even mentioned Seth and the ghost plotline and Ben and Griffin, Jack’s friends in Marbury) that you’ll be on edge just to grasp what’s happening from page to page.

Despite the fact that the cat was definitely compelled to read on, reading The Marbury Lens, cannot be called a very “pleasant” experience (not that every reading experience should be a “pleasant” one, of course). The main emotions that kept coming back were indeed negative. There was confusion because you want to know how everything is tied together and it seems like you won’t get that resolution you’re after. Is there a reason why you get the elaborate Freddie Horvath prelude? How is Seth tied to Marbury and to Jack? But it’s also a seriously disturbing and unsettling book, which in turn instilled me with feelings of unease and anxiety. Not only is the world of Marbury one of utter rage and violence and desolateness, the world that Jack lives in “here” and where he could have been the victim of someone like Freddie Horvath is seriously disturbed as well. Yet, the most obvious thing fucking up the cat’s reading experience came from Jack’s mind. Jack’s the main focalizer of the story and we’re definitely getting his story in the most un-straightforward way. For the most part we get the story through his first person narrative, but at some points he refers to himself in the third person and his narration becomes so disjointed that it is really indicative of his bizarre state of mind and his ever escalating lapse into a mental wasteland, and it left this reader wondering how much of what I was reading that’s going on in Marbury was “real” and how much was actually Jack’s coping with a very traumatic experience.

The cat doesn’t what to go into authorial intent too much – plus I haven’t read the sequel Passenger yet – but Andrew Smith lifts a little bit of the veil in a Q&A with Publisher’s Weekly: “In writing the story though I never for a moment entertained the possibility that what was happening to Jack wasn’t real. I always wrote, from my perspective, that everything that was happening to him was absolutely real.” If that really is the case, then it will be interesting to see how and why Seth’s linked to Jack, whether Henry Hewitt will make another appearance and whether there’s more to Nickie than we’ve seen so far… Even though The Marbury Lens reading experience inspired negative emotions, it’s intriguing and enticing enough to make me want to read the sequel. That is the strength of a true author.

The Marbury Lens is the type of book that will split its readership in half: it will have the most ardent lovers who will hail Andrew Smith as one of the most promising visionary authors today, but at the same time it will have the most zealous haters who can’t get past the darkness of this true horror story. The reasons for these strong emotions, though, might not even be all that disparate. The Marbury Lens is definitely a book that delves so deep into the darkest corners of the human psyche – corners that one reader will acknowledge truly exist – that it’s both scary and alluring to read about. Other readers will just abhor these dark corners so much that they can’t get past those nauseating feelings they get and will not even acknowledge how deeply different this type of book is from other psychological sci fi. Is it really sci fi even? Yes, in part, I mean seriously: glasses that show you a different world? Seems pretty far out to me! But also: no not really, because we don’t exactly know how much of everything is “real” in the world of the book, or just real in the mind of the protagonist(s), and as such it is more of a psychological thriller than a sci-fi fantasy horror tale…  Po-ta-to, po-tah-to…

The Marbury Lens is a book that divides, for sure, but all props go to Andrew Smith for attempting a whole different type of thing here. However, to be truly honest, The Marbury Lens does feel incomplete (the how and why or raison d’être, if you will, of Marbury *if* it’s an actual place, for one) and considering that it’s only the first part in a series of books can only be a part of the explanation. It also feels like Smith bit off more than he could chew. What The Marbury Lens really lacks at this point in the narration is a sense of cohesion, something to ground everything. This of course is something the cat hopes to get in the sequel…

Rotters (by Daniel Kraus)

6 01 2013

rottersWhen Joey Crouch’s mother suddenly dies, Joey is uprooted from Chicago to a small rural town in Iowa to live with a father who doesn’t even have the same last name as him. Life is hard on Joey, who was in Chicago a straight A student and loved to play the trumpet. Things take a turn for the worst, when Ken Harnett not only doesn’t pick him up from the station but also ends up being the town pariah – he’s nicknamed the Garbageman! The harsh circumstances at Harnett’s cabin – no food, no bathroom, no washing machine, no electronics – are nothing if not shocking, but at Bloughton High, Joey soon becomes the school pariah too (he can’t escape the horrible stench that is all over his father’s shack), bullied by the jocks (who start calling him ‘Crotch’) and a crueler than cruel biology teacher. He even loses the only friend he had in Chicago, Boris, who tells him not to call him again.  Because Joey wants to know what his father is up to at night, he decides to follow him and discovers his father’s secret: he’s a grave robber! Almost begrudgingly Harnett takes on his son as an Apprentice. From then on Joey sort of leads a double life. By day he goes to school, trying to keep up his straight As (as a sort of promise to his mother), but at night he accompanies his father on his job… a job that Joey describes in every minute horrific stinking decaying detail. And as horrible and disgusting everything is in the book… as a reader you’re almost spellbound: you want to know what is going to happen next with Joey and the Diggers, but also with Joey and his life at school. The juxtaposition of these two worlds also begs the question which hell is worse: that of the grave robbers or that of Bloughton High School.

The best way to describe Daniel Kraus’ writing is compelling. We experience everything from Joey’s almost authorial voice, which succeeds in both creating a certain distance between the reader and what is going on in the book (grave robbing, not your average teenage pastime, right?), but at the same time there are such incredible details about the machinations of e.g. digging a hole, robbing a grave, decaying bodies etc, that this voice is almost hypnotizing you and urging you to dig deeper (sorry!) into the story of the Diggers. Almost so much so that you can smell the stench!

Rotters is definitely not for the squeamish… it’s a true horror story, unflinching in its execution, uncompromising.  Although the book does sag a little bit at times, and is probably also a tad too long, it proves what an excellent world-builder and storyteller Daniel Kraus is. And even though Rotters deals with some seriously disturbing things, there’s a tragic truth to be learned here about the value of human life and human dignity – at all levels!


Also, here’s a bonus:

2013-01-03 11.39.03

Fear (by Michael Grant)

15 04 2012

Anyone who’s made it this far with Michael Grant’s Gone series will not be surprised nor disappointed with the 5th (and penultimate!) book in the series. Grant yet again delivers his trademark stylistic story-telling elements: alternately focusing on major and minor characters, displaying the strengths and weaknesses of each, while submitting them to some of the most terrifying of events. As such he is able to come up with another blood-pumping, nerve-wrecking, heart-stopping thrill of a ride, with a pleiad of mutant or otherwise gifted characters until finally everything comes together in the hallmark climax of the book, and what a climax it is this time!

In many ways Fear is no different from any of the other Gone books. Freaks and geeks? Check! Fights and battles? Check! Strife and conflict? Check! However, there are definitely a few ways in which this book is at least slightly working towards the end game, and for the very first time maybe, it is obvious how much of a mindfuck life in the FAYZ has been to the protagonists.

For one (and maybe finally!), some of the major characters seem to be showing significant changes in their ways of thinking about themselves and their role in the FAYZ. The most obvious character here is Astrid. Though she never had any real mutant powers, Astrid had always been this proud – even snotty and arrogant – character, who wasn’t just the brain of the bunch, but also the goody-two-shoes conscious of the “good guys”. In Fear we learn that her experience with Little Pete at the end of Plague has changed her so much that for the first time she has lost confidence in her motivations as being morally right… Astrid, on the other hand, is also the first character to realize that in what they are experiencing, what she has done is just what had to be done, and morally right or wrong – her biggest fear was always to do the morally wrong thing – is not applicable, and she is consequently the first one to overcome her fear.

Sam also – who is literally afraid of the dark, the worst fear to have when the FAYZ is changing, and everything is getting darker and darker – is facing some truths about his role in the FAYZ. But the same is true for all of the major players in the FAYZ: Caine, Dekka, Quinn, Diana…  And to make matters even more gruesome, it seems that Michael Grant has upped the ante when it comes to his evil  characters… not wanting to spoil anything here, but Penny is one crazy psychotic bitch! Also, Fear, even more than any of the other books, is not for the faint of heart with a few brutal deaths that will definitely shock the high-and-mighty Meghan Cox Gurdons out there (something involving coyotes and toddlers).

If there is any criticism at all about this book, then it is probably this: yes the shock-meter is almost through the roof, but that’s not always in the service of advancing the story (Michael Grant really doesn’t hold back, I’ll give him that!). And even though there are definite differences between this and the previous books, and even though most of the characters have indeed grown as characters, it is indeed about high time that Grant comes with a conclusion to the whole series. It is nice that he let us see what is outside the FAYZ, but maybe he could also have focused more on that aspect of the storyline, than on yet again a new character that will either kick the bucket a few pages later, or will turn out to play no role whatsoever anyway. Also, Diana’s superspeed-growing baby? :::insert big sigh::: Did you really have to go all Twilight on us here?

Anyway, don’t let me spoil your fun, because despite these minor foils, Fear is still up there with the best of dystopia books, and if brutal, sadistic, evil, mutant powers meets fantastic, gasp-worthy, unbelievable adventures is your thing, I wonder why you haven’t started reading the whole Gone series yet??

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