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Archive for October, 2014

Broken Hours

Last week, I wrote briefly about five children’s books that scared the bejeesus out of me. Now, I’d like to share some of my favourite spooky books for grown-ups, just in time for All Hallow’s Read. The idea is that you give out scary books to people on Halloween, so that they have something suitably atmospheric to read. To learn more about All Hallow’s Read check out the website: http://www.allhallowsread.com/

My recommendations are going to run the gamut on this one, from atmospheric ghost stories to postmodern genre mashups to Lovecraftian stories of cosmic dread.

The Broken Hours by Jacqueline Baker: An atmospheric and creepy tale about Arthor P. Crandle, a young writer down on his luck hired as a personal assistant to none other than H.P. Lovecraft, wizard of the Weird. The prose is incredibly eloquent and Baker manages to create an atmosphere of tension and gloom, but also of loneliness and loss. You can find hauntings, tentacles, and clever twists in this beautiful book.

Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray: Chilling and tragic. Tiffany Murray is a marvellous storyteller. Drawing on local tales, Murray builds a world in which tragedy echoes through generations and is connected to a dark family history. The story is set in 1955 on the Welsh/English border, but a malevolent spirit has been on the premises of the declining estate for much longer than the current occupants. The story takes its inspiration from the legend of the Black Boy of Littledean Hall. Super creepy. Also super creepy? This new book trailer for Sugar Hall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTQTL7_S-Wk

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: I wrote my Master’s thesis on this novel, and while it definitely has some pretty big problems, there is no denying that the Navidson house story line is absolutely terrifying. The Navidson’s discover that their house is bigger on the inside than on the outside, manage to cope with the sudden appearance of a door that leads to a dark passageway that changes shape and size, and then embark upon an expedition to explore the passage. Bad things ensue. Add to that the absolutely brilliant and utterly disorienting layout of the book, and the spooky qualities of the accompanying “soundtrack” by Danielewski’s recording artist sister, Poe, and you have all the makings of a freaky read.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill: Written as an exercise in genre, this novella is conventional but exceedingly effective. The isolated and dreary landscape, the imposing architecture, the restraint of the characters, the palpable fear of the townspeople, the repressed grief of the protagonist… all of the elements of Victorian Gothic are here. The film version is also very well done, managing to avoid the gore that so many horror films are dependent upon now.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes: I’m not usually one for reading crime stories, but this is the story of a time-travelling serial killer and the one woman who survived him. It’s an absolutely cracking read, and I must say that during the climactic scene in the novel the sense of dread was so visceral that at many points I wanted to put the book down because I wasn’t sure I could face what was coming. Despite my desire to escape the inevitable horror, I was compelled to continue reading and couldn’t make myself look away. So, even though this isn’t a horror novel, per se, I found it absolutely horrifying (in a good way).

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer: This was a single-sitting read for me. It’s got that “unity of effect” that Poe (old E.A., not the musician mentioned above) wrote about, and it’s got that Lovecraftian sense of cosmic dread. A team from the Southern Reach organization embarks on an expedition into the mysterious Area X. The story is intense and uncanny, and will leave you breathless in anticipation of the second book, Authority, which will in turn leave you breathless for the third book, Acceptance. Strap in and enjoy the ride.

I also have a pile of books I intend to read over the dark winter months here in the frozen north, many of which have the potential to be terrifying. And who knows? They may make next year’s list:

The Winter People by Jennifer Mahon

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

The House on Haunted Hill by Shirley Jackson (don’t ask me why it’s taken so long to get around to this one)

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

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Helen

Just over a week to go until All Hallow’s Read. If you are not familiar with this new bookish Halloween tradition, watch Neil Gaiman explain it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1tYtLeWN5NQ

As a huge fan of spooky stories, I would like to make a few recommendations for young readers and not-so-young readers. I’ll start with my list of books for children and young adults. I’ve always preferred psychological horror to gore, and my selections should reflect that. Here are my top spooky reads for kids (and you should still have plenty of time to go buy one of these at your local indie bookshop):

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman: Gaiman is a master storyteller. I read this book as an adult, and it still spooked me. It also made my best of the year list. It has everything a scary story lover could want: murderers, ghosts, graveyards…

The Seer of Shadows – Avi: Again, a title I read as an adult while working in a public library. The story is fascinating, with a marvellously rendered historical setting and the added element of wonder in the subject of early photography (specifically “spirit photography”). The writing is top-notch and the ghost story is terrifying. Two thumbs up!

Wait Till Helen Comes – Mary Downing Hahn: I read this book when I was 11 and it scared the bejeesus out of me. Seriously. I’ve had it on my shelf since then, and every once in a while I think, “I should read that again.” Then I remember how terrified I was (in a good way), and I chicken out. Maybe it’s time. Apparently, there is a movie coming out: http://variety.com/2014/film/news/maria-bello-nelisse-sisters-starring-in-wait-till-helen-comes-1201304228/

Julie – Cora Taylor: Another classic from my Scholastic book order days, this is a story about a girl with the second sight, and while it isn’t a ghost story, I remember being incredibly tense because it was so thrilling and dealt with the unknown/paranormal. I loved this one so much as a kid, that I faked the author’s autograph (which turned out to be rather embarrassing when she actually signed the book 25 years later, and actually saw my grade four attempt at forgery).

And no list of recommendations for kids who dig scary stories would be complete without recommending…

Scary Stories to Read in the Dark – Alvin Schwartz: I remember reading these stories to my brother and uncle on long road trips while we sat in the back of the Suburban. The stories are classics drawn from folklore and urban legend, but it was really the illustrations that were the most terrifying. I still have a box set of these on my shelves.

So, there you have it. Five suggestions for books to track down before October 31st, so that you can give the spooky little ones in your life their first All Hallow’s Read!

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Heap House is Edward Carey’s first foray into young adult fiction. The author of two of the most original adult novels in recent years—Observatory Mansions and Alva and Irva—Carey brings his quirky and emotionally resonant style to Book One in the Iremonger trilogy (available from Harper Collins Canada).

For generations, the Iremonger family has been responsible for “the Heaps,” a tremendous sea of trash outside an alternate-universe London with Dickensian echoes. The story has an Upstairs/Downstairs structure that is masterfully managed by Carey’s use of two protagonists: Clod Iremonger, gifted outcast of the Upstairs Iremongers, and Lucy Pennant, feisty orphan of the Downstairs Iremongers. The chapters alternate between protagonists, and the stories slowly intertwine as Clod and Lucy begin to uncover the dark secrets of the Iremonger family.

Each of the protagonists faces significant challenges. Clod has the unusual ability to hear the voices of birth objects (objects assigned to each Iremonger at birth), and each object calls out a different name. This skill leaves him shunned by many family members. Clod is bullied by his wretched cousin Moorcus and has to face a dreaded coming of age ceremony involving an arranged marriage to an unpleasant cousin, Pinnalippy. Lucy is oppressed by the rules imposed on the servants downstairs and struggles to hang on to her identity and her memories in a house where she is stripped of everything but the name “Iremonger”. Accompanying these challenges faced by the two protagonists is the larger problem of the Heaps themselves (which certainly make the reader consider the environmental consequences of our culture of the disposable, as well as the way we accumulate unnecessary stuff in our consumer culture). The Heaps surround the house and provide a menacing backdrop for some intense scenes, while the objects inside the house begin to become threatening in their own, very unexpected, way.

The chapters are accompanied by evocative and gloomy portraits of the occupants of Heap House with their birth objects. The illustrations create the effect for the reader of walking through the grand hall in a Victorian manor house lined with family portraits. As with his adult fiction, Carey creates a marvelous architectural space for this story. The house is a patchwork conglomeration of other buildings or bits of buildings, creating a fantastic, precarious, and near surreal setting for the story.

This is a family saga of such originality that readers will be swept away wondering where the tale will take them, and the story ends on a cliffhanger certain to leave readers anxious for the next installment. This is my number one recommendation for Young Adult reads this Christmas. The second book in the series, Foulsham, is already available in the UK from Hot Key Books. Here in Canada, we have to wait a little longer, but Heap House is available in hardcover now.

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I always anticipate literary award season with a mixture of hope and dread. Each year, I hope to be surprised by what makes it to the short lists, but each year I am almost always disappointed. Canadian literature awards especially, like the Giller Prize (this year’s short list: http://www.scotiabankgillerprize.ca/finalists/2014-shortlist/) and the Governor General Awards (this year’s short list: http://www.cbc.ca/books/2014/10/governor-generals-literary-awards-2014-the-finalists.html), tend to stick to the “safe” titles: literary and “serious” and appealing to the broadest possible spectrum of readers. Rarely do the titles on literary award short lists strike me as challenging either literary conventions or challenging commonly held beliefs/perspectives. My usual response is a disappointed sigh, as the short lists seem to be more of the same old, same old. I don’t intend this as a disparagement of those who are lucky enough to make these short lists, as their talent is not what I am questioning. I am sure I would enjoy many of the books on these lists. I just tend to be less interested in reading them because they seem to fit conventional narrative patterns or subjects and I like to stretch my boundaries as a reader. I would like literary awards to take some risks in introducing readers to books beyond the conventional and familiar, in order that readers may expand their comfort zones. So, in response to this apathy I feel, I have decided to make a long list of books that I found interesting in terms of form or challenging in terms of subject matter, books that I feel made me a better reader. These books aren’t perfect. They have flaws, but their authors were brave enough to try something different (new or less familiar) in terms of form or genre and to look at subjects deemed uncomfortable or unworthy by others. Some have been recognized by larger prizes, but even in those cases, I feel they didn’t get the consideration they deserved by the reading public. Each book on this list gave me a thrill as I figured out what they were trying to do, and each one was emotionally affecting in its own way. Here is the inaugural long list for the Hamilton Award for Interesting Literature (HAIL – as in, all hail to me, queen of cool book recommendations):

The City of Bohane – Kevin Barry

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Love and the Mess We’re In – Stephen Marche

Faces in the Crowd – Valeria Luiselli

Observatory Mansions – Edward Carey

The Boys in the Trees – Mary Swan

So Many Ways to Begin – Jon McGregor

Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

The Logogryph – Thomas Wharton 

Vernon God Little – DBC Pierre

Spilt Milk – Chico Buarque

The Manual of Detection – Jedediah Berry

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – Eimear McBride (I’m still reading this one)

I am not able to offer a spectacular monetary prize in the tradition of those prizes I discuss here (I am a poor adjunct, after all), but I would like to offer my sincere appreciation to these authors for shaking up expectations and creating marvelous fictional worlds for readers to inhabit. I hope you will consider giving these writers your attention.

I must say that the Booker Prize short list (http://www.themanbookerprize.com/news/man-booker-prize-fiction-2014-shortlist-revealed) did come as something of a surprise to me this year, as it seems fresher and more interesting than many of their lists in the recent past. I often find at least one title of interest, but this year I am interested in reading most of the titles here. However, in the world of literary awards, I find that the most reliably interesting long and short lists are for the Dublin IMPAC Award (last year’s nominees http://www.impacdublinaward.ie/ won by Juan Gabriel Vasquez) and the Neustadt Prize (last year’s nominees http://neustadtprize.org/the-23rd-biennial-neustadt-international-prize-for-literature-nominees-announced/#.VDwOmfldVaQ won by Mia Couto). I want unfamiliar literary prize nominees, new writers whose bodies of work I can begin to explore. I want prize lists to challenge my comfort zone.

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