Book Review: Beneath The Shadows by Sara Foster

13100208Title: Beneath The Shadows
Author: Sara Foster
Genre: Thriller, Suspense, Gothic Horror
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: June 5th 2012
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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

In this thrilling gothic suspense debut by Sara Foster in the tradition of Rosamund Lupton and Sophie Hannah, a young mother searches Yorkshire’s windswept moors for the truth behind her husband’s mysterious disappearance.
When Grace’s husband, Adam, inherits an isolated North Yorkshire cottage, they leave the bustle of London behind to try a new life. A week later, Adam vanishes without a trace, leaving their baby daughter, Millie, in her stroller on the doorstep. The following year, Grace returns to the tiny village on the untamed heath. Everyone—the police, her parents, even her best friend and younger sister—is convinced that Adam left her. But Grace, unable to let go of her memories of their love and life together, cannot accept this explanation. She is desperate for answers, but the slumbering, deeply superstitious hamlet is unwilling to give up its secrets. As Grace hunts through forgotten corners of the cottage searching for clues, and digs deeper into the lives of the locals, strange dreams begin to haunt her. Are the villagers hiding something, or is she becoming increasingly paranoid? Only as snowfall threatens to cut her and Millie off from the rest of the world does Grace make a terrible discovery. She has been looking in the wrong place for answers all along, and she and her daughter will be in terrible danger if she cannot get them away in time.

If you’re as much of a fan of gothic horror as I am, then the synopsis of Beneath The Shadows probably intrigues you more than you’d like to admit. It was the synopsis that first drew me in for this story, but it definitely didn’t dissapoint. It’s a bit less gothic than I would’ve liked, but it does its best to be a gothic horror with a modern twist, and it succeeds in that department. The only problem? To me, it read more like women’s fiction meets mystery. Or even a cozy mystery of sorts. There were creepy, ghostly elements, but they were either quickly dismissed or offered little to nothing to the story. This could’ve been handled differently, better even, by living up to its genre and giving the reader true gothic horror.

Grace and Adam and their little daughter Millie return back to the place where Adam grew up in North Yorkshire. They move into a cottage left to them by Adam’s parents. Soon after their arrival in town, Adam takes Millie for a walk. Hours later, Grace finds Millie’s baby carriage at her doorstep, but no sign of Adam. As the police arrive and start to investigate, there’s no trace of Adam. Some people start to believe he just up and left them, but Grace refuses to believe that. Something bad happened to her husband, because he would never leave Millie out in the cold, or leave both of them behind. But the question remains: what? And who’s responsible?

A year later, Grace returns back to the cottage. But contradictory to the homey, comfortable feel she had in it at first, now it makes shivers run down her spine. The village is tiny, claustrophobically so, and we’re introduced to only a handful of the town’s characters. Meredith is Grace’s nextdoor neighbour, although they live a while apart, and she lives in one of the largest houses in town. Although Meredith is friendly enough, there’s something sinister about the woman Grace can’t quite place. Almost accidently, Grace ends up hiring a handyman to help fix the cottage, Ben. He’s nice enough, but he too seems to be hiding a dark secret.

With everyone enveloped in their own secrets, and her husband still missing, Grace has trouble deciding who she can trust…if anyone.

Beneath The Shadows is wrapped up in suspense like a butterfly in a cocoon. Suspense drips from the pages, starting on page one, and continuing until after the end. The characters are superb. Grace is an intriguing protagonist. She isn’t particularly brave or intelligent, but she believes firmly in that her husband wouldn’t just walk out on her, regardless of what others say, and she fiercely wants to protect her daughter Millie. She’s stronger than she appears at first sight, and braver than I gave her credit for as well.

The side characters make interesting additions to this story. Grace’s sister Annabel is fun, Ben is nice, and some of the villagers are creepy or strange. I liked the narrative. Some otehr reviewers mentioned they weren’t fond of it, but I quite enjoyed it.

Another pet peeve of mine was the constant referals to the novel Rebecca. I’ve read Rebecca, and loved it, and trust me, Beneath The Shadows is nothing like Rebecca. It’s a good, enjoyable read as it is, but it comes nowhere near that classic.

All in all, Beneath The Shadows is a great book for around Halloween if you’re not in a mood to get too scared, but you do want some mystery, or during summer when you want to spend a lazy afternoon reading.

Book Review: The Voice of Waterfalls by Natasha Salnikova

12824882Title: The Voice of Waterfalls
Author: Natasha Salnikova
Genre: Supernatural Thriller, Drama
Publisher: NAS
Publication Date: October 6th 2011
Rating: 3,5 stars
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Review copy provided by the author.

Inga manages to escape from a “house of terror” where she was held as a sex slave along with other girls who were kidnapped. She is chased into the woods and runs onto the road, almost falling under the wheels of an approaching car. She thought, it would be better to die that way than to return to her captors. The driver of the car, to her surprise, saves her. He brings her to his house and introduces her to his family: his mother, his father and his younger sister. He gives Inga a key to a separate room and brings her food. She appreciates his help and calls him her knight from the road. All she needs now is a phone to make a call to her mother. Her savior, Alman, says they don’t have one in the house. He’s also not in a hurry to take her from his house in the woods to the town where she can talk to police. And Inga began to doubt the noble intentions of her savior. After some time she starts to think this house is worse than the one she was imprisoned in before, if that was possible…

You would think that, after escaping from being held as a sex slave, life would look up for Inga. I mean, how much bad luck can one person get? A lot, apparently, as Inga is thrown from one disaster into another. As she runs away barefooted from the very people who kidnapped her, locked her up, raped her, beat her and threatened to kill her whenever she did something wrong, she is rescued by a young man named Alman. Although he appears friendly enough and offers her a place to stay for the night with the promise that she can call her mother first thing in the morning, Inga soon learns that something is totally off about Alman. And it’s not just Alman whose acting strange – it’s his entire family.

What if the secret Alman and his family are hiding is something worse than all the things she experienced in that house of terror alltogether? What if, in reality, this is the true house of terror? Alman and his family start acting more and more peculiar with every passing day, she can’t leave the premises and why does she keep on hearing terrifying screams in the dead of night? When she makes a run for it and ends up at the sheriff’s office, who promptly returns her to Alman and his family, Inga begins to realize that whatever is going on, the entire town of Quiet River seems to be involved. Who can she turn to from help? Whereto can she escape if everyone and everything is against her? Help may come from an unexpected corner in the form of Anthony, a too-successful lawyer, travelling to the town of his youth to escape his own guilt.

Natasha Salnikova has a writing voice that’s excellent for storytelling. She gives just the right amount of attention to detail, but doesn’t waste any time starting the action as well. From page one, you’re tumbling into the story head on, like you’re on a rollercoaster of events and the only way to get out is to jump. After Inga’s escape from the house of terror, the tension builds up gradually. The author presents the eerie and spooky atmosphere of the town of Quiet River perfectly, and she also describes the rising tension inside Alman’s family home in a believable fashion. Everything and everyone is against Inga. Where can she escape if the only route left is through a looming forest, possibly filled with boobytraps and other monsterous things as well? What can she do if the local sheriff is not to be trusted and her savior turns out to be an even more terrifying monster than her previous captors? This sense of being captured, being stuck, having nowhere to go, is palpable from the very beginning of the story, and it only expands in proportion as the story continues. The tension is overwhelming and omnipresent, and I occassionally caught myself gasping for air, feeling equally as trapped as Inga felt in the novel.

The way Inga is portrayed is excellently done as well. Inga is a very likable character, probably because we see her in the role of unwilling victim from the start. As a reader, you instantly feel sorry for her for two main reasons: 1) she’s being used as a sex slave, 2) she mentions how much she misses her mother. That touched a soft spot with me, and made me like her right away. Then, when she escapes, I cheered her on, hoping that she would somehow end up somewhere better, although the book synopsis had already told me that wouldn’t be the case. And when Alman turned all savior-new-captor-like on her, I felt like shooting him through the head with his own hunting riffle. It’s very easy to be on team Inga, both because you instantly feel sorry for her, and secondly because she seems to have a nice, caring personality. Maybe she’s not the brightest one out there, going to a shady-looking audition in the big city, but that could happen to all of us. And maybe she’s not the most courageous and brave person ever either, but that makes her all the more human. Those heroines looking for weapons to bash in the heads of their captors immediately are interesting, I give them that, but they’re not real. Some people might be like that, but most of us would be scared to hell in the face of possible murderers, and we would cower and do as we were told as well. Inga is an excellent example of this, and it shows her flaws and humanity, and makes her all hte more likeable.

In terms of originality, I have to say The Voice of Waterfalls scores quite high as well. I’ve heard about crazy people living in remote towns near the forest before – a lot of times, actually – but the author adds her own original spin on it, which I enjoyed immensly.


Author Natasha Salnikova was generous enough to offer an eBook copy of The Voice of Waterfalls to six lucky readers! If you feel like participating, simply fill in the form below and leave a comment.

Book Review: Snow Escape by Roberta Goodman

12795635Title: Snow Escape
Author: Roberta Goodman
Genre: Psychological Thriller, Drama
Publisher: White Words, Inc.
Publication Date: September 29th 2011
Rating: 3,5 stars
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Set against the backdrop of a historic snowstorm, Snow Escape is the story of one woman’s innocent foray into the world of online dating turned deadly.
Allegra Maxwell is a 30-year old, single school teacher looking for love. Having chosen to use the Internet to meet the opposite sex, she encounters an articulate, prospective beau on the night the biggest blizzard in history is blanketing the Big Apple. Their pleasant conversation soon turns sinister when she discovers that “Charles” has been stalking her for weeks and claims he lives in her building. With threats of destroying her little by little are made, Allegra must stay one step ahead of the mind games. Turning to neighbors for help, tragic consequences ensue.
When her sanity is questioned, because the online evidence her stalker exists disappears, Allegra must prove he does exist and she isn’t losing her mind. When a power outage thrusts her into darkness, will she be able to overcome the helplessness she feels? Placed in a situation that’s spiraling totally out of her control, while trapped in her apartment building with no escape, will she survive until the authorities can reach her?

Snow Escape begins by introducing us to Allegra, a single woman in her thirties who works as a teacher and spends her spare time hanging out with friends or looking for possible dates on an online dating site. Ever since things didn’t work out with her ex-boyfriend Danny – he wanted to keep things simple, while she was convinced they had an actual relationship – things in the love department haven’t been working out for Allegra. She went on a couple of dates, but none of those guys sounded relationship material to her. Now, with a historical snow storm coming her way, Allegra finds herself stuck home on a friday evening with nothing better to do than grade homework and watch a movie, or reply to some of the mails she got from potential dates.

However, when Allegra gets a mail back from a man named ‘Charles’ and starts chatting with him online, the conversation grows eerier with the second. Not only is Charles supposedly living in her building, he also has some unsettling plans for her…Allegra’s panic increases with the minute as Charles not only is able to tell her exactly how many minutes she was asleep, indicating that watched her, but also threatens to harm her. Panicking, Allegra goes to her neighbours for help. However, not all of them believe her so willingly, and some might even be involved in the foul play…The clock is ticking mercilessly, and it’s up to Allegra to find out who she can trust and who she can’t, especially with the power falling out, clothing the building in unforgiving darkness. With a stalker and potential killer on the loose, who can Allegra turn to for help? And how well does she really know the people she’s called her neighbors for the last couple of years?

Snow Escape has an excellent premise, and it certainly delivers. The novel is captivating from the start, building tension slowly and gradually until you as a reader feel you might just be buried underneath the same amount of tension and despair as the main character.That being said, Allegra does make an interesting protagonist. The way she is being portrayed by people differs greatly. There seems to be a category of people who think she was obsessed with her ex-boyfriend and stalked him up to the point he was forced to leave town (Miguel, ex-boyfriend of one of her best friends, is one of those who seem to think that way) whereas others, including me, think that account is greatly exaggerated. From what I gathered from Allegra’s brief interactions with her friends, some of them really don’t threat her right, or have no insight in human psychology whatsoever. Allegra, honey, you definately need to find yourself a new set of friends. And stop dating on the internet.

Anyway, I found it intriguing to see how different some people can think about the same events, and how much opinions can vary. The residents in Allegra’s apartment building all hold secrets of their own as well, and it’s up to Allegra (and the reader) to find out what exactly they’re hiding and whether or not they’re the culprit. The first part of this novel is simply amazing. As I said, it’s a build-up of tension, anticipation and fear. But then the novel takes a different direction with the arrival of police officers and two detectives, and the constant feeling of dread vanishes. It’s as if this book miraculously transforms from an outstanding, nailbiting thriller into a mystery novel featuring two detectives who have to solve a crime.

I wasn’t too fond of this twist of events, but I did like how the officers had to put a timeline together and decipher who was telling the truth and who was lying in order to find out who really stalked Allegra, or if her supposed stalker was, as some of the tenants suggested, imaginative. I found this thought-process interesting to say the least, but it did drop the pace of the story significantly and all the tension that had been building up from page one simply dissapeared. The twist at the ending was unexpected and interesting, but it didn’t make up for the lack of tension in the previous chapters. Especially the fact that the detectives seemingly repeat everything that has just happened not once, but twice is a bit annoying. I would’ve preferred it if this novel had stayed with its original starting point, as a fast-paced, frightening thriller. The second part seems to belong to another book alltogether.

Solid characters with intriguing personalities offering a look at humanity in total, and on how perspectives can differ a lot from one individual to another. A nailbiting thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat for more than the first half of the story and then changes into a mystery novel with two detectives taking the front row. I enjoyed Snow Escape, and I read it in one sitting, desperate to know who was stalking Allegra this entire time, but it could’ve been better had the pace not dropped significantly in the second part, hence why only the 3,5 rating rather than a 4. But all in all, for a debut novel, Snow Escape has an intriguing premise, it’s well-executed, the characters are intriguing and Roberta Goodman’s fluent writing style makes up for a lot of the flaws in the second part. I would definately recommend it to people who are fans of thrillers like Night Stalker by Carol Davis Luce. The novel is intriguing and captivating, and I certainly enjoyed reading it. I’m looking forward to reading more works by this author.


In the spirit of Halloween, author Roberta Goodman wants to give away 3 eBook copies of Snow Escape to 3 lucky winners!

Book Review: The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

10209997Title: The Night Strangers
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Genre: Horror, Psychological Thriller, Witches, Ghosts
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication Date: October 4th 2011
Rating: 4,5 stars
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In a dusty corner of a basement in a rambling Victorian house in northern New Hampshire, a door has long been sealed shut with 39 six-inch-long carriage bolts.
The home’s new owners are Chip and Emily Linton and their twin ten-year-old daughters. Together they hope to rebuild their lives there after Chip, an airline pilot, has to ditch his 70-seat regional jet in Lake Champlain after double engine failure. Unlike the Miracle on the Hudson, however, most of the passengers aboard Flight 1611 die on impact or drown. The body count? Thirty-nine – a coincidence not lost on Chip when he discovers the number of bolts in that basement door. Meanwhile, Emily finds herself wondering about the women in this sparsely populated White Mountain village – self-proclaimed herbalists – and their interest in her fifth-grade daughters. Are the women mad? Or is it her husband, in the wake of the tragedy, whose grip on sanity has become desperately tenuous?
The result is a poignant and powerful ghost story with all the hallmarks readers have come to expect from bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian: a palpable sense of place, an unerring sense of the demons that drive us, and characters we care about deeply.
The difference this time? Some of those characters are dead.

Although The Night Strangers is the first book by Chris Bohjalian I’ve ever read, I did hear a lot about this author earlier on. Even after the first few chapters of this book, I understand why that’s no surprise. From all the authors I’ve read for the very first time this year, Chris Bohjalian is without a shadow of a doubt the most talented one. He has a writing style that is both gripping and enthralling, both mesmerizing and mysterious, and draws you in from page one. It’s a writing style I connect to the horror genre almost instantly, and which reminds me of certain masters in the genre like Poe, Faulkner and Stephen King. Chris Bohjalian fits right up that alley. I wonder if his writing style is similar in his other works, which aren’t situated in the horror genre, but in any case, it fits this genre perfectly. The narrative voice is both distant and eerily familiar, both disfigured and logical, and that all adds up to the twisted, demented feeling you get while reading The Night Strangers.

The most intriguing part about this novel is that it’s based partially on reality. Well of course the horror parts are imaginary, but some parts of this novel are actually based on things that really happened to the author. As he admits in this article on CNN, Chris Bohjalian got his inspiration from two random occurences. For starters, when he purchased a Victorian townhouse, he found a sealed door in his basement. Nailed shut, actually. Curiosity killed the cat, and it forced Chris Bohjalian to open up that door and enter what can only be described as a crypt or closet of some kind. Secondly, a plane crashed in The Hudson River nearby, adding him the second part of inspiration he needed to create this book. Eerie, especially that door. I wonder what it was really used for…well, in any case, Bohjalian offers a plausible although creepy solution in his book.

The Night Strangers tells the story of Chip and Emily Linton and their twin daughters Hallie and Garnet. By moving to the small town of Brethel, they hope to escape the trauma that has ruled their lives after Chip was forced to land his airplane – he is an airplane pilot, or well, he was one – in Lake Champlain on August, 11. Thirty-nine passengers died that day, and although it isn’t Chip’s fault per sé, he does suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and a severe case of survivor’s guilt. Convinced that they have to start over somewhere new, the family moves into a Victorian townhouse with quite the chilling history. As legend has it, a young boy killed himself in that very house when he was twelve years old. His mother went crazy afterwards and was convinced that someone – or something – was after her and her family. The depths of her madness are only discovered by the Lintons when they find three curious objects hidden in places all around the house: a crowbar, a knife and an ax. Why would someone hide these objects in their own house? And what are they so afraid of?

Like it’s not worse enough that the previous owner of their house was a raving lunatic, Chip also discovers a small door in their basement. This door is conveniently nailed shut with thirty-nine long nails. Thirty-nine. The exact same number as the passengers who died during the planecrash. In an attempt to discover what is hidden behind that door, Chip destroys it with the ax and discover a small cabinet of sorts. The room is so small that an adult probably couldn’t stand up straight in it. And it’s definately not a coal chute, like everyone wants to believe.

Moreover, the longer Chip spends in his new house, the stronger and more frequent his visions and hallucations become. At first, he only dreamt about the people who died in the planecrash and occassionally suffered from flashbacks. However, the longer he spends in Brethel, the more vivid these hallucations, until he can actually see three of the people who died in the crash: a young girl named Ashley, her father Ethan and a young woman named Sandra. It soon becomes clear to Chip – with a little help and encouragement from Ethan – that Ashley really deserves some friends in the afterlife. These thoughts only add to Chip’s insanity, as he spirals down into madness.

But wait, you thought that was it? The combination of survivor’s guilt, PTSD and some ghostly visions? Wrong. Chris Bohjalian clearly isn’t done yet. Because in the town of Brethel, not everything is at it seems. The local women, who are all conveniently called like herbs – Anise, Reseda, Sage, etc. – have a dark secret of their own. They call themselves herbalists, and each of them has a greenhouse much like the one standing in the Linton’s backyard, but somehow they don’t seem as harmless as they would like others to believe. When they develop an uncanny interest in Chip and Emily’s twin daughters for the sole reason that they’re twins, Emily is the only one who can still save them. And is there a connection between the town’s herbalists, the suicide of that twelve-year-old boy, her husband’s increasingly strange behavior and that door nailed shut with exactly thirty-nine nails?

As you can gather from this synopsis, The Night Strangers is a lot more than just a ghost story. Although that was definately my favorite part of the book, it focuses on a lot of other things too. It focuses a lot on how Chip deals with his PTSD and his increasing hallucinations, and how he slowly but definately descends into madness. It’s a psychological journey that is both mesmerizing and terrifying, and Chris Bohjalian’s excellent and engaging writing style makes it all the more real. The real question at the end of this book, is what’s more terrifying. A town where half of the population is driven by egoistic, animalistic reasoning? One man’s increasing insanity because he cannot deal with the guilt of what he did? Ghosts who are stuck in a world inbetween? It’s up to the reader to decide and I for one, have a hard time deciding what exactly scared me the most. Perhaps a combination of everything, because the way the author combines these different parts and turns them into one fluent, enthralling story is flawless.

The narrative switches between a third-person narrative from either Emily’s, Hallie’s or Garnet’s viewpoint, and a second-person narrative from Chip’s viewpoint. Let me say a thing or two about this second-person narrative. That’s the ‘you’ form, and it’s rarely used in literature, although it’s one of the easiest ways to compell a reader into a story, because as an author you’re continuously talking to the reader himself basically. It goes like this: “When your airplane hits the flock of birds, the passengers in the cabin behind you feel the jolting bangs and the aircraft rolls fifteen degrees to its starboard side.” (taken from page 3). Notice how that you-form simply draws you in, as if you’re really an aircraft pilot and your plane really is going to crash soon? Well, at least it did that for me. I enjoyed the you-form especially as it made it a lot easier for me as a reader to relate to Chip, and to follow him as he slowly descended into madness. I think it’s something psychological, because that ‘you’ points to the reader directly and immediately makes them part of the story, makes them become the character. Eerie, to say the least, but so is the rest of this book.

To classify The Night Strangers as a horror novel, seems a bit one-sided. This book just offers so much of everything. It’s a drama, in which the main characters need to deal with their traumas, it’s a story of coming-to-age for the two young twins Hallie and Garnet as they each develop from children into puberescent teenagers, it’s a ghost story, a psychological thriller when we view Chip’s side of things and there’s event hints of a mystery: what’s going on, and who is the real bad guy here? I personally think it’s nothing short but a masterpiece. I can already see this book being compared to other classics in the genre and not coming short at all. Bohjalian’s characters are rich and compelling and I especially liked Garnet. She just had this vibe around her that told me there was more to her than meets the eye. And guess what…I wasn’t mistaken. Another bonus is that from point one, you’re continuously wondering what’s going on, what’s the explanation for this and that, but you have to wait till the very last chapters to hear the entire story, which means you’re literally sitting on the edge of your seat for over three hours. As a bonus, scary things can happen all the time, and you have to be prepared for it from start to end, meaning that those shivers running down your spine never cease until you’ve turned the last page.

Additionally, it’s clear that Chris Bohjalian put a lot of time and effort in writing this book and investigating things like aircraft, botanica and New Age rituals. I always love it when an author takes the time to put genuinely interesting information in his books, and once again, Bohjalian doesn’t dissapoint. This author has got me completely hooked. This is the kind of horror movie that would make excellent film material, although the film would probably be well over two hours. The madness, the weird and distant but compelling writing style, the interesting characters, the countless secrets and the ghostly apparitions make The Night Strangers into the perfect Halloween novel. I, for one, am absolutely hooked.


One lucky winner will receive a paperback copy of The Night Strangers, sponsored by yours truly. Please fill in the contest form below and leave a comment to participate.

Book Review: Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite

10387018Title: Ghost on Black Mountain
Author: Ann Hite
Genre: Ghost, Supernatural, Horror, Thriller, Romance, Drama
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: September 13th 2011
Rating: 4,5 stars
Review copy provided by S&S Galley Grab.
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Nellie Clay married Hobbs Pritchard without even noticing he was a spell conjured into a man, a walking, talking ghost story. But her mama knew. She saw it in her tea leaves: death. Folks told Nellie to get off the mountain while she could, to go back home before it was too late. Hobbs wasn’t nothing but trouble. He’d even killed a man. No telling what else. That mountain was haunted, and soon enough, Nellie would feel it too. One way or another, Hobbs would get what was coming to him. The ghosts would see to that. . . .
Told in the stunning voices of five women whose lives are inextricably bound when a murder takes place in rural Depression-era North Carolina, Ann Hite’s unforgettable debut spans generations and conjures the best of Southern folk-lore—mystery, spirits, hoodoo, and the incomparable beauty of the Appalachian landscape.

Ghost on Black Mountain is a powerful, eerie and haunting tale of real-life ghosts sometimes tormenting and sometimes aiding the inhabitants of Black Mountain, a gloomy and according to some, cursed place. Black Mountain got most of its rather creepy reputation from one of its most dangerous residents, Hobbs Pritchard. Who Hobbs Pritchard really is, a straight-out bad man, or a fellow struggling with himself and his own emotions, is revealed gradually through-out the story, but most of it is still up to the reader to decide. In this haunting debut novel, Ann Hite searches for what evil truly is, how different those we easily claim to be evil are to those who truly love them, and how one person’s evil acts can reflect on the lifes of others, even many years in the future.

I have to say that, several hours after finishing this book, I’m still perplexed and most of all, impressed. Ann Hite’s writing fits the voice of the narrators – five Southern women at the turn of the 20th century, all the way through the war, and beyond that – perfectly. She describes Black Mountain as an eerie, terrifying but also atmospheric and sometimes even inviting place, a beauty in daylight but a true menace in the dark. Our resident back guy, Hobbs Pritchard is a fellow with many layers, equally as many different faces and a whole lot of trouble written all over him. Although charming at first glance, he proves to be anything but. But is he really the villain we portray him to be, or is there more to him than meets the eye?

The first heroine who tells us her version of the tale is Nellie, soon-to-be Nellie Pritchard. Falling head over heels with Hobbs Pritchard, she goes against her mother’s advices and marries the man eight years her senior. Although he threats her decently enough at first, it doesn’t take long before even Nellie registers that Hobbs is a cruel, unsympathetic and mean man. He threats the people of Black Mountain like dirt, eagerly keeping them poor to gain wealth for himself. One of the families most tormented by Hobbs Pritchard is The Connors, and although Nellie at first tries to reconcile with the family, they end up warning her about Hobbs’ sadistic ways instead. Nellie, still foolish and eager to believe in her husband’s kindness, with the stubbornness of youth still following her around, ignores their pleas. But even she must one day realize who Hobbs truly is.

Nellie is by far the strongest voice that appears in the entire book. Although often scorned by Hobbs as being ‘stupid, ignorant and incapable of even cooking a decent meal’, the reader soon realizes that Nellie is neither of those things. She is headstrong and intelligent, her only flaw in the matter being her naivety when it comes to men, marriage and love. When Nellie feels herself falling for Jack, Hobbs’ half-brother instead, while Hobbs is on another unexpected, long business trip, she sees him as her possible rescuer from the terrible hold Hobbs has over her, threatening even her mother if she does not do his every bid. However, when the time is neigh and Jack fails to come to her rescue, Nellie, now reduced to an empty shell of her former self, must take matters in her own hands.

What follows is both eerie and gruesome, but haunting and compelling all the same. Aided by the ghosts of Black Mountain themselves, Nellie might just escape Hobbs’ deadly clutches. But secret sins are a hard burden to bear….

The next part of the story, is significantly less powerful than Nellie’s haunting tale. Whereas the ghosts, who we first encountered when Nellie told her story, do make some reappearance in the rest of the novel, their presence is much less threatening than they appeared at first.

We learn about Nellie’s childhood through the eyes of her mother, Josie Clay, who herself saw a ghost or two as well. Although this casts a light on why Nellie too is capable of seeing ghosts, this dropped the pace of the narrative significantly and I could have done well without. Later on, we also read the story from Shelly Parker, local pshycic and perhaps Nellie’s only true friend on those lonely mountains. Although this served as some sort of inbetween-story to glue Nellie’s and Rose’s story together, I did find it intriguing, but not necessarily to keep the story going.

Rose Gardner’s story on the other hand, is a lot more intriguing and interesting than the two previously mentioned. Rose was the other woman in Hobbs Pritchard’s life. Although she herself proclaims not to be as beautiful as Nellie nor as intelligent, she strikes the reader as being the opposite, at least at first glance. Rose is the woman Hobbs supposedly truly loved, or as truly as a man like Hobbs can love anyone. Although their relationship is mostly based upon the physical attraction between them, Rose is the only woman Hobbs ever said “I like you” to, which is as close to professing his love as he could get. Strangely, we don’t hear or know about Rose until at the very end of Nellie’s tale, but her presence in Hobbs’ life is just as notable. Rose occasionally wonders to herself is she really did love Hobbs throughout their love affair, a question she has a hard time answering.

As most murderers and mad men, Hobbs has two sides about him, which make him all the more interesting and multi-faceted. However, the question that rises is if these two parts of him are really too far apart. Did he really love Rose, as one might think when you imagine them spending days in bed or talking for hours, whereas it’s clear he would prefer it if Nellie kept her mouth shut all the time? Or is his love for Rose based solely on her hoodoo spell? I personally had trouble accepting the latter, not because I don’t believe in hoodoo – don’t know enough about the matter to form my opinion about it – but mostly because I didn’t want to. Part of me felt that this book would have been richer, more compelling, if Hobbs was capable of loving – or seemingly loving – another living being, instead of having that part of him based on some spell. I wish the author had left that out alltogether, and that Hobbs’ love for Rose could have been at least partly genuine. Instead, the author left the reader with an option, and since I chose to believe that he did care for Rose in his own, twisted way, that made me view Hobbs as more than a deranged, aggressive and violent man. Instead, I saw him as a troubled individual, with a lot of issues that made him into the monster most people believed he was.

As I already mentioned, I would have been content with the story only being told from Nellie’s and Rose’s point of view. I did not see the need for Shelly’s version of the events, or Josie Clay’s memoir, which totally messed up the chronological order as well. Nellie saw the good side of Hobbs, fell in love with him, and then met his bad side along the way. He threated her like a porcelain doll: he places her in a house, he lived with her, but he didn’t really talk to her or communicated in any other way. On his worst days, he threated her like garbage, or worse. With Rose on the other hand, we meet a rather passionate Hobbs Pritchard, a man struggling with his own feeilngs, who will never get beyond saying “I like you” no matter how hard he tries. In Rose Gardner he meets the woman he’s actually looking for, a woman more his equal, a person he can talk to. She knows he’s a bad man, and accepts it, mostly because she doesn’t know – nor wants to know – the full extent of his crimes. But he can be nice to her, and in fact, he is most of the time. He makes love to her, while he usually just has sex with Nellie (up till the point that I would call it rape). It’s another side of this multi-faced person, a side that makes him all the more intriguing. As is mentioned throughout the novel, not a lot of women can change a man’s ways, but Rose might just be the person to do that with Hobbs Pritchard.

However, what I found most notable is the way I as a reader changed my views of both Rose and Nellie as their story progressed. I first met Nellie when she was a rather shy, young and naïve child, with an innocent look upon marriage and the world in its whole. Protected from the bad stuff in life by her mother, Nellie is definately not ready for what it means to be married with a man like Hobbs Pritchard, however, blinded by love and the foolishness of youth, she decides to marry him anyway. But – and this is what I think Hobbs least expected – life on Black Mountain hardens Nellie. Seeing as both ghosts and living people warn her about her husband, faced with his erratic and compulsive behavior herself, she builds an almost impenetrable wall around her. She grows stronger, not only by chopping wood at the back of her house, but in her heart as well. Her heart turns black, as she herself indicates. Hobbs, by violating and malthreating her, is turning her into his worst possible enemy. And the thing is, he doesn’t even notice. He fails to see that the naïve, innocent young girl he took with him to Black Mountain, has become a little too much like him.

When we meet Rose, on the other hand, she is nor innocent nor naïve. With a mother who’s basically a prostitute, Rose knows a thing or two about life. Yet she too is foolish enough to fall for Hobbs Pritchard and even believing that he could care for, or love her like a proper man should. At first, she was obviously a lot stronger than Nellie, but whereas Nellie grows stronger throughout the novel, we see Rose growing weaker and more humble, until the point that she even admits that Nellie was stronger and more intelligent than she was all along. This shows a remarkable skill for characterization on Ann Hite’s behalf: turning the roles around, making us see the different kinds of strength and intelligence people can have, and making it all the more obvious how a person can change when they have no other options left or no one else to turn to.

I have to admit that, although I found the parts about Nellie Pritchard and Rosie Gardner to be superb, in both writing style, authentic narrator’s voice and fast-paced suspense, the spin-off story about Iona Harbor was something better left out, in my opinion. It just dragged the story on, taking a masterpiece and expanding it for another good fifty-pages until its status changed from “it’s a good book, but stop dragging it out”. Beware though; here are some spoilers. Iona Harbor is Annie Harbor’s daughter, and Annie is no one else but Nellie, who changed her name to escape her past. She goes through some troubles as well – I’m not going to say what, because that might spoil things for you – which, as can be expected, bring her and Annie back to Black Mountain. Cliché, much? In any case, I totally saw this coming, and I didn’t even want to wait to see how things played out. As I said, instead of dragging this book out, Ann Hite could have called it quits a hundred or so pages earlier and she would have written what I would consider a masterpiece in gothic horror and Southern literature. Now, not so much. That’s not to say that I’m not mighty impressed – I am – but still, I feel a tad bit dissapointed with the ending. Not all loose ends have to be tied up.

The ghosts were a nice addition and they added to the haunting and eerie atmosphere of Black Mountain. Although not particularly scary when read in daylight, I can imagine that this novel might be terrifying when read at night. Ann Hite has a wonderful writing style, with a lot of authenticity in her character’s voices. It’s obvious that a lot of care and thought went into creating this novel, its backstory and its characters. Whereas I would have preferred to learn more about Hobbs’ history and what caused him to become such a cruel and mean man, and I wasn’t that interested in the story of Iona Harbor, I did thoroughly enjoy reading this book. In fact, I read it in one reading session, and I didn’t even want to pause to grab myself a new cup of milk, so that’s saying something.

Dramatic, eerie and supsenseful at its best, Ghost on Black Mountain is a gripping debut novel that will make fans of Faulkner and Poe squeal from delight. With strong and authentic main characters, a multi-faceted bad guy and a haunting backstory, this book will appeal to everyone who enjoys a decent thriller or gothic horror story. Definately recommended, but beware: Once a person leaves Black Mountain, they never come back, not really. They’re lost forever.

Book Review: Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

8349244Title: Forbidden
Author: Tabitha Suzuma
Genre: Drama, Young Adult, Sensitive Topic, Romance
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: June 28th 2011
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Rating: 5 stars
Review copy provided by S&S Galley Grab.

Seventeen-year-old Lochan and sixteen-year-old Maya have always felt more like friends than siblings. Together they have stepped in for their alcoholic, wayward mother to take care of their three younger siblings. As defacto parents to the little ones, Lochan and Maya have had to grow up fast. And the stress of their lives—and the way they understand each other so completely—has also also brought them closer than two siblings would ordinarily be. So close, in fact, that they have fallen in love. Their clandestine romance quickly blooms into deep, desperate love. They know their relationship is wrong and cannot possibly continue. And yet, they cannot stop what feels so incredibly right. As the novel careens toward an explosive and shocking finale, only one thing is certain: a love this devastating has no happy ending.

Forbidden is one of the most shocking, seemingly disturbing and life-changing novels I have read in my entire life. I loved it from the beginning till the very end and I would recommend it to absolutely everyone, despite the sensitive topic. It is definately not for younger readers though. I think from age 16 and up this book is appropriate, but not for a younger audience.

The book is told from two points of view. The first narrator is Lochan, a seventeen year old boy who struggles to talk to people he doesn’t know, is brilliant in written assignments but too nervous to speak in front of a class, and hardly has any friends. His life at home isn’t all that wonderful either, with his mother always going out with her boyfriend Dave, getting home drunk and passing out on the couch or worse, not going home at all and spending entire weeks over at Dave’s, abandoning her children, and putting the oldest two – Lochan and his sister Maya – in charge of the entire household. Maya is the other narrator. She’s Lochan’s sister, only about a year younger than he is, and his best friend in the entire world. They’ve always felt more like best friends than like brother and sister, and with the added responsibilities of taking care of their younger siblings Kit, Tiffin and Willa, Lochan and Maya rely on each other more and more, practically taking the role of Mom and Dad in the household. With their positions changing, so do their feelings for each other and by the time they realise it, they have fallen in love with each other. The only problem is that their love is illegal…

The only other book I’ve ever read that dealt with a brother/sister relationship is Flowers on the Attic by Virginia Andrews. I thought that book was beautiful, and I could understand why Cathy and Christopher eventually turned to each other for the love and affection they so urgently needed. The situation in Forbidden is a bit the same like the one sketched in Virginia Andrews novel: a messed-up situation at home, two older siblings forced to take care of their younger brothers and sisters. I have to admit though, out of the two novels, I liked Forbidden the best, mainly because while I could understand the relationship in Flowers on the Attic, I did not approve of it. On the other hand, in Forbidden, I could both understand and approve of the relationship. Of course it is not something I would encourage, but in this case the loving relationship Tabitha Suzuma sketches in her novel is so heart-felt, so honest and so caring that I could do nothing else but support for them.

Lochan and Maya are two of the most interesting, heart-warming and loveable characters I have ever met. I instantly felt sorry for Lochan with his problem of talking to stranger, and their endless list of responsibilities at home made me feel sympathetic towards both of them. I also loved their interactions with their siblings Willa, Tiffin and Kit. Although the novel focuses primarily on Lochan and Maya, the other siblings are featured a lot as well, and I loved every single one of them, and instantly felt for them. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult the situation must have been for this entire family, with a missing father and a mother always drunk or spending time at her boyfriend’s house. I do think it is plausible in such situation, that two siblings might find themselves feeling more for each other than society allows. Lochan and Maya realized their feelings towards each other early on in the novel, but their first reaction was one of confusion and trying to hide what they felt, which I think was the most natural reaction possible. But as their feelings increase and it gets harder and harder not to respond to them, they eventually give in. By the time I got at that point in the novel, I could understand why, and I knew that their love, no matter how wrong or disturbing, was real nevertheless. I was actually rooting for the star-crossed lovers at that point. It was a revelation.

Now, I’m not in the perfect position to speak my mind about sibling incest, mainly because I don’t have any siblings. I don’t exactly understand how much love one can has for a brother/sister and at what point it turns out to be too much. In general, I am of course opposed against the idea of siblings falling in love with each other and worse, starting a sexual relationship. But on the other hand, I would like to keep an open mind. I would like to believe that if it’s about two adults (or almost adults, like Lochan and Maya) and it is consensual, that it then doesn’t necessarily have to be wrong. I hope no one tries to kill me now, but I can’t honestly say after reading Forbidden, that it’s wrong by default. It will probably be in a whole lot of cases, and if siblings were ever to have children, the chances of them being deformed or handicapped are very high. That’s genetics and DNA telling us that it’s wrong. Society is telling us that it’s wrong as well, as have all cultures since the beginning of time. But get rid of what genetics and society tells us, and look at the true, profound and loyal love Lochan and Maya have for each other. It might not be right, but in my opinion, it isn’t exactly wrong either.

I’ve heard about this case in France a couple of years ago, about two siblings who had been seperated at birth. They never knew each other nor did they know they had a sibling out there. About twenty years later, they meet, connect on a deep emotional level, and fall in love. They even get married. And then, they find out that they’re actually siblings. But they love each other – they’ve even married each other. I remember that we had big debates on television and all then about whether or not these people should be allowed to stay married, and in which cases sibling incest might possibly be allowed. A bunch of hypocrites, conservatives and generally stubborn-minded people spoke their mind about the relationship openly. But my opinion is, that it’s none of our business. Those people were two adults who fell in love, consented with a relationship and even marriage, and then just because they happen to be siblings, all of that is thrown out on the table, their love is reduced to something awkward and disturbing, and society decided to take the choice for them. Why? Who gave society the power to declare who we can and cannot love? I know my point may be a bit controversial, but I find it true in this case as well. If Lochan and Maya both love each other, and if they both want to have a physical relationship, then why would it be society’s business?

I sincerely hope nobody kills me for stating my opinion here. I never really thought about the subject till after reading Forbidden and deciding that I really cannot say anything else about Lochan and Maya’s relationship apart from the fact that I found it very clear that they loved each other, that Lochan treated Maya far better than boys that age usually treat their girlfriends and that I believe their love to be pure. So who am I to judge pure love? Understandably, the issue of Maya still being a minor is added in the novel as well. But minors can have sex. Sixteen-year-olds can consent to having sex with their boyfriends/girlfriends, and no one in today’s society will care. Court can argue that Maya perhaps had no idea what the consequences of her consent would be, or that she was too young to decide about such things, but if we’re all honest we all realize what the consequences of said things are, and that at sixteen we are quite capable to decide about such things. On the other hand, I do know that most of sibling incest relationships are not consentual, at least one party does not want it, and that law officers are forced to take action against that. But if they are over sixteen, in peculiar circumstances, and they both want it – then why not?

I’m pretty sure people are going to kill me by now, but anyway. Forbidden really made me think about the subject, and it’s wonderful when a book does that. I would like to applaud the author for her immense courage for writing an entire novel based on a tabboo subject, and aimed at young adults nonetheless. Also, I would like to say to everyone that you shouldn’t let the sensitive topic or the amount of pages discourage you to read this book. The writing style is fluent, beautiful and enough to pull you in from page one and not bore you till the very end. I read it in one reading session of about three hours, so you know that means it’s definately good, interesting and suspenseful. The way Tabitha Suzuma deals with the sensitive topic is careful at first, a bit timid and some basic exploring – like Lochan and Maya’s relationship in the beginning – but then she dives all the way to the care of it. Even if you’re not exactly open-minded, Forbidden is worth a try. It will certainly make you think about things twice before stating your opinion.

Book Review: The Keening by A. LaFaye

7571249Title: The Keening
Author: A. LaFaye
Genre: Paranormal, Young Adult, Drama, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Publication Date: April 1st 2010
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Rating: 4 stars
Review copy provided by publisher through Netgalley.

Born into a family with artistry in their fingers, Lyza laments that her only talent is carving letters into wood. That is until her life is turned upside down when her mother succumbs to the influenza pandemic of 1918, which is devastating their small coastal town in Maine. With her mother gone, Lyza must protect her eccentric father, who runs the risk of being committed, especially now that he claims he’s waiting for the return of his dead wife. Can Lyza save her father and find her own path in the process?

Lyza’s father is a peculiar man, blessed with the ability to create the most beautiful cravings in wood, and cursed with a feeble mind, often forgetting things as normal as eating, sleeping or other everyday activities. All her life, Lyza’s been used to his behavior, and although she occassionally worries about his strange habits, she isn’t overly concerned, as long as her mother is around to bring her father back to the right track. However, with the influenza pandemic tormenting numerous villages on the coast, Lyza’s family is not left unharmed either. After nearly succumbing to the illness herself, Lyza makes a miraculous recovery, which makes her all the more sensitive to the harm the sickness has caused her community. But then, without any proper warning, her mother gets ill as well. As her mother dies from the illness she survived, Lyza is the only one left to take care of her father.

It proves not to be an easy task, with her father expecting the swift return of his dead wife and insisting on waiting up for her practically every evening. But he does try: he prepares food for Lyza, he protects her as well as he can, etc. As the true nature of her father’s condition slowly reveals itself to Lyza, and old, banished memories resurface, she learns that her father might not be crazy after all.

The Keening starts with a haunting and eerie occurence, namely Lyza seeing a dark shape in her bedroom on the day a funeral march passes by her house. As the mood is set, even though the next couple of chapters deal with Lyza’s family life and her father’s peculiar illness, the book never really loses that haunting and eerie tone. Even while reading scenes from Lyza’s day-to-day life, I was always expecting for something to pop out of the closet, as to speak, or for something scary to happen. That said, the fact that these events didn’t really occur, but that I kept anticipating them, made this book read more like a thriller than anything else. I kept waiting for the bomb to drop and when it finally did, I was certainly not dissapointed. I had expected it, but I was actually quite releived when it dropped – I couldn’t have made it through another fifty pages without any secrets revealed.

The book is written in a dream-like, translucent tone of voice, which is very peculiar, but only adds to the eerie atmosphere set from chapter one. The author mentioned that this book came to her in a dream, and I think that’s very plausible, considering that it reads a bit like that as well. I enjoyed the writing style and although I must admit it might not work for every genre or every book, it certainly fit this one.

Lyza is one of the strongest, most determined and intelligent book characters I’ve ever come across. Even while looking in the face of death, she does not back down. She has the courage and determination most of us can only dream of, and she manages to be there for her father, even when she herself is nearly breaking down. On numerous occassions, the most important one being the death of Lyza’s Mother, The Keening brought tears to my eyes. Part of that was due to the gripping, truthful way the author manages to capture the character’s emotions and the situation at hand, and it was also partly due to the fact that I liked Lyza’s mother so much. I had grown to like her over the course of fifty-or-so pages, and I didn’t want her to die just yet. She made an interesting character, a mother through and through, wise, caring, thinking about everything and always being there for Lyza to rely on.

I loved the fact how The Keening mixed paranormal and supernatural occurences with historical fiction. At the beginning of the story, Lyza loved her father, but she couldn’t really understand him. I’m glad their relationship got better as Lyza, bit by bit, uncovered the secrets related to her father’s life before he met her mother, and the reasons why he is still acting so peculiar now and then. It was heart-wrecking to see her fight to not let her father get taken away from her. I have to admit that I liked the last fifty or so pages best, when Lyza discovered what exactly her father’s secret was. I can’t say that without giving away too much spoilers, but I can say that everything suddenly makes sense then, and that what I had been anticipating from page one (although by then I didn’t know what it would be yet) turned out to be even more scary than I imagined.

If you enjoy horror, not the bloody gore-type horror, but the slow, eerie atmospheric horror that struggles its way into a book, and keeps its presence there from page one till the very end, The Keening is definately a nice choice. I enjoyed reading the book, I loved the characters, and I thought it was great that, besides a scary story, this book offers so much more. It offers a family in peril, a disease slaughtering entire villages, an emotional roller-coaster, and the slight possibility that maybe the supernatural has something to do with it. A great and entertaining read.

Book Review: Possession by Elana Johnson

8337087Title: Possession
Author: Elana Johnson
Genre: Dystopian, Young Adult, Drama
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: June 7th 2011
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Rating: 4,5 stars
Review copy provided by S&S Galley Grab.

Vi knows the Rule: Girls don’t walk with boys, and they never even think about kissing them. But no one makes Vi want to break the Rules more than Zenn…and since the Thinkers have chosen him as Vi’s future match, how much trouble can one kiss cause? The Thinkers may have brainwashed the rest of the population, but Vi is determined to think for herself.

But the Thinkers are unusually persuasive, and they’re set on convincing Vi to become one of them…starting by brainwashing Zenn. Vi can’t leave Zenn in the Thinkers’ hands, but she’s wary of joining the rebellion, especially since that means teaming up with Jag. Jag is egotistical, charismatic, and dangerous–everything Zenn’s not. Vi can’t quite trust Jag and can’t quite resist him, but she also can’t give up on Zenn.

This is a game of control or be controlled. And Vi has no choice but to play.

Vi is a Goodie, which basically means that she lives on the Goodgrounds, plugs in for transmissions from The Thinkers every night (she doesn’t really, but that’s beside the point), that she follows all the rules The Thinkers come up with, and that she certainly doesn’t run off with a boy in the middle of the night, not even if he happens to be her Match. When Vi does exactly the latter, she is caught and transported to a prison. But it’s not like Vi to give up that easily. When The Thinkers tell her she’s going to be transported to the Badlands, but she’ll be tagged first, Vi isn’t about to let them get away with that. Fortunately for her, her cell mate Jag seems to have the same idea. Together, they manage to escape, and to find their own way to the freedom of the Badlands, and probably the way to each other’s heart as well. But as Vi begins to fall for Jag, she is also forced to question his trustworthiness, and that of her best friend and Match, Zenn. With two guys in her heart, each of them on opposite sides, Vi has to make a choice. Will she let herself be controlled? Or will she be the one doing the controlling?

I love the dystopian genre, although I have to admit that there’s still a long list of YA Dystopian novels I should probably read. I’ve read The Hunger Games and Wither, but that’s about it. Possession is another Dystopian novel, and I must admit that although I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed The Hunger Games, it came fairly close. Possession is original, fast-paced and it focuses on the balance between Good and Bad – and the blurry line inbetween – on what it means to be controlled or to control others, and what that can do to a person. It asks the most prominent question of all: if we are controlled, day and night, by others – be it through transmissions, reading thoughts or mind manipulation, as is present in Possession, or some other way – how can we still be an actual, genuine human being then? How can we be human if we cannot think for ourselves? And how far are we willing to go for our freedom of mind? What and who will we sacrifice to be released from said control? The people we love? Would we be prepared to control others in exchange to longer being controlled ourselves?

It is a vital and important question, and the fashion in which Elana Johnson answers it, is most humbling for our kind. Vi starts off as the heroine-type we’re used to: she’s one of the few people willing to think for herself in a generation where people let others do the thinking for them, she refuses to listen to the transmissions from the Thinkers every night and she’s a rebel enough to hang out with a guy – and even kiss him! Although this behavior might not sound extremely rebellious to us, it is instantly recognised as an act of rebellion in Vi’s world. A world seperate in Goodgrounds and Badlands, where the Goodies are continuously forced to think as The Thinkers order them to, and at least the Baddies preserve some freedom. Freedom enough so guys and girls can walk in hand in hand and wear whatever clothes they want, instead of having to cover up most of their body to prevent direction sunlight – which the Thinkers swear is deadly. Vi is the rebellious hero, an outspoken and stubborn girl, with a strange affinity for techtricity, which is everywhere in the Goodgrounds. I didn’t find her personality all that original, but I liked her, and I found this kind of hero very fitting for the time of story. She had a nice sense of humor, and although she had a soft spot for long and unnecessary inner dialogue, I couldn’t help but root for her anyway.

While in prison, Vi meets Jag Barque, a fellow rebel but from the Badlands, with tanned skin and a mischievous smile to make him all the more appealing. Plus, Vi needs to share a prison cell with him. As the two of them start to get along, mainly because Vi admires Jag’s hair and he admires her, they form an alliance and manage to escape together. Jag is a likeable character, although he’s a bit stereotypical as well. He’s your typical bad-boy-with-a-good-heart character. He has the appearance and rebellious side of every YA novel’s bad boy, but he has a heart of gold and instantly falls for our main protagonist. They even have an own language: “Vi speech for… and Jag speech for,” which is probably the most annoying part of the book in my opinion. It just made the storyline drag. Anyway, apart from that, there are a couple of traits that make Jag more authentic than he might seem at first. He’s more heroic and brave than he appears, he has his own agenda, and he might not be that trustworthy after all. I enjoy characters who are not all good or all bad, and who have their own purposes and reasons. It’s fun trying to find out what drives a character, even if it isn’t clear from the beginning. That’s probably why I like Jag as a character: he’s multifacetted, I didn’t really know what exactly to think of him, and he made me laugh every now and then. I could easily understand why Vi would fall for him. He is the living image of freedom in a world where she’s only known control. He portrays everything she ever wanted to be, but was too afraid to be.

But then there’s Zenn. Vi’s Match, and a Goodie, and initially the reason why Vi ended up in prison to begin with. He’s the only person Vi really trusts, the only true friend she’s ever known, but as the story progresses, Vi cannot be sure of this anymore. It seems quite likely that Zenn had an agenda of his own as well, and that he might not always have had her best interests at heart. As she loses her faith in Zenn, Vi practically loses her faith in humanity, uncertain of who she can trust anymore now. She faces some heart-wrenching decisions, one of them being to help Zenn or not to help him, even if it turns out he may have betrayed her (I’m using vague terms not to spoil anything). But what can I say about Zenn? He might not be the most trustworthy fellow out there, and we hardly see him in this book – he gets a lot less screen time than Jag does, which is blatantly unfair in my opinion – but I’m Team Zenn all the way. Even if he may have betrayed Vi somehow, he always chose her interests above his own, and he didn’t act out of his free will, and if he did, it was to protect her. I can’t really explain why I like him more than I like Jag, especially since we don’t get to know him all that wel in this book, but somehow I do. Maybe it’s the mysteriousness. Maybe it’s the sense that I had while reading that when she needed it the most, Vi could always count on Zenn. Or maybe it’s just because I hardly knew anything about him, and I wanted to. Or maybe it’s because I instantly made the connection in my mind between Zenn and another character from an entirely different series, namely Zero from Vampire Knight. Alright, they have nothing in common but a Z in their name, and a four-syllable name. But when I imagined Zenn, I pictured Zero in my mind. I don’t care if they don’t look the same based on their description. From the moment I first read his name, I totally and completely adored Zenn, and this didn’t dissappear as I kept on reading. So, I’m Team Zenn all the way.

Possession is a rather long young adult novel, at just over 400 pages, but it doesn’t feel that long while reading it. The characters are interesting, the storyline is fast-paced and action-packed, the setting is absolutely breathtaking in its authenticity and originality. I have to admit that I loved the characters and I adored the dystopian setting, the mention of techtricity and Vi’s possible affinity with it, the notion of Goodgrounds and Badlands, Goodies, Baddies, Thinkers and Rangers. The entire world felt new, innovative and refreshing to me. Although I was a bit wary at first at the world-building, because it seemed so different from our own world and so much had to be explained, I grew to like this world, and the endless possibilities it offers in terms of potential adventures, upcoming wars, etc. But what I loved the most, was the conflict at heart of the book.

At its core, Possession is not about a dystopian world or about a girl falling in love with some ‘bad’ guy. It’s about betrayal, trust and breaking that trust. It’s constantly about being controlled or being the one in control. Control is everything. Freedom is practically non-existent. Your friends, family, your own parents could turn against you. Or they could be ripped away from your life from one day on the other, murdered or dissappeared, like Vi’s sister and father. Everything depends on having control and being in charge. The Thinkers are the ones in control: they set the rules, they decide who gets to live and who needs to die, they say what’s right and wrong. The Goodies and sometimes even the Baddies are the ones being controlled. From page one till the very end of this book, Vi is fighting for that control. She wants to be able to control herself and her own actions, and not be controlled by The Thinkers. She wants her mind to be her own, and she doesn’t need mind manipulation or some Thinker’s voice in her mind telling her what to do. But from the moment Vi struggles for that control, everyone else is struggling to take her control away from her. It’s all a game of who can be trusted, and who controls who.

The only remark I had while reading this book, was that the storyline was confusing at times. Sometimes nothing happened for several pages besides inner dialogue (unfortunatley, Vi’s inner dialogue isn’t all that interesting) and then plenty of stuff happened in only a couple of pages, leaving me confused and forcing me to reread entire paragraphs to actually understand what was going on.

Possession is so much more than a young adult Dystopian novel. It’s a suspenseful thriller, a praise for our most basic and significant human ability: our freedom of mind, and a girl’s continuous struggle to keep hers. It’s about resistance and rebellion against submission, and individual’s need for freedom against a society’s need for law, order and control. It’s about all the things we come across in our own society nowadays, but expanded, enhanced, and all the more breathtaking and suffocating. There’s a thin line between how we are nowadays controlled by the media and the government and between how Vi and her fellow citizens are treated in this book, with even their minds being controlled by others. The potential truth of this future is what is so utterly mesmerizing, shocking and confrontational. I would recommend it to all fans of dystopian novels, and to everyone who’s ever wondered what would happen if we got to the point where governments, media and other sources could somehow control our minds as well. Possession is an excellent read.

Book Review: The Betrayal of Maggie Blair by Elizabeth Laird

8665892Title: The Betrayal of Maggie Blair
Author: Elizabeth Laird
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: April 18th 2011
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Rating: 4 stars
Review copy provided by the publisher through Netgalley.

In seventeenth-century Scotland, saying the wrong thing can lead to banishment—or worse. Accused of being a witch, sixteen-year-old Maggie Blair is sentenced to be hanged. She escapes, but instead of finding shelter with her principled, patriotic uncle, she brings disaster to his door.

Betrayed by one of her own accusers, Maggie must try to save her uncle and his family from the king’s men, even if she has to risk her own life in the process.

The Betrayal of Maggie Blair is a strong, powerful book. It has a bit of a rocky start at first, but once you get around page 150 (which is about one third of the 450 page long book), the pace picks up immensly. The writing style isn’t all that decorative – it’s pretty straight forward – but it fits the setting of 17th century Scotland. The greatest downside though is that the book is very long, especially for a book aimed primarily at young adults. I had to read it in several sittings, unable to keep my attention to it long enough to complete it in one try.

The novel tells the story of Margaret aka Maggie Blair. Her parents died several years ago, and now Maggie lives with her grandmother in a small house, with barely enough food to get by. Life is hard, and her grandmother isn’t exactly the most pleasant woman in the entire world. She tries to scare the neighbouring farms so they will not mess with her and her granddaughter – but the effect is aversive, and Granny gets taken into custody for witchcraft, Maggie being dragged along to the prison. An old friend of her grandmother’s, Tam, helps Maggie to escape, but for her grandmother all help is too late: she is prosecuted and eventually hanged. Maggie flees her old home town Brute, and joins some drovers, old friends of her father, who help bring her to Ladymuir, where her Uncle Blair – her only other living relative – and his family live. Although they welcome Maggie into their home, her aunt never warms up to her, and it’s hard for Maggie to fit into the family of devote Presbyterians. When Uncle Blair goes to great lengths to sneak Mr. Redwick – a renounced preacher – to the town, her aunt fears for the worse, and correct, so it seems. The “Black Cuffs”, soldiers of the king appear and take Uncle Blair into custody. Desperate to do something to help, Maggie proposes that she go and save her uncle, whatever the cost.

After trying to summarize what happens in the book, I realize that a lot of stuff actually happens. On the one side, there’s Scotland in the grasp of witchcraft trials, and on the other side, there’s the Presbyterians refusing to swear the oath that says the King is supreme. It is a time of terror, and Maggie Blair is an excellent example of what all these terrors can do to a person. When we first meet Maggie she’s a timid young girl who fears her grandmother’s occasional loss of temper and fits. She wants people to like her grandmother, although it is quite clear that they don’t, and it doesn’t help that she’s behaving rather peculiarly as well. We see Margaret as a girl who tries to blend in, who desperately wants to be loved, and who would do anything if people would just like her. Rather than that, people’s hatred for the little girl expand as she is brought to trial alongside her grandmother and a wicked servant girl named Annie testifies, not only against Granny, but against Maggie as well.

As we follow Maggie on her way to her Uncle Blair’s house, we see her grow in courage. She sheds the timidity and fear, and learns to depend no longer on her grandmother, but solely on herself. While at first I was not that fond of her as a character, I grew fonder of her as time progressed. By the time Maggie reaches her Uncle Blair’s farm she is still a quiet girl who keeps a lot to herself, but she is also capable of standing up for herself and the people she loves, and she has more courage in her heart than a lot of people much older than she is. She blends in well with the family, fully accepted by her cousin Richie and her little neice Martha. However, her aunt does not warm up to her. Unfortunately, the reason for that is never explained in the novel, because it did make me curious as to why. Yet again, Maggie is unable to find what she craves for: a person who truly loves her.

Later on in the book, we see Maggie meet that person, in the form of an enemy soldier. Although his caring for her is genuine, Maggie is unable to return it, because she has realized by this time that she no longer needs to be loved. I’m pretty certain that the Maggie we see early on in the book would not have said no, but would have embraced the affections whole-heartedly. The Maggie we see by now, is independent enough not to rely on other people’s love anymore. She no longer needs their approval. It’s a total transformation, but it happens gradually and slowly, and thus it’s all the more clear to the reader. I loved Elizabeth Laird’s characterization, and how she turned Maggie from a timid and fragile little girl into an independent, strong young woman.

I enjoyed the other characters as well. Maggie’s grandmother might be a scary woman, and she certainly tries to scare everyone, but her motives are honest and understandable, which made me all the more sympathetic towards her. Uncle Blair is a devote man, passionate about his love for God and the Bible and god-knows-what-else. He’s a bit over the top really, willing to give his life as a martyr for the cause, without taking a pause to think long and hard about what the consequences would be for his family. In that perspective, he is really not the loyal, trustworthy man we at first deem him to be: he is blind in his belief, ignorant towards the people who truly need him. Maggie seems to be the only one who truly grasps these two aspects of his personality, and yet she loves him nevertheless. Tam, the vagabond extraordinarie who shows up whenever someone needs him, is an interesting and intriguing character as well. He believes in the goodness of people, he has no religion but tries to be fair to everyone, and he hates war. He actually learns Maggie some values in life that she ought well to learn. In a way, he knows more about spirituality and goodness than even devote Uncle Blair does.

The storyline isn’t very original. There have been tons of books about Witchcraft, and probably just as many about people rebelling against oppression from a foreign Lord or King. However, what I did find refreshing and innovative, was the mixture of these two themes – who don’t seem to go together at first – in one novel. For one of the first times in historical fiction, we see a total view of the 17th century Scotland. We see ignorant farmer’s people prosecuting witches at trials and we see Presbyterians trying to rebel against King Charles II. It’s an interesting era to write about really.

When I read the Epilogue and realized that the entire story is actually based on Elizabeth Laird’s own heritage, and names she came across when searching for her ancestor’s history, one of them being accused of Witchcraft, and the other held hostage in a prison for Presbyterians, I found the story all the more interesting. I love it when authors focus on their own history, their own heritage, and then write historical fiction about that. It reminded me vaguely of The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent, a story about witchcraft based on Kathleen Kent’s own heritage as well.

On the downside, I’m still convinced that the book is a bit too lengthy. It could have had a faster pace from the start had several pages been cut and left out. The biblical references, especially the continuous mention of prayers, made the book drag along a bit here and there. I can understand why adding a prayer to make it feel real, but does that have to be every other page?

All in all, The Betrayal of Maggie Blair is a nice book for those who love historical fiction and witchtrials. It is a bit lengthy and has a rocky start, so beware of that. It wasn’t at all what I expected – I had expected more paranormal, and a larger focus on the witchtrials – but it’s a nice read and gets really interesting after a while. The character of Maggie is amazing and her personal growth is very impressive. Although the storyline isn’t the most original one in the world, Elizabeth Laird gives a nice spin to it with intriguing characters with their own views of the world around them. Definetely worth a try.

Book Review: The Alchemist’s Daughter by Katharine McMahon

23503Title: The Alchemist’s Daughter
Author: Katharine McMahon
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Drama
Publisher: Three Rivers Press
Publication Date: January 31st 2006
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Rating: 3,5 stars
Review copy purchased by yours truly.

There are long-held secrets at the manor house in Buckinghamshire, England, where Emilie Selden has been raised in near isolation by her father. A student of Isaac Newton, John Selden believes he can turn his daughter into a brilliant natural philosopher and alchemist. Secluded in their ancient house, with only two servants for company, he fills Emilie with knowledge and records her progress obsessively.

In the spring of 1725, father and daughter begin their most daring alchemical experiment to date – they will attempt to breathe life into dead matter. But their work is interrupted by the arrival of two strangers: one a researcher, the other a dazzling young merchant. During the course of a sultry August, while her father is away, Emilie experiences the passion of first love. Listening to her heart rather than her head, she makes a choice.

Banished to London and plunged headlong into a society that is both glamorous and ruthless, Emilie discovers that for all her extraordinary education she has no insight into the workings of the human heart. When she tries to return to the world of books and study, she instead unravels a shocking secret that sets her on her true journey to enlightenment.

Emilie Selden is the sheltered, mysterious daughter of John Selden, natural philosopher and student of none other than the great Isaac Newton himself. Although Emilie is a girl, John decided to enlighten his daughter about the mysteries and wonders of natural philosophy, mathematics and alchemy anyway. But whereas John definately succeeded to give Emilie the necessary knowledge about the sciences to get through life, he failed to provide her with all the rest, ranging from social insight to the way relationships and love work. Her incapability to live and function in the real world makes her ill-prepared for the lies and half-truths Aislabie, the first man who ever showed her any interest and breaches the solitude of her home, told her. She marries him in a whim, and makes the gravest mistake of her life. Because Aislabie is about to take everything away from her, everything she ever loved. Her father, alchemy, and maybe even her own home.

The Alchemist’s Daughter gave me plenty of mixed feelings. The setting is wonderful, 18th century England with The Enlightenment on its way and Isaac Newton and other famous scientists changing the way everyone looked upon the world. The author describes this world most beautifully, in vivid, lifelike colors and sounds, like you just stumbled upon a portrait or even in the middle of a genuine scene from the 18th century. These descriptions happen in a most humble, natural-sounding way and made me fall in love with this book from the first few lines. They’re what really made the book, and they really made it come alive in my opinion. But it has to be said that all the rest wasn’t all that good.

Emilie started out as a very promising character. She was an intelligent young woman, practically brilliant for her era, and although she never challenged her father in terms of upbringing and personal choices, she did challenge him on an intellectual level. I genuinely thought that this was the beginning of her own rebellion, her own dive into alchemy and Emilie actually taking a stand against her father. Reverend Shales, the first man who appears in Emilie’s life, is a natural philosopher as well, and seemed like a very good companion for her. I was hoping that she would eventually build up enough courage to confront her father about her feeilngs for Shales, and then maybe even get the ol’ man’s permission to marry the reverend. Emilie and Shales would have been a good team of natural philosophers, each with their own distinct area of interest, but capable of working together as well. The premise certainly did sound promising.

In comes Aislabie. He offers nothing really to Emilie, because he is a bit of a con-artist and hardly knows anything about real natural philosophy, let alone alchemy. He’s more interested in Selden estate than he is in the Selden daughter, in my opinion. Although he fails to challenge her intellectually, or even meet her half-way, Emilie is immediately swept away by Aislabie’s appearance. He’s very good-looking and he manages to act like he’s a smart duck – which he isn’t. I have to grant him the fact that he knows his way in the world, and he knows how to persuade people how to do his bidding, but that’s it. Against all reason, Emilie falls madly in love with Aislabie. One day, in the garden, the fellow practically rapes her. Yet she still loves him! And when he asks her father for her hand, she is happy, releived and glad to marry Aislabie. How sheltered can one be to go marry a guy who just raped you? Although I felt more than enough anger towards both Aislabie – for doing it – and Emilie – for allowing it – for these actions, I felt that maybe I couldn’t really blame Emilie for anything. After all, she was pretty sheltered, so I gave her the shadow of the doubt. But it got only worse.

By the time Aislabie turns out to be a cheating bastard – sorry for the word choice, but he really is – and has destroyed half of Selden Manor, Emilie still can’t figure out the fact that he’s an absolute idiot, a joker, and that she should get rid of him as soon as possible. Now I know Emilie hardly ever rebelled against her father either, and took everything with a nod and a half-hearted smile, but that’s no longer an excuse. If my husband went to tear down my house, especially my labatory and the room my own mother died in, I would shout, scream, hit, bite, fight…in other words, do whatever I possibly could to stop him from doing it. Emilie just stands there, like a rag doll, and although she complains about it towards Aislabie, she is totally not convincing, and she doesn’t even treaten him. For god’s sake. She’s the daughter of an alchemist, a man who studies not only the natural philosophy, but also the “forbidden” science, a man whose ideas are very modern for the era, revolutionary even. And there she stands, like a statue, letting herself getting bullied by her own husband. I was constantly urging Emilie to get up and do something. And with that I don’t mind trying to kill herself and burn her own god-damned legs. I meant actually doing something against the monster that is Aislabie. Hit him, slap him, kill him for all I care. Make a poisonous drink and feed it to him while he sleeps. Lock him up in a room and make something go boom. Make him stumble down the stairs and claim that it’s an accident. Anything. But don’t let him get away with it!

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Emilie does. Her failure to react very emotionally towards anything, except than the emotion of self-destruction and self-pity, makes her distant and cold as a character. I lost every ability to relate to her. I know that women were supposed to be weak little lambs in that era, but I don’t buy it that a person as rational and intelligent as Emilie would just shrug it off if a fellow as stupid and ignorant as Aislabie were to tear down her entire home, simply because he sleeps with her at night or kisses her passionately. If my husband were to come to me after tearing half my house down, he would certainly NOT be getting any sex, and he wouldn’t get kisses either. That she disregards her own feeilngs simply because he sleeps with her, is unimaginable and sounds just plain stupid. Either Aislabie gives the most amazing sex ever – which still wouldn’t explain things – or Katharine McMahon’s characters’ credibility really takes a turn for the worst here. I’m putting my money on the latter.

Emilie starts out as a promising character, but fails to deliver. Her own history, her love for alchemy and natural philosophy and her initial ambitions make her appear interesting at first. Her interests in the young men who walk into her life, first Shales and then Aislabie, are understandable, and I would let McMahon get away with marrying Emilie off to Aislabie as well. But then, when the latter starts with Selden Manor Demolition Day, all Emilie’s credibility as a genuine person melts away. She reacts in a shallow, emotionless, and just plain stupid way. Aislabie is a more realistic character – that’s not to say I like him, I’ve probably haven’t felt as enraged towards a character as I feel towards him in a long time – with his lies, half-truths and incredibly ambitious and greedy personality. He is portrayed as a villain, and he plays that role well, because I actually hate him. Shales is the good choice, the choice Emilie should have made from the start, and I instantly liked him. I would have liked it if I had gotten to know him better, because he is so much more interesting than Aislabie could ever be.

I was really impressed with Katharine McMahon’s research in the world of natural philosophy and alchemy. She describes the experiments of John and Emilie Selden to the utmost detail, the language she uses feels genuine for the era and the profession, and the experiments sound real enough. That alone was enough to keep me reading. I would have liked it if Emilie managed some interesting, life-changing break-through in either natural philosophy or alchemy, and was deeply dissapointed that this didn’t happen. I fail to see the point of adding in any science at all if it’s not plot-altering or at least very appropriate. The way the story works now, they could have easily called it The Hermit’s Daughter and just focused on the daughter of a guy whose only particular personality traits is that he enjoys seclusion from society.

When Selden was demolished by Aislabie and his crew of airheads, I was practically crying. I felt more attachment towards the beautiful hallways of Selden Manor, the secret passageways, the laboratory, the library and the several sitting rooms, than I felt towards the characters. I felt like wringing Aislabie’s neck when he tore down what seemed like one of the most beautiful houses ever.

I know that my review is a very mixed one. On the one hand, I’ve gone on and on about why the character of Emilie lacks credibility, and why Aislabie is my new number one enemy, but on the other hand, I do enjoy the alchemy-aspect of the novel, the beautiful setting of Selden Manor and London, the descriptive and era-appropriate narrator’s voice that really sketched the scenes and era for me in a most intriguing way and the over-all storyline. The story wasn’t really unpredictable, but there were some surprises along the way. If you enjoy historical fiction, this book really is a nice choice. It offers genuine scientific research and a well-defined and realistic setting. Just don’t hit me when you are as furious with the characters as I am, or when you find yourself plotting schemes to murder Aislabie by the end of this novel. The Alchemist’s Daughter has a promising premise, but it fails to deliver completely. It is interesting and entertaining and an emotional rollercoaster, but it is neither outstanding nor brilliant.