Monday, December 28, 2015

Holiday Horror: NOS4A2

Victoria AKA Vic McQueen has a secret. She has a talent for finding missing things, but she'll never tell any how she does it. Her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike takes her onto a covered bridge to wherever the missing object is and then the bridge disappears when she's done with it. This power takes a physical toll on her if she uses it too much. Charles Manx has an interesting power too. He rides around in a 1938 Rolls Royce with the vanity plate NOS4A2, abducting children he views to be in distress, killing their parents, and taking them to Christmasland, his supposedly idyllic child haven. The reality is much more sinister. Vic runs into him one day when looking for trouble and their encounter changes both of their lives: Vic goes down a road of addiction and self abuse while Manx is in a coma for a number of years. One day, Manx comes out of his coma and plans to target Vic's son. Vic is the only person who can stop him if she can get out of her downward spiral and denial of her power.

I enjoy Joe Hill's writing, but much like his father, he tends to end his books in an unsatisfying way. This book is the exception and I hope a growing trend. NOS4A2 is excellent from start to finish. I read it over the course of a few months and I always knew exactly where I was and what was happening. The fantasy and horror aspects are fresh and make sense within the worldbuilding. The few people in the novel with some sort of power have an object that is needed in order to use it. Vic has her bike and later a motorcycle. Manx has his Rolls Royce and Vic's friend Maggie has her Scrabble tiles. All of their abilities have a different focus, Vic's being the ability to transport to and find whatever she thinks of and Maggie's being precognition. Their powers aren't just free to use; it takes a physical toll on them. These women met as innocent children and both turned to substance abuse and other self destructive behaviors. Based on the effects, brain damage and deteriorating mental health are also symptoms of extended use. One way this is portrayed besides Vic's physical reaction is in the condition of her covered bridge. When she was young, the bridge was brand new, like any bridge in good repair. When she grew up, it was in extreme disrepair with rotten boards and bats everywhere. It's a gamble if she'll even make it to the other side.

The horror aspects are particularly on point. Charles Manx is one of the creepiest villains ever. He is similar to Nosferatu in appearance: pale, protuding teeth, bald, undead looking. He rides around in his vintage Rolls Royce "saving" unhappy children from their horrible parents and taking them to Christmasland, a land of happiness, decadence, and neverending fun. This may sound like he's a saint, but that's what he wants you to think. Some of the children are from legitimately terrible households, but some of them are not. Manx's minion dispatches the parents and uses the mothers for his own sick pleasure, leaving Manx free to whisk the child away in his car. It's no ordinary car. In addition to being an exceptionally beautiful car, it also follows Manx's whims, whether it's constantly playing Christmas music through its speakers, driving itself, making the back seat seem interminable, or giving the inhabitants presents. Their final destination is Christmasland, but on the way there, the goal is for the children to lose their humanity under Manx's tutelage. Once the child gets there, it's a playground of carnage with many other inhuman playmates where the adults are prey. Christmasland is a disgusting parody of a child's ideal Christmas and it's one of the most chilling places I've read about. Manx is convinced he's doing the best for his children and uses manipulation, drugs, and magic to get the children on his side.

NOS4A2 is Joe Hill's best book yet. The characters, the worldbuilding, and the story are memorable. The human drama and fantastical horror elements are perfectly balanced to create a novel that's both incredibly creepy and touching at the same time. I hope a sequel is in the works because the ending leaves just a little bit open for one. I had no idea until now that there was a graphic novel miniseries called Wraith that ties into the story, which I will definitely check out. Sometime in the future, AMC is supposed to release a miniseries and I can't wait. I hope Christmasland is as horrific as I imagine it. I will read whatever Joe Hill writes next because I was always engaged by his writing, but this novel follows through with an amazing ending.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Holiday Horror: Krampus the Yule Lord

Jesse is a loser. He lives alone in a trailer playing his guitar for drunks on the weekends with $4 to his name. It's Christmas and he can't even buy his daughter presents. He was off to drink himself into a stupor or kill himself when he saw the weirdest thing he's ever witnessed in his life: little devil people fighting Santa Claus on his sleigh complete with flying reindeer. Jesse can't believe his eyes, but he doesn't hesitate to take the big red Santa sack that they left behind that produces any toy he can think of. He thinks he's found the solution to all of his problems, but both Santa Claus and the leader of these devils wants the sack back.

Krampus has been awfully popular lately. Krampus festivals are gaining popularity and the recent years have had an explosion of films about him. This is the best Krampus story I've seen thus far. Krampus in this story is the Yule Lord, not a demon or devil. He descended from Loki and is one of the last of the old gods. Yule is the pagan celebration the rebirth of the sun and the beginning of winter. Krampus was widely worshiped by people in the past with revels and shoes full of treats. The wicked were put in sacks and beaten with switches. In the 1400s, a friend of Krampus' previously imprisoned in Hel decided to imprison him, dress as St. Nicholas, and hijack his holiday for a new age. Krampus' image with his horns and imposing figure along with his iconography was then repurposed to create Satan, a fitting villain for Santa and Christianity in general. Krampus finally frees himself after being imprisoned for centuries and seeks to take his holiday back as well as punish the man responsible who betrayed him and their family. I love how Brom interweaves Norse mythology, pagan practices, and the rise of Christianity to create his story. The pagan origins of some modern traditions like Christmas trees and mistletoe are also particularly interesting. Although Krampus is a mercurial and inhuman god, I felt for him and wanted him to take back his holiday.

The other main plotline is Jesse and his whole sad situation. He brings a more human element to the fantastical story and gives us someone to identify with. His family is estranged and his wife wants a divorce, but he's convinced they can make it work somehow. This hopeless man without prospects or drive has a big load of crazy dropped right into his lap. Krampus enlists his help in exchange for revenge against a corrupt sheriff currently dating his wife and the crime boss who associates with him. Jesse truly grows over the course of the novel. Through his adlines and ventures and insights from Krampus and his Belsnickels, Jesse completes his hero's journey and comes out the other side stronger and with definite hope for the future. He also finds the drive to see if he can make something of a music career after years of stagnation. The ending isn't all roses and butterflies, but a little bittersweet.

Krampus the Yule Lord offers a different perspective of this ancient figure than is usually seen in the media. It also offers explanations on why he fell out of favor, how his image was transformed into something evil, and why he's gaining popularity today. The story has momentum and goes unexpected places. I was invested in both stories and the ending was satisfying and complex. The book starts each chapter with a black and white illustration of a scene in the novel. Each of them is incredibly detailed and in Brom's signature style. My only disappointment is that they all weren't in color like the insides of the book cover and the drawings in the middle. I plan to read another Brom book The Child Thief, a retelling of Peter Pan, and I'm confident it will be just as amazing.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, December 24, 2015

You and Hidden Bodies Playlist

The hipster supermarket playlists in Hidden Bodies made me think of a playlist of songs that remind me of Joe Goldberg, good guy extraordinaire.

* Possession by Sarah McLachlan

Many people think this is a sweet love song and feature it in weddings, but the origins are less than romantic. Sarah McLachlan wrote this song from the perspective of a real life fan who wrote her obsessive letters in an effort to understand this alien mindset.

* Every Breath You Take by the Police

This is the classic stalker song. Joe is particularly like this in the first book when he wears disguises to sit across the street from Beck's apartment and spy on her in addition to hacking into her email and phone as well as snooping through all of her stuff. Joe is also obsessed with someone he barely knows. The line "I will not be denied" is particularly chilling.

* Do I Wanna Know by the Arctic Monkeys

This song has a very cool, memorable guitar ostinato. Once you listen to the lyrics, it's clear this person is obsessed with someone without even knowing them. It seems that like Joe, they met in an insignificant way and he has become obsessed while she may not even know he really exists.

* I Will Possess Your Heart by Death Cab for Cutie

This song is amazing to listen to, but has a disturbing story. The person in this story has obviously been soundly rejected by the object of his affection, but remains convinced that he can possess her heart. This language use is interesting because it doesn't even take the woman's thoughts or feelings into account. Joe convinces himself he knows Beck completely and when she turns out to not be his ideal person, he turns violent. This view is seen in many crimes in the past few years of women refusing men and being attacked or even killed for it just as in You.

Any Joe-like song I missed? Let me know!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Hidden Bodies

Joe Goldberg is back and he has a new object of obsession and affection. Amy Adam believes in living off the grid: temporary cell phones, no social media, and even no banks. She has a few weird quirks, but he's fallen head over heels in love with her. Only one thing is harshing his happiness: the evidence he left at Peach Salinger's house right before he murdered her. To kill two birds with one stone, he decides to take Amy on a road trip around there and get rid of the evidence at the same time. They have a wonderful time, but so many Salingers surround the property that Joe can't enter. He returns home a little sad, but becomes devastated when he discovers that Amy duped him. She left town with the rare books from the cage in his bookstore. Enraged, he lets go of his life in New York and follows Amy to LA to teach her a lesson.

I went into Hidden Bodies thinking it would be a lot like You: Joe would pick out a woman, employ similar stalker and invasive maneuvers to keep tabs on her, and then eventually find out she's a real person and kill her. I was completely wrong. It starts out much the same way, but he's forced to actually trust her due to her desire to live off the grid. When she dupes him, it doesn't come as a surprise since the first time he met her, she paid for books using a stolen credit card. His journey and adjustment to Los Angeles are amusing because of the disparity between his expectations and the reality of the city. Joe spends some time tracking down the elusive Amy, but once he meets Love, he ceases to care. She just so happens to be rich and opens up a whole new world to him in LA with her connections.

The rest of the novel is a mix of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, the Great Gatsby, and of course Catcher in the Rye. Joe hates fakes and phonies but he is one himself. As before, his story normalizes his insane perspective so after a while it actually seems pretty reasonable until the more extreme thoughts come out. His narrative is full of self doubt and leaps in conclusion. He never quite feels like he belongs because he really doesn't. His constant lies and different background keep him separate from the others plus his past sins and mistakes frequently come to haunt him as well. However, all of his acquaintances are just as hollow as he is, so he does fit in, in a way. I practically got whiplash at times because he would be completely convinced someone saw through him, already planning their murder, and the next second, it was a misunderstanding and everything is fine. He gets completely caught up in the rich Californian lifestyle, complete with aspirations to be the film writer he claims to be. The most hilarious part of the story was when a woman on his floor starts stalking him and he's freaked out that she's invading his privacy. He spent the entire last book justifying his stalker actions and when the tables are turned, he just doesn't see it the same way.

Hidden Bodies is an unexpected sequel to You that ends with a definite opening for another book. This isn't my favorite series, but Kepnes knows how to keep my interest and is willing to explore reprehensible characters in interesting ways. My only complaint would be that the Hollywood decadence and his struggle for a career took up too much of the book. Other than that, I enjoyed it and I would read the next one if there is one.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, December 17, 2015


Eleanor and Esmeralda are identical twins. Their father Paul is always there and they have many happy memories together, but their mother Agnes is always distant. One day, a horrific chain of events leads to the death of Esmeralda in a car crash on the way to pick up Paul from the airport. Years later, Agnes drowns her sorrows in cheap whiskey while Eleanor cleans up her messes and makes sure she doesn't die. Agnes has nothing but hate for everyone around her, especially Eleanor, who she blames for Esmeralda's death. It's a relatively normal day at school until Eleanor goes through the doorway to the cafeteria and ends up observing a memory from her childhood. She returns in new clothes, losing some time. She has no idea how or why it happened, but it happens again and again, sometimes with disastrous effects. Is she going crazy?

Eleanor tells the story of a girl working to heal her family. The format isn't straight forward. It jumps around in time, dimension, and perspective. The beginning is a little confusing, but things just come together and reveal themselves in time. Two characters named Eleanor were confusing at first and I started making some very wrong assumptions, but once things were clear, I was hooked. The characters are well done and realistic. I particularly liked the way Agnes was written. It would have been so easy to demonize her for feelings trapped by motherhood and not full heartedly enjoying it as it seems most women do. Her mother (Eleanor's namesake) abandoning her at a young age had a huge effect on her, so it's understandable that she was hesitant. Then when disaster strikes, she's broken, lashing out at absolutely everyone and herself. Eleanor was also an interesting character. She's a pretty normal teenager, but she chooses to take care of her purposefully invalid mother.  Every day she tries to nourish her mother, take care of her, and show her love only to be soundly rejected over and over. It's a special type of person that can still have hope after years and years of being beaten down and she shows it through her mission to save her family.

The fantasy elements tie the story together beautifully. Mea, a formless being in the Rift coached by another formless being called Efah, is drawn to Eleanor and wants to bring her to the Rift. Time after time she fails, a few times causing Eleanor terrible bodily harm. Eleanor goes to different people's dream worlds in her journey and gains insight about them. The Rift and its inhabitants also tie all of the different generations together. All of the details just fall together gradually and make sense. Throughout most of the novel, I thought a particular storyline involving a sorceress and her valley just seemed out of place, but when it came time very late in the novel, it made perfect sense and belonged.

Eleanor is a unique fantasy novel that is about family at its core. I enjoy reading things that challenge norms and offer different perspectives. I haven't seen or read a fantasy world quite like this before and I loved how revelations were doled out carefully and over time. I expect other great books from Jason Gurley in the future.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Masked Truth

* slight spoilers *

Riley Vasquez wasn't even supposed to be babysitting. Her best friend guilted her into taking over and then the unthinkable happens: intruders come in and kill the couple right before they were leaving. She takes their daughter and hides under the bed. Everyone keeps saying she's a hero, but she just feels like a coward. In an effort to heal from the ordeal, Riley is enrolled in a weekend long therapy camp with five other troubled teens. The situations becomes dire when masked men with guns hold them hostage and claim they want ransom money. One teen gets indignant and attacks the criminals. Chaos reigns as the teens hide from the gunmen, some are shot dead, and some are injured. Can Riley and her fellow teens escape the situation alive?

I wasn't super thrilled with the last Kelly Armstrong book I read, but the premise to The Masked Truth intrigued me. The action starts immediately. The first passage describes the shooting of the couple Riley was babysitting for and then goes forward to just before the therapy retreat. I thought about a third of the book would go into establishing the characters, their relationships with each other, and all that other fluffy stuff. It goes straight into the hostage situation within the first 20 pages. I was surprised that the story dives right into the action and I was wondering how the momentum was going to be sustained throughout the novel. The last third of the novel is after their escape and one of the survivors is accused of planning and carrying out all the murders. I would say this is unbelievable, but similar things happen in real life because of a general misunderstanding and demonization of mental illness. I liked this aspect because so many movies with this situation end with a happy ending with survivors, but never deals with the suspicious and inevitable investigation to follow.

The book is told through alternating perspectives between Riley, our intrepid heroine with PTSD, and Max, a boy with schizophrenia and a bit of a crush on Riley. The portrayal of the mental disorders is even handed and accurate as far as I know. Riley is tired of everyone saying how much of a hero she is when she just cowered under a bed. She almost wishes someone would call her out on it. Riley experiences some PTSD episodes that include flashbacks centered around guns and blood. I liked Riley and I rooted for her, but she's a bit of a stereotypical YA protagonist. I found Max to be a lot more interesting. He's a jerk when we first meet him. He is snarky, rude, and doesn't take anything seriously. His schizophrenia is mostly under control with medication, but he constantly questions if the things he's seeing are real to ensure his loved ones' safety. The last time his delusions went unchecked, he tried to kill his best friend. Even though he doesn't want to advertise his condition, he makes sure Riley is aware to look out for warning signs. Riley and Max's romance was surprisingly sweet and organic in such an extreme situation.

The Masked Truth had some flaws. Some of the situations required a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief to really get into. Riley was the quintessential YA heroine. It's as if Armstrong wrote a checklist of all the characteristics she needed. She had flaws and wasn't totally perfect, but she's like way too many characters I've read already. Other than that, I liked The Masked Truth, especially Max and the twists and turns of the plot.

My rating: 4/5 fismuffins

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Daughters Unto Devils

Amanda Verner has a secret: she's in love. Every month she's been meeting a post boy in the woods for secluded trysts. Just as her family is about to move away, she finds out she's pregnant. Full of dreams of escape and running away together, she eagerly tells her love who rejects her. Now she's stuck moving to some unknown place with her family, waiting for them to notice that she's with child. This is all after the most horrific winter ever when her pregnant mother caught a fever that took away the child's sight and hearing after a long, difficult pregnancy. The constantly screaming baby made the cabin insufferable to live in and Amanda found herself wishing it would just die. Then she swore she saw the devil and other horrible visions. Her family doesn't talk about it at all, but she knows what she saw. Hopefully this new place will be a fresh start for her family. Their hopes are high until they finally arrive and the cabin is doused in blood as if a cow was slaughtered inside.

Daughters Unto Devils is an unexpected book especially from Harlequin Teen. Two aspects really shined: the portrayal of teen sexuality and the horror. Amanda has a sexual relationship with the post boy. It's not glossed over or implied, but frankly described. She talks about her pleasurable thoughts and both physical and emotional feelings during the act. I especially appreciated this portrayal because even though romance is a big aspect in teen fiction, female sexuality is typically not frankly discussed or described. If teen books do have sex, a fadeout or broad euphemisms are used like it's some sort of Hays Code film. Teen girls have sexual thoughts and feelings. Not writing about it doesn't make them go away. It's nice to see authors unafraid of alienating parents who want to shelter teens. This is a real part of girls' lives and they deserve to see that aspect reflected in the fiction they read. Female sexuality in general is still a mystery to a lot of people because of how society treats it as a taboo or only acceptable as male fantasy and/or as a commodity. There are consequences to her sexual activity, but it's blissfully unrelated to any of the horror aspects that come afterwards. I'm glad the novel poses realistic consequences instead of

The horror aspects of the book are well done and insidious. It starts out as small mentions of Amanda's vision from last winter. No one talks about it and they quickly change the subject if it's brought up. Once they move from the mountain to the prairie, the creepy aspects increase exponentially. You'd think a cabin where something horrific obviously happened would scare them away, but in true horror movie fashion they try to make the best of it. I liked the suspense and the build up, but the big moment was a bit underwhelming. I also like the ambiguity of the situation: is it all in her head or is she really being haunted/possessed? I didn't like that this ambiguity is all but destroyed by the finale and the ending simply seemed pointless.

Daughters Unto Devils does a great job with the female protagonist, but most of the other characters are flat and don't seem to have a real connection to her. Why bother having so many children if they aren't going to be significant to the story in any way? Other than that, the story was creepy and suspenseful up to a point and was really gruesome at times. I always appreciate that. The ending was disappointing and pointless. The novel wasn't perfect, but I enjoyed the experience.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins