The Haunting of Ashburn House

I just finished Darcy Coates’ The Haunting of Ashburn House and I have thoughts. This is the first book of hers that I have actually read. I have sampled several and each time sort of said, eh, not for me. I am picky.

This one sounded up my alley–sudden inheritance at a perfect time, deep, dark family secrets–and the protagonist Adrienne is sympathetic. I expected to love this book like crazy. In the end, though, not so much.

I loved so many elements here: her great-aunt Edith’s creepy messages to herself carved into the walls, the tables, even her bedframe. I loved that the locals were actually kind! Coates didn’t go for the easy “isolate the heroine by making everyone dislike or distrust her”. I think that worked really well, because it makes the horror feel more powerful if there are allies and they can’t actually help. Coates did a good job of explaining away the usual accoutrements of modern life: no car for Addy, no cell phone–she’s too broke to own them. And not just the usual novel-excuse broke: actual broke. $3.47 in her bank account and a $20 bill in her purse. She’s homeless except for Ashburn House.

My absolute favorite element kicked in early when as twilight descends, the entire forest around her house (because of course Ashburn House is isolated in a forest) goes eerily silent. What’s worse than a forest falling silent all around you? When it erupts with terror–all the wild animals shrieking, her house cat Wolfgang shrieking, her own panic rising. I loved it.

I think this wonderful element, which plays out over three nights, is actually the strongest, most creepy, aspect, and that’s why I didn’t love the rest. Sounds contradictory, but all this amazing terror and the natural world shrieking in panic and outrage, and then…. everything that comes after is just less for me. Oh, it’s an evil ghost/zombie thing. I’ve seen you before.

And once the evil revenant makes the scene, matters narrow down from this enormous world-shaking event to the usual story line of “will the heroine survive?”. At that point, all the carved words that Addy has been ignoring start to feel like an exercise in is this heroine too stupid to live?

A carved message in the kitchen table that says IS IT FRIDAY LIGHT THE CANDLE is understandably ignored when the ominous factor is some unseeable force in the woods. It’s a lot less so when there is an actual evil intruder trying to get inside. Have some common sense, Addy! But no.

There are a couple of issues that really sort of splatted the ending for me. First, that the haunting starts to get more scattershot. The forest erupting in panic is wonderful. The revenant is… horror movie creepy. But then we start getting bleeding paintings and ghosts in the mirrors and it all just sort of becomes horror movie 101. I kept sort of mentally comparing Coates to Kingfisher. I find T. Kingfisher’s horror novels more effective because she really keeps her focus on a specific horror and the way it affects her heroine/the world. There are no distractions from the main thrust of the horror.

The second issue that weakens the ending for me is that Addy–just after the climactic moment–finds the letter her great-aunt left her explaining every single thing in detail. The fact that she didn’t find the letter until late in the game makes sense, but it was just too much explaining all at once: history of the family, the revenant’s identity, the source of its powers, its weaknesses, and so forth. It’s like an entire short story of its own and I really would have loved to see more of it slipped in throughout the book. Coates has Addy research the house and her family, but hit nothing but dead ends. She survives through sheer grit and dumb luck.

So, while I enjoyed reading it; my interest started out stronger than it ended. I turned the pages more eagerly in the beginning than at the climax. Would I read another of her books? Yes. I have my eye on From Below.

Slow and Steady: Reading The Tenth Girl

One of the downsides of being an aggressively voracious reader is that you tend to read quickly. Words tend to flow in a certain way, after all, and so it’s too easy for me to grab the important bits of a sentence and move on. It’s not quite skimming, but it’s a lot like gulping a meal: you can lose the taste even if you still get the nutrition.

So I am going to experiment with deliberately slowing down. I have The Tenth Girl by Sara Faring in my hands. (thank you public library!) For whatever reason, I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while. But I am not going to read it in one sitting or even one day. I am going to read it a few chapters at a time–for one thing, the writing deserves it. For another, this book is going to be a different read than I expected. The blurb made it seem like a fairly straight-forward haunted house saga. It’s not.

To keep myself honest about not rushing through, I’m going to blog the chapters piecemeal.

There’s a prologue. I have mixed feelings about prologues. Sometimes they just feel like the equivalent of cold opens on formulaic tv shows. This is especially true of the serial killer thriller genre. I always skip those prologues. I also skip a lot of the YE OLDE EPIC FANTASY prologues where the events take place thousands of years before and involve a prophecy. I’m certain I’ll hear about them again.

But the prologue to The Tenth Girl is an elegant, enjoyable little snippet. Is it necessary? Not strictly so, I don’t think. It mostly just tells us that there’s a school that was shuttered and is now opening again. But it’s got lovely original feeling details – the giant-handed matriarch who eats a dozen raw eggs every morning, the school on a shelf of rock where ice fields meet salt mountains – it’s all evocative. And it’s short! I liked it, and it made me relax into the book. The author, it seems to say, knows what she’s doing with her words.

Chapter one introduces us to Mavi, the main character (according to the blurb) and her dire straits. And they are dire! Her mother one of los desparecidos, a citizen abducted and murdered by her own government. Mavi is being sought. She’s 18 and effectively friendless, so she lies and takes a job as the 20-something English teacher at the reopening Vaccaro school. Here, again, Faring show us the tone of the book. Matters, she shows us, are going to be endlessly difficult. Mavi is dropped off at the wrong dock, climbing the wrong steps, arriving unnoticed, and unwelcomed. Trapped outside the school. We haven’t even gotten to the haunting and here are three separate horror stories: the government turning on its own, turning citizen against citizen; the horror of unexpected loss, her mother vanished with no hope remaining; and the weird nightmarish sensation of being locked out and alone.

Even when she gets inside, she faces the lesser conflict of an unsympathetic administrator, and is sent to bed hungry–a childish punishment for an adult. Her introduction to the school is nightmarish even before the atmosphere of the house kicks in. I love it! The writing is lovely. So many little perfect details, and Mavi’s personality shining through.

“…The door is an iron wall as impenetrable as a bank vault, and the door knocker is shaped like an unsmiling woman’s head–she’s understandably upset, I suppose, that visitors will slam her head for all eternity. I paste a jagged, fake smile on my face and knock with her. Then knock again. Politely.

… I chuck pebbles at the carious windows as the gargoyles chuckle at me; they know I’m a runner with nowhere to run to, pitiful prey.

It’s the truth: …my safe havens only exist in memory, and my memory’s poor, a winding montage of half-repressed sights and smells, pulled from a life I feel no ownership of. But I better kill that thought. If I think about my past too long, my mind unravels.”

The Tenth Girl, p 8-9

Then comes chapter two, and suddenly this is a very different book than I thought it was. We jump from Mavi in 1978 to Angel in 2020-0, though she’s more spirit than flesh and she’s a witness to Mavi’s arrival in 1978. We’re getting topsy-turvy with time. Angel is old and the United States is a wreck and global warming has wiped away the Patagonian ice sheets (and presumably the school perched before them.) Angel says she’s old but she sounds like a younger woman, which kind of bugs me, but I’ll see how it plays out. Angel is very full of pop culture references – whitewalkers, RPGs, He-who-must-not-be-named.

She flits through the past like a mostly-benign ghost, but is conscious of Others lingering malignantly in the shadows. Another young teacher at the school senses her, and she flees–afraid that Yesi won’t be rightfully afraid of the Others if she interacts with Angel.

Angel is a conundrum. While Mavi seems to have trauma making her mental state somewhat chaotic, Angel seems to be more unreliable. Even her name is fractured. She’s Angel, calls herself El, remembers her mother speaking to her as “Maria Eugenia”. Those could all be her names, but as a reader, I’m always on the lookout for a character with multiple names. They’re usually complex.

So, yeah, ghost novel, with time-traveling spirits guided by Charon to poke around in an old school that has, actually, been cursed. That’s new!

I allowed myself one more chapter after the surprise of chapter two. I wanted to see if I was going to get another POV or what. But we’re back to Mavi and her troubles. More of her traumatic past is revealed–and an ideological rift between her and her mother who was using her position as a professor to draft students to her guerilla cause. Even if the cause is just, there’s something Mavi finds unethical about adding to their ranks from the young students.

Mavi meets Yesi who shows her where the snack foods are and gives her the low down on the scene. Prosaic information but delivered in an appropriately atmospheric way. Anyway, I can set the book down for the night, because yay, Mavi made a friend.

Recently read, plus library book haul

Of late, my library hauls have been far more aspirational than actually readable, and that gets depressing, returning books without actually having had time to read them.  So for the last haul, I allowed myself only three books, and determined to read them all.  No matter what.*

(*Of course if I’d hated a book or just found it subpar for some reason, I wasn’t going to force myself, because better things to do!)

In the end, I read all three and enjoyed each of them in their own way.

I read Deanna Raybourn’s A Dangerous Collaboration, book 4 in the Veronica Speedwell mysteries.  The previous three have been fun, but every single time I kept thinking, this reminds me so much of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series.  Book 4 of the Veronica Speedwell books broke that curse and I enjoyed it without once thinking wistfully of Elizabeth Peters.  Veronica is a nearly impossible iconoclast in the Victorian Era, but Raybourn gets away with it because a) Veronica is so appealing and b) because she’s careful to show that other Victorian women have their own vibrant internal lives.  Veronica is just overt about hers.  And (small spoiler!) finally Veronica and Stoker get their relationship figured out.

I read Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching, which has been recommended to me for years.  And for years, I’ve side-eyed those who recommended it, thinking “really?  I read it and it was AWFUL.”  Oops.  My bad.  I had never read it.  I read a book with a similar title (which was in fact awful).  Once I realized my mistake, I sought out the actual book people were recommending.  Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching is really enjoyable. In broad strokes, it’s sort of a haunted house story?  But really, it’s a beautifully written and fascinating character study with a quiet, horror setting.  TW: for eating disorders for anyone who wants to check it out.  I will recommend it to readers in turn.

The final book I read was Jennifer Hillier’s The Butcher, a crime thriller with a gloss of horror.  It’s not the best thing I’ve read in this genre by a long shot, but it was interesting enough that I’ll check out some of her other books. The characters are good though.  The villain is suitably villainous and brazen.  The heroine is suitably heroic.  The greyscale boyfriend is… interesting.  I liked that he wasn’t all good or bad.  It’s definitely not a whodunit, because half the characters know who the villain is in the first chapter or so.  (And the reader knows from the blurb!) So most of the tension is spent in wondering if the heroine will figure it out before she gets killed.  Readable, at any rate.

Since that was successful, I decided to keep the next library haul small as well.

I picked up The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling which I want to read and am also kind of afraid to read.  Caving.  Not my thing.  But space caving with horror? Maybe?  The joy of the library.  I can find out.

Liar’s Paradox by Taylor Stevens.  Picked up on a whim.  No clue whether I’ll like it or not. Again, yay for the library which lets me take these gambles.

Teeth in the Mist by Dawn Kurtagich. A YA horror novel in three time periods.  I read Kurtagich’s Dead House and found it interesting enough that her name stuck with me, so I picked this up.

The final book is a cheat.  I OWN this book, yet I checked it out from the library anyway. Because I haven’t finished it yet, and sometimes ebooks are just not satisfying.  I don’t know.  Some books want to be read on paper.  Melissa Caruso’s The Tethered Mage is one of them.  I actually checked this out once before, got five chapters in, went online and bought an e-copy.  Then failed to keep reading it.  IDEK.  And now it’s buried under the pile of other ebooks.  So, I figured maybe getting the actual book back in my hands will get me to finish it.  I really loved what I read of it.

Library Haul

A quick stop in at the library netted me a collection of things to read.

More Gail Carriger: always readable.  Another Ellery Adams book since I enjoyed The Secret, Book, and Scone Society. A couple of random thriller types.  One graphic novel that I’ve heard fun things about: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. And Godblind, which… is probably not going to be to my taste given the word “grimdark” keeps getting tossed at it.  I have zero qualms with dark.  But grimdark always seems to involve the characters either wallowing in their misery, or a strong undercurrent of tragedy, or nihilism, or drawn-out torture scenes, or all of the above.  Still, it’s a library book!  Costs nothing to try it, and who knows, I might adore it.

Went back to the local bookstore when they called me that the NK Jemisin book was finally back in stock. So How Long ’til Black Future Month came home with me, which I’m excited about.  And then there was a new release Lyndsay Faye book: The Paragon Hotel which I snatched up so quickly I realized that somewhere along the line Lyndsay Faye became an autobuy. The opening was gorgeous; the kind of weirdly confessional prologue that usually leaves me cold.  Here, it really worked.

 

Reading Roundup

So last week or so I brought home the library haul.  Five books, three of which I read completely, one of which I got 2/3rds through, and one that went back without really getting started.  Then I hit the Raven Bookstore with a holiday giftcard for more bookloot.  These are the results.

The Guilty Dead: Monkeewrench #9Not a surprise that I really enjoyed The Guilty Dead, the ninth Monkeewrench outing.  I skipped book 8 somehow, but each of these novels is pretty much standalone.  One of the things I most like about this series is that even as the mysteries build to super high stakes, each step feels plausible.  The characters are believable in their context.  My favorite of the series is still probably The Sixth Idea, but this is a good entry. I understand that PJ Tracy is a solo act now after the death of her mother, but she’s doing her mom proud. Recommended for mystery lovers.

Creatures of Want and Ruin

 

I went back and forth on whether I was enjoying Creatures of Want & Ruin, by Molly Tanzer and in the end, the exceptional and out of the ordinary, characterization, demonology, and setting made this a win.  Her books aren’t always paced the way I’d like, but they always make me feel rewarded for reading them. I’m looking forward to more in this world. Recommended.

 

Pop the Clutch! This is an anthology I picked up on a whim, despite not having any particular Pop the Clutch: Thrilling Tales of Rockabilly, Monsters, and Hot Rod Horrorinterest in Rockabilly culture.  And the book had some formatting/editing issues that really irked me–splash pages of art left blank with <IMAGE PENDING> left behind; stories that repeated a sentence twice, the constant misspelling of “altar”.  But crankiness aside, there were some gems of stories in here.  I really enjoyed “Tremble” by Kasey and Joe Lansdale about a singer with a grudge; “Dr. Morbismo’s InsaniTERRORium Horror Show” by Lisa Morton about schlock horror shows running into a real ghost; and “I Was a Teenage Shroom Fiend” by Brian Hodge which has them all beat for pleasantly weird.

Priest of Bones by Peter McLean.  How many times am I going to check this book out before I Priest of Bones (War for the Rose Throne Book 1)finally finish it?!?  At least one more.  The deal is that somehow, despite McLean’s great writing, and treading the sweet spot between “gritty” and “nihilistic”, and me being invested in the characters, I just keep hitting a wall. This time, I got through the entire first act, much of the second, and well… I’m not as interested in the turn the book makes toward politics.  Add in the fact that it’s not a stand-alone, and I lose momentum.  I’m still going to recommend it though because it’s really well-written!  And really compelling!  And I’m going to check it out again. Recommended.

Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep.  A DNF.  Really, more of a DNStart.  I blame the blurb.  It told Kill the Queen (A Crown of Shards Novel Book 1)me too much of the exciting event to happen, so that I started the book on a mental timer, waiting for the slaughter to begin.  And instead, I got a slow build, where the heroine notes all these “odd” things going on in the palace, but doesn’t draw any conclusion–which annoyed me, because I already knew what the conclusion was: SLAUGHTER!!!  I was impatient and not in the mood.  I sent it back to the library.  It looks like it might be a lot of fun for the right reader.  That’s apparently not me.

 

Picked up two mysteries at the local bookstore, one of which I disliked immensely because I thought the heroine and her family were horrible stuck-up snobs.  Her sister met her fiance… ON THE INTERNET!!!! The Horror!!! And it tried really hard for quirky cast of characters but mostly just felt crowded and full of people I would hate to be around.  Not going to name it.  But it was one of those cozies that require the mystery to stop while the “gimmick” is run through.  In this case, every meal involved a long description of the cooking process.  Which, really, was maybe my favorite part?  But… if I want to read about cooking, there are other books with that as the actual focus.

The Secret, Book & Scone Society

 

The Secret, Book, & Scone Society by Ellery Adams on the other hand was pretty good.  It’s a little artsy for my taste in some places–the four women sharing their “dreadful” secrets and handing out secret keys, and the like–but in the end, I really liked these characters and would gladly read another book in the series.

 

Though I never read A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice & Virtue, that didn’t stop me from picking up the second book in the series, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats & Piracy.  I felt comfortable The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracydoing this since it revolved around a secondary character from the first book as this book’s protagonist.  And I’m always up for reading about a determined girl trying to break down the rules of society that get in her way.  Things I really appreciated about this book?  Multiple female characters, all fighting for their futures in their own ways, and learning to respect each other’s choices.  That’s before you get to having an Ace protagonist, which is always refreshing.  My only hiccup was that I was reading along assuming this was pretty much basic historical YA and suddenly there were magical dragon scales.  So that sort of took me aback.  Not badly, just a bit of blinking and wondering how MacKenzi Lee managed to convince the publishers to go for that!

And a personal fail.  I bought a book I already owned.  God, I hate that.  A lot.  At least it was a good book!  A Treacherous Curse, book 3 of the Veronica Speedwell mysteries by Deanna Raybourn.  I would recommend this series for anyone who loved the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters.

Library Haul!

It’s that awkward time of the year where we’re careening between holidays and the dreaded LIBRARY CLOSURES.  It’s not like I’m not surfeited with books in my house, but the very idea of a holiday without any library books to hand is… alarming.

So I zoomed in today after work and picked up:

The Guilty Dead: Monkeewrench #9Creatures of Want and RuinPop the Clutch: Thrilling Tales of Rockabilly, Monsters, and Hot Rod Horror

Priest of Bones (War for the Rose Throne Book 1)Kill the Queen (A Crown of Shards Novel Book 1)

Because I never trust pictures to really be worth a thousand words, the books are:

PJ Tracy’s The Guilty Dead, which is a Monkeewrench mystery.  This is a strange series for me.  Some of them are excellent.  Some of them are tragic.  And some of them just sort of misfire.  The authors seem to cram other types of genre into their mystery so each book can be a pretty different reading experience.

Creatures of Want & Ruin by Molly Tanzer. The title made me think it was a sequel to Creatures of Will & Temper, which I quite liked.  But if so, it’s a sequel by setting, rather than protagonist.  That’s all right by me.  Hopefully, this one the dog won’t eat.  I had to buy the first book from the library after the puppy got hold of it.

Pop the Clutch: Thrilling Tales of Rockabilly, Monsters, and Hot Rod Horrors.  Totally not my kind of book, but hey it fell off the shelf that I was browsing and it’s a library–it costs me nothing to give it a try (unless the dog gets involved).  So I took it home.

Priest of Bones by Peter McLean.  Technically, I have borrowed this book before.  But, I had just cracked it open, decided I really liked the voice of the book, when it came due.  The downsides to quickly browsing the “new releases” shelves when I’m in a hurry.  It was back; I am going to read this one first this time.  Seems like it’s going to do the difficult work of treading the path between “gritty” (bleh!) and “realism” well.

Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep.  Long ago, I bought Spider’s Bite, but never got around to reading it and misplaced it.  It’s here. Somewhere. In one of the book piles. But for now, the idea of an epic fantasy with a modern urban fantasy sensibility seemed deeply appealing.

Also picked up: Rick Springfield’s newest CD The Snake King.  (The man is STILL MAKING MUSIC!  Is it any good?  I will find out!)  And Camila Cabello’s self-titled CD.  I like the “Havana” song.  It’s catchy.