The Invited, by Jennifer McMahon (Review)

invited
The Invited
by Jennifer McMahon

Genre: Horror, Mystery

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: April 30, 2019

Publisher: Doubleday

Synopsis: 

A chilling ghost story with a twist: the New York Timesbestselling author of The Winter People returns to the woods of Vermont to tell the story of a husband and wife who don’t simply move into a haunted house, they start building one from scratch, without knowing it, until it’s too late . . . 

In a quest for a simpler life, Helen and Nate abandon the comforts of suburbia and their teaching jobs to take up residence on forty-four acres of rural land where they will begin the ultimate, aspirational do-it-yourself project: building the house of their dreams. When they discover that this charming property has a dark and violent past, Helen, a former history teacher, becomes consumed by the legend of Hattie Breckenridge, a woman who lived and died there a century ago. As Helen starts carefully sourcing decorative building materials for her home–wooden beams, mantles, historic bricks–she starts to unearth, and literally conjure, the tragic lives of Hattie’s descendants, three generations of “Breckenridge women,” each of whom died amidst suspicion, and who seem to still be seeking something precious and elusive in the present day.

ratingthree

My thanks to Doubleday Books and NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

The Invited is a super fun ghost story from Jennifer McMahon with an intriguing mystery to unravel. Helen and Nate abandon their jobs and the city life they know to build their own house in the woods of Vermont. The setup is a bit tropey and cliche; unwelcoming backwoods locals clash with outsiders from the city, rumors of a buried treasure, and a marriage strained by supernatural occurrences. Both Helen and Nate become caught up in their own respective obsessions related to the haunting of their new land.

I think the heavy use of familiar tropes made the ghost story feel cozy rather than overdone, and it made for a nice contrast to the creepier elements of the story. Helen’s background as a history teacher meshed well with her character’s growing obsession with the dark history of the land, and what starts out as a rather understandable fascination slowly begins to feel a bit sinister as the story goes on.

The novel is compulsively readable and I flew through most of it in a couple of days. That being said, there were a few reasons for my middle of the road rating, despite enjoying a lot of the aspects of the story. There were a few moments of clunky writing that read more like a debut author or a rough draft than what you’d expect from someone with multiple prior novels, like McMahon.

There’s a section of painfully unnatural dialog which was clearly only written the way it was because a character needed to overhear a key bit of information in order for the plot to progress. There are a few coincidences that strain the limits of credulity, and a plot twist connecting the modern story with the historical background of the land which can be seen from about a million miles away. This was a fun book, but it’s hard to call it anything more substantial than fun.

Jennifer McMahon’s The Invited may be a great choice for fans of Megan Miranda and Riley Sager.

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Thank you for reading! What was the last novel you read with a ghost involved in the plot? Let me know in the comments!

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Review – Elevation, by Stephen King


Elevation
by Stephen King

Genre: Fiction

Length: 146 Pages

Release date: October 30, 2018

Synopsis: 

The latest from legendary master storyteller Stephen King, a riveting, extraordinarily eerie, and moving story about a man whose mysterious affliction brings a small town together—a timely, upbeat tale about finding common ground despite deep-rooted differences.

Although Scott Carey doesn’t look any different, he’s been steadily losing weight. There are a couple of other odd things, too. He weighs the same in his clothes and out of them, no matter how heavy they are. Scott doesn’t want to be poked and prodded. He mostly just wants someone else to know, and he trusts Doctor Bob Ellis.

In the small town of Castle Rock, the setting of many of King’s most iconic stories, Scott is engaged in a low grade—but escalating—battle with the lesbians next door whose dog regularly drops his business on Scott’s lawn. One of the women is friendly; the other, cold as ice. Both are trying to launch a new restaurant, but the people of Castle Rock want no part of a gay married couple, and the place is in trouble. When Scott finally understands the prejudices they face–including his own—he tries to help. Unlikely alliances, the annual foot race, and the mystery of Scott’s affliction bring out the best in people who have indulged the worst in themselves and others.

rating

two

The GoodReads Choice Awards have betrayed me. How this book managed to win the “best horror” category is beyond me, in part because it’s a really lackluster short story, but principally because… it’s not really horror. I’m not even sure it’s trying to be horror. It’s mildly unsettling for a few passing moments, but mainly, it’s just weird. And occasionally offensive, albeit I think unintentionally so.

Stephen King: I love you. You have written some genuinely good novels over the years. This is not one of them, and I truly think that if anyone without this kind of clout behind their name had submitted this to a publisher, it never would have seen the light of day.

Let’s start with my biggest issue with this novella. The crux of the plot is not, as you would assume from the blurb, Scott’s mysterious weight loss. No, it’s that the bland white male protagonist must rescue the local lesbian couple from persecution in small-town USA!!! Yikes. Said lesbian couple absolutely does not want to be rescued by Scott, but nobody really asked them, and what’s really important is Scott’s emotional development and proving that he is Absolutely Not Homophobic. It was also a really cringey experience to read about these women through the protagonist’s eyes, as he felt the need to ogle them at every opportunity. Please, mention her well-toned legs one more time. I don’t think I heard you the first four times.

Basically, what it comes down to is that politics and story are not well blended in this novella. I adore stories with social commentary, and I agree with King on a lot of issues, but the commentary in this case was so thinly veiled and clunky that at times that it has the effect of pulling the reader out of the story. (Side note: this was the same issue I had recently with Jodi Picoult’s A Spark of Light. If that book didn’t work well for you, you may want to pass on this one.)

I was not able to connect with a single character in this book. They were all very one-dimensional stereotypes, and I appreciate that it can be very difficult to create well rounded characters in under 200 pages, but I’ve read other novellas that did this so much better. (The Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss, and Edgedancer, by Brandon Sanderson are all good examples.)

The final nail in the coffin for me was that there was no resolution to the mystery of protagonist’s weight loss. I’ve read and loved a lot of books with ambiguous ending which intentionally leave the reader with questions, so this is not an issue on its own. However, when combined with the thin storytelling, paper cutout characters, and clunky writing, this of all books cannot survive an ending with no satisfying resolution. Stephen King is a talented writer who needs someone who knows how to tell him no. Not every idea deserves to be published.

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Review – Fellside, by M.R. Carey

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Fellside
by M.R. Carey

Genre: Horror

Length: 486 Pages

Release date: April 4, 2016

Publisher: Orbit

Synopsis: 

Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to end up. But it’s where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life.

It’s a place where even the walls whisper.

And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess.

Will she listen?

rating

four

(3.5 stars, rounded up to 4)

“It’s a strange thing to wake up not knowing who you are.”

Jess Moulsen, our protagonist, wakes up in the hospital unable to remember what has landed her there. A niggling sense of dread turns to terror when she’s told she’s done something awful: in a drugged haze, she started a fire in her apartment complex which ended up killing someone. As soon as she’s recovered enough from her injuries, she will need to stand trial for murder. Fellside is imbued with tension from page one.

While Jess is the clear focus throughout Fellside, she is not the only point-of-view character. Fellside occasionally shifts to the thoughts of various workers in the prison from which the novel takes its name. I’ve heard a lot of people state they don’t like multiple POV stories in general; I am not one of those people. Exploring different perspectives tends to be one of my favorite parts of a novel. That said, I didn’t find the other perspectives in this novel nearly as compelling as Jess. In the long run, these shifts proved to be necessary the show the full scope of the story which Carey wanted to tell, but I found myself suffering through them.

GoodReads users have largely categorized this book as horror, but the label doesn’t feel like a particularly good fit. There are supernatural elements to the story, in the form of a ghost who visits Jess, and there are spooky moments, but the overall atmosphere doesn’t scream “horror” to me. Fellside is somewhat of a mystery and a story about moral redemption; Jess feels a huge sense of moral culpability for an act which she cannot remember. How does one atone for a misdeed which exists as a blank spot in their memory? The appearance of the ghost allows Jess to attempt to work through this question as she questions the truth of everything she’s been told by the authorities.

There was a lot that I loved about this novel, but it felt hampered by uninteresting side plots and poor pacing at times. All in all, I felt this was worth reading, but I was a bit frustrated by how close this came to being great instead of just good.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read Fellside? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
What’s a book that you’ve enjoyed which has supernatural elements set in the real world?

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Review – Nightingale, by Amy Lukavics

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Nightingale
by Amy Lukavics

Genre: YA, Horror

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: Sept. 25, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

At seventeen, June Hardie is everything a young woman in 1951 shouldn’t be—independent, rebellious, a dreamer. June longs to travel, to attend college and to write the dark science fiction stories that consume her waking hours. But her parents only care about making June a better young woman. Her mother grooms her to be a perfect little homemaker while her father pushes her to marry his business partner’s domineering son. When June resists, her whole world is shattered—suburbia isn’t the only prison for different women…

June’s parents commit her to Burrow Place Asylum, aka the Institution. With its sickening conditions, terrifying staff and brutal “medical treatments,” the Institution preys on June’s darkest secrets and deepest fears. And she’s not alone. The Institution terrorizes June’s fragile roommate, Eleanor, and the other women locked away within its crumbling walls. Those who dare speak up disappear…or worse. Trapped between a gruesome reality and increasingly sinister hallucinations, June isn’t sure where her nightmares end and real life begins. But she does know one thing: in order to survive, she must destroy the Institution before it finally claims them all.

ratingtwo

Well, this book was certainly… an adventure. What started out looking like a book about a young woman suffering from Capgras delusion (a belief that someone close to you has been replaced with an identical impostor) slowly delved into weirder and weirder science fiction territory. (Or perhaps not; June is an unreliable narrator and it’s possible that the science fiction elements are all the result of a broken mind. Who can say?) I don’t want to give too much away in terms of plot, but rest assured that what you might expect from the blurb for this book bears little resemblance to the book itself.

While the unexpected is certainly not in itself a reason for a negative review, the plot twists in this book simply were not well executed. It felt like there was insufficient buildup and too many questions left unanswered. The overall result was a flimsy plot with horror elements that were far from horrifying. For example, Lukavics seemed to rely too much on gore and body horror to make the reader squirm. There was a lot of “ick” factor that simply wasn’t scary, with repeated mentions of worms crawling around in the brains of live people and the detailed description of a mangled corpse.

June had some potential to be a good protagonist, and she definitely had some elements which made her sympathetic. She bristles at the rigid expectations of her gender in the 1950’s, but it seems that Lukavics takes this trait too far in trying to drive the point home. June expresses irritation at one point that her mother expects her to wear clean clothes; hygiene is not a gendered issue, June. She is extremely resistant to learning to cook, and while this is something disproportionately thrust onto women, June honestly just seems disgruntled at the thought of being asked to do anything at all.

Her desire to be a writer when her family wants to turn her into a housewife was an engaging element of her character. She has no desire to marry the boy they’ve selected for her, for reasons which become more and more obvious as the plot moves along. I wish Lukavics had spent more time focusing on these issues rather than June’s disdain at being asked to do so much as clean up after herself. Flawed protagonists are fine, but whiny protagonists are generally unbearable. June has some internal struggles going on that would have made for really intriguing character development, but they were very shallowly explored. All in all, this book felt like a first draft; there’s a good story hiding under a bit of a mess.

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

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Review – The Grownup, by Gillian Flynn

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The Grownup
by Gillian Flynn

Genre: Short Stories, Horror

Length: 64 Pages

Release date: November 3, 2015

Blurb via GoodReads: 

A canny young woman is struggling to survive by perpetrating various levels of mostly harmless fraud. On a rainy April morning, she is reading auras at Spiritual Palms when Susan Burke walks in. A keen observer of human behavior, our unnamed narrator immediately diagnoses beautiful, rich Susan as an unhappy woman eager to give her lovely life a drama injection. However, when the “psychic” visits the eerie Victorian home that has been the source of Susan’s terror and grief, she realizes she may not have to pretend to believe in ghosts anymore. Miles, Susan’s teenage stepson, doesn’t help matters with his disturbing manner and grisly imagination. The three are soon locked in a chilling battle to discover where the evil truly lurks and what, if anything, can be done to escape it.

ratingthree

The Grownup is a short story which features what seems to be the archetypal Gillian Flynn protagonist: a dark, gritty woman with somewhat of a chip on her shoulder and an unapologetic attitude. She is pragmatic and has grown up doing whatever needed to be done for survival; as a child, that meant begging for money with her mother, and now it means giving handjobs to lonely businessmen or telling fortunes to gullible customers. Honesty is for people who can be sure where they’ll be getting their next meal. She doesn’t have the luxury.

The story was fun and creepy. Flynn writes full-length novels so well, and I had wondered how her skills would transfer to a short story, as she seems to be a master at crafting slow-burning stories. The pacing of The Grownup was quick and engaging; I practically got whiplash trying to keep up with the plot twists.

Flynn seems to have a penchant for leaving the reader hanging in a moment of tension. While this worked really well in Gone Girl, it left The Grownup feeling somewhat lacking, perhaps due to the shorter length of the story. (If you’re only going to give me 64 pages to enjoy, at least give me a resolution at the end of them.) The ambiguous ending felt frustrating rather than tantalizing.

I loved the story, but I need some closure here, Gillian Flynn.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read any good short stories lately? Share in the comments!

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