The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike

Read: 20 July, 2018

Written in the ’80s, The Graveyard Apartment is a little dated. Its formula is a staple of the horror genre – family with a rocky history moves into a new home, then the hauntings start. There’s even a dead pet (Pyoko, their pet finch, is found dead in the opening paragraph), a mention of a child dying in a tragic car accident on the family’s route, a scene where one of the main characters goes to the library to research the haunting, etc. Basically, this is a pretty solid collection of horror’s common tropes.

What I liked about the book was it’s pace – slow and creeping. There are few real scares, but the whole atmosphere of the story is quietly oppressive. The sense of dread I got every time the elevator gets mentioned – especially after about 2/3rds of the way through, whenever they’d get into the elevator and the narrator would count off each floor they pass…

The translation, done by Deborah Boliver Boehm, seems pretty solid. She’s managed to preserve something of the Japanese speech patterns and mannerisms, which I appreciate. But then there are some word choices, like when a character is described as “copacetic”. A word like that just doesn’t get used, so it stands out when it is. Given that several other words could have fit in that context, I’m baffled as to its choice. Unless it’s an ’80s thing, and the original Japanese version was alluding specifically to that word. There are a few such choices that struck me as odd as I was reading, but it’s hard to tell whether they were the correct choices or not when I can’t compare them to the original.

My major complaint with the book is that things don’t really tie up together. For example, Teppei’s first wife committed suicide, and it would have been narratively satisfying for that to pay off in the ending in some way. Same with the little boy who was hit by a car while crossing the road to get to the kindergarten (there is an incident where Misao is nearly struck by a car as well, but it isn’t given enough weight to have been foreshadowed deliberately). Maybe that’s unfair, and maybe the sheer randomness of the evil presence was a narrative choice in itself, but it would have been more satisfying for me to see more payoffs.

I also wasn’t a fan of the death-ray toward the end. I get how seeing it happen was traumatising for the characters, but it just seemed rather absurd. There were other ways to make the family feel trapped in the building that would have been much creepier – at least for me. Though the specific mentioning of Hiroshima may be a clue for me that the creep factor of the death-ray is relying on a cultural fear that I simply don’t have access to.

In conclusion, this was a nice creepfest. I didn’t find it particularly scary, but I did like the pace, and I felt quite invested in Misao and Tamao (Teppei I could take or leave). Koike builds a pretty good atmosphere, and I did have moments of feeling legitimate dread. I knew going in that it would feel rather cliched and dated, so I had no expectations to let down, and, as such, I enjoyed the book for what it is.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Read: 15 July, 2018

Set in the early part of the 19th century, this book does a magnificent job of capturing the narrative style and tone of books from that period. Of course, that means that it’s a bit of a slog – at around 800 pages, this book makes a great door stopper, and the pacing is very slow.

However, I found that listening to it on audiobook was perfect. I got to sit back, relax, and absorb the atmosphere of the period and worldbuilding – which is what most of this book is. There is a rescue/defeat the baddy near the end, but it’s not particularly climactic. For the most part, the book is about creating an alternate 19th century England with plausible magic.

I adored the worldbuilding. Clarke did a really good job of blending magic into the real world world history. Best of all, she did so in such a very British way – with a magic system that draws from both the common fairy stories as well as the more “noble” pursuit of alchemy.

The world felt complex and alive, and the slowness of the narrative gives the reader a change to settle into it. I do, however, recommend the audiobook, as the book is heavy enough to put wrists at risk.

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Read: 24 June, 2018

This is a truly harrowing story of exploration and survival in the frozen north. I’m somewhat familiar with Franklin’s expedition, but I only knew a rough outline of the Jeanette’s voyage. Given that, I found that Sides did an excellent job letting the various personalities on board come through.

I was impressed by how positively superhuman some of these people were, and how long they managed to carry those who weren’t. I was also horrified by just how terrible the crew’s luck seemed to be – over and over again, it seemed like Murphy’s Law ruled the ship.

I found the book to take a little while to pick up. The beginning provides important background, but perhaps too much of it all at once. There were a few times where I found myself getting lost in the list of names of people I hadn’t started to form associations with. Once the ship was under way, however, the cast narrowed and the individual personalities started to stand out, and I found the second half much more enjoyable.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Read: 7 June, 2018

Overall, my seven-year-old and I found this to be an enjoyable read, though it lacked focus. The “main plot” doesn’t get started until about halfway through, and Matilda suddenly gets magical powers (the first hint of the supernatural) just a few chapters from the end.

At the same time, the chapters don’t quite work for this to be an episodic type of story. Several stories span more than one chapter, and chapter lengths vary quite a bit – which meant that some nights we read long enough for my throat to get sore, while other nights we barely seemed to read at all.

But for all that, the story is amusing, and I loved Matilda’s “get even” attitude. Both my kid and I thoroughly enjoyed the over-the-top baddies.

(((Semitism))) by Jonathan Weisman

Read: 3 June, 2018

This book reads like an open letter to prominent Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League. It’s a call to action, an entreaty to re-expand activities beyond Israel and to take a meaningful stand against hate and the rise of fascism in the United States.

This is a timely book – perhaps even a little too timely, as several points made are no longer true (such as the discussion of Trump failing to move the US embassy to Jerusalem). But while these minor points have weakened, the overall rise of fascism is a well-documented trend.

The thesis of the book could have used a little tightening – while interesting throughout, it did meander a little, and it occasionally took some work to grasp what an argument was getting at.

That said, I liked that Weisman’s focus went beyond anti-Semitism, tackling the interconnectedness of hate. No small part of the book is devoted to GamerGate, which was the canary in the coal mine as far as many in the internet generation are concerned. The call to action, therefore, is for Jewish organisations to use their expertise and resources to take a leadership position in the fight against hate.

This is an important read. Weisman doesn’t provide answers (and, in fact, acknowledges throughout that there are sometimes no good responses), but the call for victimised communities to band together is essential.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Read: 15 May, 2018

I picked this book up without knowing a thing about it, except that I was somehow under the impression that it was autobiographical. In fact, I put off reading it for a while for that exact reason – I almost always enjoy Gaiman’s writings, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the author himself.

Some weird stuff started happening, but it was all fairly plausible. And I figured it was just some writerly hyperbole.

Then some really weird stuff started happening, and only then did I figure out that I was reading fiction. So that was a pretty fun trip!

On the story itself, I loved the realism of it – how well the mythology was integrated into the “real world” of the story. I would have liked a more active protagonist, and I think that the Hempstocks did a bit too much infodumping (two problems that could have solved each other, if the protagonist could have used all his reading about mythology to figure out some of what was going on), but it’s a small complaint.

Overall, this is a lovely little story with some surprisingly dark turns.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Read: May 6, 2018

This is a bunch of interconnected lives, both pre- and post-apocalypse. I found both sections engaging, and I really enjoyed seeing the points where they intersect.

It was an interesting choice to combine a story about Hollywood discontentment and loss of privacy with a more traditional dystopian run-in with a totalitarian cult leader. I don’t know how big the overlap is between the two audiences. But, somehow, it worked. It worked best as neither plot overstayed its welcome. Although there was a certain whiplash as I was taken away from a plot line – sometimes for multiple chapters – that I was interested in following.

I did appreciate what the pre- storyline added, but I did come here for the post-, and that was a bit thin. As a story-driven story, it needed much more story. As a character-driven story, much of the character development occurred in the pre- storylines, so characters that didn’t feature in both ended up not getting a whole lot of development.

Despite my complaints, I did enjoy myself throughout the whole book, and the writing style was quite excellent.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Read: 23 April, 2018

I read this with my seven year old son. We both really enjoyed the first bit of the book, which is about Mrs Frisby and her sick child. The stakes felt very real, and we enjoyed all the characters she meets (the helpful crow, the wise owl, the mouse doctor, the shrew neighbour, the scary cat, etc). There was whimsy there, even as we fretted over little Timothy.

But then came the titular rats. Most of the second half of the book is the backstory of the rats, as told by Nicodemus. The narrative voice gets very removed, and we just weren’t given any time to care about any of the characters. And the characters we did care about, and spent the first half of the book getting to know, disappear almost entirely until the very end.

So we found the story to be very uneven. I think we would have liked both sections of it if they had been in different books, but we just spent too much time waiting for Mrs Frisby and Jeremy and all the rest of them to make a reappearance for the second half to be much fund.

The Troop by Nick Cutter

Did not finish: 21 April, 2018

This is my first “did not finish” in quite a while! I normally know within a page or two if I’m even going to bother with a book, but I made it a whole 240 pages with this one.

The writing is fine – the gross-outs are legitimately gross, and the characterisations are solid if pessimistic. But then there are the intrusive flashbacks. The characters see something. What do they see? Well, it looked like the balloons they make animals out of at the fair. Little Timmy could remember the last time he went to the fair, it was… Oh my ghawd, just tell me what they see!

The plot reminded me a lot of Lord of the Flies. It had the same savagery.

Which was part of the reason why I didn’t finish. I’m in the beginning stage of one of my week-long anxiety attacks, and I just can’t handle the total lack of likeable characters. Especially combined with the contagion threat, which just hits every single one of my buttons. So it’s not that this is a bad book – as I said, I did make it about 2/3rds of the way through – it’s just a difficult book. And that’s just not something I’m up for these days.

A few content notes: One of the characters is a violent psychopath who literally gets off on causing pain to others. He kills animals (including a kitten, in a rather graphic scene), and deliberately manipulates other characters. Also, Big Bad of the story is a worm-like parasite, so there’s all the content warnings about contagion, infestation, parasitism, and the body-horror that accompanies these things. Also, it’s set in Canada.

Winternight Trilogy #2: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Read: 9 April, 2018

It’s really quite hard to imagine how a book could be more up my alley. I love the culture and the religion, I love the historical fiction aspects, I love the fairy tales… This book is absolute literary luxury for me!

Just to make it even better, I found that the pacing and plot were, if anything, improved from the first book.

I did manage to guess who Kasyan was almost immediately, but I still enjoyed seeing how that would play out. Especially as Kasyan kept going back and forth between threatening and ally.

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