Rooms by Lauren Oliver

 

Lauren Oliver’s Rooms is an intriguing chamber piece. It has all the successful ingredients for a proper ghost story—an isolated setting, a small cast of characters, family secrets, and even an inventive conception of ghosts. Set in an old, ramshackle house following the death of the owner, Richard Walker, the novel follows five central characters—his ex-wife Caroline, his teenage son Trenton, his daughter Minna, and finally Alice and Sandra, the ghosts who haunt them.

Alice and Sandra have been haunting the house for decades. In many ways they are the house. Its rooms are their body, and the house’s memories are a part of them and they are a part of it. In many ways this connection of physical space and memory is the most successful and interesting part of the story. Oliver further highlights this aspect by organizing the chapters room by room. Unfortunately, despite its structural importance and this promising concept is underdeveloped and left hanging in the narrative, an issue shared by the novel as a whole.

The characters are all flawed individuals, wrestling with their own personal demons, but their issues seem to develop and resolve in isolation. Caroline, the mother, is an alcoholic still trying to understand her feelings for her ex-husband. Minna knows exactly how she feels about him, but is coming to terms with her own traumatic experience, and Trenton has become suicidal. There is a great deal of material in these characters, a lot of ideas, but no deeper sense of connection, and no subtlety. Caroline’s drinking is highlighted again and again. Minna’s nymphomania is likewise reiterated ad nauseam. The ghosts are not free of this either. Alice is prim and clearly hiding something, which the reader learns because Sandra tells us that Alice is a prude and untrustworthy. Similarly, Alice informs the reader that Sandra was a drunken addict. The lack of subtlety is not a crippling problem, but it does reveal a certain lack of faith in the reader. The point is consistently driven home.

Nevertheless, Rooms is a quick read full of interesting ideas, broken characters, even a literal buried secret. All the right ingredients were present but ultimately none of the elements quite cohere into a single whole. The threads barely connect either plotwise or thematically, leaving Rooms an intriguing but ultimately frustrating novel.


Rooms can be found here on Amazon.

 

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Pivot by L.C. Barlow

L.C. Barlow’s Pivot is a surprisingly thoughtful and emotionally rich horror novel. As a child, Jack Harper was taken by Cyrus, a mysterious man with great powers and the ability to bring back the dead. Jack is indoctrinated into his cult, granted powers of his own and taught to kill. A murderer, thief, and addict, Jack is broken but loyal, desperately trying to find an escape. Then the world shifts, and Jack begins to realize that Cyrus is not as invincible as he appears there is a great game being played out in strange and secret ways, and there are other powers than Cyrus.

The plot moves quickly and plays on familiar tropes in new patterns, but the true strength of the novel is in the characters and their interactions—Jack, Cyrus, Roland, and finally Patrick. Jack has an innate love of killing, and a crippling loyalty but makes a slow and sympathetic journey towards understanding. Jack has only ever known strangeness and twisted kindness. Jack and Cyrus have a symbiotic relationship, sometimes understanding, and sometimes terrible. Cyrus is an interesting figure full of rage and ambition, who has made himself king of his corner of the world and seeks to become a god. Roland has his own twisted bond with Cyrus. He dies but cannot stay dead, and becomes a tool in training Jack. Their web of interconnected loyalties, emotions, and plans form the backbone of the novel, grounding the fantastical. Patrick is another lost soul, separate from the tangled connections. He is Jack’s broken lifeline and connection to normality.

Pivot was an engrossing read full of twisted relationships and otherworldly powers. Barlow managed the feat of giving both the characters and the world a sense of depth. The supernatural powers—Cyrus, his enemy the man with stars in his body, and the mysterious red box that gives and takes his abilities—all have a weight and history to them, a sense of rules, that intertwine with the characters relationships in a satisfying way. The ending, however, was a little confused and not quite as satisfying as expected, but this does not detract from the novel as a whole. A highly recommended debut novel.

 


Pivot can be found here on Amazon.

London Falling by Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell’s London Falling is a headfirst dive into urban fantasy. Recently this has been a genre dominated by noir and hardboiled detective influences. The Dresden Files is probably the primary and most successful example. Cornell has taken a slightly different tactic, wedding urban fantasy to a gritty cop drama. The result feels surprisingly fresh and surefooted.

The novel follows four police officers—Quill, Costain, Sefton, and Ross—whose investigation into a London mobster inexplicably leads them into a world they never knew existed, a world of witchcraft, otherworldly creatures, ghosts, football, and Tudor history. It is an eclectic mixture tied together through police work and Cornell’s finely tuned sense of mythology.

The characters are well sketched and each have a reasonably successful character arc. It is difficult to delve deep into four main characters, but Cornell manages to give each of them a compelling emotional story that ties them both to the plot and each other. Some are more successful than others, although this is likely a matter of taste. Costain’s journey from seedy undercover cop starts strong but gradually fades as other characters and elements are introduced. Sefton has the most interesting arc in terms of the mythology and the veteran Quill has the most emotionally engaging. That leaves Ross, whose personal connection with the case is slowly teased out and who plays an integral part in the climax, yet never quite leaps off the page as she should. Together, however, they form a cohesive unit with differing beliefs, and numerous conflicts.

Often novels can read like novelizations for movies that haven’t been made yet. London Falling falls into a subtly different category. It reads more like the novelization of a television pilot, which is not unsurprising, given that Cornell has had a successful television career. Seeds have been planted for future plotlines and character developments, and I have every confidence in Cornell’s ability to nurture those seeds. The novel itself, however, is slightly less substantive than expected. Like a good pilot, it points forward and entices the reader, but never fully engages with its own story.


London Falling can be found here on Amazon.

The Wanderer in Unknown Realms by John Connolly

John Connolly’s The Wanderer in Unknown Realms is a horror and mystery novella set in the Interwar years between World War I and World War II. Soter, a private investigator haunted by the war, becomes embroiled in the search for the missing Lionel Maulding, an eccentric but well loved book collector. As Soter retraces the missing man’s steps, he finds himself in the strange and unexpectedly dangerous world of rare book collecting.

Maulding was on the trail of the most rare and expensive of books—The Atlas of Unknown Realms. The Atlas is believed to describe all the things that never were, that exist outside this reality in the multiverse beyond, and it is believed that even the act of reading it would rewrite reality itself. Soter doesn’t know what he believes. Shell-shocked with an already tenuous grip on his sanity, he begins to notice creation itself shifting around him.

During the course of his investigation, Soter meets a collection of peculiar characters who would have felt quite at home in a Dickens novel, starting with the absent Lionel Maulding, whose house is a temple to bibliophilia. There is Quayle, the discrete lawyer from a long line of discrete, who pays slowly and miserly but is sympathetic to Soter in his own cold, distant way. There are the occult booksellers Dunwidge and Daughter and their drunken, murderous associate Maggs, a book scout who long ago stopped loving books, but now fears them instead.

Connolly is clearly interested in the nature of books and reality, how ideas are transmitted, and can change the world. This is a novella, so the ending may perhaps seem a little rushed and anticlimactic, but, personally, I felt it concluded on the right ambiguously apocalyptic note.

There is a brooding unease to The Wanderer in Unknown Realms, which wears its influences on its sleeve. It reads like an H.P. Lovecraft story as written by Jose Luis Borges with a sprinkling of Dickens, which for me, at least, is an intoxicating combination.

 


The Wanderer in Unknown Realms can be found here on Amazon.

Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations – The Collectors by Christopher L. Bennett

As with the Doctor Who novels that I occasionally review, this book requires a preamble, and obvious admission. I am a Trekkie, born and bred, and yes I use the term Trekkie, mostly because I like the sound of the word better. I have seen every episode of Star Trek ever produced at least once, can tell what season of TNG an episode is based on the uniforms, Riker’s beard, and Worf’s forehead, and have a number of opinions that run against typical fan consensus, but that’s not strictly relevant.

What is relevant is that since Enterprise ended, my consumption of Star Trek media has waned. I am aware of the Star Trek novel series efforts to construct an interconnected web of stories tying the continuing adventures of TNG, Voyager, and DS9 together. From a story telling perspective, I am even excited by the idea. I have not read any of them, however. Oddly enough one of the few Star Trek books I have read in the past few years was also a Department of Temporal Investigations novel. I have a weakness for time travel, and they require less knowledge of the current state of the affairs.

The Department of Temporal Investigations books have managed to create a little pocket of the Star Trek universe out of Time Agents Lucsly and Dulmur, who had less than fifteen minutes of screen time in a single episode of DS9. Christopher L. Bennett has extrapolated not only an agency and an attitude towards time travel, but also two endearingly stolid, bureaucratic heroes.

The Collectors involves diverging time lines and creatures from the distant future on a mission to preserve extinct life forms, using time travel. Bennett has developed his characters and world in two previous novels, allowing The Collectors to get on with telling a fast paced romp. It is a quick fun read with temporal shenanigans and a glimpse at the far future, but there is nothing particularly deep about the novella. An enjoyable, light read.


Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations – The Collectors can be found here on Amazon.

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix

Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstor is a good old-fashioned haunted house story. This is, on the surface, an odd observation to make of a novel formatted like a retail catalogue, and set in Orsk, a furniture store with more than a passing resemblance to Ikea. Hendrix has a great deal of fun with the concept. Each chapter opens with an entry in the Orsk catalogue complete with order forms and increasingly skewed product descriptions. The satire of consumer culture and all its absurdities lends the novel a humor and energy it might have otherwise lacked.

The horror story itself, beneath the playful structure, is more traditional. The local Orsk branch has been built on the site of a 19th Century prison and recently there have been mysterious acts of vandalism. Amy, a disgruntled but willing employee and her boss, Basil agree to stay overnight and discover the source of the vandalism. The result is part retail drama and satire, part 19th Century horror. Hendrix has a firm grasp on the tropes of the genre and creates engaging protagonists in Amy and Basil. Likewise, the horror is not without its thrills and scares.

The real originality in Horrorstor, and the reason I was excited to read it, was in the setting and format. There is a deep sense of enjoyment to the novel, a sense that Hendrix was having a blast coming up with the catalogue entries and twisting it into horror. Personally, I have never been a great proponent of the genre, so the turn from dark, quirky satire to more traditional horror was not entirely to my tastes. Nevertheless, I appreciate the creativity, thought and exuberance that went into Horrorstor. Recommended.

 


 

Horrorstor can be found here on Amazon.

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review