With the movie Crimson Peak being released this past October, I was in the mood for ghost stories and gothic horror, on top of my yearly Halloween craving for all things witchy and spooky. To satisfy this craving, I spent almost all my free time in October reading. This post includes short, spoiler-free reviews for the 8 books I read last month.
The Shades of London Series, by Maureen Johnson
To say I devoured these books is an understatement. Maureen Johnson also wrote the Little Blue Envelopes books. If you like YA lit and ghost stories, I definitely recommend this series.
The Name of the Star - In this book, the first of the series, readers are introduced to Rory. Rory is a really fun character - she's getting used to a new place, so there's the occasional case of culture shock. She's very talkative (which she attributes to her Louisiana family) and is prone to moments of TMI. And she reminds me of what it was like to be a teenager - that war of self-confidence and self-doubt. Another reason I loved this book was that I found Rory's experience living at her new school so similar to my own experience living in halls while at uni - from the dining hall descriptions to the common room.
A series of murders, seemingly copying the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, are happening in London. And Rory's school is located right in Ripper territory. Through a series of strange events, Rory becomes a very important witness to the crimes - and begins working with a super secret branch of the government, the Shades, to solve them.
The Madness Beneath - This book felt a little rushed, which is sometimes the case with a second book in a trilogy. I would have liked it if the repercussions of the final events in "The Name of the Star" were explored more in-depth, instead of rushing on to set the stage for the third book in the series. But this book offers some interesting explanations about the Shades and their history, and explores how Rory is coming to terms with her new abilities.
The Shadow Cabinet - The third book in the series continues to expand on the history of the Shades and their role in protecting London. I don't want to give away too much, and to describe the plot of "The Shadow Cabinet" would reveal the events of the preceding books, but I will say I was satisfied by this book. Many questions are answered and the world is expanded upon using established mythology (Greek mythology, rivers/water and death, ley lines). Rory and her friends in the Shades learn that there is a much larger plot at work in London, extending beyond the influence of the Ripper, and that some people are willing to do anything to cheat death.
The ending of this book provides a nice conclusion for the trilogy, but leaves the story open-ended - and I sincerely hope there will be more books in this series! There is also a novella, The Boy in the Smoke, which provides some backstory on Stephen Dene and his role in the Shades.
The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness
Honestly, one of the best ways I can describe this series is Twilight, Outlander, and The Historian had a baby. That is what this book reads like, the quality of the writing, the subject matter, the plot details. If you enjoy magic, vampires, time-travel, history, and a fated romance, I definitely recommend these books. If you hate "Twilight" or "Outlander" with your entire being though, I would say beware.
A Discovery of Witches - I started off really enjoying this book. The main character, Diana Bishop, is an academic studying alchemical illustration. She is also a witch. One day while researching in an Oxford library she comes across a strange manuscript, Ashmole 782, that has had a spell placed upon it. After that, strange things begin to happen; she is seemingly being stalked by every vampire, witch, and daemon in Oxford because they want that book, which they believe to be the mysterious Book of Life. Diana also meets a tall, dark, handsome man who ends up being a vampire. He also wants the book, believing it will explain why these species exist, and they establish a working relationship to uncover its secrets.
Unfortunately when the romance started kicking in is when I started losing interest. The whole "fated to be" element turned me off, especially because the Diana character started changing and giving up parts of her life to suit the romance. Diana also comes off as very Mary Sue-like at times. Oh, and did I mention that a romance between a vampire and witch - and any children it produces - are forbidden by a mysterious Congregation that governs the Creatures (witches, vampires, daemons) and is headquartered in Italy? This section of the book is why I compare the trilogy to Twilight - it's not just because there are vampires!
The quality of the writing also leaves something to be desired - I actually considered making a drinking game of this book (drink every time Matthew's clove-like scent is mentioned or he growls like an animal!!!) The writing does improve over the trilogy, and the central mystery of Ashmole 782 was intriguing enough that I felt compelled to finish the series.
Shadow of Night - This book is the most similar to Outlander, with its element of time travel. The descriptions and use of magic in this book, as Diana learns about her powers, are very interesting and unlike any other book about magic-users that I've read before. I also enjoyed seeing Diana grow in her powers and become an active part of the witch community.
The Book of Life - As the last book in this series, "The Book of Life" does a very good job wrapping up the story. A lot happens in this book, and with all of the characters introduced over the trilogy it can get a little difficult keeping everything straight. This book continues to explore the politics of the Creatures, Diana and Matthew's relationship and its role in the changing Creature paradigm, and the mystery of Ashmole 782/The Book of Life.
Help for the Haunted, by John Searles
This book was a real page-turner for me. It is the story of a teenaged girl named Sylvie whose parents are paranormal investigators and work to help people who are haunted by evil spirits. Parts of this book were inspired by the work of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, whose famous cases inspired movies like The Amityville Horror and The Conjuring.
After her parents are murdered, Sylvie learns more about her parents' work and the dark secrets her family kept. The book jumps around in time, back to family trips and Sylvie's memories of her parents and sister, but the narrative is not hard to follow. This adds to the element of surprise as secrets are slowly revealed to the reader and Sylvie makes connections between her parents' work and the events of their deaths.
If you like spooky stories and mystery, I highly recommend this book. Of all the books I read this past month, this is probably my favorite.
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
This book is considered classic gothic horror. It is the tale of a governess at an old English manor, the two innocent and sweet children she cares for, and the ghosts that haunt them. But are the ghosts real? Or is the governess just mad?
On the surface, as a ghost story, this book doesn't do it for me. I did not find this book suspenseful or the ghosts scary; the governess tells the readers that the ghosts are terrifying, but does not really give us evidence that they are scary. I never felt that anyone was threatened by the ghosts...
And that's why I prefer the interpretation that the governess is going mad. Her fear of these ghosts seems more threatening to the serenity of the household and the well-being of the children than the ghosts themselves. And looking for clues in the writing that support this interpretation, like Mrs. Grose's vague replies during conversations with the governess or the actions of the children when the ghosts are supposedly present, increased my enjoyment of the book - like solving a mystery.
Thank you for reading! If you've ever read any of these books, want to read these books, or have any recommendations for me, please leave me a comment below!