Review: The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall by Katie Alender

The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall Book Cover The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall
Katie Alender

In this asylum, your mind plays tricks on you all the time…

Delia’s new house isn’t just a house. Long ago, it was the Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females—an insane asylum nicknamed “Hysteria Hall.” However, many of the inmates were not insane, just defiant and strong willed. Kind of like Delia herself.

But the house still wants to keep “troubled” girls locked away. So, in the most horrifying way, Delia gets trapped.

And that’s when she learns that the house is also haunted.

Ghost girls wander the halls in their old-fashioned nightgowns. A handsome ghost boy named Theo roams the grounds. Delia finds that all the spirits are unsettled and full of dark secrets. The house, as well, harbors shocking truths within its walls—truths that only Delia can uncover, and that may set her free.

But she’ll need to act quickly, before the house’s power overtakes everything she loves.

From master of suspense Katie Alender comes a riveting tale of twisted memories and betrayals, and the meaning of madness.

Review:

Even though I’m a gigantic wimp, I’ve always had a fascination with old abandoned buildings. There’s something mournful and nostalgic about the faded glory of a deserted old hotel or once-stately mansion, especially when the house holds reminders of the lives previously lived there: dishes still set on a dining room table, toys scattered on a nursery floor, paperwork strewn across a desk in a study. I love the weighty sense of history and anticipation, as if the long-dead inhabitants could stroll through the parlor at any moment.

It’s no surprise, then, that The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall is right up my alley, as the action takes place in the king of all abandoned buildings: an old mental hospital.

Delia Piven and her family arrive at The Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females after Delia inherits the property from her great-great-aunt. It doesn’t take long for Delia to get the sense that the old sanatorium isn’t just eerie – it’s haunted. This suspicion is confirmed when a dark force in the house murders Delia and she returns as a ghost, joining a bevy of other spirits trapped in the asylum.

What I Liked:

The Perspective: I wasn’t expecting The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall to be written from a ghost’s point of view, but this tactic worked quite well. I was engrossed by Delia’s struggle to cope with the bitterness and grief of losing her life and all the people in it, since they can no longer see, hear, or even sense her. Delia goes from having an entire world at her fingertips to being trapped within the confines of the Piven Institute, as well as by the limits of her ghostly abilities.

Speaking of these abilities, I really enjoyed the insider look at the ghost experience. Delia must learn the trick of walking through walls and manifesting enough to grasp onto objects. She also learns that ghosts aren’t invulnerable and can be disfigured and torn apart by other spirits and phantoms, which means Delia must exercise caution even in death. Another interesting tidbit is that Delia experiences weird time slips. There’s one creepy yet poignant scene in the book where Delia sits gazing forlornly out the window while turning the crank of a music box. She turns and turns and turns the crank, losing herself in the melody, and when a noise finally rouses her from her trance she finds two and a half years have passed.

The Atmosphere: The Piven Institute is exactly the kind of creepy place that gets me wriggling with excitement. I found myself both terrified by the asylum and wishing I could explore it. In broad daylight, that is. With an army of priests and exorcists by my side.

All the spooky accoutrements are accounted for: padded rooms, patient wards with worn leather restraints on the beds, a therapy room furnished with an electroshock chair, and a processing hall still littered with the suitcases and former belongings of the girls who checked in and never checked out. There are desperate messages scratched into the floorboards, eerie melodies played by a ghostly music box, and a multitude of spirits lurking in the rooms where they died, often in terrible ways.

The Piven Sisters: Delia’s attitude, spunk, and modern turns of phrase are a refreshing and amusing contrast to the dark parts of this book. She talks to the living people who occasionally wander into the sanatorium, even though they can’t hear her. For example, there’s a point when one character is about to go down into the super-scary basement, and Delia chides, “Oh, come on[…]. Don’t go down there! Have you never seen a horror movie?”

Another great character is Janie, Delia’s little sister. She starts the novel as a pesky pre-teen, but by the end she’s grown into a strong, brave young woman who I really admired.

What I Didn’t Like:

All Characters Besides Delia and Janie: I was disappointed by how flat and one-dimensional many of the characters are in The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall, and I was even more disappointed that Alender didn’t introduce a wider assortment of ghosts. I was rabid with curiosity about the spirits with whom Delia shared the asylum: Who were they? What did they look like? How did they die? I got a little of this, but not nearly enough. It was a big missed opportunity on Alender’s part.

The Plot: I like the pieces that make up this novel but think the book could have used a stronger center for those pieces to revolve around. The premise is that there’s some dark power at work in the house, and until Delia uncovers and defeats this power, it’s going to keep preying on troubled girls. There doesn’t seem to be much of a plot arc, though. A lot of the book involves Delia just hanging around being ghostly and biding her time until she’s forced into action. Even the ending, where the source of the dark power is revealed, felt a little anticlimactic.

Despite my criticisms, I had a good time reading The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall. The setting alone is worth giving this book a go, and Janie and Delia’s characters simply add to the story. I recommend it to anyone looking for a bit of a scare this Halloween.

Review: Hemlock by Kathleen Peacock

Hemlock Book Cover Hemlock
Kathleen Peacock

Mackenzie and Amy were best friends.

Until Amy was brutally murdered.

Since then, Mac's life has been turned upside down. She is being haunted by Amy in her dreams, and an extremist group called the Trackers has come to Mac's hometown of Hemlock to hunt down Amy's killer:

A white werewolf.

Lupine syndrome - also known as the werewolf vius - is on the rise across the country. Many of the infected try to hide their symptoms, but bloodlust is not easy to control.

Wanting desperately to put an end to her nightmares, Mac decides to investigate Amy's murder herself. She discovers secrets lurking in the shadows of Hemlock, secrets about Amy's boyfriend, Jason, her good pal Kyle, and especially her late best friend. Mac is thrown into a maelstrom of violence and betrayal that puts her life at risk.

Kathleen Peacock's thrilling novel is the first in the Hemlock trilogy, a spellbinding urban fantasy series filled with provocative questions about prejudice, trust, lies, and love.

Review:

Like many other readers, I have to credit Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga for initiating me in the ways of paranormal romance. Prior to meeting Bella Swan, Edward Cullen, and Jacob Black, I never would have dreamed of venturing beyond my realm of realistic fiction, historical fiction, and fantasy. Twilight opened my eyes to a totally different genre than the ones I was used to, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Though I’ve expanded to paranormal fiction, I have to admit my experience within the genre has been decidedly lopsided. I’ve gobbled up countless vampire novels, but the werewolf side of the house has been noticeably anemic. Hemlock is the beginning of my attempt to balance this out.

In Kathleen Peacock’s novel, the world is coming to terms with the existence of werewolves and dealing with the fear and prejudice that go along with this. Strict rules regulate werewolves, requiring that anyone who becomes infected by lupine syndrome, the disease that triggers a transformation from human to werewolf during periods of stress, anger, or other intense emotion, reports themselves within 30 days. At that time, the werewolf forfeits their assets and basic human rights and is relocated to a rehabilitation camp, where they must live out the rest of their lives “quarantined” from the rest of the population.

In the town of Hemlock, the general fear and mistrust is exacerbated by a rash of brutal werewolf attacks. When Amy, teenage granddaughter of a U.S. senator, is savagely murdered, the senator calls in a group of hunters known as the Trackers to help maintain order in the town and apprehend the wolf responsible. The group has its roots in white supremacy groups, so as you can imagine their methods and ideology leave something to be desired.

Amy’s best friend Mackenzie wants justice for Amy and the other victims, but she doesn’t agree with the Trackers that justice means the eradication of all werewolves. When it becomes evident that the police and the Trackers are more committed to furthering their own political agenda than actually solving Amy’s murder, Mac decides to take matters into her own hands and launch an investigation of her own.

I haven’t read enough werewolf books to truly gauge how Hemlock stacks up against its peers, but it didn’t strike me as particularly awe-inspiring. It’s a decent book, and I enjoyed Peacock’s writing style, but the plot is extremely predictable, and the mystery didn’t really wow me. The book also lacked the depth and weight I’d been expecting from a book about murder and prejudice and hate.

One thing I did like about Hemlock was watching the evolution of the characters’ relationships. When Amy was alive, she and Mac were part of a happy posse that included Amy’s boyfriend Jason and his best friend Kyle. After Amy’s death, the relationship between the three survivors understandably changes. Jason’s guilt and grief drive him into a self-destructive downward spiral, and Mac’s determination to help him out of scrapes causes friction between her and Kyle. Grief, secrets, prejudice, and vastly differing opinions about the Trackers’ mission test the trio’s limits and strain their friendship.

I always find it fascinating to read about relationships where people try to operate as though nothing’s changed when it obviously has. It was interesting to see Mac try to reconcile the Jason and Kyle she knew and loved when Amy was alive with the Jason and Kyle who are left behind after Amy’s death. The “new” Jason spends a lot of time getting drunk, getting into fights, and basically being a dillweed, but Mac can’t help but remember the great guy he used to be before Amy’s murder. She can’t stop herself from caring about that Jason, and this is what keeps her in his corner, even when he’s acting like a jackass.

This is another thing that I liked about Hemlock: it doesn’t glorify being a “bad boy” like a lot of other YA novels do. While I’m all for fictional troublemakers, it’s a nice change to see a book that sends the message that dealing with drama and danger isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Jason is rich and gorgeous, but the fact that he’s undependable and self-absorbed detracts from his appeal. As one character points out, “Someone needs to tell him that the drunken and tragic antihero isn’t all that sexy in real life.”

If it weren’t for the relationships in Hemlock, I probably wouldn’t have given this book more than 2 stars. As it stands, though, I feel like the trilogy has good potential, and I look forward to seeing the plot and characterization taken to the next level in the sequel, Thornhill.

Review: The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klause

The Silver Kiss Book Cover The Silver Kiss
Annette Curtis Klause

Zoe is wary when, in the dead of night, the beautiful yet frightening Simon comes to her house. Simon seems to understand the pain of loneliness and death and Zoe's brooding thoughts of her dying mother.

Simon is one of the undead, a vampire, seeking revenge for the gruesome death of his mother three hundred years before. Does Simon dare ask Zoe to help free him from this lifeless chase and its insufferable loneliness?

Review:

Whatever you do, please, please, please don’t write off The Silver Kiss as a paranormal romance. The cover and synopsis make this book seem like a vampire love story, and while there’s nothing wrong with such novels – I personally am a big Twilight fan – this isn’t an accurate reflection of what The Silver Kiss is about. There is desire between Simon and Zoe, and vampires do play a huge part in this book, but this story is NOT about a vampire and human falling in love.

In a way, The Silver Kiss reminds me a lot of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls in that it uses supernatural beings as a lens to examine death, grief, and loss. Zoe, the protagonist, is a 16-year-old whose mother is dying of cancer. Zoe’s best friend doesn’t know how to deal with Zoe’s grief, and her father is forever at the hospital, leaving Zoe to provide for her own needs, both practical and emotional. On the rare occasions when Zoe is permitted to visit her mother it’s only for a short time, and she’s limited to exchanging pleasantries and small talk, unable to confide in her mother for fear of upsetting her. In short, at a time when Zoe desperately needs someone to lean on, she is left completely alone.

When walking in the park one night, Zoe stumbles upon Simon, a vampire who has spent the past several centuries lonely and adrift. Although he flees from the park before they can speak, Simon can’t help but be entranced by Zoe’s misery. Her aura of desolation and fear is like a beacon, calling to him like nothing else has for centuries. Simon is just as isolated as Zoe, albeit in a different way. Everyone he’s ever loved is dead and gone, and he’s cut off from the living, doomed to forever wander the earth alone:

“Like a shadow he could only live on the edge of people’s lives, never touched or touching except to bring a cold shiver like a cloud over the sun, like a shroud over the corpse. The only time he touched, it was death, yet that was the only thing that proved he existed at all.”

Simon is clearly not human, clearly other, and – as he himself laments – unnatural:

“‘I am at odds with nature […] and the whole natural world tries to remind me of this. The sun burns me; and when I cross running water, I can feel it trying to heave me off the face of the earth. It makes me sick to my stomach.’”

Zoe’s despair makes her the first kindred spirit Simon’s come upon in ages, and he soon becomes obsessed with her. He begins following her, watching her, and at one point even marks his territory by urinating near her house:

“He went to her helplessly, drawn by her fear. He couldn’t help but touch her to taste it.”

This sounds a little creepy…because it is. After 300 years of existence, Simon is so far from the human being he used to be that he doesn’t recognize his behavior as disturbing. He’s a provocative character, chilling while also beguiling, haunting yet poetic, savage as well as vulnerable. The fact that Simon is so unbalanced fits with the theme of this book: the inevitability of death. Simon has cheated death for centuries, but at great cost to his sanity. The irony of eternal life is that such an existence isn’t actually life at all.

Simon’s circumstance is compelling in juxtaposition with Zoe’s, who must find a way to come to terms with her mother’s illness and inevitable death. The relationship between Simon and Zoe is wonderfully allegorical, and this makes it a little easier to accept some of the strangeness of their interactions. For example, one of the things that originally bothered me for much of The Silver Kiss was how easily Zoe’s initial fear and skepticism towards Simon were overridden. Her mother’s dying, her life is falling apart, yet she starts keeping company with a deadly, unhinged 300-year-old vampire? It struck me as a little crazy. Once I reached the end of the book, though, I saw that Zoe and Simon’s situation was symbolic. Because of my appreciation for the message that was being conveyed through this symbol, I was able to overlook some of the blips in the delivery. Klause’s elegant writing style helped with this as well – I luxuriated in every word:

You could rush into your death unknowing, inviting, enjoying the ecstasy of it, burned up in bright light like a moth.”

“Motionless, yet taut with energy, he was like a dancer a breath before movement.”

Even if you’re not typically a fan of vampire novels, I strongly suggest you give The Silver Kiss a chance. It’s got so many layers of hidden meaning, gorgeous prose, and an ending that is powerful, moving, and right. I loved it, and I suspect that you will too.

Review: The Creeping by Alexandra Sirowy

The Creeping Book Cover The Creeping
Alexandra Sirowy

Eleven years ago, Stella and Jeanie disappeared. Stella came back. Jeanie never did.

Now all she wants is a summer full of cove days, friends, and her gorgeous crush—until a fresh corpse leads Stella down a path of ancient evil and secrets.

Stella believes remembering what happened to Jeanie will save her. It won’t.

She used to know better than to believe in what slinks through the shadows. Not anymore.

Review:

I find myself in a bit of a quandary – I’m not entirely sure how to review this book. The most critical thing I need to talk about is the way the ending completely changed my appreciation of the story, but I can’t truly do so without sharing major spoilers.

For the first 9/10ths of the book, I was planning to award The Creeping a single star. The plot plodded, the characters irritated me, and I wasn’t the least bit scared. Once I reached the ending, though…wow. I was completely unprepared, and that doesn’t happen often. I finally saw what Sirowy had been setting up for the entirety of the book, and she blew me away.

The storyline follows Stella Cambren, who’s something of a local celebrity in her hometown of Savage, Minnesota. At the age of 6, Stella and her best friend Jeanie disappeared from Jeanie’s front yard. Stella came back unharmed. Jeanie was never seen again.

Stella, apparently traumatized, retains no memory of what happened the day Jeanie vanished. In fact, she barely has any memories of Jeanie at all, just vague recollections of what she was like based on the stories of others. In the years following the disappearance, Stella does her best to put the past behind her and live a normal life. She does a decent job of it…at least until the body of another little girl is discovered the summer before Stella’s senior year. A little girl with hair that’s red like Jeanie’s was, and whose corpse just happens to show up on the anniversary of Jeanie’s disappearance.

This incident triggers something inside of Stella, and she begins to experience little flickers, flashing back to images of Jeanie on the day she disappeared. It’s not enough to completely restore Stella’s memory, but it is enough to freak her the hell out and inspire her to get to the bottom of the disappearance before any more people are victimized.

In order to solve the mystery, Stella is forced to rekindle her relationship with Sam Worth, her childhood sweetheart and another former companion of Jeanie’s. Together Sam and Stella struggle to piece together a picture of what really happened the day Jeanie vanished, poring over photographs from their childhood, delving into old newspaper clippings, and interviewing Jeanie’s creepy old neighbors.

The investigation leads Stella and Sam to some disturbing discoveries: animal sacrifices, tales of an ancient monster living in the Minnesota woods, unsolved cases of other little redheads disappearing from their homes. As spooky as this sounds, though, I actually wasn’t all that scared for the majority of the book. Probably because I spent most of my time either bored or annoyed. The pace is incredibly slow, which made it challenging to stay focused; I almost didn’t finish this book. The scraps of information Stella and Sam retrieve during their search for answers are so spread out, so hard to come by, that there were times it felt like nothing was happening. I suppose that’s not entirely true – there was romantic stuff developing between Stella and Sam – but I wasn’t really interested in that. Sam is great – sweet, nerdy, loyal, supportive – but he just didn’t light my fire, if you know what I mean.

Another thing that had me ready to give this book a 1-star rating was that I didn’t care much for Stella or her friends. They’re your typical high school dream team, popular and judgmental and mean. I especially loathed Stella’s best friend Zoey. I spent the entire book wanting to smack her across the face for being such a hateful, self-centered bitch. I wanted to smack Stella, too, for putting up with it and letting Zoey dictate her life.

But then…the ENDING! It changed everything for me. Though I may not have been scared for the majority of the book, I was definitely shaken up by the conclusion. The more I think back over the course of The Creeping, the more freaked out I get. Even as I write this review, all of the lights in my house are blazing, and I find myself jumping at the slightest noise.

[START SPOILER]

Caleb and Daniel turning out to be the culprits behind Jeanie’s death was FAR more terrifying than a monster ever could have been. It was totally unexpected but totally believable, which was part of the horror; looking back, everything made sense, and you could easily see how the events of that fateful day had spun out of control. One line really stood out to me and gave me chills: “Jeanie wasn’t afraid of the things that tap at your window at night. She was afraid of the boy who lived in the bedroom down the hall.” And that’s a sad truth, isn’t it? We don’t need to dream up monsters. Human beings are frightening enough on their own.

[END SPOILER]

Thank you, Alexandra Sirowy, for writing the first book in ages that has been able to catch me unaware AND scare the pants off of me. This story is going to stick with me for a long time, and I have a feeling that it’s going to be a while before I’m able to fall asleep without a nightlight again.

Review: Please Remain Calm by Courtney Summers

Please Remain Calm Book Cover Please Remain Calm
Courtney Summers

In this gripping sequel to This Is Not a Test, Rhys and Sloane are headed for a safe haven when they get separated along the way. Rhys is determined to reunite with Sloane until he discovers people who might need him more--people who offer him the closest he'll get to everything he's lost, if they can just hold on long enough.

Rhys thinks he has what it takes to survive and find the girl he lost, but in a world overrun by the dead, there are no guarantees and the next leg of his journey will test him in unimaginable ways ...

Review:

My experience with Please Remain Calm can best be described with a food analogy. Imagine that you’ve been invited to a friend’s house for dinner, a friend who just so happens to be a pastry chef. You’re super excited for the dessert at the end of the meal, because you’ve eaten your friend’s food before and know it’s amazing. Dinner finishes up, and your friend brings out dessert, and it’s…frozen yogurt.

It’s not that frozen yogurt isn’t tasty; it’s just not the triple chocolate layer cake you were anticipating. Similarly, Please Remain Calm is a perfectly acceptable story, but it isn’t another This Is Not A Test. And that left me pretty disappointed.

Here are a few of the key ways that Please Remain Calm differs from its prequel:

1) It’s a novella. Please Remain Calm is much shorter than This Is Not a Test, less than a third of the length. It’s like a teaser, just enough to take the edge off of the This Is Not a Test withdrawal. For this reason it makes me wonder whether Summers always intended to write this novella, or if Please Remain Calm is simply her attempt to appease all the readers who were clamoring for a sequel.

2) It’s narrated by Rhys, not Sloane. This is actually a positive difference. Although Sloane is a unique narrator and offers a chilling and fascinating lens through which to view the apocalypse, I was happy to get inside Rhys’ head. He was my favorite character in This Is Not A Test – I totally have the hots for him – so I liked seeing things from his point of view this time around.

3) There’s no “Breakfast Club from Hell” group. ­­One of the things I loved about This Is Not A Test was that it took six extraordinarily different teenagers, from different home lives and social classes, and trapped them in an abandoned high school together for weeks. The teens had to figure out not only how to survive the zombies, but also how to interact with one another when they had almost nothing in common. I missed this element in Please Remain Calm. Rhys does have some interactions with a married couple and their little girl in the book, but the dynamic is totally different without the teenage hormones, jealousy, panic, etc. all thrown together in the pressure cooker of the high school.

4) There’s a lot more direct contact with zombies. And it’s gross. In This Is Not A Test, the zombies were a constant presence, but they were outside of the school, clamoring to get in. They featured mostly as part of the book’s atmosphere, a heard but unseen threat. In Please Remain Calm, though, the zombies are larger-than-life, in your face, everywhere you turn. You can’t escape them. You can’t even stop for a pee break without fearing for your life. And the numerous zombie scenes aren’t just scary, they’re disgustingly descriptive. I had nightmares, and that’s not an exaggeration.

“Once you know the sounds of teeth tearing into human flesh, the wet, sloppy noise of skin and organs rolling around an infected’s mouth, of fingers with the kind of hunger driving them enough to make it possible to rip a belly open and pull all its insides out, you don’t forget it.”

Hard-core zombie fans may enjoy Please Remain Calm more than I did, but part of me wishes I never read it at all. I wanted a repeat of This Is Not A Test, and I was very much let down. I’ll probably still read the next book, if there is one – there’s a bit of a cliffhanger ending that makes me think another story will be forthcoming – but I’ll go into that reading experience with more realistic expectations.