Tag Archives: horror

The Changeling by Victor LaValle ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  448

Publication Date:  June 13, 2017

Format:  E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

This intelligent, intriguing modern day fairy tale starts out in what seems to be a normal world.   It begins with the birth of the protagonist, Apollo, a child of mixed race to Lillian Kagwa (a Ugandan immigrant) and Brian West (a white parole officer.)  His father had held him as a baby telling him he was Apollo, the God.  This becomes a mantra for Apollo later in life.  Brian West disappears by the time Apollo is four years old, but Apollo continues to have dreams, or maybe nightmares, about his father returning.  In a box of items left behind by Brian is a well-read copy of Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There.  The Changeling becomes a retelling of this award winning children’s book.  Apollo is an avid reader and at a young age becomes a buyer and seller of used books.

Even before the witches and trolls appear in this novel, there are hints of the monsters in the ordinary.   In childhood, “Apollo would find himself wondering if he actually was frightening, a monster, the kind that would drive his own father away.”  Then later, Emma’s friend, Nichelle, explains to Apollo, about the nude photo of Emma hanging in Amsterdam.  Nichelle says of Emma, “She looks like a fucking sorceress, Apollo.  It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”

Race and casual racism is discussed throughout this book.  When Apollo is young and trying to sell his books in the higher end spots in Manhattan, the author writes “Every kid with excess melanin becomes a super predator, even a black boy with glasses and a backpack full of books.  He might be standing at the entrance for fifteen minutes while the clerks pretended not to notice him.”  Later in the novel, Apollo is stopped by a cop in a white section in Queens and says, “that was fast.”

This book also speaks to the new age of parenthood, of more involved dads, and of social media.  Apollo Kagwa is one of these new age dads who is very much involved in the parenting of his child.  He enjoys taking him to the playground and bragging with the other dads about new milestones.  He posts countless photographs of his son, Brian, on Facebook.  Apollo’s wife, Emma, meanwhile, begins showing signs of postpartum depression.   She tells Apollo that she has received strange texts of pictures of the baby that have disappeared shortly after receiving them, which Apollo dismisses.  “You’re what’s wrong with our family, Emma. You. Are. The. Problem. Go take another pill.”   The horror in this novel is the experience of parenthood itself, the no-win situation regarding the expectations facing parents, the feeling of needing to protect your child, and ultimately the loss of a child.

Apollo finds a signed first edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird with the inscription to Truman Capote, “Here’s to the Daddy of our dreams.”  He knows that this book could have a great payday, however, it does not pay in the way he expects.  After barely surviving the wrath and rage of his wife, he realizes that perhaps his wife was right.  He ends up on a journey with many twists and turns through mystical realms of witches, trolls and even some human monsters.

This novel warns of the dangers of social media and putting your life out there for all to see, judge, and possibly take advantage of.  William tells Apollo, “Vampires can’t come into your house unless you invite them.  Posting online is like leaving your front door open and telling any creature of the night it can come right in.”  It seems that Emma Valentine and Brian Kagwa were the perfect target for trolls with the publicized birth of their son, followed by continuous Facebook posts by Brian.

This book speaks to deeper truths about the monsters within each of us.  The glamer we are able to superimpose over our own misbehaviors to make us feel better about ourselves.  It warns of trolls lurking in everyday places and people.  This book is not simply a retelling or a fairy tale, there are many layers and depths to it.  The social commentary is sharp, but easily consumed within the context of this fantastical setting.  It is about the stories we tell ourselves as well as our children and the effect these stories have on us.  There is some pretty graphic violence though, so consider yourself forewarned.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  In the words of Cal, one of the witches, “A bad fairy tale has some simple goddamn moral.  A great fairy tale tells the truth.”  According to Cal’s guidelines, is this a bad or great fairy tale, or somewhere in between?  Explain.
  2. Why did Brian Kagwa become a changeling.  Who was responsible?  Why was he chosen?
  3. How is Scottish glamer or “glamour” used in this fairy tale?
  4. Why do you think Apollo’s father read Outside Over There to Apollo when he was little?  Discuss the similarities and differences between these two books.
  5. What is the meaning of the inscription in Harper Lee’s book in the context of this book?
  6. What is this book’s message about social media?
  7. What is a changeling?  Where else in literature and film do we see changelings?
  8. Discuss the social commentary of this novel on parenthood and expectations of mothers and fathers from this novel.
  9. What genre do you think best characterizes this novel?

 

Utube reading of Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There

New York Times Review by Jennifer Senior

New York Times Review by Terrence Rafferty

Interview with Victor LaValle published in the Los Angeles Times

Victor LaValle’s website

 

 

Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories by Mariana Enriquez ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages: 208

Expected Publication Date: February 21, 2017 (first published December 4, 2014 in Spanish)

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

Wow!  What a macabre, twisted way to get swept up in the life and culture of Argentina.  I love when I read books outside my usual genres and get blown away by them. These short stories invoke living nightmares and nightmarish creatures that dwell just below the surface of normal life and enter into these stories in unexpected ways.  There are ghosts of the past, horrific creatures, and a sense of the clairvoyance  in these pages.  Some of the descriptions within these stories brought to mind Stephen King’s writing, particularly “Adela’s House.”  Certain descriptions of graffiti in repetitive patterns of letters that don’t seem to spell anything and the creature with teeth filed into triangles that eats Paula’s live cat in “The Neighbor’s Courtyard” are two other particular examples that felt Stephen King-esque to me.

The setting for these stories is in various cities in Argentina, including Buenos Aires, Lanus, and Corrientes.  There is a sense of healing in the land, but there are horrors of the past lurking just beneath the surface.  Natalia in “Spiderweb” saw a burning building which 10 minutes later was charred down to the earth.  Someone else in that story saw a ghost rising from the cement of a bridge, within which dead bodies must have been hidden.  In “Under the Black Water” a buried monster dwells in a polluted river, which people had been trying to cover up.  Argentina’s Dirty War took place 1974 to 1983 and though it is not directly referenced in these stories, the horrors lurking just beneath the surface and these ghosts of the past are most certainly from that time.

There are many common themes that wind their way through these stories creating interest and intrigue.  Many of the characters in these stories are depressed, sometimes overwhelmingly so to the point of not being able to work anymore, hurting themselves,  and perhaps hallucinating.  In one story “Green Red Orange,”  Marco becomes locked in, not seeing people anymore.  He only opens his door when no one is there to get the food his mother has left him.  He only communicates with an old girlfriend via chat from his computer where he becomes obsessed with the deep web, where he can find the most horrific things.

Another theme running through many of these stories is dissatisfaction with boyfriends or husbands.  The boyfriends and husbands in these stories are not loved or desired by the protagonist.  They are depicted as being over-confident, arrogant, pig-headed and most importantly useless.  The boyfriends or husbands end up disappearing or leaving by the end of each story.  The final and titular story “Things We Lost in the Fire” begins with women being the subject of fires set by angry significant others.  The women then begin to burn themselves in protest creating a world of disfigured women.  This is a very disturbing brutal ending to this collection of stories.

There is obvious social commentary within the pages of these stories.  The author is definitely a feminist.  She has an interesting way of depicting wealth versus poverty and sane versus mentally unstable.  She definitely delves into a world of darkness and demons, most of us do not think about.  She recognizes horrors within her stories, that don’t even pertain to the main story, but are issues with the society at large.  In “Spiderweb” the soldiers at the Paraguayan restaurant with their large guns are harassing the waitress and are likely going to rape her, however, any intervention would get the narrator and Natalia raped.  However, I feel the greatest social commentary contained within these stories is directed at the horrors and brutality of the Dirty War and how the ghosts of that time continue to haunt the Argentinian people.

Each story, thrilling and terrifying, ends on a cliffhanger.   You, the reader, are left not knowing, still wondering, what was truth and fiction, and where things will go from there.   I highly recommend this collection of short stories from a gifted and talented Argentinian writer!  It will make the hair on your arms stand up.  

 

 

The original, untranslated stories

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What social commentary is the author making?
  2. What political commentary is the author making?
  3. What literary influences did you find in the author’s writing?
  4. Why do you think depression figures so heavily in these stories?
  5. Discuss the role of female friendship within these stories.
  6. What role do drugs and alcohol play within these stories?
  7. How do these stories reference Argentina’s Dirty War?
  8. Discuss Gauchito Gil, his dark violent mythology and his role in the death of the boy in “The Dirty Kid.”  Why does Gauchito Gil appeal to the people in the neighborhood of Constitucion?
  9. How does Enriquez characterize the police in these stories?
  10. What is the meaning of people disappearing within these stories?
  11. In “Under the Water” the people of the slum are repeating “In his house, the dead man waits dreaming.”  What is the meaning of this?
  12. What do you think the meaning of the title is?  Why do you think the author chose this story’s title to be the title of the book?
  13. In “Spiderweb,” what does spiderweb symbolize?

Interview with Mariana Enriquez by McSweeney’s

Review by Allerdale Reviews

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman ~ Book Review

2213661Pages:  312

Published: September 30, 2008

Literary Awards:  Hugo Award for Best Novel (2009), Newbery Medal (2009), Locus Award for Best Young Adult Novel (2009), World Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novel (2009), Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Nominee for Children’s Literature (2009), Audie Award for Audiobook of the Year (2009), Michigan Library Association Thumbs Up! Award Nominee (2009), Indies Choice Book Award for Best Indie Young Adult Buzz Book (Fiction): (2009), Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award (ALAN/NCTE) Nominee (2009), British Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novel (2009), Cybils Award for Middle Grade Fantasy & Science Fiction (2008), Carnegie Medal (2010), Elizabeth Burr / Worzalla Award (2009)

Format: Audiobook

“It takes a graveyard to raise a child.”

I picked this up to listen to on a car trip with my children.  I think my young children were scared or turned off by the no frills triple murder with which the novel begins.  I, however, was enthralled and could not wait to listen to it each time I got into my car.  When reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I fell in love with his brilliant writing style then.   I was hoping to share that experience with my children…  Maybe in a few years.   Having this book read by the author himself was pure delight.  His English accent and the manner in which he was able to do different voices for the various characters really brought the story to life.  I realized after the fact that there are actually two versions of this audible book.  I listened to the one with Neil Gaiman as the sole narrator, but there is another one with a full cast of narrators.

The storyline itself is enchanting.  I was mesmerized!  I felt my skin prickle in anticipation of what was coming next.  The characters were fabulous.  The plot is complex, yet everything came full circle throughout the novel.  It is a huge puzzle in which all the pieces had just the right fit.  Every bit of this novel is delicious perfection.  It is a brilliant, magical, dreamy, fantastical world and everyone should read or listen to this.  As you can see from all the awards this novel has won, I am not alone in feeling this way!  images

 

Lit lovers Discussion Guide

Harper Collins Reading Group Guide

Reproducible Study Guide for the book – meant for teaching purposes

 

 

 

 

High Rise by J. G. Ballard ~ Book & Movie Review

 

 

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Pages: 208

Published: 1975

Format:  E-book

Movie Released: April 28, 2016 in USA

 

 

High Rise is a horrific novel about a building that begins to have a strange hold over its residents.  The high rise is a virtual vertical city, with the higher levels representing higher social class status.  The building has it’s own school, restaurants, pools, grocery store.  The only reason for its’ residents to leave is to go to work.  The residents begin to throw louder and wilder parties and begin leaving the building less and less often to go to work.  Often if they do go, they rest at work for a few hours and then return to the high rise, or they may get to their car and then turn right around and go back to the high rise.   The parties turn to violence, vandalism, voyeurism, raiding, raping,  murder and cannibalism with the ultimate goal being survival of the fittest.  The characters become either checked out or fully engrossed in the “game” they are playing.   Although there is some hope they will get caught, no one ever bothers to call the police or seek outside help.  The men and women revert to hunter/gatherer roles.  The women seem banded together by the end and it appears the women have come out on top, however, no one really is a winner in this book.  Reading this novel from 1975 did not feel much like I had jumped back in time with the exception of the polaroid cameras and lack of cell phones/social media.  This novel was many things at once:  a horror story, a dystopian science fiction story,  and most impressively a chilling social commentary.   It  is a commentary on the psychological effects of modernization and technological advancement.  This advancement leads to an increasingly fragmented and socially insular society that yearns for more connectedness even if that connectedness is horrific. The writing was excellent and I look forward to watching the movie.  images-2

 

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Interestingly, J. G. Ballard (15 November 1930 – 19 April 2009) grew up in in Shanghai, which came under Japanese control in 1943.  He spent 2 years in an internment camp with his family.  Presumably this early exposure to the atrocities of war shaped his writing and the horror it contains.  In 1945, he returned to Britain with his mother and sister.  He began medical school in 1951 with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist, however, abandoned his medical studies 2 years later, to pursue a career in writing.  Since then, he led an incredibly interesting life with various twists and turns.  His wife and mother of his 3 children died young of pneumonia and he was left to raise 3 children.  He has had movies and television series made of his stories and novels.  He has influenced the genre of dystopian science fiction literature, art and music.  With the publication of The Atrocity Exhibition, there was an obscenity trial and in the United States, the publisher destroyed nearly all of the print.  He had become an icon with this work.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Who ends up on top, the women or the men?
  2. How is this book a literal struggle to the top?
  3. How are the characters psychologically affected?  Why do they become that way?
  4. How do you think J. G. Ballard’s background affected his writing?
  5. Laing isn’t sure if what is happening is all in his head.  Could the building be a Freudian representation of himself?
  6. Debate which the better, the movie or the book?

Review at Fantasy Book Review

Book/Movie Comparison:

I watched the movie shortly after finishing the book.  I thought it had a similar dreamlike surreal quality to it.  The events occurring in the book are horrific and repulsive yet somehow, in both reading the book and watching the movie, I felt ok with it.  I was interested, intrigued, waiting for what was next, almost complicit in the act of chaos and abandon that the characters/actors demonstrate.

The movie rendition is mostly true to the book.  I did think that children figured more prominently in the movie than they had in the book.  It’s a movie that’s interesting to watch after reading the book and understanding the author, his background and the year in which it was written.  Given the graphic content contained within the movie, it is not a movie for everyone.  If you can stomach, I highly recommend watching it if you’ve read the book!

Review of the Film as published in The Telegraph