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Review: ‘Under a Watchful Eye’ by Adam Nevill

Under a Watchful Eye Book CoverI’ve long been a fan of Adam Nevill, so when Under a Watchful Eye was released my expectations were naturally high.  When I started reading, I must admit I wasn’t entirely sold.  The book has a slow moving, brooding narrative, and I found myself at one point thinking I’d need to come back to it when I was in more of a leisurely reading mood.  But I kept reading, and the experience was better for it.  The dread was palpable, and the way Nevill writes is darkly beautiful with a lyricism that you rarely see in horror novels.

Seb Logan is a well-known horror writer, working on his new book from his comfortable seaside home.  His idyllic life is crashed into disarray when a friend from his past appears and threatens everything Seb has worked so hard to achieve.  What follows is a descent into the darkest recesses of the self, where Seb must confront sinister forces from within and without.

Adam Nevill taps into the everyday fears we all have and writes them in a way that makes them terrifying.  We, as readers, see ourselves reflected in his characters and that is what makes his works so frightening.  His prose is florid and expressive with an originality that makes him a unique writer in the genre.  He is descriptive in a way that builds his world naturally, without forcing too much information on the reader.  The fact that we can build our fears into his descriptions is what gives the weight of real horror.  With an antagonist like Thin Len (who will no doubt visit me in my dreams for many nights to come) he is so terrifying because he will appear differently to every reader.

The characters in Under a Watchful Eye are not the most deeply developed.  Some appear only for a few pages before disappearing into obscurity, and the motivations of some others I found to be a little ambiguous in places.  At first, this is what made me enjoy the book a little less, but the more I read, the more I realised that it was essential to making this novel so chilling.  Seb is a character who is trapped, and by minimising his interactions with other characters, it only serves to heighten the feeling of isolation that surrounds him at almost every turn and makes us question his sanity, just as the characters around him do.  We experience Seb’s subjective reality, one that Nevill manages to make real in all its terrifying and grotesque glory.

Under a Watchful Eye felt a lot more subtle than Nevill’s previous works which initially threw me.  But once I was engrossed it proved itself to be a creeping tale of horror that was both visceral and stimulating. It was a story that blurred the line between life and death and fiction and reality with allusions to one of his previous novels, Last Rites, that help tie everything masterfully into his fictional universe.

Adam Nevill is a master of horror and a writer that every reader who considers themselves a fan of the genre should become acquainted.  Under a Watchful Eye has proven his versatility and talent as a writer and is a must read.

 

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Review: ‘Fir’ by Sharon Gosling

Fir - Book CoverSharon Gosling’s Fir was an interesting addition to the already extensive collection of YA horror, but like many books in the genre didn’t quite live up to expectations.

Fir tells the story of the Stromberg family, who leave their comfortable inner city Stockholm life to move to a remote tree farm where the Stromberg patriarch hopes to rebuild the lumber business.  But there is something out in the old growth forest that begins terrorising the family, while they try and survive the harshness of Sweden’s remote winters.

There were some fascinating elements in Fir.  The forest had character, and the descriptions of the woods, the cold, the dark and the isolation were incredibly well rendered.  There were some promising moments with the introduction of old world mythology which had the potential to make this a much deeper story and Gosling took the opportunity to make some important and tactful observations about environmental ethics without coming across as forceful or on the nose.

Unfortunately, despite these elements, Fir utterly failed to be believable.  Within the first few pages, it had already fallen into the YA trap of choosing just to have unreasonably rubbish parents to mask the fact that it’s difficult to write a believable relationship between a teenager and a parent once you’re past the age where you no longer rely on them.  I say difficult, which is why so many YA authors just either omit the adults of the story entirely (I’m looking at you Leo Hunt) or make them such caricatures of bad parenting that the focus naturally sways toward its teenage protagonists. Their reactions to situations and lack of communication with their daughter were simply not believable, and so made the plot feel entirely contrived.

One of the most effective elements was that the plot developed to allow for some ambiguity as to the truth of the ‘supernatural’ occurrences in the book.  I liked this, as it left it entirely open to interpretation, and made the premise of isolation even more frightening.  Letting the characters’ experiences speak for themselves made the local mythology even more interesting, as it highlighted how remote isolation could give rise to fears like these.  Had the book ended before the appendix I might have rated it far higher, but instead, Gosling chose to spoon feed the readers a supernatural ending that detracted from the whole narrative.  A book is only as good as its ending, so had it ended a few pages earlier, it would have been a much better book.

Overall, Fir was a quick and easy read.  It wasn’t particularly cerebral, certainly didn’t bring much to the YA horror genre, but was most definitely full of unrealised potential.  The plot had the potential to be unique with a critical message about environmental responsibility,  but instead just read as a generic supernatural YA story about bad parenting.

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Review: ‘The Dead Boyfriend’ by R. L. Stine

The Dead Boyfriend by R. L. StineWow, I mean I remember Fear Street books being pretty bad in a tacky, yet fun way, but The Dead Boyfriend, R. L. Stine’s fifth instalment in the Fear Street reboot was just a whole new level of trash. The plot was on rails with a completely nonsensical twist and characters that barely bothered to show up.

There was something almost visceral, and sexy about the old Fear Street novels. The Fear Street Saga is still one of the trilogies I remember most from my childhood.  There was gore, romance, horror and thrills galore! I re-read them recently and found myself laughing at how implausibly silly the whole thing was, bit I still had fun reading them. The Dead Boyfriend just left me disappointed and nostalgic for some Point Horror.

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Review: ‘The Haunting of Jessop Rise’ by Danny Weston

The Haunting of Jessop Rise Book CoverThe Haunting of Jessop Rise was an entertaining read.  It was an unassuming, simple haunted house story with elements of gothic horror that neither excited nor bored.  It simply waswhich in some cases is exactly what you want as a reader.  I read the whole book in a few hours so it never overstayed its welcome, and for a middle grade novel it did have some pretty effective moments of fear.

William, the protagonist is a surprisingly deep character.  Weston actually does a great job of building a pretty decent character profile in a very short amount of time.  The main characters felt read and the satellite characters didn’t have too much fleshing them out that the novel felt bloated.  My only issue with the characters though was that they felt too much like characters from other novels.  There was nothing particularly unique about them to set them apart from better works of the 19th century, or more involved haunted house stories.  There were elements of Jane Eyre, The Woman in Black and even Great Expectations.

Using North Wales as a setting for was originally what drew me to The Haunting of Jessop Rise.  Wales is a country rife with folklore and mystery.  It is a place where tales of witches and fairies become almost believable and the countryside almost seems to sing with the voices of ancient civilisations.  There was potential here, but a potential that was completely unrealised.  The one element of the particularly Welsh supernatural was actually pretty unnecessary to the plot, and most of the action took place in the confines of the titular Jessop Rise meaning that the setting of Wales was largely unnecessary.  The local Welsh were represented as menial and superstitious, whereas the English characters somehow seemed superior, going so far as to scoff at the Welsh language.  This bothered me.  I’m sure it wasn’t the intention of the author, and indeed was probably pretty historically accurate in the way perceptions lay at the time, however that’s the benifit of writing fiction.  Weston simply could have done more.

All in all, The Haunting of Jessop Rise was a short read and one that I must admit I enjoyed despite its shortcomings.  It’s an entertaining middle grade horror if nothing else.

 

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Review: ‘Eight Rivers of Shadow’ by Leo Hunt

Eight Rivers of Shadow book coverEight Rivers of Shadow, while an improvement on Leo Hunt’s first book in the series Thirteen Days of Midnight, still proved itself to be an overwhelmingly shallow novel with little characterisation or originality.  Most of the novel felt like a rehash of Thirteen Days  mixed with some Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Orpheus and the Underworld with our protagonist, Luke Manchett, growing as a character on a scale of ‘very little’ to ‘none at all’.

After the events of Thirteen Days, Leo Hunt was in the perfect position to develop Luke Manchett’s character in a way that would help him discover his power in a world where magic and Necromancy exist.  Instead, Luke bumbles his way through his new found powers relying on everyone around him who appears to be more capable than him on almost every single level.  The idea of Necromancy is such a great premise and one that’s been pretty under-utilised in genre fiction that this could have made the book about a thousand times more interesting!  Luke has these powers, but what do they mean, how do they develop, how can he harness them for good, evil, anything?  These questions weren’t asked in the first book, and while Eight Rivers does raise some interesting moral questions, they are outside of the bounds of Luke’s newfound skills.

My main issue with Eight Rivers of Shadow is that we are given characters that we already know from the first book in the series, and yet they are simply not developed any further.  The lives of Hunt’s characters remain largely static and most of the plot’s development seems to rely wholly on Luke being completely inept and slightly stupid.  This issue is exemplified once more in one of the biggest criticisms I had about Thirteen Days and that is the complete lack of adult supervision in these novels.  Parents are either just rubbish at parenting or completely absent during the whole series creating a world where it essentially feels there are no adults around.  While this can be an interesting plot device as we’ve seen in books like Michael Grant’s Gone series, it is painfully clear that Leo Hunt has not put this in to his narrative intentionally.  Instead he’s tried so hard to create a realistic teenaged boy who his readers can relate to, but instead created a limbo world that neither adults nor young adults will feel any kinship.

From a pacing perspective the bland and lifeless characters make it pretty difficult to invest in the plot in any kind of meaningful way.  This book should have been an easy read, but I felt myself so poorly invested in its narrative that three weeks later and I’d barely grazed 75%.  It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy myself when I was reading it in at least a superficial way, I just didn’t feel motivated to make the time to pick it up.

Ultimately I think Eight Rivers of Shadow didn’t differentiate itself in plot and scope enough from the first book in the series.  It felt pretty same, only without developing anything.  As far as YA literature goes there are numerous better books out there.  This one wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good enough for me to want to recommend it to anybody.  Reading it was an entirely ambivalent experience, as is its memory.

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