‘Into the Drowning Deep’ – Mira Grant

Seven years ago, the Atargatis set off on a voyage to the Mariana Trench to film a “mockumentary” bringing to life ancient sea creatures of legend. It was lost at sea with all hands. Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy.
Now, a new crew has been assembled. But this time they’re not out to entertain. Some seek to validate their life’s work. Some seek the greatest hunt of all. Some seek the truth. But for the ambitious young scientist Victoria Stewart this is a voyage to uncover the fate of the sister she lost.
Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the waves. But the secrets of the deep come with a price.

Into the Drowning Deep was a book that I was, initially, unsure about as whenever I think of mermaids I can’t shake my deep-seated sense of unease about things that we know little of, and old literary tales that talk of sirens and luring sailors to their death. Coupled with the focus on a group of scientists heading to try and establish whether or not mermaids exist, I really went into this with some reservations.

Initially this was a little hard to get into. The first zone, establishing the characters and the ideas behind their trip, was necessary but it didn’t really engage me as much as I’d hope. I couldn’t help but think this was not a story that was going to end well in some way – be it disappointment in a failed mission, or a truly failed mission that proved what they set out to but ended badly for those concerned. What we got was a mix of these ideas, but as the story picked up I was hooked.

We have an intriguing group on board. There’s a mix of scientists who have their own reasons for setting sail. There’s the company spokesperson who has close ties to someone on board, but who also has his own directives at odds with what many think they are there to do.

Once the ship was out on the water, however, Grant completely captivated me. The writing was tense, and the story was so well-constructed. I loved the creation of mood and the sense of foreboding that permeated everything taking place on board.

It wouldn’t be a monster story without the realisation that the thing you’re hunting might actually turn out to be smarter than you thought. It doesn’t take long before we start to realise that not everyone will survive this trip – and though I wasn’t overly keen on the detailed description as the sirens started their hunt, it always felt in keeping with the story and what we needed to know.

The mix of characters worked well in this for me. Throughout, I had a sense of big-screen action and there were some interesting moments that suggested there may be future exploration of the subject (there’s certainly one or two strands opened up that would allow this).

Having been recommended Feed by a colleague some time ago, I should have realised I was in a safe pair of hands here. I might never look at the sea in the same way, and it won’t make me feel any easier about travelling by boat, but this really would be a book I’d have no hesitation in recommending.

 

‘Different Seasons’ – Stephen King

There’s something reassuring about King and though, on occasion, he veers into something off-putting this was a sublime collection of novellas that hooked me from the start.

The Shawshank Redemption immediately had me recalling the movie, which really is so well done. The voice of the narrator draws you in. We’re shown some awful things but you are unlikely to ever feel anything other than admiration for these figures. The gradual revelation of what Andy did to escape prison defies belief…but there was a definite part of me that really admired him for this. Such a small thing, but the optimistic ending about him finding his key to freedom in a hayfield near Buxton always makes me smile (more now I’m living in Hayfield, only a few miles from Buxton). Coincidence? I like to think not.

Apt Pupil begins with a seemingly clearcut American hero. Yet behind Todd’s golden boy facade lies a darkness that is utterly terrifying. This young boy ingratiated himself into the life of an old man…but the man is not quite what he seems. The old man in this story is a former Nazi camp officer who has evaded justice. Todd wants stories. What drives someone to do such horrific things? We’re never sure, but this goes to awful places. Very uncomfortable reading, but fascinating.

The Body is perhaps best known for the child stars that acted in the movie adaptation of the story. When they learn that the body of a missing child has been left on nearby train tracks the group decide to set out on a journey to see it for themselves. A story truly evoking a bygone era. The sense of children crossing into maturity is carefully presented here.

The last story focuses on a bizarre gentleman’s club that few are invited to. They meet regularly and are entertained by a regular telling of stories. We follow our main character through his first experience at the club, and then come to a most unusual story…that of a young woman who, disregarding social convention, is determined to give birth no matter what her personal circumstances.

 

‘Dread Nation’ – Justina Ireland

Jane McKeene is a gutsy young woman, and thank goodness because she ends up in all manner of awful situations and her special set of skills and bullish nature come in very useful.

When we first meet Jane she is training, learning how to be an Attendant keeping white people safe from the threat known as the shamblers. We’re in a world like no other – an historical setting but overrun with zombies. She has a love/ hate relationship with fellow student Katherine (whom she delights in calling Kate because it annoys her) and there is something she is keeping secret about her friendship with Jack.

Unfortunately, many no longer believe the shamblers are a real threat now. When this is shown to be foolish, some are determined not to give up their privileged position. The Mayor and one of the school assistants engineer a situation where Jane and Kate are sent away.

Told they are going to help patrol and keep the new town safe, the girls have to use their wits to stay alive. They are – quite rightly – suspicious of what is going on. As more and more secrets are uncovered, Jane has to come up with increasingly risky plans to ensure their survival.

The setting for this world is a strange mix of historical and modern. Jane is a great main character and there are some really interesting details given about her mother to suggest that what comes next will be good.

 

‘The Institute’ – Stephen King

I’ve always had a mixed response to the Stephen King books I’ve read. The sense of horror and unease always creeps me out, and yet there’s usually a point in the book where things cross into implausible or are exaggerated to the degree that I find it irritating. There’s so much about his writing that sucks you in, but I always have a moment where something jars and it doesn’t quite seem to work. With The Institute this didn’t quite happen.

The concept to this immediately intrigued me, so I was rather surprised when the opening focused on Tim Jamieson and his decision to get off an overcrowded plane before ending up in the small town of Du Pray where he became a night knocker. It didn’t seem to make sense, so I was immediately intrigued to see how this element would be incorporated.

Our main character is Luke, an exceptionally talented kid who, at twelve, is being touted to attend two colleges. Unfortunately, before this can happen Luke’s parents are killed, he is drugged and taken across country to The Institute. What we then experience through Luke is an experiment of unimaginable horror.
Perhaps because this is told through Luke’s perspective, there’s a lot about The Institute that we don’t get told. There are hints of some of the things taking place, but even the small glimpses we did get were enough to have me scared. The group of teens/kids that are at this place though were all fascinating. The suggestion of what was being undertaken there was just plausible enough to have you wondering ‘what if’. It also raised some very interesting questions about the extent to which the mind could be manipulated.

While I can’t help but feel the whole thing was quite unlikely, my heart was definitely rooting for Luke as he undertook his dangerous game. As things drew together, Tim’s role became clearer. As things drew to a close the action was ramped up, and yet it didn’t seem off-putting. The final hints of a much bigger picture suggest King is happy for us to fear establishment and question the extent to which we are controlled. It certainly wasn’t neatly packed-up but it was enough.

 

‘Little Darlings’ – Melanie Goulding

Little Darlings is a curious read, and I don’t know whether to describe it as a psychological thriller or a paranormal mystery. It’s ambiguity leaves the reader rather nonplussed at the end, but it’s a read that forces you to keep going to try and puzzle it out.

Lauren Tranter has just given birth to twins. Sleep deprived, without a support network and full of doubt, she is struggling. While in hospital she thinks she hears a woman singing to twins. However, her children are the only twins in the hospital. Another night she believes the same woman has tried to abduct her twins. She locks herself in a hospital toilet and calls the police. There’s no evidence of anyone else having been in the hospital.

Eventually let home Lauren retreats into herself. She stays at home, full of doubt about her capabilities. Her husband is beyond rubbish – insisting on catching up on sleep during the day as the twins have kept him awake, and begrudging Lauren asking for a drink – and complains that she’s not taking control of stuff. Concerned for her welfare, or sulking because he actually isn’t the most important thing in her life? We’re not sure.

After a week or so, Lauren decides to try and get out for a walk. Things seem to be going well. Then she sits at a bench, falls asleep and wakes to find her babies missing. After a frantic police hunt the twins are found, by a woman who seems to have been having a relationship with Lauren’s husband, and Lauren is convinced her twins have been exchanged.

Interspersed with this narrative we have Harper, a member of the police who goes above and beyond to work out what’s happening. Her approach was unlikely, and yet it offers credence to the paranormal element of this story.

By the end there were signs that there was nothing mysterious about this at all. Lauren simply had a deeply immature and unpleasant husband, and she was mentally ill. The resolution of the narrative didn’t offer much hope, and left me feeling rather short-changed.

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this and offer my thoughts in exchange for an ARC.

‘Wilder Girls’ – Rory Power

Raxter Island – deserted – and on it a boarding school for girls, with a small number of students. These students have, effectively, been cut off from the outside world after exposure to a virus.

We focus primarily on three girls: Hetty, Byatt and Reese. Like the other girls their exposure to the Tox has created some bizarre occurrences. Yet they’re surviving.

Without really knowing what happened, it was hard to get a handle on this scenario. I spent a large chunk of the book feeling as if I was blindly following someone down a dark alley. Aside from being discomfited as I read, I found the developing situation a compelling one.

I was desperate to know what was happening, while also having a very clear feeling that I wouldn’t like the truth.

There’s a grim darkness to this that might have been handled differently. While I enjoyed it, I always felt there was background info left out and that there were details I was keen to know that were glossed over.

‘Murder Trending’ – Gretchen McNeil

A book that will have you gripped, but groaning in places. Graphic violence aplenty, but it’s done in the Scary Movie-style which makes it seem slightly more readable.

In this near future we’re asked to imagine that an ex-reality star has become President of the US and that his attempt to sort crime is to link it to entertainment. Those found guilty of serious crimes are sent to Alcatraz 2.0 where criminals are killed off in grotesque and macabre ways by a team of executioners and their murders are televised for entertainment.

When Dee is accused of murdering her step-sister (who was obsessed with the program) she is immediately thrown to the wolves. Yet, somehow, she survives and kills her supposed-to-be executioner. As a result she tops the list of inmates betted upon to be top of the kill list. However, Dee finds increasingly bizarre ways to survive.

We quickly learn Dee has secrets, and it soon becomes clear that her current situation is linked to these secrets. The actual links weren’t immediately obvious.
No real message here, but it was an interesting idea to see how the characters acted under pressure, and the style was likeable (even though the content was not).

‘The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein’ – Kiersten White

This won’t be to everyone’s tastes as it tells a story, but one we assume to be familiar with. Here we get the Frankenstein story told through the eyes of Elizabeth.

From her mistreated childhood to the moments the story focuses on we can see Elizabeth is a character forced into the roles dictated to her. She is at her fiercest/bravest when challenging these roles, and I liked the way this illuminates aspects of Shelley’s text while telling its own story.

We can see the role Elizabeth played in Victor Frankenstein and his experiments. We watch as she learns what he’s been doing and how she deals with the effects of these experiments.

A substantial part of the tale is like reading Frankenstein through another character’s eyes, but then we deviate from the expected. It doesn’t work fully, but it would certainly be a highly recommended read for anyone wanting to examine Shelley’s work with new eyes.

‘Sawkill Girls’ – Claire Legrand

Sawkill Girls is something of a puzzling book. Touted as horror, when I got granted access to the opening chapters on NetGalley I was struck by what seemed to be a dark fairytale quality to the writing. Having just finished the book I am torn between being genuinely unnerved by the creature unleashed on Sawkill and fascinated by the tales told and the events depicted here.

Marion and her family arrive on the island and strange things are immediately obvious. There’s a connection to Val Mortimer and her family, and girls are regularly disappearing from the town. Nobody is sure what’s happening but there’s a dark energy to the place, and lots of very unusual occurrences.

The book was one that sucked me in. It had a few moments that got me uneasy, and the key relationship makes a lot more sense once we get to the end. It’s a genuinely tricky book to pin down but it is definitely one to recommend.

‘As I Descended’ – Robin Talley

“Something wicked this way comes.”

Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are their school’s ultimate power couple—even if no one knows it but them.
Only one thing stands between them and their perfect future: campus superstar Delilah Dufrey.
Golden child Delilah is a legend at the exclusive Acheron Academy, and the presumptive winner of the distinguished Cawdor Kingsley Prize. She runs the school, and if she chose, she could blow up Maria and Lily’s whole world with a pointed look, or a carefully placed word.
But what Delilah doesn’t know is that Lily and Maria are willing to do anything—absolutely anything—to make their dreams come true. And the first step is unseating Delilah for the Kingsley Prize. The full scholarship, awarded to Maria, will lock in her attendance at Stanford―and four more years in a shared dorm room with Lily.
Maria and Lily will stop at nothing to ensure their victory—including harnessing the dark power long rumored to be present on the former plantation that houses their school.
But when feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what is imagined, the girls must decide where they draw the line.

‘Macbeth’ for so many contemporary readers is linked to painful study for English GCSE with heads hurting from trying to work out what is in front of you. Here, Talley takes the essence of the story but gives it a contemporary twist.

Lily and Maria are students/roommates/lovers and our story begins with a ouija board experiment that immediately sets the scene for some dark and unsettling events.

Plotting to bring about the downfall of the main competitor for a scholarship prize, the two girls begin their murderous journey full of hope and quickly descend into ‘madness’ caused by their guilt.

This blended the Macbeth story and modern concerns well. Some characters, naturally, were more appealing than others but it revealed the characters and also encouraged some thoughts about the concerns raised in the contemporary setting.