Books, Sneak Peek Weekends

February Sneak Peek Weekends #2

This week’s sneak peek is another personal favourite theme of mine: murder most foul. Here are three of the latest YA releases featuring a couple murder mysteries…

A Good Idea

A Good Idea

I think it started with the seizure. Serena and I talked about it later, and she agreed that if Ann Russo hadn’t had an epileptic fit during the graduation ceremony, she would have been far less likely to contribute her own outburst to the proceedings. Something about the sight of Ann spasming on the ground, red hair gleaming against the aggressively green, meticulously manicured grass of the backfield, mouth opening and closing wordlessly like a fish, gave what had been until then an unnoteworthy ceremony  … a surreal quality that sent things firmly off the rails.

Author: Cristina Moracho

Publisher: Viking Children’s Books (Penguin Random House)

Published: February 28, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, Castle, All the Bright Places, Cuckoo’s Calling, Allegedly, Asking For It

If I were an agent/acquisitions editor, would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

Yes. When I go looking for thrillers with a hint of murder, I want ‘em gritty, brutal, and gory. I want to be shocked and horrified and A Good Idea succeeds from page one. A lot is going on in this first chapter, and it sets up so many intriguing questions. This opening scene takes place during a graduation ceremony (I would argue, a rarity in YA novels?), where a dead girl’s murderer is allowed to cross the stage while the victim goes completely unacknowledged. Meanwhile, another graduating student suffers a seizure. Right away, Moracho’s setting up a heavy message she wants to share. She gets to the point without messing around with irrelevant narrative developments. Her protagonist stands for justice for girls who are victimised while their predators go free without acknowledgement of their crimes or compromising their reputation. It’s a message to get angry about and makes you want to follow her down the rabbit hole to see where this goes. I like that we’re reaching an age where murder and violence in fiction isn’t just meant to shock. When done right, it’s to prove a point, and shed a light on the corruptions of society and the legal system. And I can clearly see that’s what Moracho’s doing here. She’s got a point to make.

To Catch a Killer

To Catch a Killer

 I soothe my forehead against the icy car window and breathe out a path of fog. If I squint one eye, the neon splashed across the rain-slicked street forms a wide, cruel mouth.

Author: Sheryl Scarborough

Publisher: Tor Teen (Macmillan)

Published:February 7, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: Cuckoo’s Calling, Castle, Law and Order, NCIS

Would I Select it for Publication?

Given there are so many cop procedurals out there about murder cases, this one’s a little too cookie cutter for me. The title even sounds exactly like every other true crime program on tv right now. There is obviously a market for books like these, otherwise we wouldn’t have dozens and dozens of crime series out there. As far as crime novels go, you kind of have to start with a bang. There’s a reason why every crime show opens with the murder itself and backtracks. Instead, in this, Scarborough opens with a witness investigation. Which, in terms of the crime plot structure, isn’t necessarily the most interesting part of the murder mystery formula. (In my humble opinion.) Right away, I wanna know how did the person die, and who are they. All we know from this chapter is that it’s the protagonist’s teacher, and there was a lot of blood. Obviously, if you’re a die-hard mystery reader (which I’m not), and you like to have a quick, poolside read during your holidays, then maybe this is right up your alley. It’s just not quite up mine…

Dreamland Burning

Dreamland Burning

Nobody walks in Tulsa. At least not to get anywhere. Oil built our houses, paved our streets, and turned us from a cow town stop on the Frisco Railroad into the heart of Route 66. My ninth-grade Oklahoma History teacher joked that around these parts, walking is sacrilege. Real Tulsans drive.

Author: Jennifer Latham

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (Hachette)

Published:February 21, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: Holes, The Help, Their Eyes Were Watching God, To Kill a Mockingbird, Allegedly

Would I Select it for Publication?

I don’t know about this one! This one’s got a slow build which doesn’t immediately grip you like it should. It gets there by the end of the first chapter, but it felt like I was going through the motions to get to that point. It does definitely feel, though, like Latham’s also got a point to make. Hers is one about race relations and slave-era America and how it’s impossible to erase that corrupt history, no matter how hard you try to clean the slate. There is clearly something to be said for erasure of victims, whether they’re women, like Moracho’s narrative, or black people, as Latham’s addressing. It’s incredibly topical now especially and I think it’s important to bring that discussion to teens as accessibly as possible. So while I don’t think this would be an immediately obvious choice for me as an agent, there is undoubtedly a place on the shelves for this novel and a reason it’s out there now. Sometimes that’s the burden agents and publishers face – the topics don’t always align with their categories of interest, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be out in the world!

What are your favourite murder mysteries? Feel free to share in the comments!

Books, Sneak Peek Weekends

February Sneak Peek Weekends #1

This week’s collection of sneak peeks gives a nod to the latest trend in YA: fairy tale retellings. While I’ve complained about exhausted trends in fantasy in previous reviews, this one just doesn’t get old. Here are some amazing authors and their novels that continue to give fairytale retellings their great reputation!

Long May She Reign

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A hundred doves burst out of the pie.

Author: Rhiannon Thomas

Publisher: HarperTEEN

Published:February 21, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: The Sineater’s Daughter, The Lie Tree, Uprooted, Lunar Chronicles, Throne of Glass, Truthwitch, Caraval, The Night Circus, Pantomime

If I were an agent/acquisitions editor, would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

Yes.

This novel opens with doves flying out of a pie. Right away, you know the story is a fairytale nod, and therefore know exactly what you’re getting. I personally appreciate the reference to more obscure nursery rhyme aspect of fairytales, so I’m drawn in by the first paragraph.

Although the narrative is on the simpler side in terms of fairytale narratives, there’s a lot going on in the opening chapter. The immediate first impression of the protagonist suffers from a minor case of special snowflake, not like other girls syndrome, but Thomas reels it back in by making her logical and scientifically oriented. I for one, want more analytically minded female protagonists in my life!

Her best friend is introduced right away, on the other end of the personality spectrum from her. She’s more of a traditional female protagonist- she likes reading and more artistic pursuits. There’s a lot of polar opposite female friends in YA lately, particularly in terms of the delicate best friend and the bolder protagonist, but as long as there are female friendships in the books teenage girls are reading, it’s not necessarily a bad thing…

This opening chapter’s attention to detail also succeeds in giving a solid insight into royal dynamics in Thomas’ world. The descriptions are solid. I get the world we’re in, but in a really subtle way in that she’s not giving the whole game away with entire info dumps. It’s colourful, and frenetic, and aesthetically pleasing. It’s just her protagonist’s world, as she’s experiencing it, and that’s exactly what it should be.

The Wish Granter

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Humans were pathetically predictable. Always longing for more. Always desperate to get their way. Shamelessly grasping for what remained out of reach, even when it cost them dearly. He despised them.

Author: CJ Redwine

Publisher: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins Children’s)

Published: February 14, 2017

 This is a sequel to The Shadow Queen, but far as I can tell, it doesn’t seem to follow the original characters, so I think it’s safe to say you could pick this one up as a standalone. (I wouldn’t ordinarily preview a sequel, but I thought this one would be safe enough…)

For Those Who Enjoyed: Once Upon a Time, Lord of the RIngs, Rebel of the Sands, Aladdin, Robin McKinley, A Darker Shade of Magic, Throne of Glass, A Court of Thorns and Roses, The Bloody Chamber

Would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

Yes.

It’s written in third person! This is shockingly rare for YA novels and I’m so relieved to pick up something not in first person for once! I need very little convincing on that front. The third person makes a huge difference in terms of writing style. It’s beautifully written and feels mystical, like a real fairytale. The place names, characters and spells are gorgeous in terms of linguistics, with some kind of Celtic, Welsh base. They’re very reminiscent of Tolkien.

It’s set in a fae kingdom, which usually squicks me out when done wrong, but these fae read more like the elves from Lord of the Rings than your fae of Throne of Glass.

This is based on Rumpelstiltskin, a fairytale not usually retold. Not since before Once Upon a Time, anyway.This is an exciting prospect! It’s not your run of the mill princess story. It’s different. I’m thrilled to see these fantasy writers looking outside of the box for their materials. I honestly don’t need one more Snow White or Cinderella.

Wintersong

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Once there was a little girl who played her music for a little boy in the wood.

Author: S. Jae-Jones

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (Macmillan)

Published: February 7, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: Robin McKinley, The Bone Witch, Labyrinth, Pan’s Labyrinth, Princess and the Goblin, Goblin Market, Grimm’s Fairy tales, Hans Christian Anderson, Uprooted

Would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

Yes. I loved this instantly from the first page. It gives off this magical vibe, like you’ve been transported into this mystical realm. It’s doing similar things in terms of building atmosphere as the previous two, yet it’s so much richer, if that’s possible. I instantly know the fairy tales she’s referencing and it’s very clear she’s well-read in her subject.This particular retelling is about the Goblin King, so again, this is another surprising side to the fairytale canon you don’t see redone a lot. Although it’s a little more obscure in terms of well-known fairy tales, there are so many stories she’s clearly drawing from. Jae-Jones is serving David Bowie in Labyrinth and Rosetti’s “Goblin Market” rolled into one and it’s beautiful. Any novel putting Victorian literature on a teenage reader’s map is doing aspirational things.

The Witch’s Kiss

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Witches do not kneel. They do not grovel. They do not beg favours from any creature, mortal or immortal.

Author: Katherine and Elizabeth Corr

Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s Books

Published: June 2016 (This was obviously published in the past year, but I’m previewing this one because its sequel, The Witch’s Tears, did come out this February.)

For Those Who Enjoyed: Once Upon a Time, Twilight, The Graces, RoseBlood, The Bone Witch

Would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

No.

I’m not a fan of modern fairy tales. Or even modern protagonists being thrown into fairytales. It’s not terribly original and it’s not doing anything new with the genre as far as fairytale retellings go. The prologue is great. The aesthetics are strong and sets up a spooky atmosphere. And then chapter one brings you right back to a boring modern protagonist, having a really boring, typical teenage experience with her brother. The protagonist is paranoid, obsessed about a killer on the loose (which is a sketchy trope at best). That’s not what I want out of a fairytale. I need something new.

 

What are your favourite fairy tale retellings? Feel free to share in the comments! 

Halloween Horror Movie Marathon, Reviews

Day 2

From Hell

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Back over the summer, while in London for a conference, I chose the most bizarre time of the year to go on a ghost walk. Taking a tour of all of Jack the Ripper’s murder sites at 7pm in broad daylight didn’t exactly offer the atmosphere one expects when looking for chills. One thing I did get out of it was a historically accurate breakdown of each Ripper victim, what they looked like, who they were, where they lived, how they came to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Given this, our tour guide recommended a handful of screen adaptations of the famed Jack the Ripper mystery. At the top of her list?

From Hell.

The thing about From Hell is, it’s got that campy early 2000s sci-fi/fantasy horror thing going on that you might find in your typical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Which is to say, it’s a lot of fun. I mean, Johnny Depp is a clairvoyant detective and Heather Graham has one of the most ridiculous put on cockney accents I’ve ever heard of. It’s already off to a great start.

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No matter what I come to tell you about this gong-show plot, From Hell is surprisingly on the nose in terms of historical accuracy. Given that much of the Ripper case is already shrouded in mystery, it’s easy to fill in the gaps with outrageous, over the top twists and turns. For the most part, this movie only fails at nit-picky things like instant flash photography, which would never have been possible for any early paparazzo at the time. It’s well-documented that Victorians look so stern in photos because it either takes ages for the picture to take, or they’re already dead. But how many laymen would notice a thing like that?

The clever thing From Hell does is take the Ripper story from the angle of sensationalism run rampant at the time. Which makes for completely over the top melodrama on all accounts. The mass panic evoked by the string of murders led to paranoia against foreigners, against jews, against butchers, against surgeons, against princes… Against anybody really. It stands to reason that they chose the most over the top culprit for the crimes in the end. Frankly, I would have been satisfied if the question was left unanswered. But then we wouldn’t have been blessed with such a convoluted plot twist to end all plot twists.

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It’s not innovative. It’s nothing new. In fact, the path From Hell takes is pretty near identical to the twist in one of the latest Sherlock Holmes films. If it’s the 19th century, and you can blame the freemasons, why not, right? If a member of the royal family is already a legitimate lead suspect for the murders, you might as well go big or go home with this conspiracy. I can definitely see how that might be shocking to any casual viewer who doesn’t have any background knowledge of the Ripper conspiracy theories. Of all the Ripper conspiracies I’ve heard of, this one’s certainly the most bonkers. Props to Alan Moore for going there…

Going into this movie, I was expecting something a little darker. Especially as an adaptation of an Alan Moore graphic novel. Moore’s works are always a little more on the grittier, bleak side. And given Moore’s the type of elusive hermit who aggressively dislikes every film adaptation of his works, I’d warrant a guess the filmmakers took some liberties. From Hell is not quite the smart anarchist conspiracy that V For Vendetta is, but it’s certainly a cut above the Frankenstein’s monster CGI travesty of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Deep down, it knows it’s not a masterpiece. It’s a silly murder mystery romp and doesn’t expect to be anything less. Am I mad at it? Of course not.

If this film were a musical, it would be Sweeney Todd. A really silly, over the top production of Sweeney Todd. And honestly? I’d watch it.

Scares: 4/10

Style: 6/10

Camp: 9/10

Creepiness: 4/10

Final Twist: 7/10

Overall Rating: 7/10

Halloween Horror Movie Marathon, Reviews

Day 1

Crimson Peak

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Every October, I plan to watch horror movies each weekend and every year, I wuss out. This year, instead of dialing back, I decided to go all in and try for a movie per night. With a week left leading up to Halloween, I’ve decided to write a review for every film I’ve watched.

I started off with a film I knew I had to see the minute the first set photos leaked. Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain in gorgeous Victorian costuming is reason enough to watch any film. Crimson Peak has so many elements I love in a gothic horror. Given my favourite movie of all time is Sweeney Todd, of course Crimson Peak would be right up my alley. It’s Victorian, it’s gothic, it’s a ghost story, it’s highly stylised… all the things I love.

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After digging into Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, and now Crimson Peak, I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that Guillermo del Toro is becoming one of my favourite directors. He’s got a nice, wide range of interests, which makes his films vastly different. One second, he’s doing a dark fairytale take on World War 2, another he’s doing a campy rubber monster movie/robot mashup movie, and the next he’s doing a Victorian ghost story. He’s no one trick pony. Much as I love directors such as Tim Burton, del Toro’s unique style doesn’t automatically make you think, ‘oh yeah, another black and white toned artsy gothic’. At no point would I confuse any of his films.

The biggest reason I’ve failed in my venture into the depths of horror marathons is getting scared right off the bat. Which is why the stylised camp of Crimson Peak worked well as my first test. The thing about horror movie scares is all that tension has to come with a satisfying payoff. With Crimson Peak, the tension is wound tight, but the ghosts are beautifully stylised and still appropriately creepy. The visual effect is enough of a payoff in itself. Del Torro’s filmography is similar to Alfonso Cuaron, in that it’s full of imagery and he’s not interested in being subtle about it. It’s there, it’s beautiful, he wants you to know its there for a reason. The entire film is slicked with red. The trailer and movie stills make it look like The Shining elevators spilling blood. It’s horror movie bread and butter, really. But for once, that’s not what’s going on here. Whether the set is drenched in blood or not, all that red makes for a gorgeous visual feast.

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In terms of plot, Crimson Peak seems to be a fond homage to Victorian gothics before it. It’s got hints of Turn of the Screw and Jane Eyre in terms of ghostly deceptions and deadly secrets tied to ancestral mansions. As a result, the twists and turns are more on the predictable side, yet still manages to take a unique spin on the trope.

Whenever I sit down to watch a horror film, I ask myself three things: am I scared? Am I impressed? Am I surprised? Crimson Peak fulfills all three. The artistry is undeniably gorgeous and while I predicted certain events, they didn’t unfold as I quite expected. There’s a certain risk to revealing the monster within the first scene, but del Toro still manages to maintain the creep factor every time the ghosts show up. There’s something unsettling about them, despite the fact that they’re so highly stylised, they’re on the unrealistic side. But del Toro’s not here to sell a realistic film. He’s selling a work of art – one that’s inherently creepy and melancholic in both measures. And I’m certainly buying it all.

Scares: 7/10

Style: 10/10

Camp: 6/10

Creepiness: 8/10

Final Twist: 7/10

Overall Rating: 8/10