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Restless: A Year of Ghost Stories

Some ghosts say boo.

Others shriek.

Some seek revenge.

Others only want closure.

Everyone knows that, regardless of what they want or how they act, ghosts are most active on Halloween. But what are they doing the other 364 days of the year?

Restless: A Year of Ghost Stories answers that question in twelve all-new short stories. Curl up on Valentine’s Day with the tale of a living man who has fallen in love with a ghost; endure April, the month of the diamond, with a woman who is as hard as ice; and face the consequences of disrespecting Death on Dia de los Muertos in November.

No matter what day of the year you find yourself in, they will always be able to find you.

Restless is a collection of twelve original short fiction stories that tell the stories of different kinds of spooks. Each one is themed for a different month so that you can enjoy paranormal stories all year round, not just on Halloween. Restless was published on World Paranormal Day, May 3rd 2018 and is available as a paperback and on kindle through my amazon store

Think Again: A Captivating Compendium

A young boy learns the legend of the ghost in the walls.

A woman rediscovers the first love of her life twenty years later.

An unusual dollhouse haunts the mind of its new owner.

Discover these and other dilemmas in this compendium of eight original short stories that may delight, confuse, astound or confound. So if you think you knew it all, be prepared to think again.

Think Again was published in 2013 and is my first collection of short stories. It features black and white illustrations by local Michigan artist Elisabeth Pizzo. It is also available as a kindle and paperback in my amazon store.

If I Die Before I Wake: Tales of Deadly Women and Retribution

Go ahead, run. Hide, even. No matter. There’s no place you can go that she won’t find you.

A woman scorned. The sanctity of her sanctuary threatened. The betrayal of trust…even loyalty. Don’t ever tell her not to take it personally, because that’s exactly what it is. Personal. Your first blunder was mistaking her kindness for weakness. Your second was betraying her. The third? Underestimating her. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Take the plunge into these tales of deadly women who will stop at nothing until vengeance is theirs.

The Better Off Dead series delves into the farthest corners of your mind, where your deepest, darkest fears lurk. These masters of horror will haunt your dreams and stalk your nightmares, taking you to the edge of sanity before pushing you to the brink of madness!

With stories by Steven Pajak, Cara Fox, Chris Contreras Bahnsen, Scotty Milder, J.H. Moncrieff, Scott Harper, Bridgett Nelson, Spencer Richard, Mark Young, Claire Brown, Nikkolas James, Lee Rozelle, Natalie Sierra, R.E. Sargent, Red Lagoe and Renee M.P.T. Kray.

The story I wrote for this collection is titled “Soul Skeeter” and follows a young girl who must save her brother from a monster that has her eye on him. It was a blast working with the Sinister Smile Press team and I am so proud of what we put together! In November of 2020, this volume reached #1 New Release on Amazon.com in the Horror Anthologies category. It is available here.

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About the Author

Renee Marie Philomena Thérèse Kray grew up in Michigan with eight siblings and several really dumb dogs. Having been homeschooled from a young age, she was able to experiment with writing and quickly fell in love with the art. She earned her BA in Literature from Ave Maria University, her MFA in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University, and has self-published two collections of short stories: Think Again: A Captivating Compendium and Restless: A Year of Ghost Stories. However, none of these pursuits have been as challenging as trying to get her pug, Potato, to stop eating dirt.

I am most active on my Instagram account, @ReneeMPTKray , where I function as a bookstagrammer. If you like books and creepy dolls, you’ll enjoy the vibe there!

Let’s get to know each other!

My favorite authors:

  • J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Stephen King
  • J.K. Rowling

My best books ever:

  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Goldfinch
  • IT
  • Coraline
  • Dracula
  • The Turn of the Screw
  • Jane Eyre
  • Brave New World

The TV shows I am crazy about:

  • Stranger Things
  • Friends
  • The Nanny
  • Xena: Warrior Princess
  • The Office
  • The Good Place
  • New Girl
  • Kitchen Nightmares

Movies I am unhealthy obsessed with:

  • The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
  • It Chapter One
  • Coraline
  • Corpse Bride
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
  • The Dark Knight Trilogy
  • Mulan
  • Tangled
  • Flushed Away
  • Cinderella (2015)
  • Wonder Woman

Magical Houses I’ve been sorted into:

  • Hufflepuff
  • Thunderbird

Photo (c) 2016 by PNVB Photography

March 2020 Reading Wrapup

March 2020.

The month that has gone on forever.

I know I’m not the only one who feels like the beginning of this month was a year ago. The start of March saw me ending C2E2 and vacationing in Florida with my family. Now I’m home from work for the forseeable future and in quarantine with my family. So weirdly similar, but also not the same at all. But all we can do at this time is follow the CDC recommendations and keep our chins up, right?

With that in mind, I’ve been focusing more on reading and getting through my backlog! It’s a great way to pass time at home and a nice distraction from anxiety inducing news. I had a good reading month, getting in 11 books and putting me at 21 out of my goodreads goal of 80. The following are the books I read and what I rated them.

HEART SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill, 5 of 5 stars

This follows an aging rock star who buys a haunted suit that is delivered in a heart shaped box. It starts out like a typical ghost story and gets going with a bang right from the beginning… tons of creep factor and danger. But as it continues, the push moves into character department and questions about what we live our lives for. Solid, freaky, and overall entertaining, I can see why this is a classic and I can’t believe it took me this long to read it.

UNBURY CAROL by Josh Malerman, 2.5 of 5 stars

Carol is a woman who has “died” many times, aka she goes into a coma that leaves her with no signs of life in the outside world. The only one who knows her secret is her husband, who decides to bury her so that he can claim her money, and her old first love, a famous outlaw. This book is a western, which I’m not super fond of, so a lot of the genre tropes such as a singing villain (whose rhymes are lines like “Moxie Moxie Moxie Moo, James Moxie I’m coming for you”) and talk of riding the trail were lost on me. Carol is essentially a non player in her own story, it’s mainly a focus on the men who are fighting over her. Despite the awesome writing of Malerman, I just couldn’t get into this one.

THE REGRETS by Amy Bonnaffons, 1.5 of 5 stars

A woman falls in love with a ghost, who is given a temporary body while afterlife issues are sorted out. To simplify the long rant that I put up on my goodreads, this was just nasty ghost porn without character development or, y’know, a plot. The book was named correctly because that’s how I feel about the time and money I spent on this. Definitely my least favorite read of the month.

REFLECTION by Elizabeth Lim *Rating to be revealed soon!*

In this entry to the Disney Twisted Tales series, Mulan agrees to travel to the Underworld (called Diyu in Chinese mythology) in order to win back the life of Li Shang, who has been fatally wounded. What follows is an adventure as Mulan tries to find Shang and fight out of a literal hellhole before dawn. I’m not going to reveal my rating for this one as it is going to be featured on my soon to be released podcast, The Great YA Quest.

THE CARROW HAUNT by Darcy Coates, 3 of 5 stars

A serial killer’s old haunt becomes a literal haunt, and a group including the tour guide for Carrow House, a mysterious rich donor, a psychic medium, the home’s teenaged owner (yup, you read that right) a random interested guy and a modern paranormal investigator lock themselves in for a few weeks, trying to crack the home’s secrets. There were some good scenes in this book, but that was all they were: scenes. The plotline was basically The Haunting of Hillhouse with nothing new or interesting, the characters were meh, and the explanation of a ghost needing “living sacrifices” remains one of the most frustrating loopholes for a book ending that I’ve ever experienced.

PAN’S LABYRINTH: THE LABYRINTH OF THE FAUN by Cornelia Funke and Guillermo del Toro, 5 of 5 stars

A beautiful adaptation of a beautiful film. This book is physically gorgeous with its illustrations, and it is beautifully written, to boot. I would recommend this to anyone who liked the movie as well as anyone who is simply interested in a modern fairytale with lots of heart and a great storyline, not to mention some great creepiness.

A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS by Paul Tremblay, 3.5 of 5 stars

I’m starting to think that I just don’t understand Paul Tremblay’s work, because this book is so highly rated by everyone else but it left me lukewarm. A young woman talks about the time that she and her family had their own reality television show, following exorcisms that were performed on her older sister. Yeah, this book was solidly creepy. No, I didn’t feel satisfied by the plot. I was especially rolling my eyes at the way exorcisms were presented… no accuracy to Catholicism. The ending is also just basically copy/pasted from We Have Always Lived in the Castle. So yeah, I don’t know. Everyone else loves his books but I’ve only ever felt lukewarm about them, and this one is no different.

THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood, 5 of 5 stars

This book was a doozy. It splits between three main storylines: chapters from a fictional book titled “The Blind Assassin” written by a young woman (now deceased) named Laura, the current life of Laura’s older sister, Iris, who is an elderly woman, and Iris’ memories of their childhood while growing up. This was a very slow burn but I enjoyed the ending and the reveal of family secrets. Not to mention they all go on the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary at one point, which, though it was only a bit part, was cool to read about as I love that ship.

PLEASE SEE US by Caitlin Mullen, 4.5 of 5 stars

Not so much a thriller as a look at the “silent dead woman” trope, this book is the adventure of two living women from very different paths who are trying to find other women who have gone missing from Atlantic City. It includes stories from the lives of the murdered women, referred to as “Janes,” so that we really get to know them instead of just seeing them as the image of the beautiful dead female. I did think the ending, when the bodies start piling up left and right, was a little beyond belief. But everything else was a really poignant and ultimately sad look at the way women are treated when shit hits the fan.

FETCH by Scott Cawthon, 4 of 5 stars

Ahh, Five Nights at Freddy’s. Such a wild lore and guilty pleasure. This collection of three short stories was better than the first one, with plot lines that were a little less convoluted and overall more entertaining. These are basically Goosebumps stories with killer animatronics.

THE FACELESS OLD WOMAN WHO SECRETLY LIVES IN YOUR HOME by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, 5 of 5 stars

This is my second Welcome to Nightvale book that I’ve read without listening to the podcast, and once again it is a brilliant standalone. This was for sure one of my favorite reads of this year, cutting between the modern life of The Faceless Old Woman who haunts everyone in Nightvale but pays special attention to a man named Craig, and her life while she was still alive. Her origin is surprisingly entertaining and reads like an episode of Mission Impossible if it were crossed with Pirates of the Caribbean. Definitely a fun read.

I’m hoping to keep the reading rolling into the new month! Let’s all do our best to stay positive and keep each other afloat… the only way out is up.

Creativity Problems

I’m coming back to this blog and resurrecting it from its cold tomb to quickly talk about a problem I’ve been facing for the past year, one which is difficult and pretty shameful for me to admit. But I feel like I have to come clean with myself and put it out there, so here it is:

This past year, I haven’t wanted to pursue creativity.

Coming from a writer, that’s almost heretical for me to admit. I feel ashamed to say it when there are people out there who work their asses off night and day in the name of creativity, even on the days they don’t feel like it. I see some of my closest friends doing that, and yet here I’ve been, letting my creative spark die down and not doing a thing about it.

That’s not to say I haven’t been busy, because I have been… just not with particularly creative stuff. I’ve been editing my YA novel almost all year, and the task of that is so daunting that I don’t even feel any accomplishment over the fact that I finished it earlier in the year. Bear in mind, this has been 6 years of work on one single novel! But the urge to be creative has been gone, and with it the joy, so I’ve just let all that go to the wayside.

This makes 2019, although a great year in many ways (got to see my best friends more than ever, went to D23, met Elijah Wood [ultimate fangirl sigh], and went on the Queen Mary, to name just a few!) a very embarassing one for me. I’ve been burned out before, but no other year have I wanted so badly to just give up on creativity altogether, and like I said, it’s embarassing to admit that when other burned out creatives are at least trying to get back their mojo.

My daily life has reflected that. I’ve been more prone to anxiety and sadness, had several late night freak-outs about how my life is going nowhere, gained unhealthy weight, and have just been in a lethargic state for what feels like a long time.

I’m not confessing this on the internet to try to get any pity, but rather as a spur to myself to do better; not starting in the new year, starting now. I have been forcing myself to write more and develop new things. I’m trying to figure out how to create a podcast. I’m partcipating in NaNoWriMo for the first time, not to necessarily meet the word count challenge but just to spur myself to write something new every day and log it publicly.

I always get inside my own head too much and I can’t let myself do that again. It’s time to try to get back on track, starting this fall.

And to all you creative people who manage to work even when you don’t feel like it and keep up that urge to keep creating, here’s to you. You’re an inspiration to all of us.

AN ANGRY YA ADDICT

Guys, I have a love/hate relationship with Young Adult fiction. I mean on one hand, I think it’s fun and has a lot of potential. On the other hand, when it goes wrong it goes so wrong that you want to die.

If you follow me on Instagram ( @reneemptkray ) then you might have seen that I do readalongs for the YA novels that get me particularly pissed off. Angry commentary, you might say. Proof that I’m someday going to be one of those ornery old people who screams “GET OFF MY LAWN!” at children, I say.

Disclaimer: I’m not trying to humiliate any authors, but I do think we should be aware of the words being put down into books and make them as great as is possible. I don’t feel like some of the YA books out there are even trying.

So without further ado, here is a massive backlog of all my angry instagram YA commentary. Hope you find some laughs. Turn up your screen brightness!

Secondary disclaimer: lotsa spoilers ahead.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF REVIEW: My first Loot Crate unboxing!

Wow, it’s been a bit since I’ve posted here. This year I want to make this website a little more personal and a little more active. So I decided to write a bit more on my day-to-day randomness instead of simply book reviews.

To start out, I wanted to update everyone on my first ever loot crate purchase!

Loot crate is one of the original mystery box subscription services, and I’ve always known that I would try one someday. But I was never moved to actually do that until I saw an advertisement for a Valentine’s Day box themed “Love Sucks!” that would have at least one item from Bride of Chucky.

Side note. Guys. I freaking LOVE the Child’s Play series, but Bride is my favorite. I love Tiff, I think she’s hilarious, and I never see enough merch with her, so that was the push that got me to sign up for this mystery box.

A few days ago it arrived: my first ever loot crate box from the “Loot Fright” line.

First impressions: I love the design of this crate. The black background and white logo is so simple, but so eye catching.

Upon opening, the inside was just as gorgeous. I immediately thought of Pennywise when I saw that creepy clown hand. Everything was packed in very compactly (always a good sign with a mystery box!) but I could still guess that this item right on the top would be the highly advertised Bride of Chucky piece. I thought it might be a shirt, but…

…YOU GUYS.

It ended up being a blanket. A freaking blanket!!! I love nerdy blankets even more than nerdy shirts, and I actually already own one of Chucky and Tiff (you can see it folded in the upper left corner), so I was super excited to be given another. This is a thin piece, kind of felt-like in texture, but still very soft and very bright. The colorful rainbow and the “See You in Hell” text is hilarious. I already felt I had gotten my money’s worth right off of this first item.

Next up was a shirt which featured a classic Dracula face along with the words “Love Sucks.” Puns at their punniest! I think this shirt is great, but I will say that for a unisex medium, it runs pretty large. I’ve been using it as a PJ shirt. But it’s very comfy!

Next up was a set of tiny Universal Monsters valentines. These are cute and fun, and because they’re blank inside you can honestly use them any time.

When I saw this box, I freaked out because I loved it so much. I immediately thought of La Llorona (which is exactly who this ended up being!) I appreciate the effort and beauty put into this packaging when it could have just been a plain black box. And inside…

…was a gorgeous, GORGEOUS metal bookmark of the same image. This piece is detailed and heavy, of great quality and design. This was definitely my favorite thing in the box after the Bride of Chucky blanket.

The last thing in the box was a set of pins from something called Sunny Family Cult. I have no idea what that is, but the pins look awesome!

The bottom of the box was sad to see because no more awesome things, but of course they put a great design on even that so I couldn’t be too sad!

Overall, my first experience with Loot Crate: Loot Fright was very positive. They provided a wide range of items, but all shared the same high level of quality. I definitely feel like I got enough bang for my buck. I can’t afford to get a steady subscription every month, but I do hope to order another box sometime soon. If you are on the fence about Loot Crate, I would definitely recommend!

REVIEW: Broken Things by Lauren Oliver

Question: Why is it that boy-centered coming of age stories always get cool themes, and girl-centered ones almost always are stuck being dramas?

Seriously, think about it. For guys, a coming of age tale usually features some best friends who learn to stick together through thick and thin, an adventure facing some monster or at the very least some type of monstrous danger, and then the courage to get the girl evolves from that whole experience.

Meanwhile, the typical girl coming of age tale ends up being:

  • friends seem like best friends but are actually psychos who will stab you in the back,
  • feeling like shit until a guy notices them/proves himself by defending them,
  • a lot of talk about being too fat, too skinny, or otherwise imperfect, and
  • after all the angst and romance, even more angst and romance.

Look, I get it. Guys and girls go through very different things while growing up. But it seems like the growing up stories for guys get to have something cool going on and the growth develops from that, while the girls get nothing except a lot of drama.

Unfortunately, this is what I experienced when reading Broken Things.

This book initially seemed like it had it all. The cover: major goals! One of the best I’ve seen this year. The premise: two girls supposedly murdered their best friend in a ritualistic killing when they were teens. Even though charges never got anywhere, their lives have essentially derailed. Now, five years later at eighteen, they have to join forces again to find the real killer and put their pasts behind them, especially because the story that they were all obsessed with -the one that supposedly inspired the real killing- was something that actually came true for them as kids, and they need to put it back where it came from.

Damn! What a premise! The first page is filled with promise, too, starting with a bang right from the get-go:

Five years ago, when I had just turned thirteen, I killed my best friend.

I chased her down and cracked her over the head with a rock. Then I dragged her body out of the woods and into a field and arranged it in the center of a circle of stones I’d placed there with my other friend, Mia. Then we knifed her twice in the throat, and five times in the chest. Mia was planning to douse her body with gasoline and light her on fire, but something went wrong and we bolted. …

The monsters of Brickhouse Lane.

The child killers.

That’s the way everyone tells it, at least, a story repeated so many times, accepted by so many people, it has become fact.

Never mind that the case against Mia and me never even made it out of family court. Try as they could, the cops couldn’t make the facts fit. … Never mind, either, that we didn’t do it. (4-6).

This book definitely wastes no time setting up the premise of these characters’ lives and their dilemmas. I was intrigued, to say the least.

Unfortunately, chapter one is as good as it gets.

So the two girls who supposedly carried out this Slender Man stabbing (oh come on, if you weren’t thinking of that case then you are either lying or living under a rock!) are Mia and Brynn. Their friend Summer, the one who ends up murdered, was obsessed with a book called The Way Into Lovehorn and she got all of them into it, too. So much so that they were even writing a fanfic about it. The murder of Summer was described in said fanfic, which makes it seem even creepier that it actually happened, right? You want to keep reading, riiiiight?

Well, I’ve given you the good. Now it’s time for the bad and the ugly.

Mia is a tolerable character, but she has a friend, Abby, who is a plus size internet model and I just don’t understand why she’s in this book at all. She literally does nothing except overshadow Mia the entire time.

Brynn, the other girl, is just an absolutely horrid character. I’m sorry, but I have no other way of putting it. She has no motivation except to get back into rehab so that she doesn’t have to face the concept of actually living her life, and she’s just…. bleh. I don’t feel like she really develops at all unless she’s forced, and she’s really annoying. She’s a cliche of what every kid thinks they are after they’ve shopped at Hot Topic for the first time: edgy, dangerous, angry at society, and so very different that no one could ever truly get them.

Then there’s Summer.

Ugggggg. This bitch, y’all.

Look, girls oftentimes form friendships that border on weird obsession when they’re young. I get it. I was there. But there is literally no reason why Brynn and Mia would have been friends with this girl. Yes, she was abused in the past, which makes us feel for her, but she is also rude, cruel, manipulative, and many people say they are outright afraid of her, including Brynn and Mia. Summer knows that Mia has been in love with a boy named Owen for a long time, and yet she starts dating Owen for no real reason other than to hurt Mia. (Though for the record, Owen also gives no reason as to why he dated Summer even though he was “always in love” with Mia, so he’s in the doghouse too at this point). Summer is the one who gets them all into the Lovehorn book, then says she doesn’t want to play-pretend Lovehorn adventures anymore, but then gets angry when Brynn and Mia won’t help her actually sacrifice a cat (yes, SACRIFICE A CAT) to the fictional character the Shadow.

Summer has no motivation, no development or reason, and ultimately gave me no reason to even give a half a shit that she died.

But at least there’s the supernatural edge that’s promised by the tagline, right? I mean, it says right on the cover:

We thought it was just a story….

until it came true.

And the girls constantly say things like “The first time we went to Lovehorn….” So I started thinking that maybe these girls were all pretend playing at their game, and then they opened the door to evil Narnia, and now all these years later they need to put it back and discover the true meaning of friendship and of having confidence in themselves. That would be epic!

But you know what? Nope. “Lovehorn” is not a place that they go to. It’s just…. *drumroll please* ….a clubhouse that they all used to hang out in. Used to be a boring old shed, and then one day someone mysteriously put some old wallpaper inside it and hung up a sign that said “Welcome to Lovehorn!” in there, and that’s what they mean when they say they went to the other world.

….

…………..

 

deep breath seagull

Come on now. You promised me fantasty and supernatural elements when you said that this book came true to these girls. Now you’re telling me it was only true in their imaginations? LIAR.

From there on, it just gets worse. We spend all of our time with these unlikeable characters having awkward conversations about self-love while the issue of, y’know, actually clearing their damn names takes a back seat. The adventure is stiff, the characters don’t develop, and it’s just overall icky and bleh. Once I realized that there was nothing except for these angry teens riding around together in a car, bitching about teen things and being 100% ruled by their hormones, the only reason I stuck around was to find out who the murderer was and what their motivation could possibly be.

Fun fact that I’ve learned from years of reading: when you have less than 40 pages to go in an almost 400 page book and the confrontation with the big bad has not yet occurred, you are almost always in for a finale that is unexplained, lukewarm, and leaves you feeling overall like you just bit into something that you thought was cooked but is still cold and mushy in the middle: disappointed and thinking of all the other amazing things you could have had instead.

That was my feeling with the end of this novel. I’m not going to reveal who the murderer was, because spoilery spoilers, but I was rolling my eyes at the big reveal. I personally think it sucked. There is no other term for it. Big Bad had zip motivation, which made me care exactly zip about the reveal. It’s been a few days since I read it and I have thought it over, and I still don’t understand it. This was the dumbest solution to a murder ever and one of the laziest attempts I’ve seen recently from an author trying to solve everything with a half-assed explanation.

Was the writing style bad? No, not at all. And the cover was excellent. But overall, I did not find those things to be enough to make up for the fact that I was promised a potentially supernatural murder mystery and was given a bunch of angry teenagers riding around in a car, complaining about their love lives, hating on each other, then having super awkward kisses and conversations in stilted dialogue about what it means to accept yourself.

And this is what passes a girl’s coming of age story?

I’ll go reread The Hazel Wood instead, thanks.

 

2 of 5 stars. The edition I read was an advance reader copy, not a finalized edition.

REVIEW: Ring by Koji Suzuki

SOILERS AHEAD FOR BOTH THE AMERICAN FILM AND THE ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE BOOK.

 

When you’re a horror fan (as I am) chances are that when people say “Seven days!” you know what they mean: it’s from the movie The Ring, where someone watches a scary video, then the phone rings and a voice on the other end says “Seven Days!” meaning that unless you can solve the curse within a week, you’ll meet an untimely end. Although I knew that reference, I didn’t know that the famous movie was based on a book. Having recently seen the film for the first time, I decided to hunt down the book and read it, even though I assumed they would be pretty much the same.

I was both right and wrong.

Right off the bat, the book answered one of the burning, annoying questions that I had after watching the movie: why oh why is this not set in Japan? Maybe you’re thinking it doesn’t matter where the movie is set, creepy is creepy, right?

To this point, I present my argument:

  • The name “Samara,” although it is apparently Hebrew in origin, just sounds very Japanese. Though that might be me just linking it with the sound of “Sudoku.” But whatever. It’s kind of an obvious mismatch with the sounds of the other names in the film.
  • Samara climbs up from a well, which is a throwback to a popular Japanese legend. If you don’t know it, just google the story of Okiku.
  • The iconic image from the film? A girl (or young woman) with long black hair that hangs over her face and her white dress. Although such images can be found across different cultures, it is a very common representation of a Yurei, aka a Japanese vengeance spirit.

Seriously though, take a look at these images of Japanese ghosts:

 

 

And lo and behold, Okiku:

 

 

Verses the title character from the Ring:

Otim

Clearly this was a Japanese-inspired story, yet it somehow centered around a very blonde, very American working-mom reporter who goes and sees a bunch of other American people about this girl and there’s a creepy video and also horses. And a lot of stuff after that makes no sense.

-Deep breath- RANT TIME!!!

Like what time period is this supposed to be in? Samara’s mom wears very old style clothes and so does Samara, but Mr. Morgan (the adoptive dad) is still alive long enough to be interviewed and then kill himself in a SUPER over-dramatic staging. Samara loves her mommy but hates her daddy because she’s psychic and he doesn’t understand and so forces her to sleep in the barn, and yet it’s the mom who kills her for absolutely no reason. Why? Shock value? And if they lived on an island, why the hell did the mom bring her out to that well in the woods on the mainland? Just to dramatically murder her? Who recorded the creepy video and why, because Mr. Morgan seemed to be aware that it exists, so who put it together? I am so confused.  This movie was good, but frankly raised way more questions than it answered.

GSzj

-exhales-

Now that that long ramble has been gotten out of the way, I can get back to the book by saying that it immediately answered my setting question: Ring is set in Japan.

This cultural shift creates both positives and negatives for my reaction to the book as an American reader. First of all, it settles in way better overall. If my long an annoying rant above did not convince you, sorry, but this story was frankly made to unfold in Japan because otherwise the paranormal images do not make sense. However, it caused a rift for me between myself and the main character. Asakawa, a Japanese reporter, is the main, and he has a wife and daughter for whom he claims he cares very deeply and always has:

He couldn’t stand the thought of his family alone and terrified in their little condo. As they walked down the gangway, Ryuji asked: ‘… Do a wife and kid really mean that much?’ … Asakawa couldn’t help but laugh as he replied, ‘You’ll find out, one of these days.’ (165-6)

And yet the funny thing is… I don’t believe him. The book is peppered with uncomfortable jabs at women, some of which show how little he genuinely cares about the family he claims to adore:

Asakawa was lost in thought, and didn’t want to be bothered. He wished his wife would act like her name, which meant ‘quiet.’ The best way to seal a woman’s mouth was not to reply. (47)

There are also pretty casual, joking conversations about whether or not a woman would want to be raped because certainly no one would want to die a virgin, and the driving concept that not being able to bear children would drive a woman practically insane. There’s also the best friend, Ryuji, who brags multiple times about how he has raped women.

This is where I’m not sure how to react. Because frankly, I hate the way these guys talk about and to women, but I’m not sure if they were just trying to uphold a cultural expectation for them as men. Is that something that I am more sensitive to as an American reader, or perhaps something that was (literally) lost in translation? Could very well be. But I still don’t appreciate it and when Asakawa is racing against time in an effort to save himself and his family, I just can’t believe his concern for them is genuine. especially because he doesn’t seem to appreciate them a whole lot more once everything has gone down.

Besides the setting and main characters, the basis of the story is essentially the same as the film only with more explanation and more motivation provided. Asakawa is trying to figure out why his niece and three of her friends died, under mysterious circumstances and with terrified expressions on their faces, at exactly the same time and on the same day. In the book the paranormal is presented as an option right away, which allows the story to begin moving a lot faster. As we start to learn the origins of “Samara,” whose actual name is Sadako, there are blessed explanations given for everything that the movie was inconsistent about: WHY is there a film recorded, WHO recorded it, WHY is this woman so angry about everything, WHERE did her powers come from, and why oh WHY was she there at that well in the wilderness? Literally everything that the movie had me wondering about, the book wrapped up. I didn’t necessarily love every single one of the explanations, but at least they were there.

The iconic video is also WAY better in the book. Like by a million times. The viewer actually sees Sadako’s memories and experiences all of her senses, which is way creepier and cooler than a random montage of slightly odd pictures such as ladders falling over and fingernails being broken.

This is definitely a slow building horror that is more about putting together pieces of a puzzle than it is about being scared, so if you’re looking to be jumping and startled out of your seat, I wouldn’t say this has the pow of the film. Although honestly, the film didn’t have that much “pow” either. I mean, by the time we got to this scene

EkSN

so little had happened that my reaction was nothing less than:

6B3H

That was my favorite part of the movie by far, so I was pretty excited to see how the book would address this creepy culmination.

Aaaaand let me just say that I was not the happiest of campers:

The cheeks were yellowish, dried and cracked, and hair was falling out in clumps to reveal brown scabs. … The face in the mirror was none other than his own, a hundred years in the future. Even [SPOILER] hadn’t known it would be so terrifying to meet himself transformed into someone else. (264-5)

Look, I get that this ties in with the theme of Sadako being persecuted as a type of monster or object, she never gets to be seen as a person, and in the end the people who saw the video that contains her memories get to experience the same thing when they see themselves as rotting corpses. Poetic justice, sure, but at the same time… just a bit eh for a horror ending as it doesn’t really have anything to do with Sadako the character.

Overall, would I recommend this book? Yeah. I’d be interested to find out what other female readers thought of it. Were the less than savory treatments of women something you could forgive? Was it just a cultural difference? And was this classic creepfest freaky enough for you? If you watched the film, how do you think they compare?

4 of 5 stars.

REVIEW: Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

I have a full list of books I plan on reviewing here, not to mention updates on my writing and my next projects, but I just finished a book that infuriated me so much that I need to rant about it now in order to literally exorcise my fury.

That book is Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross.

I understand that some books are hard to classify and bleed over different genres, but when the blurb advertises a book as centering around the death of woman -murder or suicide? That is the question- and two detectives trying to solve what happened to her, I expect something of a murder mystery.

Never have I been so wrong.

Let’s start at the beginning though. There are three central male characters in this book: David Pepin, whose wife Alice is the one that turns up dead from a peanut allergy exposure; Doctor-turned-detective Sam Sheppard, who was once on trial for the murder of his own wife and is now somehow part of the police force; and Ward Hastroll, another police detective helping Sheppard with the investigation.

You know how you want to do that thing where you read a book and invest emotionally in the characters, getting to know them for both the good and the bad? Well, scratch that here because each and every one of these men is an absolute disgusting pig. It’s like this book is out to prove that all men are inhuman monsters. Think you’ll at least root for the women, then? HA! The women are a stereotype: every one of them absolutely needs men, to the point where they ruin their lives for them in extreme degrees -we’ll get into that in a second- but the women are also batshit crazy, following their emotions to act out levels of insanity that nearly kill them unless -surprise surprise- the calm headed male is there to save them. And how do they communicate with the guys they supposedly love? They don’t. They just whine “You don’t get it!” and stalk off angrily at the flip of a switch. Even highschoolers would get frustrated with these women:

‘Don’t touch me!’ she said, and sobbed harder. ‘All right,’ he said, but just stood there. When she continued to cry, he picked up his jacket from the chair and put it on. ‘Where are you going?’ she said. ‘To get some dinner.’ ‘You’re just going to leave me here?’ ‘If you can’t tell me what’s bothering you, yes.’ She sat up and turned towards him. Her mascara, streaked down her cheeks, gave her a wild look. ‘Don’t you underSTAND?’ she said. ‘It’s a wedding. And I have nothing to WEAR’ (310).

The first character we have to deal with is Pepin. There’s not much to say here: he is suspected of murdering his wife even though he claims he didn’t do it. He claims he loved her. And I guess of all of them he does get the closest to showing love for her… if you don’t mind the way that he cheats, constantly shames her for trying to get her weight under control because it suits his sexual fancy to have her overweight to the point of obesity, and is just generally a whiny person because she doesn’t drop everything to do what HE wants to do. She leaves for awhile and isn’t there to entertain him? Well well, we have a problem:

But this stunt wasn’t funny anymore! They had never spent such a long stretch apart, and although he didn’t miss his wife AT ALL and was still very, VERY glad she’d decided to take this break or hiatus, the thing that was driving him crazy about her little experi-vacation, or her disappearance of self-discovery, was that he had no idea what to do with all of this goddamn time! (379).

Such a shame when your wife isn’t there to entertain you and you’re tired of screwing the mistress from your work. Such. A. Problem.

After this we get to meet Hastroll. Although he is the least written about character, he is by far and large the most screwed up. He is presented initially as a saint: his wife is depressed and has not gotten out of bed for five months, so he takes care of her. Awww, right? Awwwww until you get to the point where he literally fantasies about raping a woman (77-8) and then actually does rape his wife. No joke: he gets her hopped up on meds and alcohol, then rapes her while she’s unconscious and lies about it to her the next morning… multiple times. And he is 100% fine with this, even stating that he is satisfied by this arrangement.  To make this whole scenario worse, he begins to physically starve and mentally abuse her in an attempt to get her out of bed, nearly killing her in the process. But why, you might ask, is she in bed in the first place? Well it turns out, she felt like he wasn’t noticing her enough, so she got into bed and decided to lay there until he appreciated her. So once he cries about how it’s like she’s not there anymore, “getting” how important she is in his life, THEN  she gets up and everything is better.

Hold up.

You’re telling me that this woman left her job, laid in bed for five months straight, became completely dependent on her rapey husband, and almost allowed herself to be killed just to get a guy to pay attention to her?

Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me.

Oh but it’s okay, guys, because in one of his creepy rape sessions he knocked her up, so that makes them a happy family! Right? Riiiiight? Haha, bite me. I’ve seen happy families and I will never believe that this is one.

And now we get to Sheppard. An ungodly amount of time is devoted to this guy, explaining his whole life’s story and exploring the marriage he had with his wife, Marilyn, who was found murdered. Did he murder her, as we are led to believe could be possible? Well… we don’t ever get to find out! Yup. You get to read pages and pages of literal verbal shit for nothing. He has so many problems… he’s in love with his wife, but he has a hot coworker that he’s sleeping with! Oh my goodness, the dilemma.  His wife, Marilyn, is almost worse because she knows how disgusting he is and she does nothing about it because, after all, it is a woman’s job to wait quietly until her husband is ready to come back and fulfill her existence once again:

She knew. She ALWAYS knew. He smiled humbly. From the minute she came out here, and probably long before, she knew that he’d see Susan. She knew and forgave him from the outset, but that was only part of what she meant. The rest was this: she was waiting. If this was to be their end, so be it. If this was just another of his flings, that was fine. She, meanwhile, would wait for him to come around. He might cut her loose; he might embrace her. But she wouldn’t end them. She would wait. She loved him, would give them another chance- and that was final (316).

Even when he does go back to her, he refuses to admit that his affair is his problem:

Marilyn shook her head. … ‘You make it sound like it’s me.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s us’ (339).

Of course she needs to take her share of the blame for her husband’s long string of affairs! After all, if she were doing her wifely duty and keeping him pleased, his dick wouldn’t lead him elsewhere! Come on, guys aren’t really like this. They’re human and can think. Not every single man is going to inevitably cheat, which this book would have you doubting.

You don’t need to be a feminist to see the problem with these people. This is not how humans treat each other. This is not right. These are terrible awful people. But maybe we’re supposed to learn from these horrible awfuls, you might be thinking. Maybe we’re supposed to see that treating each other this way will end in divorce, murder, and ultimately loneliness.

Wanna know a secret? And by secret, I mean spoiler.

We don’t.

The ending of this book surprises you by showing that everything we’ve experienced wasn’t even real. No lessons are learned. No one becomes a better person. Turns out that there was no murder at all: Alice died from complications in a weight loss surgery. All that time we spent with Sheppard and Hastroll, learning their backstories and looking at their marriages, didn’t even matter. None of it did. It’s the biggest backhand to the face you could ever receive as a reader.

Even the writing isn’t enough to save this one. The prose is decent, but Ross seems to be determined to only use that ability to describe sex scenes a la Fifty Shades of Grey. Maybe you’re cool with reading erotica, but I’m not, so whenever one of those scenes came up, usually once or twice a chapter, I would just skip ahead.

But then it became three or four times a chapter.

And then essentially every other page.

As a human being with a gag reflex, I was pretty displeased. As a reader I was further disgruntled because the additional sex scenes showed a lack of story planning talent from the author. Don’t know how to wrap up your story? Let’s distract the audience by having a hot scene with the mistress! Don’t know how to come down from that? Let’s have the guy go home and immediately his wife just demands that she’s gotta have it! It just pushes the climax of the novel back further and further, because I honestly think he didn’t know how to end it. And the lukewarm conclusion proves this exactly right.

If you are a woman, a reader of quality, or just a normal human being who doesn’t wish destruction upon other people and your own mind, then avoid this book. Give it to enemies only.

1 of 5 stars. Actually, no stars. Negative stars.

WRITING: The Journey to Self-Publication

It has been a whirlwind couple of weeks as far as my latest writing project is concerned, and it’s about time I got everything caught up on here!

My new collection of short stories, Restless: A Year of Ghost Stories is releasing on May third, aka world paranormal day. Although the process of bringing a project to life via self publishing is rewarding and incredible, it’s also insane and seems to never end. I want to outline a few of the challenges and processes here and bring you all up to date on this journey!

Pro Point: Control over visuals.

We all know that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and that no serious reader does so.

We also all know that the above statement is a lie.

Although a cover is not an indication of the quality of writing inside, it tells us something about the mood of the piece inside. I always think of it as functioning the same way as a choice of outfit… I give off a very different vibe now, sitting here in my Batman pajama bottoms and a Bride of Chucky t-shirt, than I will tomorrow when I’m dressed in business casual to teach. In the same way, the right outfit for a book can either call to or ward off the target audience, so it’s important to make sure that it’s just right.

With that being said, I love having complete control of my cover and being able to make sure that it is exactly the way I want it to be. This is the second time I’ve worked with the Jayme Twins to develop a cover, and I’m in love with what they did. The ghostly woman gives off just the right mix of creepiness and class, and I think that she speaks well to what the collection is all about.

Con Complaint: Self advertising.

Unless you have a million followers already on social media, it’s going to take a lot of effort to get your work out in front of your audience. A traditional publishing house has the connections, know-how, and most importantly the funds to get their clients’ books onto shelves all around the country and into the attention of ideal readers.

When you’re on your own, you really need to pick and choose where you invest your advertising money so that you can stretch it as far as possible.  This means you need to do a lot more research and (probably) call in any favors you might possible have accumulated over the years!

Pro Point: In charge of your own editing.

Personally, I think that editing is one of the most important stages that a project can go through. It’s about so much more than just checking grammar and watching for typos, although plenty of that comes with the process. It’s also about making sure that the characters are on point, the flow is great, and the moral is clearly established.

As someone who believes fullheartedly in the idea that writing (and therefore, reading) is a spiritual act that can connect us to the world around us and to higher thinking and feeling, I am very choosy about the morals that I want to convey. I want every project to say something, not just serve as a form of entertainment (though it should definitely do that, too!)

When you are your own editor, you are able to make sure that the moral you’re striving for is there, front and center. You are able to make sure that it is the star and that your audience will get the mood and story you planned out.

Con Complaint: In charge of your own editing.

What’s that, you say? The same thing can be a complaint and a preference? Well, yes. As much as I love being able to control aspects of my own editing, it takes a long time being the only one to edit your entire project. For my first book, Think Again, it wasn’t so bad. That one was only a hundred and fifty pages, after all. But the new project I’ve completed, Restless: A Year of Ghost Stories, is over three hundred pages. After about a hundred or so pages of editing, you tend to start wishing that you could have another set of eyes looking through everything.

When you have another editor looking at your work, you gain outside perspective, new eyes better suited to catch mistakes, and (hopefully) honest ideas about how things can be made better. This can be solved by hiring a proficient editor, but see the last con point about money problems when self publishing, or by finding a truly excellent and experienced proof reader who is willing to comb through everything.

Either Way: Pride and Joy.

No matter how the book gets there or how much time and money goes into its creation, there is nothing like the feeling of seeing your work completed and in book form. If you end up getting there through self publishing, great! If you end up getting there through traditional publishing, great! Either way, the final product always ends up being worth it.

REVIEW: Haunted in Hollywood: The Adventures of Loey Lane

So first things first. There are approximately three reasons why you might be thinking about purchasing this book:

1) You are a fan of ghost stories.
2) You are a fan of murder mysteries.
3) You are a fan of Loey Lane.

If anything other than the third one applies to you, then buyer beware. This might not be the book you’re looking for.

Loey Lane is the author and main character of this book, but the most important thing to know about her is that she is a YouTube blogger who is famous for paranormal storytimes (reading scary stories), makeup tutorials, body positivity, and general haunted discussions. If you are interested in getting an idea about who she is, you can check out this video of her unboxing a crate of mystery haunted items. I enjoy her paranormal videos, because if you know me you know that I love all things ghosts and haunted and creepy. So when I heard that she was releasing a book, I knew I would read it.

Let’s get one thing out in the open right now: if you are not a fan of Loey Lane, this book is going to make zero sense to you. It won’t be clear why she’s stopping to talk about interactions with her fans or why she’s always saying “Hello, my loves,” to her camera. I mean sure, you could figure it out, and a more skilled author might introduce it, but this book is not meant to do that. It’s assuming that you’re already a fan, that you know who Loey is so well that you hear her voice in your head as you read this. You’re thrown right into the story without any character development whatsoever because her channel is the development. So if you don’t know Loey, I think it’s safe to say don’t even bother with this book.

The concept is that Loey goes to a Marilyn Monroe themed hotel in Hollywood to shoot a Marilyn inspired photoshoot. With her being the only plus sized model there, you can easily see where her body-acceptance message comes in. As much as I love that theme and think it’s important, it could have been inserted a little less obviously than by having fans run up to Loey and gush over how great she makes them feel, which in turn makes her appreciate herself again in spite of feeling out of place. Good concept, but it just comes off as being more “fans love me” than “love yourself genuinely.”

For all the talk about being a strong woman and not objectifying yourself, DAMN is there a lot of talk about “OMG HOT GUY, YUM YUM YUM COME SAVE ME WITH YOUR TIGHT PANTS, BABY.” If written in an ironic way this could be really hilarious, but no. It’s genuine. She meets up with twin ghost hunting brothers named Damien and Dante Grimm.

Yes, really.

Damien is apparently so hot he could heat your coffee with his pinkie, but the interactions between he and Loey will have you tasting curdled milk, instead. Whenever she is around him she devolves into a slavering idiot and jumps so quickly into sexual tension that you just want to gag:

He held out a detector. ‘It stands for Environmental Detection Instrument.’

I exaggerated an eye roll. ‘That helps.’

Genuine humor spread over his face. My throat tightened at the beauty of it. … Unlike most men, when I asked a question, he didn’t look at me as if I was some dumb blonde. Instead he took his time to explain (127-8).

But didn’t he just… laugh at you for asking a question? Sorry, but that’s not such a gentleman. And yet she must believe him, because on the very next page:

I stared into his eyes, seeing only my reflection. My gaze moved to his lips, so soft yet so demanding…

He stepped closer, lifting his finger to trace it along my cheek. ‘You’re playing with fire here.’ I closed my eyes, thinking he might try and kiss me. Instead of a kiss, he dropped his hand, eyes hot. ‘Go home before you get burned,’ he whispered. ‘Again.’ … I picked up my iPhone and then headed back inside the bungalow. I paused outside the door. ‘Damien?’

‘Yeah?’ he all but growled.

‘I’ll see you in the morning’ (129).

Ugg, this guy. Can I murder him? Please? If there had been just a little more effort put into developing these two characters (maybe, I don’t know, instead of all the talk about Loey’s super annoying friends who run around and brunch and sleep with each other without it meaning anything and in a word do everything we expect from rich bloggers) then maybe I would have rooted for Loey and Damien. But having a Dick Grayson level ass in a pair of tight jeans and alternating between laughing at women and growling at them does not a leading man make.

Thank goodness a murder happens.

That’s a cruel statement, but the murder twist is what finally kicks this book into gear. And I’ll give credit: I really did wonder who did it, and I really REALLY didn’t expect the twist at the end. I was very happy that the murderer wasn’t one of the people I had suspected. What a brilliant and much-needed turn for the better.

The ghost aspect was kind of shoved to the backburner, which was a bummer because I love paranormal stories and that’s the reason I follow Loey in the first place. Skip the next section if you don’t want spoilers….

SPOILERS
SPOILERS
SPOILERS
SPOILERS(The ghost is Marilyn Monroe. Not a unique ghost, just Marilyn, who appears in her signature skirt-clutching pose and a cloud of pink mist. Unoriginal. Sorry, Loey. Meanwhile the “malevolent spirit” is fake, nothing actually paranormal, just something that is invented somehow using “large magnetics and power sources” (205). No joke, that’s the only explanation we’re given.)
ENDSPOILERS
ENDSPOILERS
ENDSPOILERS

 
Overall, this book was about what I expected coming from a blogger who isn’t first and foremost a writer. Hot guys? Okay yeah, I guess I saw that coming. Underdeveloped ghosts? Disappointing, but again, not to be unexpected considering Loey’s love of M.M. and her experience in a certain hotel suite, which obviously served as an inspiration for this story. Pretty interesting murder story? Nice! Unexpected twist that I didn’t see coming? Bravo. Loved that.

But despite all the pluses and negatives, there is one really atrocious problem with this book, one so glaring that it made me want to die inside even more than Mr. Growly Tight Jeans did:

Basic. Writing. Errors.

So I understand that Loey is not a professional writer, but this is a legitimately published book, as in I bought this off a shelf at Barnes and Noble, not through her personal site or anything. With that being said, it is glaringly obvious that this book never, ever, ever crossed paths with an editor. Or if it did, that editor needs to be fired.

I started keeping track of the writing problems after awhile because I thought I must be imagining them for there to be so many. Nope. I’ll just let a highlight role speak for itself:

• “I stepped forward, as in a trace, reaching out, unable to stop myself” (125). That word should be trance.

• “Worst still, he knew it too” (128). The phrase is worse still, not worst.

• “‘Not that,’ I bit out. ‘The other thing’” (139). To bite is to take something into your mouth, not push something out. The phrase should be “I spit out.”

• “The elevator dinged and I stepped off, still intent on the camera. Unfortunately, I ran, literally, into a man carrying two matching black duffel bags” (147). There is no mention of her running because she was simply stepping. So why the use of the word “literally”? This is a small continuity error that an editor should have caught.

• “And how June too had broken his heart” (175). -> For your consideration: And how June, too, had broken his heart. Or: And how June had also broken his heart. OR: And how June had broken his heart, as well. Saying “June too” sounds like “too” is her surname.

Again, I don’t think that Loey should be held completely responsible for these. After all, she’s a hobbyist writer who just made her first foray into the written word. For being what it is, this book was completely enjoyable and chances are if you are a fan of Loey you will like it. I think that she just needs a solid editor who will read this with a critical eye and spruce up her writing. Her enthusiasm for her work is clear, but for her next book it is an absolute must that she invest in a little assistance from someone who knows who she is and what she’s trying to say but will also be straightforward about what to change.

2.5 stars.

REVIEW: Girl in Snow

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka. Published by Simon and Schuster, 2017. 357 pages.

I am used to the first sentence of a book being unique, interesting, or beautiful, as authors always want to start off on the right foot with their audiences. But I think it’s very possible that Girl in Snow has my favorite opening line ever:

When they told him Lucinda Hayes was dead, Cameron thought of her shoulder blades and how they framed her naked spine, like a pair of static lungs (Kukafka, 4).

I think this book has been misinterpreted a lot, if the reviews on Goodreads are any indication. The first line of the description on the inside jacket (“When a beloved high schooler named Lucinda Hayes is found murdered…”) gives the initial impression that this is going to be a murder mystery, and the readers who picked up this book expecting just that have been (and will continue to be) disappointed. A few lines later, the description tells what this is really about: “In the aftermath of the tragedy, these three indelible characters – Cameron, Jade, and Russ – must each confront their darkest secrets in an effort to find solace, the truth, or both.” This is a character study about the reactions that some very different people have to one tragedy. This is not a whodunnit mystery, and readers looking for something like that will be frustrated by trying to impose that story arc onto Girl in Snow. With that being said, if you are looking for a mesmerizing dive into someone’s mind, this is the novel for you.

Now, on to the book itself.

This novel is divided into three different perspectives, as mentioned in the above quote from the blurb. We start and end with Cameron, which is fitting as he is the single most intriguing character here. But the other two – Jade, an angry teenaged girl, and Russ, a seasoned cop stuck in a bad marriage – are no less interesting or well developed.

Jade is typical, but by no means does she become boring. In what I find to be a stroke of particular genius, Kukafka is able to have Jade be the teenaged girl who never says what she’s really thinking and at the same time tell us EXACTLY what Jade is thinking. She does this by interspersing Jade’s narrative with small screenplay scenes from a script titled “Things You Want to Say but Can’t Without Being a Dick.” In these scenes, Jade, in her alter-ego as Celly, rewrites scenarios we’ve seen her actually experience in the course of the novel, only this time they go the way she wants them to and she says everything that’s on her mind. In this way, Kukafka brilliantly avoids the problem that so many writers of angry teen girls fall into: the characters become so wrapped up in their anger and lies that they refuse to be open with anyone, including the audience. We get to know not only who Jade wants to be but also who she really is. As a huge plus, Jade is not one of the characters who is upset and dismissive of everyone simply because she’s that age. We get to see real motivations from her, motivations that explain who she is and why she says what she says. And when it comes to Lucinda, we get a refreshing perspective through Jade’s eyes, because Jade doesn’t canonize her the way that people tend to do to a victim after a tragic loss. Jade is adamant about who Lucinda was: the “perfect” girl, one who got more jobs than Jade and took Jade’s crush for her own. But Jade’s belief that she is being somehow contacted by Lucinda and her own feelings of guilt for her potential involvement in Lucinda’s tragedy give her a believable reason to help solve the murder without compromising her opinions on the dead girl. When I started reading Jade, I wanted to roll my eyes because I was expecting yet another teen emo girl stereotype. And while Jade is not necessarily anything we haven’t seen before, the way she is told is so open and so brilliant that I was thoroughly impressed.

Russ also seems like something of a stereotype character… tough cop who is involved in solving a murder, nothing more. But it turns out that he is much more intertwined in this story than that. We get to find out about his wife, Ines, whose brother is the night janitor who found Lucinda’s body. Russ’ distrust of his brother-in-law is so extreme that he even suggests him as a suspect, much to the detriment of his already strained marriage. We also find out that Russ’ old partner was Cameron’s father, the cop who was arrested for an unspeakable crime. Although Russ adds a much-needed break from the teenaged mindset, and his struggles to open up to his wife are real and relatable, I still found him to be the least interesting part of this novel. I was very intrigued by his friendship with Cameron’s dad because it opened up the question of just how much is owed to a friend and how that debt should be repaid, but I personally found that question to be a little undermined when the idea of a sexual attraction was introduced between them. As the one perspective that really asked “how is friendship changed by tragedy,” it was a bit of a bummer when sexual heat was tacked on there almost as an afterthought. Everything else dealt with romance, in this novel. Please let friendship have its day, too.

Cameron is the son of said notorious cop. Cameron looks just like his dad and seemed to share more in common with the defamed parent than he does with his devoted mother, including some less than savory tendencies. This would be his stalking of Lucinda Hayes. Every night he goes outside and pretends to be a statue, standing in the shadows so that he can observe everyone without them seeing him. The most intense object of his vigilance is Lucinda, whom he believes himself to be in love with. Of course, when Lucinda is found murdered, the entire town suspects that Cameron did it in a very like-father-like-son way, but Cameron is so incredibly sweet that it is impossible to believe he would be involved in something like this.

At least, that’s the case for the first half of the novel.

I think Cameron was the most interesting and unique character in this novel, and I think about him post-read more than any of the others. His whole existence is bound up in answering the question of how much a person is defined by their parents, and his tortured life is very well written. However, towards the end of the book, he starts to take twists that I had not expected, and which I didn’t entirely appreciate. His relationship with Lucinda starts to be described as very sexual, which makes the audience wonder if he really did do it. While I appreciate the twist in my own perspective as a reader, it could have been done without the sexual addition. Maybe I’m showing my age, but I just don’t want to read about kids rearranging their dicks while staring at a girl through her window. It takes away what Cameron has been telling us the entire book: that he loves Lucinda in a pure, almost childlike way. When he breaks into her house during her wake, steals her dress, and tries to put it on, I was thoroughly lost. Is he trying to become her? I thought he loved admiring her from afar? Cameron’s character became disjointed in the latter half of the book, turning almost entirely different from his character in the first half. This time could have been put to better use explaining why he loved Lucinda, because we never get a real reason. The closest we get is a halfhearted attempt at saying that he doesn’t even understand it, himself:

Cameron had not chosen Lucinda. She was simply brighter than anyone else. And Cameron’s Collections – Lucinda had planted them, and they’d grown and made him better. He liked her tan body and her ski-jump nose. And Lucinda had that pull. Like she’d unraveled his intestines, tied them to his bedpost, and was tugging him back there, inch by painstaking inch (173).

I’m sorry, but this is not enough. When did they first meet? Was she kind to him? Why her, of all the girls? Why does she shine brighter?

Answering those questions could have shed some much-needed light on the character of Lucinda. I expected her to become more of a figurehead than an actual character, because she’s dead and can’t speak for herself, but honestly there still could have been something more. All we really know about Lucinda is that she somehow was “brighter” in Cameron’s eyes and that she slept with people a lot…. Like dang, this girl is only fifteen? Kids these days.

I think that the ending was satisfying. The answer of “who killed her” is given to us, and we see an appropriate conclusion for all our characters. But it did feel a little rushed in moments, such as when the murder weapon is talked about being found and is only given a sentence or two. Considering that we spent so much time hearing about Cameron sneaking into houses and trying on dead girl clothes, you’d think that we could have a little bit more effort put into the finale.

Regardless of which character is speaking, the prose is brilliant and inspired. There was not one dull sentence in this book, and I would have been willing to keep turning the pages forever just to get more of it. I mean really, just read this description of a setting, for crying out loud:

The Thornton’s toddler was wailing in the pew behind them, shrill and unrelenting – both parents tried desperately to calm her. Cameron stared at Ronnie, sandwiched between his parents’ backs, flakes of dandruff snowing across his wiry shoulders and down his crinkly black shirt. There was a vase of orchids next to Lucinda’s photo; the petals blossomed up from a single stem, then arched back toward the ground in surrender. And the eye of the flower (the stamen, which held the ovaries and the ovule, where the pollen was produced) — looked like a human skull made of silk (191).

Damn!

All in all, my complaints are minor in comparison to the positives about this book. We really get to dig deep into these characters’ minds, including their pasts, presents, and hopeful futures. No stone is left unturned. We get complete access to their minds, and I am finding it more and more rare to discover an author who is willing to unearth their characters so fully. It’s brilliant and haunting, it just gets caught up in itself a little bit too much towards the end, and considering that it’s an almost 400 page book, that’s pretty impressive to be its only real fault.

4.5 stars.