Category Archives: Horror

Into Bones Like Oil

Horror novel about searching for and escaping the dead

Giveaway details at the bottom of the review

This is a very special book because it was one of the several lots that I won earlier this year in the #AuthorsforFireys Twitter auctions to raise money for the Australian bushfires. I know the multiple award-winning Canberra author, whose books I have reviewed previously and who has been a guest on the Lost the Plot Podcast, and the pack she was offering was a very exciting one. She was offering a copy of her book together with an interactive, multi-sensory experience for the reader to enjoy while reading the book. After I won, we met up shortly afterwards on another very stormy day (which seems to be a theme!) and had the exchange over drinks. I couldn’t wait to set everything up so I could spend a Sunday evening savouring the book and all the items that came with it.

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“Into Bones Like Oil” by Kaaron Warren is a horror novella about a woman called Dora who arrives at The Anglesea, an old boarding house by the coast. The house is run by the friendly but unsettling Roy, and is full of many other guests, some of whom Dora only sees glimpses of at breakfast. It’s a short walk to the beach and an old shipwreck. At first, Dora feels that the guests appear to be all connected by the fact that they are escaping something. Many of them sleep for days without emerging from their rooms. However, the longer she stays at The Anglesea, the more she grows to realise that people don’t seem to ever leave The Anglesea, and neither did the ship’s passengers.

This is an incredible eerie story about guilt and greed, and how those made vulnerable by pain can easily be exploited by others. Dora is a great character, and the more we learn about her past, the more we understand how she ended up at a place like The Anglesea. Although it is a novella, there is plenty packed in and Warren’s writing is complex and insightful. This book seeps into you and lingers long after you finish reading.

Warren is an incredibly vivid writer, and this book really lends itself to enjoying alongside a sensory pack. If you want to make your own pack, here is what you will need:

  • Page 1 – key
  • Page 3 – clock & battery
  • Page 4 – a seashell (to listen to)
  • Page 8 – a scarf
  • Page 15 – a glass and a shot of vodka
  • Page 31 – paints
  • Page 32 – curry
  • Page 48 – striped shirt & Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Nocturama CD
  • Page 52 – Cheezles
  • Page 65 – soap
  • Page 69 – perfume
  • Page 72 – baked beans
  • Page 74 – girls’ brush

I had so much fun setting up the pack and working through it. I arranged everything clockwise in a circle. I managed to get stuck on the second item, the clock and battery, because I couldn’t quite get the battery in, but managed to wedge it in using the key. When I listened to the seashell, the effect was slightly spoiled by a jet flying over at exactly that moment, but I waited until it passed and tried again. I was a bit of a wuss with the peach-flavoured vodka, and had to mix it with lemonade after the first taste. The paints were great fun, and I was inspired to do a little painting.

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Unfortunately, because I had set everything up at once, by the time I got to the curry at page 32 it was a little lukewarm, but that was easily fixed in the microwave. Also, hilariously, the Dove brand soap had seeped into some of the other items, especially the fabric ones, so everything smelled very clean. The perfume was a really nice touch. I don’t wear much perfume, but there is something very evocative about it.

Anyway, this was an deeply unsettling book that was made all the more immersive with the sensory pack, and both are a testament to Warren’s creativity.

To pay this great experience forward, I will restock the sensory pack and give it to the first person who contacts me via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with proof of purchase of “Into Bones Like Oil”. Open to Canberrans only, and I will drop it off in a contactless way at a location of your choosing. 

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Horror, Novella, Signed Books

And the Ocean Was Our Sky

Surreal illustrated retelling of “Moby Dick”

I forgot to mention in my previous review that another major reason for me finally reading “Moby Dick” is that a friend of mine had lent me a copy of this book. I’ve read several of Patrick Ness‘ books before and I was very much looking forward to this one, but it didn’t seem right to try to read it before reading the story it is inspired by. Luckily for me, this one is much shorter.

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“And the Ocean Was Our Sky” by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Rovina Cai is an illustrated young adult novel that reimagines the classic novel “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville as told from the perspective of a whale. Narrated by a whale who styles herself as Bathsheba, the reader is set adrift in an alternative underwater world where whales have developed technology, have reclaimed the depths of the sea and have themselves become hunters. Third Apprentice in a female-only pod under the command of Captain Alexandra, Bathsheba joins the hunt for the terrifying and monstrous Toby Wick. However, when they find a human man abandoned by his crew and Bathsheba is charged with torturing him for information, her perspective on humans and the ethics of the hunt is forever changed.

This book has haunted me since I read it late last year. Ness is a beautiful writer, and he has created a strange and unsettling world for his whales to live in that are realised with Cai’s sublime illustrations. The whales live in exile, only breaching on the rarest occasions and instead relying on breather bubbles that allow them to swim almost forever underwater. Except, to the whales, they are no longer ‘under’. To them, the ocean is their sky and the air below where the men and their ships live is the Abyss. However, the whales’ world is not an easy one to live in. The pods drag around sunken ships, and their cities are built on precipices. They see themselves as hunters but really they are banished, calling themselves hunters but in reality they are just as hunted.

Toby Wick was probably the element that disturbed me the most. Ness never quite gives enough information to the reader about what exactly Toby Wick is. Going much further than Melville’s white whale, the horror of Toby Wick is in the unknown. Is he a monstrous man, is he a machine, is he some awful hybrid of both? We are never truly certain. Throughout the book, hands are a prominent motif representing the ingenuity and dexterity of, and the terror inspired by, humans.

This is a dark and at times unnerving book that does not provide the reader with many answers, but leaves them instead with a lot of questions. A very original take on a classic story.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Horror, Young Adult

Slade House

British supernatural horror novel 

I first read this author when I was 18 years old after his book “Cloud Atlas” was recommended to me by someone I was seeing at the time. I have been slowly getting to some of his other books, though his manuscript for the Future Library project is something I will probably never get to read. Anyway, I was getting to the pointy end of my 2018 reading challenge, and this book was short and sitting on my shelf so I decided it was time to read it.

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“Slade House” by David Mitchell is a horror novel set in the UK. It begins in 1979 with a teenage boy called Nathan who is dragged along by his mother to an exclusive event at a manor called Slade House. After some difficulty finding the address, and after Nathan taking some valium, they eventually find the iron door in an alleyway and make their way into the manor’s garden. Things don’t seem so bad and Nathan befriends another teen called Jonah. However, when things start becoming a little strange, Nathan finds himself unable to leave. 9 years later, a divorced police officer is investigating Slade House and disappearances that are associated with the mysterious address. 9 years later after that, a shy member of a supernatural club goes to a party at Slade House. Will the cycle continue, or will someone be able to break the circuit and see through the illusion?

This book was genuinely terrifying. I was about halfway through, in the chapter Oink Oink, and my heart was positively racing. Mitchell has a real flair for getting inside the head of a diverse cast of characters, and for conjuring empathy in his readers. Each point of view character is isolated in their own way, and Mitchell shows us that courage comes from unexpected places and to never underestimate people based on their appearance. Mitchell is also an expert in layering stories and each chapter builds on and elaborates the former, bringing the true horror of the story to the fore.

I actually don’t have much more to say about this book except that if you’re looking for a well-written and extremely unsettling horror story, look no further.

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Slade House

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery/Thriller, Uncategorized

The Grief Hole

Award-winning modern horror on everyday evil

Although this might not seem like a Christmas book, I first bought it from the author when she was selling her books at the Beyond Q Christmas book sale that they held a couple of years ago when they were based in Curtin. I bought a copy of this book from the author, which came with a super cute little handmade Christmas cracker and a bookmark made out of stamps, and it sat on my shelf for far too long before I finally read it. Just this year though, I interviewed the author about writing horror for a Halloween special episode of my podcast, and so it was definitely time for me to give this book a read.

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“The Grief Hole” by Kaaron Warren is a horror novel about a young woman called Theresa who works as a domestic violence social worker. Theresa has a special but macabre ability: she can tell how you will most likely die. Increasingly haunted by the spirits of future death that surround her clients, she decides to start taking fate into her own hands with disastrous consequences. Traumatised, she moves away and takes up a job offer from an estranged relative whose daughter recently committed suicide. When the talented young artist’s death begin to emerge, Theresa is determined to prevent history repeating itself. However, when she discovers who exactly she is up against, Theresa is forced to examine her own motives.

This is an eerie and disturbing story that uses a thin overlay of the supernatural to explore good and evil, selfishness and selflessness in an otherwise very realistic world. Warren turns the themes of power and control inside out to examine questions of how much we determine our own futures and how much we must passively accept. She also asks whether our intentions can ever truly be pure, and whether we can ever truly know what the impact of our actions will be. Warren has a real knack for dialogue and for taking the everyday and making it horrifying. She maintains a palpable sense of unease throughout the entire book.

However, this book won’t be for everyone. Although it’s not blood-spattered, stereotypical horror it is very disturbing in its own way. I found quite a few parts of the book confronting and uncomfortable, and this is a book that lingers after you have read it. It is intentionally ambiguous and the reader will often feel like they are walking through a heavily rainy landscape unable to clearly see where they have been or where they are going.

A unique and unsettling take on the horror genre by a local Canberra author, it is not surprising why this book won so many awards and if you’re looking for something a little darker than normal, this would be a great book to check out.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Horror

Frankenstein in Baghdad

Modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” set in Iraq

Content warning: war, violence, fake blood

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“Frankenstein in Baghdad” by Ahmed Saadawi is a horror novel that puts a modern spin on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” by reimagining the creation of the monster shortly after the US invasion of Iraq. The story is set in a neighbourhood in Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq, where an old woman called Elishva lives alone waiting for her son Daniel (whom everyone, including her daughters, believes is dead) to return home. She has two rather unsavoury neighbours: Faraj and Hadi. Faraj, a real estate agent, hopes to buy Elishva’s large, historical and largely undamaged home. Hadi, a junk dealer, hopes to buy her vast collection of antiques. While waiting for Elishva to finally give up her possessions, Hadi has been engaging in a strange compulsion to collect body parts after the many explosions in Baghdad. When the enormous corpse goes missing, up-and-coming journalist Mahmoud investigates the escalating violence and strange murders that start occurring in the city.

This book started out very intriguingly with a report from a mysterious committee that makes recommendations in relation to the activities of the Tracking and Pursuit Department and the arrest of an author who had prepared a 250 page story. The book then starts from there. Thematically, this was an incredibly interesting story that uses the corpse made up of disparate body parts as a shrewd metaphor for the war in Iraq. Saadawi presents a scathing look at the way war becomes self-sustaining through corruption, greed, revenge and desensitisation. Mahmoud provides an interesting perspective as a character who straddles ethical and unethical journalism. Jonathan Wright’s translation from the Arabic feels smooth and nuanced.

However, I struggled with some parts of this book. There were very few female characters in this novel and the women who were featured seemed to fall within the tropes of crazy cat lady, ice queen and replacement love interest. None of the women have much agency or personality, and even the violence in the streets and due to bombing mostly focuses on men being killed. This is also partly a horror novel, and while the symbolism behind the corpse is very strong, the mechanics of how he gains and sustains life are very disturbing. I think I probably found the chapters with Mahmoud the least engaging. Despite the fact that there was probably a good reason for his story being largely separate from the corpse’s antics in Elishva’s neighbourhood, every time the story returned to him it felt jarring and dull.

Anyway, this isn’t an easy topic or an easy book, but as my ARC wasn’t a complete copy (which I didn’t realise until I reached the end), I was hooked enough to buy an eBook version and finish the last few dozen pages on my eReader. This is my first Iraqi novel, and it was a vivid and visceral insight into the impact of the war on a city.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Horror, Magic Realism