Sunday, 29 March 2020

Danielle Vega's Terrifying Novel 'The Haunted' ★★★★☆

2020 has not been a good year for me and books. I consumed so many brilliant books last year, both in print and audible format but I find it very difficult at the moment to concentrate on anything. That would explain why I've given up more books than I've completed this year and in times like this I look to YALSA's Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers list.

The Haunted by Danielle Vega | Superior Young Adult Fiction | Book Review

Danielle Vega's The Haunted caught my eye straight away. It's a young adult novel about a teen who escapes a traumatic experience in Philly and moves to Drearford, upstate New York with her family. They move into the derelict Steele House which her property-flipping parents see as a chance to renovate and call home. The only problem is that this is a house that has no intention of becoming a home.

The Haunted by Danielle Vega | Superior Young Adult Fiction | Book Review There are many stories woven together in The Haunted, including what happened in the house, what happened after that and what happened to our protagonist Hendricks in Philly. There is also a killer twist which I liked a lot, even though I guessed it very early in the book.

In fact, I realise that there wasn't much in The Haunted that was unique or original but it grabbed my attention at a time when I very much needed a book to do that and it was very, very scary. Also, I'd be over the moon if I watched a horror film with this much plot. There were some problems with continuity and timing, for instance talk of habits and routines when by my calculations, the whole book took place in three weeks and there was also an entirely unnecessary love triangle.

But honestly? I enjoyed The Haunted a lot and couldn't put it down, which is a million miles away from the eight or so books I've given up on this year. I also enjoyed the exploration of themes such as bullying, gaslighting and PTSD in the novel.

For breaking my reader's-block and scaring the life out of me, I give The Haunted an excellent four out of five stars. I'd recommend it to fans of psychological and paranormal horror and anyone seeking a good ghost story to distract them from the current state of the world.

★★★★☆

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Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Horror Film Review: The Dare (2019) ★★★☆☆

The Dare (2019)

So here's something you probably don’t know about me: I have a cockroach phobia. I’m not talking about a simple fear or dislike but a full blown phobia and it has its roots in my childhood so in my opinion, it’s not exactly an unreasonable fear. I’ve been known to launch myself out of a toilet cubicle mid-pee on realising that the walls were streaming with roaches and have refused to eat in a restaurant because I noticed one tiny little roach on the ground in the toilets.

There are actually more ridiculous stories which I can’t share because my skin is crawling but suffice to say, I can’t go near them.

I’m only sharing this because I’ve watched a lot of horror with a multitude of creepy crawlies pulsating out of corpses and on to human beings. I’ve also been known to head straight for the Bugs section in the Natural History Museum and seek out the centipedes.

But Giles Alderson’s The Dare? It absolutely triggered my cockroach phobia, making me retch and rock myself back and forward in sheer terror.

I wish I could rate this film higher because I loved Alderson’s A Serial Killer's Guide to Life and I did wonder how well Alderson would do with pure horror.

Well I know the answer now: too well.

The Dare focuses on loving father and workaholic Jay Jackson (Bart Edwards) who suddenly finds himself locked in a room with three other people. One is in a severely life-threatening state with his skin sliced off his body in parts and his mouth sewn shut. None of the prisoners can reach each other and they must battle for food.

Richard Break as Credence - The Dare (2019)

We learn about Dominic through a series of flashbacks. Kidnapped by sadistic monster Credence (Richard Brake), he is tortured and made to believe that his family do not care enough to come looking for him.

It doesn’t take the four prisoners long to work out that they have met before and that can only mean one thing, they know who is holding them captive.

And then there is the torture. It was pretty bad. I don’t mean bad as in not good, those four deserved everything they got, I mean bad as in hectic. And there are roaches. Or other bugs that were menacing and terrifying enough to count as roaches.

If you like horror that makes you cry with terror and wish it would all just end, then you’ll love The Dare.  

Me? I'm going to need therapy. Again. I give The Dare an okay three out of five stars and recommend to fans of independent horror who are infinitely more brave than I. Although I watched it, to the end, so I guess I’m not too bad.

★★★☆☆

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Saturday, 29 February 2020

Danielle Jawando's Devastating 'And The Stars Were Burning Brightly' ★★★★★

Danielle Jawando - And The Stars Were Burning Brightly

It’s been a strange time to read And The Stars Were Burning Brightly, a book about suicide in England. While February got incrementally weirder with Brexit, Coronavirus and the tragic passing of Caroline Flack, I could be found hiding away from the world with a cup of tea and Danielle Jawando’s latest young adult novel about the suicide of a brilliant and beloved straight-A student.

Nathan’s brother Al has committed suicide. There was no warning and the only note, if you can call it that, was a drawing of Al surrounded by ominous, threatening figures while he desperately cries for help. For Al was everything to those who knew him: a talented artist, an older brother, a kind friend and a fascinated star-gazer who could tell you any one of a million factoids about space and the universe.

Yet while Al’s gaze was focused on the skies, his world was falling apart around him.

Nathan’s shock at the death of his brother knows no beginning and no end. He can’t begin to understand the reasons why but as he works through his own guilt surrounding Al’s suicide, he becomes determined to find out the reason why.

Danielle Jawando - And The Stars Were Burning BrightlyMegan was one of Al’s closest friends but you wouldn’t know it given how rarely they were seen together in public. As Megan reaches out in the wake of her grief, she finds herself in Nathan’s orbit and his search for the truth.

In a book that explores the devastation of suicide, the depths of grief, the complexity of being an LGBTIQ teen, the trickiness of social media and the ever-present scourge of bullying, there is also time for beauty and wonder as we discover Al’s writing about the universe, stars, hope and his love of art.

And The Stars Were Burning Brightly is set in Manchester, and the reader is ”proper” aware of this as Jawando has captured the local accent perfectly. I grew up not far from Manchester in Rainhill and the characters could be my cousins. While this certainly made the book feel closer to my heart, it is the source of my only (minor) complaint about the novel being the abundance of “wot” and “cos” on the pages. It’s something we see more in British YA novels than American or other countries but I definitely prefer to see proper words.

It won’t impact my rating though because I was crying big, ugly tears on a train to London as I finished this book last Saturday.

And The Stars Were Burning Brightly is a beautiful novel with lyrical writing. Despite its heavy subject matter, Jawando has captured perfectly that moment when the clouds begin to part on grief and we let life back in. It definitely made me want to grab all my loved ones and hold them close to my heart because you never know when tragedy is around the corner.

I give And The Stars Were Burning Brightly a superb five out of five stars and recommend to fans of superior British young adult fiction.

★★★★★

And The Stars Were Burning Brightly is published by Simon and Schuster Children's UK and is due out on 9 March 2020.

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Sunday, 9 February 2020

Love on the New York subway: This Train Is Being Held by Ismée Williams ★★★★☆

This Train Is Being Held by Ismée Williams | Superior Young Adult Fiction | Book Review

Of all the loves I have, New York City and trains are amongst my most enduring. When I heard about This Train Is Being Held by Ismée Williams, a story about chance encounters on the New York subway, I knew I had to read it.

What attracted me the most was the promise of a character-driven story about two Latino teens whose lives couldn't be more different. Living in an exclusive Upper East Side apartment and attending private school, Isa wants nothing more than to be a ballet dancer but her Havana-born mother wants Isa to become a doctor. She certainly doesn't want her blonde-haired, light-skinned daughter dating Latino boys.

Alex is an extremely talented Dominican-American baseball player. His parents have long split up and all his father cares about is Alex going pro. While that would certainly solve his family's financial woes, it isn't what Alex wants to do. He has a secret talent and wants to be a poet.

When Isa and Alex meet on the downtown 1 train, they can't help noticing each other. Isa remembers Alex's green eyes and good manners, while Alex notices Isa's easy rich-kid confidence. Over the course of the next three years, their encounters increase until they are irrevocably drawn into each other's lives.

Wait, what? Three years? This Train Is Being Held is a massive slow-burn of a book. There were so many times that I almost gave up on this novel because it moves very slowly - exactly as you'd imagine chance encounters on a train to move - and for the longest time it just felt like a romance but it is so much more.

This Train Is Being Held by Ismée Williams | Superior Young Adult Fiction | Book Review For the patient ones who stick with this book, and I do recommend that you do, there is the reward of an incredibly rich tapestry of themes. Alex's story focuses on racism, the prejudice he encounters because of his dark skin and the ever-present scourge of gangs. He dreams of being better, achieving at sport and becoming something but he wants to become something else too, a writer and a dreamer.

Isa has a rich, spoiled and privileged background but she wants to be a dancer and sticks to that dream despite the extremely challenging events in the book and the devastating impact of bipolar disorder on her family.

The hardest thing about This Train Is Being Held was how much Isa and Alex pushed each other away to deal with stuff that should have been shared. It was also very realistic and indicative of life in the digital age. It is so easy to ghost and block people when living in a city of millions of people but sometimes you need to let people in.

Ultimately, I loved so much about This Train Is Being Held. I loved the New York setting and want to go back so badly now. The fact that most of the story took place on trains also made the trainspotter in me extremely happy.

I tore through those last pages, holding my breath with my heart pounding out of my chest. Despite initially moving slower than a train at a red-signal, I give This Train Is Being Held an excellent four out of five stars and recommend to readers seeking diverse voices and explorations of themes such as mental illness and racism.

★★★★☆

This Train Is Being Held is published by Amulet Books and will be released on 11 February 2020.

I received an electronic copy of this book from Netgalley. In my search for superior young adult fiction, I will always provide an honest review, whether books are provided to me or purchased by me.

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Sunday, 2 February 2020

Horror Film Review: Daniel Isn't Real (2019) ★★★★★

Daniel Isn't Real | Independent Horror Review |

Imagine childhood trauma so severe that the mind splits, forever broken and compartmentalised. When Luke witnesses the aftermath of a violent murder in the same week that his father leaves, it is little surprise that he dreams up imaginary friend Daniel to help him cope. The only problem is that Daniel isn't exactly imaginary and he's also more than a little unhinged.

When Luke blames Daniel for an attempt on his mother's life - who hasn't tried to blame bad behaviour on an imaginary friend? - Luke's mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) forces him to lock Daniel in a doll house and there Daniel remains.

Daniel Isn't Real | Independent Horror Review | Mary Stuart Masterson is Claire

Thirteen years later, Luke (Miles Robbins, The X Files) is navigating life at college with its parties, classes and irritating room mates. Then trauma comes knocking on his door when his mother falls seriously ill and Luke's mind fractures again. Surely it wouldn't hurt to release Daniel?

Based on the novel In This Way I Was Saved by Brian DeLeeuw and directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer, Daniel Isn't Real chronicles Luke's heady friendship with Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and his subsequent decent into schizophrenia. Or does it?

Daniel Isn't Real is visual candy; a beautifully atmospheric film with psychedelic, smoke-filled parties, crazy art installations and the hazy allure of a classic screen actress. Luke's halcyon existence at college is contrasted with the dark, cluttered and disordered interior of his mother's home and it is ultimately this chaos which catches up with him.

Daniel Isn't Real | Independent Horror Review | Miles Robbins is Luke

Daniel Isn't Real isn't full of paranormal jump scares that make you shout out loud; it's far more chilling than that. Luke's experience, real or imagined, is deeply unsettling and very creepy. It doesn't take long for the fun to end and for the dread to seep in.

I love indie horror with a solid, coherent plot and Daniel Isn't Real certainly satisfies with it's delicate tightrope balance between schizophrenia and true horror. Of course, it's the talented cast that brings this story to life. Miles Robbins is superb as the increasingly horrified and powerless Luke. He won Best Actor at the Sitges - Catalonian International Film Festival and I'll be very surprised if he doesn't receive further accolades.

Daniel Isn't Real | Independent Horror Review | Sasha Lane is Cassie

I loved Sasha Lane (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) in her role as Luke's girlfriend Cassie. There were so many scenes that she stole but the one where she saw right through Daniel and the one at the end were phenomenal.

And then there is Daniel, who isn't real. Patrick Schwarzenegger's performance is off the charts. He stated in his New York Post interview that he based his performance on Nicolas Cage and there are definite echoes of Cage's Castor Troy (Face/Off) in Daniel. Interestingly, Daniel Isn't Real is produced by the same crowd as Cage's Mandy.

Rounding off a strong cast is Chukwudi Iwuji's excellent performance in his role as Luke’s psychiatrist Dr. Cornelius Braun and the ever-excellent Mary Stuart Masterson as Luke's mother Claire. There is a lot to love about Daniel Isn't Real and it's a lurid, technicolour nightmare. It's a lot of fun, until it isn't and you're forced to take sides.

Daniel Isn't Real | Independent Horror Review | Patrick Schwarzenegger is Daniel

I give Daniel Isn't Real a superb five out of five stars and recommend to fans of creepy independent horror.

★★★★★

Daniel Isn't Real is released in UK cinemas 7th February 2020.

Daniel Isn't Real | Independent Horror Review | Patrick Schwarzenegger is Daniel and Sasha Lane is Cassie

Daniel Isn't Real | Independent Horror Review | Patrick Schwarzenegger is Daniel and Miles Robbins is Luke

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Saturday, 25 January 2020

Darren Charlton's 'Wranglestone' - Love In the Time Of the Zombie Apocalypse ★★★☆☆

Wranglestone by Darren Charlton | Superior Young Adult Fiction | Book Review

Fifteen years after the zombie apocalypse, an isolated community exists in a national park, surrounded by a lake, nervously awaiting what winter and the great freeze will bring. The First Fall celebration is a time of happiness for the Lake-Landers but also a warning of the hardship to come.

When naive homebody Peter welcomes a stranger ashore, he puts the whole community in danger and finally gives credence to those who have been insisting that he grow up and learn to protect Wranglestone. Peter has long watched Cooper from afar but now he is tasked with helping the boy herd the dead away from Wranglestone and into the wilderness.

Out there on the plains, Peter will discover that he isn't the only person who has been watching but that also isn't the only secret he will uncover in that vast wilderness. On a journey of first love and self-discovery, Peter will learn about the dark secret of Wranglestone and how they have been living a lie for fifteen years.

Wranglestone by Darren Charlton | Superior Young Adult Fiction | Book Review Darren Charlton's debut young adult novel has been described as a mix between Brokeback Mountain and The Walking Dead. As a huge fan of The Walking Dead, I loved the post-apocalyptic setting of Wranglestone, the depiction of the Dead, the memories of previous lives and the exploration of life in this frightening new world. The book often felt like TWD fan-fiction, but it had enough going for it, especially with the introduction of the Pale Wanderers, to keep it fresh and interesting.

The growing relationship between Peter and Cooper is beautifully written and shows great tenderness and love. I loved this aspect of the novel and how Wranglestone wasn't about the characters being gay but about gay characters having an extraordinary adventure in a snowy, post-apocalyptic wasteland.

I also liked the twist, the uncovering of the great lie that had kept the community isolated and controlled. Indeed, there was a great deal to like about Wranglestone but I felt really confused at the end. While I wouldn't say it was rushed, there were too many 'knowing glances' and loose ends to really know what was going on. Perhaps I would have been kinder had I known we were being set up for a sequel but in its execution, it felt awkward and staged.

It is with a fair measure of disappointment that I give Wranglestone an okay three out of five stars. Given my abundance of feelings in the first half of the book, I expected to love this. I did like a good deal of it but I was left seriously underwhelmed by the vague ending,having not appreciated that we were heading for a sequel. Perhaps I'll feel differently once I've read the sequel - I certainly hope so - I've been known to re-read entire series again to appreciate the whole story.

★★★☆☆

Wranglestone is published by Little Tiger Group and will be released on 6 February 2020.

I received an electronic copy of this book from Netgalley. In my search for superior young adult fiction, I will always provide an honest review, whether books are provided to me or purchased by me.

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Saturday, 18 January 2020

Sarah Rees Brennan's Wonderful 'Daughter of Chaos', Chilling Adventures of Sabrina #2 on Audiobook ★★★★★

Daughter of Chaos | Chilling Adventures of Sabrina | Superior Young Adult Fiction

While the rest of the world was looking forward to the festive season, all I cared about last December was the Boxing Day release of Daughter of Chaos, the second in Sarah Rees Brennan's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina novelisations. I'm coming to this book with a whole lot of love.

How much love is too much?

Warning: the word love is used thirteen times in the paragraphs below and I didn't even bother to try use synonyms. Proceed with caution.

I've loved the whole Riverdale / Greendale universe since I was a teenager so it was no surprise that I loved Riverdale and was in love with The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina before it even came out. I especially love Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina and Ross Lynch as Harvey and the whole dark, rich, colourful, delightful show.

I was delighted to discover Season of the Witch, the first of Sarah Rees Brennan's CAOS novelisations and I absolutely love her writing. I listened to this first book on audiobook and I really loved Jesse Vilinsky and Nicol Zanzarella's narration.

This is going to go one of two ways, both of them extreme and I'm happy to say it's extreme love. I loved Daughter of Chaos and while the rest of my world will be looking forward to my birthday on 5 May, all I care about is that Path of Night, the third book in the series, will be released that day. My friends and family better not throw me a surprise party! (I'm kidding! They love me disappearing into audiobooks during social gatherings!)

Daughter of Chaos | Chilling Adventures of Sabrina | Superior Young Adult Fiction In Daughter of Chaos, Harvey and Sabrina have broken up and Sabrina is trying to navigate the murky halls of the Academy of Unseen Arts. But something is amiss in Greendale and it appears to be a much greater threat than a simple bad luck demon conjured by Sabrina. It takes a coven to dismiss a supernatural enemy and this time Sabrina will need every single one of her friends.

How do I love thee, Sabrina? Let me count the ways...

There was so much to love in this story and like Season of the Witch, it was delightful and wholesome in parts, but decidedly darker in others. Without divulging spoilers for those who may not have seen The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina part 2 yet, I will say that I loved Theo's origin story and the beginnings of his identity acceptance; I loved the Harvey and Nick Scratch bromance; I loved that Prudence was humanised in a way we don't see on the show; and finally, I loved the friendship between Roz, Susie and Harvey and how they realise they can still continue once Harvey and Sabrina break up.

It will surprise absolutely no one that I give Daughter of Chaos a superb five out of five stars and especially recommend the audiobook as narrated by Jesse Vilinsky and Nicol Zanzarella. If you've ever loved Sabrina or Archie, magic or fantasy, young adult or fun fiction, then give this one a chance.

★★★★★

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© 2005 - Mandy Southgate | Addicted to Media

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