Ghoster – Too Substantial to Properly Spook

ghosterI don’t have a lot of experience with dating apps, having been in a long term relationship until recently, and as such have viewed them with the same amused indifference granted to most of the technology I don’t interact with. Having spoken to friends that have used them, and through some low-level environmental exposure, I have, however, picked up on some key facets. All of this personal information none of you care about is here to explain that I have not personally experienced “ghosting,” but I do understand what it is through the cultural zeitgeist of modern dating technology, and have a general understanding that it is “bad.” Pretty great lead-in to the review of Ghoster by Jason Arnopp, eh?

Ghoster is a Schrodinger’s Book for me, a story that appears to have been written directly for me and one that is so far outside my normal sphere of enjoyment I would never pick it up on my own volition. A horror story about a relationship gone wrong written through the lens of modern technology and dating apps is very much not my normal fare and with the cover on the ARC we received displaying a text messaging screen, I began reading with no little apprehension, steeling myself for what I was fairly sure would be more toil than enjoyment. I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised by Ghoster. While not without its faults, there are some very strong foundations to this story, and I came out of this reading with a fresh lesson in not judging books by their covers.

In Ghoster we follow Kate Collins as she moves across the UK to begin living with a new boyfriend, Scott. It should not be surprising based on the title, cover art, back of book blurb, and the fact that this is advertised as a horror book that the move-in does not go according to plan and Kate finds herself “ghosted” by Scott. This already fraught situation is complicated by two large problems. Firstly, Kate is a social media addict (and something of a stalker), and has gone cold turkey from digital media in general, trading her smartphone in for a simple texting device. This complicates her search for Scott’s whereabouts and forces her into more and more outlandish actions to try to find him. Secondly (and arguably the less weird problem), Scott’s apartment that Kate has recently moved into appears to be haunted.

Let’s start with the phone stuff. I’m not going to get into the believability of having such a severe addiction to social media that you revert to what is essentially an old Nokia brick, I’m sure there are people out there like that, but I did find it hard to sympathize with Kate a lot of the time due to the nature of her character flaws. I’m sure that says something about me, but while I like my protagonists to be flawed I did feel like this particular issue was pretty overblown. Additionally, and I think this is probably the biggest issue with the book, the references to specific apps and reliance on current technological jargon means this story will age poorly. Not every book needs to be a classic, and there is a time and place to pig out on popcorn, but if you’re looking for a full meal (excuse the metaphor) I would recommend another choice.

The thing that really bugs me about the issues I had with the technobabble and constant references to dating app etiquette, is that I honestly don’t think it was necessary. If the tech addictions and more romance-heavy aspects of the book were removed, I think the horror story at its foundation would be stellar. The bones of this book, the novella that lives within this full-length novel, is outstanding. I did not see the twist coming and the ending goes toe-to-toe with a number of horror shorts I place at the very top of my list. I was expertly misdirected, and the pacing of the horror elements, as well as what information is given, is fantastic. I wish I could say the same for the pacing of pretty much everything else.

The climax of the story happened so quickly that I’m fairly certain it was purposeful to instill a sense of shock in the reader, and while it did have something of a shocking effect, I felt more bemused than anything. Additionally, there’s a fairly long final chapter that seems almost like a postscript to explain all the things that got sidelined during Kate’s search for Scott. Once I finished and closed the book for the final time I was struck by how much more coherent and enjoyable the story would have been to me if it had a runtime of 100-150 pages and stripped all the fat from its bones. There is a story in here that I think would win awards if it were distilled to its core, and I think that a lot of what’s in there distracts from what could be a truly terrifying tale.

I’m conflicted about Ghoster. I went into it expecting a painful trudge through a horror-romance and ended disappointed in an entirely different way. I did truly enjoy my time reading it, which is more than I was expecting, but was left unsatisfied by the heights it failed to attain. There are aspects of this book that will remain memorable for a long time, but a large portion of the book has already slipped from my ability to recall. I sense that the parts I liked will eventually be all I remember of the book, and I wish Arnopp had written a novella or short story with just those bits, but this book probably isn’t really for me, and as such I will take the enjoyment I received and selectively remember it as shorter and scarier than it ended up.

Rating: Ghoster – 6.5/10
-Will

The Night Circus – Precision And Beauty Like A Well Made Clock

518f-dysfql-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, is a popular book that has sat on my to-do shelf for some time. I have a number of friends who have read it, and I found myself discouraged by their seemingly polarized reactions. Many thought it was one of the best books they have ever read, while a different number thought it was a pile of garbage that was insanely overrated. I decided to take the plunge this week and found that I can see where both opinions come from. However, I definitely fall into the first category of reactions.

The Night Circus has a slightly deceptive back cover. The blurb on the back claims that the book is about two dueling magicians using a wonderful circus as a venue. This is true in broad terms, but I feel that some who read this short description will come in with expectations that might not be met. The book tells the story of Celia and Marco, two magicians who are bound to fight to the death in a magical showdown within the walls of the night circus. But, the competition is less of a wild west standoff and more of a rap battle/baking competition. Each of the two magicians alternates adding wonders to the circus that are judged by their various patrons. This continues until one of the two magicians fails to produce something wonderful or breaks. So, if you were interested in this book because you were looking for a fast-paced magical duel, you are going to be sorely disappointed (which is how many of the people who didn’t like this book seem to feel).

On the other hand, if you are looking for your imagination to explode with wonder and delight and to experience the world in a new way that leaves you reeling, well then you might be in the right place. The goal of this competition between Marco and Celia is for them to blend showmanship and actual magic into a mix that both blows the mind of the circus patrons and doesn’t feel so completely impossible that the patrons suspect there is something else in play other than sleight of hand. Morgenstern walks this line fabulously, crafting tent after tent that feel like something you might experience at an actual circus – but that fill you with awe every time you enter them. Morgenstern’s ability to walk this line, and the superb writing quality, makes The Night Circus feel like a deeply immersive book that pulls you in and never lets go from start to finish. The circus is just so damn cool. I found myself rereading descriptions to take in every single detail as fully as I could. For example, the massive clock at the front of the circus (and visible on the cover) was a thing of profound beauty, and I read the description of it at least five times. The plot also has a number of tricks up its sleeves that surprise and delight – never remaining predictable – while also telling a wonderful love story.

Spoilers (unless you read the back cover), Celia and Marco slowly fall in love. I am not a huge romantic, but I couldn’t help but enjoy watching these two slowly (and unsurprisingly) fall for each other over the course of the competition – further complicating the game. All the characters in the story are wonderful, but Celia and Marco are particularly hard to dislike. Their warm personalities, difficult lives, and perseverance in the face of adversity had me both identifying with them and looking up to them as role models at the same time. The progression of their romance felt both real and adorable – but my one complaint for the book as a whole was how Morgenstern handled the dialogue between Marco and Celia towards the end of the book. There are just some recurring lines that felt a little cringy near the end (as their love suddenly felt weirdly intense). This feeling on my end definitely came from the fact that the passage of time in the book is a bit abrupt. The book skips around in its time line, and will often jump multiple years forward at any moment. Most of the time this didn’t cause any issues for me, but it does make the development of the protagonists’ feelings feel a little abrupt. While only a few pages pass for you, several years pass for the characters. This leads to a little bit of a mismatch in perceived timing, but it was only a small thing in an otherwise perfect book.

The Night Circus captured my imagination and made me feel like I was inside the book. The book has left a deep and lasting impression with me, and I keep finding myself drawn back to the circus like many of its patrons in the story. There is just so much to like here that I hope everyone has a chance to pick up and enjoy this beautiful story. It has a slow pace, but you will luxuriate in it instead of wallow. So wait for sundown, get in a comfy chair, and go through the gates of The Night Circus.

Rating: The Night Circus – 9.5/10
-Andrew

The Curse Of Chalion – Undeserving Of Obscurity

61886As I continue to dig through my older to-read pile, I have been hitting a lot of books that my opinions of could be charitably described as “late to the party”. One exception to this case might be a lesser known classic that I would love to draw your attention to: The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Those who know it almost always love it, but I have been finding that many avid readers (myself included until recently) know little about it. For those of you unfamiliar with her, Lois McMaster Bujold is a quite famous author best known for her Vorkosigan Saga – a science fiction series epic in size that actually just won the Hugo for best series this year. However, Bujold has written a number of books in various genres, and one of her most highly regarded, though still lesser known, is a semi standalone fantasy novel called The Curse of Chalion. The book technically has both a prequel and a sequel, but they both seem to only tangentially follow the events of Chalion so I am going to treat it as a standalone.

Chalion’s plot is a bit difficult to describe, as it is one of those books where the point is less about what happens and more about the emotional journey it takes you on. The story follows Cazaril, a middle aged disenfranchised nobleman. We meet Cazaril at the start of the book just after he has escaped life as a slave and is traveling back to friends of his youth – hoping they will remember and employ him. Upon arriving at the estate of Chalion where he was once a page, he is recognized and soon given a job as a tutor for a princess. The book then spends a significant amount of time developing the cast of characters, exploring Cazaril’s backstory, fleshing out a well-built world, and introducing the endgame of the plot: the house of Chalion has an age old curse that must be broken. A large portion of the book revolves around its religious structure and the worship of a family of five gods (The Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, and Bastard) that all represent different aspects of life. I found that Bujold’s interesting take on Gods, and their involvement in everyone’s life, was one of my favorite elements of the book and really gave her world a unique feel.

This is a gross oversimplification of the story because the writing in Chalion is very much a slow burn. Bujold’s writing style reminds me very much of one of my favorite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay, in its slow pace and beautiful prose. Fortunately the slow pacing is very enjoyable because the cast of characters, both protagonists and antagonists, are excellently written and pleasent to be around. Chalion accomplishes the rare feat of showing some of the cast grow up over time and getting you invested in how they change as a person. This is particularly impressive because as I mentioned the story is contained to a single book. To make up for this, the book is extremely large and I would not recommend it to those who are looking for breakneck pacing and action. Chalion feels almost like the literary version of a gentleman, preferring to resolve all conflicts with words and discussion as opposed to combat.

As mentioned before, the prose in this novel is gorgeous. I found myself presented with an endless stream of quotes that I was sending to friends because they were profound and wonderful. Bujold has an outlook on life and a way with words that combined make her narrative voice a joy to read. An additional major focus of the book is on romance, and I think you would truly have to be dead inside to not enjoy it. The cast is charming, loveable, and genuine and watching the various members slowly come together is simply heartwarming.

The Curse of Chalion is food for the soul and a gorgeous piece of writing. It is a shame that I constantly see it on underread and underrated fantasy lists because it was one of the most warm books I have read this year. If you have the patience for a book with a slower pace or are looking for a story with a heart of gold I definitely recommend you check out this self-contained story. In the meantime, I am clearly going to have to check out The Vorkosigan Saga to get some more time with Bujold’s narrative voice.

Rating: The Curse of Chalion – 8.5/10