Category Archives: Reviews

Book Review: Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes—4/5 stars

A serial killer with a nightmarish artistic vision stalks the streets of Detroit in this cross-genre thriller that flirts with ideas on urban decay, the dangers of technology, art, social justice, and the supernatural.

The point of view rotates between a diverse cast of characters whose lives each intersect with the killer’s. Chances are you already know whether this is a narrative device that works for you. I often found myself rushing through the sections featuring jaded journalist Jonno—a character who felt more like a plot device—anxious to return to detective and single mom Gabi Versado, whose interactions with her daughter Layla were both compelling and realistically nuanced. Other characters, like homeless do-gooder TK, were richly drawn in their own right but felt like they deserved a story of their own rather than just having wandered into this one.

Ultimately, the plot and themes outshine the characters. Beukes has a definite interest in art and life as they intersect with modern technology, and there are moments when she illustrates the ramifications of these collisions beautifully. The idea of social-media-as-stage isn’t exactly a new one, but it’s germane both to the questions raised in the novel and to the reality of many of our lives. You’ll find entire chapters that are composed as Reddit threads, sections of texting, and references to everything from Tumblr to Chatroulette. Where Beukes sometimes falls short of the mark is in her tendency to illustrate “The Dangers of Technology” with a tone that feels a bit too after-school-special for a book published in 2014—especially one intended for an adult audience. The level of finesse falls somewhere between the sharp-toothed Black Mirror and that Buffy episode where Willow’s online boyfriend turns out to be a techno-demon.

The most memorable segments are those that pull back on the commentary and unleash some honest-to-goodness, adrenaline-pounding thrills. This book would have been a 3/5 for me, but the final act is so creeptastic that I couldn’t help but stay up late to finish—and then promptly fell prey to some serious nightmares. The climax is a dark spectacle you’ll carry with you for some time.

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of these “is it real or is it fantasy?” sort of plotlines (think Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! or even HBO’s True Detective) that blur the line between the ordinary and the mystical. The first half of Broken Monsters flirts with this trope. Is Clayton Broom an off-his-rocker maniac, or is he, as his POV sections imply, tapped into something otherworldly? To Beukes’s credit, there’s a fairly definitive answer given by the end—but (no spoilers!) whether you prefer one resolution to the other will likely affect your ultimate enjoyment of the book.

Now, about this chalk door drawn on my wall…

Book Review: Tom’s Midnight Garden

Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce–4/5 stars

I’m all for edgy YA and dark, boundary-pushing middle-grade fiction. But there are times when I yearn for a sweetly simple childhood adventure with a touch of magic—the kind of book you curl up with on the couch, wrapped in a cozy throw with a warm cup of tea in hand, feeling like the kid you were when you first ventured to Narnia and Middle Earth. In such moments, only a book like Tom’s Midnight Garden will do.

Tom is bummed to be spending the summer quarantined at his childless relatives’ dull, gardenless flat while his brother is ill. The sole point of interest is the landlady’s ancient grandfather clock, which chimes to a time of its own (much to Tom’s uncle’s chagrin). But soon the restless Tom discovers a secret: that he can slip out the door in the middle of the night and into another time, when the house had a vast, beautiful garden full of trees to climb and games to play. The only person who can see Tom during these excursions is a lonely little girl named Hatty. Despite the fact that each of them suspects the other to be a ghost, the two become fast friends.

The book plods sleepily along for the first two thirds. It’s not until the final act, when Tom begins to realize that time is moving much faster for Hatty than it is for him, that the story’s true magic begins to bloom.

Like many of its ilk, Tom’s Midnight Garden features a portal to a special world and has a mystery at its center (adults and astute children will spot the “twist” from a mile away, though this won’t make the ending less enjoyable), but the heart of the story at last lies more in what it has to say about childhood and friendship, memory and time.

Top Ten Essential Ghost Movies

It’s no secret that I love a good ghost story. Among the ranks of demons, vampires, werewolves, psychopaths, and all the other nasties that haunt our media and our collective nightmares, ghosts have always held a special place in my heart. They’re timeless and atmospheric, figures as embedded in our own psyches as they are in our folklore. They are intrinsically tied to our very real anxieties (and, perhaps, our hopes) about what waits beyond the veil; our fear of letting go of what we’ve lost; our preoccupation with the mingling of past and present. There’s a sort of romanticism to ghost stories, whether it originates from the existential questions and subliminal fears and desires they evoke or the Gothic tropes in which they’re so frequently mired.

In honor of the incipient Halloween season, I’ve compiled a list of my top ten essential ghost movies. They span from modern to classic, frightening to romantic. You might be surprised at some of my inclusions—and, for that matter, exclusions—but I can promise that each of these films beautifully captures the spirit of the quintessential ghost story (pun intended) and is well worth repeated viewings.

Presented in ascending order, here are my top ten. Enjoy!

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