Book Review: The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall by Katie Alender

Title: The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall
Author: Katie Alender
Genre: YA Horror/Suspense
Page Count: 336 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Point
Release Date: August 30, 2016

Publisher’s Summary: Delia’s new house isn’t just a house. Long ago, it was the Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females — an insane asylum nicknamed “Hysteria Hall.” However, many of the inmates were not insane, just defiant and strong willed. Kind of like Delia herself. But the house still wants to keep “troubled” girls locked away. So, in the most horrifying way, Delia becomes trapped. And that’s when she learns that the house is also haunted.

Ghost girls wander the hallways in their old-fashioned nightgowns. A handsome ghost boy named Theo roams the grounds. Delia learns that all the spirits are unsettled and full of dark secrets. The house, too, harbors shocking truths within its walls — truths that only Delia can uncover, and that may set her free. And she’ll need to act quickly — before the house’s power overtakes everything she loves. Katie Alender brings heart-pounding suspense, gorgeous writing, and a feminist twist to this tale of memories and madness.

My Thoughts: Everything about this book made me scream YES! From the feminist angle on Victorian attitudes toward “hysterical women” to the flawed MC to the dynamic, multi-layered world-building and intriguing mysteries, twists, and turns pulling me along every page, I was completely entranced by this book from sentence 1. I found The Dead Girls… by googling “YA ghost novels” when I was in the mood for a good ghost story. But what I got from this was SO much more than that. It’s a novel with heart, with emotional resonance, and protagonist who learns and changes–even after she dies.

The intricate afterlife world-building and the physics of how being a ghost works in the time/space continuum had me fascinated. Every detail the author wrote, every passage, contained some further meaning, a purpose, a clue that comes into play later on. It all culminated into a multi-climaxed, beautiful message about life, love, redemption, and our place in the mysterious plan of it all. Characters aren’t always who we expect them to be, surprises lurk around every corner, and the MC, Delia, is always driven by some goal or another that kept me hooked. Yes, the paranormal goings-on were creepy, and so were the ghosts, but they were also people. Souls, with their own personalities and backstories. I grew to care about all of them.

Despite the cover’s bloodied appearance, this is not a gross or gory book, nor is it gratuitously violent. It is, rather, a poignant interpretation of life after death and a soul’s purpose. The end moved me to tears and gave me hope. I think this novel is perfectly brilliant and I gladly add it to my hall-of-fame of all-time favorites.

Book Review: How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

“I have to convince a group of people who hate me to help solve a curse that could be killing our families.” – p. 125

How to Hang a Witch (Knopf, 2016) is a YA paranormal novel written by Adriana Mather, an actual descendant of the Salem Witch Trials’ Cotton Mather. The protagonist in this story is Samantha Mather – a fictional descendant of Cotton’s – who has just moved from New York City into her late grandmother’s home in Salem, Massachusetts. Sam lives with her stepmother, Vivian, while her father remains in a coma for unknown reasons.

As soon as Sam arrives to Salem, the town wants her out. Especially a group of goth girls at school, known as the Descendants, who are descendants of the persecuted Salem witches. It doesn’t help that strange and awful things keep occurring to everyone who comes into contact with Sam, almost as if she’s cursing them…when, in truth, it’s likely she’s the one who’s cursed.

In quick succession, Sam meets two guys: the outgoing boy next door, Jaxon; and a seventeenth-century ghost who haunts her grandmother’s mansion, Elijah. Sam is the only one who can see Elijah, and while he wants her gone, he also begins to help her piece together Salem’s true history to uncover why she is cursed, and how to end the pattern of killings in town. I liked the love triangle created between Sam, Jaxon, and the spirit, Elijah. Something about Sam and Elijah’s relationship reminded me of Casper and Christina Ricci’s character in Casper (1995).

This fast-paced YA occult suspense was an absolute delight to read. The chapters are short and punchy; Sam’s narration is to-the-point, sympathetic, and often humorous; and Mather’s supernatural vision of Salem, as well as her fascinating and approachable portrayal of its history, jumps off the e-pages. And we can’t forget the witches in the story – Susannah, Alice, Mary, and Lizzie – who are like something straight out of Mean Girls or The Craft. If you’re a fan of fun commercial YA with some solid, spooky witchcraft, a history-seeped mystery, and a good ol’-fashioned ghost story with a positive and powerful message, you need How to Hang a Witch in your life.

Watch the amazing book trailer!

Memorable Quotes

“‘Almost everything worth believing in cannot be seen. Love, for instance.‘” – p. 106

“‘Kindly do not interrupt me,’ he says with anything but kindness. Kindly I will smack you in your perfect face.” – Sam and Elijah, p. 116

The silence between us is thick with secrets.” p. 196

It is the greatest evil of all, to separate people who love each other.” – Abigail, p. 232

“‘I’m truly sorry for all of your pain. But I’m not the cause of it anymore. You are.‘” – Cotton, p. 339

‘Nothing is going to change unless you make different choices…’” – p. 341

Book Review: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

A mysterious hitman called “the man Jack” has been trying to murder Bod (short for “Nobody”) since Bod was a baby. The only place where the boy is safe is where he was raised– a graveyard. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but in this case, it’s a village of ghosts who raise Bod in this fascinating, eerie paranormal adventure by Neil Gaiman, entitled The Graveyard Book.

Because he lives in a graveyard with a community of lovable ghosts for adoptive parents, Bod, still a live boy, somehow straddles the worlds of living and dead. He has a mysterious, Grim Reaper-esque guardian, called Silas (am I weird that I found him sexy?), who protects him from the world outside the grave, and provides supplies for Bod’s corporeal needs (food, clothes, etc.). But Bod, now an adolescent, is ready to take on adventures in the living world, and within the tombs of other ghouls, even encountering some demon-like mythological monsters.

Gaiman tries to lighten the dark tone of this story with his playfulness and the likes of affectionate, mothering ghosts, but it’s still creepy. As a grown adult, I made the mistake of reading this “children’s book” alone at night before bed! But don’t get me wrong, it’s very well-written, worth the read, and the macabre tones will be popular with fans of the genre. The end also leaves things open for a sequel, which is exciting!

Book Review: Peony in Love by Lisa See

peonyThis has got to be one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but I couldn’t put it down. In seventeenth century China, fifteen-year-old Peony is betrothed to someone she doesn’t know. One evening, Peony meets and falls in love with a man whom she calls “her poet,” for he loves poetry as much as she. But as she’s already betrothed, she becomes distraught and withdrawn, refusing to eat, and stays in bed all day to read a romantic opera, called The Peony Pavilion. Just like in her beloved opera, the lovesick maiden, Peony, wastes away, and starves herself to death. But in the moments leading up to her death, she learns that the man to whom she was betrothed was actually… her poet. This is just the beginning of the book Peony In Love, by Lisa See.

Peony continues to narrate the novel from the Chinese afterlife. Because her family forgets to perform a crucial burial task, she is sentenced to live as a Hungry Ghost, wandering the earth, condemned to watch as the husband with whom she’d have happily lived out her life now takes on new wives. While she cannot be seen or heard, Peony is able to set moods and intentions, to manipulate the thoughts and feelings of the living. In this way, she tries to communicate her continuing affections to her would-be husband, and also influences his next wives to be kind to him, and to finish her written commentary on her beloved Peony Pavilion opera, which she’d begun before her death.

As Peony’s story unfolds, her fate directly parallels the fate of the leading lady in The Peony Pavilion. Also relevant to this story is a famous, real-life commentary of the opera called The Three Wives’ Commentary (1694), written by the three consecutive wives of Wu Ren. It was the first published book of its kind to have been written by women. Peony In Love is author Lisa See’s imaginative retelling of how this commentary came to be written, having Peony dictating, as a ghost, the rest of her unfinished commentary to her husband’s two consecutive wives. This is overall a very sad story, although one could say it ends happily.