Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Reading Recommendations

I'm going to go a little bit out of the norm here for some Halloween choices (also I'm barely squeaking this in under the wire). All of these books are frightening and upsetting in their own way, but none of them are the typical Stephen King style choice. (This also kills 3 review birds with one stone and slightly shortens my queue of read but not reviewed books.)

The Raven's Gift by Don Rearden. 288 pages. Published June 2013 by Pintail. (First published in 2011 in Canada).

Confession: I "know" Don through twitter, he is an Anchorage resident and University of Anchorage-Alaska professor. I'd been meaning to read his book for a while, but sped it up after he agreed to participate in an Alaska Book Week event at the library.

John Morgan and his wife Anna know life will be hard as teachers in a primarily Yup'ik village in rural Alaska. That challenge turns to a nightmare when a plague hits and much of the population is wiped out. Faced with trying to hike his way over thousands of miles of tundra, John finds unlikely alliances and horrors waiting among the other survivors.

My husband is Yup'ik and travels to rural Alaska for work and family reasons. He didn't read the book before the author event, but loved hearing Rearden talk and started it the next day. Since then he has been enthusiastically recommending this book to everyone (a few friends, his coworkers) and lending out our copy left and right. He knows far more about rural Alaska than me and says Rearden has it spot-on.

The thing about rural in Alaska is they mean no roads. The only way in is often a boat, snow machine, or usually a small plane. There are no easy fixes or quick resources when trouble happens. It is one of the most isolated environments on Earth. And that alone is scary.

There is a lot of historical groundwork for the devastating consequences of a plague/illness/flu epidemic in remote Alaska. Locals still refer to "The Great Death", a flu epidemic in the early 20th century. It is absolutely one of the most realistic horror books I have read in a long time.

Rearden does an excellent job of portraying the isolation and fear of any survival situation and compounding that with the extremes of the arctic tundra. His narrative switches between three timelines, weaves in traditional Yup'ik stories, and incredibly portrays a place that seems surreal to the modern city dweller. The book was descriptive enough that I felt cold reading it.

And it's creepy. So creepy. I can't tell you about the creepy parts without ruining it for you. But I will say what I expected to be the HORROR was not the scare that I had by the end of the book.

If you want a good survival story, a creepy look at an all too realistic situation, or a really good portrayal of rural Alaska, I urge you to pick up this book.

The Never List by Koethi Zan. 303 pages. Published July 2013 by Pamela Dorman Books.

Here we have a "pulled from the headlines" style thriller. After years of keeping a "never list" of actions to be avoided to stay safe, Sarah and Jennifer think they have beaten the odds. But one night they get into a car and wake up in a basement. For the next three years they and other young female captives are sadistically tortured in their basement prison. But it is when they escape and must deal with the consequences of those years and their choices, that contain the true horror.

There are far far far too many of these types of cases in the news. 2010's Room was another novelization of such a horrible case.

Here the story is told in flashbacks between an adult "free" Sarah and the scared college girl in the basement. The horror here lies in not a monster or zombie lurking in the shadows, but within the hearts of man. (And yes I'm humming the old Shadow theme song while I type that cliche).

I don't normally go for thrillers or crime novels, but this one appealed to me because of the psychological aspects of the story. Much of it is about the breaking down, and rebuilding of Sarah's mind. Overall, captivating page turner and fairly well written. There were a few characters I wish I had more development on, but ultimately it was quite a good book.

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden.

Published March 2012 by Viking. 205 pages. (I listened to an audio version.)

Unlike my other choices for Halloween, this book is non-fiction. Sometimes the scariest things in this world are all too real. Shin Dong-hyuk was the first North Korean to escape from a "total control zone" (prison/work camp) to life in the West. He was born and raised in the prison camp under the Kim policy of punishing the families of offenders to the "third generation". Because his father's brothers had escaped during the Korean war, he and his family were destined to always live in prison. Shin was himself the product of a "reward marriage" arranged by the guards between his parents.

Most of us can not fathom what it is to grow up in an environment without even knowing the meaning of love, to view your mother only as competition for food, your father and brother as virtual strangers.

The view into a closed world offered here is both horrifying and honest. Shin opens up about some of his own actions aware that he might be judged harshly.

One interesting thing I learned, South Koreans are in favor of unification but not right now. Unification with North Korea would be very costly and the extremely robust South Korean economy would bear the brunt of it. Projections show that it would raise taxes for 60 years. (In comparison that is like if we were still paying off my grandfather's fight in WWII when I graduated college.)

If you want a true life horror this Halloween, it doesn't get scarier then life in a North Korean prison camp.