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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sisters of Misery A Chaotic Little Creepfest

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

People don't burn witches at the stake anymore, right? Fifteen-year-old Maddie Crane isn't so sure. Ever since her free-spirited aunt and cousin arrived in town, it's like the whole world's gone crazy. Residents of uppity Hawthorne, Massachusetts (just a stone's throw from Salem), resent the California transplants who thumb their noses at propriety by wearing hippie clothes, reading runes and daring to open a magic shop in town. Maddie expects her friends at Hawthorne Academy to embrace her exotic cousin, but her clique takes an instant dislike to Cordelia LeClaire. While her cousin couldn't care less about the girls' rejection, Maddie's perplexed - What do her friends have against Cordelia?

So begins Megan Kelley Hall's Gothic suspense/horror novel, Sisters of Misery. As the story progresses and Cordelia attracts the attention of Hawthorne's menfolk, she's disliked more and more. Maddie's group - a circle of privileged girls who call themselves The Sisters of Misery, because they like to visit Misery Island to party and perform silly rituals - are especially unkind. Kate Endicott, their sadistic leader, makes it clear that Maddie is still welcome in their fold, but her weird cousin is most certainly not. Having seen how cruel her friends can be, Maddie's not even sure she wants to be associated with her so-called Sisters. But, when Kate Endicott beckons, Maddie still comes running. Thus, she and Cordelia find themselves on the island, where a ritual goes horribly wrong. Maddie has only hazy memories of the night, but one thing is for sure - Cordelia has vanished.

The verdict in town is that Cordelia has run away, just like she had before in California. Maddie's unconvinced. She knows something sinister happened out on the island. Wracked with guilt over her (possible) participation in Cordelia's disappearance, Maddie avoids the police and launches her own investigation. What really happened to the ethereal Cordelia? What did she do on all those nights when she claimed to be searching for fairy circles? Most importantly, what really happened that night on Misery Island and why can't Maddie remember? Through flashes of memory and a touch of The Gift that runs in her family, Maddie will piece it all together. The answers she find will be almost as shocking as the questions. And the more she digs up, the more dangerous her little investigation is getting. Will Maddie become the next to disappear?

This Gothic creepfest has all the right elements for a spine-tingling read: an eerie setting, complete with an old Victorian by the sea; ghosts; witchcraft; a secret society; even an old insane asylum. In fact, there are a few too many elements, in my opinion, and the plot has to careen wildly in places to accomodate them all. Speaking of plot: The story lacks originality, but it's still engrossing enough to grab the reader and keep him/her flipping pages. I'll be honest, Hall's writing drove me nuts at times - she does a lot of telling vs. showing, which made for a very one-dimensional story. She says that Maddie and Cordelia grew close, but I never felt a strong bond. She also talked a lot about Maddie and her friends, the Sisters of Misery, but there was no warmth between them to suggest they'd been close since childhood. I don't want to be told something is true, I want to feel that it's true. My big beef with Sisters of Misery is closely tied to this - the story is just so cold. I mean, it's a Gothic mystery/horror story, so it's supposed to be sinister. I get that. But, none of the relationships in the novel had any warmth to them - not those between Maddie and her mother, or Maddie and her friends, or even Maddie and Cordelia. In fact, the majority of the book's characters are mean, selfish people with no redeeming qualities. Maddie's friends, especially, are cruel, self-centered and immoral - the novel gives no explanation as to why in the world she would hang out with them. A lot of the situations Maddie and her friends get into are just downright disturbing - there's lots of profanity, reckless sex, drinking/drug use, apathetic parenting, etc. that I found unsettling. As if this wasn't enough, the book's ending also really annoyed me as it really doesn't resolve anything. Mostly, it just sets things up for a sequel (The Lost Sister, due out in August, which I'm not going to have to add to my TBR pile, darn it). So, there ya go. Plenty of things bugged me about the novel.

On a positive note, I think Hall got the atmosphere right. From Maddie's creaky mansion to the ever moody sea to the town's ghost stories - the setting felt spooky from the beginning. I also thought the use of rune stones/meanings as chapter headings was clever. Although I thought the plot wouldn't surprise me, it actually did. So, despite all my complaints from the last paragraph, I really do think Sisters of Misery has good bones. The story just needs some fleshing out, especially in the characterization department. It's compelling, nonetheless, but I could have put it down at any time. Really. I could have. I swear ...

Grade: B-

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