Saturday, October 05, 2013

Book Review - Asylum

After some bad bouts in "adult" horror novels, I was intrigued to jump into this YA suspense/thriller. Asylum is set in a mental-hospital-turned-college. It is summer and instead of being filled with college students, the asylum/college is being used as a summer program for gifted high school students. As promised by the synopsis and the creepy art scattered through the book, a suspenseful ghost story thriller ensues. The book was also touted as a "photo experience" with a number of "vintage" photographs and images from the asylum to increase the creepiness factor. The concept really drew me in and I was excited to read this.

The first few chapters went pretty smoothly. The writing definitely felt like it was aimed for younger readers, potentially even middle graders, in spite of the heavier/scarier topics promised to come. I quickly decided it wasn't a book for terribly young readers when the teenage characters started swearing with moderate frequency. I acknowledge that teenagers do swear and many of them do so awkwardly as they experiment with it almost as a form of rebellion, but I'm not going to pass a book to a youngster if it's got swearing. Just my personal taste.

Aside from their language, the characters seemed interesting at first. The main character is a boy named Dan. He's smart (a requirement for this school program) and a bit of a loner. He also has some undisclosed psychological problems for which he seems to have a therapist on speed dial. This doctor is referenced numerous times but never called. On arriving at the school Dan meets his roommate for the summer, a boy named Felix. Felix is also smart and definitely socially awkward. Dan immediately feels a bit put off by Felix and his semi-neurotic tendencies. Frankly I felt like Dan's dislike came on a little too sharply especially considering they were going to be rooming together and also because Felix's actions may have been a bit odd and off-putting but they certainly weren't offensive. Still, Dan decides to avoid Felix and instead searches out new friends. He meets an artsy girl named Abby and immediately falls in crush with her. He's quickly jealous of any other guys talking with her, even Jordan the gay math genius.

From a quick high level description, the characters sound interesting and have some potential. Unfortunately they never seemed to grow on me. They started out a little bit flat but I expected them to flesh out or mature throughout the story. Instead I was left feeling like their actions were forced and their motivations weren't believable. Some of their actions felt unrealistic for the characters I believed (wanted?) them to be. I think a lot of the problem was that there was more "telling" than "showing" in terms of trying to develop the characters. I was told what their characteristics and motivations were but when the characters acted, the actions felt disconnected and a little flat. I felt like there was a lot of missed potential in terms of using character development to draw me into the story. Still, accepting this as a younger novel, I moved on and assumed the characters for what I was told.

The book was definitely a plot driven story and the plot was intriguing. When Dan arrives in his dorm he finds a stack of old photos in his desk drawer. The photos are presumably from back in the day when the asylum was in full operation. Aside from being creepy depictions of strange old hallways and operating rooms, the pictures are extra creepy because the eyes are scratched out on all the photos of people. Dan asks Felix about this and Felix informs him that he found an old off-limit office downstairs with similar photos. With that, the mystery is underway.

Dan, Abby and Jordan decide to explore the office where they find more creepy old photos, hospital records and bloody handprints. As the story goes on, they explore farther and farther into the off-limits wing and discover more hidden secrets. Dan starts conducting research on the Asylum and interviewing people in town. He starts receiving strangely threatening notes and weird visions.

As the story went on, I felt some of the portions of the plot to be predictable and I quickly guessed the direction I was being taken. Then we start having murders and attempted murders and I began to doubt some of my predictions. The author worked to throw in a number of twists and turns filled with plot points that seemed predictable but questionable. Chapter after chapter I found more and more threads emerging with strange questions and weird side-plots. I still felt like I was predicting the main action but I was getting confused with all the extra material. Finally I arrived at the climactic ending where a few of the key plot points were wrapped up very cleanly…too cleanly. Honestly it felt a little dissatisfying. Even then, I hoped that the next few pages would wrap up some of the peripheral elements that were presented as important but alas those elements were left dangling.

Because I never felt particularly attached to the characters and as a result I wasn't especially invested in their success or failure. I felt a little let down that they didn't develop into more. The plot had me intrigued and curious as to what was really going on. There were definitely some good surprises and creepy moments that could have been more suspenseful or exciting if framed in a different way or if I was more attached to the characters. By the end of the story I was looking for a nice explanatory denouement to help wrap things up and answer all my various questions. Sadly that was not to be. Many of the peripheral plot elements that I thought were most compelling were left unanswered and almost wholly ignored at the end of the book. It left me unfulfilled and wanting more. I guess that means that in spite of the shortcomings, I was invested in finding out what happened. I just didn't feel like the ending satisfied that desire. The main plot ended with a small deus ex machina moment to resolve the main plot but then didn't bother to answer the lingering questions.

Overall I felt like this book had a lot of potential that just wasn't fully realized. It didn't work particularly well as a suspense novel for me because I didn't feel attached to or invested in the characters. It had some thrilling/horror elements but they were pretty low key overall since the goal seemed to be suspense more than shock. The mystery was compelling but was left so unresolved that it was unsatisfying. I honestly feel bad for rating this one low as I really felt like it had potential and I really wanted to like it but in the end, I wanted a lot more from this book and was left dissatisfied. Maybe others will like it more, but for me, it fell flat.

2 out of 5 stars

View all of my reviews on

1 comment:

Brian Miller said...

eh that stinks...yeah i would be leary of sharing the book as well if it had a lot of swearing...i dont need to add to their issues or reinforce them even if the book is good