Okay, so, the cover is meh, but that series’ tagline is…unforgettable, and not in a good way. The series is called, according to the “other books in this series” page, “The Sleepover Series,” and they went with “SQUIRM IN YOUR SLEEPING BAG”? Squirm? Really, squirm? #HorrorOrEroticaYouDecide
The back cover ALSO made me howl with laughter, which is not necessarily a good sign heading into a horror series (and oh God, I already bought three of these). Because the conceit of the story, as far as I can tell without having read one yet, is that these four girls have sleepovers and tell scary stories.
But according to the back cover, one of the main characters is “fearful Louise,” and I just….why, Louise, why would you spend all your time going to sleepovers with three people who love to tell spooky stories that “terrify” you?
Maybe I should just stop prejudging and read and recap.
We begin with the “sleepover gang” crowded into the back of Alex’s parents’ jeep. That must mean they’re kids, right? As opposed to teenagers? Because they must be small, and they probably can’t drive? I don’t know, honestly.
I ALSO don’t know where they are. Okay, I know that they’re on their way to Alex’s cabin, and they pass through a town called “Crossroads,” and it’s snowy. That’s it. I was thinking they were somewhere in the U.K., because that’s where the book was published and also Alex’s father has brought ten litres of water and a kilo of bacon. Which, admittedly, could also be anywhere in Europe or Canada.
But the cabin is at the site of an old gold mine (Hook Mountain Gold Mine, to be precise). Are there a lot of mountainous gold mines in the UK? With snow and wolves? I honestly don’t know.
And all the way through chapters one and two I assumed it used to be a gold mine way back during the gold rush or something, but then by chapter three that’s obviously not true: the owner of the store in Crossroads was there during the time of the last mining family. So I have no idea where or when anything is happening, and I hate it.
But let’s back up for a second so I can share the most unconvincing and bizarre scene of the girls frolicking in the snow at the cabin:
‘Watch me do a perfect front flip!’ Alex cried, launching her body into the air, and landing beside Charlie. ‘Whoo. It’s like landing on a cloud.’ Alex loved tumbling and juggling and all the circus arts.
‘The pine trees look like women in long white gowns.’ Louise reached for a snow-covered pine branch.
‘Louise, no!’ Alex shrieked. ‘You’ll start an avalanche!’
Too late. The moment Louise touched the branch, the whole mass of white snow showered around her head.pp. 6-7
First of all, that is not an avalanche. Secondly, no wonder Louise is “fearful,” with people shrieking at her as if snow falling off a tree branch is some kind of dire event. Also, why does Louise sound like she’s channeling Anne of Green Gables? And…the circus arts? The circus arts? What?
These people all sound like they’ve either escaped from a Famous Five book or been hit repeatedly on the head. Are they all supposed to be, like, seven? They don’t LOOK seven. Maybe they’re all sixteen and they’re drunk during the entirety of this trip?
Anyway, so here’s our set up: cabin, snow, Alex’s parents leave them alone at the cabin to go buy lantern fuel, and on the drive up there was an announcement that a student worker was KILLED BY WOLVES at the “Woodlands Forest Preserve,” wherever that is (presumably near the cabin?), which is why the girls barricade themselves inside the cabin when they hear wolves howling. Okay.
Inside the cabin, Alex starts to tell them a story about the people who used to own the cabin. She’s heard this story from Mr. Bell, who runs the Crossroads store, but then she conveniently finds a flat metal box (while they’re looking for candles) and it’s full of stuff, including a journal naturally, that belonged to Jake Kingston, whose family were gold prospectors.
We also get a LOT of reminders that the framing story is a sleepover: candles, fireplace, sleeping bags, potato chips, chocolate cookies, granola bars, cheese and crackers….
Alex settles in to tell them the story of Jake Kingston and Digger (the unpleasant mine foreman). Jake doesn’t like Digger, who’s cruel to animals, and oh my God this actually is turning into a Famous Five book. Bloody hell.
Digger keeps setting traps for wolves and accidentally poisoning local dogs, but Jake’s parents, who are geologists, claim they couldn’t run the mine without him. Then, on the verge of “going bust,” they find a seam of gold. Jake’s parents take samples to the lab in the city (what city? I DON’T KNOW), and leave him in the care of Digger. According to Jake’s journal, which Alex interrupts her story to read, Digger starts looking at him oddly and claiming to have seen a “huge white beast” that he (Digger) thinks is a werewolf.
‘What exactly is a w-werewolf?’ Louise stammered. ‘A person who turns into a wolf?’
‘Just at night,’ Charlie said. ‘By day they’re as normal as you or me.’p. 21
It’s very hard to care about Jake’s story, because we keep getting pulled back to the cabin sleepover for scenes like this:
‘Maybe your parents will get stuck in the snowstorm,’ Jo worried.
‘The jeep can get through almost anything,’ Alex said. But she stood up and looked anxiously towards the door. ‘Where are my juggling balls?’
The others watched silently as Alex rummaged through her knapsack for her three soft, brightly-coloured balls. It was a sure sign that Alex was working out a problem when she started to juggle.pp. 23-24
The others watched silently as Alex searched for her feeble share of distinguishing characteristics. In what possible sense is she “working out a problem” here? She worried about her parents getting up a snow-covered hill in a storm, not doing freaking calculus.
While she fondles her balls, the others persuade her to continue her riveting tale wherein Jake is putting his guitar back in its case so he can go snowshoeing. He’s one slow-drip coffee away from growing a thick beard, donning a plaid jacket, and leaving his programming job to move off-grid.
Oh no. Oh nonononono. I think this next bit is meant to indicate he’s in Canada or the United States:
Jake had grown up in the north, and for him the time of deep snow was a time of freedom. The Native People knew this. They had designed snowshoes to walk far and fast on top of the snow.p. 25
Yes, yes they did: they designed them that way 4000 to 6000 years ago, and actually it probably happened in Asia. But I digress. You know, it’s actually possible to write about the north and Native Peoples without 1) making your sentences all choppy and stilted and 2) using phrases like “the time of deep snow.” WE JUST CALL THAT WINTER, FYI.
Jake finds a beautiful, beautiful girl who’s gotten the steel toe of her boot stuck in one of Digger’s leghold traps. She has long white-blonde hair, blue eyes, and golden-brown skin. Jake frees her, and she says angrily that she knows who Digger is, and Jake should tell him to leave the wolves alone.
He wanted to ask ‘What’s your name?’, but somehow, he felt she would think he was being pushy.pp. 27-28
If that’s pushy I must be positively overwhelming, because I regularly ask people their names.
That night while getting firewood Jake sees a huge gray wolf. Digger shoots at it, but I don’t think he hits it. Jake remembers promising the girl he’d tell Digger to stop, and feels bad that he didn’t do that. And for no reason whatsoever we get a scene from the Bells’ point of view: they’re the people at the store, and they hear the gunshots and muse that no good has ever come from the mountain since “Willie Low went crazy and wandered off into the woods.” Mother of God, how many layers of backstory does this thing have?
Oh no, he did hit it. Digger drives past the store the next day with a dead gray wolf in the back of his truck. I hate him.
The Bells are relieved when Jake shows up, which seems to suggest they thought it entirely possible Digger had shot him too. Jake asks about the girl but they dismiss her as “not a nice kind of girl” (they LITERALLY use this phrase), and say Lucy moves around a lot (it sounds like she’s a foster child the way they’re trying to remember which family has her now) and is uncontrollable. She used to have a friend up on the ridge, an elderly female prospector named Ruby, but Ruby “lost both her feet to gangrene” and now lives in town.
I’m calling it: I think we’re supposed to be in ALASKA, and the author just didn’t realize they don’t use litres and kilos there.
Digger shows up in the store, and tries to snatch a letter that’s for Jake, but Mr. Bell won’t give it to him. The letter, from Jake’s parents, confirms the ore has high gold content, but also says they won’t be back for a week. The Bells are worried by this, and so am I; why would you leave your child with an angry, untrustworthy man (who now knows you’re rich)?
Lucy shows up and yells at Digger for having shot a wolf that’d had pups just a week ago, and I still hate him but I admit to laugh-snorting at the sheer melodrama of that.
Back to the sleepover gang, who consult Jake’s diary and find out that Digger started drinking heavily after he shot the wolf. Alex decides she’s going outside, but when she opens the door there’s an actual blizzard going on. They’re totally cut off! According to the radio on Alex’s portable CD player, the storm has dumped 45cm in the past hour. The roads are completely blocked, which, yes, they would be. Where I live we routinely have storms of about 20cm overnight, and it takes half the next day to dig out.
They decide to continue on with the story, which we now find out happened six years ago. Digger takes his rifle and makes Jake go into the mine, and then throws a lit stick of dynamite after him. He soliloquizes that “Mummy and Daddy aren’t going to be around much longer either,” and he’ll be the only partner left to get rich.
Down the hill, the Bells sell Jake a case of dynamite and a bottle of rum, but Mrs. Bell starts phoning hotels in “the city” looking for Jake’s parents. Like, random hotels, because they have no idea where his parents are staying. I hope this is a SMALL city.
Jake is alive, but trapped in the tunnels. A large wolf shows up, licks his face, and leads him through the darkness. There’s an entrance just barely large enough for Jake to crawl through–and there are a bunch of baby wolf cubs crying for their mother. Lucy helps pull Jake out, and they just leave the cubs there? I guess assuming the rest of the pack, including the wolf that helped him, will take care of them? I don’t know, I’d have a litter of adopted wolves at this point.
On the sleepover level, Charlie reminds Jo that Lucy was the wolves’ friend, and Louise morbidly wonders if the girl on the radio thought the wolves were her friends until they attacked her.
On Sunday Digger shows up at the Bells’ store, drunk, and buys more dynamite. Mr. Bell “forgets” to give him the fuses so he’ll have an excuse to drive to the mine. Lucy hears about this, and tells Jake, who guesses Digger is setting a trap for Jake’s parents. Oh, good: she also tells him the cubs are eight weeks old and can survive without their mother. Jake, who isn’t yet old enough to survive without his mother, is going to stay in Ruby’s cabin eating the food Lucy keeps there.
Lucy, Manic Pixie Dream Wolf, tells Jake she’ll take care of Digger.
Jake reached out his arm to touch her, but Lucy flinched away. ‘I…I think you’re amazing,’ he told her.
Lucy gave him an odd look. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I’m not sure what side you’re on, but I think I can trust you. I like your music.’ And then she was gone.p. 63
Jake is AMAZED that she knows about his music.
The Sleepover Gang climb the ladder to check out the loft. They hear feet and a “loud bang” that turns out to be a mousetrap. Alex starts juggling again, because this is literally her only distinguishing feature, and resumes the story. Jake needs to get to the mine without leaving a snow trail to the cabin, so he throws his snowshoes off a cliff and leaps after them. Okay then.
Meanwhile the Bells show up at the mine but Digger lies that Jake is sleeping. The truck pulls away before Jake can flag them down, so he enters the mine. He finds a bundle of dynamite with a long fuse and rips it loose, but then Digger shows up, drunk and armed. A white wolf jumps Digger from behind, who drops the rifle, but not before shooting the wolf. Jake runs, and when he looks back, seven wolves have surrounded Digger.
Jake finds the wolf’s unconscious body, and plans to somehow drag it to the cabin and help it. But it comes to and bites him before disappearing into the trees. According to the journal when we flip back to the Sleepover Gang (sigh), Jake woke to find Lucy sleeping beside him in the cabin.
We stay at the sleepover long enough for a cute (though pointless) scene with mice invading the cereal bowls and bags of pretzels they’ve left on the floor. The girls clean up, but they cant wash dishes, because there’s no running water.. They’re afraid to open the door to grab snow to melt because they still hear wolf howls.
The Bells are still worrying about Jake. Jake makes tea for Lucy, who is very pale and seems weak. She has a huge gash on one arm that she claims is a tree branch injury. She’s been in six foster homes, and now she stays in the cabin, she tells him, and hunts. She’s planning to get a job planting trees later in the year and save her money.
Jake wants her to go to a doctor but she says it’s too far, and wants him to make soup. She’s got a metal box of meat (mostly bones) under the floorboards.
When he returned he gasped at what he saw. Lucy had her back to him. She was holding her wounded arm up to her face. She was licking her wound!p. 89
Annnnd she just wants the frozen bones/meat thawed, not cooked.
Alex is the only Sleepover girl not grossed out by this. She knows a lot of the cabins in the mountains have cold storage holes.
Back in the Jake layer, Lucy is on all fours making weird noises. Jake helps her back to bed and she keeps asking for food because she’s feeling so weak. She manages to grab one of the raw bones and starts gnawing on it.
Jake thinks she’s gone insane from fever or something, and wants to go get help, but she makes him promise he won’t bring anyone back or tell anyone where she is. He still leaves though, to get food and first aid supplies. He nearly freezes lying in the snow to avoid detection by Digger but then the Bells show up and Jake manages to run back to the cabin.
Lucy’s arm is nearly healed when he checks it. She’s alarmed to find it’s nearly dark, and says she has to go. She’s also sad to see that the wolf that bit him didn’t break the skin. After she leaves Jake is alarmed to see she hasn’t taken her snowshoes and goes after her.
Alex stands up and says they need more firewood, so she and Charlie decide to go outside and grab an armful each.
Alex and Charlie were dressed and ready in their parkas, mitts, boots and hats.
‘I don’t think the wolves will eat me,’ Charlie said bravely. ‘I’m just one big blob of synthetic fibres!’p. 104
They return with the wood, and sit around the newly-blazing fire to resume Jake’s story. Jake spots Lucy in her white parka, but she disappears beneath some trees. The wolf pack show up and circle him, preventing him from reaching her, and then the beautiful white wolf appears. The wolves howl, and when they bound away Jake sees that she’s injured her foreleg in the same spot Lucy is injured.
Jake finds her coat stuffed into a hollow tree. And FINALLY he gets it.
The wolves take down a deer, which admittedly is somewhat disturbing if you know your crush is one of them.
He goes back to the cabin to sleep, and in the morning the white wolf appears. Jake thinks deep, melodramatic thoughts about how she always used to appear in the morning as a girl, but it’s morning and she’s still a wolf, and its because he BETRAYED her and BROKE HIS PROMISE not to follow her, and you know: it’s all about him.
On the sleepover level Jo has decided that this is all terribly romantic, even more so when the girls consult Jake’s journal and find he’s written about wanting to protect Lucy from Digger.
‘He doesn’t care if she’s a werewolf,’ Jo cried. ‘He still loves her!’p. 113
Jake checks in with the Bells, but thy haven’t seen Lucy and his parents have left a message that they won’t be back until the next day. Mrs. Bell, disapproving, thinks Jake and Lucy have been shacking up; Mr. Bell, when Jake talks to him privately, suggests Jake check in with Ruby.
Ruby has a lot of things to say, mostly not reassuring: the loup-garou can’t return to human form once you’ve found it’s clothes, but possibly cutting it’s face from hairline to nose will work; Lucy hasn’t had much positive experience with the human world, so there’s not a lot to draw her back. Jake somewhat boldly says maybe she’ll come back for him, and Ruby agrees love might do it, and I keep feeling like I missed a chapter where Jake and Lucy said they loved each other.
Digger shows up at the Bells’ store and reveals he found the cabin where Jake was staying, and tore it apart. Meanwhile, back at the mountain. Jake has found the remains of the cabin. He blames himself for having left the stove lit, guessing (correctly) that Digger saw the smoke from the chimney. Finally more angry than scared, Jake storms to the mine, intending to confront Digger. He hears an animal whining in pain and finds the white wolf chained up. Digger appears, fuse in hand, and drunkenly explains he’s going to blow up Jake and the wolf–Jake for spoiling his plans, and the wolf because she bit him.
The wolf growls, Digger throws a rock hammer at her, hitting her between the eyes, hard enough that Jake can see bone. Jake springs at Digger, Digger staggers back and hits Jake, and then Digger plunges backwards down a mine shaft. He’s still holding the fuse, and as he falls through a web of wires (from another trap he was laying for Jake’s parents), there’s a spark. Jake throws himself away from the edge of the mine shaft just in time.
Jake and the wolf survive the explosion. There are wounded-animal noises from down the mineshaft, and Jake remembers that Lucy had bitten Digger.
Jake frees Lucy-wolf and tells her to go to Ruby. Alex (yes, these abrupt leaps in and out of the framing device ARE making it hard to get absorbed in Jake’s story) says there are no more entries in the journal, but there is more to the story.
Jake retrieves Lucy’s clothes and goes to Ruby’s, where Lucy is in bed, unconscious (but twitching). Ruby says she’s had a hard struggle but it’s almost over. Then suddenly it is over (I don’t know; she’s resting comfortably with a smile on her still-unconscious face, and somehow Ruby knows this means she’s cured). Jake and Ruby eat breakfast and Ruby says Lucy is old enough now to decide for herself where she’ll live, so Ruby’s going to ask her to stay. Jake suggests he can help build a bigger place up in the mountains, with ramps for Ruby’s wheelchair.
But then we pull out to Sleepover level one last time, and Alex says Ruby and Lucy moved to another town, and Jake and his parents moved out west, because it turned out the seam of gold wasn’t rich enough to mine after all. Wait, out west? So they weren’t in Alaska after all. WHERE THE HELL IS THIS BOOK SET?
‘Wow,’ Charlie sank back on the couch. ‘Do you think they ever will get together? How old would they be now?’
‘Jake must be twenty, and Lucy would be twenty-one,’ Jo said. ‘At that age, it doesn’t matter if the girl is older. And they’re both old enough to find each other–if they still want to.’pp. 137-138
And with that, the girls hear snowmobiles approaching the cabin. It’s Alex’s parents, arriving via snowmobile.
The End, thank heavens.