Monday, March 19, 2018

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Punishment She Deserves by Elizabeth George
Published by: Viking
Publication Date: March 20th, 2018
Format: Hardcover, 704 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers and Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley are forced to confront the past as they try to solve a crime that threatens to tear apart the very fabric of a quiet, historic medieval town in England.

The cozy, bucolic town of Ludlow is stunned when one of its most revered and respected citizens--Ian Druitt, the local deacon--is accused of a serious crime. Then, while in police custody, Ian is found dead. Did he kill himself? Or was he murdered?

When Barbara Havers is sent to Ludlow to investigate the chain of events that led to Ian's death, all the evidence points to suicide. But Barbara can't shake the feeling that she's missing something. She decides to take a closer look at the seemingly ordinary inhabitants of Ludlow--mainly elderly retirees and college students--and discovers that almost everyone in town has something to hide.

A masterful work of suspense, The Punishment She Deserves sets Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers and Inspector Thomas Lynley against one of their most intricate cases. Fans of the longtime series will love the many characters from Elizabeth George's previous novels who join Lynley and Havers, and readers new to the series will quickly see why she is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed writers of our time. Both a page-turner and a deeply complex story about the lies we tell, the lies we believe, and the redemption we need, this novel will be remembered as one of George's best."

Does anyone else view a new Elizabeth George book as Christmas come early?

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James
Published by: Berkley
Publication Date: March 20th, 2018
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Vermont, 1950. There's a place for the girls whom no one wants--the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It's called Idlewild Hall. And in the small town where it's located, there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming--until one of them mysteriously disappears...

Vermont, 2014. As much as she's tried, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her older sister's death. Twenty years ago, her body was found lying in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister's boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can't shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case.

When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past--and a voice that won't be silenced..."

Simone St. James is an author that is always recommended to me, so maybe I should finally check her out? 

City of Sharkes by Kelli Stanley
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: March 20th, 2018
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The blonde secretary was scared when she visited Miranda Corbie’s office. A shove into a streetcar track, a box of poisoned chocolates…hateful, violent letters.

Someone was trying to kill her.

Miranda isn’t sure of anything at first except that Louise Crowley, the blonde who works as an assistant to Niles Alexander, San Francisco publisher, is in trouble. Despite her own preparations for an imminent voyage to a blitzkrieged Britain and a painful farewell to the city she loves, Miranda decides to help Louise and takes on her last case as a private detective in San Francisco…investigating her client, surveying the publishing world of 1940, and stumbling into murder with a trail that leads straight to Alcatraz…an island city of sharks.

Along the way, Miranda explores her beloved San Francisco once more, from Playland-at-the-Beach to Chinatown to Nob Hill and Treasure Island. She encounters John Steinbeck and C.S. Forester, and is aided and abetted by the charming and dapper San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. And she also discovers personal truths she’s long denied...

With her characteristic luxurious, lyrical prose and insightful eye for character, Kelli Stanley paints a rich, authentic portrait of 1940 San Francisco in this latest installment of her award-winning series."

OK, I have no recollection of ever hearing about this series which is right up my alley! San Francisco period crime? Yes please!

The Heart Forger by Rin Chupeco
Published by: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: March 20th, 2018
Format: Hardcover, 528 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"In The Bone Witch, Tea mastered resurrection―now she's after revenge...

No one knows death like Tea. A bone witch who can resurrect the dead, she has the power to take life...and return it. And she is done with her self-imposed exile. Her heart is set on vengeance, and she now possesses all she needs to command the mighty daeva. With the help of these terrifying beasts, she can finally enact revenge against the royals who wronged her―and took the life of her one true love.

But there are those who plot against her, those who would use Tea's dark power for their own nefarious ends. Because you can't kill someone who can never die...

War is brewing among the kingdoms, and when dark magic is at play, no one is safe."

How do you know it's time to pick up a book? When the sequel hits the shelf and you haven't finished it yet! 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Book Review - Elizabeth Hand's Wylding Hall

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand
Published by: Open Road Media Sci-Fi and Fantasy
Publication Date: July 14th, 2015
Format: Kindle, 148 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Julian Blake was a temperamental genius. His manager knew that if Julian stayed in his bedsit in London all summer he'd get no work done and mourn the death of his girlfriend Arianna who committed suicide. So Wylding Hall was let. Julian's British acid-folk band Windhollow Faire would secret themselves in the country for the month of August to work and reconnect. It was a summer that would produce an album named after the grand estate they stayed at that would be under everybody's Christmas Tree that December but would also lead to the disappearance of Julian Blake. A disappearance linked to a white haired girl who mysteriously appeared on the cover of the album whom no one remembered seeing. But then a lot of mysterious things happened that summer. Weird hallways and chambers that went on forever. A library that only two people ever found. A room with hundreds and hundreds of dead birds. A tune in the air that Julian couldn't help humming. And the walks in the woods that the locals warned them never to take. Yet the band and the other people who came in and out of their lives back in that summer in the seventies never compared notes, until now. Now there's a documentary being done about the album, inspired by construction that has unearthed discoveries at the house, and secrets are being revealed. The shape of things is starting to come into focus, but it doesn't seem possible. In the end it comes down to a photo in the local pub, a song Julian unearthed, and a half-naked girl with feathers on her feet.

Sometimes there's a confluence of events that come together just right that elevates an experience to another level. This occurrence started at a joint birthday party where fate decided the next book club selection would be Wylding Hall and ended in an extremely rare consensus that we all liked the book while we dunked fruit into delectable chocolate. But we all agreed, it wasn't just the book, it was something in the air. It's almost as if we were haunted and the book manifested itself for our entertainment. The waning days of summer had set in, mirroring the time frame of the events that happened to the members of Windhollow Faire as August drew to a close and their lease on the hall was up. Despite reality versus fiction and the present versus the past there was this connection that made the book almost real. It's such a short read, a mere 148 pages, and yet I just wanted their summer to be endless and for me to be able to live in this spooky yet somehow homey world. What aided the book so well was the suspension of disbelief was possible through Elizabeth Hand grounding the book in the real world. If she hadn't got the music scene of the time just right nothing else could have fallen into place, and yet she did it. Making this story of the real world yet somehow not quite of it, like the characters had walked through a fairy ring and everything was just slightly distorted. Like when Sergeant Howie ventures to Summerisle in The Wicker Man, the townspeople seem a little off, a little unwilling to talk, and pictures that might illuminate events are quickly hidden away. The balance between believability and the unknown is perfectly struck here.

Yet the way Elizabeth Hand chose to tell the story was an interesting one, yet it did present problems. She goes the route of many a documentary with each of the characters telling their part of the story, therefore capturing that feeling of reality, we've all seen this before. We could be watching a VH1 Behind the Music special about Windhollow Faire after all. Yet given the brevity of the book I had issues with the dramatis personae, it took awhile for their character traits to come through and in the interim I was lost. They were written too similarly and what was odd in my mind, there wasn't a hint of unreliability and their stories all synced up. Maybe I'm just too used to unreliable narrators and Agatha Christie trying to pull one over on me. There was just a sameness to them as Elizabeth Hand quickly cut from one POV to another. It took me quite awhile to realize that Lesley was a female, and seriously, can authors NOT use two too similarly named characters, like Jonathan and Julian? I'm not proud of this but I totally stereotyped the characters to remember who they were, the folklorist, the girlfriend, the dead guy, you get my drift... and not all of them were flattering monikers, just something so I could quickly tell who was who. A really good writer is able to distinguish the different characters enough with their voices that this shortcut of mine wouldn't be a necessity. I felt like it lowered the book. But you could argue that Elizabeth Hand wanted to sew confusion from the start. That she wanted her readers to not get a firm grip on anything. If that was the case? Good on her! See, I'm totally willing to see the other side of things because books are fluid, what the writer intended and what the reader gets could be different, but that doesn't mean both aren't true at the same time.

Though what enchanted me most was the era. Ghost stories just seem to work better when set in a time before technology ran rampant. But I've come to realize that for a ghost story or supernatural spookfest to really catch me there has to be something I connect to. More and more this isn't character driven Victorian stories but more modern pieces set in the not-too-distant past. Like the 70s and 80s. There's a reason why The Conjuring series is doing so well and has so many spinoffs and why so many people have embraced Stranger Things. These are eras that have a distinct look and feel, a time when to get a hold of your friends you had to hope they got your message left with a family member on the one phone in their house or you'd just show up and pray their parents knew where they were. A time when plans couldn't be easily changed. A time when I was innocent and to see that innocence turn malevolent, there's something supercharged about that. Here it's the 70s, and it's perfect. Not just for the distant haze that memory has given me about the decade in which I was born, but because of this insidious supernatural phenomena creeping around the familiar. We have the isolated house, one lone phone, and this kind of golden haze and heat hanging over the events. Therefore when there are clouds or cold, you know something is going to go wrong. There's strange things happening in the house, it's rambling and easy to get lost in. A library that almost no one has found. Yet all of it could be explained away. Everything could be just too much indulgence, until there's proof that this isn't the case. Proof that comes almost at the very end.

Yet that ending is really abrupt. The whole book is kind of a summer idyll interspersed with supernatural phenomena. There's a laziness to it, not in that it's badly written, but in the luxurious pacing. You just want to inhabit the story but then they leave the house, put out the album, and then this interview happens years later... and as for Julian's fate... well, we aren't given anything concrete, we aren't given anything really. That throwaway line about one of the band members maybe seeing him years later doesn't count in my mind. I became invested in these characters lives and I didn't just want the story about THAT summer and their one "hit" album, I wanted to know what came after. How did Lesley become a star? How did Nancy, the girlfriend, end up a professional psychic in Florida? But more importantly, these interviews are all happening not just because of some anniversary for an album that achieved cult status but because there is work being done at the house. Work that uncovers artifacts of archaeological as well as personal interest to our characters. There seems to be a momentum throughout the book that they will all reunite and return to Wylding Hall and yet that never happens. It felt as though right when Elizabeth Hand was about to bring all the different threads together she decided instead she'd finished and just cut the work off prematurely. This is a three-quarters finished story. There is no final act. And THIS was the only bone of contention me and my fellow book clubbers had. Where is the resolution? Where is the final chord?

Because if we are to compare this to a song, they all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. All stories do too. But this one apparently won't. Yes, I have to accept this. I have to concentrate on that which worked so well. What I'm talking about is the purpose of fables and myths and epic songs, all that which goes into folk music. All these tales were told not because they were used as entertainment, but to impart warnings. "These are songs that have been around for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They existed for centuries before any kind of recording was possible, even before people could write, for god's sake! So the only way those songs lived and got passed on was by singers." These songs were things that needed to be remembered. Things that needed to be known so that danger wasn't stumbled into blindly. While the Brothers Grimm might have gone a little too far with the moralizing, all tales that are passed down are done so with intent. There's a reason the locals get their backs up when these musicians come in asking about what shouldn't be talked of. Though logically IF the locals wanted them to behave perhaps some truth about the village and it's local legends could have warned them off. But that's not the purpose of villagers in these stories, their purpose is to see the strangers blithely walking into danger and keep their mouths shut. The danger that lies in the woods and lures Julian away with the fairies. It's this root of what folk music and folklore is that grounds the entire book in the human experience of tradition. So while it may falter, it still resonates.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Book Review - Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
Published by: Chicago Review Press
Publication Date: 1958
Format: Paperback, 342 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Linda Martin was born in France and lived their till her parents died suddenly in a plane crash and she went to an English orphanage. Years passed, filled with hard work and loneliness. When an opportunity arises to go back to France as a governess to the Comte de Valmy, the nine-year-old Philippe, Linda doesn't scruple to pretend she is English to Philippe's Aunt Héloïse in order to secure the position. The Château Valmy is located in a remote valley in the Alps and is breathtaking, despite it's seclusion, or maybe because of it. Linda and Philippe connect instantly, both being lonely souls orphaned at a young age. She is a surprisingly adept and forward-thinking companion for Philippe and saves him from a few dreadful accidents that might have happened if not for her. While she worries for Philippe's safety at the hands of his mysterious uncle and her boss, Léon de Valmy, Linda is in for a far greater predicament when she finds herself falling for Léon's rapscallion son, Raoul. Her love for Raoul blinds her to what is obviously going on in the Château and when she realizes the danger that she and Philippe are in it might just be too late... hurry, hurry, hurry — Ay, to the devil!

For many people, including myself, Mary Stewart is known for her Merlin series. Growing up in the 90s when I did surrounded by geeks who spent all their spare time discussing The Lord of the Rings in detail or playing Dungeons and Dragons or memorizing "Jabberwocky" in German, Mary Stewart was the female T.H. White. In fact, it wasn't until years later that I learned that Mary Stewart didn't only write about Arthurian Legend. To those in the "know" Mary Stewart was a writer of contemporary Gothic romances. I didn't learn about this other side of her till after high school when I started reading Austen and Bronte and developed a passion for historical fiction. Due to the enthusiastic following of these books by Stewart and in no small part to the reviews in the Bas Bleu catalog I started to pick up a book here and there over the years as the Chicago Review Press re-released them till I have now amassed a fairly comprehensive collection of Stewart's works. But alas, they have mainly just been sitting on my bookshelves looking pretty. Every so often I would look at the books and think, soon. I've been thinking this for awhile now and still they languished. The one interesting fact of waiting this long is not just the number of people who keep recommending Stewart's books to me over and over again, but that one book was recommended more than any other. That book was Nine Coaches Waiting. So Nine Coaches Waiting is waiting no more.

What I thought was very interesting about Stewart's writing is that she is able to take an idea that might be very gimmicky and spin it into something that works. At the beginning of the book Linda thinks of the quote from the play The Revenger's Tragedy about "Nine coaches waiting — hurry, hurry, hurry — Ay, to the devil!" Besides serving as the title of the book it serves as to how the book is broken down into chapters. Each chapter is a different "coach" with nine coaches, or chapters, in total. Though Stewart means this more literally then you might think. In each chapter Linda takes one vehicle somewhere, to Geneva or just down the road. But it's only a car that Linda has been in that counts. So the cars act as a literal driving force for the book, because unless Linda gets in a car and is getting ready to get in another there won't be another chapter to start. This is one of those ideas that hangs around that cool/looking like a dickhead place on the fashion scale, only I'd quantify it as clever/lame gimmick on the storytelling scale. It's such a clever conceit that it could easily come across as smug that the author was "oh so clever" to have thought of it in the first place. But that's what I really like about Stewart, she never comes across as smug. She gets what she's doing but does it in a way that makes it fun and self-referential. Her ability to laugh at herself and give her readers a nod and a wink makes what would be conceited actually quite endearing.

This endearing quality continues into the Jane Eyre jokes. They are nicely playful without being self-satisfied and smug. As you're reading you're thinking, oh, how Jane Eyre, then Linda thinks it, and you're like spooky, but then her very Mr. Rochester boss, Léon de Valmy, says what both you and Linda are thinking and it's spooky but also amusing all at once. Like a nervous laugh that dispels the tension. Mary Stewart doesn't take herself or her narrative too seriously and you become complicit in the fun, and this, more then anything else, made the book for me. The Bronte allusions didn't hurt either. But there's one author you really can't help comparing Stewart to, and that's another fan of the Brontes, I'm talking about Daphne Du Maurier. Both are masters of the Gothic romance, but, well, Mary Stewart loses something of the Gothic sensibility in the modernity of her storytelling that Du Maurier was always able to hold onto. Nine Coaches Waiting is just not as Gothic as I expected it to be. Moreover, there are times when Stewart reaches beyond her ability as a writer and the results are painful. Stewart has problems with descriptions of her surroundings. Not only does her compass points shift and turn till you're not quite sure what the orientation of the valley and surrounding areas are, but her attempts at lyricism as to the beauty of her alpine surrounds is totally beyond her grasp. The descriptions fall flat and are just a pale imitation of Daphne Du Maurier, especially when you think of the verdant and lush growth that surrounds Manderley. Sometimes a writer needs a little reminder of what they do best and what the shouldn't attempt in the face of superior talent.

As for those Alpine surrounds, what is it about governesses and the alps that go together like a hand and a glove? While The Sound of Music wasn't a musical till a year after Nine Coaches Waiting, the Trapp family's story was well known thanks to their music, and the film The Trapp Family, as well as Maria's autobiography, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. So I'm sure that Stewart, in her comedic self-referential style, was fully aware of the connotations she was making in her readers minds. How could it be avoided with a governess in the alps!?! What mystifies me is the hold The Sound of Music has on so many people. So many authors, especially ones who like to write about governesses, site this movie as an important touchstone. I get the cultural impact, but the love? I seriously do not see it. The songs border on the annoying and once they're in your head they just never leave. Plus, despite how well Julie Andrews can hold a tune, I really didn't see the Captain falling for this upstart with a bad pageboy haircut. I understand the lure of the romance, but still. Perhaps it's that every time I think of The Sound of Music I'm back in 6th grade laying on the couch with the chicken pox watching the movie on Christmas Day. I don't think we knew it was chicken pox yet, but I do remember being wrapped up in a blanket on the couch, watching the whole movie, being tucked into bed, and promptly vomiting all over myself. Therefore it's best if I'm not reminded of this incident, in any way, shape, or form.

Speaking of vomit... yes, interesting segue that, but some of Linda's thoughts made me want to vomit. Let's look at her actions first, she is a competent governess, doesn't let on that she speaks French fluently and in fact speaks it badly on purpose, teaches and helps Philippe, saving his life several times by her forethought, including a late night flit into the wilderness. In other words, Linda kicks ass. Yet her inner monologue is just a little too self-hating. She thinks of herself as being a "silly woman" with her fears when what she does is seriously awesome. She is willing to give up true love and safety forever to protect one little child and she does it without a pang. Yet she'll go on about her thoughts being irrelevant or herself being worthless. I'm sorry, but firstly, no. No one is worthless. Secondly, she has proven time and time again that this is totally not the case. More importantly, this is just showing how much culture has always pushed women to undervalue themselves as second class citizens. Yes, I could argue that what Linda does versus what Linda thinks makes her a more interesting character because it shows how people have self doubts even while facing down tremendous odds, but I won't argue that. Mary Stewart is a female writer who knows better. Linda is strong and should be lauded, not second guessed by her own little grey cells.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Tuesday Tomorrow

Death of an Unsung Hero by Tessa Alren
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: March 13th, 2018
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"In 1916, the world is at war and the energetic Lady Montfort has persuaded her husband to offer his family’s dower house to the War Office as an auxiliary hospital for officers recovering from shell-shock with their redoubtable housekeeper Mrs. Jackson contributing to the war effort as the hospital’s quartermaster.

Despite the hospital’s success, the farming community of Haversham, led by the Montfort’s neighbor Sir Winchell Meacham, does not approve of a country-house hospital for men they consider to be cowards. When Captain Sir Evelyn Bray, one of the patients, is found lying face down in the vegetable garden with his head bashed in, both Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson have every reason to fear that the War Office will close their hospital. Once again the two women unite their diverse talents to discover who would have reason to murder a war hero suffering from amnesia.

Brimming with intrigue, Tessa Arlen's Death of an Unsung Hero brings more secrets and more charming descriptions of the English countryside to the wonderful Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson series."

More Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson! Oh, and lots more English countryside!

Whatever Happened to Margo? by Margaret Durrell
Published by: Penguin
Publication Date: March 13th, 2018
Format: Kindle, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"In 1947, returning to the UK with two young children to support, Margaret Durrell starts a boarding house in Bournemouth. But any hopes of respectability are dashed as the tenants reveal themselves to be a host of eccentrics: from a painter of nudes to a pair of glamorous young nurses whose late-night shifts combined with an ever-revolving roster of gentleman callers leading to a neighbourhood rumour that Margo is running a brothel. Margo's own two sons, Gerry and Nicholas, prove to be every bit as mischievous as their famous Uncle Gerald - and he himself returns periodically with weird and wonderful animals, from marmosets to monkeys, that are quite unsuitable for life in a Bournemouth garden."

Recently I found myself wondering what DID happen to Margo Durrell, which led to me finding out about this book she wrote which was, until now, out of print. Can't wait!

The Heart of Mars by Paul Magrs
Published by: Firefly Press Ltd
Publication Date: March 13th, 2018
Format: Paperback, 244 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Lora faces a dramatic final battle between the Ancient Heart of Mars, which holds her family prisoner, a repository of all the life force of the planet, and the Hybrids of the City Inside. Both claim they are on the side of the humans and the Ancients have the power to restore their starships to working order, if they can only learn the secret of star-flight. Reunited with her family but caught in the middle of the conflict, will Lora decide to stay on Mars or leave forever? And what part has their ancient robot, Toaster, still to play in the fate of the red planet?"

I have really loved this series since book one, and while I'm sad to see it end, better a good ending then a series that overstays it's welcome!

Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings by Sarah Graley
Published by: Oni Press
Publication Date: March 13th, 2018
Format: Paperback, 112 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Part-Time Grim Reaper. Full-Time Cutie! Like most university students, Kim works a part-time job to make ends meet. Unlike most university students, Kim's job is pretty cool: she's a grim reaper, tasked with guiding souls into the afterlife.

Like most university students, Becka has a super intense crush. Unlike most university students, Becka's crush is on a beautiful gothic angel that frequents the underworld. Of course, she doesn't know that.

Unaware of the ghoulish drama she's about to step into, Becka finally gathers up the courage to ask Kim on a date! But when she falls into a ghostly portal and interrupts Kim at her job, she sets off a chain of events that will pit the two of them against angry cat-dads, vengeful zombies, and perhaps even the underworld itself. But if they work together, they just might make it... and maybe even get a smooch in the bargain."

Was anyone else obsessed with the TV show Reaper to such an extent that ANYTHING with "Reaper" in the title is now appealing? 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Book Review - Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden's Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire

Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
Published by: Spectra
Publication Date: August 28th, 2007
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Captain Henry Baltimore leds a night attack in the Ardennes that will forever change the world. As his entire battalion is cut down he survives the initial onslaught but is left to die with a leg wound. Out of the night sky comes large bat-like creatures, carrion eaters to feast on the dead. But there's something not right about them. One sees Baltimore and decides that he will be his feast. Lashing out Baltimore injures the creature but in return the creature destroys his leg. Later in hospital, a man appears beside his bed, and Baltimore knows he's one and the same with the creature on that battlefield. This "man" tells Baltimore that he knows not what he has done and the world will pay for the injury Baltimore inflicted on him. After this incident there are three people that Baltimore confides this story to, his three friends; Captain Demetrius Aischros, Thomas Childress, and Dr. Lemuel Rose. They know not of each other until one night when Baltimore asks them to meet him in a pub whose air of decrepitude and despair matches that of the rest of the world since the plague took hold and the Great War became of no consequence in the face of this new threat.

There they sit, waiting for Baltimore. In the interim they tell their stories because it is obvious that in order to have believed Baltimore's story, without hesitation, they too must have had some experience of this supernatural evil that walks the earth. Dr. Rose, besides treating Baltimore, also treated a man who believed he was responsible for the death of all the men he was stationed with. Dr. Rose couldn't believe this to be the case, but after a night in the woods keeping watch, believing Baltimore later was a given. Captain Aischros helped escort Baltimore home after he was invalided out of the war, if he wasn't convinced by what he saw on Baltimore's island home he was by an experience years earlier. Aischros recounts a tale from his youth when he was walking the coast of Italy and came upon the town of Cicagne, famed for their puppet shows, and barely escaped with his life. Childress is the last to tell his tale, having grown up with Baltimore on Trevelyan Island, he knew Baltimore all his life, but it was an incident while working for his own father's company in Chile that opened his eyes. They talk and wait hours, the pub becoming oppressive. They aren't sure if Baltimore is going to show, but they feel the final battle with the monster from that day in the Ardennes is at hand.

If you are a fan of good art and good storytelling then the only explanation for not knowing who Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden are would be that you've spent the last few decades under a rock. While I knew of them individually, in fact meeting Christopher Golden at a Buffy the Vampire Slayer Convention in upstate New York and fangirling over his videogame script, it was in a roundabout way that I learned about Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire. Before I started this blog I was very cunning in getting press passes for events. In February of 2007 I was supposed to go to the New York Comic Con with a friend of mine but the train from Chicago to New York was snowbound and the trip was cancelled because I wouldn't be able to make it in time. I insisted that my friend go and meet Christopher Golden knowing she would love him as much as me and it so happened that he was signing posters for a new collaboration with Mike Mignola. I still have the signed poster on my office wall next to my computer. Beautifully enlarged drawings from Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire of the church in Reveka and the church interior at Cicagne, and a weeping angel that would forever slightly freak me out after the Doctor Who episode "Blink" aired later that year. THIS I knew was a book written and illustrated just for me.

What is interesting about these two authors collaborating is that both are very familiar with vampires. Mike Mignola worked on the inadvertently hilariously awesome Bram Stoker's Dracula as well as Blade II, and the Angel comics. Whereas Christopher Golden, besides writing the scripts for both Buffy the Vampire Slayer Video Games also wrote comics and books for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. So their individual and combined vampire street cred could hardly be surpassed. But what struck me so much about this book was that it wasn't just a way to shoehorn vampires into the first world war, a time when these opportunistic creatures could flourish, instead it was almost a reinvention of the vampire for a new generation. They were carrion eaters awoken by the violence of men further spurred onto creating a destructive plague by violence against one of their own, The Red King. They lived in a symbiotic relationship with man, feeding off their dead and dying. Rarely are vampires shown as creatures there to keep the balance, keep the scales from tipping. The Red King in fact lays all the vengeful ills that have befallen mankind on Baltimore lashing out to save himself on that battlefield. It's almost as if the plague is a result of hurt pride, making the vampires pitiable more than anything else.

This spin of the morals of the vampires isn't the only way that this book stands head and shoulders above the rest. The main attraction for me was that this book reeked of Victorian Christmas ghost stories. The three men thrown together around a fire while the bleakness of the day bares down on them and they tell their terrifying stories couldn't have been more Dickensian if Dickens had written it himself. I literally couldn't contain my joy as I read this book into the late hours with chills going down my spin thinking that finally someone had written my own personal The Turn of the Screw, but with vampires and the Great War and totally not a lame premise! Seeing as I read so many stories with vampires predictability of plot and worldbuilding becomes problematic. You either have it modern, which can work, though I often like it without the tweaks to our world, or you can go all Bram Stoker. It's like there's an either or switch and you're not allowed in that middle ground. But that middle ground is where the best stories can be found. Think of one of the best episodes of Angel ever, "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been." It was set during the height of McCarthyism and was approached in a whole new way. It wasn't Victorian stodginess and it wasn't new and hip. Much like here, we have a new spin that is quite fascinating and is able to harken back to the origin story while still keeping the feeling of another era.

This ability of the authors to not only capture but understand the era they are writing about and tweaking just made me giddy. Let's look at the basics. The Great War resulted in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic which actually killed more people than the war itself. So World War I is forever linked to a horrible plague, The Spanish Flu. But what Golden and Mignola do here is to cleverly expand on this. What if the flu had been worse? What if this plague was supernatural in origin? What if it wasn't just supernatural but was a vampire with a severe grudge for getting his face a little scarred? The truth is, they have taken real events and taken a believable extrapolation of events to their worst possible outcome. I know I shouldn't be so happy about a vampire plague descending on the world, but they just wrote it so well. They made a compelling alternate history. If you want to extrapolate further you could even take this into World War II. Now you're probably thinking I'm talking crazy, but think about it. World War II was inevitable as soon as we placed such hard sanctions on the Germans. We created our own worst enemy and we made Germany want another war. Here Baltimore by lashing out at The Red King to save himself creates the plague. Sometimes in trying to protect we make matters far worse and the ramifications impossible to foresee. Plague, World War II, you see?

With all that this book has going for it, the feeling of Poe, the more relevant yet completely original vampire, the Dickensian Christmas, I wonder if perhaps the drawings weren't a step to far. Yes, I don't think it would be a true collaboration without the drawings, but I don't really think there needed to be so many. More judiciously used illustrations better positioned would have worked better in my opinion perhaps with some red as a spot color. Yes, this seems counter intuitive with me picking up the book in the first place because of the illustrations, but they just don't really work for me. I felt they were unnecessary. My main problem was that these images were forcing us to view the story in a certain way and that's not right. Words evoke images in the reader's imagination and it's the work of these readers to create the scene in their heads. To people the world of the book as we see fit. But here we are meant to view the language in a proscribed manner. Thus making the book closer to the graphic novel end of the spectrum. Don't get me wrong, I love graphic novels, they just use a different part of the brain, one where image is primary and text is secondary, and if we're lucky they merge into a cohesive whole. Instead here Mignola's illustration would draw me out of the text and make me think aloud that that isn't how I saw it and also realize that if you've seen one skull or one peaked rooftop you've probably seen them all. I am interested to see how they transitioned this book into a series of comics... perhaps that will be the proper outlet for the drawings. Whereas the story? The story is something you shouldn't miss. Just never mind that skull or that one or that other one.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Book Review - H.P. Lovecraft's Tales of H.P. Lovecraft

Tales of H.P. Lovecraft by H.P. Lovecraft
Published by: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Publication Date: 1935
Format: Paperback, 346 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

The world is stranger than it seems. No one knows this better than those who have been to Miskatonic University. But then, if you've been to this Ivy League school you've probably been there to catch a glimpse of their extensive collection of occult books and are therefore used to the strange. Perhaps you are even hoping to see the famous Necronomicon, capable of summoning the Old Ones. If that is the case, stories of ancient creatures plaguing the dreams of artists and poets are probably your bread and butter. Meteorite's bringing luminosity and madness to a small valley might seem plebeian. But at least you are forewarned. At least you know of the dangers that can be had on a street that can never be found again where you listened to the most haunting of music played on a viol. You know that sounds within the walls might bring a sleepless night or they might bring death to those you care for. You know that there are aliens and creatures beyond man's knowing and that sometimes this knowledge brings madness. Perhaps you yourself are mad. Maybe you were a professor at Miskatonic University who was called to a strange happening and your eyes were opened to the depravities that are possible when man and beast unite. Or maybe you went on an expedition, nothing more simple or academic than that. Then something went wrong. Someone went missing. Your worldview was forever changed and you were left with one purpose, to conceal the discovery of this horror from the rest of the world forever. Here's hoping you succeed and don't get in league with evil. But evil is so persuasive...

While most readers would probably place Lovecraft in the horror or fantasy sections of their bookshelves, he was distinctly influenced by the Gothic and in my mind that is where he belongs. Such authors as Edgar Allan Poe and Robert W. Chambers helped lay the groundwork for Lovecraft and all three of these men straddled genres. If you keeping going backwards in classification you'll see that Gothic is the only way to encapsulate all of them, because horror eventually arose out of the Gothic tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet Lovecraft has almost defied classification, he has become a byword for cosmic horror and knowledge beyond the ken of man, knowledge that often leads to insanity. His greatest creation, Cthulhu, is known by those who don't even know who Lovecraft or Arkham or Miskatonic University is. His imagery has become a part of popular culture and his influence is still felt. For me his influence is felt even closer to home in that my family owns Stanton and Lee Publishers which started as an imprint of Arkham House, which was founded by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei to publish Lovecraft's work in beautiful hardcover editions. Therefore it's kind of embarrassing to admit that while familiar with Lovecraft's work I had actually never read it until now. What struck me most about this collection of his short stories is you can instantly see why his writing is classic. It's not just looking beyond his work and seeing how much influence he has had on other writers from August Derleth to Terry Pratchett to Bruce Campbell to the Duffer Brothers, but it's how his work was so original. His work feels so modern, so fresh, so out of it's time. His legacy might be great, but it's endured because he was a gifted writer who saw the world differently, much like the afflicted artists who people his stories.

As for this collection hand-picked by Joyce Carol Oates after all the copyright issues were settled... without having read any of Lovecraft's stories not included here, I'd say it's a very solid collection that should have left "At the Mountains of Madness" out. Now I know those who are fans of Lovecraft are wondering why I would omit his most famous work. Well it's because a novella has no business being included in a collection of short stories, it creates an imbalance in the book's flow. Also, his writing style works better on a smaller scale. I'm not talking worldbuilding, I'm talking length. He has a way of packing such a punch with his shorter stories that having the time to search miles and miles of Antarctica AND see giant penguins who actually have nothing to do with the plot makes the punch lose it's impact. It's true, shorter is sweeter. As a reader I'm not a fan of short story collections. One really badly picked or placed piece can throw off my entire opinion of the book, IE "At the Mountains of Madness." Though in fairness to this collection I didn't hold the novella inclusion against it, that's Joyce Carol Oates's fault. But I did have issues with Lovecraft's writing, and not just with the occasional out-of-touch reference that is the product of his time that he expressed through his continued use of inbreeding as a plot point, but through his repetitive use of certain words, phrases, stylistic elements, and plot twists. That's the problem with a writer who has certain ticks when stories that weren't meant to be presented together are, you see where he repeats. You think perhaps you should start a drinking game for every time he uses the word "cyclopean" but then worry that you will die of blood alcohol poisoning. But I think that if you were to just space out the reading of his work you wouldn't find this as annoying as someone who reads right through.

Yet this repetition isn't all bad. Yes, it can be irksome, but it also helps his stories to have an inter-connectivity. It's interesting to me, reading these stories almost a hundred years after they were written that he is obviously setting all these stories within the same universe of his creation. He's worldbuilding on a level that, as time goes on, is becoming more and more popular. How many tie-ins, prequels, sequels, what-have-yous are now out there in the world? Characters from Miskatonic University reappear or are referenced in other stories. Events that have happened in an earlier story with say a University expedition have consequences in a story that was written later about a different expedition. This more than anything else is why people have latched onto his work. He has created his own universe and while his longest story is nowhere near a sizable book if you put them all together you have one heck of a story. I think this is why so many authors are drawn to writing stories within his world. It's not just that it's iconic, it's that it's so specific, so well built that to write within these confines gives you a freedom and the hope that a little of his genius will rub off on you. While I'm not going to debate the difference between true literature and fanfic here, because that is too thorny an issue, there has to be something said to the freedom of writing in someone else's voice. Even Neil Gaiman has gone all out fanboy with his Sherlock Holmes pastiche set in Lovecraft's universe, "A Study in Emerald" which should be noted isn't the only time Sherlock has fought with Cthulhu in various other authors work. But it is very interesting to muse on the fact that Conan Doyle and Lovecraft are contemporaries... makes you think, doesn't it?

Though, for me there were two stories that really struck home, "The Rats in the Walls" and "The Shunned House." Both stories deal with houses that have weird effects on the residents. Needless to say these homes have death within their walls yet hint at "the other." Be it cannibalism, paganism, werewolves, these stories work because not only are they suspenseful, but they are also left open ended enough that you have to draw your own conclusions. With the mysterious, sometimes having everything tied up neatly in a bow is dissatisfying. The hints, the surmises you reach, they can scare you more then knowing exactly what was going on. These two stories need to be read in one sitting, the pages turned as fast as your eyes can take in the words. These stories go for the tropes of traditional Gothic stories, and yet, Lovecraft knows how to tweak the narrative just enough to make the genre all his own. That is why I think so many people shy from calling him a Gothic writer, he has made the genre his bitch. While "The Shunned House" is slightly predictable, following genre conventions, I defy anyone to see that ending coming in "The Rats in the Walls!" A story about a man restoring his ancestral home, you expect a bit of ghosts and ghouls, you don't expect him to become a cannibal and eat his son's best friend after dreaming that he was a pig now do you? Right there is the essence of Lovecraft. Serving up the unexpected in a very macabre way. He's fused his own weird notions of aliens and outer space with what people expect from the Gothic and created what is and will always be Lovecraftian.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Tuesday Tomorrow

Burn Bright by Patricia Briggs
Published by: Ace
Publication Date: March 6th, 2018
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"They are the wild and the broken. The werewolves too damaged to live safely among their own kind. For their own good, they have been exiled to the outskirts of Aspen Creek, Montana. Close enough to the Marrok's pack to have its support; far enough away to not cause any harm.

With their Alpha out of the country, Charles and Anna are on call when an SOS comes in from the fae mate of one such wildling. Heading into the mountainous wilderness, they interrupt the abduction of the wolf--but can't stop blood from being shed. Now Charles and Anna must use their skills--his as enforcer, hers as peacemaker--to track down the attackers, reopening a painful chapter in the past that springs from the darkest magic of the witchborn..."

Quite literally one of my favorite books I read last year (in ARC form) and perhaps my favorite Mercyverse book to date. 

The Altered History of Willow Sparks by Tara O'Connor
Published by: Oni Press
Publication Date: March 6th, 2018
Format: Paperback, 152 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"What happens when you can finally get everything you ever wanted?

Willow Sparks and her best friend Georgia Pratt are at the bottom of the social ladder at Twin Pines High School, just trying to get through each day relatively unscathed. But when Willow finds a mysterious book that allows her to literally change her life, it feels like her luck is finally turning. Becoming more and more popular with each entry into the book, her old life, including her friendship with Georgia, seems miles away. Yet as Willow will discover, every action has a reaction, and the future has unusual―even dangerous―ways of protecting itself."

A good high school fable.

Archival Quality by Ivy Noelle Weir
Published by: Oni Press
Publication Date: March 6th, 2018
Format: Paperback, 280 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"After losing her job at the library, Cel Walden starts working at the haunting Logan Museum as an archivist. But the job may not be the second chance she was hoping for, and she finds herself confronting her mental health, her relationships, and before long, her grasp on reality as she begins to dream of a young woman she's never met, but feels strangely drawn to. Especially after she asks Cel for help...

As Cel attempts to learn more about the woman, she begins losing time, misplacing things, passing out—the job is becoming dangerous, but she can't let go of this mysterious woman. Who is she? Why is she so fixated on Cel? And does Cel have the power to save her when she's still trying to save herself?"

Oh, mysterious!

The Bags of Tricks Affair by Bill Pronzini
Published by: Forge Books
Publication Date: March 6th, 2018
Format: Hardcover, 256 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The Bags of Tricks Affair is the latest charming historical mystery in Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Bill Pronzini's detective series.

A conman always has a bag of tricks, ready to fool the unsuspecting, and almost everyone is unsuspecting until they get taken. When that happens, they turn to Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, to recover their money and what’s left of their dignity, and perhaps even to save their lives.

When one such case leaves Sabina Carpenter the only witness to a murder, the family of the culprit vows to stop at nothing to keep her silent. The threat leaves John Quincannon deeply concerned for Sabina’s safety, but there’s no rest for the wicked and so the crime-solving duo must split up to tackle two separate con games, run by two villains with deadly bags of tricks at hand.

And when Sabina’s life is put in danger, John must rush to save her while grappling with the terrifying realization of exactly how much she means to him."

The real question I have is what happened to his co-writer? 

In Places Hidden by Tracie Peterson
Published by: Bethany House Publishers
Publication Date: March 6th, 2018
Format: Paperback, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"On her way to San Francisco to find her brother, Caleb, who went missing three months ago, Camriann Coulter meets Judith and Kenzie, who both have their own mysteries to solve in the booming West Coast city. The women decide to help each other, including rooming together and working at Kenzie's cousin's chocolate factory.

Camri's search for her brother, an attorney, leads her deep into the political corruption of the city--and into the acquaintance of Patrick Murdock, a handsome Irishman who was saved from a false murder charge by Caleb. Patrick challenges all of Camri's privileged beliefs, but he knows more about what happened to her brother than anyone else. Together, they move closer to the truth behind Caleb's disappearance. But as the stakes rise and threats loom, will Patrick be able to protect Camri from the dangers he knows lie in the hidden places of the city?"

San Francisco? I'm in.

The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw
Published by: Simon Pulse
Publication Date: March 6th, 2018
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Hocus Pocus and Practical Magic meets the Salem Witch trials in this haunting story about three sisters on a quest for revenge—and how love may be the only thing powerful enough to stop them.

Welcome to the cursed town of Sparrow...

Where, two centuries ago, three sisters were sentenced to death for witchery. Stones were tied to their ankles and they were drowned in the deep waters surrounding the town.

Now, for a brief time each summer, the sisters return, stealing the bodies of three weak-hearted girls so that they may seek their revenge, luring boys into the harbor and pulling them under.

Like many locals, seventeen-year-old Penny Talbot has accepted the fate of the town. But this year, on the eve of the sisters’ return, a boy named Bo Carter arrives; unaware of the danger he has just stumbled into.

Mistrust and lies spread quickly through the salty, rain-soaked streets. The townspeople turn against one another. Penny and Bo suspect each other of hiding secrets. And death comes swiftly to those who cannot resist the call of the sisters.

But only Penny sees what others cannot. And she will be forced to choose: save Bo, or save herself."

I'm more about the Practical Magic side than the Hocus Pocus side but my real question is Ernshaw can not be this author's real last name... too Wuthering Heights. 

Deja Moo by Kirsten Weiss
Published by: Midnight Ink
Publication Date: March 6th, 2018
Format: Paperback, 360 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A holiday tradition turns deadly, but is the paranormal museum to blame?

Maddie Kosloski is no fan of San Benedetto's Christmas Cow, a thirty-foot straw bovine that graces the town square every December. For one thing, the cow displaces her paranormal museum as the number one tourist attraction. Plus, every year, despite around-the-clock surveillance, the cow goes up in flames.

But this year, there's more than just a fire blazing in Maddie's wine-country hometown. One of the Christmas Cow guards has been found with an arrow in his chest, and Maddie's new haunted cowbell exhibit is fueling a panic. Are the spirits in her museum getting too hot to handle? If Maddie can't stop the hysteria―and the murderous archer―her holiday plans might not be the only thing full of holes."

Anyone else wish that Christmas books could only be sold around Christmas? So buy now, save for Christmas! 

Trick for Free by Seanan McQuire
Published by: DAW
Publication Date: March 6th, 2018
Format: Paperback, 432 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Penance, noun:
1. Punishment for past actions.
2. An attempt to pay for what can't be bought.
3. See also "exile."

Antimony Price is on the run. With the Covenant on her tail and her family still in danger, she needs to get far, far away from anyone who might recognize her--including her own mice. For the first time in a long time, a Price is flying without a safety net. Where do you go when you need to disappear into a crowd without worrying about attracting attention? An amusement park, of course.

Some people would call Lowryland the amusement park. It's one of the largest in Florida, the keystone of the Lowry entertainment empire...but for Annie, it's a place to hide. She's just trying to keep her head down long enough to come up with a plan that will get her home without getting anyone killed. No small order when she's rooming with gorgons and sylphs, trying to placate frustrated ghosts, and rushing to get to work on time.

Then the accidents begin. The discovery of a dead man brings Annie to the attention of the secret cabal of magic users running Lowryland from behind the scenes. They want the fire that sleeps in her fingers. They want her on their side. They want to help her--although their help, like everything else, comes with a price.

No plan. Minimal backup. No way out. Annie's about to get a crash course in the reality behind the pretty facade. If she's lucky, she'll survive the experience."

How does Seanan get this many books written? Seriously. 

How to Be Champion by Sarah Millican
Published by: Trapeze
Publication Date: March 6th, 2018
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:

Part autobiography, part self help, part confession, part celebration of being a common-or-garden woman, part collection of synonyms for nunny, Sarah Millican's debut book delves into her super normal life with daft stories, funny tales and proper advice on how to get past life's blips - like being good at school but not good at friends, the excitement of IBS and how to blossom post divorce.

If you've ever worn glasses at the age of six, worn an off-the-shoulder gown with no confidence, been contacted by an old school bully, lived in your childhood bedroom in your thirties, been gloriously dumped in a Frankie and Benny's, cried so much you felt great, been for a romantic walk with a dog, worn leggings two days in a row even though they smelt of wee from a distance, then this is YOUR BOOK. If you haven't done those things but wish you had, THIS IS YOUR BOOK. If you just want to laugh on a train/sofa/toilet or under your desk at work, THIS IS YOUR BOOK."

Sarah has been on Graham Norton a few times and she is seriously hilarious. Therefore BUY THIS BOOK!

Friday, March 2, 2018

Book Review - Diane Setterfield's Bellman & Black

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
Published by: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Publication Date: November 5th, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

William Bellman's life was perfect for a time. He excelled at the family business, a thriving mill which he helped make more prosperous. When his uncle died suddenly his cousin decided that William should take over and he pushed the mill's productivity even further. This allowed him to marry for love and have as many children as they could. His life was at it's apex. Things started to go wrong. Those he loved started to die. At each and every funeral he sees a man who knowingly looks at him and yet William can not for the life of him place this familiar face. After his wife and all his children but one die he meets the man, a Mr. Black, in the cemetery standing over his family's freshly dug graves. William is pleading for the life of his poor daughter, dear Dora, and though he can't remember what happened that feverish night, he knows that he and Mr. Black struck some sort of deal. That deal, however nebulous, starts William Bellman on a new business venture. He is to create an emporium in London catering to the bereaved. Bellman and Black will have the finest in all funerary needs. William doesn't sleep, he doesn't eat, he lives and breathes this new company. He finds the backers, he finds the location, he finds the architect, he finds the blackest of black fabrics, the subtlest of stationary, the discreetest of employees, he finds everything but his associate Mr. Black. Mr. Black is nowhere to be found. This starts to gnaw on William. Is their bargain complete? Will his partner ever come for the funds he is so diligently putting aside? As William lay dying he looks on the face of Mr. Black and a memory comes back to him. William is ten and out with three of his friends. He boasts he can kill a rook with his slingshot. No one there thought he could do it, and yet the dead rook spoke to his success. A success that he forgot but the rooks remembered.

I don't know why I gave Diane Setterfield a second chance. The Thirteenth Tale was predictable and what plot it had was simplistic. The reveal was so laughably telegraphed that I can't believe that anyone fell for it. And then I read the cunningly calibrated wording to promote her second novel "a heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line" and I was sold. I have to remind myself that the marketing department is not the author and also, where was the ghost!?! There was no ghost! Wait, was it the ghost of a plot? No, it couldn't be that because instead of going from a simplistic plot with her first book to a more complex one with her second she went in the exact opposite direction and wrote a book with no plot. No ghost of a plot, simply NO PLOT. Also where was that ratcheting tension? Was it hidden in the hundred pages about how a mill works? Or was it happening offstage in the next hundred pages when Bellman was building his Selfridges of death? Somewhere amongst the building plans and finding the blackest black? And another thing, this book does a disservice to stories about department stores! The Paradise, Mr. Selfridge, even Are You Being Served? have proven again and again that department stores are rife for storytellers. But I don't think Diane Setterfield is a storyteller, I think she has to admit at this point that her writing just puts people to sleep and should therefore start a practice helping insomniacs and leave us poor unwitting readers who jump at the Gothic alone. This book literally took me two weeks to read because every night it would lull me to sleep with it's lack of plot and too much time on wool!

You would think with all these hundreds of pages devoid of plot that she could really nail down her details, and to an untrained eye she might... but I have a sneaking suspicion that she is writing out of her ass. She writes in loving detail about warp and weft, how to get blacks the blackest they can be, and who am I to know if this is right? I'm not an expert on milling and dyeing in the 19th century but I do know to make black blacker you add blue not more black! What I am an expect on is anything to do with art, therefore I know my paper stocks. At one point Bellman is talking about some exquisite paper he is getting in that will be perfect for mourning stationary and it's 1/2" thick. Excuse me!?! Firstly paper is done in pounds and if you are taking a caliper to measure it, they are small increments indeed. And yes, I know paper is different stateside to the UK, but I learned both systems at school and I think the UK system is SO much more logical. Therefore I can definitively say that if Bellman stocked paper that was 1/2" think it wouldn't be paper it would be a block of wood. It would be freakin' 1/2" thick, a THIRD of the thickness of a 2x4. I feel especial pain that as this book was supposedly edited by someone in the book world, a world of paper for printing and publishing that no one scratched there head and went "hang on a minute something seems wrong here" but alas such is the case. Therefore the integrity of the author has been impinged. I know she got this 100% wrong, so how can I trust any of the details she gives? Nothing can be taken at face value and therefore she has completely devalued her own work with shitty research.

Though her shitty specificity doesn't carry throughout the book. It's very nebulous as to when the events take place. The section in the mill indicates that it's just at the cusp of the industrial revolution so the first half of the 19th century, but then the prevalence of Victorian funerary practices would mean that it would have to coincide with Prince Albert's death in 1861, and yet by the end of the book cremation is all the vogue which didn't happen until the turn of the 20th century, and as Bellman was in his fifties when he died how the fuck does time work in this book!?! Maybe if you say his mill was backwards, despite the author trying to show otherwise, we could say that Bellman was born around 1850 and everything can kind of fall into place, but just... Yet it drives me batty that she can spend hundreds of pages on fabric and I had to go online to see that the first cremation was in 1885 and in 1902 the cremation act was passed. Though I still can't be sure that this is what she was referring too as the inevitable downfall of the Selfridges of death! What could have been interesting to explore in a book was the radically changing funerary practices over the course of this one century, with cremation taking the place of grand pomp and circumstance due not only to cost but to consideration as the cities for the dead impinged on the cities of the living. If the history aspect had been explored, going into Queen Victoria and her staying in mourning until her death, interestingly enough until the year before the cremation act, I could have so read the heck out of those details! Instead we are left with imbalance. A book with no plot going into excruciating and erroneous details about non-essentials and vaguebooking anything of historical significance that could have given the book depth.

But then in the end Setterfield decides to revel in the vague. A draw your own conclusions approach that made me draw the conclusion that she can't write. Here's the thing, putting an ampersand between two things DOESN'T link them. You actually have to establish a connection, you need to set this up, you need to link the very human world of Bellman with the probably avian world of Black. You can't have a connection so tenuous that at times the protagonist actually wonders if there was ever an agreement between them. And just randomly having short sections about corvids with pointless facts isn't integrating them into the story, it's breaking up the monotony with information that has no bearing on the rest of the book. And here is the crux of this problem, without a definitive link between Bellman and Black, without some explanation as to who Black is there is no "other" element to this book. The Gothic goes out the window and the supernatural has sped away. When your hints are so vague you can't draw ANY conclusions perhaps it's time to realize you have failed at whatever it was you were trying to do. Because the truth is I have NO idea what Setterfield was trying to do here. Is Black death in a Meet Joe Black kind of way? Is Black the human form of a rook? Is Black both? Gaw! So annoying! I mean, is he even there at all or just a hallucination that Bellman has, a kind of Grim that haunts Bellman? Because if it is just a presentiment of death that's been stalking Bellman since he was a child, well, that's just lame, because if you think about it death stalks us all. So that's the point of the book is it? You live a life and then you die? Wow, that's some original thinking there...

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