Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Book Review - Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Published by: Penguin
Publication Date: 1962
Format: Paperback, 160 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

"Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!"

Mary Katherine Blackwood, called Merricat, and her sister Constance have lived their life for the past six years shut away from the world caring for their Uncle Julian. Their only other companion is Merricat's cat Jonas. Merricat is the only one ever to leave the house, on Tuesdays and Fridays, which are bad days. As she walks to the store she can feel the eyes watching her. A good trip into town is one with minimal contact with the outside world, a bad trip is one that ends in taunting. The three remaining Blackwoods have been beyond the bounds of society behind the fence that Constance and Merricat's father erected before that fateful and fatal dinner. Constance was arrested six years ago because she was the only one who didn't use the sugar laced with the cyanide. Constance was the only one at the table to survive that dinner without any aftereffects... Uncle Julian survived, but he was never able to walk again and his mind wanders, though that night never leaves him. He is dedicating what remains of his life to recounting that final day. The day when he lost four of his family members, one of them his wife.

The aftermath of Constance's acquittal, despite everyone believing in her guilt, was that she shut out the world. Connie never ventures past her garden anymore. She spends her time cooking and looking after her two charges, keeping the world shut out. Merricat is just as paranoid of others as Constance, but she has buried treasure and symbolic items scattered throughout their land in a type of rustic magic to ward off everyone. One day she finds that her wards have failed and at that moment there is a knock on the door. Their cousin Charles has arrived. His branch of the Blackwoods severed all connections at the time of the trial, not even willing to take Merricat in, that night she was sent to bed without dinner, and though it saved her life it meant she was banished to an orphanage for a time. Charles does not have the best of intentions. He is avaricious, only seeing the money in everything. And in his alliance with Connie, Julian and Merricat are just obstacles to be dealt with, nothing more. But Merricat won't go down without a fight, because this kitty has claws. She has a feeling that it will be her left in the house with Constance, not Charles. Charles should remember, bad things have been known to happen to members of the Blackwood family. Especially those who send Merricat to bed without her supper.

This book is the most terrifying and accurate story of paranoia I think I have ever read. There's a part of me that is very antisocial and would rather be left to my books. I have easily gone a week without leaving the house and I can see some things in Merricat that I can relate to in her OCD behaviors. During times of stress I notice that certain ticks I thought I had gotten over return. Washing hands a certain number of times, needing to touch objects in a certain order, things needing to be placed just so. But I remind myself that despite a genetic propensity for agoraphobia, my paternal great-grandmother never left her room for forty years, that at least I do leave the house. I do go out into the world. I don't have a reason to be paranoid. I am not a Blackwood. The difference is their isolation isn't without just cause. Yes, it's odd and haunting the way they lock themselves away, but they do so for a reason. The villagers, more than the crime, made them what they are, or at least exacerbated the situation enough to cause them to turn inward. Coming to the house, taunting, cat calling, daring each other to go to the home where everyone died. Asking Connie to come out so they can see what a mass murderer looks like. "Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?" Childish glee in their hatred of the hoity-toity and reclusive sisters is evident in the villagers.

The mob mentality of people who appear normal is a far scarier thing than two agoraphobic girls peering through slits in the windows at a life they will never have nor want. The bile that is brewing in the town has far greater scope then the murders that happened to the Blackwood family. It's the age old fear, fear of the unknown. The girls are distinctly "other" and not so much because of the family legacy or their aristocratic airs but because of their problems. If the girls went out into the world more, interacted with the town, much like Charles does, the constant reminder of the crime would diminish over time. It wouldn't be a talking point anymore, just something that happened in the past. Instead, by locking themselves away they are, in the mind of the villagers, antagonizing them and making themselves a target. In fact the more I think about it the more I realize that not only is this a book about prejudice and paranoia but it's about the stigma of mental illness. These girls need help, but instead they are ostracized. I am lucky enough to have friends around me who support me during my dark days and when I'm having problems. I don't deny that I have issues with depression. But on a larger stage it's still verboten to talk about it. This book shows in the most graphic way that compassion not fear should be how mental illness is treated.

Because there is no doubt that Merricat and Constance are mentally ill. Merricat is 18 in this book, yet her behavior is more like that of a 12 year old, her emotional development and well being stunted when the poisoning happened. Constance wonders if she was right to shut Merricat away from the world, but it seems to me a mutual decision. Merricat, despite being more willing to leave the house, is really suffering more, and very much a sociopath. She has far more rituals and dark thoughts than Constance ever had. There is the rigid schedule to maintain, there are the coins buried in the river bank, the doll under the rock, the blue marbles, and the book that was nailed to the tree. Even when Merricat isn't checking on them her thoughts dwell on the powers these items give her, the layer of protection she has. Like a person who has to turn the light on and off so many times before leaving, Merricat's life is built around these rituals that have evolved around her to protect the two sisters, who, despite everything, deeply love each other. These are really ingenious coping mechanisms. Because it keeps them busy, keeps them active. For Constance cooking and cleaning, for Merricat there's her magic. While others might say these rituals are symptoms of their disease, I'm more forgiving, I see them as ways they can survive. Whatever you need to do to get by right? And they aren't hurting anyone.

Yet, even with the best coping mechanisms there is always that hope, that light at the end of the tunnel that someone will come and save you. That a hero will emerge from the darkness and make everything OK. Who hasn't dreamt of a knight in shining armor? When you're lost in the deepest recesses of your mind sometimes the idea that you can be rescued by someone else is all that gets you through. Which is why it makes sense that Constance responded to Charles. She's trying to find a hero, sadly Charles isn't it. He's a morally corrupt human being willing to pit two mentally ill sisters against each other in order for monetary gain. I mean, seriously, this family has issues. Lots of them. Yet he's the socially acceptable one, which again highlights how we need to remove the stigma of mental illness. I was seriously hoping that Charles might go the way of the previous Blackwoods. Though much more painfully. Though the war that Merricat wages on him is something not to be missed. Because Merricat knows the truth, in the end you have to rescue yourself. She's the hero of this tale, not some loser cousin looking for a handout. She's a flawed heroine, but the best ones are.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Tuesday Tomorrow

Strange the Dreams by Laini Taylor
Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: March 28th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 544 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A new epic fantasy by National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author Laini Taylor of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy.

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around--and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he's been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance to lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries--including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo's dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? and if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

In this sweeping and breathtaking new novel by National Book Award finalist Laini Taylor, author of the New York Times bestselling Daughter of Smoke and; Bone trilogy, the shadow of the past is as real as the ghosts who haunt the citadel of murdered gods. Fall into a mythical world of dread and wonder, moths and nightmares, love and carnage.

Welcome to Weep."

Anyone else REALLY excited to finally get there hands on a new Laini Taylor book? I'm uber excited that I'm going to a book signing too! 

The Endicott Evil by Gregory Harris
Published by: Kensington
Publication Date: March 28th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"In Victorian London, there exists no greater investigative team than master sleuth Colin Pendragon and his loyal partner, Ethan Pruitt. But it will take all their powers of deduction to determine if a fatal fall was a result of misery or murder...

Adelaide Endicott—elderly sister of Lord Thomas Endicott, a senior member of Parliament—has plummeted to her death from the third-floor window of her bedroom at Layton Manor. Did she take her own life—or was she pushed? Although Scotland Yard believes it is a clear case of suicide, Adelaide’s sister Eugenia is convinced otherwise...

Intrigued by the spinster’s suspicions, Pendragon and Pruitt look into the victim’s troubled mental state while simultaneously exploring who might have had a motive to push Adelaide to her death. As they begin to uncover a family history involving scandalous secrets, abuse, and trauma, mounting evidence suggests that there is evil lurking behind the closed doors of Layton Manor, and that it is of utmost urgency to expose it before another tragedy occurs."

A manor house and murder? Duh I'm reading it!

Lost Souls by Kelley Armstrong
Published by: Subterranean Press
Publication Date: March 31st, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 192 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The disappearing hitchhiker is one of the hoariest urban legends, and no one knows that better than Gabriel Walsh, a lawyer who grew up on folklore and myth. When Patrick—author of books on the supernatural—brings him the case of a hitchhiking woman in white who vanished on a country road after accepting a ride from a businessman, Gabriel knows the Cainsville elder is just trying to wheedle into his good graces. But Gabriel is a man in need of a mystery, one that will get him back into someone else's good graces. His investigator, Olivia Taylor-Jones, has blown town supposedly on a simple vacation. But when she left there was a rift between them and…he misses her.

Gabriel is well aware the only thing Olivia loves more than a good mystery is a weird one, and this hitchhiker case more than fits the bill. As Gabriel digs into the case, though, he's forced to face ghosts of his own and admit that the woman in white isn't the only one who has lost her way.

With Lost Souls, New York Times bestselling author Kelley Armstrong weaves an unmissable novella-length tale connected to her fan-favorite Cainsville series."

LOVE Subterranean Press, just wish they could get better cover artists...

The Awakening by Amanda Stevens
Published by: MIRA
Publication Date: March 28th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 416 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Shush…lest she awaken...

My name is Amelia Gray, and I'm a cemetery restorer who lives with the dead. An anonymous donor has hired me to restore Woodbine Cemetery, a place where the rich and powerful bury their secrets. Forty years ago, a child disappeared without a trace and now her ghost has awakened, demanding that I find out the truth about her death. Only I know that she was murdered. Only I can bring her killer to justice. But the clues that I follow—a haunting melody and an unnamed baby's grave—lead me to a series of disturbing suspects.

For generations, The Devlins have been members of Charleston's elite. John Devlin once turned his back on the traditions and expectations that came with his birthright, but now he has seemingly accepted his rightful place. His family's secrets make him a questionable ally. When my investigation brings me to the gates of his family's palatial home, I have to wonder if he is about to become my mortal enemy."

I mean, the blurb alone sends shivers up my spine! 

London Calling by Sara Sheridan
Published by: Kensington
Publication Date: March 28th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 256 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"In the years following World War II, former Secret Service employee Mirabelle Bevan has found a refuge in the quiet coastal town of Brighton. But she can’t seem to resist an attraction to danger and a thirst for justice...

1952: Eighteen-year-old debutante Rose Bellamy Gore was last seen outside a Soho jazz club in the company of a saxophone player named Lindon Claremont. Now her mysterious disappearance is front-page news in the London tabloids.

When Lindon turns up the next day in Brighton, desperately seeking help, Mirabelle counsels him to cooperate with the authorities. After the local police take the musician into custody and ship him off to Scotland Yard, Mirabelle and her best friend, Vesta Churchill, hop a train to London in search of the truth.

As they scour smoky jazz clubs searching for clues to the deb’s disappearance, they descend into a sinister underworld where the price of admission can be one’s life. Mirabelle will need to draw on her espionage skills to improvise her way out of a disappearing act of her own..."

Period crime solving? Yes please!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Book Review - Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Published by: Penguin
Publication Date: 1962
Format: Hardcover, 235 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

None of the villagers go to Hill House. No one will hear you scream, in the dark, in the night. Dr. Montague views the house as the ideal location for his research of supernatural phenomena. The house's history coupled with the right participants should yield him the results he's looking for. Yet he only heard back from a few people selected as the perfect candidates for his summer long program, for sensitivity combined with previous supernatural encounters. In the end he gets the shy and awkward Eleanor who has spent much of her life caring for her recently deceased mother. She doesn't even remember the incident for which Dr. Montague recruited her she just views Hill House as her first real adventure and a way to get out from under the stifling life she's living on a cot at her sister's. Theo was chosen because of her apparent psychic abilities. Then there's Luke. Luke is the heir to Hill House. He doesn't have abilities or haunting experiences, he just needs to get out of his troubling patterns and his grandmother thinks locking him away at Hill House as a guarantee against Dr. Montague's lease is a lovely idea.

After each of the participants successfully battle their way past the suspicious caretaker, Mr. Dudley, and get explained the rigorous rules as regards the meals and cleaning up by his wife the group settles in. It does not take long for weird knocks to happen at doors in the night as well as severe temperature drops. The doors don't like to remain open, if this is Mrs. Dudley, or the house, they can't figure it out even with the aid of large doorstops. Very shortly they instigate a rule that no one is to wander alone, especially at night. Yet what is actually happening, if they where to write it down as per Dr. Montague's research guidelines, they wouldn't or couldn't be able to put it into words. Strange writings, noises, voices, drafts, and above all four very different personalities clashing, not counting the possible personalities of the house's former occupants. Is any of this real? Or are they hallucinating? Or should they all leave the house as fast as they can and never look back?

The Haunting of Hill House is the standard to which modern ghost stories are held. Even Stephen King has been known on more than one occasion to extol the virtues of this book. When I first read this book I couldn't help wondering why. But as more time passed I realized The Haunting of Hill House had left an impression on me and that I had perhaps judged it based on what I thought it should be versus what it was. Going back to the book I was once again drawn into Jackson's writing. She is able to depict places and characters so well that you feel you are inhabiting them. I also was able to pinpoint my dissatisfaction from my first reading. It's the ending. While I'm fine with open ended ambiguity it's that it was rushed. The book has a very languorous pace from Eleanor's daydreaming drive to Hill House through the daily routine the four occupants adapt, living like they are on holiday. And then Doctor Montague's wife arrives. This is when the story falls apart and just rushes headlong like Nell through the halls of the house until she goes straight into a tree. While this could have been Jackson's plan, having Mrs. Montague be the final push to Nell's death, instead it just feels like Jackson used Mrs. Montague to end the story in an abrupt if timely fashion.

Another reason I was initially dissatisfied was that there really isn't a plot per se. The book goes for impressions over tangibility. Any time anything vaguely spooky happens it's just glossed over or made light of when day breaks. The big scene where Theo and Nell are running from something, that's it, they ran, cut to the next morning where it will never be mentioned again. Yet over time this lack of substance works it's way into you building suspense and paranoia. This book is a slow burn, you might not feel the effects for a long time. Jackson is literally playing with our minds and the more you're willing to go back to the text the more the story works. A cumulative horror that becomes a compulsion that gripes you every fall. Because of all the things that Jackson doesn't say and doesn't spell out this allows The Haunting of Hill House to be interpreted a thousand different ways. Even the ending can be debated. As Nell slams her car into the tree so that she can forever stay at Hill House we aren't even certain of her death. All that we know is she longed for death, either because she was already suicidal or because she was driven there by supernatural means. Nell is the key here, because it's through her we are told the story and this might just be the biggest corker of an unreliable narrator ever.

Nell is interesting, but you can't really get a read on her. You know what it's like to be inside her mind, but it quickly becomes clear that this won't help you figure out what's happening, you just have to give in and let go. Her mind jumps and contradicts and doesn't make any kind of sense. Yet she is a sympathetic character. You're not sure if she's crazy but you become complicit in Nell's actions during the drive to Hill House. As she travels to her destination she sees glimpses of houses in different towns and wonders, what would her life be like there? What would happen if she decided this town was her final destination and it was her new home? Who hasn't while out walking or driving looked at a house or through an illuminated window at night and wondered what would their life be like if that was their house. Who would they be in a different setting? And that's how we become one with Nell. Whatever happens from that moment forward, whatever fantasy she spins about her and Theodora, whatever she see or hears, we are fully invested. We give in and let go with her and love the ride aboard the crazy train.

In fact, this analysis of Nell leads into the idea that Nell is in fact the haunting... but as I've said before you can interpret this book so many different ways that I find saying Nell is the haunting is wrong. I don't think the encounters the four occupants of Hill House come up against are manifestations of Nell. I think the house is it's own entity. It isn't just a building, it's a home, with personality, and once you have personality it is one quick step to being a person, a character in your own right. Therefore I fully believe that the house is haunted and it's not Nell. Well, it's not Nell at first. Because I think Nell is sensitive and is tuned into the house and as time goes on they are becoming one, which would be why she'd kill herself to never leave it. This is very obvious once Mrs. Montague arrives. Before this time the banging on the doors and the noises were unnatural phenomena that the house was creating, but once the good doctor's wife arrives Nell is the one banging on the doors. I think this is because the house is now using her for what it had to do by itself before. Nell has become an extension of the house and therefore helps with the haunting. It's no wonder she doesn't want to leave when this is the only place she's ever felt welcome.

In fact going back to this book I've realized that there's only one real problem with the different interpretations, and that's the lesbianism. I'm not against this at all and think that Nell and Theodora would make a lovely couple and they balance each other so well, what I see as problematic is Jackson's vehement denials that The Haunting of Hill House has anything to do with sex and in particular lesbianism. She didn't see sex as entering into her story at all. But so much of her story goes against what she later stated. Theodora is obviously a woman of the world while Nell is the virginal character who just doesn't understand, an innocent nature that the house can corrupt. Yet there's a connection between them long before there's a connection between Nell and the house. Also the fact that Jackson never comes out and says that Theodora's partner whom she left behind is male or female, though female is strongly implied, then why write this? Why have this omission if you didn't want the book to be read this way? If she was so against this interpretation just a few clarifications could have solved it. But then she wanted to leave her readers mystified and perhaps, despite her denials, this was just another mystery she enjoyed dangling in front of her audience. She was a master manipulator after all.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Review - Kate Riordan's Fiercombe Manor

Fiercombe Manor by Kate Riordan
Published by: William Morrow
Publication Date: August 11th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 368 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Alice has failed to live up to her mother's expectations. Yes, Alice has a good job, but no gentlemen callers to raise her from typist to wife, the best promotion she could hope for. Maybe if she got a job in a restaurant she could have more opportunities to catch a guy's eye, but Alice likes the prestige of where she works. Alice also has a secret, one that won't be hidden for much longer. There's a reason there are no gentlemen callers, because Alice fell for a married man. A married man who has gotten her pregnant and, in the eyes of her mother, disgraced. Alice's mother's priority is to get her daughter secreted away so that none of their acquaintances will know their shame. To that end she contacts an old friend, Mrs. Jelphs. Mrs. Jelphs is the housekeeper of Fiercombe Manor, a grand old estate in Gloucestershire where the house is kept in ready for a family, the Stantons, that live entirely overseas. Alice can have the baby, give it up for adoption, and return home as though none of this ever happened, with Mrs. Jelphs being fed a line about painful memories due to the sudden death of Alice's non-existent husband for her need to convalesce in the country. This plan could have worked perfectly if not for the fact that as Alice's condition proves nothing in life goes according to plan and Fiercombe Manor holds secrets darker than Alice's. When Alice meets young Tom Stanton, home on family business, she is determined to route out the secrets of what happened thirty years earlier to the pregnant Lady Elizabeth Stanton, Tom's Aunt, as she starts to fall for the young heir. Can disastrous decisions lead to a happily ever after for Alice or is her fate just as tragic as Elizabeth's?

Funnily enough this is the book that kickstarted my plunge into Gothic literature. Last July various pressures were impacting my life and I just wanted to escape somewhere gloomy, away from the heat and the present. I wanted a book to fit my mood, with a grand old house and a supernatural bent set anytime but now. I went to the Internet and the Internet spat Fiercombe Manor back at me. Literally everyone kept recommending this book to me. Compared to Rebecca, a classic that can never be imitated, and The Little Stranger, a book I have a complicated relationship to, I should have started to be wary. I so hoped this book would fill this void in me, this need, but it just wasn't to be. Nothing in the book lived up to the moniker of Gothic and trying to escape the heat of a Midwest summer by reading about the unseasonable heat of a English summer... yeah... not what I had planned. I actually struggled with finishing this book. It threw me off my reading goals entirely. I hate it when a bad book knocks you off the rails and you just can't get past it to get back into the reading groove. Eleven days it took me to slog through this book and I was left unsatisfied. In fact I picked up more and more books hoping to find some solace in good Gothic literature, and the truth is I should have just stuck with the classics, Du Maurier, Jackson, they knew their craft and set out to do something original not be poseurs and ride the coattails of other greater authors. They are the standard to which all is judged and most found lacking.

The main problem I had with this book was that it was trying way too hard to be in the style of Daphne Du Maurier. Yes, there's a reason people keep comparing Fiercombe Manor to Rebecca, and that's because Riordan is trying SO HARD to make you believe it. I actually wonder if she was able to delude herself with the recluse valley, the hidden home, and the lush vegetation. It didn't fool me for a minute because there is no one who will ever be able to write like Du Maurier with her ability to capture nature with her lyrical descriptions of effulgent flowers coupled with looming dread. NO ONE! I mean seriously, stop trying. Any book compared to the classic that is Rebecca is bound to let the reader down. This is one of the most perfect books ever written and to try to say this author whom, let's face it, I've never heard of until now could come close? I should have known it was not going to happen. But this leads to an interesting question, a lot of people look for books that are read-a-likes, books that evoke or are similar in style to other books they love. When do recommendations turn sour? Because in the instance of Fiercombe Manor I could tell Riordan was trying to emulate Du Maurier, but there are other books compared to Rebecca that just have a similar feel without trying to BE it. Over on Goodreads there's a list that actually recommends Nine Coaches Waiting as a read-a-like, and here I'd agree. Same vibe without any authorial delusions that lead to disappointments. Originality while maintaining the proper "Rebecca" mood is the line that needs to be walked. So publishers, be careful in your blurbs, they could alienate your readers.

Belabouring this whole Rebecca vibe, because I'm totally going to eventually just go out and get a stick and start hitting this book, I have to go back into how Riordan captures the sense of place; that little valley somewhere in Gloucestershire. Or should I say how she fails to capture the sense of place. She needed to draw herself a freakin' map. I am not joking. While Du Maurier had the benefit of Manderley being based on a real location, Menabilly, just from her descriptions alone you could draw a map. You knew where everything was. The place was a character. Now if Riordan really wanted to make this book like Rebecca she could have at least tried to make the place's character stick. Because every time she talks about that valley there's something not quite right. You can never get a sense of it. The new house feels like it's jumping all the compass points, the pond is shifting locations, now where's the road? I mean I was just darn confused. Now this could be a gimmick, disorient your readers and maybe you can trick them into thinking it's Gothic and it's supernatural elements at work. I call foul. Some of the best Gothic writing out there I can picture perfectly. How Hill House sits just so with the drive coming right up to the door after passing through the gates with the hills behind. Manderley and how the new rooms face away from the sea... details don't take away from your story, they add to it. Just add it right.

Yet I think the key to Fiercombe Manor is that unless you are pregnant this book is not scary at all. Seriously. Not. One. Scare. There's no ominous vibe, there's nothing. Oh, should I count that random thunderstorm? No, because it was just a little thunder! So what have we got for the Gothic in this book? An outcast heroine, a "haunted" house, and babies... um... seriously? And totally not in the right proportions. I'm not joking when I say that there is more time spent with Alice cleaning silver than there is in actually trying to discover what the secrets of the house are. And you know what the secret is in the end? This is a sad tale of a wife who was depressive with a large helping of children issues, from dead babies to postpartum depression that is treated in insane asylums... So at the end of the day, you're not chilled from the spectres of dead children, you're just sad. Sad that what happens to a woman before and after pregnancy wasn't understood at the turn of the last century. Also, let's be honest, it wasn't really understood when Alice was pregnant in the thirties either. This is a book that has the mindset of today being thrust back in time. Just like I had similar issues with Angelica because of this, I feel that this book just didn't live up to it's potential. But stripping it down, seeing what it's skeleton is, I can't really see how it could have become a successful Gothic tale. It was just sadness and melancholy, and seeing as that was what I was trying to escape from... yeah, not the book for me.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Tuesday Tomorrow

Mary McCarthy: The Complete Fiction by Mary McCarthy
Published by: Library of America
Publication Date: March 21st, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 2220 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"For the first time in a deluxe collector's edition, all seven novels and eight classic stories by the witty and provocative writer who defined a generation.

Seventy-five years ago Mary McCarthy provoked a scandal with her electrifying debut novel, The Company She Keeps (1942), announcing the arrival of a major new voice in American literature. A candid, thinly-veiled portrait of the late-1930s New York intellectual scene, its penetrating gaze and creative fusion of life and literature--"mutual plagiarism," she called it--became the hallmark of McCarthy's fiction, which the Library of America now presents in full for the first time in deluxe collector's edition. The Oasis (1949), a wicked satire about a failed utopian community, and The Groves of Academe (1952), a pioneering campus novel depicting the insular and often absurd world of academia, burnished her reputation as an acerbic truth-teller, but it was with A Charmed Life (1955), a searing story of small-town infidelity, that McCarthy fully embraced the frank and avant-garde treatment of gender and sexuality that would inspire generations of readers and writers. In McCarthy's most famous novel, The Group (1963), she depicts the lives of eight Vassar College graduates during the 1930s as they grapple with sex, sexism, money, motherhood, and family. McCarthy's final two novels--Birds of America (1971), a coming of age tale of 19-year-old Peter Levi, who travels to Europe during the 1960s, and Cannibals and Missionaries (1979), a thriller about a group of passengers taken hostage on an airplane by militant hijackers--are both concerned with the state of modern society, from the cross-currents of radical social change to the psychology of terrorism. Also included are all eight of McCarthy's short stories, four from her collection Cast a Cold Eye (1950), and four collected here for the first time. As a special feature, the second volume contains McCarthy's 1979 essay "The Novels that Got Away," on her unfinished fiction."

When I got my newest Library of American catalog I saw this and instantly new I HAD to have it. Also, doesn't the cover look a little Hitchcockian?

All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown edited by Catherine Burns
Published by: Crown Archetype
Publication Date: March 21st, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Celebrating the 20th anniversary of storytelling phenomenon The Moth, 45 unforgettable true stories about risk, courage, and facing the unknown, drawn from the best ever told on their stages.

Carefully selected by the creative minds at The Moth, and adapted to the page to preserve the raw energy of live storytelling, All These Wonders features voices both familiar and new. Alongside Louis C.K., Tig Notaro, John Turturro, and Meg Wolitzer, readers will encounter: an astronomer gazing at the surface of Pluto for the first time, an Afghan refugee learning how much her father sacrificed to save their family, a hip-hop star coming to terms with being a “one-hit wonder,” a young female spy risking everything as part of Churchill’s “secret army” during World War II, and more.

High-school student and neuroscientist alike, the storytellers share their ventures into uncharted territory—and how their lives were changed indelibly by what they discovered there. With passion, and humor, they encourage us all to be more open, vulnerable, and alive."

OK, I so didn't know what The Moth was, but that cover and Neil Gaiman caught my eye, now I'm really fascinated to read this collection. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Book Review - Cat Winters's The Uninvited

The Uninvited by Cat Winters
Published by: William Morrow
Publication Date: August 11th, 2015
Format: Kindle, 368 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Ivy Rowan has been abed with the flu for days. The last night she is to spend at home she awakes to see the ghost of her grandmother. She instantly knows something is wrong. She has only ever seen these uninvited guests, these ghosts, as harbingers of death; someone close to her will die. Her grandmother came to warn Ivy, her father and brother have killed a man. They have murdered the owner of the furniture store, who was a German immigrant. Ivy's brother Billy died the week previously in the Great War and there are rumors that the Germans are responsible for this plague that has descended on Ivy's small Midwestern town. Her brother and father committed this horrible act of vengeance on an innocent man. Though the papers will ascribed the death to patriotic vagrants, Ivy knows the truth. Ivy's mind and body rebels, she packs her belongings and flees into the night. Out in the world, Ivy, the virtual recluse, starts to live life and form friendships amongst all the death. She helps two red cross nurses ferry the ill, she lodges with the widow of a former classmate, but most importantly she tries to make amends to the grieving brother of the man her family killed, Daniel Schendel. She is drawn to Daniel as much as she is drawn to the jazz music playing every night across the road from his store. As their relationship grows more intense Ivy starts to realize that not everything is at it seems. There are secrets too horrific to face so one should just face the music and dance.

One of my friends said that I should have been forewarned that I wouldn't like this book because the blurb declaimed that it was "perfect for those who loved The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield." To say I loved The Thirteenth Tale would be grossly untrue, even saying I liked it would be a lie... so I should have had an inkling that The Uninvited wasn't for me. But it was the deal of the day on Kindle and that cover... well, that cover has more atmosphere than the whole book and I seriously need to stop being tricked by a pretty cover. The main problem I had was that I was looking for a good Gothic read and while this does have all the elements of Gothic literature it has all these elements without them ever coming together into a cohesive whole and being Gothic. Ghosts, check, virginal heroine, check, olden days, check, laws flouted, check, add to that a horrid plague and well, I am just baffled. I think the reason it failed is twofold. The ghosts aren't scary, they're just a part of the virginal heroine's life during the Great War. On top of that while a world destroying plague is terrifying and does have the Gothic element in spades, the problem is us modern readers aren't scared of this plague. We know what the cause is. You have to take this truth and spin it or distort it in order to keep the horror relevant to modern readers.

But everything about this book was like Gothic Literature turned upside down. You think it will work and it doesn't. I had this feeling from the first pages as Ivy raised herself from her sickbed that this felt like the conclusion of a story. That we missed Ivy's story, we missed her imprisonment and illness, we missed her journey and here we are at the end and she gets her happily ever after. She is no longer in seclusion but enjoying life and getting a chance at love. Oddly enough it turns out I was somewhat astute in this observation. Because the irony is, and this is a big spoiler folks, Ivy is dead. So this whole story happens after her death. Therefore her journey has happened, her day is done, what we read here is some imagined ghostly happily ever after that Christopher Reeve was so desperately searching and then dying for in Somewhere in Time. It's most likely Winters did this setup on purpose, but that doesn't satisfy me. It makes me feel like I was manipulated from page one. I went in expecting a certain kind of book and I basically got The Others, the disappointing Nicole Kidman movie. So if you're looking for a slightly otherworldly World War I book set in the Midwest that will give your tear ducts a workout, go for it.

Your tear ducts won't be the only thing getting a workout, because this book is determined to pull out your heartstrings and beat you to death with them. One of the reasons I like Gothic literature is that it preys on other emotions, fear being the primary one. I don't like chick flicks, I don't long for a good cry, I'm not pining for something new from Nicholas Sparks. I don't want my emotions manipulated. If in the telling of a good story my emotions suffer, well, that's fine, it's the sign of good storytelling. On the other hand, if a story is written just to play merry havoc on my emotions, well, it starts to piss me off. The repeated reveals of just how many of Ivy's friends are actually ghosts besides herself was unnecessarily cruel. Yes, Winters wanted to show that these people were more than just statistics, that each and every life claimed by the Spanish Flu was a life someone missed, a life that mattered, but there's a point when you just can't take anymore. This drain on my emotions was too much to handle. The first time Ivy returns home to talk to her mother, what with everything that's been going on in my own life at the moment I just couldn't deal with it. I wanted this book to be banished from my sight. I wanted it to stop hurting me. At one point I thought, I'll hurt it by giving it one star! But then I thought, no. While this book isn't for me, while it's not what I expected, Winters is still too competent a writer to punish, like she did to me.

What with everyone being dead you can't help to start drawing conclusions to the aforementioned The Others, or to The Sixth Sense, or more importantly to the television show Life on Mars and it's sequel Ashes to Ashes. In particular the television shows spent seasons building your rapport with these characters only to have the finale of Ashes to Ashes reveal that they are in a way station after their deaths awaiting the next phase of their journey, through a pub, The Railway Arms, which leads to heaven. Now let's look at The Uninvited Guests, ghosts, stuck continuing their lives until they go to the Jazz Club and ascend... so basically exactly what happens in Ashes to Ashes without the time slip... this similarity, even if the author has never seen or heard of these shows made me feel like there was nothing truly original in this book. It felt like it was never trying to be it's own thing, just a combination of other things that worked more successfully. With Ashes to Ashes when the reveal was made with the character of Shazzer I lost my shit. This wasn't a narrative that had ever made me cry, but I was so connected to the characters that this undid me. Whereas, as I've mentioned previously, here Winters just repeatedly pulls the rug out from under you. It's not a real connection, it's not real emotion, she never works to get you to feel, it's a false feeling. Whereas Shazzer's death will always stay with me, I don't think this book will stay with me after a few more weeks.

Though there is one thing that might stick. The jazz of it all. Once you realize the characters are dead and it's basically a siren song it makes a little more sense how much the music is driving Ivy. The thing is, while I love certain artists, play piano and even saxophone at one time, I'm not one of those people with music in my veins. If you cut me I will likely bleed ink from being such a word person. Therefore I have a hard time connecting to people like Ivy who hear music and just can't stop their toes tapping. Who can't stop the call of the music as it pumps through their veins. If music is pumping through my veins I'm usually the person wondering if we can turn the music down a bit cause it's loud. Also if there's one kind of music I detest it's jazz. Seriously. Can. Not. Stand. It. Therefore this jazz that runs through the book was annoying but also was antithesis to trying to get any Gothic vibe going. So it alienated me as it blithely made the book more and more the opposite of what I was hoping for. Can we also talk about how depressing it is that these ghosts are drawn to jazz? While it was popular at this time it wasn't until the roaring twenties when this genre took hold, a decade none of these characters are going to live to see. The music and the characters are full of false life. Their story is done, thankfully for me, and it was a bleak one.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Book Review - Susan Hill's The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: 1983
Format: Paperback, 164 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Arthur Kipps could easily contribute to his family's tradition of ghost stories on Christmas Eve... only his ghost story is so dark and so disturbing he dare not utter it. After the holidays he decides he will commit it to paper so that it is recorded, exorcised from his life. A life that was destroyed by him going to Crythin Gifford to deal with the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow. As a young solicitor he was excited at the opportunity this job gave him to prove his worth. He planned to spend a few days sorting out the elderly widow's papers and return to London and his fiance. Though the townspeople seemed reluctant to endorse his staying out at Eel Marsh House by himself. Arthur thought it was because of the Nine Lives Causeway which would cut him off from the mainland during high tide... but the seclusion wasn't the only reason. The main reason is a woman in black Arthur saw at Mrs. Drablow's funeral. A woman whose appearance presages something which the villagers dare not discuss. Despite vocal opposition Arthur ensconces himself at Eel Marsh House and is subjected to many supernatural apparitions, terrifying noises coming from the causeway, as well as many revelations. He learns who the woman in black is and what she wants, and what she will take from him... though, even in death, it looks like she will forever be unsatisfied.

I remember when the Daniel Radcliffe adaptation of this book arrived in cinemas, everyone who saw it kept insisting that it didn't capture the book. How The Woman in Black was a classic of Gothic storytelling and the stage adaptation was brilliant, but how I should avoid the movie and just go to the source. Of course I did both. I picked up the book at Barnes and Noble and then I eventually got around to watching the movie. Oddly for me I actually decided to watch the movie first and was unimpressed and confused. The sequel, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, which had almost nothing to do with the book or the adaptation, might actually be my favorite among the three. As for the book, I don't know if it's because people were building it up to me or if it's just that horror films and other Gothic stories have gone so far beyond what Hill did here in the early eighties that it fell flat. The worst person though in building up this story is Hill herself. She set herself up for a fall with all the allusions to this story being too terrifying for Christmas Eve, and that it really shouldn't be uttered. I'm sorry, but if your narrator is telling a story about his past right there almost all jeopardy is gone. He's alive at the end. He survives into old age. He's never in real danger, so why is this story so scary if he makes it out alive?

But Hill keeps insisting on the danger... and with each insistence, with each demurral from daring to tell the tale she comes across as smug and overly pleased with herself. Oh Arthur was so damaged he never recovered... yet here he is with his new family surrounded by love and light at Christmas! So Hill thinks she's SO clever trying to break all the tropes? Others have broken the tropes and FAR better. She thinks the beauty of nature and the surrounding country makes it not your typical ghost story? I think that Mary Shelley kind of blasted apart the setting trope with her Gothic classic. Breaking with genre locals and connecting with nature... sorry to say but a pretty place doesn't a book make. The question of who is really the baby's mother? Um, yeah, it's not like this is anything original. Especially in Gothic literature! As for the townsfolk who don't trust outsiders and close ranks? Seriously, you think this was groundbreaking? In fact, this is also to everyone who recommended this book to me. Seriously? And no, you're not allowed to use the excuse that she did it first, because 1983 isn't that long ago and many many people did it better first. I just couldn't shake this feeling of Hill thinking she was superior throughout the book and this continually alienated me.

The narrative just didn't sit right with me. But then again this could all be Arthur's fault. Arthur isn't a good lead. Skipping over his dramatics about even wanting to tell his story, let's just go with him being a whiny little pretentious bitch. He views this job as a real feather in his cap. Oh, he'll just do this job so well that he'll get a huge promotion enabling him to marry his fiance sooner and well, his boss will just love him and never want to let him go, just throwing money at him for simply doing his job. I could say that this was Hill showing the naivety of youth that will be jaded by experience... but the fact is I wanted to smack him so bad that I couldn't relate to him on any level. Plus he's like manic depressive or something, split personality perhaps? Because during the days at Eel Marsh House nothing bothers him, he's all rainbows and puppies and oh, that noise was nothing, look at the beautiful view out these glorious windows, and the night falls and he's running around like a chicken with his head cut off screaming about the noises on the causeway. Maybe Jekyll and Hyde is a more apt way of describing Arthur. Yes, things can get scary at night, in the dark, but having him so blithely swan through the day talking about how lovely everything is? He's in serious denial and needs help. But it's not coming from me.

What does "help" Arthur is that lovely trope of the fever that puts him abed. Suffered by any overactive man who just collapses from strain. I kind of wonder if this is a trope that women writers use to just poke fun at men who have been claiming that women are weaker and prone to fainting... because whenever I've seen this trope used so heavy-handedly it's always been from the pen of a female author. Like they're saying, "we'll show you a wilted flower!" Which amuses me to no end. But then again Conan Doyle even used this trope in a Sherlock Holmes story... so maybe it was really a thing. And I have to say, if this is a real thing, how can I get in on this action? Because I'd seriously like a month off to just lay in bed and read. Because I don't want to take it to the extreme of delirium, but just a slight wasting problem that needed bed rest. Can you seriously, in this day and age, imagine someone saying that they are convalescing for the foreseeable future do to nerves? Everything is so diagnosable now this isn't something that can be believable in novels written in present times about the past. We know better now and so this trope too must pass.

The Woman in Black was actually in a perilous position. Until the last few pages it was about to receive the dreaded one star rating and then it surprisingly redeemed itself, just a little. If you don't know the motives of the woman in black, Mrs. Drablow's sister, now is the time to get a fever and take to your bed. OK, so I assume now if you're still reading you either already know or don't care to be spoiled that the woman in blacks appearance heralds the death of a child, which is why the villagers never wanted to talk about it, because it might be their child next. So Arthur figures this all out we and think he's getting his happily ever after, he gets married, has a child, but turns out, things aren't so resolved. Because the woman in black, she is a ghost that is unrepentantly evil. She is not able to be "put to rest" or "exorcised" and THIS is the selling point of the book. There is no happy resolution. Arthur loses his wife and child to the woman in black because she is pure evil. This is rare in ghost stories, I can only think of a few, usually Japanese in base, where there is no tidy resolution, evil wins. Yes, you could say that Henry James did this with The Turn of the Screw, but he didn't do it effectively. Here there is no doubt that evil wins. And I like that. It's spelled out cleanly and clearly, like the vengeful ghost in The Ring. So if you stick with it, there's this lovely light at the end of the tunnel. Sure it's actually a train, but it brings you some satisfaction.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Tuesday Tomorrow

In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by: Harper
Publication Date: March 14th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Sunday September 3rd 1939. At the moment Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcasts to the nation Britain’s declaration of war with Germany, a senior Secret Service agent breaks into Maisie Dobbs' flat to await her return. Dr. Francesca Thomas has an urgent assignment for Maisie: to find the killer of a man who escaped occupied Belgium as a boy, some twenty-three years earlier during the Great War.

In a London shadowed by barrage balloons, bomb shelters and the threat of invasion, within days another former Belgian refugee is found murdered. And as Maisie delves deeper into the killings of the dispossessed from the “last war," a new kind of refugee — an evacuee from London — appears in Maisie's life. The little girl billeted at Maisie’s home in Kent does not, or cannot, speak, and the authorities do not know who the child belongs to or who might have put her on the “Operation Pied Piper” evacuee train. They know only that her name is Anna.

As Maisie’s search for the killer escalates, the country braces for what is to come. Britain is approaching its gravest hour — and Maisie could be nearing a crossroads of her own."

New Maisie Dobbs! Muppet arm flail! 

Before the War by Fay Weldon
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: March 14th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"London, 1922. It’s a cold November morning, the station is windswept and rural, the sky is threatening snow, and the train is late. Vivien Ripple, 20 years old and an ungainly five foot eleven, waits on the platform at Dilberne Halt. She is wealthy and well-bred―only daughter to the founder of Ripple and Co, the nation’s top publisher―but plain, painfully awkward, and, perhaps worst of all, intelligent. Nicknamed “the giantess,” Vivvie is, in the estimation of most, already a spinster. But she has a plan. That very morning, Vivvie will ride to the city with the express purpose of changing her life forever.

Enter Sherwyn Sexton: charismatic, handsome―if, to his dismay, rather short. He’s an aspiring novelist and editor at Ripple and Co whose greatest love is the (similarly handsome, but taller) protagonist of his thriller series. He also has a penchant for pretty young women―single and otherwise. Sherwyn is shocked when his boss’s hulking daughter, dressed in a tweed jacket and moth-eaten scarf, strides into his office and asks for his hand in marriage. But his finances are running thin to support his regular dinners on the town, and Vivien’s promise to house him in comfort while he writes is simply too good to refuse. What neither of them know is that she is pregnant by another man, and will die in childbirth in just a few months…

With one eye on the present and one on the past, Fay Weldon offers Vivien’s fate, along with that of London between World Wars I and II: a city fizzing with change, full of flat-chested flappers, shell-shocked soldiers, and aristocrats clinging to history.

Inventive, warm, playful, and full of Weldon’s trademark ironic edge, Before the War is a spellbinding novel from one of the greatest writers of our time."

Come on, doesn't this just sound fascinating? Past, present, tragic death in childbirth! 

A Death by Any Other Name by Tessa Arlen
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: March 14th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Building on the success of her last two mysteries in the same series, Tessa Arlen returns us to the same universe full of secrets, intrigue, and, this time, roses in A Death By Any Other Name. The elegant Lady Montfort and her redoubtable housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson, investigate a murder among a group of amateur rose-breeders while the idyllic English summer days count down to the start of WW1. When Mrs. Jackson receives a visit from a cook who believes she was an indirect witness to murder from a poisoned dish of breakfast kedgeree Lady Montfort promises to do what she can to clear the cook's name, and contrives an invitation to Hyde Castle, the home of a self-made millionaire, to investigate a murder of concealed passions and secret desires. With the help of the invaluable Jackson Lady Montfort sets about solving the puzzle surrounding the death of the rose society's most popular member and discovers a villain of audacious cunning among a group of mild-mannered, amateur rose-breeders.

While they investigate, the headlines bring news of the continuing conflict in Prussia following the assassination of the heir to the Austrian empire. As each day brings more threatening news and the very real fear that Britain will be drawn into war Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson must race the clock to solve the mystery before Britain declares on Germany.

Brimming with intrigue, Tessa Arlen's latest does not disappoint."

Is it just me or is this week all about war?

Elementary, She Read by Vicki Delany
Published by: Crooked Lane Books
Publication Date: March 14th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Gemma Doyle, a transplanted Englishwoman, has returned to the quaint town of West London on Cape Cod to manage her Great Uncle Arthur's Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium. The shop--located at 222 Baker Street--specializes in the Holmes canon and pastiche, and is also the home of Moriarty the cat. When Gemma finds a rare and potentially valuable magazine containing the first Sherlock Homes story hidden in the bookshop, she and her friend Jayne (who runs the adjoining Mrs. Hudson's Tea Room) set off to find the owner, only to stumble upon a dead body.

The highly perceptive Gemma is the police’s first suspect, so she puts her consummate powers of deduction to work to clear her name, investigating a handsome rare books expert, the dead woman's suspiciously unmoved son, and a whole family of greedy characters desperate to cash in on their inheritance. But when Gemma and Jayne accidentally place themselves at a second murder scene, it's a race to uncover the truth before the detectives lock them up for good.

Fans of Sherlock Holmes will delight in the sleuthing duo of Gemma and Jayne in Elementary, She Read, the clever and captivating series debut by nationally bestselling author Vicki Delany."

Cozy fun with the Holmes canon? Yes please!

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