Friday, March 30, 2018

Book Review - Wendy Webb's The End of Temperance Dare

The End of Temperance Dare by Wendy Webb
Published by: Lake Union Publishing
Publication Date: June 6th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 336 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Despite a looming sense of dread she's carried for months everything seems to be falling into place for Eleanor Harper but in the most unexpected of ways. She loses her job as a crime reporter at the same time the position for director of the prestigious Cliffside Manor artists retreat becomes available. Eleanor has been drawn to the old tuberculosis hospital ever since she went there twenty years earlier as a cub reporter covering the sudden deaths of the hospital's founder, Chester Dare, and one of his daughters, Milly, in a tragic car accident. His remaining daughter, Penelope, has run the retreat ever since and she feels it's time to hand the reigns to the next generation. While Eleanor isn't the most qualified Miss Penny felt a connection to her all those years ago because they both agreed that the accident was no accident. Miss Penny never blamed Eleanor, who as an inexperienced reporter was unable to shed light on the deaths, but admired her tenacity and has followed her journalistic career with interest. When Eleanor arrives at the Manor through the mists she feels like she's home. Miss Penny welcomes her with open arms and inducts her into the running of the retreat, which is mainly handled by an extensive staff. In a week they are to get the current group of artists for a month-long residency and Eleanor will shadow Miss Penny until she's confident enough that she can handle the responsibilities herself. At least that's what Eleanor thought the plan was to be, Miss Penny had other ideas, as that afternoon she commits suicide and leaves everything in Eleanor's inexperienced hands. Eleanor is baffled by the predicament she has landed in but she views it only right to mourn but continue on in Miss Penny's memory. Therefore a week later the five artists arrive. Things do not go to plan. Miss Penny brought everyone here with a purpose... is she acting from beyond the grave? But more importantly, is she acting alone or are other supernatural elements at work?

Here's the problem I have with Gothic stories that involve haunted houses, there needs to be enough wiggle room that the "haunting" could all be chalked up to psychological issues. You need that suspension of disbelief. You have to be convinced or dissuaded through the story, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is a masterclass in this conceit. A Tuberculosis hospital is a whole lot of heck no from me. The reason for this is that TB hospitals were, as it says in this book, a “waiting room for death.” All hauntings derive from a death, here we have a plurality of death, so in my mind there is no question as to whether or not Cliffside Manor is haunted. It is SO haunted. This is a place where ghost hunters go, not artistic types. I have NO DOUBT that ghosts exist. What exactly they are I'm not sure, but I have seen many ghosts in my life, some benign, some very much the opposite. I would NEVER go willingly to a place like Cliffside Manor, it would be too much. Add to that the fact this retreat is made for artists like me... I really don't get how places at the retreat are so sought after. Yes, there is a wide range of susceptibility when it comes to seeing the supernatural, but the truth is the more sensitive you are to the world around you, the more open you are, the more likely you are to have such an experience. Therefore people who are artistic are more likely to pick up on these vibes, much like how artists are the ones who can hear the call of Cthulhu in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. So how are these artists not being like, don't go there, it's haunted. Word of mouth would spread like wildfire, but instead they have people clamoring for vacancies. This makes no sense to me, which makes me feel like the entire setup is unbelievable and therefore I don't buy into the story.

What's more it's hard to buy into a story where you're not quite certain if you're dealing with an unreliable narrator or not. My problem in this instance was that I couldn't tell if the red herrings I was following were meant to be red herrings or were just bad editing. To be clear, I reached the correct conclusion, I just don't know if I was meant to reach that conclusion in the first few chapters. What alerted my spider senses was Eleanor arriving at Cliffside Manor on a Thursday and the guests being scheduled to arrive the next Friday, but within minutes it was "arriving in one week." I don't know who taught Eleanor or Webb about the days of the week but that's longer than a week. Yes, you could brush it off as just common vernacular, it's about a week, but the way Webb writes I disagree. She is very precise, very matter of fact, you can tell she was a journalist herself in the very way everything is as it should be and nothing is out of place. If a book could be neat as a pin, this would be that book, and if I'm honest, I'd rather choose sloppy and lyrical than this. Which makes this first error glaring. IF this was a hint as to Eleanor's reliability as a narrator, I have to give Webb kudos. It was subtle and just enough to bait the reader. If, on the other hand, this was just a typo, in fact the most common of typos if I'm to be honest, because writers as a whole don't look at calendars despite the fact you can look up ANY calendar year online, well, then it's bad luck that a transcription or writing or editing error gave away something that's rather important. But then again, I feel like the whole unreliable narrator is played out. It's a way to delay the reveal while having the answer in front of you the whole time, and to me, that's kind of smug storytelling, though not nearly as bad as an author like Josephine Tey who purposefully left clues out so that the reader couldn't solve her riddles.

The truth is, The End of Temperance Dare relies too heavily on overplayed tropes. The obviously haunted local, the unreliable narrator, the love triangle (more on that in a minute), and the sexualization of children as a sign of evil. Think of all the movies and all the books over the years that have had innocent children possessed by evil spirits say licentious things and you know where I'm coming from. The Exorcist anyone? The problem I have with this trope is that instead of just being unsettling it verges on the edge of child exploitation, which is one of the MANY reasons I have never read Anne Rice again after Interview with the Vampire because of how she handles Claudia. Here it's taken further with the evil spirit of Temperance who is eleven in human years being obsessed with the Doctor as her future husband and later while controlling her sisters body not only is a loose woman, but stalks the photographer Richard, who is one of the members of the retreat we meet. It's hinted at that she was born a demon and she had impure thoughts and behaviors from the day she was born, yet Webb is never explicit enough with these revelations. Instead she leaves it all up to the reader's imagination, and I just don't like that because it's a cop out. She shows us these disturbing images and behaviors and then never fully goes to the root of the evil, therefore making the villain a sexually precocious child. That just freaks me out too much. And not in the good way. Instead I felt ill and the denouement and happily ever after left a bitter taste in my mouth because evil was left to be evil and the motives behind that evil were just to have her way with everyone especially these two men?

These two men who then form the other two corners of a love triangle wit Eleanor/Temperance. Because instead of Eleanor being involved in a healthy relationship she finds herself drawn into flirtations with the retreat's doctor, Nat, and one of the guests, Richard. This triangle felt so forced. Here is a professional woman trying to make a good impression at her new job and instead she is behaving like a lovestruck teenager... or should I say sexually precocious child? So the reason I hated this element of the narrative isn't that I just hate love triangles, because I do, I really really do, it's because the relationships don't feel like they organically develop. Which, I guess you could say, they didn't. But in order to achieve that happily ever after we bafflingly reach there has to be a kernel of truth amongst all the supernatural manipulations for the ending to be at least mildly believable. But in the end, looking at the whole story of Temperance Dare, I can't help think that it was a looong setup for very little reward. Sure, all the pieces fit into place, but mechanically. You have no emotions invested in the characters. It's too by the book. A paint by numbers narrative which would just horrify Henry, who was the resident painter at the retreat who worked in oils yet had no proper venting in his room for painting oils indoors. And then a happy ending where everyone gets what they want? That's not believable, that's contrived. I haven't read any of Webb's other books, but I hope there's a little more spark and a lot less plodding out of plot points. I can't take another book like this one, it was too predictable and plebeian.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Book Review - Edgar Cantero's The Supernatural Enhancements

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
Published by: Doubleday
Publication Date: August 12th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 368 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Ambrose Wells killed himself. In the same fashion and at the same age his father had thirty years earlier. At twenty-three A. knew nothing of his distant American cousin. Or that Ambrose was rich. Therefore it all came as rather a shock to him to discover that he is the heir of a wealthy estate in Virginia. Axton House and all it's contents, including a butler, are his. A. takes his friend Niamh as his companion on this adventure. A waifish fifteen year old punk with a proclivity to silence. Upon arriving at the rambling house they are struck by the enormity of what lies ahead and by the deep-seated knowledge that the house is haunted. But they aren't people to run away at the first signs of something spooky, such as the butler mysteriously being AWOL. Instead they think logically. They install video cameras, audio recording devices, they keep diaries, dream journals, they keep their Aunt Liza constantly informed of all their activities, because Axton House isn't going to claim them like it did Ambrose and his father before him. Therefore they look into Ambrose's life, his hidden rooms, his mysterious maze, his secret cyphers, his codenamed friends, and try to find the connecting thread. What was Ambrose hiding? Obviously something valuable or important enough for someone to attempt to break into Axton House. Could it have to do with the rumors of a secret meeting that happens every year on the night of the winter solstice? The solstice is fast approaching. They have forty-eight days to uncover the secrets buried with the dead. Will it be enough?

The way The Supernatural Enhancements is written as a collection of diary entries, straight up back and forth dialogue from audio recordings, receipts, scrawled notes from Niamh, letters to Aunt Liza, at 368 pages it's a surprisingly fast read. It's like popcorn, you just keep reaching for that next handful. I devoured this book in three sittings and at each subsequent sitting I felt the quality ebbing away. That immediacy, that need to finish was going out like a riptide and it wasn't coming back. Despite what you might think every time I pick up a book I want it to be a new favorite, a book that I will recommend to all and sundry. Books are almost more exciting before you read them because from that moment you pick them up at the bookstore and take it home and put it on your shelf it's nothing but potential. You don't know how good or bad it's going to be, and that's electrifying. But once the reading commences? The critic in me can't help but keep a running tally of how I think the book is going. Before I forced myself to put aside The Supernatural Enhancements that first night because I was barely able to keep my eyes open it was solidly four stars, perhaps more. The next day, new elements were introduced, the narrative started to wobble, but it could pull three stars still. On my final day, I just didn't care what happened on the eve of the solstice. Turning a lovely Gothic haunted house story into what this book became? Sorry two stars.

All that self-aware humor. All that meta goodness, the video cameras, The X-Files, all of it came to naught. Because I can't shake the feeling that all the different narrative techniques were used just to use them, because in the end all of these devices and nothing untoward was caught on camera? There was no "proof" of anything so what was the point of their stay in Axton House? Yes, there's the outcome, but that was all too hasty, too messy, that didn't fit with the methodical that came before. The book just didn't know what it wanted to be. Was it the story of a haunted house or family secrets or secret societies? What!?! It was too all over the place and at some point I felt the book shifted from self-aware to smug, and that didn't sit well with me. The references, the jokes became too personal too much for the author's amusement, as did the luxuriating in the narrative techniques. Just because you think something is the funniest thing ever doesn't mean that it is. Naming the secret society members after Scooby-Doo villains? Seriously? And the reader will only know this if they bother to decode the cipher at the beginning of the book which also admits to "[stealing] from many others. I apologize if I was not explicit enough." And that right there is the book's downfall. Too much of the other, not enough of the original. The second A. and Niamh entered Axton House I was strongly aware that I recognized the house, it's because it's the antebellum mansion from Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. When a Sinéad O'Connor song starts playing, I was actually astonished that Cantero didn't think that everyone would make The Wonderful Wizard of Oz connection. But he was too busy "stealing" to realize that each reference took the reader out of the book and took something away from his narrative.

But then again, this is a man who thinks it's perfectly fine to have a twenty-three year old man sharing a bed with a fifteen year old girl. Because fifteen is a girl. Not a woman. Not someone who is old enough to make her own choices. I know nothing actually happens between them in that bed and A. is basically an asexual cipher himself, but just what the fuck Cantero!?! Though minus the literal fuck. This is not cool. Just because the girl is constantly seeking something more physical to happen between them making her the aggressor doesn't make it acceptable. Though looking online, because I do try to always backup my rabid attacks, Cantero is from Spain and until the law changed in 2015, otherwise known as a year AFTER this book was published, the age of consent was thirteen. Thirteen!?! Seriously!?! My head hurts just thinking of myself at thirteen and if I was capable of making these big decisions, and I really don't think I was. Yes, I do know many of my classmates were sexually active around then, but with a twenty-three year old? No. Hell no. It was with their peers. And while Niamh gives off a very powerful all-knowing "girl with the dragon tattoo" vibe, that never once takes away from how young she is. In the #MeToo era with these seismic shifts everything from film to literature is going to come under even more scrutiny. Yes, this book is four years old, but I'd like to think that people are good and have moral compasses and that they would go, hang on, this relationship is just weird. Yes, it might have been to unsettle the reader, but for me it was a major problem that I couldn't get past.

The stealing, the Lolita of it all, all these disparate elements brought together, led to the book just ending in a shambles. It's like each and every decision Cantero made took away so much that by the end when the secret society is having their meeting and they all die, oh sorry, spoiler alert, I didn't care. PS you won't either. Who are these multitudes of Ambrose's friends and who are their killers? Nothing is made clear and everything is just a jumble. Our leads go to the house, meet some people, have a party and leave? That is the barest summary of the book and for me there wasn't enough atmosphere and too much thrown at me in the end. There's only so much of hurry up and wait I can take and I was desperately waiting for this book to become just the slightest bit Gothic. Yes, I know I picked it up in the horror section, but a haunted house, by it's very inclusion, indicates that something Gothic is going to go down, and instead this was just a mishmash of things it could have been and things that were better before they were incorporated into another persons work. Is being original that hard? From a recent argument I was involved in online, apparently yes. People don't want to be original they just want to take the best of the work of someone else and claim it's an homage or parody. I do not think those mean what they think those mean. But I think the final straw deals with Aunt Liza. Liza is an abbreviation of Elizabeth, so I have MANY opinions on this topic. Here are things you can and can not do. Elizabeth can create Eliza, Liza, Beth, Liz, Lizzy, but NEVER Betty. It's like that whole John/Jack thing. NOPE. And spare me from people who think that Elizabeth spelled Elisabeth can be abbreviated into Liz or Lizzy. There is no fucking "Z" Elisabeth Moss! Yeah, so maybe I internalized everyone calling her Lizzy at the awards shows the past few months a little too much. But it's been a burden my entire life and it was the final straw for this book.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Tuesday Tomorrow

Murder at Half Moon Gate by Andrea Penrose
Published by: Kensington
Publication Date: March 27th, 2018
Format: Hardcover, 368 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A wealthy lord who happens to be a brilliant scientist... an enigmatic young widow who secretly pens satirical cartoons... a violent killing disguised as a robbery... Nothing is as it seems in Regency London, especially when the Earl of Wrexford and Charlotte Sloane join forces to solve a shocking murder.

When Lord Wrexford discovers the body of a gifted inventor in a dark London alley, he promptly alerts the watchman and lets the authorities handle the matter. But Wrexford soon finds himself drawn into the murder investigation when the inventor’s widow begs for his assistance, claiming the crime was not a random robbery. It seems her husband’s designs for a revolutionary steam-powered engine went missing the night of his death. The plans could be worth a fortune... and very dangerous in the wrong hands.

Joining Wrexford in his investigation is Charlotte Sloane, who uses the pseudonym A. J. Quill to publish her scathing political cartoons. Her extensive network of informants is critical for her work, but she doesn’t mind tapping that same web of spies to track down an elusive killer. Each suspect—from ambitious assistants to rich investors, and even the inventor’s widow—is entwined in a maze of secrets and lies that leads Wrexford and Sloane down London’s most perilous stews and darkest alleyways.

With danger lurking at every turn, the potent combination of Wrexford’s analytical mind and Sloane’s exacting intuition begins to unravel the twisted motivations behind the inventor’s death. But they are up against a cunning and deadly foe—a killer ready to strike again before they can recover the inventor’s priceless designs..."

A new Andrea Penrose? Yes please! PS, you DO know she's also Cara Elliott right?

With One Shot by Dorothy Marcic
Published by: Citadel
Publication Date: March 27th, 2018
Format: Paperback, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The lovely widow had confessed to the coldblooded murder of her husband. But Dorothy Marcic suspected a more sinister tale at the heart of her beloved uncle’s violent death.

The brutal murder of LaVerne Stordock, a respected family man and former police detective, shocked his Wisconsin community. On the surface, the case seemed closed with the confession of Stordock’s wife, Suzanne. But the trail of secrets and lies that began with his death did not end with his widow’s insanity plea.

Dorothy Marcic, a playwright, theatrical producer, and university professor, couldn’t put her doubts to rest. In 2014 she embarked on a two-year mission to uncover the truth. In the bestselling tradition of Ann Rule and M. William Phelps, With One Shot weaves a spellbinding tale of unmet justice and the truth behind a shocking family tragedy."

True crime, in Wisconsin! Sign me up. Also for her book tour, which is stopping nearby!

Juniper: The Happiest Fox by Jessika Coker
Published by: Chronicle Books
Publication Date: March 27th, 2018
Format: Hardcover, 160 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"With millions of followers on Instagram, Juniper the fox is the internet's cutest pet!

Juniper's adorable snaggletooth smile and fun-loving personality are vibrantly captured in this heartwarming book. With gorgeous photos, a charming narrative about Juniper's life, and a behind-the-scenes look at what it's like to live with a fox, this book will capture the heart of any animal lover. Juniper's story chronicles her adoption and real-life Fox and the Hound relationship with a dog named Moose as well as the hilarious shenanigans she regularly gets herself into—including adapting to her new companion Fig, a younger fox who was rescued from a fur farm. Readers will also get a look at the thing Juniper is best known for: she paints with her paws! Juniper's paw paintings sell out instantly on her website, and readers will delight in learning more about her artistic adventures. With her signature grin, Juniper reminds us that there is always something to be happy about; you just have to know where to look."

I might just be one of Junipers MANY followers, once I learned all about this foxen recently! 

Herding Cats by Sarah Andersen
Published by: Citadel
Publication Date: March 27th, 2018
Format: Paperback, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Sarah valiantly struggles with waking up in the morning, being productive, and dealing with social situations. Sarah's Scribbles is the comic strip that follows her life, finding humor in living as an adulting introvert that is at times weird, awkward, and embarrassing."

I ADORE Sarah's Scribbles SO MUCH. Each of her collections of her comics just get better and better. BUY THIS NOW! 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Book Review - Pam Smy's Thornhill

Thornhill by Pam Smy
Published by: Roaring Brook Press
Publication Date: August 29th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 544 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Ella Clarke is unpacking her possessions and placing them about her new bedroom. She places her favorite books on her new bookshelf, Jane Eyre and Rebecca being among them. She carefully hangs a poster for Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black on the slopping wall. But it is the picture of her deceased mother that has pride of place. With her father always away for work she is truly alone and her attention is drawn to the abandoned building outside her window, The Thornhill Institute, which was built as an orphanage for girls in the 1830s. One April day, a month after moving in, Ella thinks she sees a young girl in the yard of this derelict home and she goes to investigate, working her way past the "keep out" signs and the barbed wire. There she finds a broken doll's head. She painstakingly repairs the doll and returns it to where she found it. As she makes to leave she finds another broken doll and takes it home to repair. Whomever this girl is who is leaving these broken dolls is also alone and looking for some kind of connection and has found a kindred spirit in Ella. The local paper is the first to offer a clue as to who this mysterious girl is. Mary Baines died tragically at Thornhill after it was sold for development in 1982, thirty-five years earlier. Work on the development has been suspended ever since. Ella becomes drawn into Mary’s world which becomes more real to her than her own. One day when she finds a key in the garden she is lead to Mary’s diary and learns all about the horrors that were inflicted on her; the bully constantly banging on her door, the indifferent care of Mrs. Davies, Jane, and Pete. The cook, Kathleen, who was her only friend. The Doctor, Creane, whom she thought was a friend. The dolls and puppets who were her only solace, as was her favorite book, The Secret Garden. Ella relates and wants to be friends with Mary. When they finally meet the house goes up in flames and Thornill claims another victim, but will she be the last?

Thornhill is an odd book alternating between the present and the past, with Ella's story being told through pictures and Mary's story being told through diary entries. The alternating narrative technique isn't what's odd, what's odd is that I'm unsure what Smy's point was in writing this book. She brings up so many different emotions throughout the narrative, hitting the empathy card heavily, and then destroys any sympathy, any moral, with a big sweeping conflagration. This is a book that could have been sweet and redemptive, but instead is dark and disturbing, and totally telegraphed. Because here's the thing, the bleak ending of Mary leading Ella to her death so that they can be friends forever is obvious from that first illustration of Ella in her bedroom. The heavy-handed foreshadowing was laughable. I mean, maybe you can trick the targeted teen audience because they might be unfamiliar with the staples of Gothic literature, but that's weak storytelling, hoping your audience is oblivious versus actually crafting something of value. So if I haven't completely spoiled the book for you by now and for some daft reason you still want to read it look away now because I'm laying all Smy's cards on the table. So what do Ella's two favorite books, Rebecca and Jane Eyre have in common? Could it be a big massive fire like the one that kills Ella and destroys Thornhill? If you said yes, you are correct! And what can we learn from The Woman in Black? We can learn that ghosts are evil remorseless killing machines that can not be satisfied. Therefore what can we learn about Mary? You may think she deserves your sympathy but you'd be wrong, because, SHE KILLS ELLA! AKA, Mary is a remorseless killing machine. This point is further driven home by the young boy, Jacob, who moves into Ella's old room and sees Mary and Ella in the garden. Mary wanted a family and just one friend isn't enough. She's an evil evil ghost and she will kill you. Jacob, watch your back! 

Smy has a very odd moralistic code in this book, I mean just look to Mary killing Ella to prove my point. Back in 1982 Mary is driven beyond endurance and kills herself because of a bully and yet the message seems to say that the bully deserved copious chances at forgiveness because they were in the same isolated boat? Um... no. Here's the thing, bullies don't deserve forgiveness. Ever. Because if you forgive them they'll just think they can get away with it again and again. It's an abusive cycle that is very rarely broken. So while I initially really felt for Mary I could never fully get behind her reasoning because I would never give a bully a second chance. As it turns out I'm glad I never fully connected to Mary because she was crazy and a manipulator in her own right. So maybe Smy's actually against forgiving bullies? Because if we can't trust Mary's thinking then we know we can't trust her reasoning and therefore we can't trust all the chances she gave that little torturing bitch. Because there needs to be a zero tolerance policy when it comes to bullies. They need to be reported, they need to be smacked down, they need to be stopped. When I was younger I was bullied, in particular by one classmate who loved to call me names as original as whale and blubber. Thankfully he transferred to another school after sixth grade so I didn't have to deal anymore with his verbal abuse. In high school he returned. But the bullying didn't, because I would not let him back into my world. My best friend at the time encouraged me to be nice to him because "he had changed." Well, if he had he would have started with an apology. He forever remains on my list of people who if bad things were to befall them I wouldn't be heartbroken. Yes. I have a list. You're probably thinking that this is a bleak way to look at things. That yes, people should be allowed to change, given the chance at forgiveness. But I have had too many instances when this has bitten me in the ass. Therefore I now only forgive people who have wronged me because I know it will really piss them off. Seriously, try it sometime.    

Moving on from bullies, because seriously, nothing annoys them more than their irrelevance, this book is a combination of narration styles so I would be remiss if I didn't move beyond the narrative and talk about the art. Talk about that cover which totally drew me in. That bleak, looming house in darkness with the one illuminated window. That cover has an amazing graphic quality that doesn't jive with any of the interior art. Smy's work feels out of touch with what is happening in art today. Not the concept of two different narrative styles, that's very one point, but just the look of her work. I really don't know how to get across this feeling that the art looks dated. OK, so when I was a kid I had this picture book about people and animals. I can't remember the name, but if you saw it you would easily place it as something from the seventies. The art was well done, but at the same time a jumble. Everything was on top of each other and the muted and limited color palette just didn't work. As a small child I kept thinking, this book's style is dated. And it wasn't that old a book! Smy's drawing style reminded me of that book. It felt too retro, too of my childhood, but not in a good and nostalgic way, in a way that made me think she was out of touch. Now you might be saying, "hang on a minute part of this book takes place in 1982 when you were only four!" First I'd say it's creepy that you know exactly how old I was in 1982, but I'd also point out four year old me thought the book this reminds me of was dated, so in doesn't bring to mind the time period, it brings to mind how much I didn't like that art, and anyhow, the illustrated section is the current timeline NOT the eighties timeline. Which indicates, that yes, I was a critic from a very early age, but more, I know what I like and I know what I don't like and just because someone might think this illustration style is classic, I just say dated. I've never followed the band, I don't believe a classic is a classic because everyone says so, I've never liked The Giving Tree, a detail I don't know why I feel I need to reveal here, but if you want to read a book the lets bullies win with meh art, go for it! You're forewarned.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book Review - Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Published by: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: 1979
Format: Paperback, 176 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

A young and blushing bride is rushed by her new husband to his isolated castle. She doesn't love him, but he is wealthy, and that decides her mother. Once in his domain he subjects her to humiliations and sexual sadism. Yet this is just his character. A character that will test his new wife beyond sanity. For he purposefully leaves her alone to her own devices and she finds that which brings her husband joy. Torture. Murder. Death. All his previous wives' corpses in the cellar. All brutally slain at her new husband's hand. Man's baser desires and his ability to overcome or embrace them run thematically through these ten classic stories which are reinterpretations and retellings of some of the most famous of fairy tales. Or distillations if you will, as Carter said, "My intention was not to do 'versions' or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, 'adult' fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories." Beasts from vampires to werewolves stride across the pages of Carter's collection. Some of the beasts look dangerous but are truly kind, while man may look harmless yet he can be the most dangerous of all. And while they are adult, brutal and sensual, they aren't just versions, despite Carter not wanting them to be labelled as such she can't escape the classification, but they are something more. They are subversive, they are feminine, they are something entirely new that spawned many imitations and inspired many authors with her magical realism. They are their own thing, but the beginning of something new is often not the best or the final version of what was attempted.

There is no doubt in my mind that The Bloody Chamber is a classic. Female empowerment through the retelling and restructuring of fairy tales was at the time it was written original and has now evolved into a subgenre all it's own thanks to the groundwork laid by Carter. Yet because something is a classic doesn't mean it's enjoyable. Yes, you can have admiration for something that you just don't quite like, and that's how I feel about this collection of short stories. I feel as if they were written to be studied, not enjoyed. Carter was pushing boundaries, establishing ideas that would development into today's literary tropes, but these stories come across as experiments, some failing and some succeeding. As a whole they are overly written with obscure words meant to be studied for hidden and double meanings. This style of writing doesn't really flow. It has meaning but that doesn't mean it's fun to read. Of the ten short stories the titular story is the strongest. Based on "Bluebeard" this overly sexual story plays with the underpinnings of the original tale of a beastly marriage and allows it to become somehow modern with the introduction of technology and also feminist with the bride being saved by her mother instead of her brothers. Yet what I was forcibly struck by is how this story has effected other storytellers. You can see how it influenced Susan Hill's writing of The Woman in Black. But more importantly, I defy you to think of any world in which Guillermo del Toro could have made Crimson Peak without The Bloody Chamber having existed first.

Despite how groundbreaking a collection this is there is a repetitive quality that just grinds on you. Carter is in several instances taking the same source material and trying to spin it into a different interpretation. Of the ten stories two are based on "Beauty and the Beast" while three, almost a third of the book, are based on "Little Red Riding Hood," though one of them, in a way I can not fathom, supposedly incorporates Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Was it the mirror? Please someone explain this to me! So when you get to the end of the book and you have three stories all coming out of the same source, you might like the first, by the second you feel as if you've already read it, and by the third you are just sick of the story. It doesn't help that she literally uses the same turn of phrase again and again. Observations, words, structure, they add to the repetitive feeling. Yet if we were to take a bigger view, using the same theme, the same story, the same language over and over is like an artist creating a series of paintings. There's a unifying theme. There's a similarity. There's something undefinable that the artist is bringing to the work that makes them all a unit. So while the stories in The Bloody Chamber might repeat, might make clunky transitions from one story to the next, I find it fascinating how you are looking at her process. You are seeing her develop a series of ideas. Like the visual artist, she is working through shit, and as I've said previously, that is why this collection is interesting. You can studying it, you can break it down, and you can see how she's working through it.

Carter isn't just working through concepts, she's also working through ways in which to tell a story. So yes, occasionally the stories can end up feeling like writing exercises watching how she plays with narrating the story, but never once did it slip into that smugness that defined the "codas" in John Scalzi's Redshirts. There it felt like pretension, here it feels like experimentation, and that is the saving grace. The two stories that play with this the most are "Puss-in-Boots" and "The Erl-King." The later story is almost incomprehensibly dense and there's a weird disconnect with the narration slipping between second and third person, and yes, I will always have issues with second person narration, there's something about it that rubs me the wrong way. Yet "Puss-in-Boots" works in switching between first and third person. The slipping between the two from personal to detached just becomes the personality of a cat. Through this little narrative slip she is able to make her whole story imbued with the personality of her protagonist. So while I may criticize this roughness to the stories, this literary exercise feel, sometimes it works so well that I can not fault her for trying something again and again until she got it right. I guess what I just find most interesting about this book is that it's an author willing to show their flaws. Their process is on display and once again I come back to the importance of this work, not as a book you sit down and read for fun, but one you sit down and study. You embrace the lessons you learn. Though not this time through fairy tale morality, but through the tricks of the storyteller.

All the tricks and twists and literary play mean that while some stories are long others are brutally short and brutally violent. While "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" could fall under the brutally short descriptor, a retelling of "Beauty and the Beast" at top speed, only one story falls under both categories, "The Snow Child," which even Wikipedia deems nothing more than a vignette. After I read this story my only thoughts were "WTF did I just read!?!" The story is literally only two pages long and involves a Count wishing a child, a "young woman" into being who dies and he then rapes her corpse and she turns into snow! What the hell is this story supposed to be about? What is the moral? Most versions of "The Snow-child" are about infidelity and desire, so sure, we've got that here what with the Count raping a young girl in front of his wife... but I just don't know how to handle this. Fairy Tales have always been about subjugation, teaching lessons so children and wives will behave, yet Carter has made her stories more about empowerment and belonging, finding you place in the world even if it's amongst the beasts. What does the rape of anyone, let alone a snow corpse, have to do with any of the messages and themes she's been toying with? Why didn't anyone go, you know, your stories, they can be a bit brutal, but this one, well this one is a step too far, so let's just nix it and move onto the moody vampire? OK? Seriously, MOODY VAMPIRE no more rape! I'd even take a fourth retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood" than to EVER have to think of Carter's version of "The Snow Child" ever again.

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: ★★★
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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.

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